Author asks tough questions in new book
GREENWICH — Bombastic, anti-immigrant election rhetoric. Post-traumatic stress disorder among veterans. Winning or doing the right thing.
Greenwich young adult author Sarah Darer Littman tackles these hot-button themes in her newest young adult book, “Anything But Okay.”
Littman’s book, her sixth for Scholastic Press, hit shelves Tuesday. In it, Stella, a high school junior, runs in a school election that is impacted by a concurrent national election resembling the presidential race of 2016. The second plot follows her older brother, Rob, a veteran of the war in Afghanistan whose struggles with PTSD affects his parents, veterans themselves.
“It’s a timely, topical book, the characters are well-written and well-developed,” Greenwich High School Library Media Specialist Alexandra Stevens said. “Even if you’re not a teenager, it’s a window into some of the things happening in schools today. It might even be a good book for an adult to read and then talk about with their kids.”
In recent years, middle-grade literature has confronted modern problems with increasing frequency and candor.
“It’s much scarier for young people when adults are trying to tell them everything is OK when they know it isn’t,” Littman said. “Being honest in an age-appropriate way is, to me, a better strategy than pretending problems don’t exist.”
For “Anything But Okay,” she asked herself two questions: Why does the U.S. pay to send troops to war but not take care of its returning veterans? And: What does it means to be a patriot?
“I’m trying to find answers for myself, not necessarily trying to tell others what the answers are,” she said. “My hope is they at least start conversations, and I think that’s something that literature does so well.”
Both questions are personal: The first reacts to the story of an acquaintance, a disillusioned Air Force veteran who served in Afghanistan and came back with health issues but was denied disability; the second responds to hate mail she received over years as a political columnist — including for Greenwich Time and the Stamford Advocate.
One piece of hate mail she received told her she “was using the American way of life to destroy the American way of life and the rest of civilization in the process.”
“I found that very confusing,” she said. “I thought I was being a patriot, doing my job as a journalist by questioning some of what I saw happening.”
The dynamic between the veterans in the family in particular interested Stevens.
“I thought that the way she portrayed what veterans are dealing with was something that a lot of teens, especially in the Northeast, don’t have a lot of experience with,” she said.
The book, which Littman said is her most political so far, stems from her virtual classroom visits in which she talks about cyberbullying, the topic of her last book, “Backlash.”
Most kids raise their hands when she asks if they have been the subject of nasty comments online.
“I tell them we as adults have to model the behavior we want to see from you and we’re doing a really lousy job of it,” she said.
Teens are overwhelmed by the the world’s problems and bombarded by them online, Stevens said. Fiction helps them confront these relevant topics at their own pace with a little distance from reality, she said.
“It’s nice to have that safe space,” she said.
Eastern Middle School has every book Littman has written, Library Media Specialist Karen Ball said. Her books, especially “Backlash,” resonate with her students because Littman understands the adolescent mind, she said.
Middle school students know when someone tries to pander to them or talk down to them, but Littman writes with truth and honesty and her readers learn important lessons from her stories, Ball said.
“Kids going through certain things find what they need out of certain books,” Ball said. “Every single one of her books has found readers that needed them.”
There will be a book launch party for “Anything But Okay” at Barrett Books in Darien on Oct. 25 at 7 p.m.