Sarah R. Callender


In Writing on July 29, 2010 at 11:58 pm

Sometimes, my ability to see myself accurately is akin to standing too close to a Seurat. You know, the guy who painted works like this:

Yep, there am I, standing with my nose nearly pressed against that lady’s pretty pink skirt. Only, instead of seeing a pretty pink skirt on a woman who holds an umbrella in one hand and a little girl in the other, I only see a smudge of pretty pinkness. I am too close to the work.

The irony is I like to think I know myself pretty well, yet it’s times like today that I realize I know myself about as well as I know  how to calculate the cosine of a perpendicular hyperbola. Or the mating call of the roofus-sided towhee.

Yet it’s one thing when you can’t see someone or something else clearly; you just take a few steps back. When it is ourselves we can’t see clearly, we’re screwed. As the art and the viewer of the art, we can’t get enough distance from ourselves to see anything that’s more clear than a blur of dots. So, as it turns out, sometimes I need a museum guide to explain myself to me.

This morning, that museum guide appeared, thank goodness, in the guise of a literary agent.

After reading a few chapters of my manuscript, Lovely Agent arranged an 8:30 a.m. phone call (before which I locked my children in the garage, threatening scary punishments if they made a peep or got in a spitting fight or started screaming, “Nipple!” in unison.)

During this phone call, Lovely Agent proceeded to make a few hefty recommendations about my novel, specifically how to make it appealing to a single audience. As soon as she started talking, I realized they weren’t careless suggestions, but BRILLIANT recommendations, recommendations that would not simply stick a new set of Mr. Potato Head features into my existing spud. No, they were recommendations that would simply make my novel better. For all readers.

Yet, I hawed and hemmed, explaining that I still wasn’t sure it was YA, until finally, she startled me with her lovely laughter. “Sarah!” she said. “My God, why are you fighting it? Why not be a YA writer, at least for now, when you so clearly have a YA book? Why not embrace it?!?”

In the silence that followed, I felt my cheeks blush. “I do love teenagers,” I admitted, my voice small. But then I heard my words get louder, more brave. “You know I used to teach high school English? I mean, it’s weird. I miss the teenagers. I really do love teenagers.”

“Yes, and so why don’t you want to write YA?”

At that moment, I realized this was an intervention of sorts. One where I had to accept that although I grew up ten minutes from Berkeley, CA, mecca of liberal thought, even though I did know several YA writers and thought them to be fantastic people, even though some of my very best friends were YA novels, I had to accept the fact that I, Sarah Callender, was a flaming, bigoted YAist. And yes, this was an intervention. At 8:30 on a July morning while my kids were locked in the garage with one Capri Sun and one bag of Teddy Grahams each, screaming, “Nipple!”

I took a deep breath and really went for it. “And . . . oh, gosh. You know what? My next novel, the one I’ve started writing in my head, that one also has a teenage narrator. This time, a boy. Who loves taking Polaroids. To document his mother’s decline into early-onset Alzheimer’s.”

“Yes, Sarah,” Lovely Agent said in that knowing-but-sympathetic voice. “You can keep denying it, or you can accept the truth.”

I’ve never, to my knowledge, been an addict, at least not in any way that requires one of those whole-family reality TV interventions. But if you happen to be some sort of an addict, let me state for the record, interventions are surprisingly awesome. There’s finally truth! There’s relief in the admission! There’s peace that finally, an honest conversation has taken place!

Lovely Agent and I went on to discuss how YA books win Newberry Awards. That YA books have the power to hook young readers and turn them into life-long readers. That YA novels aren’t just about teen pregnancies and meth addiction and vampires. Rather, YA can be timeless literature that never goes out of style.

After we hung up, I sat staring at the notes I had taken during our conversation, barely thinking. And perhaps that’s how one always feels after she is the target of an intervention: stunned. But also oddly peaceful. As I went down to the garage to unlock the children from the garage I remembered Mrs. Christopherson, librarian at Sleepy Hollow Elementary, ca. 1979. Mrs. Christophersen, who faithfully set aside special books she knew I would love, who, whenever I popped in the library at recess and gave her that raised eyebrow look, would beckon me over. “Here,” she would say, pulling a book from what appeared to me a top secret drawer that no other kids knew existed. “This book just came in. I hid it because I knew you had to read it first.”

