YA A to Z: P is for Penultimate, how a competitive writing competition inspired a YA novel
Today for the letter P, guest blogger Cecily Wolfe is joining us to discuss her YA book
In the spring of 2017, I was asked to chaperone the members of my middle school age daughter’s competitive writing team at the state championship event. The two-hour drive with these young writers, some I had never conversed with before, got me thinking. As a writer myself, most things do, but this was an extraordinary circumstance. I wondered if anyone had written about teens participating in a writing competition, and after a brief search on my phone after arriving and managing to snag a donut and coffee somewhere amidst the controlled chaos (very controlled – after three decades, those running the event know what they are doing), I discovered that none, if they existed, were easily found.
The Competition was born that day, or at least the start of many notes that evolved into the story. Some of my daughter’s teammates were happy to be there, and others weren’t. Both sides told their stories, from their love of writing and storytelling, to the pressure from parents to win, both for the prestige and for the money. The scholarships involved were specific to the host college (it is the same every year) but not enough to cover the tuition, and certainly nowhere near the full, four-year scholarship the characters in the novel aim towards. What spoke to me most was the emotional aspect of the experience, and my notes, written on the back of handouts left on tables as I waited in the café area of the school building that held the initial assembly that morning, included facts as well as those emotions.
Less than a week later, I accompanied a friend who was visiting a family member in state prison. Her family’s struggles were the inspiration behind my 2017 YA novel, That Night, and as we talked on the drive down to Richland Correctional, a young girl with an incarcerated brother she adored crept into my thoughts. What if this girl, who was too young to visit her brother without her parents’ permission, was a writer in this competition story that was building in my head? Mary Sofia, determined to rise above her violent family history and be a role model to her younger brothers and sisters, was born that day, and Raiden, Camara, Michael, and Jada not long after. A longtime friend of one of my daughters who is on the autism spectrum was the inspiration for Julia, with whom I took great care while writing. Julia never says she is autistic, but her behaviors lead her classmates to suspect she is. I also took a chance writing a biracial and a Chinese character, knowing that as a white woman, I am putting myself out there for some criticism. I was wary of stereotypes and asked my daughters’ friends who are from these backgrounds to read what I had written and share their insights, which were invaluable, with me.
What does all this have to do with the letter P?
The Competition is the name of the book, but the actual competition is called The Penultimate. While the influence of the real event held in Ohio every year, called the Power of the Pen, is what started the story growing in my thoughts, the details of the fictional event are different. In The Competition, 100 high school juniors compete for a full scholarship to a prestigious private college worth $200,000. The four main characters as well as the secondary characters have different motivations for participating, but all have made the cuts from district and regional events and have proven themselves as some of the top writers of their age in the state. Some of what happens is inspired by real events: for example, one of my daughter’s teammates was so stressed out because of parental pressure that she vomited after one of the writing rounds, and so do some of the characters in the novel. The overnight stay is entirely fictional, and provided more social time to explore the relationships that build between these four teens who have never met until the day of the competition. With such diverse backgrounds and challenges, how and why would they ever become friends?
Common ground, of course, and as The Competition illustrates, it can exist when you least expect it. Often it isn’t discovered until difficulties arise and you have to work together to overcome them, as these characters find out only hours after meeting each other. Like my first YA novel, this one is about dealing with adversity while holding on to hope and trust, becoming stronger for the challenge, and being emotionally present for others who are facing their own struggles.
About The Competition, which publishes on September 18 in both paperback and electronic editions:
For Mary Sofia, The Penultimate writing competition is more than a chance at a free college education; she wants to show her younger siblings that they can all rise above their violent family history. For Raiden, the pressure to succeed comes from within, although he knows that family traditions play a part in his determination. For Camara, writing fiction is almost compulsive, but her own dark secret may be the best story she can ever tell. For Michael, swimming and writing fit his introverted personality perfectly, but meeting a smart and beautiful girl at The Penultimate makes stepping outside of his comfort zone easy. All four will compete against each other along with 96 other high school juniors for the chance of a lifetime: a full scholarship to a prestigious private college. Some students will do anything to win, but others may pay the price.
Meet Cecily Wolfe
Cecily Wolfe was born and raised in Akron, Ohio. She graduated from Kent State University with degrees in English and library science, and enjoys her career as a librarian in Cleveland. She is the author of That Night, (longlisted for the 2018 In the Margins book award), Reckless Treasure, A Harvest of Stars, and the Cliff Walk Courtships series.
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About Karen Jensen, MLS
Karen Jensen has been a Teen Services Librarian for almost 30 years. She created TLT in 2011 and is the co-editor of The Whole Library Handbook: Teen Services with Heather Booth (ALA Editions, 2014).
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