Loneliest Time of Her Life

LTOHL_Book_CoverFor a high school senior like Dakota Washington, the only thing worse than enrolling in a different school for her final year is the discovery that she already has a ruthless enemy cruising the halls and waiting to destroy her reputation. In her edgy new novel, Loneliest Time of Her Life, author Erika L. Banks skillfully juggles multiple points of view against the contemporary backdrop of a high school that every reader will not only be able to relate to but will also cause them to contemplate what their own choices might be in the same volatile situation.

Interview: Christina Hamlett

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Q: What inspired you to make bullying the cornerstone premise of your debut YA novel?

A: Bullying has reached epidemic proportions in our schools and communities.  The recent spike in bully-related suicides and violence among youth has inspired me to pen my first book, Loneliest Time of Her Life.

Q: How much research was involved in capturing the vulnerabilities of today’s young people as well as the cruel realities of what is becoming an escalating problem in schools throughout the country?

A: I, unfortunately, had a great deal of knowledge about the vulnerabilities of today’s youth prior to starting this project. I had spoken to and read stories of middle and high school students who experienced bullying first-hand. It was interesting to learn about the characteristics of these young people which are evident in each one of the characters in the book.

Q: What role do you believe technology contributes to the way that teenagers – and even adults – are interacting with each other these days versus earlier eras in which texting, iPhones and social media venues didn’t exist?

A:  Technology has taken bullying to a whole new level. There has not just been an increase in the number of bullying incidents, but the severity of the words and actions used to bully have increased significantly as well. Bullies now have a powerful platform to harass their peers with little to no chance of being caught.

Q: It’s often said that there are multiple sides to every story based on individuals’ respective frames of reference and interpretations of events. You’ve taken a unique approach in Loneliest Time of Her Life by not only mixing first and third person narrative but also advancing the plot through the viewpoints of four diverse individuals. Tell us about how you chose that structure and why you feel it works.

A: The structure in which the book was written gives the reader a well-rounded view of bullying. I felt that this was important because everyone is involved. Whether you are the bully, victim or bystander, everyone has an opportunity to impact any bullying situation. By presenting the story from the perspective of all involved, the reader is able to identify with and relate to the story in a personal way.

Q: Which of the characters do you relate to the most?

A: I relate to Brooklyn the most. I, like Brooklyn, am a very fair and impartial person. I stand up for what’s right and I am not afraid to defend something or someone if I think it’s appropriate. I value my friendships deeply and will do everything I can to keep the peace. However, when push comes to shove, I will walk away from friends who bring harm to others and relationships that are filled with drama.

Q: If Hollywood came calling with an invitation to adapt this compelling novel to a feature-length film, who would your dream cast be?

A: I would love to see Dakota Fanning play Dakota, KeKe Palmer play Brooklyn and Maia Mitchell play Paige. They are very talented actresses and I think they’d do a wonderful job bringing these characters to life. I pulled from them when I developed each of the main characters, so their personalities are reflected in the book.

Q: Your three teen females – Dakota, Paige and Brooklyn – have been raised by mothers and fathers with radically different approaches to parenthood. What influence do you feel each of those parents had on the volatile situations in which their daughters subsequently find themselves as seniors in high school?

A: I think the parents had a big influence on each of them. Dakota’s dismissive mother and uninvolved father, Paige’s clueless parents and Brooklyn’s uninformed parents hindered their ability to help the situation. They all, in their own way, felt like they had no one to turn to. I believe if the parents were more aware of what was going on in the lives of their daughters, things would not have gone as far as they did.

Q: What advice would you give a real-life young person in Dakota’s shoes if she felt she had no one to whom she could turn with her problem?

A: Although not always obvious, I believe that everyone has access to someone who could support and offer advice in this situation. Whether a doctor, pastor or neighbor, everyone always has someone to turn to. There are also a lot of great resources out there that people in this situation can use. Stomp out Bullying, The Trevor Project and Stop Bullying are three of many helpful organizations that one can contact for help.

Q: What type of impact and takeaway value do you want your readers to come away with by the final chapter?

A: I hope that everyone who reads this book will walk away with a deep understanding of each character’s emotions, feelings and reasons for their actions. Because everyone who reads this book will be able to relate to at least one of the characters, I hope that they will learn from the good and not so good decisions made by them. I would love for this book to open up a dialogue between students, parents and school professionals about this difficult topic.

