Friday, October 12, 2007
Teacher's first novel packs a punch
If you are 12 right now, you are probably experiencing some of the things that happen in Marcella Pixley's first novel, Freak. If you have already been through that year, chances are you remember it quite clearly, no matter how old you are. Generation after generation, 12 seems to be an inflamed, histrionic, frightening, inexplicable, and utterly exhausting age: a real watershed that marks the end of our childhood and the beginning of a larger awareness that leads to adulthood. It is a great year to write about, if you can make any sense of it at all.
When I finished Freak, I felt (there is no other word for this) overheated, and then I realized that Pixley had gotten it right. In a mere 131 pages, she managed to recover the long-healed and long-buried emotions and social challenges of being 12 years old and dump them, raw and exposed again, back into my consciousness. The friction they caused sent me outdoors for a walk to clear my head. Then I could laugh: no wonder this book has received favorable notices from Booklist and Kirkus Reviews, among others, and is garnering national attention. Little book, big punch.
Writing from your own experience
Freak began with Pixley's own experiences as a middle-schooler. She grew up in Newton, and was "awkward, awkward-looking, and uncomfortable in middle school. I always wanted to be a writer, was interested in words and their derivations and wrote in a journal that I carried with me everywhere. I used to hide it behind my books and write in it in class, so I always looked like I was taking notes." In this, she resembles her book's main character, Miriam.
"Furthermore, says Pixley, "I prided myself on being different, so I made things worse for myself. I made myself more of an outsider. I was tormented in the school corridors, taunted and called a freak." Although the essence of this experience is reproduced in the book, most of Miriam's actual experiences are fictional, created out of emotional memory but written to follow a plot and create a dramatic effect, so the story is far from strictly autobiographical.
Creating a story for and about students
"My expectation was that the audience for this book would be the total outcast," Pixley says, but the process of writing it, which took about ten years, took her on a journey to a finished product that would target "girls and boys in every part of the middle school social hierarchy." Every year, Pixley would read excerpts from the manuscript to students in her language arts classes. She noted that they reacted most favorably to the most intense parts, and that they would cheer at a climax when Miriam appears to best the villainess, Jenny.
Pixley's observation of her students' reactions to the excerpts she shared with them helped her to hone the book and develop the characters. "My big job in revising it was to learn who Jenny was. In the first drafts, she was two-dimensional, like every other 'mean girl.' Jenny had to be three-dimensional to be convincing, and for kids to find something in her to empathize with. I had to spend a lot of time thinking about her. She is hungry and so desperate to be accepted by her peers that she will do anything to have those 'popular' girls give her some power."
Some of her eighth-grade students also became critics, and made suggestions that helped streamline the book. "Miriam," Pixley declared, "has a distinct voice, and when she gets going and starts waxing on some subject, these passages were really, really long in the early drafts. I was having fun, chuckling along, making Miriam really annoying. It appealed to my sense of humor. But some of the students in my writing groups told me she was too annoying, and they didn't like her. They showed me that I had to keep control of her, and that tightening those passages would make them more powerful."
In early drafts, the book had a number of titles, but one student at Shady Hill School, where Pixley taught for a time, suggested that because she used the word "freak" so much in reference to Miriam, in terms of her own self image as well as a virtual epithet hurled at her by her tormentors, it would make a good title for the story. "It was so much better than all the titles I had come up with," Pixley says. "It was perfect."
The book went through "many, many iterations, some that were funnier and more slapstick," but students' reactions, coupled with the work done by her editor, helped Pixley realize that a darker and more intense approach would be more compelling to her audience. Her students also helped to keep Pixley focused with regard to writing for a particular audience. She took the suggestions of a Carlisle eighth-grader, who read a draft, said, "Who's the audience here?" and pointed out the value of keeping the book age-appropriate and family-friendly. Pixley used this critique to help her target a twelve-year-old readership, realizing that she could create discussion points for students and their parents.
A book with issues for families
"When I went through the kind of thing Miriam goes through, I didn't feel that I could solve it; it was too big and overwhelming," Pixley says. "I wanted Miriam to have no place to turn but herself, so that she could find inner strength." As a result, despite being good, well-meaning people, "all the adults in the book fail." This group includes Miriam's parents, a high school senior boy, the school principal and even a language arts teacher.
The flat quality of the adults in the book may provide food for discussion between student readers and their families. Are the adults presented, perhaps, as the child sees them? Do they represent accurate relationships between students and their parents, teachers, and authority figures?
Pixley hopes that students will talk with their parents about the book and that it will generate productive discussion about family and outside adult-student relationships. "I found out that there's a mother-daughter book group in Carlisle," she says. "I would love to know what they would have to say about this."
Hope and humor in the book and in life
Despite the book's intensity and treatment of the difficult social issues of early adolescence, Freak is not all darkness and gloom. Even in the murkiest and most painful moments, Miriam is supported in both subtle and obvious ways. Her 14-year-old sister, Deborah, a high school freshman who is trying hard to reinvent herself as an adult and is usually very irritated by Miriam's "juvenile" behavior, comes to admire her younger sister's integrity and courage. Miriam has a best friend, Rosie, who is a free spirit, a girl with enough confidence in herself to be able to assess a social situation accurately, to know when to run for cover and when to stand up for herself and for Miriam. Rosie, Pixley says, is the "hug" in the book.
Deborah and Miriam grow apart and then back to closeness in the course of the story, providing hope for the strength of family ties. Rosie's friendship and loyalty provide the humor and support necessary to steer through the difficult situations.
Connecting with Carlisle's curriculum
The Carlisle School has been focusing a good deal of attention lately on bullying, and on trying to teach students about issues of power, social dynamics, and scapegoating, in an effort, Pixley says, to "sensitize middle school kids and encourage them to be kinder, to grow up to have empathy and responsibility for each other in a larger world." She finds that one of the more effective tools the school curriculum affords is a national program called, "Facing History and Ourselves," which personalizes the issues as well as showing them in a more global way. Students study both the social dynamics of their own school situation and look as well at world events like the Holocaust and other historical examples of man's extreme mistreatment of his fellow man. One of the most revealing units in this program is a class called, "Stand Up," in which the teacher asks students to stand up if they have experienced a particular issue or social treatment. "Kids are always amazed," Pixley says, "when I say, 'Stand up if you have experienced taunting or bullying,' and every single person in the class invariably stands up. This program has helped them and me to think more clearly about social issues and power."
What comes next?
Freak is Pixley's first book, and she has already started another. This one will focus on boys in the same period of life as Miriam. Boys, says Pixley, have as much to contend with as girls in this time of life, and "they are just as articulate about it, but in a very different way." Undoubtedly she will be observing her students closely and relying upon their creativity and powers of analysis to keep her on task, so that her next project will pack as much of a punch as her first.
© 2007 The Carlisle Mosquito