A conversation with Patricia McCormick
We’re just a few short weeks away from the arrival of bestselling young adult author Patricia McCormick! She’ll be visiting high schools in all five counties in our service area, as well as headlining a free community event in Wenatchee.
McCormick is a journalist and writer of realistic fiction for young adults, and will be speaking primarily about her award-winning book Sold, which tells the story of a 13-year-old Nepalese girl from a destitute family whose stepfather sells her into prostitution.
She’s written several other critically-acclaimed books about surviving the killing fields of Cambodia, the murder of a boy in Iraq, teen substance abuse, and self injury. She also worked with Malala Yousafzai on the YA version of I Am Malala, the story of a Pakistani girl who was shot by the Taliban for wanting an education.
“She does excellent research to share stories and voices from around the world on some very important topics,” said Luke Ellington, NCRL’s teen services manager. “She’s bringing teen readers into worlds they might otherwise never be aware of.”
To prepare for her five-day visit, we provided 1,300 copies of Sold to schools in Quincy, Ephrata, Chelan, Omak, Okanogan, Tonasket, Republic, Wenatchee, and East Wenatchee. McCormick will visit those schools while she is here, and several neighboring school districts will transport students to hear her speak. In addition, she will meet with teens in juvenile detention at Okanogan County and Chelan County detention centers.
On Nov. 13, the public is invited to hear McCormick talk about Sold at the Wenatchee High School Auditorium. The event is free and no tickets are required. At 5 p.m., a movie based on the book will be shown, and at 6pm McCormick will speak. People may attend either or both the movie and the talk.
McCormick recently chatted with our Public Relations specialist about Sold, her writing process and her upcoming visit:
Why do you think it’s important for kids to read about these sensitive, tough topics like child trafficking?
When the book first came out (in 2006) not many people knew about trafficking. Now people are very aware. Kids are particularly aware and are at the forefront of the campaign to end it. They very much see the injustice that these kids who have been trafficked are experiencing.
I don’t use graphic language. The writing stays in the frame of a 13-year-old girl’s experience. She’s not going to use graphic language. She’s going to
express confusion, bewilderment, hurt, a sense of being so completely betrayed and lost. I think that’s the emotional level at which kids connect to
the story. It’s less about the sex.
It’s important for kids to hear about these kinds of topics because it’s happening to their peers. It can also happen to them. We tend to think of trafficking as something that happens to people over there somewhere. But the truth is that kids in the U.S., kids who run away, are very quickly trafficked. I think it’s important for youth readers to know that’s happening to kids in the U.S. and that it’s a risk you take when you run away. I also think it’s also important for them to see that kids who are caught up in this are victims. It’s easy to look at urban kids, or kids who run away and get involved in prostitution, as tough. If you talk to them they’ll say “No one is taking advantage of me; I’m doing this because I want to.” But despite all that bluster, they are children and they are victims. We need to treat them as victims and not be judgmental or start shaming and blaming them.
Why do you write about tough topics— and do you worry that your books might not be appropriate for some teenagers?
My son teases me about the books I write. He says, “Where do you come up with the ideas for your books, Mom? What do you do, google the word ‘sad’?”
But seriously, I’m simply drawn to these topics — things I can consider substantive. If I’m going to spend three years working on a book I want it to really be about something important. I want to bring attention to issues people might not otherwise know about and I want to change attitudes.
Sold ends just as the main character is freed from prostitution? Why didn’t it tell what happens next for her?
When I wrote the book, I kept on going past the moment where the girl is liberated. I wrote about her stepping into the sunshine, feeling the warmth of the sun on her shoulders, breathing fresh air, buying a clean dress, burning her old dress, taking a bath, getting an HIV test, going to counseling. But my editor said no. The book ends at the pivot point where she encounters a change. That way it hangs on your mind uncomfortably. You must fill in the blanks. You wonder if she went home, if she’s HIV positive, all those things that engage a reader and keep the book in your head long after you close the last page.
What do you hope people will take away from reading Sold?
It’s not like certain books where you are eager to dive in and start reading. You know you’re getting into something difficult when you open the book. But so many kids have tapped into their own sense of wanting to be activists for social justice. The idea that you can read a book, be transported to an experience so different than your own and feel a kinship with the characters and want to make a difference. It’s no good if we read about the sad experiences of someone else and then do nothing about it.
