Adept at both verse and prose, novelist Sarah Crossan, who has just ended her term as Ireland’s Children’s Laureate, is especially passionate about novels-in-verse and the ownership they allow young readers to feel for stories. Her newest story in verse, Being Toffee, follows 16-year old Allison as she searches for safety and connection after fleeing her abusive father. Allison builds a friendship with Marla, an older woman living with dementia, who confuses the teen for Toffee, a friend from her youth. Crossan spoke with PW about what compels her to tell stories for young people, her interest in exploring intergenerational friendships, and the power of the verse novel.
You’ve published multiple YA novels and work to promote creative writing in schools. What appeals to you about this audience?
I just love teenagers, and I mean that genuinely. I taught for 10 years, five in Hoboken, N.J., and I find them so exciting because they are excited. I think they often get misrepresented and given bad press. I enjoyed teenagers so much as a teacher, but I know that not everybody feels that way. Some people choose to teach middle grade because they feel it’s much easier, but I don’t recognize that at all from the students I’ve taught, nor do I recognize it in the teenagers I’ve met doing author events or as the Irish Children’s Laureate. The children I met in that position were from diverse backgrounds and some schools in socio-economically deprived areas where one might imagine that children would be very difficult, but they’re not. When you are there to offer them something new and you show them that you trust them, they trust you back.
I also love writing about that moment when young people have to be their own moral compass, and have to think for themselves and behave in a way they think is morally appropriate, and they cannot rely on the adults in the lives anymore, primarily because they realize the adults don’t have all the answers. Of course, as adults we know we don’t have all the answers, but children think we do until a certain point.
You have returned again and again to stories of familial relationships. Why do you feel you’re drawn to telling these stories for teens?
I think it’s because everyone grows up in some form of dysfunction and we don’t know that it’s dysfunction until we step outside of it and realize that not all families are like ours. I think that a lot of adults are, rightly, in therapy, working out how their childhood impacted how they behave as adults. I want to give teenagers an opportunity to look at those family issues while they’re in them. If you’re in a poor relationship and can analyze it while you’re in it and not 20 years later, I think that’s super helpful. I also want to say to young people that it’s okay if you feel a bit different or if you feel like things are difficult, because they’re difficult for a lot of people.
How did this new story, Being Toffee, begin for you?
I wanted to write about a character called Toffee, mainly because I love the word. I love how it sounds in my mouth: toffee. So, I thought, what would Toffee be like? The first poem I wrote was the poem where there’s a description of the word, that toffee is “sweet and hard and could break your teeth.” I started to think about who this girl would be. And, for some reason, I was thinking a lot about Paul Zindel’s The Pig Man, which I read in Year 9 [equivalent to eighth grade], and which made me realize books could make you cry and really change your emotional landscape, so the synapses in your brain wouldn’t ever be the same. I wanted to write about a younger person and an older person and that relationship; I had written a book years ago called Apple & Rain, which was about a girl who lived with her grandmother, and I felt like there was something unfinished in that when it was published.
What do you find compelling about intergenerational stories? From where did Marla’s character come?
I always feel like [young people and old people] are the groups that are marginalized. No one really cares what you have to say until you get to a certain age and then, when you get to another age, no one wants to hear what you have to say either. I love my mum dearly and she’s only 68, yet when she says something at the dinner table, we all kind of make fun of her. Not in a mean way, of course, but the more I thought about it, I realized there’s this sort of disrespect in it, a disrespect that people have for older people or young people and I’m trying to work out what that sweet spot is for the in-between. I think that people in these two groups see something in one another; so I wanted to write about these two characters who on the outside seem to be quite vulnerable, but who had an inner strength and it maybe took another person to remind them of this. I don’t think that Marla saves Toffee or that Toffee saves Marla, but in coming together and being able to have these parallel lives in the same house, they start developing more compassion for themselves. When Marla says to Toffee, “You’re enough. You don’t have to do anything or be anything, you’re enough just as you are,” it’s the one thing she needs to hear. This is the second time I’ve written about this kind of relationship and I don’t think it’ll be the last.
What type of research did you conduct when writing this story?
The main thing I did was speak to people who had family members with dementia. What was really interesting about that research was that there were some similarities, but that everybody’s experience seemed to be unique. The way that the disease impacted different individuals was always very, very different. Which was helpful in a way, because I didn’t want to create a stereotype of a person with dementia. There’s memoir called Somebody I Used to Know by Wendy Mitchell, who wrote the book while living with dementia. That was an incredible story because she was so funny and she also invited other people to find it funny, too. She was saying, “It’s okay to laugh and think things are funny, there is humor in it,” while also combatting this idea of only negative things being associated with dementia, like how distressing it is for people to forget, but you can also forget things that are distressing, too. Which is why I included the part in the book where Marla forgets that there’s been a death in her life. She has an intense grief but can’t pinpoint where the grief comes from, and Toffee decides to quit reminding her of it. And in some ways, that can be a gift.
How does your work as an English and drama teacher inform your work as a writer?
