National Poetry Month Surprise!

As National Poetry Month draws to a close, we here at YARN have a surprise for our verse-loving readers. But before we get into the nitty-gritty deets, we must take a moment to dwell on the poetic glory of this month and that soon to come.

First off, this has been a month of richness in entire new books, individual poems, and the lovely and gritty words therein. It’s been a month to discover new poets and savor lines from old favorites, a month when a spoken word poet hit the NYT bestseller list with her debut YA novel-in-verse (read an outtake here!) and a month when a YARN alum did the same with the prequel to his award-winning novel-in-verse, a month to discover a gorgeous and moving #MeToo story about a seventeenth-century painter, a month to find your inner witch, and a month to read fresh words from a teen writer and a new-to-us poet.

This year’s NPM might be wrapping up today, but the poetic riches are sure to continue next month, with a new YA historical novel-in-verse about the Zoot Suit riots coming out from one of our very favorite YARN alums.

Now on to that surprise …

We’ve traditionally hosted a poetry contest during NPM in past years, and we didn’t run one this year because of the fantastic humor contest for Short Story Month launching in just days, but … we didn’t want to leave you empty-handed.

Enter verse novelist, Cordelia Jensen! Cordelia is the author of three gorgeous novels, including the recently-released YA verse novel, “The Way the Light Bends” and even more recently-released MG dual-POV verse and prose novel, “Every Shiny Thing.”

Cordelia has generously offered up a copy of each of these new books, as well as a full classroom set of copies (!!!) of her debut novel, “Skyscraping,” an extremely moving novel-in-verse set in New York City in the 1990s about a teen girl coming to terms with the secrets she discovers about her father—that he has HIV/AIDS and that he has a male lover. With the ongoing wave of YA books set in the 1990s, we couldn’t wait to virtually sit down with Cordelia and ask her a few questions.

YARN: Though set in the quite recent past, “Skyscraping” has all the elements of a great historical: the atmospheric details, the huge differences between life as a teen then and now, but most important of all, the way it absolutely captures the climate of that time and place that was very much gripped by the fear of HIV/AIDS. Did you consider writing this as either a memoir or a contemporary set in the current day? How did it take on its current form, and how did you ensure that the story went much deeper than a contemporary novel that happened to be set in the 90s?

CJ: Thank you for your kind words. The origin of “Skyscraping” began with poems I wrote in college. I went to Kenyon College and studied creative writing, poetry specifically. Because I lost my father to AIDS a month before I went to college (like Mira in the book), obviously he was on my mind. I wrote a lot about feeling betrayed by him, what it was like to live with a sick parent, the juxtaposition of everyday high school life alongside the intensity of the disease. In my 20s, I won some poetry contests with some of these original poems. You can see some of them here and here.

When I decided to go back to school to receive my MFA in Writing for Children & Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts, my amazing teacher Coe Booth read some of these poems and encouraged me to look at the YA verse novel form. It felt like a perfect fit, since I had always enjoyed narrative poetry the most. When I worked with Coe, I wrote 60 poems called “Family Poems” and they were the beginning of a memoir. However, as I got deeper into the story and worked with my next advisor, the wise Mary Quattlebaum, she helped me see that turning it into fiction might create a more compelling narrative structure. Simply, it gave me more creative freedom to keep a lot from my own life but change what I needed to. After the book sold to Liza Kaplan at Philomel, she also encouraged me to change many things—for instance, the main character Mira became more of a Type A personality and now Mira finds out all her family secrets at once, which was very unlike my own story.

Liza actually did ask if I would think about making “Skyscraping” a contemporary story, but I was sure, given Mira’s economic status, that her dad would not have died if it was set today and I didn’t know how to write that book. Shame and silence are also huge themes in the book, and I felt like I really needed it to take place in the height of the AIDS crisis to have that make sense. My dad—and Mira’s dad—died just before the cocktail was invented, so that also adds another level of tragedy to the book.

