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Posts Tagged ‘Story of a Girl

Although I just reviewed it this past fall, I recently took Story of a Girl off my shelves again to reread for the umpteenth time because I’m currently doing a round-up of Sara Zarr’s books. Because there would be little point in my reviewing Story of a Girl a second time, I thought instead I’d share some information about how the novel came about.

Story of a Girl is Zarr’s first novel, one which earned the National Book Award. It’s also one of Zarr’s least autobiographical books. There’s no particular incident that it’s based on. Instead it’s a story that started with a side character who walked onto the page of Zarr’s third book.

While between projects, Zarr decided she wanted to write more about this side character. Deanna’s voice, her attitude, her vulnerability, and her toughness were all right there from the start. It was just a matter of building a story around her.

To write about Deanna, Zarr thought about the type of girl she knew in junior high and high school, the one who was always the subjects of crazy rumors and gossip. Even back then, Zarr used to think, “That can’t really be true. I wonder what the real story is….”

One day, Zarr imagined Deanna watching the Nova special “The Miracle of Life” in her high school health class. Although the scene got cut in the early draft stages, imagining Deanna’s thoughts about the film was the beginning of learning Deanna’s voice.

Zarr knew she had an older brother whose girlfriend was pregnant. She knew Deanna came from a working class family. She knew the relationship with her father was strained. From there, the novel evolved.

However, it wasn’t just Deanna’s voice Zarr heard. Deanna’s brother, his pregnant girlfriend, and their parents all seemed to have a story to tell. There were too many things going on, which meant that none of them had the power that they could or should. It took multiple versions for Zarr to figure out how to hone in on Deanna’s longing for a certain kind of life and family and to focus on what was keeping Deanna from having them. Actually, Zarr’s  handling of Deanna’s story reflects her worldview—that nobody is innocent, and it’s very rare that one person or circumstance is completely to blame.

The novel needed refinement in other ways too. For example, the central conflict between Deanna and her father was more about him being depressed and emotionally absent than about anything specific. The writing got easier only after Zarr had a specific incident, that of Deanna’s father finding his thirteen-year-old daughter in the back seat of a car with a high school boy, on which to anchor the family turmoil. Another example is that of Tommy. For Zarr, making him into a real person and not just a cardboard cutout of “bad boy” was one of the more challenging and enjoyable parts of the writing process.

As for research, unlike in some of her subsequent novels which have been inspired by real events, it didn’t take much. Zaarr had spent her teen years living in Pacifica, the setting for Story of a Girl. Like Deanna, she also worked at a pizza place in a strip mall. Moreover, even though Zarr herself had felt pretty optimistic about her future, she had also seen how so many working people in a town like Pacifica can feel trapped or in a self-perpetuating rut. Finally, in terms of the psychological challenges, Zarr explains that central to the story is the way we’re usually our own worst enemy, which is something everyone has felt.

We can talk about YA books offering hope, and how kids need self-esteem, and there is this strong “believe in yourself” message that kids get from various quarters.

But what happens when you look to yourself and you see something you don’t like–where is this self-esteem supposed to come from? I don’t believe you can just manufacture belief in yourself, or hope, though the power of positive thinking.

With Deanna, I wanted to take her into herself and have her want to have hope, and want to do what’s right, but come up against a wall the way that most of us do at some point in our lives. There had to be some external factors to help her out of the hole, because the truth is that sometimes we don’t have the inner resources.

Sara Zarr, Cynsations

For the above information, I drew on interviews at these sites:

Over the next two weeks, I’ll return with more information about or reviews of Sara Zarr’s other novels. Save the dates: May 29-June 6!

Story of a Girl (novel)

Story of a Girl (novel) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Winner of the 2007 National Book Award, Story of a Girl by Sara Zarr is the sympathetic story of a teenage girl caught having sex in the back of a car by her father. Three years later, he has never forgiven her. Nor have any of her peers forgotten, many of whom have labeled Deanna a slut. A realistic portrayal of a family trying to find their way in the aftermath of Deanna’s promiscuity, Story of a Girl is written by one of my favorite authors.

When searching for selections to include in my round-up of books about misfit and troubled kids, Story of a Girl popped into my mind. Deanna longs to escape a life defined by that one mistake. Her former friends refuse to associate with her. Most boys now view her as a sex object; waiting in line for Chinese take-out, an older boy puts his hands between her legs from behind.  What is perhaps most heart-breaking is that Deanna’s dad hasn’t talked to her or looked at her since that night. Actually, Deanna’s whole family is troubled. Her brother, Darren, lives with his girlfriend and their baby in his parents’ basement. His girlfriend, Stacey, leaves  one night to move in with a friend. As for the parents, the dad has lost his job and ability to forgive his children for their mistakes, while the mom doesn’t know how to pull the family back together.

As I reread Story of a Girl, I tried to figure out why Sara Zarr is one of my favorite authors. An obvious answer is that Zarr creates interesting stories populated with realistic characters. Of course, so do many other authors. What makes Sara Zarr special? In Story of a Girl, I appreciated how Zarr dangled a hope in front of readers that Deanna could escape her life by renting an apartment with Darren and Stacey. It’s a realistic goal, and potentially life-changing. I also appreciated how well Zarr understands relationships. One of my favorite scenes is between Deanna and her brother. Darren is trying to figure out why Stacey left. Deanna suggests perhaps it’s because he didn’t have the right reaction to Stacey’s dyed hair. When he pushes for an explanation, Deanna says that with Stacey’s new hair style, she could have become anyone. “Like, what if she hadn’t had April? She might be in college or backpacking across Europe or something….” His reaction is perfect and priceless: “And that’s a reason to leave? Because I didn’t get all that from a dye job?” I love Zarr’s characters!

