“Inspirations and Influences” is a series of articles in which we invite authors to write guest posts talking about their Inspirations and Influences. In this feature, we invite writers to talk about their new books, older titles, and their writing overall.
Today’s Inspirations & Influences guest is Kelly Jensen – a Book Riot editor and Author/Editor of HERE WE ARE: FEMINISM FOR THE REAL WORLD.
Here We Are: When You Trust Teenagers Are Incredible Humans, Amazing Things Happen
I wrote my own degree in college, focusing on creative writing and on adolescent development. My interests laid right in that intersection, but at the time, I had no idea how those two topics I was passionate about might work together. I just knew at the time it meant I could take a lot of courses with a heavy writing focus and a lot of courses that explored teenagers as a social/historical concept and the developing teen mind.
To graduate, both the psychology focus and the English focus required a capstone project. I explored the idea of loneliness and depression and the gender differences in those experiences when young people go off to college (individuals who identify as female, in fact, experience far more depression and sadness during their freshman years than those who identify as male) for psychology. For English, it was about the politics of building anthologies — why do some anthologies include some works and not others? How are those choices made? That project involved building an anthology from the ground up in small groups.
My group focused on censored children’s lit.
What I didn’t know then was how these two pieces would play out. I decided to attend graduate school and earn a library science degree, with the hopes of either going into archival work or to work in a public library with teenagers. I let myself explore both in school, but in the end, and in my heart, I knew teenagers were a group I needed to work with. Not only did I know from a critical perspective how teens thought and why they made the choices they did on the brain-and-chemical level. I loved working with fiercely passionate, creative, goofy, nerdy, dorky, and loyal humans who, despite the reputations they earn, really do want your trust, respect, and your love and support.
Working with teenagers was the best. I helped advocate on their behalf in the library. I got into the schools and told them about books they could read for fun — in one instance, I remember a teen girl begging to leave class that minute because she needed to go to the school library to go check out Some Girls Are by Courtney Summers right then (and her teacher let her, telling me later she’s rarely seen that student become that excited about reading before). I let kids have more snacks at events than they were supposed to, remembering that I don’t always get to know whether that kid wants food because it’s free food or because that kids wants free food because it might be the only food s/he gets that afternoon. I got to watch teenagers make fools of themselves pushing whopper chocolates across a programming room floor with their noses and laughing because it was so much fun.
And, of course, I got to get books into the hands of teenagers. Good books. Books that would change their lives. Books that would spark conversation. Books that would speak to them like they’re people, like they’re intelligent, and like their perspectives matter.
All the while, I kept writing. I wrote a book about contemporary realistic young adult fiction, geared at librarians and teachers who get those books into the hands of readers. I wrote many journal articles for library journals. But something was missing — though I’d been trying my hand at fiction and still am, I knew there had to be a place for a great, engaging non-fiction work for teens.
That was when I realized a dream I never put words to before: I wanted to create an anthology for teenagers, inviting them to discover feminism.
Feminism, though not always a word I could readily identify with, had always been part of my life. I’d always been curious and engaged with women’s stories, with stories by and about people of color, by those all along the queer identity lines. I took those courses in college. I read so many books, both in school and in my free time.
And more importantly, I found myself learning and growing because of the wide range of voices in the book world on social media. The kinds of voices and thoughts that I desperately wished I’d had access to as a teenager. In a book. That I could flip through again and again.
Because it had always been books where I turned as a teenager. And I knew that it was books teens today, even with access to technology, turn to. That they pass around. That they write in, spill on, throw around, let get beat up.
It’s books that get loved.
I wanted to make a book that got loved.
A story I tell again and again, one that really helped me remember how important talking to teenagers with respect and sophistication is, happened during my last few months working as a librarian. I’d put together a slam poetry workshop, which was a two night event. The first night, teens came to learn how to write and perform slam poetry from a local poet. The second night, they could come in and share their work. The adults in the community were welcome to join that night as well.
Few people got up to share. But then a girl who was sitting across the aisle from me raised her hand sheepishly. Her mom and grandfather pointed her out to the poet who was MC’ing the event, and he told her to come up and share.
She stood at the mic quietly and didn’t say a word for a while. Her family encouraged her to share it, and it was understood throughout the audience that this girl was just nervous. Because we ALL know how hard it is to get up in front of a group and share your own work.