She knew I had to read it first? Holy shoot ! How freaking cool was Mrs. Christopherson?

With that image, (and with my hand still on the doorknob to the garage) I got all weepy with the realization, finally,that I want to have books that school librarians keep hidden in their top secret drawers, for just the perfect kid.

Many of you wrote in (thank you!) to share your favorite novels from your childhood, everything from Charlotte’s Web to the Narnia Chronicles to The Hunger Games to Roald Dahl, and of course the Twilight series. Those too, are my favorites. Except for the Twilight series. The Twilight series is like baseball trophies for tee-ballers, but worse . . . but I digress. Anything by Judy Blume, Beverly Clearly’s Fifteen, even a book called A Summer to Die about two sisters, a pretty one and a not-pretty one, and the pretty one starts getting all these crazy nosebleeds and eventually dies . . . there is nothing like those favorite books you read as a kid. Sometimes over and over and over.

So tonight at dinner (in between Sweetie knocking over the bottle of Riesling and Buddy doing show and tell with his just-lost, bloody tooth) I relayed my morning conversation to Husbandio, telling him how Lovely Agent, this woman who hardly knows me, showed me what I couldn’t see about myself.

Husbandio chuckled.

“What,” I said. “Why are you laughing?”

Husbandio gave a gentle shrug. “It’s kind of like how you couldn’t understand why Buddy was such a crybaby. You’d get so frustrated with him. But then, when I pointed out that you have been known to cry, you know, on occasion . . . on many occasions, and that maybe Buddy was just like you.”

And mi Husbandio was right about that too. So right that as soon as the words were out of his mouth, I burst into tears. After all, I spent a whole lot of years feeling irritated that I had such a crybaby for a son, a SON of all things, when really, his teary tendencies were traceable directly back to my DNA.

Yet I was just too close to Buddy to see it. Just as I am always too close to myself to see me clearly. I guess we’re all, at times, just too darn close to the Seurat.

Thank goodness for museum guides who moonlight as interventionists who dabble in literary agenting. Really, thank goodness.

  1. Oh, and of COURSE my kids weren’t actually locked in the garage. They were in the closet. NO! Just kidding! They were in the family room, eating eggs and toast and listening to Nine Inch Nails. Ah! KIDDING! My apologies . . . I am a FICTION writer.

  2. And just like Dorothy, the answer was always there, within you. (Another great YA author! L. Frank Baum!) This entry made ME cry! I’m so excited for you and I can’t wait to hear more.

    Side note: One of my most vivid memories of you from sophomore honors English was this statement: “Oh, I cry often. Almost on a daily basis. There’s nothing like a good cry.” It just floored me to realize that “grown-ups” cried too, just like I did at age 15 (and today too, I guess!)

    • Love you, Julie. Thanks SO much. I still have the book you gave me, about surviving my first year of teaching. You wrote the sweetest note in the inside cover. Thanks so much for reading this post . . . means a TON to me. Wishing you a happy (and, if necessary) teary day. Hugs, sarah

  3. I love, love, love this blog and I am already sharing it… you are a total delight and I can’t wait to read your novel to my boys! One crybaby and one stoic….I know who the crybaby takes after, thank you very much…. Anyway, good luck, stick with it and can’t wait to see you in a week! oxoxoxo

    • You’re the best, Kate. I am so excited to see you in real life . . . next weekend! And, thanks so much for passing along my blog link. I continue to LOVE yours. I could so empathize with your day yesterday, trying to seem professional in spite of sick kids, no internet, working in your car-office. Hugs. See you soon!

  4. Love this, Sarah! I’m very excited for you and can relate to what you have written on many different levels. Those “aha” moments never seem to stop coming, but they do come at the perfect times in our lives. I can’t wait to read your collection of YA books and to pass them on to my children!

