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Interview: January 2011

January 2011

Award-winning author Melody Carlson is sweeping readers away with her latest book, NEVER BEEN KISSED, which follows a vibrant transfer student as she tries to land her first kiss before her 16th birthday, only to find herself accused of sexting and expelled from school after acting on some really bad advice.

In this interview with Teenreads.com’s Usha Rao, Carlson explains why she wanted to explore these issues in a novel, elaborating on how the Internet has opened new avenues for bullying and what teens can do to help take responsibility for their actions. She talks about the importance of making schools a better place, speculates on the similarities between her heroine and THE SCARLET LETTER’s Hester Prynne, and reveals how she churns out so many bestselling books.

Teenreads.com: There are so many interwoven and important themes in NEVER BEEN KISSED, such as cyber-bullying, sexting and teen suicide. What drew you to this particular story and situation?

Melody Carlson: Bullying has always concerned me, but when I heard about cyber-bullying, I realized that electronic technology has opened up new avenues. Kids are suddenly able to bully and hurt others, deeply and cruelly, and they can do it anonymously. Because I write so much for teen girls, I’m well aware of the mean things some girls are capable of. I write in the hope that my readers will be forewarned about some of the pitfalls of adolescence.

TRC: The main character, Elise, is a believable and likable teenager. Did you model her after someone you know?

MC: Elise isn’t specifically modeled after anyone. However, since I was raised in a single-mom home, I realize that this sometimes gives a girl some extra inner strength and independence. So I tried to give Elise those same qualities --- especially since I knew what she was going to be up against.

TRC: Elise proves to be surprisingly resilient in the face of trouble. From where does she derive her strength?

MC: Besides being smart and plucky, Elise has the influence of both her mom and her grandmother, and she is trying to move herself closer to God. She’s made some mistakes, but seems to want to learn from them. My hope would be that “in the rest of the story” Elise would grow in her relationship with God and become even stronger.

TRC: Elise paraphrases a Biblical passage to herself as a way to boost her morale when she's feeling down: "[A]s a girl thinks of herself, so she becomes." What is the original verse, and which part of the Bible is it from?

MC: It’s actually taken from Proverbs 23:7. The King James Version (which is probably the one her grandmother quoted to her) says, “For as he thinketh in his heart, so is he.” I know it’s a verse that’s often misquoted and misunderstood, but the meaning is still true. We tend to become what we think and focus on --- whether it’s good or bad. Elise needed to focus on something positive instead of dwelling on the lies that were spinning around her.

TRC: Romantic entanglements, especially those involving males who are perceived as off-limits, seem to make young women particularly vulnerable to ostracism. I found it interesting that Elise repeatedly compares herself to Hester Prynne. Can you tell us more about your thoughts on why Elise and Hester are alike in what they face?

MC: They actually have a lot in common. Both willingly become part of a romantic triangle. Both are deceptive as well as deceived. And both become victims of bullying. The main difference for Elise’s story is that Asher gets caught, and Elise gets vindicated. But she still suffers.

TRC: A lot of the bullying that goes on at school happens in subtle ways that are not always apparent to teachers and administrators. What else can schools be doing to prevent bullying among students?

MC: Perhaps the most alarming thing about bullying is how so many teachers and administrators continue to write it off as “part of growing up.” So many incidents go overlooked and ignored. Too often, it’s not until an attention-getting event occurs that a school is willing to take action. Sometimes (if it’s suicide), it’s too late. I think all schools need to have an anti-bullying policy that is enforced. Also, I would like to see support groups for victims of bullying, and some kind of mandatory sensitivity training for bullies.

TRC: Parents rarely imagine that their own teenagers may be participating in sexting or that they could become the victims or perpetrators of cyber-bullying. What should teens and parents know about the legal and other repercussions of sexting and cyber-bullying? Who do you think should be responsible for making teens aware of these repercussions: their parents/guardians, their teachers, or some other authority figure?

MC: It probably takes a village to help teens understand the long-term impact of their actions. Unfortunately, sexting and cyber-bullying are so quick and easy to do that teens just don’t naturally consider consequences for this behavior. As a result, it happens far more than parents can imagine. Beyond that, teens cannot grasp that everything that goes into cyberspace never goes away. They don’t consider the ramifications years later, when they’ll be applying for a job or scholarship, and some skanky photo will pop up and ruin their chances. That’s why adults need to speak up and help them now. That’s why I wrote this book.

TRC: Painting is a recurring theme in the book, whether it’s in art class, or Elise mixing paint for her grandmother's bedroom, or more powerfully, the memory of a sketch of Jesus' hand that helps steer Elise away from danger. I was curious to learn if you sketch or paint.

MC: Yes to both, although not nearly as much as I used to. I suppose I paint more with words now. But art continues to show up in a lot of my books…and someday I’ll pick it up again.

TRC: You are a prolific writer, with many award-winning and successful books under your belt. What inspires you to write?

MC: I write because I love to write. And the only way I can write is to do it extremely fast. That means I end up publishing a lot of books. I think the number is around 200. But keep in mind that includes kids’ books too, some of which were pretty short.

TRC: Can you tell us about your next project?

MC: I just finished a teen book about date rape titled DAMAGED, which is part of a series called Secrets (NavPress). And I’m about to start a much lighter one titled PROM QUEEN (Baker/Revell), about a girl who will do anything to get elected. I like to balance the books out between serious and just plain fun.