September 30, 2011

Reasons to Be Happy: Interview with Katrina Kittle (Blog Tour)

I'm pleased to welcome Katrina Kittle, author of Reasons to Be Happy, to the blog today for an interview!
"Hannah's parents are glamorous Hollywood royalty, and sometimes she feels like the ugly duckling in a family of swans. After her mother's tragic death, Hannah's grief is compounded by her desperate need to live up to her mother's image. She tries to control her weight through Bulimia, and her devastated father is too distracted to notice. The secret of her eating disorder weighs heavily on Hannah, but the new eighth grade Beverly Hills clique she's befriended only reinforces her desire to be beautiful. The only one who seems to notice, or care, that something is wrong is Jasper, the quirky mistfit." (from Goodreads)

Hi Danya, Thanks so much for hosting me on your wonderful blog. I really appreciate the opportunity!

1.) You’ve published several adult novels previously, but this is your first tween book. How has the writing and publishing experience for this one differed?

 In early drafts, I made the mistake of “watering down” and playing it too safe. A wonderful editor encouraged me to “forget your audience.” That sounds crazy, right? But she said, “I picture you picturing this room full of middle school girls. Forget them. Just write the novel you'd always write. The only difference is that all the protagonists happen to be in middle school.” This advice really spoke to me and allowed me stop trying to “filter” for the tween audience. Those attempts to filter will always show and will inevitably be insulting.

    Don't get me wrong. Of course there is a difference in presenting tough subject matter for a tween audience and an adult audience. But for me the key was my protagonist. Especially since Hannah tells the story in first-person, the only “filter” I needed was her. She tells the story with her perspective and understanding of events, not mine. That became important in revision: I would comb through looking for lines or passages that were colored by my own, more experienced viewpoint. When I found them, they had to go. Hannah could only know what she would know as an eighth grader with her own life experience so far.

     That was the biggest difference, and a good exercise for me as a writer: to really capture Hannah's voice I had to stay true to her frame of reference.

2.) On the surface, it seems like Hannah feels the need to purge just to lose weight. But we see her experiencing a kind of physical and emotional relief after her bulimic episodes that suggests there might be more at play here than simply body image. Is this typical among individuals with bulimia, or is something more going on with Hannah?

This is typical among most eating disorders. They may initially begin with a desire to lose weight, but then the need morphs into something else. Lots of people try to lose weight, after all, but the majority don't descend into the hell of an eating disorder. Often the eating disorder provides a feeling of control when the rest of life is chaotic, or it can provide release from painful emotions (Hannah likes the numbness, the “feeling nothing” after a binge) or the rush from the purge. It becomes much like an addiction—the ritual itself becomes somewhat of a comfort, but the person loses the ability to control the behavior. The best treatment of an eating disorder involves delving deep into the need, the void it fills, rather than focusing on weight alone.

3.) How much research did you have to do for Reasons to Be Happy? Did you use anything from your own or a friend’s experience?

As a middle schooler and high schooler, I studied classical ballet very seriously. Unfortunately, at the time, that world was quite the window into eating disorders! This has happily improved in recent times. The ballet world, combined with being a middle school teacher, gave me quite an education in eating disorders. I had to work with parents and therapists when students were struggling with bulimia and anorexia. I didn't rely on my own observations, though. I read and studied widely, and even worked with a therapist, scheduling an appointment for my fictional character! Dr. Diane Ackerly met with me and talked me through the therapy she'd plan for Hannah, if Hannah actually existed. Because it's fiction, Hannah moves through her recovery fairly smoothly. Hopefully the “jump in time” at the end of  the novel shows how long the recovery can be, and shows that Hannah recognizes she's not entirely out of the woods yet. As with other addictions, the patient must remain very vigilant to avoid falling back into self-destructive behavior at times of stress or sorrow.

4.) As a writer, what do you feel is the greatest challenge to accurately and genuinely conveying a character with bulimia?

I worried a bit that I had a difficult balance to maintain: enough graphic detail to show how horrifying and damaging it is, but not so much that the book reads like a “how to” manual. Again, I focused on using Hannah as my guide, my filter. If I stuck to what she was experiencing—what the disorder did for her, as well as how it betrayed her—then I felt I wouldn't go wrong. I think the greatest challenge was to show how she loses control of it, how she wants to stop but genuinely can't. That's such a misconception for people on the outside of an eating disorder. It can be so frustrating—you just want to say, “Why can't you just eat?” to an girl with anorexia, or “Why can't you just stop?” to a girl with bulimia—but it's not a question of simple willpower, and we do those struggling girls a huge disservice if we refuse to understand that. Eating disorders are just that: disorders. It's very complicated psychology.

5.) Did you have to deal with a “B-Squad” of mean girls when you were in middle school? If so, how did you handle that?

Didn't everyone have to deal with a B-Squad in middle school? I was lucky—while I knew there were girls who didn't like me, no one was overtly cruel to me. I didn't experience any of the awful bullying I became aware of while teaching middle school. I had plenty of strong interests, many of which happened outside of school, to help my life feel balanced. I think that would help a lot of girls who find themselves in Hannah's position—you've got to hang on to the activities that make you happy, give you power, where you excel or feel successful. When Hannah gives up all her activities (running, art), she loses all sense of identity. That makes it easier for her to accept the image the B-Squad presents of her.

6.) What were your top five “reasons to be happy” when you were Hannah’s age?

When I was in eighth grade, I would've listed my top 5 reasons to be happy as: 1) the sweet dusty aroma of horses in the sunshine, 2) putting my pet rabbit Stevie Bunny, (aka Stevie B, the Fun Bun of Fairborn) in my bicycle basket and taking him for a ride (he loved this) 3) mastering a tough combination in ballet class and reveling in the muffled clump sound of pointe shoes on the wooden studio floor, 4) “baking” chocolate chip cookies solely to eat the raw cookie dough, and 5) reading reading reading every chance I got! (I particularly loved mysteries).

