I CliffsNoted My Way Through H.S. Lit & All I Got Was This Lousy T-Shirt

Confession: Hi. I’m Sarah. I write novels for teens. And I’ve never read the classics.

Catcher in the RyeLast weekend, my friend Courtney and I got to chatting about classic lit, and while she won two prestigious high school reading awards for tackling such tomes as War and Peace on her own time, I could only recall a pathetic handful of titles from my teen years.

Vexing! As a young adult author, I’m all about books for teens. Why couldn’t I discuss my high school literary experience beyond V.C. Andrews’ Flowers in the Attic? The question sent me on an unexpected weekend trip into the deep dark recesses (emphasis on dark) (emphasis on recess) of adolescence.

My Literary Childhood: An Incomplete History

My grammar school years were bookishly bountiful. Taught myself to read after a few lessons in pre-school. Wrote and illustrated my first book (inspired by and/or ripped off from the movie E.T.) in first grade, complete with such witty dialogue as “Burp! Hiccup!”

E.T. by Sarah Ockler

Spiderman at PARP CeremonyWon the second grade PARP (Parents as Reading Partners) award for most books read at home, the ceremony for which included a visit from Spiderman.

By fifth grade, long after I’d burned through Beverly Cleary, Judy Blume, and all the Sweet Valley High books, I was sneaking adult romance novels from the library and hiding them in a Super Duper grocery bag under my bed, reading by flashlight after dark, just like my best friends. (Side note: Fifty Shades of Gray infiltrates the mommy bloggers? Please. Fifth grade, baby. We were all over that stuff before we even knew what “that stuff” was.)

Clearly I was on the fast track to literary stardom. So what happened to this once promising pre-pubescent prodigy of the page?

Adolescence: The Wonderless Years

Sarah Ockler, Sophomore with Giant HairI pondered the odd paradox of my teen years, my confusing adolescence fraught with #MiddleClassProblems. Was my Wonder Bread suburban education somehow… inadequate? Were my parents’ tax dollars funneled into non-literary budget items like the industrial pool cleaner that ensured second-degree chemical burns upon each reluctant gym class dip? Or the carefully preserved grasshoppers for bio class, the smell of which still haunts my memory and prevents me from eating heavily-soy-sauced cuisine? Certainly it wasn’t the deep fried erasers casually passed off as French fries in the cafeteria. Why, then, after rising before five a.m. every day to be ferried off by the magic bus and deposited into a series of fiberglass desks for four years of my life, was I not exposed to more classic literature?

If my hair could reach record-breaking new heights each year, why not my mind?

Could this hole in my academic experienced be correlated with my over-reliance on adverbs, italics, and emoticons in my adult communications?

More importantly, did this educational oversight contribute to my growing up to write banned books in a super-secret evil plan to infiltrate and pollute young, impressionable minds?

All The Crazy Kids Love Twenty Boy Summer

Stephen King was my Charles Dickens, Mary Higgins Clark my Virginia Woolf. My wisdom and guidance came from “One to Grow On” commericial intermissions during Saturday morning cartoons.

How could this have happened?

*Ponders in an uncharacteristically studious manner*

Sweet, unreliable memory! Dusty recollections of yesteryear! Suddenly, the elusive answer rose like a brilliant phoenix of obviousness from the ashes of numbskullery!

I didn’t do my homework!

I had this uncanny ability to b.s. my way through class by anticipating the desired direction of the discussions and turning the teachers’ questions into the very answers they wanted to hear (tip: strategy somewhat less effective with parents). I could also zone out while subconsciously absorbing enough material to answer any question thrown at me as if I’d been paying attention all along.

Impressive, yes. If only I could use my powers for good instead of evil!

Unfortunately, my highly developed powers of persuasion were no help with tests. Enter CliffsNotes, my pre-smart phone, pre-Google guardian angels! These black-and-yellow booklets told me everything I needed to know about Hester Prynne and Tom Sawyer. Themes! Author bios! More themes! Ah, CliffsNotes. Able to save even the laziest butts from detention and failure in a single bound!

