Captivating a Young Audience
The novels we read as children and in our teenage years contained some of the most memorable and influential tales and characters we will ever know. Today, a new generation is growing up with the writings of Mariah Fredericks '88, Carolyn Mackler '95, and Emily Rosenblum '90 (who writes under the name E. R. Frank).
The three Vassar alumnae have made their mark in the young adult fiction market, a segment of the industry ranging from ages 12 to 17. Their novels give readers a chance to explore common themes of adolescence — including body image, school, sex, friendships, and connecting with adults — through characters to whom they can relate.
Mariah Fredericks published her first young adult novel in 2003. The True Meaning of Cleavage is about best friends Jess and Sari and what happens to their friendship when one of the high-schoolers falls for an older boy. "With young adult novels, I feel able to grapple with more intense emotions than I do when writing for adults," Fredericks said. Teenagers, she added, are quite open to dealing with difficult personal issues, and she appreciates how they "respond to books in a very direct, pure way."After graduating from Vassar, Fredericks worked on an historical novel about Poland during World War II, and worked at the Book of the Month Club, where she reviewed books and supervised a staff of writers. Then she shifted gears and tried writing about singles in the city, using, she said, a plot centered on "my friend has a boyfriend and I don't!" — a theme similar to the story of Cleavage. But "when your heroines are 14 as opposed to late 20s, it makes much more sense for them to have this problem," she acknowledged, "and that's one of the reasons I like writing teen novels."
Carolyn Mackler is energized by the way books for young people "are able to change lives," she said. She remembers identifying with the characters in books she read as a teenager, and makes the connection between her passion for those books and her current pursuit. "When I was in high school, I loved young adult novels so immensely that I often felt like I had one foot in the world of fiction and one foot in the real world. Now that I'm writing books, I guess that's how it still is!" she said.
Mackler is the author of The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things. The book tells the story of Virginia Shreves, a heavier-than-average, 15-year-old girl who feels inferior to her perfect family until a shocking discovery reveals that maybe they're not so perfect and she's not so inferior. Mackler says her novels are about change. She has also written the award-winning Love and Other Four-Letter Words, about an angry 16-year-old who moves to New York City with her mother after her parents separate, and numerous pieces of fiction and nonfiction for magazines including Seventeen, Girls' Life, Teen People, and Glamour.
Emily Rosenblum (E. R. Frank), with a master's degree in social work and post-graduate training in contemporary psychotherapy, is a part-time therapist as well as an author. She often uses books, and the discussion of literary characters, as a tool for young people in her psychotherapy practice. It quickly leads to them talking about themselves, she said. "It's a safe base to start off from." Rosenblum's novels examine topics such as domestic violence, drug abuse, teen pregnancy, alcoholism, and suicide. "Writing is therapeutic for me," she said. "It's how I process my experiences as a social worker."She always enjoyed writing, but "was desperate for feedback," so she took a class at The New School in New York City taught by Margaret Gable, a former children's book editor, on writing for children. Rosenblum's first book, the award-winning Life is Funny, is a coming-of-age story that chronicles the lives of 11 Brooklyn teenagers. America, her second novel, is about a 15-year-old boy who's been abandoned by his mother. Her latest novel, Friction, is about wrongful allegations and painful realities of sexual abuse by a teacher. Friction is written for a younger audience of ages 9 to 12 — a category known in the industry as "middle-grade fiction."
Recently, Fredericks, Mackler, and Rosenblum got together to talk shop, offer each other support, and take a break from what can often be an isolating life. Whether discussing how to represent themselves at a middle-school book fair, how to handle a book review (good or bad), or ideas for new novels, these writers agree that they have learned a lot from sharing their experiences with others in the industry.
Keeping kids reading can be a huge challenge, especially when books have to compete with so many different forms of flashy electronic media. A book, Fredericks pointed out, is a medium "varied and thoughtful enough to convey complex ideas. If kids don't get hooked on reading early, they won't turn to books as a resource for understanding their world."
Each of the writers expressed the awareness that what they write can influence the way teenagers experience the world during a very complex period of rapid change.
Noted Mackler, "Teens have so many things going on in their lives, so many issues, so many firsts: first crushes, first loves, bodies changing, first time driving, intense friendships, breaking away from parents, making decisions on their own — so much. The teen years are such an exciting time, but it's also a stressful, tense, and heartbreaking time. That's where books can come to the rescue, at least in part."
Mackler's third novel, Vegan, Virgin, Valentine, will be published in the summer of 2004. It tells the story of an overachieving high-school senior whose life is changed by the arrival of an unwelcome houseguest. Fredericks' next book, Fatal Distraction: Or How I Conquered my Addiction to Celebrities and Got a Life will be released in early 2004. She is currently writing a novel called Heavy Breathing, about a shy girl who becomes immersed in the world of online role-playing. Rosenblum is working on a fourth novel for Simon and Schuster and said Rosie O'Donnell recently bought the film rights to America and may take it to the big screen.
Clearly, the work of these writers has just begun.