A less obvious answer to the question of why Zarr is one of my favorite authors is that she writes about faith in her books. Even in Story of a Girl, where religion isn’t integral to the plot, Zarr slips in lines like these: “I thought of something Lee had said once when she was talking about church, that sometimes there was no reason to believe in God and you’d look at your life and know it was crazy to feel peaceful but you did anyway, and that was faith.” Zarr never preaches, and none of her stories are salvation ones, but her positive view of God shines through.

All of Sara Zarr’s books are on my wish list. It was fun to reread Story of a Girl again for my round-up of misfit and troubled kids. Compared to the other selections on my list, Story of a Girl is shorter in length and quieter in tone. In some ways, therefore, it’s less suspenseful. And yet perhaps it’s that very essence, its everyday realism, that makes it resonate so strongly.

My rating? Bag it: Carry it with you. Make it a top priority to read.

How would you rate this book?

One of my favorite authors, Sara Zarr, was born in Ohio but raised in San Francisco. Zarr attended high school in Pacifica, California, and later earned a degree in communications from San Francisco State University. She grew up as an Evangelical Christian, a faith with which she still associates though she lives in a predominately Mormon community.

I had an interesting childhood in San Francisco involving spies, orphanages, wagon trains, tornadoes, kidnappings, evil school marms, and re-enactments of popular Broadway shows and the movie “Grease.” You could say I had an imagination.

–Sara Zarr, Query Tracker Blog

At age twenty-five, Zarr met up with authors and agents in an IRC chatroom, who inspired her to attempt her first young adult novel. She set for herself the goal of having her first novel published before she was thirty. After a long culmination of little things, and a time when she’d been writing and submitting for about seven years, Zarr was ready to give up on writing and make a new plan for what to do with her life. Fortunately, she went to a weeklong workshop where she took a fiction class and mingled with a lot of other people who wanted to do what she wanted to do. The response to her work in the class was so positive she came away with new enthusiasm and determination. In her mid-thirties, after winning the Utah Arts Council best young adult novel of 2003, she was able to find an agent who successfully sold Story of a Girl.

Sara Zarr

Sara Zarr (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Since that first sale, Zarr has become an acclaimed author. Her books have been variously named to annual best books lists of the American Library Association, Kirkus, Publisher’s Weekly, School Library Journal, the Guardian, the International Reading Association, the New York Public Library, and the Los Angeles Public Library. She’s also been a National Book Award finalist and two-time Utah Book Award winner. In 2007, Zarr gave up her day job to become a full-time writer. In 2010, she served as a judge for the National Book Award. As of summer 2013, Zarr has also become a member of the faculty of Lesley University’s Low-Residency Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing program.

Beyond these basics, most of the information I could find about Zarr focused on her reasons for writing for young adults, her Christian background, and the inspirations behind her various books. I’ll briefly tackle these one at a time.


Zarr explains to Confirm Not Conform, “I always say that I didn’t choose YA so much as YA chose me. When I first started writing, the story ideas all featured teenagers in the leading roles, and YA was sort of my natural writing voice.” As for why she enjoys the field, Zarr likes that young adult characters are experiencing situations for the first time. This allows an author to approach a story without the “layers of cynicism and weariness we accumulate in childhood”. Last, for Zarr, it’s rewarding and humbling, when a young reader says that an author’s book is the first that they have ever finished or that one of the characters in an author’s book said something the reader needed to hear.


Confirm Not Conform also interviewed Zarr about her faith, asking where did she start and where she is now. Zarr shared that she started in the San Francisco Jesus Movement of the 1970s during my childhood, “a fascinating combination of end-times theology and hippies with guitars”. Now she belongs to a small Presbyterian church, where people are “encouraged to ask and explore difficult questions rather than arrive at the comfort of answers”. Beyond that, her faith fluctuates and varies, which Zarr expects will continue to be true for the rest of her life. Sometimes her worldview is as simple as “there is a divine creative force and there is meaning in life,” while other times her faith includes the central tenets of the gospel. At times, she can read the Bible and feel angry, especially at the Old Testament. At other times, she can feel deeply spiritually connected, especially to the Pauline epistles.

Another interview: Walking Through Faith and Doubt


Zarr’s first published stand-alone novel, Story of a Girl, was a 2007 National Book Award finalist. It’s also considered by some to be on the edgier side of young adult. When asked by Query Tracker Blog, if this helped or hurt her career, Zarr replied that it was hard to say. Although there have been groups who didn’t choose it for their lists or collections because of content, Zarr believes Story of a Girl has found its audience, and emphasizes that, “I think it was well-received not because of its edginess or non-edginess, but because something about the character’s emotional journey resonated with readers in a way that feels true to them.”


To finish my write-up about Sara Zarr, I’d like to end with her explanation of a quote that motivates her. The quote, loosely paraphrased by her, is: “Talent is as common as house dust and useless as tits on a boar. What counts is hard work, perseverance, determination.” She once heard Barry Moser say something close to that at a conference.

I love it, because it eliminates the excuse of sitting around worried that you’re not gifted enough to write. There are lots of very talented people who never publish a word because they don’t have the hard work and perseverance part down. I’m not saying that talent plays no part in making good writing, but it certainly isn’t that important when it comes to having a career. Some of the worst books in the world are best sellers! I’m not saying go out and write a bad book. The point is: we all feel insecure about our talent or giftedness, and might waste years of our lives trying to ascertain whether or not we have the gene or the aura or the magic muse or whatever it is we think we have to have to give ourselves permission to write. There’s really no way to know what resources of talent lie within until you get to work and keep at it, always striving to improve and challenge yourself.

–Sara Zarr, Query Tracker Blog

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