Q: This book should be required reading in high schools – and even junior highs – as a starting point for discussions about how to treat one another. Are you taking steps to make that happen?

A: Yes, I am hoping to use this book as a basis for book clubs, workshops and informal discussions among high school students, teachers and parents.

Q: Although the book is clearly a stand-alone title, you deliver a positively chilling cliffhanger that begs us to ask, “What happened next?????” Do you have plans in the works to answer that question with a sequel or do you prefer readers to formulate their own conclusions?

A: Both. I do have plans for a sequel, but also want the readers to create their own conclusion. By imagining a variety of possible outcomes, I hope the reader will think beneath the surface and want to take action.

Q: Tell us what governed your decision to self-publish Loneliest Time of her Life.

A: My initial desire was to publish through a well established publishing agency. There are many books out there about bullying, and these agencies tend to favor already established writers. When considering self publishing, I realized that getting my book out there was the most important thing and how I did that didn’t really matter. I was happy to find several wonderful self publishing companies available to choose from to publish my work.

Q: What do you know now about the business of publishing and marketing that you didn’t know when you first set out to write the book?

A: Publishing through an agency has its advantages, but I learned that it may not always be the best way to go. Self publishing has come a long way and is much more respected today than it was years ago. I also learned that marketing is key. Whether you self publish or publish through an agency, you must be willing to devote time to marketing your work if you want it to be successful.

Q: Have you done other types of writing in addition to YA?

A: I have self published a second book called High School Graduation: What I Want For My Life. It is a book for high school seniors graduating without a plan.

Q: What would readers be the most surprised to learn about you?

A: You will find a little bit of Erika in Dakota, Paige and Brooklyn. In high school I was in each of their shoes at one time or another.

Q: What’s next on your plate?

A: In addition to my full time corporate job, I am working on a few projects. I am working with Georgia Tech to identify a way to effectively help high school students prepare for post high school life. I am also in the process of setting up The Margaret G. Banks Foundation, a non-profit foundation in honor of my mother. It will provide scholarships to high school students who would like to go to college but need financial assistance. I am also working on another book for high school students that will help them do what they need to do now so they can do what they want to do later.

Q: Anything else you’d like to add?

A: Our youth have so much to be excited about when it comes to their future. Unfortunately, many of them are not. We need to do better in helping our youth not only prepare for their future, but provide bully free environments where they can focus on learning, creating and becoming everything they were meant to be. I’m excited about the future of our youth and it’s time to get them excited, too!

 

 

 

 

Seasons of Raina

Seasons of Raina Cover_Seasons of Raina

According to the National Education Association, It is estimated that 160,000 children miss school every day due to fear of attack or intimidation by other students. But as Oprah Winfrey once said, “It doesn’t matter who you are, where you come from. The ability to triumph begins with you – always.”

Moving, finding oneself, learning to adjust to a large family . . . these are just a few of the curveballs thrown into one Colorado ninth grader’s life in Seasons of Raina, the debut young adult novel by Milissa Nelson.

A victim of bullying, Raina is sent to live with extended family in a small, rural town in Minnesota, quite the opposite of the metropolis that is Denver, where she hails from. Thrust into the life of a family of ten, Raina faces the crowding of eight cousins, the expectancy of a new school and new friends, yet a chance to discover herself. As it turns out, Raina is much stronger than she ever imagined. Sports, music and the adaptation to sharing rooms and problems with so many family members brings a surprising element of accepting change into Raina’s life. Seasons of Raina takes the reader on a warm, insightful journey into the struggling life of one young girl, who learns to balance the acceptance of herself, and the powerful effects that bullying can leave behind.

Author Milissa Nelson offers You Read It Here First a glimpse into Raina’s world, as well as her own.

Interviewer: Christy Campbell

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Q: In Seasons of Raina, you explore the effects of bullying. Why did you choose this topic?

A: I needed Raina to have a plausible reason for her to re-locate such a long distance from her parents. I wanted her to move in with a family that closely resembled mine, so that I could write about what it was like to grow up in a large family. I needed a convincing reason, and I chose bullying. I’ve lived in both Colorado and Minnesota and love both places. I just needed to get her to Minnesota where I had spent more of my youth growing up. In general, life is better when people treat each other kindly and I wanted to show it was possible.

