All About Adolescent Literacy

All about adolescent literacy. Resources for parents and educators of kids in grades 4-12.
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Transcript from an interview with

Joan Bauer

Below is an edited transcript from our interview with Joan Bauer. The transcript is divided into the following sections:

My deepest desire

Hi, I'm Joan Bauer. I'm a young adult novelist. And I've written nine books for young people. The first was Squashed and my latest is called Peeled. What am I about as a writer? Ah, I'll tell you what I try to do with my novels is I try to talk about complicated issues that face kids' lives, but show how through humor and through overcoming adversity you can find your way through sort of the morass of life.

My characters are very important to me. There's a time I tell you when a book is over, I'm just so sad, because I feel like I've lost some good friends. I'll tell you my deepest desire, I'll never get it, but this is what I'd love to have happen, that I could have a dinner party at the Welcome Stairways Diner, which is where Hope Was Here, one of my novels took place, and I could invite all of the characters that I've loved, that I've written at the same time.

They feel like family to me. And I pull from the people in my life who have inspired me in powerful ways. And I also think about the places you know where I've been let down. And I guess I take the adversity and I let humor intersect and the explosion comes out through my stories.

I was a punk

I was kind of a, I was a punk, you know, I had a lot of issues. I desperately wanted to connect with my dad. He was such a troubled man that I was very, very… I was really harmed by that. I certainly acted out in ways that I know were painful. I grew up in a home that was, we were very troubled in a lot of ways.

But I always had this sense of humor, I loved music. I played the flute, I played the guitar. And you know as much as I was a rebel sometimes I was a rebel who loved to read. So you know you can't go that far when you've got a book you know tucked under your arm. So I think I was looking always, always, always looking for father figures.

I certainly touch on that a lot in my work. And I was looking for examples of people who really made a difference in the world. And I try to touch upon that in big ways when I wrote my adult characters.

The value of work

I was 12 years old. And my science teacher was also our typing teacher and she asked if I wanted to be her assistant that summer in summer school for typing. I was just overcome, you know. So I was earning money and that was really my first sort of taste outside of babysitting.

But, yeah, I got a job at the International Pancake House when I was 15 and just really learned the ropes that way. And I always did have a job. I mean, it's terrible here's my mother you know this high school English teacher and I was a smart kid and I loved to write. But you know I didn't apply myself maybe the way I should have in school.

But there was something about having a job, something about that that built up my self esteem in ways that school just didn't. I was there, you know, in an adult world, I was competing with adults, I had to be quick on my feet and getting immediate rewards, so all of that was a big part, a big part of my growing up and I do write about work. I write about the joy of it, you know, not the drudgery of it because to me I think work can be a real gift in somebody's life.

And to be able to learn how to work and to take what might seem to be a menial job and bring something special to it. I love people, I just love people who can do that.

And I want to show that everybody if you really have that spark, if you can find that spark, you can make just sort of every day tasks seem bigger. And you can touch people's hearts along the way. So I think it's a very important thing for kids to work, and also to know how to be wise about your time, well, you do your school work here and you do a little work here and all of that. I think it all just builds toward adulthood.

Rules of the Road

Cathartic. Oh, gosh, I was terrified to write that book, I didn't want to write it, I was trying to write something else. And I just knew that I had to deal with this issue of alcoholism and I knew I had to pull from the soil of my life and for the pain. And I wrote it, I wrote it fast. I don't tend to be a real fast writer. I didn't know where I was going to bring humor in. I thought I'd really gotten myself you know in a bind here because I love to bring humor into difficult parts and none of this was funny to me.

And then I did, I was given in some ways I think just such a gift, because, and I have to back track and say okay just for a little bit when I was trying to break in as a writer for several years I studied screen writing. And I was going to be, I was a screen writer, I wasn't successful at it, but I had a terrible car accident and it really changed my life for a while, I had to give up screen writing for a while.

But one of the things that I wanted to do as a screen writer was I wanted to create, I was creating this character named Henry Bender, I was going to write a movie about, a comic movie about Harry Bender, this guy in Texas who was the world's greatest shoe salesman. For some reason I thought that would be a riot.