Twitter:  @katrinakittle  (Reasons to Be Happy Blog, lists a reason to be happy everyday)
There's a hash-tag—#reasonstobehappy—for your tweeting purposes. :-)

Thanks very much, Katrina, for taking the time to give these thoughtful answers to my questions!
A bit about Katrina, from her website:
"Katrina was born in Illinois but has lived in the Dayton area since first grade, (except for her Year as a Gypsy). She attended Ohio University and was Outstanding Graduating Senior for both the English and Education departments. She taught high school English and theatre at Centerville High School for five years, and she taught middle school English and theatre at the Miami Valley School for six. She has also worked as a house cleaner, a veterinary assistant, a children’s theatre director, a costumer, and as case management support for the AIDS Resource Center (formerly AIDS Foundation Miami Valley).

Katrina is the author of Traveling Light, Two Truths and a Lie, and The Kindness of Strangers, and The Blessings of the Animals, all with HarperPerennial. The Kindness of Strangers was a BookSense pick and the winner of the 2006 Great Lakes Book Award for Fiction. Early chapters from that novel earned her grants from both the Ohio Arts Council and Culture Works. The Blessings of the Animals was an Indie Next pick (August 2010), a Midwest Connections pick (September 2010), and chosen by the Women’s National Book Association as one of ten Great Group Reads for National Book Group Month (October 2010).

She earned an MFA in Creative Writing from Spalding University in Louisville. Katrina is thrilled to announce that her first tween novel, Reasons to Be Happy, will be published by Sourcebooks Jabberwocky this October (2011)."

I recently reviewed Reasons to Be Happy here.

September 29, 2011

In Case You Missed It...Psychtember Week #4 (and an Extension!)

Worried that you missed a couple posts of Psychtember Week #4? Ease your mind by catching up here!

The past week in posts:

Guest Posts:

Psychology and Reading Ability
Blood Wounds: Guest Review
Agreeableness in YA Characters: OCEAN #4
Mockingbird: Guest Review
Neuroticism in YA Characters: OCEAN #5
YA Novels About Relationship Abuse


Without Tess
Reasons to Be Happy (Blog Tour)


Dear Bully: Interview with the Editors

Not As Crazy As I Seem - signed paperback, US/Canada only, ends 10/5
Without Tess - US/Canada only, ends 10/17


Forget-Me-Nots: Dare to Be, M.E.!

Also, I wanted to announce that Psychtember will keep going for a few more days into October! You can never have too much of a good thing, after all :D And I just have so many posts that I couldn't squeeze them all into one month. So just because September is almost over doesn't mean that Psychtember is quite yet!


Reasons to Be Happy: Review (Blog Tour)

Patient: Reasons to Be Happy by Katrina Kittle

Hannah's parents are glamorous Hollywood royalty, and sometimes she feels like the ugly duckling in a family of swans. After her mother's tragic death, Hannah's grief is compounded by her desperate need to live up to her mother's image. She tries to control her weight through Bulimia, and her devastated father is too distracted to notice. The secret of her eating disorder weighs heavily on Hannah, but the new eighth grade Beverly Hills clique she's befriended only reinforces her desire to be beautiful. The only one who seems to notice, or care, that something is wrong is Jasper, the quirky misfit. (from Goodreads)


Axis 1. Characters

It took me a little while to get used to Hannah's voice. I felt like sometimes it was too mature, a wiser Hannah looking back, but at other times it seemed a bit too young. However, I could definitely sympathize with her, as I remember what it was like to be that age and have to deal with annoying "cool" girls like the B-Squad. It captures the feeling of being in middle school, and all the emotions that come with it, quite well.

Hannah's list of "reasons to be happy" gives us a glimpse into the Hannah that used to be, a girl who is markedly different from the Hannah mid-book. The love for life and trying new things that we see in the old Hannah gives us some idea of the girl she once was. Her pastime of building miniature cities is different, creative and gives her a more distinct character. I would have wanted to be friends with her before she gets in with the B-Squad, becomes bulimic and turns into someone else.

Jasper was sweet but struck me as very unrealistic for a young teenage guy. He was far too mature and understanding to be believable, instead coming off as more of a young girl's fantasy crush. A message about the importance of inner beauty from an adult is one thing, but it stretched my credulity too far to have it come from a guy Hannah's age.

Hannah's dad is a perfect example of how imperfect a parent can be. At one point he's a real jerk who can't see — or chooses to ignore — his daughter's situation and how much she needs help. Once he admits his failings and tries to remedy them, though, he becomes more open with his daughter and willing to listen to her. 

Axis 2. Premise/plot

I enjoyed how her list of "reasons to be happy" was referred to throughout the novel; it gives the story some structure and an angle that makes it a bit more memorable amongst a sea of "eating disorder books." The trip to Africa also adds something different and fresh, giving Hannah perspective and showing her how much she has to be grateful for.

Axis 3. Writing Style

The author's intentions seemed obvious to me at times, and the sentences fairly simple, but it is a "tween" read and I don't read many of those so I'm not that familiar with that level. I also found some of the dialogue (especially exchanges with Jasper) to be inauthentic for their ages.

Axis 4. Psychological Accuracy

The Bulimia Binging-Purging Cycle:

The scenes depicting Hannah's binging and purging were realistic to the point of being somewhat nauseating for me. Her desperate need to devour food — she'd gotten to the point of stealing food from the store — and then vomit it all up made me feel sick. Kittle's ability to evoke Hannah's emotions in me was excellent; I felt guilty and nervous like she did because it seemed like I was binging and purging right along with her. I was fascinated by the relief she felt upon purging, which demonstrated that for Hannah it was not all about her body image. She mentions a few times that she wants to be thin (especially in a misguided effort to please her mother) but I never bought it the same way that I bought her urgent need to feel the physical and emotional relief that the bulimia gave her. It's like an addiction for her, and provides a compelling reason for why Hannah continues to hurt herself this way. Often one might think, "Well, why doesn't she just stop?" but Reasons to Be Happy demonstrates that it isn't that easy.

