Sara Zarr is one of those authors whose work is quietly genius. She doesn’t have an enormous social media following. Her books aren’t blockbuster hit movies. And yet, she’s a highly respected and increasingly well-known author whose books are as gorgeously written as they are hauntingly powerful.
Since her debut in 2007 with Story of a Girl — which was a National Book Award finalist — Zarr has been writing memorable, heartbreakingly-real characters in situations readers can relate to on a variety of levels. They are compulsively readable and often deeply challenging. Though the realitic fiction genre in which she writes is becoming a popular trend in the YA world, Zarr herself will undoubtedly prove to be a constant. Her talent for crafting strong, memorable characters and her fearless exploration of universal themes sets her apart as one of the great YA voices today. Read one book by Zarr, and you want to read them all.
Like so many, Zarr didn’t set out to write YA.
“I don’t feel like I chose YA as ‘my field.’ It chose me, in the sense that stories that came to me always featured teenage protagonists,” said Zarr. “I do think the community around YA, by which I mean the readers (of all ages), the writers, the librarians, the teachers, the editors and marketers, is vibrantly interactive in ways adult lit doesn’t seem to be.”
Part of what makes the YA community so rich is the diversity of its readers. The adults who love YA are just as passionate as the teens who read it, and many feel that the genre belongs in the classroom alongside “classics” as well. Zarr is no exception.
“I do think YA belongs in the classroom along with adult literature and classic literature, poetry, creative nonfiction, plays. The accepted ‘canon’ for English classes is fairly narrow and tends to be based on what types of questions might come up on the AP tests, for example,” said Zarr.
Because her husband is a high school English teacher, she has a deep appreciation for the pressures placed on teachers to highlight certain types of books. To balance this, Zarr often donates YA books she receives through her job to her husband’s class library.
“Kids can check them out from him and take them home and there is less threat of censure from parents than if the books were officially in the school library,” said Zarr. “There are a lot of ways to have YA ‘in the classroom’ experienced in dialog, either with other students or with the teacher through reading journals or letters.”
Of course, a common concern for authors is having a book banned from the classroom. But Zarr isn’t too worried.
“Though I’m certainly a proponent of intellectual freedom, I don’t tend to get in crusader mode over class or library selection. I want kids to have a variety of well-written books about a variety of experiences from a variety of perspectives. I would worry over a class list that is heavily skewed toward one type of experience or author, but I don’t worry over whether or not MY book is allowed on it. And there are always the public libraries and booksellers to help out where school selection committees may fall short.”
While Zarr’s work does deal with complicated and often controversial topics such as sex and teen pregnancy, she hasn’t received too many negative reactions. “I know that Story of a Girl has been questioned or perhaps removed from school libraries, but I don’t tend to think of this as ‘banning.’”
Zarr faces criticism of YA with a calm assurance. She believes those who question the value of YA are subconsciously admitting a much deeper issue.
“I would say they’ve forgotten that it was the experiences of childhood and adolescence that made them who they are, and if they interrogate their dismissal of YA literature they may find beneath [it lies]some sort of belief that the experiences of adolescence—particularly of adolescent girls—are not as valuable as the experiences of adults or of boys, which means, really, that they don’t believe the very lives of teens or teen girls are as valuable. They may be surprised to realize this is a hidden belief lurking within them, but it’s often there,” said Zarr.
To those facing this negative attitude toward YA, especially teachers and librarians who are standing up for the inclusion of YA in academic settings, Zarr offers some encouragement:
“Thank you for your passion and persistence! Hang in there. For every time the whole endeavor seems like a giant fail, I would bet money that there is at least one patron or student who you’ve profoundly affected for the good through your work.”