Welcome to my blog about books and the classroom.
A teacher's opinions on YA literature and the state of public education in America.

Interview with Jo Knowles

Hi, Jo!

It was so important to me to start this process with you, and I’m so appreciative of your willingness to answer my questions. Your book Lessons from a Dead Girl was the first book my former book club (http://moomoobookclub.blogspot.com) chose to read. I ordered 70 copies in 2007, and after the club members turned them back in, they stayed checked out to the student body until school let out for summer! Because of it’s popularity, it was the first of my optional book choices to be challenged at my school in 2008, and one of the first to be banned from my classroom in 2009. Through the two-year censorship struggle, you always supported my students and me through teleconferences, sending book plates, responding to emails, and gathering a realm of authors and YA-lovers to support me; in doing so, you’ve become a hero to my former students and me.
Now, if my hero is ready, let’s begin.
What is the most difficult aspect of writing about tough topics like teenage pregnancy (Jumping Off Swings) and the cycle of sexual abuse in children (Lessons from a Dead Girl)?
I think the hardest part about writing in general is trying to uncover the why’s and how’s of what leads people to do the things they do. For these two books, the stories that emerged were more complex and difficult to write about than I was prepared for, but at the same time, they were extremely important to me. So, I dug in and hoped I’d get it right.
Have you dealt with Lessons or Jumping Off Swings being challenged in places other than my school? If so, how have you dealt with that?
No one has reported any to me, but I know that doesn’t mean they haven’t been challenged. I’ve read reviews by high school teachers and librarians in which they say things like, “while it’s a good book, I could never have it in my school,” and that’s always disheartening. I think that sort of censorship that goes on all the time. Some people say that it isn’t technically censorship, but if the only reason a person doesn’t select a book for their library is because they know it will get challenged by a certain parent or group of parents, it feels like censorship to me. However, when people’s jobs are on the line, it hardly seems fair to judge.
What inspired you to write Swings in four perspectives?
No story is ever just one person’s story, and I thought, especially for a story about pregnancy, it was important to show it from all sides. I think people tend to leave out the father’s experience and perspective when it comes to stories about teen pregnancy, and I wanted to explore what a boy might feel if he knew he was the father of a baby he’d likely never know.
Can you tell us some of the feedback you’ve gotten from teenagers or their parents about this book?
A lot of teens have surprised me by being most interested in Josh and what happens to him. Usually they want to know if he and Ellie end up being OK. Parents have said the book made it easier for them to talk to their kids about sex and the emotional aspects of it by talking about the characters and the choices they made in relation to the story itself. The book allowed them to have “the talk” in a way that took the focus off their child, which made it less uncomfortable.
How important has a writing group been to the creation of your works?
Extremely. I have two writing partners who I rely on pretty heavily to share my work with. I also have a few other trusted friends (my gentle gatekeepers) who read for me at various stages of the process, mainly to give me a thumbs up or down in terms of how ready the work is to share with my agent or editor. If they don’t think it’s ready, they’re generous enough to explain why—and offer chocolate.
This one is a two-part question. You ready? 1.) How important was writing to you as a high-schooler? 2.) When did you know you wanted to be a career writer?
1.) As a teen, I used writing to explore my feelings about all the crazy stuff going on in my life. I wrote a lot of poetry and letters to myself. Writing gave me a place to air the things I needed to talk about but didn’t have anyone to really listen. I also loved writing about the books I read in my English classes. Both types of writing prepared me for college and beyond, so while the writing was important to me on a personal level, it also ended up being important in terms of preparing me for a life of professional writing—writing papers in college, writing for my freelance job, and now writing novels.
2.) My first taste of writing for an audience came in college. A short story I wrote was selected for our literary magazine and we had a public reading. I was extremely shy in college and didn’t speak a lot in class. Here I was using my voice for the first time. When I finished reading, I noticed that some people in the audience were crying. It was a profound moment for me, because I realized that my words could make people feel something. It was a heady feeling, but humbling too, because I realized how powerful words—even my own—really are.
Why YA?
The first books I loved were YA and I think I’ve been drawn to them ever since. I don’t know how else to put it except to say that I feel like YA demands a type of deep-seeded honesty I don’t see in any other fiction.
Can you give us a hint about what you’re currently writing? (I know you’re writing something!)
I’m working on answering the question about what happened to Josh, from Jumping Off Swings. 🙂
What does the day of a full-time writer look like?
A couch, a laptop, a cup of tea, and a disheveled-looking writer tapping away.
Now, to the fun stuff…
Favorite book? I couldn’t possibly choose.
Favorite author? See above—though I have to say that Robert Cormier is my hero.
Favorite food? I’ve been craving an ice-cream sandwich for days.
Favorite memory? My son’s birth.
Favorite lotion scent? I don’t know what scent it is, but I love the smell of Nature’s Gate Skin Therapy Moisturizing Lotion. 🙂
Favorite school subject? English
Favorite vacation spot? Maine
Favorite Kentucky teacher? You know I love you best. 🙂
Thanks, Jo, for agreeing to go first. I wish you so much success in all your future projects!

Comments

  1. Hi Risha!
    I didn’t really get to say THANK YOU in my interview. So… THANK YOU!!! For all you do. xoxox Jo

  2. Consider yourself hugged, Jo. 🙂 You’re so very welcome.

  3. What a wonderful interview! I especially loved hearing about that first experience in college when Jo shared her writing.

    It makes me so sad that to think of what you’ve both faced trying to bring good books to the readers who need them. You are both heroes in my book.

  4. Thank you!! What a sweet comment.

  5. I was moved by your story of your first reading in college, to bring people to tears or even anger is a powerful gift!

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