I think one of the deepest reasons for Hannah's bulimia is that she wishes to maintain control over some aspect of her life. Her mother's got cancer, Hannah's at a new school with a nasty group of girls and she's trying to fit in and not make waves — but the one thing she does have complete control over is what she puts into, and takes out of, her body. And I thought Hannah's name for her bulimia — her "SR," or secret remedy — was a great way to demonstrate how individuals might euphemize their disorder, to make it seem okay to them even though on some level they know it's dangerous. At first, having a secret that's all hers makes Hannah feel special, but as she realizes how deeply she's stuck it begins to scare her. She no longer has control over the mechanism she's been using to exert control.

The physical symptoms Hannah demonstrates are also accurate — the "chipmunk cheeks," marks on her knuckles from induced vomiting, missed menstruation (which, by the way, I did not realize happened with bulimia as well as anorexia before I read this book), and bruising under her eyes from broken blood vessels. I wasn't sure throughout, though, what her weight situation actually was. Is she a healthy weight for her age/height? Is she thin? Overweight?

Validity Score: How psychologically accurate was Reasons to Be Happy?
Axis 5. Miscellaneous

I did think her aunt Izzy should have done more to get Hannah help. Yes, she takes her to a mental health professional, but Hannah doesn't see the therapist for very long before she's shipped off to Africa. While Africa does help Hannah to find herself again, and acts as a distraction, most teens won't be able to just run off to Africa if they have bulimia. Some more emphasis on the importance of getting professional help might have been more constructive.

Patient shares symptoms with: Purge by Sarah Darer Littman, Hunger by Jackie Morse Kessler

Patient's statement:

I’d eaten everything I’d stolen from our kitchen freezer earlier, all those Tupperware containers of peanut chicken, coconut soup, and pasta salads that the cleaning lady had packed up and put away after the funeral. All the boxes of fancy soups, rolls of crackers, and jars of pesto I’d snuck from our pathetic cupboards. The mustard, the maple syrup, the chocolate sauce. I knew I should ration, but I knew I wouldn’t. Once a binge began, I would eat every last scrap. I opened the drawer and devoured a loaf of bread, a pack of pudding cups, a box of oatmeal cream pies.

Finally, it happened.

Like a motor coming on, like a switch. The trance. I closed my eyes. I didn’t need to see. I didn’t taste. I didn’t feel texture.

I didn’t feel anything.

Diagnosis: 3.5 shooting stars. 

For more information about bulimia, see here.

Disclaimer: I received this book for review from the publisher. 

My interview with Katrina Kittle will be up tomorrow, so check back for that!

September 28, 2011

Guest Post: YA Novels about Relationship Abuse (and Giveaway!)

I'm happy to welcome Jessica from Confessions of a Bookaholic to the blog today for a Psychtember guest post!

Relationship abuse is a topic that touches every teen or young adult at some point in their lives. Either they are dealing with abuse personally or know someone going through it. As I’ve researched various articles while in graduate school, I’ve discovered so many interesting facts about relationship abuse and adolescents. One of the best finds was that YA books focusing on abuse seem to be spot-on! They really get the characters and their thoughts. They go through the various layers of a relationship and capture the emotions, personalities, strengths, and weaknesses of each person. It’s easy to think that you could read a story about abuse and never see why the character let it continue. You’d think “How could she let him talk to her that way? Why not just break up with him”, but it’s never that easy. While reading YA books on abuse, I found myself truly understanding why these individuals fell in love. Why they held on to something that was constantly hurting them.

In June I hosted the event Stand Up Against Abuse and I featured 3 new YA books that focus on relationship abuse; But I Love Him by Amanda Grace, Stay by Deb Caletti, and Bitter End by Jennifer Brown. The surprising thing about these books was that each explored a different level of abuse. They were very different in the way they presented the female characters and the severity of the physical or emotional abuse.

Stay by Deb Caletti explores Clara’s relationship with Christian. During this story we see Clara after she has isolated herself from Christian by going to a safe location with her father. The story takes us back into the relationship from the start to see how they fell in love and how things fell apart. Christian was mentally abusive to Clara. He was paranoid, demanding, and threatening. Readers can see Clara begin to change as the relationship progresses. She becomes broken. This book grabbed me the most because it represented many aspects from a past relationship I had as a teen. I was not really physically abused but the mental abuse was always there. Ia think teens can relate to this book because this is the most common type of abuse. People can try to break you down or make you feel useless just because they want to feel they have power. It’s a cycle that is hard to break. Many teenage girls just look for the affection a relationship brings, or never realize that jealousy and rage does not equal love.

Bitter End by Jennifer Brown involves Alex and Cole. This book focuses on the way a relationship can make a person turn away from their friends, family, and all other social outlets. Cole doesn’t like that Alex hangs out with her friends so he manipulates her to make her feel like he really needs her all to himself. Alex, a once popular, friendly personality, turns into a quiet, scared girl who doesn’t know how to make Cole happy anymore. The relationship goes out of control and soon turns violent. Bitter End shows how a teenager can fall for an individual who is perfect at first but soon changes. Promises are broken, and no matter how many times the person says they will stop, it rarely happens. Relationships like this not only change the outward nature of the person, but it changes the personality as well. Once outgoing, friendly people can become isolated and depressed. That is the time when it becomes even more difficult to break free from abuse.

