The publication of a first book is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. There are parties to attend, interview requests to fulfill, and books to sign. It’s hard not to feel suddenly famous. But how can a book be successfully launched without an author? In the case of the YA fantasy novel Poison (Hyperion) by debut author Bridget Zinn, who died of colon cancer in May 2011 at the age of 33, the answer is simple: with a lot of help from friends.

After years of attending writing conferences and workshops, editing and revising, and fine-tuning her manuscript, Zinn was offered representation by Michael Stearns of Upstart Crow Literary on February 14, 2009, for Poison and a sequel. The novel stars a feisty 16-year-old heroine with a knack for concocting potions who is on a mission – assisted by an enchanted pig and a hunky hero the author named in honor of Fred Weasley – to save her kingdom. But a few weeks later, when she should have been celebrating her good fortune, Zinn received a stage four cancer diagnosis.

Despite rounds of chemotherapy, she never let her illness best her. Her high school sweetheart Barrett Dowell immediately proposed and they got married in the hospital – and then had three more wedding ceremonies in fairly rapid succession, calling the events their “Summer of Love.” Over the next two years, they traveled, moved into their dream house in Portland, Ore., and planned further adventures with friends. All the while, Zinn continued reading – her last tweet was “Sunshine and a brand new book. Perfect.” (The book was a gift from Dowell – Sarah Dessen’s What Happened to Goodbye.) And she kept writing. According to Dowell, Zinn was working on two other novels – both featuring strong female characters and her sharp wit – as well as a few picture book ideas.

Throughout her course of treatment, friends, family, and colleagues banded together to raise money for her medical expenses, holding a nationwide auction that offered up original art, signed books from other authors, and services like manuscript critique sessions to the highest bidder. It’s these same supporters who have returned to help Dowell promote the publication of her book. “I feel an overwhelming sense of gratitude for people’s kindness and generosity with their time and talent. It’s not anything I or Bridget could have done alone,” Dowell says. “Poison is a wonderful legacy for her to have left us.”

A Groundswell of Support

Over the next month, a flurry of events will honor Zinn and promote her book both online and around the country. KT Horning and E.M. Kokie are hosting a video chat on March 12, and remembrances of Zinn and praises for Poison may be tweeted using the hashtag #Poison. Signings of Poison are scheduled across the country, including a mega-signing at Portland’s A Children’s Place Bookstore on March 16 featuring authors Laini Taylor, April Henry, Sara Ryan, Virginia Euwer Wolff, and others, who plan to read passages from the book and sign it. (A stamp with Zinn’s signature was created, too, for use at signings). Writers have begun sharing their “personal poison” on a tumblr feed set up by soon-to-be-debut author Elisa Nader. And a two-week blog tour organized by author Inara Scott with more than 120 children’s and YA book bloggers and authors promises reviews of Poison, stories about Zinn, and more.

Clearly, Zinn left quite a lasting impression on the children’s and YA community. Prior to moving to Portland, she worked for the Cooperative Children’s Book Center and as a youth services librarian at Madison Public Library in Madison, Wis., she made getting quality literature into the hands of teens a daily priority. She also possessed supernatural shelving skills, as seen in the widely circulated mockumentary “The World’s Fastest Librarian.”

“Bridget was like a real-life Anne Shirley [from Anne of Green Gables] – always so optimistic and enthusiastic. She brought in a ray of sunshine every time she came into work,” says KT Horning, a close friend and director of the CCBC. “She had an extensive community here in Madison and people rallied around her. That spirit of community has continued around her book.”

As a fledgling author, Zinn was also a member of SCBWI and deeply involved in various writing groups, both in Madison and in Portland. From doling out critiques on other writers’ drafts and revisions to blogging about recently published novels on her Web site, Zinn tried to help other writers as much as she could. “I feel like she brought me along every step of the way, from first dangling my toes in through publication,” recalls E.M. Kokie (Personal Effects).

In some cases, launching a book without an author might be tricky. But with Poison, the author – and all of her friends – are anything but absent. “The best thing we can do to celebrate Bridget is to help Poison find readers – especially young readers,” Kokie says. “If that means recommending it, or gifting copies to anyone who could use a dose of a strong, funny heroine who trusts her own instincts even when everybody tells her she’s wrong, that’s a book we should be getting out there. It’s a testament to her spirit that people who haven’t even met her feel like they have, and want to be a part of [promoting her book] now that she can’t.”

Poison by Bridget Zinn. Hyperion, $16.99 (Mar.) ISBN 978-1-4231-3993-5

To read PW’s review, click here.