For What It's Worth

Monday, March 29, 2010

Guest Post by Mara Purnhagen

Tagged (Harlequin Teen)

Today we have a guest post by Mara Purnhagen, author of Tagged. She tells us what got her serious about writing her first book and why she writes YA. Very inspirational!

*The bell rang indicating seventh period had begun, but I could barely hear it over the noise in my classroom. My last class of the day was a 90-minute block teaching remedial English to 31 freshmen. Of those thirty-one students, 29 had Individual Education Plans (IEPs) which stated that they were to receive their choice of seating, modified tests and monthly conferences. I spent an hour a day filling out paper work alone. And although we had recently completed a successful unit on The Odyssey, my restless end-of-the-day students remained my greatest challenge. Two were still learning English. All of them tested below grade level. One was still learning how to spell his name. And here I was, in my sixth year of teaching high school English, and still struggling to find a way to reach kids who had absolutely no interest in vocabulary or grammar or spelling. College was not an option for most. In fact, graduation was not a goal for half the class. Completing their freshman year? Maybe.

I took attendance and waited for my students to settle down. I chose this class, I reminded myself. I had taught AP English, college prep, British Lit—you name it. But I always returned to freshman English. I loved it. I marveled at how these kids came in at 14 years old and left the school at 18—technically, adults—and I loved the enthusiasm and uncertainty and intensity of freshmen. Some of them had never heard of Shakespeare and nearly all of them associated Homer with The Simpsons, but at the end of the year, I had taught them something (I hope) that they could relate to.

Still, I needed to find an effective way to grab their attention at the beginning of class, something they could focus on. I was competing with short attention spans and caffeine buzzes and my own dwindling energy. I decided to try reading aloud at the start of each day, but I wanted to find a book that could catch the wandering minds of my students. Something modern, I thought, remembering a recent complaint that “all we read is stuff by dead people.”

At the time, I was not well-versed in contemporary young adult fiction. I had read mainly classics as a teenager, with the occasional novel by Paula Danziger or Christopher Pike thrown in. Growing up, the young adult genre seemed to consist of funny books, scary books or the dreaded “problem novel.” I hadn’t picked up a YA novel in over ten years and had no idea what was out there, so I visited the school library and asked for help. The school librarian recommended several titles, and I chose one that sounded intriguing: The Body of Christopher Creed by Carol Plum-Ucci, which had arrived a week earlier. I took it home and read it straight through, thrilled with the pacing and plot. There was a language issue—if I read some of the words aloud I would have parents calling me the next day—so I decided not to read them (this actually proved to be a perfect solution: the kids knew that when I paused, I was skipping over a word, and that drove them crazy to read it for themselves).

For the next two weeks, I began each class with a chapter from the book. My students were hooked after the first page. They begged me to read more, and I always made the same deal with them: if we could get through my lesson plan, I would use any time left at the end of the period to read. After I read a chapter, we would talk about a character’s motivation or what they thought would happen next. The Body of Christopher Creed was a hit, and I was already making a list of recently released YA novels I wanted to check out.
When we were more than halfway through the book, a student approached me before class. He was a shy, quiet boy who always sat in the back and was working hard to keep a solid D average. “I know how the book ends,” he told me. I was in possession of the school’s only copy, so I asked him how he had managed to read it. “I asked my mom to take me to the local library,” he said. “I signed up for a library card and checked it out. I read the whole thing last night.” He smiled. “And I know you’re skipping a lot more words than everyone thinks.”

He went on to tell me that he’d never been inside the library before, even though our local branch was located right across the street. While he was there, his mother also applied for a card and checked out a few books. I was thrilled. I told my student that if he kept the ending to himself, I would give him extra credit on his next test for reading the entire book on his own. He agreed, and I marveled at the fact that he had just given me one of my best moments in teaching—and the idea that I wanted to write YA.

That was in 2003. Since then, I have made it my job to read at least one YA novel a week. The genre has changed so much since I was 15. It is more vibrant and diverse and I am constantly amazed at its bounty.
My first YA novel, Tagged, was published in March 2010. While writing it, I thought about that rowdy class of freshmen. In the back of my mind, they were still my audience. My goal was to write something that would appeal to reluctant readers, something with a fast pace and interesting plot. Something you could read aloud, even. When I stumble over writer’s block, I remind myself of my audience, an audience I chose because I love the way they think and demand and question. I am writing for the quiet kids in the back of the room—as well as the not-so-quiet ones who are looking for a reason to listen.

Thanks Mara, what a great story! Check out Mara's website for more information about Mara, Tagged and her upcoming Past Midnight series about ghosts. It looks really good and comes out in September of this year!
AND don't forget to enter to win a signed copy of Tagged here!


  1. Wow!! That's an awesome story!! Very inspiring!!

  2. WOw! How clever. Must read Tagged.

  3. Mara, our experiences are so similar, only I'm trying to get the reluctant readers even before they come to you. You are a fabulous role model, and I'm certain you will Tag a wide audience. Thanks for letting us know dedicated teachers are out there.

  4. What a wonderful post, Mara. I'm sure you inspired your students more than you know. SO glad you listened to that inner voice that told you to WRITE!


  5. That is a really moving post, Mara. It makes me want to get back in the classroom. I'm imagining you changed the lives of these kids. Kudos!! And congrats on TAGGED. :)

  6. Loved it, Mara. So glad I stopped by, and yes, inspirational!

  7. That story reminds us why people become teachers...and why they become writers.

  8. I'm glad everyone is enjoying Mara's guest post! I think she accoplished what she set out to do with "Tagged" - it is fast paced & one of the things I liked best about it was how it made me thing about my own point of view on things.