But I Love Him by Amanda Grace presents the most severe case of physical abuse in these books, and it is told in a very interesting way-- backwards. At first we get to see Ann at her lowest point. She is battered, broken, and completely alone. This is the time when we can really think “How did she let this happen?” But, soon we know why. This book goes back in time so we can get an idea of how this cycle started, but instead of starting at the beginning of the relationship, we start at the end. Ann loves Conner and she has tried every way possible to make him happy. She gave up so much and is in a constant balancing act to try to keep him content. When we first meet her, she is aware of every trigger he has. She blames herself if she makes him angry. Even after so much abuse, Ann could see the good in Conner. That was her focus, but even with all that effort, it wasn’t enough. By the end of the book we get a glimpse of Ann whole, before the relationship; however, at the same time we see her at her lowest point. The unique benefit of this is that you really get a chance to compare the two personalities of Ann during this part. It’s easier to see just how different she really seems now that she has been through so much.

All of these books involve girls who were looking for love and affection. Each story explores an abusive relationship in a different way and different level of physical or mental abuse. But abuse is abuse --plain and simple-- and it is wrong. Teenagers can struggle with knowing how to break free. This happens to guys as well and I do hope that a YA book explores that instance as well. Having a background in psychology really allowed me to better connect with these books. I could see how the research connected with more “true life” stories of abuse. It puts more of a face with the research pertaining to why this happens.

Psychology background: I have my BS in Psychology from Pikeville College in Kentucky. I am currently a 2nd year graduate student studying general psychology with an emphasis in child and adolescent development. I am graduating in March 2012. I hope to someday develop programs that help teens and young adults with abusive relationship and cyberbullying. 

Thanks very much, Jessica, for this thorough exploration of three YA books dealing with relationship abuse!

And now, Jessica has generously offered up a copy of Amanda Grace's But I Love Him as a giveaway!

The rules:

- US/Canada only
- Entrants must be 13 years or older.
- One entry per person.
- Following and tweeting are not required, but always much appreciated.
- Winner will be selected randomly and contacted by e-mail for their address, which will then be passed on to Jessica, who'll ship out the prize.
- Ends Oct. 17 at 11:59 pm EDT. 

This contest is now closed.

Waiting on Wednesday: Dark Eden and Getting Somewhere

Waiting on Wednesday is hosted by Jill at Breaking the Spine and features books that we just can't wait to get our hands on!

This week's picks are, of course, psychology-related to fit with Psychtember!

Dark Eden by Patrick Carman

From Goodreads:

"Fifteen-year-old Will Besting is sent by his doctor to Fort Eden, an institution meant to help patients suffering from crippling phobias. Once there, Will and six other teenagers take turns in mysterious fear chambers and confront their worst nightmares—with the help of the group facilitator, Rainsford, an enigmatic guide. When the patients emerge from the chamber, they feel emboldened by the previous night's experiences. But each person soon discovers strange, unexplained aches and pains. . . What is really happening to the seven teens trapped in this dark Eden?

Patrick Carman's Dark Eden is a provocative exploration of fear, betrayal, memory, and— ultimately—immortality."

I haven't read that many books dealing with specific phobias. I know this one's supposed to be more of a thriller but I'm definitely hoping the psychology aspects are portrayed accurately! It does sound creepy and exciting, though.

Getting Somewhere by Beth Neff 

"Four girls: dealer, junkie, recluse, thief.

Sarah, Jenna, Lauren, and Cassie may look like ordinary girls, but they’re not. They’re delinquents whose lives collide when they’re sent to an experimental juvenile detention program on a farm in the middle of nowhere. As the girls face up to the crimes they committed, three of them will heal the wounds of their pasts and discover strengths they never dreamed they had. And one, driven by a deep secret of her own, will seek to destroy everything they’ve all worked so hard for."

I'm interested to see how addictions are handled in this one! And it's often fun to have different characters thrown together in an unusual situation and forced to interact with each other. Very funky cover, too!

What books are you waiting for?

September 27, 2011

Dear Bully: Interview with the Editors

I'm delighted to be able to welcome the editors of Dear Bully, Carrie Jones and Megan Kelley Hall, to the blog for a Psychtember interview!

First, a bit about the book (from Goodreads):

You are not alone.

Discover how Lauren Kate transformed the feeling of that one mean girl getting under her skin into her first novel, how Lauren Oliver learned to celebrate ambiguity in her classmates and in herself, and how R.L. Stine turned being the “funny guy” into the best defense against the bullies in his class. 
Today’s top authors for teens come together to share their stories about bullying—as silent observers on the sidelines of high school, as victims, and as perpetrators—in a collection at turns moving and self-effacing, but always deeply personal.

And now, the questions...

1.) What was the inspiration that sparked the production of Dear Bully? How did the concept of the book change along the way?

Carrie: For me the inspiration was seeing all this kids bullied. Phoebe Prince and Jazmin Lovings were the two that particularly hit home. Phoebe because she was such a promising writer and Jazmin because she's just a five year old girl who was having nightmares about her bullying experiences.  I thought about how lonely it feels to be bullied, and how stories and writing can make connections so I called out on my blog for people to tell stories. Megan did the same thing. From there it grew into an idea for an anthology. First we created a place on Facebook called YOUNG ADULT AUTHORS AGAINST BULLYING. Megan started the page for us and it quickly grew from 5 people to 1,500 to beyond. We wanted it to be a safe place to disseminate resources and for people to tell their stories.
The book's concept really didn't change all that much. We just wanted it to be a myriad of authentic stories or poems about authors' experiences with bullying.
MEGAN: As a Massachusetts resident and having already spoken about bullying in schools, I was horrified after hearing about the bullying that took place in the Phoebe Prince case. While writing my books, SISTERS OF MISERY and THE LOST SISTER, I had to dig deep to make “mean girls" as evil as I possibly could. When I heard about all the bullying and bullycide stories in the news, I felt like the bullies had jumped off the pages of my book and into real life. I was also disheartened by the numerous times I’d done book signings and would say to readers, “I hope you never meet girls as mean as the ones in my book.” Shockingly, they almost always said, “We already have.” I reached out to Carrie to do something, since we both had coincidentally blogged about the Prince case on the same day. Together, we felt that we owed it to teen readers to discourage bullying -- to make it "uncool." I started by creating a Facebook page that kicked off an entire "movement" to end bullying.  This was the day that we decided to use their platform as Young Adult authors to actually facilitate change and to be a voice for those kids who cannot speak out or are too afraid to be heard.