So I had done all this research on the shoe business and Harry Bender was a recovering alcoholic, but he was this big hearted guy and he just was out there in front of everybody. He was fabulous. And I had my car accident and I put that all away for ten years. Well, all of a sudden here now I'm a young adult author. I knew I had to write about alcoholism.

I went back through my idea file and I yanked out this fully realized character that I was going to do as a movie and all of this research and then I layered him on to my girl and there it was. But the power of that for me, the healing part of that for me was that my dad, I was never able to, he never got better. You know he committed suicide when I was in my early 20s, very tragic.

And yet in Harry Bender, Harry, this character he beat it. He beat it. My dad was a salesman, Harry was a salesman and they had kind of a big personality in common. And yet through fiction and through my hopes of what I wish my dad could have been I was able to resolve some of that through this character and show what it would have been. It was an amazing experience for me. He's one of my favorite all time characters ever.

Let's just be real

I learned to not be afraid of the things that have hurt me. I've learned to write about them and share them with people. And the deeper I go it seems it's the, the more the books resonate and I get more letters that say, you know, I didn't exactly go through what you went through, I didn't exactly have people like that in my life, but I know exactly what you're saying, thank you for writing that.

That's the power. You know we think we have to keep it to ourselves, but we don't. It's so much better, it's so much better when you just open your heart and you say look, I really hurt and this is how I'm trying to work it through. And that I think connects with kids in a powerful way. So, yeah, that really opened the door for me.

And look at our society, you know, just the media. People are almost afraid to say they were wrong about something, almost afraid to say you know we struggled, somehow we have to spin it, you know. Let's not do that, let's just be real with each other. Let's say you know I goofed up, I really hurt, but I'm not there anymore. I don't have to stay there, you don't have to stay there, you know, let's look at the real heroes in the world who are people who have overcome amazing odds and they're still standing and they're bringing other people under their influence, you know, using all of that for good.

I think adversity, you know if we let it can absolutely make us stronger. And I think it's a missing link sometimes I think in the way that people think about life.

Fiction can be true to life

GT, the mayor, you know, struggling with leukemia. I had an amazing experience, I was in Youngstown, the Youngstown English festival just a couple of weeks ago, and a young woman came up to me after my speech and she had heard me speak about Hope Was Here four years ago and she was so dear and she was crying and she said Ms. Bauer, I have to tell you that when you were here four years ago I was here in the audience and I was 12 years old and I had leukemia.

And she said you called on me at the end of your session and she said I couldn't believe you called on me. And I asked you why did you create a character who had leukemia? And she said do you remember what you said? And I thought well tell me what I said? And she said you said that you'd known people, some of the strongest and bravest people that you knew had leukemia, had cancer and it didn't stop them.

And she said I took Hope Was Here with me when I had chemotherapy and she said I want you to know, she said I'm 16 years old now and I'm fine. And it's those kinds of moments, oh, man, they just rip open your heart and you're at a whole new place. You're at a whole new place. You know we say, yeah, my stories are made up, but they're real. You pull all these places from all the places that you know. It's true in the world.

You try to put them on to these made up characters and hopefully be able to reach, be able to each lives. So, yeah, GT definitely not an easy life, definitely slogging through the tough stuff, and yet again an enlarged heart. What's he going to do with it? What ever time he's got left he wants to try and help his community. He wants to try and clean up the mess that the bad mayor has left. So I love people like that. I love people like that.

Hope Was Here

I had so much fun going back. Now I've never totally lost my arm as a waitress, I would like to say, that I can clear a table, really still balance a lot of plates and I can pour coffee and you know and sort of twirl around at the same time. So that was all, but it was all there, and it's amazing there are things, we have these memories that you just put down here somewhere and all of a sudden you're working on a story or you walk into a place and ah, it's like you're 15 again, it's like you're 16.

And I just remember the dance, and it really is a dance, just getting there early and setting up and syrup sticking all over and just the way it felt, the crazy cooks and the regulars and all of that. That was all there. That all came from my experience, it all came from my heart. It was a lot of fun to write that.

The challenge with Hope Was Here was finding that bridge between you know the power and the love of food service and I also had this other plot going on of politics. I thought well what's the bridge, you know, that I can build between these. And it really took me a long time. I really went through several drafts. I thought gee, they both seem stuck on until you have, how do you meet them in the middle?