Right. It’s a wonder they let me graduate. Especially with that hair. Apparently my lack of reading enthusiasm extended to all ares of life, because those yellow-orange tones prove that I did not follow the fine-print directions on the Sun-In bottle!

Sarah's graduation

True Confessions: A Catalogue of Lost Classics

Back then, I was young and impressionable and angry in that nobody-understands-me sort of way. And now I’m… older. So I’ll give you some concrete examples, but please… no judgments!

Part 1: Classics I Willingly Read for Class and Still Remember

  1. Catcher in the Rye
  2. Of Mice and Men
  3. Anne Frank: Diary of a Young Girl
  4. A Separate Peace
  5. Lord of the Flies

Part 2: Classics I Unapologetically CliffsNoted (And Now That I’m Confessing, I’ll Probably Have That Recurring Nightmare Where The Principal Tracks Me Down And Tells Me I Didn’t Actually Graduate)

  1. The Scarlet Letter: I recently re-read these CliffsNotes for help with Scarlet Letter references in my latest YA novel, Bittersweet.
  2. The Old Man and the… wait, what? I’m sorry, I must’ve nodded off just thinking about this book again.
  3. To Kill A Mockingbird: I think I would’ve enjoyed this one, so I must’ve been in a mood at school that month/year/decade.
  4. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer: Something about painting a fence? Or maybe painting a raft? A raft made out of a fence?
  5. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: Maybe this was the one with the raft? I could never get past the fact that it reminded me of Strawberry Shortcake’s boy toy Huckleberry Pie. Unfortunately Twain’s book didn’t smell like chemically enhanced fruit. Talk about a missed marketing opportunity, publishers!
  6. The Canterbury Tales: Too many POV characters, dude!
  7. Anything by Shakespeare: Ye head doth hurts! Unfortunately, this movie wouldn’t be out for a few more years. Leo could’ve changed everything for me:

  1. Heart of Darkness: I have Brain of Darkness when it comes to remembering anything about this one.
  2. The Red Badge of Courage: Um, is this a euphemism? Sounds like it should be in Urban Dictionary or a George Carlin skit.
  3. Great Expectations: Honestly this one may have been Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. I don’t know. I just remember it had Great in the title, but obviously I didn’t think it was. Great, I mean.
  4. Walden: probably I would totally love this one now.
  5. Our Town: Yeah, I got nothin’.
  6. The Glass Menagerie: There were little glass animal statues, right? Pretty sure I missed most of the symbolism here.

Part 3: Classics I Read on My Own (But With Admittedly Questionable Motives and/or Non-Educational Prodding)

  1. A Handmaid’s Tale: Read after watching the movie at my friend Danielle’s house and getting all swoony over Aidan Quinn.
  2. The Outsiders: Pretty sure Patrick Swayze’s penultimate badassery had something to do with this one.
  3. Some Such Collection by Edgar Allan Poe Whose Title I No Longer Recall: Read after my super-secret crush gushed about it and I feigned fascination in that oh-tell-me-more way and he loaned me his copy and I read it twice just in case he wanted to talk about it over pizza and cokes after school, followed by kissing. Then he approached me one day, all sweet and shy and big blue eyes, and looked at me longingly, and leaned in close to whisper the phrase I’d been dreaming of… “Um, so, can I get my book back?” Sigh.
  4. Slaughterhouse Five: Read last year after it was banned with Twenty Boy Summer from a high school library in Republic, MO. My first Vonnegut book was actually a gift from my pre-husband way back in 1999—Galapagos. I wish I’d discovered Vonnegut in high school, but there’s no wrong time for a little KV wisdom in your life.
  5. The Autobiography of Malcolm X: Read after the Rodney King riots because the riots brought race and class issues to the suburbs in a way I’d never seen in my lifetime, and it changed me forever. Truly. I thought if I knew more about why things were so screwed up and how they got that way, I could do something to change them.

