How do an author’s childhood experiences translate to the written page? In today’s guest post on the Mackin Community Blog, author Christine Kendall shares about the process of writing her new #OwnVoices middle-grade novel, The True Definition of Neva Beane.
I was a young girl in 1966 when the original Star Trek came on TV. Yes, Captain Kirk was brave, Mr. Spock was wise, and Dr. McCoy was dedicated, but it was Lieutenant Uhura, the communications officer aboard the USS Enterprise, who captivated me.
At the time, folks were—as they are now—in the streets marching for civil rights, but they still talked about Uhura. “She’s black, she’s female, and she’s not wearing an apron.” That’s what a lot of them said.
I liked the way Lieutenant Uhura always kept her cool no matter what was happening in space. She was sophisticated and smart, with full lips and a slender neck. And I really liked her boots. But there was one thing nobody ever mentioned (at least not in front of me)—they didn’t say anything about Lieutenant Uhura’s beautiful bust line.
I was developing early … and I’d just started wearing a bra so I had another new word in my vocabulary—foundation. It sounded like a construction site with things made of concrete and steel. It sounded like something strong; something significant like Lieutenant Uhura standing on the bridge.
It would be an understatement to say I liked wearing my new bra. I loved it. I loved it almost as much as I loved my bike. And just as I was filled with joy tearing down the street on that pink and white two-wheeler, I adored my blossoming figure and longed to admire it several times a day. Unfortunately, the mirror in my room was too small so what else could I do but go to the biggest mirror in the house?
I stood in front of my parents’ bureau and turned from side to side admiring my profile. I admired myself from all angles when, unexpectedly, my brother came bursting through the door. He screeched, screamed, shrieked, hollered and howled his way across the room. He was laughing so hard he could hardly walk. He roared past me without saying a word. Needless to say, I was destroyed…but only temporarily.
My novel, The True Definition of Neva Beane, isn’t autobiographical, but I did write that one scene—the mirror scene—from memory. The recollection was stored deep in my brain of how it felt to be seen by someone else in a personal moment of self-affirmation. That was the inspiration for a coming-of-age story about the political awakening of a twelve-year-old girl as she struggles to regain the confidence she had as a younger child while also coming to grips with her changing body.
I found Neva’s voice through observation of the lovely young girls in my neighborhood and from conversations I’ve had the good fortune to have with students. Their words expressed curiosity as well as vitality. One of the most endearing remarks came in a letter I received from a fifth-grader after my talk about how I jumped into writing my first book, Riding Chance, without having studied creative writing: “My favorite part of the event was when you admitted you did not know how to write a book. That part was confusing to me cause I was like ‘so how did she write this book?’ You didn’t know how to do it at first but you didn’t let that stop you. I learned that you never should say you can’t do something. I’m never going to give up so thank you.”
Once I had that voice, I simply had to step out of Neva’s way and let her tell her story, that of a twenty-first-century girl. But in the course of the telling I discovered that many pre-adolescent girls suffer from a loss of confidence at the onset of puberty, much more so than boys. This can happen even when, like Neva, they know they’re beautiful, they know they’re smart, they know they have something to say. They spend a lot of time ruminating about what could go wrong in any given situation instead of taking action. And, sadly, the research shows that these feelings can last through adulthood if girls don’t have opportunities to take risks and to fail which is what leads to developing resilience, a trait that will serve them well through their entire lives.
My young protagonist, Neva Beane, ruminates things to death and makes mistakes in some of the actions she takes, but one of most important things she learns is not to be afraid to move outside of her comfort zone. Through her struggles, she develops the right kind of toughness—the capacity to recover from difficulties. And, through it all, she, like that young girl who so admired Lieutenant Uhura, retains the joy of celebrating herself as she discovers the magnificence of her own brand of power. A strong foundation, indeed.