Books of Healing

Sara Zarr, author of young adult fiction, shared her work in an English Reading Series lecture, focusing on tragedy and how families can heal together.

Sara ZarrPROVO, Utah (February 19, 2015)—No matter how large an author’s body of work may be, there are often recurrent themes running throughout their work. Mark Twain is well-known for his approach to race; Stephen King’s protagonists commonly deal with addiction. Sara Zarr – author of five young adult novels and a National Book Award finalist – demonstrated how her own novels share common themes, while still remaining distinct from one another, in an English Reading Series lecture.

“Most writers have certain material or themes that they keep coming back to, whether it’s a personal experience or time in history,” Zarr said, beginning the lecture. In her own work, those themes are family and personal healing. The majority of her books focus on teenage girls who have suffered a tragedy and then work to repair the damage done to their families.

Oftentimes, a writer may develop a theme unintentionally. Zarr pointed out that while many of her protagonists long for a deeper connection with their mothers, she didn’t notice the recurring trend until her own mother pointed it out. “I’m interested in characters who recognize that there’s something not quite right with the world. They have this sense that I think we’re all born with that things are supposed to be a certain way,” she explained. “We’re supposed to be better at loving each other, and we’re supposed to be better at forgiving each other. We’re supposed to be better at connecting, and yet we’re constantly failing at that.”

Whether they are struggling with a death, abandonment or any of a wide range of issues, each of Zarr’s protagonists fight to close the gap between the way things are and the way things should be. To illustrate how, Zarr read excerpts from four of her novels: How to Save a Life, Story of a Girl, Once Was Lost and The Lucy Variations.

In How to Save a Life, Zarr splits the narrative between two lead characters: Jill, whose father has died and whose mother has decided to adopt a newborn, and Mandy, the expectant teen mother of the child to be adopted. Their shared story explores how to deal with loss while preparing for sacrifice.

Story of a Girl, Zarr’s debut novel, is the story of a family that has forgotten how to trust one another. Deanna, the lead, works to rebuild a relationship with her distant father, who hasn’t forgiven her for losing her virginity at a young age. But even as she hopes he will forgive and forget the past, she struggles with letting go of her own mistakes and with focusing on the future.

Once Was Lost takes on issues of faith. A pastor’s daughter comes to a crisis of faith when another girl goes missing and when her own mother enters rehab. Zarr took inspiration from the Elizabeth Smart kidnapping, and the novel tackles feelings of hopelessness in a world that doesn’t conform to beliefs.

Finally, The Lucy Variations is about a teen prodigy learning to love music again. Zarr modelled her protagonist’s journey of self-discovery after her own experiences, specifically a time in her life when she considered giving up on her writing career.

Zarr was forthcoming on what was going on in her own life at the time of writing and how they influenced her output. “I work on making these books emotionally autobiographical. The processes, the emotional journeys that the characters are on are autobiographical,” she said, “but the circumstances are appropriate for what a high school–aged character would experience.”

Despite their serious subject matter, each of Zarr’s books is ultimately hopeful. Just as Zarr has overcome the challenges or feelings that inspired her work, her protagonists find ways to make it through. If there is one message that Zarr’s books have relayed, it is that healing is possible, even from the worst injuries, and families can be united.

For more information about the English Reading Series and upcoming speakers, visit the series’ calendar.

—Samuel Wright (B.A. American Studies ’16)

Photo courtesy of Sara Zarr