“Books are humanity in print.” ― Barbara W. Tuchman

I’ve been thinking about those Rodney King and Malcolm X reading days recently because of the Trayvon Martin case—the talk of riots, the issues of race we can never seem to get past in this country. And it all makes me realize, once again, that books really do have the power to change lives, to open our minds, to bring us closer. Books can connect us on a singular non-racial, non-cultural, non-gender level because the best ones go straight to the heart of our humanity.

But only if we actually, you know, read them.

*Coughs into hand. Casts about for a subject change. Can’t escape fate!*

Teachers of my adolecent literature classes, including but not limited to Mr. Roberts, Mrs. Whalenmeyer, Mrs. Rosati, and others who shall remain nameless because while my love of books finally knows no bounds, my ability to recall stuff with any sense of accuracy before the turn of the millennium knows at least seven bounds, I hereby commit in front of all the great peoples of the internets, most of whom—while I toiled away at mastering the art of sleeping with my eyes open in your classrooms—weren’t even a good idea in their parents’ minds yet, to read—sans CliffsNotes or any other study aid—some (but not all) of those classics at which I once so carelessly scoffed.

All in the name of keeping an open mind, finding human connections, and cashing in on all of the wonderful lovey-dovey stuff of books.

Call For Suggestions

Readers and aforementioned great peoples of the internets, I need your help! From the part 2 list above, which classics would you recommend reading? Which were/are your favorites? What about any that aren’t on the list? What have I been missing out on all these years? Let your voice be heard in the comments, and help me assuage my decades-long ignorance of classic literature!

(Ahem… um… while we’re on the subject of confessions… I didn’t really get a lousy T-shirt from high school. Our class was voted the class with the least amount of school spirit, as evidenced by our non-existent ten year reunion and inability to fundraise for anything more costly than the post-fundraiser pizza party, so frivolous T-shirts highlighting our academic failures were certainly out of the question.)

Game of Thrones & The Case Against Closure in Fiction

Any Game of Thrones fans out there? No spoilers, but… last night’s episode? All I gotta say about that final scene is… damn, girl. Maybe you oughta see a doctor about that!

*Shudders*

We’ll get back to Game of Thrones in a moment (spoiler-free of course). I promise this is all related, tangentially, as most of my thoughts are, and as most of George R.R. Martin’s characters are.

See what I did right there? Tying it all together like that? Yeah, me neither. Anyway, one of my favorite things about writing for teens is that they’re passionate readers, they know how to get in touch with their favorite authors, and they aren’t afraid to ask questions and share their own ideas (that’s more like 3 or 4 favorite things, but like my thoughts and the cast of Martin’s books, they’re all related, so let’s just roll with it).

I love hearing from readers. They ask about whether the cupcakes featured in Bittersweet are real recipes (yes), or whether Twenty Boy Summer’s Zanzibar Bay is a real place (no). They want to know if Fixing Delilah’s Patrick is based on a real person (in part, and I totally married him). They seek writing and publication advice (don’t give up!), or details on how a book becomes a movie (magic spells are definitely involved). But the number one question I get, hands down, is…

Will you write a sequel to Twenty Boy Summer?

Twenty Boy SummerEveryone wants to know what happens next: do certain characters ever meet up again? Do Anna and Frankie go back to California the following summer? Can the girls rebuild their friendship and trust each other again after everything that happened? Can Sam’s family buy a house from Anna’s father in their same neighborhood? Is it possible that Matt’s death was misreported and he’s living on a remote island somewhere totally safe, waiting for Anna to find him? Can Matt come back from the dead like in Pet Sematary or in some kind of secret government experiment?

All of these questions are from actual reader emails, and though some are more serious than others, the root of each is the same: desire for closure.

