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In Zanesville by Jo Ann Beard ( )

Two Young Best Friends Come Of Age In 'Zanesville'

by NPR Staff
Apr 30, 2011 (Weekend Edition Saturday)

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Jo Ann Beard has written for Tin House and The New Yorker. She teaches at Sarah Lawrence College.

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In Zanesville is the new book by Jo Ann Beard. It is about being in the 9th grade in Zanesville, Illinois — about a girl whose dad drinks, whose mother is hanging by a thread; about the lives of two best friends in this middle-sized mid-American place. A place where crazy neighbors are treasured, because they are not like everybody else.

Beard's narrator, a young girl, doesn't have a name in the book. "She didn't tell me [what it was]," Beard jokes. "I felt so close inside her head, that it really didn't occur to me to name her all the way through, because I felt in some way that I was her. And so, when the moment came when somebody asked me why she didn't have a name, I just trusted my instinct and I withheld it."

Beard chose to go back and reflect on a painful time of life — the early teenage years, after a friend mentioned that she should try young adult literature.

"Why did I decide to do it? I'm not sure," Beard says. "Someone asked me if I would be interested in writing for a younger age group, and I automatically said no. But then the idea started to take hold inside me, and I started remembering specific incidents from my own childhood and young adulthood, and getting interested in how I could twist them and expand them and portray them on the page. And I got really excited about writing in a way that I hadn't for a long time. And so I just immersed myself in it, and it was really, really fun."

The main character in In Zanesville says that she misses her childhood, which she describes in the novel as "one long trance state, broken only by bouts of sickening family dischord."

"Well she may not remember what happened before she was 12, but I have a pretty good memory of what happened to me when I was really young," Beard says. "I'm not sure why that is, except that like the narrator in this book I was an observer. I felt slightly sidelined."

In the book, Beard manages two feats that are quite remarkable: she nails what it is like to be in school at that age, and she makes school funny without ridiculing the kids.

"I don't know how funny it is," Beard demurs. "For me as the writer, I didn't find it to be that amusing, but when I go back and I look at certain sections of it now, they do make me laugh. The girls actually make me laugh, because they are such a strange combination of earnestness and foolishness. I now find them very endearing, now that I don't have to spend every day for five years with them."

The heroine and her friend Felicia, who she calls "Flea," cope with some truly horrific babysitting scenes, with boys, with beer, with what to wear and with one particularly wonderful scene when they ditch marching band during a parade. But where they finally run into something they can't handle is when the pair come into contact with the school's token "cool kids."

"They get discovered by the cheerleaders, quite by accident," Beard says. "They would definitely not be on the radar of any of the popular kids except that a new girl, Patty Michaels, gets transferred from another school and becomes a cheerleader, and she doesn't realize that the two girls are not popular. So she has a birthday party and she spontaneously invites them, which throws them into a tailspin, because even though Patty doesn't understand they don't belong at that party, they understand that. And so they are frantically nervous about going to the party, and frantically nervous while at the party."

It's always the cool kids, the followers, Beard's book seems to say, that create the most problems for others as teenagers.

"It's interesting in this book, because I felt exactly that way when I introduced [the girls] to Patty Michaels and the other cheerleaders," Beard says. "But then I had to live with them for a while, and I had to force myself to see them all three-dimensionally, of course, which is what a writer has to do. And what I discovered about them is that each one of the 'popular' kids has their own issues, and I actually became quite fond of them in all of their obnoxiousness, and I say that while admitting that the two main characters in the book also have their own obnoxiousness as well."

The book implies that the main character will leave Zanesville one day — that the ordinary town will launch her into a less ordinary life.

"I think that 'what's her name' will leave Zanesville at some point, but Zanesville will never leave 'what's her name,'" Beard says.

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