As a former English teacher,
M. Molly Backes knows that all readers yearn for a happy ending. But life doesn’t always wrap up like the end of a Baby-sitters Club book.
So Backes, a 1998 graduate of Oregon high school, set out to write a young-adult novel about the real teen experience, one that takes an unflinching look at the complex undercurrents that young adults struggle through to find their places in the world. Her book “The Princesses of Iowa” hits shelves this week from Candlewick Press. Backes holds degrees from Iowa’s Grinnell College in English literature and education.
Backes, 32, was reached by phone at her home in Chicago in advance of her book launch Friday at Oregon’s Firefly Coffeehouse. She spoke of her motivation to authentically capture the teen years and why she finds herself censoring her own language in front of her young relatives.
Q: Why write a young adult book?
A: I was always a precocious reader when I was a kid. I have this very strong memory of my mom and my sixth-grade teacher sitting me down at parent-teacher conferences and telling me that I wasn’t allowed to read the Baby-sitters Club books anymore. I was 11 and offended. I understood what they were saying — the books weren’t very challenging and weren’t pushing me, but at the same time I wanted to read books about kids my age.
When I was in my early 20s and studying to become a teacher myself, my education adviser handed me a young adult novel called “Rats Saw God” by Rob Thomas, which is very edgy. Then I discovered more young adult books that were literary and challenging. I became an English teacher and taught seventh and eighth grade for a few years and I was always looking for good books for my students. I wanted to throw my hat in the ring and see if I could write books for teens that would push them but not be boring, grown-up books.
Q: The book begins with the protagonist (a teen girl named Paige) involved in a drunken-driving crash. Why did you choose that?
A: I was actually most interested in looking at questions of how we do or do not hold ourselves or our friends accountable for things. I like to explore ideas of imperfection. None of the characters lives up to other people’s ideas of who they ought to be. It wasn’t my intention to write an issue book about drinking and driving. The accident she’s describing in the prologue becomes this initial crack in the friendship of three girls and ultimately the thing that pushes the protagonist to start thinking about who she is and what she wants.
Q: Paige uses some language that is boundary-pushing. Did you have any hesitation about that?
A: A little bit. The other night I did a reading with my 5-year-old niece in the audience and I realized I’d have to “bleep” myself as I read.
Writing for young adults is an interesting line to walk. You want to represent a world that feels realistic. Certainly my own experiences as a teenager, and watching my students when I was a teacher ... the teen experience can be quite dark and difficult. Most of my characters are not very nice. I think they all have good and bad qualities, but part of what I was exploring is that nobody lives up to your expectations.
Q: Would you teach a book like yours?
A: A good teacher can teach any book and students would get something out of it. There are a lot of ethical questions in my book, and many shades of gray. My favorite book to teach was “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Atticus Finch is basically perfect in every way, but there are shocking and terrible things in that book. My students were horrified by the ending. One class wanted to sue Harper Lee.
Q: That’s a hard lesson to learn at that age, that the good guys don’t always win.
A: Exactly, but that’s so much more interesting to discuss than a happy ending.