Q: Do you have a specific age range you are trying to reach with Seasons of Raina, considering it is a young adult novel?

A: I am writing for the upper elementary and middle school audience mostly. The language in “Seasons of Raina” is family friendly. The cousins in my novel have an age range of 3 to 17, so there is someone for most everyone to identify with. I also tried to write it for the entire family to enjoy. It is my attempt at a 1970s era version of a Laura Ingalls Wilder novel.

Q: You chose to write Raina into a large family rather than a small one. What governed your decision to create that particular dynamic for her?

A: Being part of a large family is what I know. I am seventh and I meet very few other seventh children. I wanted to share what it was like to grow up with a larger than average family and the special uniqueness of that. I am extremely grateful for my family.

Q: If you could come up with your own marketing pitch for Seasons of Raina, how would you draw readers in to purchase your book?

A: It is a great chapter book for beginning readers who want to tackle a longer story. The family friendly wording allows for “Seasons of Raina” to be read aloud and enjoyed by all. It is a book about the bonds of family, the advantages of trying new things, and it also has both serious and funny moments.

Q: Interestingly, your book takes place in the 1970’s. Modern trends are mentioned in the story that are quite common nowadays. Did your family participate in those things during your childhood?

A: I set the story in the 70s, because that was the last time that my entire family lived under one roof and I wanted to include all of my siblings. The older ones started to leave to attend college in the late 70s. We did recycle way before it was convenient. We drove our newspapers, glass, food cans, and aluminum 25 miles to a recycling center where we dropped them off and sorted them into collection bins. We were taught that resources are finite and we needed to conserve them. We had several paper bags set up near our wastebasket to save the recyclables in, until we had enough to make a trip to the recycling center.  We also composted food waste, leaves and grass from the lawn and dug it into our garden occasionally. Our garden was organic and we never treated our lawn or used weed killer. My parents did most of the work, but we pulled the weeds and used a tool designed to pull up the roots, and a push behind cultivator.

Q: Give us a few of your favorite authors and why you enjoy their work.

A: My favorite authors are Lucy Maud Montgomery, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Willa Cather, and Carol Ryrie Brink. I love how they could make ordinary everyday lives, interesting. They were great storytellers and I love re-reading their books, even today.

Q: How was your own childhood similar or different to that of your young protagonist?

A: Raina became a combination of many different people. The biggest thing that I share with her is that I moved in high school and experienced a lot of new situations and took part in new and different activities. I am grateful for that move because I grew in many ways and became much more adaptable. I also learned that home can be anywhere there are people that you love.

Q: Did you find Raina easy to write? Describe her personality.

A: Raina is quiet, but when comfortable, has things to say. It was fun to write her part because I could compare and contrast her situations from before, with her new reality. She has a sense of humor and is respectful of others. I also gave her a drive to get better at things. She is someone who will put in the time necessary to see improvement.

Q: Bullying continues to grow into more and more of problem in today’s world. What advice would you give to children and teens about bullying?

A: I would say to try and treat everyone as kindly and respectfully as you can. Practice being nice to others even when they are not kind to you and try to not react to a bully, but sometimes by calmly talking through the criticism they have thrown at you, you can diffuse the bully from escalating the situation. When the bully stops finding any fun in being a bully, they start to feel silly. A caution though, is that this is not always possible when there is a potentially dangerous situation and sometimes adult intervention is needed.

Q: What hobbies do you enjoy in your spare time?

A: I like to participate in sports. Because of the size of the school I attended, they did not cut those who wanted to participate, so I was allowed to play volleyball, basketball, and I ran for the track team. I had a lot of fun. To this day, I would much rather participate than watch. I also have played the trumpet since elementary school and have sung with my family since I was very small. Even as an adult, opportunities to participate in making music are plentiful.

Q: When did you develop the desire to begin writing?

A: I have always enjoyed writing and find it to be very relaxing. I took a creative writing class in college where I majored in music education and I enjoyed it a lot.

Q: If you could jump into any piece of fiction out there today, which character would you like to be?

A: I enjoy reading about Anne’s adventures in “Anne of Green Gables” and “Anne of Avonlea”. She is a very sincere girl, who has great intentions but somehow things don’t always go as hoped for. I love her fanciful use of language too and how she usually sees the good in things.

 

Seasons of Raina is available at North Star Press (http://www.northstarpress.com/products/seasons-of-raina) as well as on Amazon.