Mar. 23—Ashland author Jennie Englund describes her first book, “Taylor Before and After,” as a bold, brave look at coming of age through a central character who navigates a difficult year.
The story of this eighth-grade heroine certainly resonated with readers, and was recently named one of five finalists for the Eloise Jarvis McGraw Award for Children’s Literature in the annual Oregon Book Awards.
In early March, Literary Arts announced 35 OBA finalists across seven genres, selected from 202 titles. Englund, the only finalist from Southern Oregon, said she was “honored and so happy to get Southern Oregon on the creative map.”
“Taylor Before and After” won the Women Writing the West Willa Literary Award for young adult fiction and nonfiction. Oregon Book Award winners are slated to be announced April 25 at Portland Center Stage at The Armory.
“Taylor Before and After,” published in February 2020, takes readers through one year of Taylor’s life via classroom writing prompts, alternating between timelines.
“Through everything, Taylor has her notebook, a diary of the year that one fatal accident tears her life apart,” according to the book description. “In entries alternating between the first and second semester of her eighth-grade year, she navigates joy and grief, gain and loss, hope and depression.”
Reviews dubbed the book an inspirational story that “moves like a wave from tragedy to hope, from despair to resilience.”
“I tell people it’s a wild ride,” Englund said. “And I tell people it is a book for a sophisticated sixth-grader and up.”
From England’s perspective, in an overly wide middle-grade reading market of third through eighth grades, her book fit into a critical gap.
“‘Taylor Before and After’ helped usher in this brand-new market that is relatively still trying to define itself,” she said. “You write the story you’re called to write and then see where it lands.”
After the story was written, the setting found its home on Oahu, where Englund spent five weeks as a National Endowment for the Humanities fellow.
Parallels between the main character’s Oregon roots and new home on Oahu draw from similarities like open and friendly people and a significant coastline that attracts surfing, Englund said.
Of Taylor’s family members, her mother has the most difficult time adjusting, she said, and misses the agriculture of Oregon as she manages her mental health through gardening. When the family moves, the mother greets new obstacles like fire ants, and the challenge of trying to grow in a new climate.
Taylor feels as though she is part of something bigger — a family, a community and a social group — but she also doesn’t fully belong, she said.
“I thought of her as an island and then thought, ‘that’s just like Oahu,'” Englund said.
“It needs to be part of the mainland US, but it’s also significantly rich in history, culture and autonomy,” she continued. “I have a line in there, ‘It cries at once for independence and rescue.’ Isn’t that the epitome of coming of age?”
The book speaks to alienation, isolation and exclusion or being on the outside, she said.
“It’s a brave book, it’s a bold book, it’s strong,” Englund said.
In mid-March, England wrapped up a 27-year teaching career that spanned elementary and middle school, community college, university, four departments and multiple subjects.
With a second book on the editorial agent’s desk, Englund found herself in the midst of a shift in publishing, as stakeholders question how to write a contemporary story after the pandemic.
“A lot of writers and publishers are struggling to define post-COVID writing,” she said.
What does it look like? Do we have to include it? Did it change everything?
One week into the COVID-19 lockdown, Englund started a journal of pandemic-related observations, chronicling day-to-day activities and some predictions as her three children returned home carrying fear about jobs and relationships.
“We went on walks, time was slow, the fish came back to the canals in Venice,” she summarized. “I wanted to keep a record of this historic time because I’m a writer, I can’t help it, and I knew it would be an extraordinary event with unique and extraordinary economic, sociological consequences.”
The journal evolved into responses to George Floyd’s death, the Almeda fire, and other major events during the pandemic.
“I learned things were bigger than COVID,” she said. “Community was bigger than COVID, nature was bigger than COVID.”
As an author writing a contemporary story today, Englund said the material must somehow echo pandemic experiences such as school shutdowns, online learning, wearing masks, vaccines, etc.
“More than the details, I think any writing about during or post-COVID for kids has to address fear, the unknown, the in between,” Englund said. “What’s going to happen to my family? What’s going to happen to me?”
Englund said she curiously awaits the time when the middle-grade market is ready for a COVID story, and to see what shape the narrative takes.
Reach reporter Allayana Darrow at email@example.com or 541-776-4497.