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Sarah Ockler: Insights into Twenty Boy Summer

August 16, 2010 | ED

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Sarah Ockler is the author of Twenty Boy Summer. The novel tells a touching story of love, grief and making the most of life. We had the opportunity to ask Sarah Ockler a few questions. Below are her responses…

Twenty Boy Summer is your first novel and is geared towards young adults. What made you decide to write for young adults?

I don't know that I decided to write for young adults as much as writing for young adults just... picked me! But I was officially encouraged to try YA by a writing instructor from Lighthouse Writers in Denver, Colorado. He'd read an essay I'd written about some trouble my best friend and I got into when we were fifteen, and he thought my writing had a great teen voice. I hadn't considered writing for teens before -- I was actually just wandering around, knowing I wanted to write but not sure where to start -- but Lighthouse had a YA novel class starting up, so I took a chance and signed up. After the first session, I'd found my writing heart. We read other contemporary YA authors like Sarah Dessen, Laurie Halse Anderson, Deb Caletti, and I knew then without a doubt that YA stories were the stories I needed to tell. Plus, I think I never really got over high school. Such a crazy, tumultuous time in life. I wrote Twenty Boy Summer in that YA novel class, and I've never looked back!

Twenty Boy Summer explores love, grief and making the most of life, where did you get the inspiration for this book?

I was inspired to write Twenty Boy Summer by my previous work with the National Donor Family Council, an organization that supports families whose loved ones died and donated organs or tissues. Through the Council's programs and events, I met so many teens who'd suffered the death of a sibling or friend, and in many ways, these teens became the forgotten mourners. Lots of people assume that young people will just "bounce back," or that their grief is minor compared to that of a grieving parent, or that they're too young to really understand, and that's just not true. In many cases, teens who'd experienced the death of a friend were left out, too, as though they didn't have the sam rights to grieve. I really wanted to explore that in Twenty Boy Summer, and when I started working on the novel, I knew I had to share some of those stories. At the same time, just as Anna and Frankie learn in the book, life goes on -- even when we don't want it to or when we don't think it's possible. So while the characters are dealing with tragedy, they're also dealing with regular life stuff -- parents, school, best friend fights, summer vacations, new love. I wanted to tell both sides of that story..

What were you expectations for Twenty Boy Summer?

I didn't really have expectations for Twenty Boy Summer as much as I had goals, and my primary goal was to get the story into the hands of readers who would connect with the characters and their struggles, regardless of whether they'd had similar experiences. I think there are universal things in the story that all of us can relate to, even if we've never suffered the death of a loved one, and my goal was to make readers care about the characters because of those universal things: love, broken hearts, the bond between friends and how it's tested, distance between teens and parents, and ultimately, hope.

Anna and Frankie share a lot of experiences during the summer. What is one of your favourite memories from summer vacation?

One of my favourite memories from summer as a teen is walking along the shores of the Atlantic at night in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, with my best friend. There was a storm the night before, so on this particular night, the water was really aggressive, and the moon was bright red on the horizon. Campfires dotted the shore behind us, but we were so mesmerized by the ocean that we hardly noticed all the other people gathered on the beach. It was like everything around us was alive, and I remember feeling very small and comforted.

More recently, one of the best summer vacation moments was in Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming. My husband and I got out of our sent in the early morning only to find a bison in our campsite, munching away on the grass. They really are majestic creatures, and it was another one of those "feeling small" moments that has stayed with me every since.

Some parents may be hesitant to have their teens read a book about meeting 20 new guys during the summer. What would you say to these parents?

While the story does feature some elements of "boy chasing," that isn't the heart of the book, and it's certainly not a how-to guide. :-) Readers will quickly see that much of Frankie's boy-craziness is a mask she wears as she comes to terms with the sudden death of her older brother and the seeming loss of her parents' involvement in her life, while Anna is reeling from the loss of her first love and the torment of keeping a major secret from her best friend. Their behavior isn't random or gratuitous, but a reflection of the exploration and questioning that a lot of teens experience.

When I write books, I never set out to instill morals or judge characters or their choices, but to simply tell a story. In this particular story, the girls make decisions that some people may not think are healthy or positive, but by presenting those issues in the story, I hope that teens will think about their own lives and ask themselves, what would I do in Anna's place? If I made the same choices that Frankie made, how would I feel later? Is it ever wrong to keep a secret? What do I think about Anna and Frankie's choices with boys? By encouraging rather than shying from exploration of the big issues -- virginity, love, friendships, secrets, grief, moving on after loss, relationships -- books allow teens to see things from many sides, ask their own questions, and make their own conclusions. I would encourage parents to do the same for their teens, rather than shutting the door and forcing teens to explore those big questions alone.

We know that you have another novel coming out in the fall, Fixing Delilah. Can you give us a sneak peak into the books and what maybe coming up after that?

Definitely! Here's a summary:

Things in Delilah Hannaford’s life have a tendency to fall apart. She used to be a good student, but she can’t seem to keep it together anymore. Her "boyfriend" isn’t much of a boyfriend. And her mother refuses to discuss the fight that divided their family eight years ago. Falling apart, it seems, is a Hannaford tradition.

Over a summer of new friendships, unexpected romance, and moments that test the complex bonds between mothers and daughters, Delilah must face her family’s painful past. Can even her most shattered relationships be pieced together again?

Rich with emotion, FIXING DELILAH is a powerful story of family, love, and self-discovery.

For a sneak peak, readers can check out an excerpt of the first two chapters here:

I am currently working on another contemporary YA story, but this one is set in the winter for a change, just south of the border outside Buffalo, NY. I'm not ready to share details yet, but I will say that it involves cupcakes, ice skating, and a cute hockey boy. :-) Readers can check back at  for updates and more information in the coming weeks!

Thank you so much for chatting with me today, and for including Twenty Boy Summer in the Toronto Public Library's summer reading program. I hope that everyone has a wonderful vacation filled with lots of great books!