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Events Tue May 15 2012

The Princesses of Iowa Author Molly Backes on Writing for Young Adults

Writer Molly Backes will be celebrating the release of her young adult novel The Princesses of Iowa this Friday, May 18, at 7pm at StoryStudio's Chicago location. In addition to her work as a writer and as a teacher at the North side school, Backes works as its assistant director. The event billed as both celebration and networking opportunity, is open to the public and free of charge.

Backes is gearing up for the approaching chaos of her book tour, but managed to set aside time for us to discuss the task of writing a young adult novel. She spoke to the particular challenge of depicting the in between place that we all occupy at one time or another in which we figure out that adults aren't always right and begin to discover who we want to become.

"It's about my protagonist going from being a young woman shaped by society's idea of perfection and, by the end, she's leaning to listen to her own voice," Backes said. "That's the crux of the teenage experience."

Unlike some writers whose work is reformulated and marketed towards a young adult audience, Backes, a former middle school teacher, set out to appeal to the junior high crowd. While teaching 7th and 8th grade English in rural New Mexico, Backes became uniquely attuned to the complicated dynamics that define teenage life.

"I wanted to write something challenging, literary, and realistic," Backes said. "As a teacher I saw all these girls who woke up at 5am to curl their hair to look perfect. I got really interested in the idea of how we forget that there's something under the surface. No one is perceiving anyone else correctly; that's how high school feels."

When the story begins we find Paige, presumably living a life that's as close to perfection as one in his or her formative years could possibly imagine. A "could have been so much worse" car accident following a night of partying ends all of this, however, and leaves her shunned from the social scene she'd been so successful at navigating. Left without options, Paige locates comfort and a newfound interest in figuring herself out apart from the social hierarchy in her creative writing class.

"As I was trying to publish it everyone was saying, 'why do I care about a spoiled princess?'" Backes said. "But that's the point. It's interesting that people can't get passed their prejudices. So much of how we behave towards people is based on who we think they are, and when they don't live up, we're uncomfortable with that to varying degrees."

The book, published by Candlewick Press, is set in Iowa, the site of Backes's student teaching career, as well as her college state. She wrote it while isolated in New Mexico, still adjusting to the move.

"I felt homesick," Backes said. "I grew up in the Midwest and part of me always wants to write about the place I love. Having gone to college in Iowa, it's where I feel like I really came of age and figured out who I was. In retrospect, it's very appropriate that I wrote a coming of age story set there."

StoryStudio is located at 4043 N. Ravenswood Ave., #222.

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