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Interview: October 2008

October 2008

Coe Booth, author of the young adult novel TYRELL, recently published her second work of fiction for teens, called KENDRA.
In this interview with's Alexis Burling, Booth explains how her firsthand experiences with friends inspired the main character's unique circumstances and living situation, and elaborates on the strained dynamics between the protagonist and her family. She also describes why she decided to shed light on the important but controversial topic of teen pregnancy, shares details about her work aiding families in crisis and reveals when her next book --- the sequel to her debut --- will be available in stores. What inspired you to write KENDRA, and what kind of research did you do in preparation for it?
Coe Booth: KENDRA was a book I’ve been writing, on and off, for a very long time, in many different ways. It was the book I’d try to write then put away because I couldn’t figure out how to make it work. The original inspiration came from some of my friends who got pregnant in high school. A couple of them went away to college and left their babies with their mothers. Then, after college, they came home and everything worked out fine because they were then able to get a good job and take care of their children. But, I wondered what would happen if a mother never returned from college, if she stayed away for several more years to get a master’s degree and a PhD. I wanted to know how that would affect the child who was left behind. And that’s what Kendra has to deal with. She wants her mother Renee to accomplish as much as she can, and she’s even proud of her. But at the same time, she’s missed out on having a mother, and that has left an emptiness inside of her. 
I didn’t have to do a whole lot of research for KENDRA. I’ve always been interested in mothers and daughters because those are such complicated relationships, so I’d already read a lot on that topic. Before I started writing KENDRA, however, I wanted to learn more about the kinds of problems grandparents have when they have to raise their grandchildren, so I read about that and talked to women in my neighborhood who were trying to balance being both grandmother and mother to their grandkids. Also, to prepare for this book I researched teenage mothers and the kinds of issues they have to deal with when their kids become teenagers themselves, because this is at the heart of KENDRA.
TRC: Renée had Kendra at 14 --- such a young age. What was your impetus for choosing 14? 
CB: I chose the age 14 because I wanted to show that Renee had become a mother when she was very, very young. She was only in ninth grade, and this was probably a source of a lot of shame, both for her family and for herself. This shame was probably one of the reasons Renee pushed herself so hard to excel in school, to make something of her life.  She didn’t want to end up a statistic --- just another girl from the projects who got pregnant too early and never amounted to anything.
TRC: Adonna and Kendra are best friends, but Adonna is also Kendra’s aunt (Kenny, Kendra’s dad, is also Adonna’s brother). What were your reasons for connecting the characters in this way? 
CB: Some people don’t understand how Kendra can be Adonna’s niece when she is just a year younger than Adonna, but in my neighborhood, that’s not so uncommon! Kenny became a father when he was just 15, a year after his mother gave birth to her last child, Adonna. And since Adonna and Kendra are only a year apart and they grew up together in the same building, their relationship is more like that of cousins. 
I wanted to connect the characters in this way because the reader gets to see them in many different ways. For example, Kenny is a good father to Kendra, but he’s childish in his relationships with his mother and sister. Also, Adonna likes to fight with her brother Kenny, but she’s jealous of how much time and attention he gives to Kendra, especially since Adonna doesn’t have a close connection to her own father. So having the characters related in this way gave me a way to play with the various roles people have in their lives and how different they can be in each of them.
TRC: So often Kendra chooses to be with Nashawn instead of doing what she knows is right. How do you think her actions reflect the behavior of teens under pressure? And what does her tendency to blame herself for it (instead of him) say about the fragility of teens’ self-confidence? 
CB: I don’t think Kendra really chooses to be with Nashawn; not in the beginning, anyway. It’s more that he’s someone who is physically there at a time when she feels abandoned and alone, when she needs to feel connected to somebody. I think a lot of teens (and adults, too, for that matter) make questionable choices when it comes to sex. For teens, things can easily get confusing, especially when they’re dealing with those feelings for the first time. Kendra doesn’t always make the right decision, and she doesn’t always learn a big lesson from her mistakes, but I think it’s very believable. And, yes, Kendra does blame herself for her actions, for what she allowed Nashawn to do. She thinks she let him use her. 