2.)  What are the most common misconceptions about bullying, and how does this book seek to challenge these?

Carrie: One of the biggest misconceptions is that it's a necessary rite of passage. Nothing about torment is necessary. Another one is that bullies are always evil. IT's not often as polarized as that. A lot of kids who were bullied become bullies at some point. Labels are confining and don't often tell the whole story.

Megan: I think that so many people believe that if it's not happening to them, it's not their problem. If you or your child is not the target of bullying today, it's only a matter of time until the tides turn. This is everyone's problem. And if we can encourage bystanders to not tolerate bullying in their schools, to stand side by side with the victims, to not give the bully the audience that he/she desperately needs to feel powerful, then and only then will bullying end.

3.)  There are a number of different ways you could have organized the stories. How did you decide on the method of categorization you used?

Carrie: That was a lot of team work and back and forth between us and Harper Collins, the publisher. They did a fantastic job helping us shape the vision of the book.

Megan: We went around and around with different ideas -- even with the title of the novel.  It wasn't until one of our entries from Laurie Stolarz (the book was named after her story, DEAR BULLY) did the rest of the chapters fall into place. We wanted each chapter to reflect the attitudes toward bullying.  Regret, Survival, Speak, Write It, It Gets Better.... all of these titles came from a positive place as opposed to the negative ways that many people deal with the effects of bullying. I remember suggesting one chapter heading, "Just Kidding," because I remember that was what I had heard growing up when girls were bullying each other. They'd come out with these awful things to say to one another and end it with, "Just kidding!" as if that made it okay.  That was an important aspect of bullying that I wanted to cover-- that sometimes "friends" can be the bullies. Actually, more often than not, friends ARE the bullies at some point.
4.) What did you find most unexpected or surprising about the experiences these authors shared?

Carrie:  I think I found the essays where authors admitted to being a bystander or a bully the most surprising, especially when they talked about how the guilt for those actions stayed with them for so long. Those were really brave essays. They are my favorites.

Megan: What I found--and still find-- surprising was the sheer number of people affected by bullying. When you look at our table of contents, it's practically a "whose who" of the YA writing world. So to hear that writers like Megan McCafferty, Alyson Noel, R.L Stine, Heather Brewer were all bullied and went through the same insecurities that the rest of us went through as teens, that was a real eye-opener for me. And will also, hopefully, provide inspiration to those kids going through bullying today. It definitely would have inspired me when I was a teenager!

5.) Facebook is mentioned in several of these stories. How would you say social media has changed the nature of bullying in recent years?

Carrie: It's brought bullying to a whole new level of evil through fake profiles, online harassment, mobbing and baiting, but it's also helped so many people. Prior to DEAR BULLY, I had two fans who were alone and suicidal express their feelings through social media. Both of them are still alive today, thank goodness, because they are so brilliant and good and talented. But I'm not sure if they would be if they hadn't reached out through their blogs and status updates. We want the DEAR BULLY website and Facebook page to be an extension of that hope - places where kindness and empathy and tolerance are embraced and served up daily. That sounds sort of schmarmy, but it's true.

Megan: It's made bullying relentless. When I was a teen, bullying and rumors and teenage torment ended at the front door of kids' homes. Today, there's no escape from it. It's around them 24-7. Even if they are not actively participating in it online, their classmates might be posting things on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube. Emailing rumors, photos, you name it. That's one of the reasons we started our group on Facebook. We wanted to create a safe haven and take back Facebook from the bullies who were using it to their advantage. Now, if we get word that there's a mean-spirited Facebook page, we can rally our members to report it to Facebook in the hopes that it will be removed. We also want people to be able to communicate with others -- other authors, teens, teachers, parents, counselors -- so that they never feel like they have to face this growing epidemic alone.
6.) There’s a strong connection between bullying, depression and suicide. What sorts of “buffers” are there for individuals being bullied, to prevent these negative outcomes?

Carrie: Friends, adults, caring individuals, health-care professionals and law enforcement officers can all help prevent those outcomes.

Megan: First and foremost, adults need to step in. They need to be aware, not only about their own children's lives, but about the lives of other teens. A recent study said that most bullying occurs in middle school. Those kids should still be interacting with their parents or caregivers on a regular basis. They aren't driving or at college or living away from home for the most part. The idea that going through this by themselves will make them stronger is antiquated and, quite frankly, dangerous. If we cannot take a good hard look at our own kids or at the children around us to make sure that bullying isn't taking place, then we are failing. That said, teens need to be surrounded by a strong support system. If that's not family members, then it should be coaches, educators, friends' parents, health-care professionals or even the police. 

7.) If someone only has time to read 5 stories from Dear Bully, which ones would you recommend as “must-reads” and why?

Carrie: Uck! This is the hardest question ever, and I just can't answer it. I'm so sorry. I think it depends on that person and what they need. A kid who is being bullied for being gay is going to need five very different stories than a kid who is being a bystander in mobbing events. That's part of the beauty of the book, really. It has so many stories to pick and chose from as needed.

Megan: I have to agree with Carrie on that one. There are so many stories to choose from, and I think that many school counselors have said that they are going to tailor their reading suggestions to teens based on what each individual is going through. There are so many different perspectives to choose from. I pretty much guarantee that there is a story for everyone.

