Cultivating Resiliency Through Books for Teens ~ PLA in Indianapolis

This past week I was at the PLA, Public Library Association, conference in Indianapolis signing books and giving a presentation on “Cultivating Resiliency Through Books for Teens.” I even had my picture in the paper for the event! John Green gave a presentation, too, and I don’t know how I beat him out!


In the paper! Bigger picture than Jane Pauley!


Signing Books




With a Fan ~ Love those librarians!

Here’s my presentation! I was rather nervous at first, but got it under control. 🙂

Fiction isn’t real, but it is true. Especially when it is about real issues that impact teens. Reading about difficult topics is a non-threatening way to experience the trauma and consequences, and ultimately hope, through the characters in the book. Perhaps it is something they personally have experienced or a friend has experienced. Or something that the teen will encounter in the future. They may identify with the characters which can alleviate feelings of isolation and instill the understanding that they are not alone.  When you see a character dealing with abuse or divorce and then moving beyond it and healing, you create hope.

Fiction is a great teacher. It is a safe place to confront the difficult issues that teens deal with every day. I’ve always believed that information is power and communication is the key. Writing stories about difficult issues like drinking, divorce, sex or self-destructive behavior does not cause teens to engage in that behavior. On the contrary, it helps them develop tools and skills to use when confronted with those issues in real life. Reading fiction about difficult topics is like reading a self-help book as an allegory. Studies show that the reader experiences the same feelings and emotions as the character in the book she is reading.  This is truly empowering because it allows them to experience life within the safety of the pages of a book and formulate opinions and strategies for how they might behave or react in real life. Banning or withholding books that deal with difficult topics does not protect teens. It keeps them from learning valuable lessons and gaining knowledge. It is knowledge that helps teens become resilient.

So Fiction is a powerful tool in creating resilient teens. The messages are deftly woven through the story so that while the reader is entertained, they are also presented with a subtle, deeper meaning.

The Field

–          When I was developing the plot and conflict in The Field, I asked my teenaged children and niece, then aged 15, what issues would be the most true-to-life and relevant to them. They suggested drinking as it was something that really came up among their peers. Like it or not, kids are drinking in high school. They also suggested parents divorcing, as so many of their friends and acquaintances were experiencing that in their lives.

–           In THE FIELD, the main character, Eric, struggles to figure out how to help his best friend Will who starts abusing alcohol to deal with his parent’s divorce. At first Will’s drinking doesn’t seem too bad. Who else is he hurting? But the possibility exists that he could get caught and thrown off the soccer team jeopardizing the success of the entire team. As Eric tries to talk to Will about the drinking and his parent’s divorce, Will becomes more and more hostile. The deterioration of their friendship follows the same downward spiral as Will’s descent into drinking. Eventually Eric washes his hands of Will saying “I know he’s dealing with the mess his dad left, but I’m done. I don’t need to be his punching bag.”

–          When Will puts his life at risk driving drunk, Eric knows he can’t abandon his best friend and it is his refusal to give up on Will, even in the face of Will’s hostility, that saves him.

–           By the end of the novel, Will recognizes that not only did the drinking not help, it almost cost him his life. He also realizes that even though his parents are divorcing, his father still loves him.  The reader sees Will work through his issues and come out the other side.

–          I dedicated the book to my children and their friends and to Brett Finbloom, a soccer teammate of my son’s who died from alcohol poisoning the summer before his freshman year in college. Although I didn’t base the story in any way on Brett (it was already in rough draft when he died), the circumstances of his death emphasized the importance of having an open dialog with teens about drinking.

–          Brett’s family started a foundation called “Make Good Choices” and in the conversations they have with young people after their presentations, they hear over and over again from the kids how talking about drinking and not pretending that it doesn’t happen or simply forbidding it, helped them to work through questions they have and made them really think about the choices they make.

Indian Summer

–          In this middle-grade novel, the issues are not as difficult, but they are of utmost importance to a middle-schooler. Marcie is dealing with issues of peer-pressure, fitting in and doing what you think is right against insurmountable odds.

–          At the beginning of the novel Marcie lacks self-confidence in dealing with the popluar girls. She is thrown in with one of the girls, Kaitlyn, who is a little more worldly-wise and bold. With Kaitlyn, Marcie does things that she normally wouldn’t do.

–          Kaitlyn’s father is secretly developing old growth forest on the lake into luxury homes. Marcie wants to stop him, but doesn’t know how.

–          When she abandons Kaitlyn’s team in the middle of the sailboat race to save her elderly friend, Al, she has made a decision to follow her own convictions and not be swayed by Kaitlyn and the popular, wealthy crowd, even if it means she loses Kaitlyn’s friendship. As a result, she finds a way to stop the development of the land.

–          Marcie discovers that she can be true to herself and keep her friendships without compromising her own values.

By exploring real life circumstances and issues through fiction, instead of pretending that they don’t exist in an effort to protect or shield  young people, we gird them with powerful tools with which to deal with the difficult things that inevitably show up in life. Through knowledge we create empowered, resilient teens.

Joseph Campbell, author of The Power of Myth and The Hero With A Thousand Faces, said,

“The big problem of any young person’s life is to have models to suggest possibilities.” He also said,

“We have not even to risk the adventure alone, for the heros of all time have gone before us.”

What all writers of fiction are really creating is Myth and as Joseph Campbell has concluded, there is power in myth.

Through the difficult trials of the hero’s journey, our protagonist, and our teen readers, are changed. They are stonger. They are resilient.