Closure in Fiction and in Life

We all long for closure in stories, for the mostly happily ever after, for resolutions and answers when we reach THE END. When we get attached to characters, as I am with the people who populate Game of Thrones, we follow them through the journey of the story, and then we want to know how their life turns out after the last page. It’s the mark of a great tale, right? If I’m still thinking about the characters long after that final passage, if I’m wondering how things turn out for them, then I know that a book really affected me. And I’m always honored and humbled to learn that my books have affected other readers in this way—enough that they want to know what happens next in the lives of my characters.

I like happy endings. I like to know that things worked out for my favorite fictional people just as I want things to work out for my favorite real life people.

But real life isn’t like that, is it? We don’t always get to know how things turn out for everyone we’ve ever loved. We don’t always get the final say. We don’t always get any say, because unfortunately, endings are just that—endings. And they’re often abrupt and unpredictable.

Everything—even the best and seemingly most unshakeable things—end.

Elrond is kind of a downer Dad in this scene from the film adaptation of Tolkien’s The Two Towers, warning his daughter (an immortal elf) against holding out for her true love (a man). Elrond obviously missed elf-parenting class the day they taught the critical lesson: when fathers tell their daughters what to do, daughters will do the exact opposite. Still, his words are true. No matter the outcome of Arwen and Aragorn’s story, one day, their relationship will end.

Personally, I’m still bewildered by certain friendships in my life that ended; people I’d naively and hopefully assumed would be there forever simply… weren’t. Maybe they faded away, or maybe I did. Maybe we all changed and no longer recognized one another. Maybe we all had intentional, irrefutable reasons to walk away. I’m not sure, because in most cases, I didn’t get the luxury of closure. It makes me think of missing persons or funerals without a physical body. There’s always some question, some doubt, some stupid hopeless hope that it didn’t really happen that way. That it could still change.

Closure, unfortunately, is not one of life’s guarantees. It’s a luxury, like I said. Never required. Rarely offered. Whether a relationship ends because of death, a breakup, an insurmountable disagreement, a misunderstanding, or as Elrond so eloquently put, the slow decay of time, it’s still an ending. And in the absence of closure, endings usher in uncertainty. Was there something else I could’ve said, something else I could’ve done if only I’d had the chance? One more day, one more conversation, one more hug? It’s not fair, it just… is. Sometimes all we can do is accept it (or go crazy trying to deny it, which I don’t recommend).

Game of Thrones: You’re Killin’ Me, George!

Like Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, the HBO television series based on the fictional series A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin, gets it absolutely right. We’re currently in season two on the show (I haven’t read the books yet because books with tiny fonts and thousands of pages totally intimidated me, but I really want to read them), and pretty much every weekend I want to phone up George and be all, “Oh. My. God! WTF just happened, George? Why do you insist on making me cry, like, every single effing episode? Why do you keep killing and tormenting the characters I adore? How can you put them in those horrible situations? Why aren’t the good guys saving the day? Argh!”

I get seriously mad at the guy, but honestly, he’s a freaking genius and a wonderful writer. He gets the characters in my head, in my heart. He makes me fall in love with them and then he yanks them away or knocks them down without any consideration for my feelings.

Sound familiar?

When was the last time you were given an opportunity to halt or reverse the death of a loved one? Did anyone consult with you before breaking your heart with that breakup? Before evaporating that best friendship you wanted to believe was forever? Before life yanked the rug out from beneath your feet and stomped on your fingers?

On the surface, Game of Thrones—particularly the HBO interpretation—is fraught with intense violence and sex. Honestly, there are a lot of boobs on that show, and sword fights, among other things. But it’s neither the brutal acts nor the nude buffet that most of us relate to; it’s the emotional aftermath. The sudden ends, the confusion, the heartache, the raw unmet desire, the lack of closure. Most of us have never witnessed the brutal decapitation of a loved one, for example, but haven’t we all wished for one more chance, one more day to say the important things? An opportunity to make our case, to fight for it?

How many times have you actually gotten that chance?