8.)  What emotional impact has telling these stories had on the contributors? Were any authors invited but found it too painful to actually participate?

Carrie: We didn't actually invite that many authors. Most volunteered. There was one author that I was talking to at an event for Vermont College who said she wanted to write one, but she wasn't ready yet. She wrote for the anthology because it was so important to her, but she didn't tell her own story. She told someone else's story. There were a couple others who cried while writing it. A few authors said it was the hardest thing they'd ever written, and the most emotional. I am so in awe of all of them. They were terribly brave. And the only reason they were so brave is because they knew kids needed these stories.

Megan: It's funny because some of the first people to sign on and had stories to tell actually bowed out. It seemed to be the ones who were to most hesitant to tell their stories that ended up coming through and offering such incredibly heart-wrenching stories. Some of the stories are funny. Some are raw and painful. All of them have something to teach.  One author stands out in my mind because when I asked if she wanted to participate, she initially said "No, I was never bullied and I don't have
anything to add."  Weeks later, she contacted me and said that she really did have a story, but it was too painful to deal with--it was something that she had put out of her mind and basically repressed. Sharing it was painful and cathartic, but it's one of the most powerful stories. However, I'm not going to say which story that was. I'll have to let the readers decide for themselves.

9.) If you had a child who was being bullied, what would you tell them? How would this differ if they were bullying someone else? Or watching from the sidelines?

Carrie: I have a child, Emily. If she was bullied, I'd let her know how proud I was for her to tell me. I'd let her know that it's nothing to be ashamed of, that the bullying doesn't define who she is. I would believe her, support her, and then we'd figure out strategies to deal with the specifics.

If Em was bullying someone else? That's harder. I'm usually extremely proud of Em because she's been a bit of a defender of other kids since first grade. She would come home and tell me stories of how she stood up for a girl who was of Aleutian descent when a boy made fun of her eye shape. She even stood up for another girl when a ed tech teacher told her that she threw 'like a r-word.' She spoke to the adult ed tech and then told the principal. But Em isn't perfect, I know that. So, we sometimes I'll ask her about social behaviour, how she's responding to an unpopular girl, etc. But she still seems to battle on. If she was bullying, I'd hope to do the following:
1. Accept that there is a problem and tell her that it's not going to be tolerated.
2. Monitor activities, work with the school, communicate about what's going on, be as involved as possible in the situation.
3. Try to be kind and positive and empathetic myself so that she can model that behaviour. Encourage her in kind activities, such as taking care of a pet.
4.  Get help if these strategies aren't working. There is nothing wrong with having professionals help make your child the best human he or she can become.

If Em was a bystander, I'd encourage her to be an upstander, letting her know that helping someone get out of a bullying situation and into a safe place is a heroic thing, that you should tell an adult both in and out of school about what happened. She knows already that there is an expectation to take action, that being afraid of bullies is normal, and I would try to notice when she is brave and kind and praise her for those qualities.

Megan: As someone who was a bystander to bullying growing up,  I would definitely encourage Piper to stand up for others.  Though, I don't know if I would need to do that, because at 8 years old, she's already pretty outspoken and has strong opinions about right and wrong. I plan on continuing to keep the dialogue between us open, even as she gets older. I also plan on being personally involved in helping her deal with bullying situations. I've already had discussions with her about making sure that she takes other people's feelings into account before she acts or makes decisions.  I only hope that other parents will do the same with their children.  Parents need to know as much about their kids as they possibly can--their friends, their fears, their insecurities, their strengths and weaknesses. The good, the bad and the ugly.  And they need to look at their children without rose-colored glasses. And they need to parent accordingly.  Parenting is the most important job in the world and it changes on a daily basis, but it's so often overlooked and undervalued.    If we ever hope to end bullying, parents are the first-line of defense against it. This is something that we need to remind ourselves consistently.

Megan and Carrie, thanks very much for taking the time to give such thoughtful responses to my questions! 

Readers, if you'd like to find out more about Dear Bully, there's a whole website devoted to the book here.


Without Tess: Review (and Giveaway!)

Patient: Without Tess by Marcella Pixley

Tess and Lizzie are sisters, sisters as close as can be, who share a secret world filled with selkies, flying horses, and a girl who can transform into a wolf  in the middle of the night. But when Lizzie is ready to grow up, Tess clings to their fantasies. As Tess sinks deeper and deeper into her delusions, she decides that she can’t live in the real world any longer and leaves Lizzie and her family forever. Now, years later, Lizzie is in high school and struggling to understand what happened to her sister. With the help of a school psychologist and Tess’s battered journal, Lizzie searches for a way to finally let Tess go. (from Goodreads)


Axis 1. Characters

At the heart of Without Tess is a very complicated relationship between sisters. As they grow up, it's clear that Tess, the older sister, is the leader; she's admired and looked up to — perhaps too blindly and unfailingly — by her younger sister. But it becomes apparent as the story unfolds that something is very wrong with Tess, and the fantasy world that she's concocted in her own head is often more real to her than anything else. Lizzie desperately wants to please Tess, going along with her sister's games and even sometimes believing in them, but Tess' demands become bizarre and unreasonable.

I'm a younger sister, and I'm also quite down-to-earth, so of the two sisters I definitely felt a stronger connection to and understanding of Lizzie (it also helps that it's told from her perspective!) Generally speaking, bonds between sisters are often fraught with sibling rivalry, but nonetheless can prove very solid when they need to be. With Lizzie and Tess, there's definitely some jealousy simmering under the surface on Lizzie's side. Tess is often praised for her creativity and fanciful imagination, and it's obvious at the start that Lizzie wishes she were more like her sister. But as Tess starts eating up more of her parents' attention, envy turns to resentment. Nevertheless, Lizzie sticks by Tess, and Tess — in her own unusual way — tries to do the same for Lizzie, at least for a while.