And then I realized that just a great diner, what are you doing for the people, you're trying to serve up your very best. And at the best what is a politician trying to do, same thing, serving up their very best. So when I realized that was kind of a theme, I was able to meet them in the middle. And then I really had my story.

Hope in Michigan

Hope Was Here has been chosen by several communities to be an all community read. But the one that I wanted to talk to you about was in Saginaw, Michigan. And I believe I was there in 2002. They had had a series of tragic accidents, teenagers were killed in car accidents and other such things, and people were just, it was just devastating.

And there were three woman who worked at the school who were, and they were saying we have to do something to bring the community together, I'm not kidding you, and they said what we need is hope. And they put hope in the Google search engine and one of the first things that came up was Hope Was Here, my novel.

They weren't librarians or teachers, they were just parents in the community and they got a hold of the book and they felt that it was a story that young and old could read, and it would be a place where the town could begin to try to make sense of the tragedy and to begin to rebuild.

Because you know when I wrote Hope Was Here I thought I knew what hope was, and I did a little bit, but all of a sudden you're dealing with a girl Hope whose mother deserted her when she was little, you're dealing with GT Stoop who's got leukemia, you're dealing with all of these challenges in the community.

You know, hope, Emily Dickinson it was a thing with feathers. Well, you know what you need it to be more like an anchor; you need it to be an anchor. And I learned a lot about the power of hope and how you have to live in it and hold onto it and you have to try to be a hopeful person.

So I think that's what they tried to do. And I went there for the day. I'll never forget it. My goodness, the local restaurants made the Keep Hoping sandwiches, there were… I talked to something like 2,300 high school kids. I met the parents of the kids who died, you know. But everybody came together, everybody was trying to find where they fit in the tragedy. And the thing that they used to put it on kind of the platform was this book that I had written.

And they all had, because they had all read the same book they all had this common language; it was such an honor. I can't tell you. It was really a powerful moment for me.


Oh, Peeled is such an important book for me. It's a book about ghosts and it's a book about what hangs in the shadows of our lives. It's a book that asks the question what if an urban legend in a town was either real or was made to seem real by the local media. It has at its core I think it's a cautionary tale about fear mongering in the media.

I wanted to show, I loved Hildy Biddle (ph.) who is my narrator; she's one of my favorite characters I've created just a scrappy, you know, 16 year old reporter who begins to ask you know what's really going on in her town and begins an investigation to find the truth.

And the interesting thing I think about Peeled is that, and about Hildy's journey into truth is that she begins as a pretty good reporter, but she needs to get better. She's not good enough yet to really be able to compete in a bigger arena. And so part of the journey for her is being edited, is getting an advisor who is a rather difficult guy in the beginning, and it's the development of all of that.

It's also talking about how propaganda sometimes, we tend to think of that as something that happens somewhere else, you know. But fear mongering can be like that. And when I talk to kids at schools about that and say to them have you ever listened on the news and somebody would say how safe is your drinking water really, you know, stay tuned for our late breaking report.

And all of a sudden you just want to, you just want to drink coke, you don't want to drink water at all. And there are all of these things that are put into our minds that kind of make us afraid. How do you feel about that? And the kids say oh, we hate that that really makes us angry. Well, it makes Hildy angry too, so all those things came together in this story called Peeled.

My life today

I live in Brooklyn. And I have a new puppy, so that's changing my life a lot. I love to read. I love to… I'm doing a lot of travel. I've been to Kazakhstan recently, I've been to Croatia, and been able to speak at schools and libraries all over those countries. It's fascinating to see how a story can translate.

I feel like I very American writer. And when I went to those two countries I thought oh, how is this going to connect? And yet kids care about hope, they care about war, they know about leukemia, they want to know about honor in politics, they know about having a big dream, you know, all of these things. It all connects.

So I think I have a wider understanding of how much we have in common, even though we're not maybe even speaking the same language, you know, we're speaking the language of the heart. And so one of my goals is to understand that more, is to understand more of what the universal connections are that we all have as people, that adults have with young people. And so I do that.

And I walk, you know, and I love to cook. And I love to laugh, I love to watch movies, and I love to read. I've got about six books by my bed. So I'm a busy lady.