Life isn’t fair or logical. Martin understands that. Tolkein did, too, though his story was much less brutal. In both cases, I was hooked. Lord of the Rings lives on for me, long after reading the books and seeing the movies a bazillion times. I still think about the characters, still imagine what their lives are like now. As for Game of Thrones? Every Sunday night leaves me upset and enraged or plain old freaked out, and Martin has created a loyal fan for life—enough to make me get over my issue with small-print adult books, happy endings or not.

Speaking of Happy Endings… What About Them?

All of this isn’t to say that storybook characters (and their loyal fans!) don’t deserve happy endings. Many fictional heroes emerge stronger and wiser after surviving the external challenges of a story. They’ve overcome their great weaknesses, found hidden strengths and allies, and slayed their literal and figurative dragons (especially in young adult stories, where coming of age is a paramount internal theme). Maybe they’ve also discovered the buried treasure, snagged the girl, saved humankind from utter extinction.

Even so, “happy ending” is a misnomer. The end of a story doesn’t mark the end of a character’s life or the lives of all those she impacted along the way. It’s just a happy moment, and life is full of them, just as it’s full of heartache. Neither is forever—they’re just for now. Remember Frodo in The Return of the King, that scene in the harbor? “We set out to save the Shire, Sam. And it has been saved… But not for me.”

Layered with happiness and regret, love and loss, creation and destruction. Like life.

Absolutely beautiful. Like life.

Your Assignment

Writers, take a look at your current project. Are you tying everything up too neatly for your characters? Are you resolving every thread, addressing every possible outcome? Giving your hero everything she’s ever dreamed of, leaving nothing left for her to fight for? To desire? Take another look. See if you can find a few places to leave things undone. Not dropped or forgotten, but uncertain. Unresolved. Life is messy and unfair as often as it’s amazing. Let us feel the whole range of it on the page. Give us something to wonder about later, long after we’ve closed the book.

Always leave room for a sequel—if not on paper, than in your readers’ imaginations.

Readers, how do you feel about closure? Do you like loose ends, the sometimes unfair twists and turns of life, or do you prefer the safety net of happily ever after in your fiction? What are some of your favorite books? Do they tie up all the threads, or leave you wanting more? Share your spoiler-free thoughts in the comments!

Big Book News: Cover, Title, & Release Date Makeover

I have some exciting news to share on the new book front!

Bittersweet, by Sarah OcklerThe book formerly known as The Language of Impossible Dreams is now called… Bittersweet! And it’s rocking a brand new cover, too. See all that sweet and wintry goodness? Yumz!

It’s always tough to title a book. I mean, how do you sum up an entire story in just a few words? Or one word, for that matter. It’s HARD. And you don’t always get it right the first time around. In fact, sometimes it takes a few times around to really find the right one. Now, we’ve finally done it! The new title and image perfectly captures Hudson’s challenges throughout the story as she struggles with lots of conflicting emotions and opportunities. Follow her own Olympic-sized dreams, or sacrifice her goals to help out her family? Um, not to mention all the confusing hockey boy love (swoon!) and the ups and downs of friendship (drama!) and school and cupcakes (yum!) and lake effect blizzards and an adorable little brother and everything else that comes her way this winter.

New title, new cover. I couldn’t be more excited! Except…

Okay, I actually could be more excited about one more bit of news… ready?

Bittersweet will hit the shelves much sooner than anticipated! On January 3, to be exact. This coming January 3. Perfect timing, because everyone knows that curling up under a blanket with a book (especially a winter romance!) and a mug of hot chocolate is pretty much the best way to spend the snowy season. And now you know how to use those holiday bookstore giftcards from Nana and Papa! ;-)

I hope you love the new cover and title, and I hope you’ll check out the new book soon! For now, you can pre-order it on Amazon or add it to your Goodreads list. Yay!

Sara Zarr’s How to Save a Life

How to Save a Life, by Sara ZarrSara Zarr’s latest novel, HOW TO SAVE A LIFE, hits the shelves next month, and I can’t wait, because I read it last week and I’m so excited to talk about it with other readers!

