Jesmyn Ward is hard to reach via phone–she rarely answers–which is why her editor had to send her an email to let her know that Salvage the Bones won a 2012 Alex Award. Both YALSA and the 2012 Alex Award Committee were happy that she got the message and agreed to be interviewed about her love of reading, writing, and libraries, as well as her thoughts on everything from popular culture to pitbulls.
A fan of gossip blogs and BookSlut who has to utilize Freedom for Mac software to keep from being sucked into the Internet Black Hole, Jesmyn spends about two hours a day writing. She doesn’t set a schedule for herself, but finds that the further along she is in a project, the more her days are consumed with it. One thing she forgoes is music, as it “confuses the rhythm of the prose.” Her days are filled with writing and reading, both lifelong passions.
Jesmyn “learned to love reading when [she] was very young,” and her early love of reading inspired her “awe of what writers could do.” One thing she writes exceptionally well is teen characters with authentic voices. Both Where the Line Bleeds and 2012 Alex Award and National Book Award winner Salvage the Bones prominently feature teen characters. With her novels, Jesmyn says it is “easier to think of writing from a teenager’s perspective.” Teens are “asking the really big questions,” and have an openness in how they experience life, which she finds intriguing.
The interest in the teen experience helped her create Esch, the 14-year-old main character of Salvage the Bones. Jesmyn knew she was going to write about a “girl who grows up in a world full of men” and was exploring her place in that world. As she mulled her next project, Esch “popped up out of nowhere.” She was quickly joined by brother Skeeter and China the pitbull, whom Jesmyn had already created in a writing seminar. Esch and Skeeter were followed by the rest of their family and friends to create a taut, lyrical story of family, first love, teenage pregnancy, and Hurricane Katrina in rural Mississippi. Jesmyn’s language is poetic and rhythmic, sophisticated without being intimidating. Teen readers who aren’t afraid of challenging content–fans of Sapphire’s Push or Walter Dean Myers’s Monster, for instance–will be drawn into this chaotic, heartbreaking story of survival and triumph in the poverty-stricken woods of the South.
The story of Esch’s family prominently includes the pitbull China. As the cover itself attests, China is a central character of the story, a beacon of hope for brother Skeeter and a twisted role model of motherhood for Esch. Jesmyn chose to use the pitbull so prominently in Salvage the Bones because the breed is both culturally accurate and close to her heart. According to Jesmyn, “a lot of young men and women in my town own pitbulls” and, as she created Skeeter, she could also see China with him. In addition to young people in her town, Jesmyn’s brother and father both own or have owned pitbulls, so she is familiar and fond of the breed, finding them “loyal and gentle.” It is no wonder that she was able to create in China a dog who was “as human as possible” to serve as one of the central characters of the book.
The authenticity of the characters in Salvage the Bones–human and canine–and the setting feel genuine because Jesmyn lives and works in the community where she grew up and about which she writes: Delisle, Mississippi. She, too, grew up poor in the rural South and stays for the close proximity of family and the larger sense of community that endures. “The sensation of belonging keeps pulling me back,” she said, and the physical landscape itself acts as a source of inspiration. As an African-American, she also wants to make a statement by coming back and continuing to make it her home. Despite Mississippi’s track record in politics and race, she can positively influence the place that helped create one of the most exciting young authors in recent memory.
According to Jesmyn, both her elementary and high school librarians were influential in her evolution as a reader and writer. They gave her “the freedom to browse but also recommended great books.” In fact, her first personal library was built upon the classics. After spending her high school years haunting the library, her high school librarian presented her with a large collection of brand-new classic paperbacks as a graduation present. As a result, when asked to name a few books she wishes every teen would read she readily pulls titles from her first personal library: The Color Purple, The Handmaid’s Tale, 1984, Love in the Time of Cholera, and Roots, which was “important for [her] as a youth of color.” But she can’t help herself and adds Harry Potter and The Hunger Games trilogy to the list too. After all, she can appreciate that, while teens are asking big questions, they also love great books of all kinds.
— Meghan Cirrito, currently reading Lean on Pete by Willy Vlautin
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