Kendra’s tendency to blame herself is part of her personality; it’s not just related to Nashawn. She also blames herself for getting in the way of her grandmother’s happiness, even though she has no control over her living situation. Kendra is confident in some areas of her life, especially her theater design skills, but dealing with boys is a new thing for her. She’s completely unsure of herself in this aspect.
TRC: One of the reasons why KENDRAis so believable and so powerful is because you focus on Kendra’s lack of family guidance, but you also hint at the sacrifices other characters have had to make in order to make things right. For example: Nana. She already raised Renée, and now she’s raising Kendra in Renée’s absence. What about the life she’s trying to build with Clyde? And Renée --- she’s accomplished a lot (a PhD, a gorgeous boyfriend, a great job), despite having a kid at 14, but also has a lot to learn in terms of taking responsibility for her actions. Might you expand upon this? 
CB: One of the things I wanted to show is that adults have their own lives, too. The adults in this book aren’t always waiting around for Kendra to get home from school so they can give her advice and tell her what she needs to hear. Nana has sacrificed a lot for Kendra. She loves Kendra, but she never planned to have to raise her grandchild, and definitely not for such a long time. Nana has put her life on hold, and now she’d like a chance for happiness, too.
On the surface, Renee is an amazing woman, someone who had a baby at a very young age and was still able to achieve so much. She’s a smart and dynamic person, but she’s clueless about a lot of things. She has no idea how her absence has affected Kendra’s life. And she can’t see how much Kendra wants to have a closer relationship with her. 
Kendra does need guidance, but like a lot of teens, she doesn’t share her problems with her mother and grandmother because she doesn’t want to be a burden to them. She thinks she can figure things out for herself. 
TRC: Sexuality and teenage pregnancy is such an important issue to discuss with teens, yet it’s often shoved under the rug, both in the school environment and at home. Lately, however, movies like Juno and books such as yours are making the topic more visible, much to some parents’ and educators’ chagrin. Did you have any major concerns about the way parents, teachers, or librarians might receive this novel? 
CB: Sexuality and teen pregnancy make some people uncomfortable. But these are facts of life that will exist whether or not teens read about it. Part of raising and educating teens is preparing them for the real world, not just the easy parts. I think it’s a big mistake to think that teens will try to copy the things they read about in books. Come on! Give them more credit than that! 
As for KENDRA, I hope parents, teachers and librarians will read it with an open mind and with an understanding that teens today are exposed to a lot more than they were in the past. Perhaps they can use KENDRA as a conversation starter, a way to get teens to talk openly with them about sexuality, and about the kind of choices we all have to make.
TRC: After graduating college, you worked with teenagers and families in crisis --- some were homeless; others were in gangs or drug addicts. What inspired you to do this? What was the experience like for you? 
CB: I’ve always wanted to work with people who were going through hard times. I have a master’s degree in psychology, so working with families was something that felt natural to me. And since I was working in my own community, it was doubly rewarding. 
It was also very difficult and time consuming. A lot of the families I worked with were dealing with serious problems. My area of specialty was working with families where at least one of the children had recently been sexually abused, so as you can imagine, this was not easy. Often, the abuse was just one of many things that needed attention. There was parental drug abuse, domestic violence, neglect. And obviously, with all of this going on in the home, the children and teens were angry and out of control. Most had stopped going to school, and some had joined gangs or hung out on the street all night. The entire family structure was broken and it was very challenging trying to help put it back together again. Very challenging!
TRC: What were some of your favorite books or authors growing up? 
CB: Oh, I read all kinds of books. When I was young, I loved books like PIPPI LONGSTOCKING, the Ramona books and everything by Judy Blume! When I was a teenager, my favorites were TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, THE CATCHER IN THE RYE, THEIR EYES WERE WATCHING GOD, OF MICE AND MEN, NATIVE SON and DOWN THESE MEAN STREETS. 
TRC: What are you working on now, and when can we expect to see it? 
CB: Right now I’m working on the sequel to TYRELL. With any luck, it’ll be out in the fall of 2010.