Then she shared the poem.
The entire room went silent, still. She’d shared a powerful poem about missing a friend and how sad it was her friend was gone.
“Can you tell them what it’s about?” her grandfather asked. The girl nodded, took a deep breath, and said calmly that it was about her friend who had committed suicide the night before. That it felt really good to write. That she missed her friend.
Another adult in the audience raised their hand, as we all sat in shock and quiet, processing the hugeness of what she’d just shared. That adult told her that writing is power. That writing keeps a person alive. That writing would be tremendously helpful for getting through unspeakable grief and loss.
More adult hands went up. More words of confidence and kindness and love were sent to that lone girl at the front of the room.
It was chilling to hear about such a loss. It was chilling to hear this girl get up a day after it happened and talk about it. And it was utterly powerful how quick to offer love and support these adults were to her. It moved me deeply, and it reminded me that those moments can, and do, change a life.
Knowing that the community would know about this suicide, I didn’t want to draw specific attention to it outside of those who were in the room that night. Instead, I made a display of YA books in the teen area with a generic “tough stuff” sign. Books about suicide, mental illness, assault, and other topics were put there, in hopes that they might offer some kind of comfort, in some way, to those teens who knew the girl who died and who, too, were trying to find some kind of words for their grief.
The display required a tremendous amount of refilling, and I was so happy to keep it up.
While working on Here We Are: Feminism For The Real World, I thought a lot about that moment. Not just what it was, but what the response was to it. I wanted to create a book that would give those same feelings I had in that room — and the feelings that, no doubt, that teen girl had — to teen readers. To know they’re loved and supported. To know that tough shit happens but there is a community out there that cares about their wellbeing and cares about making sure they get through things the best ways that they can.
I wanted a book that saw the same teens I saw again and again: ones who ranged the gender spectrum, those who were every version of every color and ethnicity out there, those who weren’t rich, those who didn’t fit the model mold, those who struggled with their monsters, and those who wanted to understand what people who looked and seemed nothing like them went through every day. I picked contributors in part based on how they make teenagers feel. Because to make a book that’s supportive, you have to find those who are passionate about an audience.
And no doubt, the contributors to Here We Are are just that. Even, in some cases, if they didn’t realize it.
I didn’t realize it, of course, how well my own experiences would serve me in making this book. But knowing how teens operate, knowing how cool an age group they are, made me keep the focus there. There are teens who know everything about feminism and there are teens who may be hearing the word for the first time in a positive light. I wanted to give them both something to think about, to mull over, and to be challenged by.
I didn’t realize it, of course, that learning the hows and whys in the politics of anthology creation in my education would, in many ways, allow me to find ways to make those very things happen.
I’m excited to see well-loved copies of Here We Are being passed around, being shoved into lockers and under mattresses, and being covered in notes, drink stains, and even a doodle or two.
Kelly Jensen is a former teen librarian who worked in several public libraries before pursuing a full-time career in writing and editing. Her current position is with Book Riot, the largest independent book website in North America, where she focuses on talking about young adult literature in all of its manifestations. Before becoming a fully-fledged adult-like person, she worked in the swanky Texas Legislative Library entering data into a computer while surrounded by important politicians, scooped gelato for hungry college students, and spent hours reading, annotating, and scanning small-town Texas newspapers into a giant searchable database.
Kelly lives in Wisconsin with her husband, her bunny, and three needy-but-awesome cats. In her free time, she does yoga, writes for her personal blog STACKED (stackedbooks.org), drinks a lot of tea, and enjoys disappearing for days reading good books. Her writing has been featured on The Huffington Post, at Rookie Magazine, The Horn Book, BlogHer, School Library Journal. She contributed an essay and a guide to teen sexuality in pop culture for Amber J. Keyser’s The V-Word: True Stories of First-Time Sex and is the author of the book It Happens: A Guide to Contemporary Realistic Fiction for the YA Reader from VOYA Press.
She is a feminist who believes change comes through words and through actions. Her latest book is Here We Are: Feminism For The Real World (Algonquin Young Readers, February 2017) a collection of art, essays, and words from over 44 voices.
Courtesy of the author, we have ONE copy of Here We Are: Feminism For The Real World to give away to one person, US addresses only. Use the form below to enter and good luck: