Today we have YA author Simone Elkeles, who answered some questions about her novel Leaving Paradise.
How did you come up with the idea for Leaving Paradise?
It came right out of the headlines from my town. A girl stabbed a boy at the junior high by my house. He was injured, but survived. The girl went to juvenile jail and I wondered what would happen when she was released. Would she be allowed back in school? If so, how would her victim react when he saw her? How would her peers react to seeing her again? While Leaving Paradise has nothing to do with the real story, the idea snowballed into the idea for Leaving Paradise – a boy coming back after being released from juvie and facing his victim once again.
Maggie’s self-esteem was pretty low before the accident due to her relationship with her father. Did you intentionally set out to have Maggie not having a high opinion of herself, or did it just turn out that way?
I think it was Maggie’s limp that really set her self-esteem at an all-time low. Because of her limp, everything else that followed was a direct hit to her low opinion of herself. Knowing her father didn’t have a relationship with her made her feel worse about it than before the accident. Being made fun of by her peers was a constant blow to her self-esteem. All those things brought Maggie down. It was Caleb who taught her that she was worth so much more than she gave herself credit for. She needed to learn to accept herself and her body (even her limp) before she could move on with her life. Once she did that, she became a true heroine!
Caleb’s self-esteem once he is back in Paradise is knocked due to what others think of him. How important do you think it is to cover male self-esteem issues as well as females’ in YA novels?
Guys have self-esteem issues just as much as girls do. I think author John Green does a great job of covering male self-esteem issues naturally in his characters (Looking for Alaska is a great example). I think it’s important to portray characters realistically. Some people are comfortable in their skin, and some aren’t. I’m glad there’s a variety out there for readers.
Towards the end of the novel, Maggie has a realisation about herself that changes the way she thinks. Was it important to you to end the novel with a positive for Maggie’s self-esteem?
While I think a girl like Maggie will always have self-esteem issues (doesn’t everyone?), it’s so refreshing to see someone overcome the big hurdles and not worry and obsess constantly about how others are perceiving them. It was definitely important for Maggie to grow as a character, and be a little more confident than when she started out.
Did you write Leaving Paradise with the intent on sending out a message on body image and perception?
No. When I write a book, I don’t have a message or issue to address. Seriously, I write a book without an outline and however it comes out of my head, that’s what it is. If there’s a lesson or message that comes with the story I’ve written, then it’s naturally come out as part of the story. I have body issues/insecurities and don’t know anyone who doesn’t. It’s part of life, unfortunately. That’s probably why it comes out naturally in my novels...it’s part of my subconscious.
What is your opinion on how YA novels deal with body image and self-perception?
As long as it’s realistically done, I’m cool with it. Even the prettiest/model gorgeous girl in one of my novels (Brittany Ellis from Perfect Chemistry) is insecure about her body because that’s realistic.
Were there any books you found dealt well with this topic when you were a teen?
To be honest, I wasn’t a big reader when I was a teen. I remember loving Pippi Longstocking because she was happy even if her clothes didn’t match or she didn’t have any money. She was happy just being Pippi. Don’t we all wish we were like Pippi! (without the mismatched socks)
What is your opinion on how peer and media pressure on how we should look affects teenagers today?
Don’t get me started. I think the media is hypercritical about weight. If an actress or actor gains a few pounds and is actually in the “normal-healthy” range, the headlines announce it to the world that the actor or actress is fat. It’s really awful. I don’t remember it being so bad in the 80’s (when I was a teen). Being stick thin wasn’t “in” and the pressure to be super skinny wasn’t there.
Return to Paradise, the sequel to Leaving Paradise, is coming out in September this year. Can you tell us a little bit about it, please?
Caleb and Maggie are stuck on a summer trip together for teens who have been affected by reckless teen driving. They are still attracted to each other, but Maggie feels betrayed by Caleb because he left her and took the easy way out by leaving Paradise. This time, Maggie is a stronger person and challenges Caleb. She wants the secrets about the night of the accident to come out once and for all, but Caleb resists. If the secret comes out, he went to jail for nothing. There are some crazy characters who help Maggie and Caleb realize that if you don’t risk it all you have nothing to lose.
Anything else you would like to add?
I think it’s great that you’re addressing the idea of self-esteem/body image and self-perception. I was recently telling a successful author friend of mine that she needs to stop acting so self-conscious when she’s around other authors and stand up straight and tall and proud. Doing that doesn’t come naturally to her, but she’s working on it. I do a very good job at hiding my self-esteem issues in public, but be assured that every time someone takes a picture of me I’m dreading how chubby I look or if my bangs are straight or straggly. You’d never know it from the smile on my face! I’m working on my own body image issues, and talking with my friends about my insecurities helps a lot. Sharing with friends/people who love you no matter what you do is the key!
Thank you, Simone, for such great answers! And what great advice at the end there! What do you think about what Simone has said?