Description from Goodreads

Jill MacSweeney just wants everything to go back to normal. But ever since her dad died, she’s been isolating herself from her boyfriend, her best friends–everyone who wants to support her. You can’t lose one family member and simply replace him with a new one, and when her mom decides to adopt a baby, that’s exactly what it feels like she’s trying to do. And that’s decidedly not normal. With her world crumbling around her, can Jill come to embrace a new member of the family?

Mandy Kalinowski knows what it’s like to grow up unwanted–to be raised by a mother who never intended to have a child. So when Mandy becomes pregnant, she knows she wants a better life for her baby. But can giving up a child be as easy as it seems? And will she ever be able to find someone to care for her, too?

Critically acclaimed author and National Book Award finalist Sara Zarr delivers a heart-wrenching story, told from dual perspectives, about what it means to be a family and the many roads we can take to become one.

My Thoughts

In a word? Real.

Through the perspectives of two teen girls, HOW TO SAVE A LIFE explores two extremely intense, emotional, and dramatic experiences — the sudden death of a parent and an unplanned teen pregnancy (and all the complications, pain, loss, fear, love, and hope that can arise from each) — in a compelling and page-turning way that never resorts to melodrama or forced emotion. On ever page, through every confrontation and thought, through the internal and external changes both girls endure and bring about, I believed these girls. I knew them. They were just so real.

Angsty, lost, deeply wounded by the sudden death of her father and the huge hole his absence has left in her life, Jill MacSweeney is dangerously close to shutting down, shutting herself away from the world. Yet something inside her still flickers, something still open to new love and friendships, no matter how hard she rails against it in her day-to-day life. Naive and immature on the surface, Mandy Kalinowski is understandably desperate for love, connection, and the basic human acknowledgement that she’s a person, that she matters. Like Jill, Mandy has been torn apart by the loss and longing that comes from a broken family. Their lives intersect when Jill’s mother, still reeling from the death of her husband and desperate to put her family back together, decides to adopt Mandy’s unborn baby. She invites Mandy to stay with them in Colorado during the final weeks of her pregnancy so that they can handle the transition without lawyers or agencies. And while not all readers will have experienced the death of a parent and planned adoption of a new sibling like Jill has, or a teen pregnancy and difficult home life like Mandy has, Zarr still brings the story to all of us in personal and memorable ways. Who hasn’t struggled to find their place in the world? Who hasn’t felt the desire to run away, to start again? Who hasn’t doubted their closest relationships, struggled to find “home,” or felt like an outsider in their own families?

The story is told in first person alternating points of view, which is a huge and admirable challenge for authors because the characters’ voices and perspectives must be unique, equally compelling, equally important, and wholly necessary. And each alternating scene must cover new ground while at the same time conveying each characters’ thoughts, feelings, and reactions to shared moments and events through their own unique perspectives. Zarr crafts the point of view switches beautifully. I was immediately drawn to each girl for very different reasons, and found myself at times connecting with one more than the other, then my feelings would change, then change again, until ultimately I was so wrapped up in the outcome of their shared story that I simply couldn’t put the book down until I knew how things would turn out for both of them.

Zarr has a talent for telling the story. By that, I mean, her books are never weighed down with extraneous detail, melodrama, or flowery, unnecessary language. Like her previous works, HOW TO SAVE A LIFE showcases this minimalist style beautifully, but it also weaves in layers emotion and detail so delicately — almost imperceptibly — that by the last page, the characters will so thoroughly invade your heart that you’ll feel like you’d been through it yourselves, right along with Jill and Mandy. It’s a rare gift for an author to be able to disappear completely from the narrative, and Zarr does it seamlessly. I forgot about her as I got lost in the pages, in the lives of these girls. Zarr makes the storytelling seem effortless — something I admire and appreciate as both an author and a reader.

I’ve read and enjoyed all of Zarr’s books, but HOW TO SAVE A LIFE is officially my favorite. It comes out next month (October 18) from Little, Brown, but you can add it to your Goodreads list or pre-order it on IndieBound, Amazon, or Barnes & Noble now.