A Writer’s Path to Understanding; Hartland Woman Writes Young Adult Books

Friday, December 06, 2013
The teenagers in Jo Knowles’ young adult novels aren’t like the teenagers you see in films or television. They’re more complex, more confused, sometimes inarticulate, hungry for affection, and they don’t always grasp the consequences of their actions. Teetering on the precarious line between childhood and adulthood, they don’t behave as if they’re 30-year-olds in 15-year-old bodies, schooled in Snark 101 by a team of scriptwriters.

One of the reasons that Knowles’ characters strike readers as authentic is that every time Knowles sits down to write she asks herself: Why does that person act that way?

“I think writing is my way of understanding why things happen the way they do,” Knowles said in a recent interview at the Hartland Diner. Her most recent book Living with Jackie Chan (Candlewick) is a companion to her previous book Jumping Off Swings, which explored what happens when an unintended pregnancy initiates a crisis in the lives of four adolescents.

Jumping Off Swings was named a YALSA (Young Adult Library Services Association) Best Book for Young Adults and See You At Harry’s, the novel before that, was named an Editor’s Choice book by the New York Times. She has written five novels in all.

One of the characters in Jumping Off Swings, named Josh, was left facing an uncertain future and although Knowles never intended to write a follow-up, a flurry of questions from readers got her thinking.

“The more I got these letters, the more I started to wonder, Well, what does happen to him? I left him in a place that wasn’t that fair,” Knowles said. So she began to explore Josh’s life after he learns that, at the ripe old age of 17, he’s become a father. His feelings of self-loathing, intense doubt and fears for his future are jumbled up with a teenager’s natural exuberance and optimism.

“When I was in school there were obviously kids who got pregnant,” Knowles said. But rather than look the other way, Knowles wondered, “What was it like not just for the mother but for the father?”

This came back to her when she was writing Living with Jackie Chan. As the mother of a teenage boy, she said that she feels boys sometimes get overlooked in young adult literature, and she wondered whether she’d done the same thing to Josh in Jumping Off Swings. “I knew it would only be fair to tell both sides. What if (the girl) hadn’t gotten pregnant? Would he still have remembered her?”

The tangle of human relations is, she said, “a crazy, intricate web, and everyone affects someone, and it can be a subtle thing that can affect your life.”

Knowles, who grew up in Meredith, N.H., has lived in Hartland for 10 years with her husband and son. Her path to writing came out of childhood, but not in the way that’s conventionally written about in the media: successful author read thousands of book as a child and knew she wanted to write from age 4.

In fact, Knowles didn’t like to read as a child, although she liked to be read to; she found it laborious. And she came out of a family where reading quickly and prolifically was a matter of course. Her mother was such an intense reader, always absorbed in a book, that when Knowles and her sister wanted to get their mother’s attention they rigged the telephone to make it ring.

“I was the youngest in a busy and loud family and I just felt like no one heard me,” Knowles said.

But then, as an older child, she picked up a book, and corny as it sounds, her life was transformed by it. The book was The Chocolate War by the late Robert Cormier, who grew up in Leominster, Mass., and whose career was based in writing books in which teenagers confront such social issues as bullying, sexuality and conformity. Ever since it was published in 1975, The Chocolate War has been consistently challenged or banned in libraries by parents’ groups, according to the American Library Association.

“It was probably the first young adult novel I read all the way through by myself. I was grateful to an author for telling the truth and … it made me fall in love with young adult literature,” Knowles said.

It was a book she returned to periodically, and when she took a class in children’s literature at Simmons College in Boston, where she was an undergraduate, she read it again. The teacher pulled her aside, Knowles said, and told her that her writing showed promise and she should consider submitting work to the college literary magazine.

When she was a junior she submitted an essay called Livingroom Music to the magazine, and it ended up winning a top prize in an annual competition at the college. It described a moment in her parents’ marriage, during a period of great financial difficulty, when she walked in on them dancing together quietly in their livingroom to an old Elvis Presley tune.

One of the conditions of being awarded the prize was that she had to read it aloud at an event honoring the winners. “I was this incredibly shy kid, I would turn red and break out in hives (at the prospect of public speaking),” Knowles said. But when she read the essay, she saw that students and faculty in the audience had been moved to the point of tears. “I’d never had a voice until that point; I realized my words had power.”

When she continued at Simmons College in a master’s degree program, studying children’s literature, she wrote a novel instead of a master’s thesis. Every year Simmons held a conference in children’s literature, and one year Cormier happened to attend. When Knowles gave him her copy of The Chocolate War to autograph, she blurted out that she’d written a young adult novel. To her surprise he wrote down his address in The Chocolate War and told her to send him the manuscript.

She did; he liked it; he gave her the name of his editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux; she sent it; and the editor liked it so much that she worked with Knowles on it. “A practice novel, is how I see it. I learned so much about writing from (the editor),” Knowles said. Eventually, Farrar, Straus and Giroux rejected it, but after a fairly typical round of more writing, more interest, more rejections, and so on, Knowles got an agent. She sold her first book, Lessons from a Dead Girl, to Candlewick Press, which won the PEN New England Children’s Book Discovery Award.

Knowles has taught writing both to women inmates at the Southeast State Correctional Facility in Windsor and as part of the Vermont Young Writer’s Project; she now teaches at Southern New Hampshire University. She is working on a novel that will be told from the perspective of 10 different characters, over the course of one day.

The letters she gets from younger readers telling her about their lives, and asking her about her characters, indicates to her that, although publishing is in a state of perpetual flux, and the death of the book is proclaimed nearly weekly, “we are story lovers and we have been from the very beginning of time. We crave it. The format may change but our need for it doesn’t.”

Nicola Smith can be reached at nsmith@vnews.com

‘We are story lovers and we have been from the very beginning of time.’

Jo Knowles of Hartland, writer of young adult books