  5. This is really beautiful, Sarah. So well-written and lucid. Made me think of some recent events in my life a bit differently. 🙂

  6. I am going to pretend you were drinking Riesling and did not mean to compare Twilight and t-ball trophies!

  7. Sarah, you are a brilliant writer and I’m honored to call you “family.” And one of these days at a family gathering, I will be able to have an actual conversation with you and not have to constantly tend to a crybaby toddler. At my last bookclub, we each re-read a book from our childhood/adolescence that we still remember and adore, and then shared it with the group. It was one of our best book clubs ever, and we had a long discussion about how great and influencial young adult fiction can be. So I can’t wait to read your book, however it is classified, and have you as a special guest at our book club (where Riesling will most definitely be provided.)

  8. Sarah, your post made me cry (admittedly, I am also a cry baby with a cry-baby son). I’m so happy that you’ve embraced YA and for all the best reasons! I can remember as a kid discovering books that made me want to read, read, read, more, more, more! If you can create a life-long reader, what could be a more important kind of writing? I’m so excited for you!

  9. Sarah, thanks for this great entry. I think self reflection is about the hardest thing there is, if only we could take a few steps back and see the whole picture. So glad you have a museum guide posing as a literary agent – she sounds like a treasure! I could absolutely relate to what you described and was moved by your ability to put this experience into such accessible language. You are an uncommonly good writer – keep it up!

  10. I absolutely agree that teenagers will LOVE your story and NEED your story. And if Lovely Agent does ultimately win out over the slew of agents who will be (and already are) knocking on your door, then that’s truly fabulous. But I’ve read your book (five times) and, perhaps I’m just immature at heart, but I believe that adults will love and need your story, too. Just like David Mitchell’s amazing BLACK SWAN GREEN. A book that brought me to my knees (in the best way), and that I have set aside to feed to my children at the precise awkward teenage moment when they need it. So, whether your book is YA that crosses over to us lucky adults, or it’s literary fiction that crosses over to YA, the world will be a better place either way. (Another example is THE BOOK THIEF, a YA novel that could have been classified literary fiction–regardless of classification, I’m just so glad I got the chance to read it.) Ultimately, your book will find a home and a broad swath of readers simply because it’s so good.

    OK, and I’ll admit, a Newberry does sound lovely.

  11. I recently came across this article and thought of your post.

    “But good Y.A. is like good television. There’s a freshness there; it’s engaging. Y.A. authors aren’t writing about middle-aged anomie or ­disappointed people.”

  12. Hi Sarah,
    I was just talking to my great friend Kate who sent me the link to your blog. THANKS, THANKS Kate. I loved reading “Labels” and read a couple more of your posts before coming back to this one to respond to let you know that there are loads of adults (me, me) who LOVE reading YA. I’m working on my own novel-a definite YA that’s more in the realm of sci-fi/fantasy-hope that doesn’t horrify you. At about 60-70 pages left to go before finishing this one, I’m no where in terms of connections to publishing, but am having so much fun keeping busy with my characters-so much more fun than dealing with my 4 girls when the whining is too much to tolerate. Bad mom, I know. I’d love to hear how you found Lovely Agent. BUT my main Point is, it’s obvious from the blog that you are gifted-keep moving because I can’t wait to read it when you’re done!

    • What a nice note, Mona. NOT a bad mom . . . a “trying to stay sane” mom, right? I think I would die (or be crazier than I am) without the creative outlet. Do keep me posted about your novel. As for Lovely Agents, I have been going to conferences for ages, pitching my manuscript (though it wasn’t complete) with the hope that they would say, “Send it when it’s ready.” That way, when you send them your stuff, you can write “requested material” on the email/envelope. It really helps . . . or so I’ve heard. I’d love to chat more . . . are you on FB? Find me there or feel free to get my email from Kate so we can chat more. Thanks so much for reading. It makes me day! 🙂

      My copy of Mockingjay arrived in the mail today. I cannot WAIT.

  13. I love your style, Sarah. Your blogging is so genuine, not-for-show, real. Your blog rocks my socks off! I love this post, because I also struggle to know myself sometimes, too, so this resonated with me. Thanks! Food for thought. Gotta stand back so I can see myself properly…

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