Probably one of the most fun parts of revising the story was ensuring that the 90s setting was rich and detailed. A lot of the 90s references were easy since I remembered so many from my own teen years, but I did do research and found out new information—I had forgotten when exactly Kurt Cobain had died, when the first Starbucks had opened, what exactly Tom Hanks said in his speech when he accepted the award for “Best Actor” in Philadelphia. The internet is an amazing place! I also re-watched movies that were filmed in New York City in the early 90s like Home Alone 2 and Greencard. I also, of course, made a playlist of all my favorites from my senior year of high school.

YARN: In another interview, you explained how “Skyscraping” is an incredibly personal story, as Mira’s life mirrors some of your own teen life. Do you have any advice to teens today dealing with grief or other painful feelings from parental death, illness, or infidelities? Would Mira have any advice for today’s teen readers?

CJ: I think Mira doesn’t really see her dad as a person at the beginning of the story, he is just a hero to her. It is a cliché, but now that I am a parent I can see the danger in my kids putting me on a pedestal. You never know when that might topple over. I guess I would encourage teens to try and see their parents as three-dimensional people. In terms of sickness, I would encourage kids to do what Mira did with her dad: record conversations, ask them the questions you have wanted to know and will want to know when you’re older. In terms of grief, feel your feelings. All of them. There is no wrong feeling—it is stifling them that can lead to all different kinds of sickness. If you can’t express yourself through talking, try using the pen or the paintbrush—anything that can explore a feeling and then release it.

YARN: You’ve now got three novels in verse under your belt, but they’re all quite different (one YA historical, one YA contemporary, and one MG contemporary). Was the process different with each one? How did you decide which category and genre was best for each story? Also, what was it like working with a co-author who was writing in prose??? We want to know all the things!

CJ:

Woosh, that is a big question!

Ok here it goes … A few people have asked me recently how I think of stories and I just recently figured out my answer: I think of a dynamic first. So, for “Skyscraping” I knew I wanted to write about losing a parent to AIDS from a teen perspective and how AIDS alters all the dynamics between the family members. For “The Way the Light Bends” I knew I wanted to write about sisters, one adopted and one biological, but I wanted the adopted sister to fit in with the family and the biological one to be the one who felt left out and lost. For “Every Shiny Thing” I knew I wanted to write about a girl who had just been separated from a parent and was in the foster care system and, despite the fact that she was in a safer environment, felt a fierce love for her biological parent. I also knew I wanted her to have been a caretaker for her parent and then end up in an overwhelming position where she was caretaking for a friend who was making unsettling choices.

In each case, the genre was determined by the age of the character. I knew I wanted Mira to be a senior because there is something about your parent’s life ending as you are graduating from high school that creates an intense relationship to time that I wanted to explore. I wanted Linc and Holly in “The Way the Light Bends” to be sophomores because it is sort of the most in-between year of high school. I wanted that story to have a liminal atmosphere. That one was also a slightly different writing experience because it sold on proposal. For “Every Shiny Thing,” my friend Laurie Morrison, who co-wrote the book with me, has a great knack for the Upper Middle Grade voice, and the kids I had known and worked with who had been in a similar situation as my character, Sierra, were also middle schoolers, so it seemed an obvious choice to set “Every Shiny Thing” in the seventh grade.

In terms of working on “Every Shiny Thing,” the process was really, really energizing and fun! We wrote half the book in about a month. We met first and brainstormed the plot and characters, and we knew right away mine would be in verse and hers in prose. Then, in one day, I wrote Sierra’s first three poems, we came up with the title, she wrote Lauren’s first chapter and I wrote a few more of Sierra’s poems and we sent it to our agent (Sara Crowe) to see what she thought!! She loved the idea, so we kept at it. We worked together on a Google Doc. We planned some of it, but some was like a game of improvisation. We were already friends and critique partners, so we already had a lot of trust and respect for one another. We are great cheerleaders for each other’s writing!