Well, first the level of reading you do as a teacher has an impact. I’ve been a reader my whole life, but when you become an English teacher you read more books that are for young people, so you understand that kind of writing very well.
But, what I guess is more important than that for me is understanding how young people react to different texts and knowing the books that they love and those they find really dull. I always consider how I keep a reader in the back of the classroom, who would rather be on a basketball court, engaged in a book; I’m always thinking about the reluctant reader when I write. That’s one of the most satisfying things about writing: that I get young readers who say, “I’ve never finished a book before, but I read your whole book.” That for me is success and says that I’ve done it right and, hopefully, I’ve done it without sacrificing the language. That’s what I love about verse: you can speak to the struggling reader, while also speaking to the reader who is very competent who will find different things in the language. There are layers to it.
Do you feel that having lived both in the U.S. and the U.K. has had an impact on how you see the world and the stories you tell?
I think I write about identity a lot and, in terms of my identity, it was interesting to live in the States where people would ask me where I was from and I’d say, “Well, I’m Irish but I’ve lived in the U.K.” and they would say, “Okay,” and that was it. No one ever asked me to justify this because the New York area is such a melting pot of different people, but in Britain it’s “pick a side” because of the history between the U.K. and Ireland.
It’s also massively impacted my experience writing in verse. Before my publishing verse, it was so seldom used in the U.K. and Europe. It was only after One won the Carnegie Medal in 2016 that verse novels had completely taken off. They’re everywhere and sell so well, but most are imports from the States, like Kwame Alexander and Jason Reynolds—just to name two—but before my publishing, that hadn’t been the case. But I wasn’t really trailblazing, I was just doing what I’d seen in the States and responding to what I had been teaching in New Jersey. I was teaching Karen Hesse’s Out of the Dust, which was the first young person’s verse novel I had ever encountered. I couldn’t believe the sixth graders I was teaching wanted to read it. I realized this is how we keep young people engaged in the poetry! This is why you can teach a young person poetry and they feel that they’ll understand it, because they’ve been reading Ellen Hopkins or Kwame Alexander or whoever it is, and they feel like [poetry] belongs to them, too. That wasn’t the case in [in Europe] at all.
Do you feel certain stories or subjects are better served by certain formats?
Maybe. I think it’s more about whether the voice is working. When it came to Moonrise, I wrote 87,000 words in prose, but it felt like a lecture on the death penalty. It was because it didn’t have a voice.
I write in a very patchwork way; writing a poem in the back of a poetry book I’m reading and another on my phone and another by voice while driving. Then I think to myself, how can I thread these pieces together with some kind of narrative?
Does your writing process differ or change depending on format or subject?
I tend to write prose in a really linear way, plotted beforehand. With the verse it’s only when I’m about halfway through that I know what I’m going to have to write in order to reach a conclusion. The verse is time-consuming because I probably write three to four times as much as gets published. The editing process is about paring away, realizing I don’t need certain poems because they don’t push the story forward or reveal anything about character, so I get rid of them.
Do you find your books are received differently by readers depending on whether they are from the U.S., U.K., or elsewhere?
It’s interesting because sometimes readers in the U.S. are disappointed that I don’t push that [emotional element] further. Maybe Europeans, because of the kind of film and TV we have here, don’t expect me to push it that far; there’s a reserve about the way emotions are expressed. I lived in the States for eight years but I’m still trying to understand the differences in reading preferences and what is expected in terms of the narrative and where it goes in the story. Also, in the States I’ve had many positive responses from booksellers and librarians, but ultimately, I don’t write loud books because what I’m interested in is the nuance of relationships. What I want to write about are the microaggressions and micro-moments of love and how those are the moments that build relationships and connectivity. I don’t know that those are books that make headlines, but these are the stories we live. I want kids to read a book and see for themselves what belonging looks like.
The tradition of the verse novel in the States works to keep young people engaged in poetry. I realized this when I was doing the We Are the Poets Project and round tables with young people in Ireland as Laureate, that the trauma the young people have already makes them think poetry is nothing to do with them, that they just need the right answer and then can move on. I didn’t feel that [resistance] from students in the States because they never had poetry taken away from them. Through the verse novel, poetry has always belonged to them. Readers in the U.S. have children’s poetry, then the verse novel, and then they step into Whitman or Shakespeare or whatever. It completely bridges that gap. When I go into schools in the U.K., novels-in-verse are a new concept for young people and it can show them that poetry can belongs to them, too.
What’s next for you?
I’ve just finished my two-year Laureate term in Ireland, but I hope I’ll be able to carry on similar work. In August, I have my first adult novel coming out in the U.K., which will also release in the U.S. in November, and is a verse novel [called Here Is the Beehive]. That’s kind of exciting, to bring verse to adults. Hopefully, I’ll be able to do something similar with adults as I’ve done with young readers, so they don’t pass on their own poetry trauma to the next generation. And then I’ve got a new YA that I’m in the middle of editing.
Being Toffee by Sarah Crossan. Bloomsbury, $17.99 July 14 ISBN 978-1-5476-0329-9