The Pressure to be Perfect: Emily Franklin interviews H.A. Swain about her YA novel Gifted
EF: In Gifted, you write about a future in which genius can be purchased by wealthy parents for their children. What was the inspiration behind this?
HS: Two things happened simultaneously in my life to inspire this premise: 1) My daughter was applying to public middle schools in Brooklyn and 2) I was recovering from a concussion. Those might sound completely unrelated, but here’s the thing… where we live, kids have to apply, audition, submit report cards and test scores, go through interviews, and rank schools just to get a seat in PUBLIC middle school. It’s bonkersville.
During that process, I bounced my head off a cement retaining wall in a snow tubing accident (yes, I did say snow tubing, so embarrassing). As I researched how to recover from a concussion, I came across stories of people with traumatic brain injuries that induce savant abilities. For example, one guy hit his head diving into a pool and woke from a coma as a musical genius.
With all the pressure and non-sense of the middle school process, I could imagine parents wanting to bonk their kids on the head to make them automatic geniuses and guarantee a good spot in middle school. That’s silly of course, but the idea was intriguing.
EF: Do you feel that you were addressing the mounting pressures facing today’s youth to be uber-talented and excel in a particular area?
HS: Absolutely! It’s so easy to fall into. Parents see so much potential we want to foster when our kids are small. Plus, as a culture we have a fascination with precociously talented children. (Think of all the reality TV talent shows about kids who can sing opera or play violin or bake cakes like talented adults.) That pressure can make regular kids feel like sad-sack losers if they aren’t stellar at something when they’re really young.
In our eagerness to find what’s “special” and “amazing” about each unique individual, we run the risk of creating anxiety in kids who are trying to live up to impossible expectations. I worry that we lose sight that it’s good for kids to try lots of things, fail at some, excel at others, but mostly learn to work hard in order to be proficient at something they truly enjoy.
EF: Orpheus’s mother is a former pop star and his father is a successful music executive who expect Orpheus to carry on the family legacy. By contrast, Zimri is a “plebe” warehouse worker and natural-born musical genius whose grandmother is deeply opposed to her making music. What commentary are you making in Gifted about parental figures trying to control the future of their teens?
HS: My favorite parenting advice came from the director of my children’s pre-school who says, “Your job as a parent is to allow your children to become who they are.” Orpheus’s parents and Zimri’s grandmother do not subscribe to this idea.
Orpheus is expected to have a musical Acquired Savant Ability surgery in order to carry on the family reputation and preserve their wealth. (This is the futuristic equivalent of a parent dictating what university a child should go to and which careers are acceptable.) But Orpheus sees how his friends’ induced savant abilities are commoditized for money and fame that don’t necessarily bring them happiness.
On the other hand, Zimri is from the “plebe” class who have little education or opportunity beyond warehouse work. Her grandmother’s fears about Zimri utilizing her musical abilities are not unfounded. The stakes are very high. If Zimri gets caught making illegal music in this world she could be put in prison, or worse, have her brain scrubbed for infringing on strict copyright laws. (This set up is an exaggerated version of discouraging children from pursuing a talent or dream for fear they won’t make a decent living.) For Zimri, being denied the right to make music means she has to suppress a fundamental part of who she is and that makes her deeply unhappy.
As parents, we should be along for the ride, offering support and advice, while letting kids find their own path in life, which is a vital (and exciting) part of becoming an adult.
EF: Beneath all the science and tech of this futuristic society, Gifted is an old-fashioned story of star-crossed lovers. Why was it important for Orpheus and Zimri to come together in this book?
HS: When I’m writing, I love thinking about that moment in life when young people are beginning to pull away from their families to create their own tribes based on common interests and experiences. It’s such an important part of development. As people rely more on social media to find one another, I think we forget that sometimes teens greatly benefit from crossing boundaries (physical or metaphorical) in order to find like-minded people.
Orpheus and Zimri have to overcome many obstacles (he’s a privy, she’s a plebe; he’s posing as someone he’s not, she’s in a relationship with someone else; plus Orpheus’s father will do anything to keep them apart), but somehow they find one another and discover commonality in their passion for music. They’re kindred spirits—just kindred spirits in a fantastical futuristic world with flying cars and delivery drones and brain scrub technology!
EF: Grandmothers play significant roles in both your futuristic YA novels, Hungry and Gifted. Why is the older generation important to your work?
I write about the future in order to see the present more clearly; but in order to contextualize the future, you have to dig into the past. This is true when writing about society and also when thinking about our personal lives. Understanding where you come from helps you figure out where you’re going. As parents, we need to help our teens see themselves as part of concentric circles of communities (family, school, neighborhood, cultural groups, etc.) that have meaningful histories. Grandparents are in a unique position to offer perspective about the past while being an additional source of support as teens forge ahead into their futures.
In our world, where young people feel pressure to be super stars, supporting teens to take their time to find a passion (and the people who share it) goes a long way toward fostering a healthy, happy transition into adulthood.
About Gifted (Feiwel & Friends, 2016)
An entitled boy whose talents are bought meets a girl whose gifts are natural in this futuristic thriller from H.A. Swain, the author of Hungry. In Orpheus Chanson’s world, geniuses and prodigies are no longer born or honed through hard work. Instead, procedures to induce Acquired Savant Abilities (ASAs) are now purchased by the privileged. And Orpheus’s father holds the copyright to the ASA procedure. Zimri Robinson, a natural musical prodigy, is a”plebe”—a worker at the enormous warehouse that supplies an on-line marketplace that has supplanted all commerce. However, her grueling schedule and her grandmother’s illness can’t keep her from making music—even if it is illegal. Orpheus and Zimri are not supposed to meet. He is meant for greatness; she is not. But sometimes, rules are meant to be broken.Gifted by H.A. Swain is a thriller, love story, and social experiment that readers will find gripping—and terrifying.
H.A. Swain writes books for children and teens. She is the author of the young adult novels Gifted and Hungry. Her illustrated children’s book, All Kinds of Kisses and How Many Hugs will be published in 2016 and 2017. She lives in Brooklyn, New York. Follow her@HeatherASwain or stop by her Facebook fan page to say Hi!
Emily Franklin is the author of a novel, Liner Notes and a story collection, The Girls’ Almanac. She is also the author of sixteen young adult books including Last Night at the Circle Cinema, selected by the American Association of Jewish Libraries as a Sydney Taylor Notable Book for 2016, a Junior Library Guild Selection, and an ALAN Pick. Her work has been featured on National Public Radio and in the New York Times, Boston Globe, and in numerous literary magazines. She lives outside of Boston with her husband and four children and is at work completing a new novel and another story collection.
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About Amanda MacGregor
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