Young Adult novels address self-harm

Two authors with Oak Park connections take a look at the issue of cutting

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By Ashley Lisenby

Digital Editor

When Madeleine Kuderick's daughter was in sixth grade, she was exposed to what Kuderick described as "cutting behavior." 

"By seventh grade she was experimenting. By eighth grade she eventually was caught at school and was eventually Baker-Acted," said the author. 

Kuderick grew up in Oak Park, but in Florida, where she lives with her family, the Baker Act, otherwise known at the Florida Mental Health Act, states that a person suspected of being a danger to themselves and others who refuses a voluntary exam may be involuntarily examined in a treatment facility and held for 72 hours. Beyond that 72-hour period, a facility may file a petition for involuntary placement. 

Kenna, the lead character of Kuderick's inaugural Young Adult novel Kiss of Broken Glass, released Sept. 14, is also caught cutting at school and is committed to a psychiatric ward for 72 hours. The book follows the 15-year-old character's three-day journey. 

After living in Florida for more than 20 years and working for a corporate medical device company, Kuderick longed to cultivate something she loved, writing. 

At Oak Park and River Forest High School, she wrote for the school paper, The Trapeze. After graduating in 1982, Kuderick entered a journalism program but later "stepped away from writing."

She returned to it in 2008, attending writing boot camps, conferences and retreats to work on her writing and understand writing as a business. A Highlights retreat in the Poconos, 10 pages of her book in hand, and an introduction to young adult author Alex Finn led to a Harper Collins contract.

"I think the story initially came pouring out [because of my daughter's experience] then took over years after that happened," said Kuderick. "It really isn't my daughter's story. The characters are a culmination of all these voices I found while researching."

One part of Kuderick's research was reading other young adult novels that addressed the issue of self-harm. She lists novels such as Speak, Crank, and What My Mother Doesn't Know as a few titles she has read on her website.

In many books that Kuderick read, she found that many characters were suffering with a dark secret that led to their self-harm. She wanted to tell a story of more "typical" insecurities that might prompt cutting because she had not seen that story told in literature before.

In hundreds of hours of immersing herself in Tumblr blogs about cutting, Kuderick said she saw a theme: People were saying nothing bad had happened to them in their lives, but the pressures of life pushed them to turn to cutting, a behavior that has a drug-like appeal. 

Kuderick intentionally made Kenna "average" in the hopes of making her relatable and explores a change that occurs within the teen that takes her from being mad at herself for being caught cutting — not necessarily for cutting — to arriving at a slightly different mindset at the end. 

The author's choice to highlight the pervasiveness of self-harm and the influence of peers on cutters through the lens of an "average" teen does not diminish, said the author, that some people do cut because of depression, trauma, or other deep issues.

A messy, emotionally abusive relationship is one of those deep issues and the premise of Christa Desir's sophomore novel Bleed Like Me.

"My agent at the time said on Twitter, 'I wish someone would write a YA Sid and Nancy,' " said Desir. "At the time I had been reading stories where the heroine and the hero are a mess and their love makes it better. That's not how that goes, especially for teens."

The romance novel editor, who has lived in Oak Park for the past 11 years and teaches Sunday School at First United Church, wanted to stay away from one-dimensional characters.

In her first novel, Fault Lines Desir writes from the perspective of the boyfriend of the main character who is raped at a party. The book reflects the voices of sexual abuse survivors. One of the founders of the Chicago-based survivors' group, the Voices and Faces Project, she is donating 50 percent of Fault Line proceeds to the organization.

Bleed Like Me also takes a look at tumultuous teen relationships and deeply nuanced characters.

"I'm drawn to characters that are really flawed because I think that's good for people to see," said Desir. "We live in this world where everything creates a mystique about us."

She named the fantasy others imagine about her life because she is an editor and author, but in reality, Desir said, "I'm on the phone with you, but I'm also cleaning up poop in the backyard."

Desir's main character, Amelia, and her boyfriend, Michael, are the incomplete and complex stars of the novel.

Amelia, who feels invisible because her family adopts three high-needs children, gets involved in a "self-destructive, co-dependent relationship" with Michael.

But Desir handles his character a little differently. Instead of following the bad boy trope of a dangerous but attractive and alluring guy, she emphasizes how "stalkery and gross" that archetype can actually be. 

While breaking down the bad-boy stereotype, Desir also reveals Michael's complicated back story, which may evoke compassion for him instead of total disdain.

Both Kuderick and Desir said they have a couple objectives with their novels: to start dialogue about self-harm and to encourage empathy.

"In general, we have a culture of silence around things that make us uncomfortable," said Desir. "It's important to write a book about this because there are people suffering without talking." 

At OPRF the issue of self-harm is brought to the attention of counselors either by a parent or teacher, said the school's director of communications Karin Sullivan. Sometimes a student will report themselves. 

The school does not, however, keep track of how many cases of self-harm are reported.

"While a student's counselor will work to support a student struggling with self-injurious harm behaviors," Sullivan wrote in an email Tuesday, "they will also refer the student to the Youth Interventionist who can work more closely with the student."

Sullivan said that the school counselors work as a team with students and parents to support the student and connect the family to outside resources.

Desir said that talking about self-harm and cutting helps develop compassion.

Desir is working on another young adult novel scheduled for release in January 2016 focused on a female lead with a different addiction: alcoholism. But staying true to her affinity for complexity, she has decided to make her 17-year-old heroine a boxer.

Bleed Like Me will be released Oct. 7, a few days before Desir and Kuderick meet for an author's talk at Anderson's Bookshop in Naperville on Oct. 10.

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