Their parents really don't play much of a role in the book, at least until towards the end. In fact, the inattentiveness of the parents to what is happening with Tess is really incredible. It takes until  Tess isn't eating anything (a result of one of her delusions) before they finally figure out that she needs help.

Axis 2. Premise/plot

I found the plot very slow-moving — I was often tempted to skim, but I resisted the urge — although it picks up a little as everyone grows more and more concerned about Tess' mental well-being. The plot points are really there more to demonstrate aspects of the characters than anything else — and that they do well. Tess' behaviour indicates that something just isn't quite right, but it's done in a subtle way that makes it all the more unnerving. It isn't loud or showy; instead it creeps up on you. And Pixley gets points for writing about a rare disorder that doesn't get much attention. Schizophrenia typically begins in the late teens or early twenties, so a YA novel about childhood-onset schizophrenia (which is what Tess seems to present with) is certainly unusual.

The ending of Without Tess disappointed me, though. It just seemed to drop into cliche and sappy, losing the nuanced and complex emotions that were so well-done in the rest of the novel. While it is certainly valid to show how sharing one's fears with someone else can help to dissipate them, Lizzie's reaction when she finally confronts her feelings about her sister's death seemed too typical and simple, given how incredibly complicated her relationship with Tess was. Lizzie's emotional transformation happened too quickly for my liking. I also had a hard time swallowing the depth of emotional expression in Niccolo's response, as it just didn't seem authentic for a teenage guy. Overall the scene came off to me as an "easy fix" to her problems, and ended up feeling a bit anti-climactic.

Axis 3. Writing Style

The narrative flip-flops between past and present — the present where Tess is dead, and the past where we can see Tess' problems escalate. For most of the way through, the past sections are prefaced by a poem of Tess', which helped to keep me on track with the time frame switches. I also thought that this technique worked well, for the most part, to illustrate the striking difference between the Lizzie of the present and Lizzie of the past.

The writing style of Without Tess is quite literary, and it's clear right from the start that the quality is high. Marcella Pixley does a wonderful job with creating atmosphere — she evokes those hot, lazy days of summer in the countryside so well. In turn, the contrast between the picturesque atmosphere and the events surrounding Tess and Lizzie is quietly disturbing. I do wish I knew a bit more about the setting in terms of place and time; the sections written in the past had a bit of an old-fashioned feel for me, but the present-time ones felt more modern.

Axis 4. Psychological Accuracy

"Fast Facts" about childhood-onset schizophrenia: Did You Know?
  • It's much rarer than adult-onset schizophrenia, but the criteria for diagnosis are very similar
  • Symptoms appear less suddenly than adult-onset, but they are 20-30 times more severe (according to this LA Times article)
  • It may be confused with autism, Asperger's, or bipolar disorder, as there are some overlapping symptoms
  • The hallucinations and delusions become more complex as the child gets older
- information from here, here and here
Since the story's told from Lizzie's perspective, we don't really see inside Tess' mind (though we do get glimpses through her poems). But her behaviour, viewed externally, demonstrates that inside her head she has created a fantastical world of her own, which she frequently becomes wholly absorbed in. She's most certainly delusional; I'm less sure about hallucinations, although she does refer to "Merlin" as though he's someone she actually talks to. I'd also say her social skills are indeed impaired (as evidenced by her inability to interact with anyone outside of her sister, really), which is typical of children with schizophrenia.

I really enjoyed the interactions between Lizzie and her school psychologist. Although it isn't named, I'm quite sure the style of therapy is person-centered therapy, based on Carl Rogers' work. Therapists who use this humanistic approach try to help the individual help themselves towards personal growth and self-actualization. It was great to see the school psychologist using some general techniques of this type — for instance, bouncing her questions back at her. He's also wise to her inclination to use humour to deflect from really getting at her emotions, and he's not afraid to acknowledge this.

It's interesting to see him honouring the agreement of confidentiality — even though he knows that she's been passing off her sister Tess' poems as her own, he does not take this fact to her teacher. However, he does encourage her to start writing her own poems.

Validity Score: How psychologically accurate was Without Tess?

Axis 5. Miscellaneous

I loved the final poem in the book — it was the perfect way to end it.

Patient's statement:

I wish I were like Tess. She knows how to be certain about things. She doesn’t keep herself up at night wondering if she said or did the right thing. She just believes. For Tess the world makes sense. Everything that happens contains a secret meaning. A white butterfly means good luck. A sand dollar means watch your step. A warm wind means Merlin is whispering. Nothing means anything to me. When I see a seagull, it doesn’t tell me anything. The sun hurts my eyes. And even these waves are just waves after half an hour of floating, naked and cold.

Diagnosis: 3.5 shooting stars

For more information about childhood-onset schizophrenia, see here.

Disclaimer: I received this book for review from the publisher, for Psychtember.

And now, the moment you've all been waiting for...the giveaway! Macmillan has generously offered up a copy of Without Tess.

The rules:

- US/Canada only (as per publisher's request)
- Entrants must be 13 years or older.
- One entry per person.
- Following and tweeting are not required, but always much appreciated.
- Winner will be selected randomly and contacted by e-mail for their address, which will then be passed on to the publisher, who'll ship out the prize.
- Ends Oct. 17 at 11:59 pm EDT. 

This contest is now closed.

September 26, 2011

Guest Post: Neuroticism in YA Characters (OCEAN #5)

This is the last in the OCEAN series of guest posts about personality traits from Najela of Brave New Adventure! She's talked about openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, and agreeableness in her previous posts.