So how do you go from reading a book about sex trafficking to doing something meaningful to help?
It really starts with awareness. You talk with your parents. You talk with your friends. We aren’t the people who have our hands on the levers of power…but I think public opinion creates a moral pressure on people who are in power. I also think we can help by changing our views on things we casually encounter every day — certain song lyrics that are disrespectful of women or rejecting what kids call the pimping culture, where they dress like a pimp and treat women and girls like conquests. When you read a book like this it opens up your thinking to other areas where you may have tolerated lower levels of respect toward women. You can stop a classmate from talking a certain way about girls. You can choose not to buy a song. Put things on on social media to say you are opposed to the objectification of women. All of a sudden there is a ripple effect.
A second piece would be activism. Calling a legislator to get laws changed. Making a financial contribution to an organization that is working to stop trafficking. Even if you give a small donation, it’s a way of saying: "I decided not to go out to lunch today and I’m using some of my hard earned money to help someone else".
How do you deal with the emotions of writing a story like this, visiting a brothel and talking with women and girls who were sold into the sex trade?
You have to bring all your empathy to the interviewing process and come to care about these people very much. Then you have to go home and bring all your artistic and journalistic ability to convey the story with as much power as you can. In the middle is the really hard part. When I left Calcutta and came back home after visiting the brothels and talking with survivors, it was late November. People were doing Christmas shopping, I shuffled around New York feeling so depressed and so daunted. I thought that I don’t have what it takes to really convey this experience so all the people with all their holiday packages will stop and do something to help. I mean, what my family spent on wrapping paper will feed a family in Nepal for a year.
What I did was start writing one vignette at a time. It’s all I could deal with. The material was so dark. But little by little, the story started to come out. Then my whole mode and attitude changed. I went from feeling depressed to feeling a sense of urgency and a sense of power over the problem. Instead of feeling daunted, I was bringing the gifts I have to this issue. I could make people aware. I could change attitudes. I can’t help those people who were so generous in sharing their stories with me. But I can help in a bigger way by bringing their stories to the world.
What has changed in the world of trafficking since the book was written?
Our government gave the government of Nepal a fleet of motorcycles. It doesn’t sound like a lot. But the border between India and Nepal is immense. They had been walking it on foot. With motorcycles they can cover more territory. Their police have also undergone training to look for young girls in the company of older men, girls who looked stunned, girls who are crossing the border without family members.
I feel like this is an issue that has really captured people’s interest because of the blatant cruelty of it. Lots of organizations are active on this front. In addition, airlines are now aware of tell-tale signs of women and children being trafficked. Hotels and taxi companies have been made aware of their role in the chain of events that gets child to customer. Hospitals have been made aware that they are often the first contact a trafficked person has with the outside world. Law enforcement has been better trained. I really feel like things have changed significantly.
What do you like most about talking with students?
They keep you on your toes. They are both excited and challenging. Some kids read with heart and soul, buying into the story completely and your characters take up residence in their heads. Other kids are constantly insisting that you prove things to them; you have to win them over. They want to know why they should read this book rather than being online or doing a million other things they could be doing that are easier and less demanding than reading.
You asked to speak with kids at juvenile detention centers here. Why is that?
While I was doing a talk in Texas, a woman asked if I would go to a juvenile detention center while I was there. When I got there, I thought to myself ‘This is going to bomb. What are urban kids in juvenile detention going to care about a girl living in a mud hut in Nepal.” What I discovered is they get it on a visceral level. They had similar experiences of being let down or betrayed by a parent. They relate to the sheer unfairness of it. They relate to the idea of being captive. They are captive to a system and have lost control of their liberties. When they see a young girl who’s captive and fighting for her dignity and working toward her freedom, I think it’s inspiring to them. I also love to visit those kids because they feel as if they’ve been forgotten. And if there’s ever a group of kids that need good adult attention, it’s those kids.
What are you working on now?
I have a new book that just came out last month: Sergeant Reckless: The True Story of the Little Horse That Became A Hero. It is a children’s picture book about a horse who is the only animal ever to officially hold a military rank and be awarded a Purple Heart for valor on the battlefield. Otherwise, I’m looking for my next project.