By Meaghan Menzel
Lit House Beat Reporter
In the introduction of the latest Rose O’Neill Literary House event, “Writing for (and about) Young Adults,” Lit House Director Dr. Jehanne Dubrow said, “While it’s relatively easy to find fine examples of young adult fiction, it’s much more challenging even to name poets who are working in the genre. Tonight’s speaker, Meg Kearney, has found a way to explore girlhood and coming of age through two novels in verse for teenagers.”
Kearney has explored several different genres, such as poetry for adults, pciture books, and a journalistic book for teenagers. Her recent books, “The Secret of Me” and “The Girl in the Mirror,” are written in verse form for young adults titled Her poetry has also been published in anthologies and other publications.
Dubrow said Kearney’s poems “are both roots and wings. They move the story forward even as they sing, each poem functioning like a chapter in a traditional novel.”
Kearney started out writing fiction as a child but then switched to poetry in sixth grade. One of her favorite verse writers is Karen Hesse.
Hesse’s “Out of the Dust” is “like this classic YA novel, and she was the one who kind of forged the way for everyone in terms of novels in verse,” said Kearney.
Another major influcence is Helen Frost.
“She’s a master of not only form but making up her own form,” said Kearney. For example, one character will speak in a different form from another character. Kearney applies techniques like this to her own YA fiction.
At the event, Kearney talked about how she got into writing YA literature.
“I always blame it on Norma Fox Mazer and Jacqueline Woodson,” she said. Woodson is another author who visited campus earlier this semester. Mazer was a good friend to Kearney before she passed away, and Woodson and Kearney are still friends.
“For years, Norma and Jackie would both urge me to write for children and young adults,” Kearney said. “Jackie also used to love to tease me. She’d have this joke. She’d say, ‘Meg, you want to make money? Take out the line breaks.’”
Kearney never really thought about writing a novel, as she always preferred to keep her work short. Then one day, Woodson sent Kearney the manuscript for her novel written in verse, “Locomotion,” to look at from a poet’s perspective.
“Darn it, Jackie. Do you have to be good at everything?” said Kearny after she read it. “I felt like she was throwing down the gauntlet.”
Kearney then discovered that this was how she could write her own fiction. This is where her first YA novel, “The Secret of Me,” started.
“Through these linked series of poems,” Dubrow said, “Kearney tells the story of Lizzie, an adolescent girl trying to make sense of her place in the world, trying to understand what family and connection mean to one who is adopted.”
The novel’s sequel, “The Girl in the Mirror,” focuses on when Lizzie starts getting ready for college a few years later. She wants try and find her birth mother when the death of one of her parents turns all her plans around.
Kearney read from both novels, which are written entirely from Lizzie’s point of view.
“These are Lizzie’s poems,” Kearney said.
Some of the forms included in the novels include sonnets and even one written in the traditional blues form. Kearney also likes to write pantoums which are, according to The Academy of American Poets website, poets.org, a style of poetry where the second and fourth lines of a stanza becomes the first and third in the next stanza, and the last line is the first line of the whole poem.
“I think when you’re tackling a really difficult subject like this,” said Kearney, “form really is a safe place to go. It really helps you stop thinking exactly about the content, because you spend so much time thinking about all the rules of the form. It frees you up.”
Kearney’s YA literature is partially autobiographical. Kearney, like Lizzie, is the youngest of three adopted children. Her father died when she was 26.
There is one poem Lizzie writes called “What I Want” that ends with her wanting to find her birthparents. She reads it to her adopted mother in another poem.
“So that poem basically describes a scene that’s played out in my own life when I was about 12 or 13 years old,” Kearney said. “I’d written a poem in which I wondered who my birth mother was, and read it to my mom who had always been so supportive of all my writing efforts. And I’m sure she must’ve said something like, ‘Oh, that’s very nice dear’ before she literally ran out of the room.”
It was then, Kearney said, “I realized… I had just entered taboo territory in terms of subject matter.”
While her parents were very loving and supportive, they never actually talked about their feelings about the adoption.
She said, “That was a matter of loyalty, partly, and I think it just scared my parents.”
Kearney did not write anything about adoption until she was in her late 20s. After she found out her novel would be published, she drove to her mother’s, handed her the manuscript, and drove away, afraid that her mother would not speak to her again. She is happy to say they are still on good terms.
Kearney now lives in New Hampshire and is founding director of the Solstice Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing Program at Pine Manor College. She is working on her third novel where Lizzie is starting spring semester of her freshman year of college. In this book, Lizzie will even play around with making up new forms for herself.
“Lizzie McLane is the brave 14 year old I wish I had been,” Kearney said. And that moment when Woodson threw down that gauntlet, Kearney said, “You know what? I can go back there and say, ‘alright, maybe I can’t say that, you know to mom, but I can write it in a poem.’”