Last April, Gaby Rodriguez, then a 17-year-old high-school honor student in Toppenish, Wash., landed in the media spotlight when she announced that she had feigned a pregnancy as an experiment for her senior project. The widespread attention—she was interviewed by newspapers across the country and appeared on Today—led to a book contract with Simon & Schuster, as well as a TV movie deal with Lifetime. The publisher will release The Pregnancy Project, which Rodriguez wrote with Jenna Glatzer, on January 17 with a 100,000-copy first printing, and the TV film airs on January 28.
"I wanted to do something that would impact my school and my community, and decided to start with something small, to bring an awareness of teen pregnancy," says Rodriguez of the inspiration for her experiment. "Teen pregnancy is a big problem, and not only in my community. At a time in their lives when teens are becoming sexually active, they need to realize how the decisions they make now will ultimately affect their lives. And those teens who do become pregnant need to know that it’s not the end of the road. They can find support for themselves and their child, and can move forward."
Rodriguez also had a personal impetus for carrying out her faked-pregnancy experiment. Her own mother became a parent as a teenager, and the author has older siblings (she is the youngest of eight children) who were also teenage parents. "My mom has always been my number-one support system in everything I have done," Rodriguez says. 'She has always been open and honest with me, and my experiment was also a way of going back to her journey and the struggles she had as a teenage mother and a single parent."
The experiment had its downside: in The Pregnancy Project, Rodriguez writes about her feelings of isolation from classmates who she knew were gossiping about her behind her back, and of her guilt at lying to those close to her, including friends, teachers, her boyfriend’s parents, and her family—only her mother, one sister, and her boyfriend were in on the ruse.
Rodriguez was entirely surprised by the media floodgates that opened after her announcement that she was not actually pregnant, which took place at a school assembly (where she removed the ersatz baby bump she and her mother had fashioned). "I thought it was huge that our local TV station wanted to do a story about it, and when I got calls from national TV showsit seemed overwhelming at first," she says. "Then the ball kept rolling and rolling, and I realized how blessed I have been with everything."
Instrumental in getting that ball rolling was Sharlene Martin, president of Martin Literary Management on Mercer Island, Wash. When the publicity surrounding Rodriguez’s story exploded, the local school board contacted a Seattle attorney to help manage the onslaught of media attention, who in turn contacted Martin. "I met with Gaby and her principal, and we realized that there was something very special here, so I began to put together a strategy for her about how to proceed," Martin explains.
A Snowball Effect
After finalizing Rodriguez’s appearance on Today, Martin turned to what she calls "part two of the plan." The agent signed up Glatzer as ghostwriter and created a book proposal to shop to publishers. That proposal caught the eye of Zareen Jaffrey, executive editor of Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, who purchased rights to the book in a preemptive offer.
"I’d read about Gaby’s story in the media, and then heard that there was a proposal being sent around, and I was intrigued enough to ask Sharlene to send it along," Jaffrey recalls. "When I read Gaby’s story I was very moved, because the back story of her own family gives her experience such an emotional context, and her bravery and sense of self shine through. She was not watching teenage pregnancy on reality TV, she had seen it take place in her own family and wondered why the story kept repeating itself. Her experiment is worth sharing with teens who might be struggling with different stereotypes. Gaby shows them that you don’t have to live down to what others expect of you. You can take control of your own life and, even after making mistakes, you can make choices that will lead to a better life."
Within a week of S&S’s acquisition of The Pregnancy Project last June, Martin inked a deal with Lifetime for a TV movie of the same title. The publisher shared with screenwriter Teena Booth the book proposal, Gaby’s diary, and the manuscript she was in the process of writing with Glatzer, and the book and movie script came together simultaneously. "We’ve gone to breaking news to a finished book and an accompanying film in just eight months’ time," says Martin. "It’s a great lesson about what can be done when you have a team all on the same page, united for the same goal."
Rodriguez was thrilled to be invited to visit the Vancouver set of the Lifetime film based on her book. There she met Alexa Vega (of Scrubs fame), who plays her in the movie. "She did an amazing job with the role, and asked me how she could tie it into my life more closely," says Rodriguez. "And they put me in a couple of scenes as an extra, including the scene where I revealed the truth about my experiment at the school assembly. That took a while to get used to—it was so unreal to be sitting in the audience at the assembly."
The author, who is now a freshman at Columbia Basin College in Pasco, Wash. (and plans to transfer to a Washington State university after she graduates in 2013), gets to skip classes during the week of January 16, when she’ll make appearances promoting the book in New York City, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C. She’ll appear on Dr. Phil later this month, and Seventeen magazine is preparing a "My Life" feature about her project.
Last fall, the ACLU of Washington presented Rodriguez with the 2011 Youth Activist Award and honored her at a dinner in Seattle. At that event, Martin reports, Rodriguez was seated next to the dean of Seattle University School of Law, who told the author that, once she completes her undergraduate degree, his school would provide her with a full scholarship if she is interested in pursuing a law degree. "It’s amazing to see how this girl’s life has changed forever," Martin says. "She has been empowered by her creative thinking and tenacious drive, and her social experiment has clearly struck a nerve all over the world."
The Pregnancy Project: A Memoir by Gaby Rodriguez with Jenna Glatzer. Simon & Schuster, $17.99 Jan. ISBN 978-1-4424-4622-9