Neuroticism is one of the more interesting personality traits. Neuroticism refers to the ability to cope with negative emotions, such as anger, sadness, guilty not exactly how often you experience these emotions. This is also known as emotional stability. It would be unrealistic to say that people never experience these emotions, it's a human emotion, but the spectrum can deal with people who don't know how to cope with negative emotions and people who can cope with emotions with little to no upheaval of their everyday lives.

There are many books that describe characters and their varying degrees of neurosis. There are characters like Sophie Mercer from Rachel Hawkin's Hex Hall Series and Jamie from Sarah Rees-Brennan's Demon's Lexicon Series tend to resort to humor to deal with fear and other negative emotions.

Small things such as having strange tendencies to cope with anxiety inducing situations. These are just quirks and and everyone has them, but there are varying degrees of neuroses. There are a few stories out there that deal with neurotic tendencies that interfere with every day life. Things like Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or severe phobias interfere with the daily lives of people and characters in fiction stories as well. In the book Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson, Melinda goes nearly mute from PTSD after being date raped at a party. Other characters such as Christopher from The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time who due to his unique form of autism has social phobias. These aren't bad negative ways of dealing with life altering events, people can only react. In other stories such as C.J. Omololu's Dirty Little Secrets, the main character Lucy has to deal with her mother's own neurosis as a severe hoarder after a bitter divorce.

The conflicts of these novels either deal with a character overcoming a certain neurotic tendency (i.e. Melinda learns to speak up for herself, Christopher learns to overcome his fears to solve a mystery) or the dealing with parents who have trouble coping with stress such as Janie's alcoholic mother from Lisa McMann's Dreamcatcher series.

So knowing this, how do you think those traits interact with the traits of other characters in your stories. Mixing and matching these various traits can bring out some very interesting plot twists and character developments. Think of character with a high level of neurosis and low on openess. How would they fair in a dystopian novel for example or a contemporary story? What about a character who is high on agreeableness and low on conscientiousness? How would they fair in a paranormal romance or a thriller?

In my opinion, putting a character with traits that you wuold expect in an extraordinary circumstance yields for a chance to show strong character development as the character adapts to their surroundings. Just think about how the traits your character has and the situation they are in? Do they fit the circumstances? How do their traits grow over time? Certain situations can cause other tendencies to become stronger and others to fade away.

Thanks for reading. I hope this gets the creative juices flowing and thinking of characters in a different way. Happy writing.

Najela is a recent graduate from UC Riverside with a dual degree in Psychology and Creative Writing. She is actively trying to combine the two majors while working as a Behavioral Interventionist for children that have autism. She is current pursuing a Master's Degree in Exceptional Student Education and working on an illustrated college guidebook set to release hopefully by (late) November 2011. You can follow her at her website or her tumblr. 

Thank you so much, Najela, for putting together this interesting and informative series of posts!

Mockingbird: Guest Review

I'm happy to welcome Ashley from Books from Bleh to Basically Amazing back to the blog, for another Psychtember guest review! She's sharing her reaction to Mockingbird.

The young protagonist of Kathryn Erskine's Mockingbird is Caitlin, an 11 year old girl with Asperger's Syndrome. Caitlin views the world in a strong dichotomy of yes or no, black and white and her world view really allows for no grey area. She has always relied on her older brother to help her understand the world. When he suddenly dies Caitlin is left feeling adrift. She's lost her compass and has no idea what to do or how to feel. After reading about closure in her dictionary, she tries to find some. 

Disorders on the Autism Spectrum (including Asperger's) are incredibly complex, unique and varied and they are also something that, try as we might, we don't have much understanding of. We can try to learn more about the individuals who have a disorder, but really, our knowledge and understanding is always going to be limited. And it's going to be different for every single person. 

Because of that, I always have a hard time judging whether or not a book that has an character or narrator on the Autism Spectrum is realistic or accurate. Because I can't know for sure. All I can say is whether or not I found it to be authentic or believable. And in this book, I found myself fully inside Caitlin's mind, struggling with her as she tried to relearn how to be when her whole world has ruptured and she's lost the one person who used to be able to reach her. She was so lost and so confused through much of the book and my heart really went out to her. Especially because she doesn't understand things in the same way that everyone else does and she doesn't really know how to communicate or relate to people on a the same level as someone with a 'normal' development pattern. 

I'll admit that it's been a while since I read this book and some of the specifics and details aren't as clear as they would have been if I'd read it more recently, but what I do still have are the impressions and feelings I got reading the book. And the emotional memories tell me, that no matter the flaws this book may have, it is a book worth reading, especially if you are interested in reading books that deal with mental illness. I think it's an important addition and I love that it's written for a middle grade audience. That's an age group I think it's really important to teach empathy to, and empathy is a huge part of Caitlin's learning process. 

I will say that the book had a tendency to get on the preachy side. There's an entire part of the story that is devoted to the tragic way her brother was killed. And the book is really short. It's a quick read, and I just thought that having an entire portion of the book devoted to the tragedy as a whole was too much when we were also supposed to be focusing on Caitlin and I couldn't quite decide if Erskine wanted to write a 'tragedy' book or a 'mental health' book. If the book had been longer, it could have worked. But trying to give proper attention to both things doesn't work as well in a novel of this size and complexity. 

However, I don't think that should deter anyone from reading this book. It's definitely a book I would recommend to people wanting another perspective in trying to understand the Autism Spectrum and you might be surprised by how much a little girl who doesn't really understand much about feelings can make you feel.

Ashley has been fascinated by the mind since before she can remember and decided long before college that Psychology would be her field of study. She received a BS in Psychology and is currently deciding where it should take her next. Ashley would like it to be made clear that she is not an expert in the field, and that the thoughts and feelings expressed are hers derived from both academic and personal study and experience.  

Thanks very much for sharing your thoughts on Mockingbird, Ashley! 

Readers — have you read this one? What did you think of how it portrays Asperger's Syndrome?

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