YARN: Your novels tend to focus on girls who have complicated personal issues to work out, which means that while they pack an emotional punch, some might classify them as “quiet.” Why do YA readers need quiet books?

CJ: I think the desire to tell “quiet,” complicated personal stories about struggling girls comes from having been a girl like that myself and from having worked as a counselor and a camp counselor all throughout my twenties. I think my favorite part of those jobs was listening to kids sort out dynamics in their families and with their friends. I loved being able to help girls find their “voice” in real life, and I think I am trying to do the same thing as an author.

I think YA readers need to read “quiet books” to find the universality of emotion. Despite the fact that a character doesn’t necessarily have the same situation as your own, you might relate to how they are feeling and, thus, find out something new about yourself. Or about others. I think “quiet books” are the ones that encourage empathy the most. I appreciate an escapist book as much as the next person, but I also really appreciate a book that encourages me to open a new door, to trace a path towards a new perspective.

YARN: What else are you working on these days? Any new projects underway, or are you overwhelmed with promo for your two 2018 books at the moment? Any festivals or conferences coming up where readers can find you?

CJ: At the moment, I’m in the midst of doing a flurry of school visits with my co-author Laurie Morrison to promote “Every Shiny Thing.” During the visits, we are telling the story of how the book went from idea to actual book. It was quite fun to construct the presentation and now to finally share it with kids. I think kids really like to see all that can happen when you decide to follow through on an idea. In addition to some Philadelphia area events, Laurie and I will both be at the Princeton Teen Book Festival on June 30th and at Books of Wonder Uptown on June 16th, on a Middle Grade panel moderated by my teacher Coe Booth. I will also be at Wellesley Books on June 3rd on a panel spanning picture books to young adult! In terms of projects, Laurie and I just finished another book together and I have about 25 pages of a new—sort of scary, eep—verse novel. I also have two projects out on submission.

YARN: And finally, to end on a fun note, what 90’s trends are you glad have made a comeback? Are there any you would never like to see again?

CJ: I’m really glad flannel has stuck around and seems to sort of always be in style? Or at least it is according to me! I think the huge jeans like Dawson wears in Dawson’s Creek are not a great look.

 YARN: Thanks again, Cordelia, for sharing a bit more about your work, and for the fantastic giveaway!

CJ: Thank you so much for having me and for asking such incredible questions.

And now for the giveaway itself, which will be up and running through Monday, May 7. Best of luck, and happy National Poetry Month!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Cordelia Jensen graduated with a MFA in Writing for Children & Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts in 2012. Cordelia has three verse novels: “Skyscraping” (Philomel/Penguin) out now and two forthcoming books, “The Way the Light Bends” (Philomel/Penguin) and “Every Shiny Thing” (Amulet/Abrams), which she co-authored with VCFA classmate Laurie Morrison. “Skyscraping” was named an American Library Association’s 2016 Best Book for Young Adults. Cordelia teaches Writing for Children at Bryn Mawr College. She is a Writer in Residence at The Big Blue Marble Bookstore in Philadelphia where she runs a kids’ literary journal called the “Mt. Airy Musers.” Cordelia is represented by Sara Crowe of Harvey Klinger, Inc.

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3 Comments Post a Comment
  1. Stephanie says:

    This is an amazing giveaway. I’m a new ELA teacher and this would be outstanding in my classroom to teach our poetry unit.

    My favorite 90’s memory was the moment the shallow, big hair craze ended and Pearl Jam emerged, bringing depth and poetry to my teens. It was such a meaningful time and I’m so appreciative of having lived through it.

  2. Linda Mitchell says:

    My favorite line from this post is “the desire to tell “quiet,” complicated personal stories about struggling girls comes from having been a girl like that myself .” That is just beautiful….and I hope there are many more stories that you will spin for us. I’m impressed and inspired by what you give to the world. Thank you!

  3. I love that Cordelia uses “quiet” in quotes because I find stories that evoke strong emotion are anything but quiet.

    I hope flannels never go out of style.

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