Two Young Best Friends Come Of Age In 'Zanesville' In her new novel, In Zanesville, writer Jo Anne Beard tells the story of two 9th grade girls, struggling to deal with life in a small town and pressure from the 'popular kids.'

Two Young Best Friends Come Of Age In 'Zanesville'

Two Young Best Friends Come Of Age In 'Zanesville'

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In Zanesville
By Jo Ann Beard
Hardcover, 304 pages
Little, Brown and Company
List Price: $23.99
Read An Excerpt

In Zanesville is the new book by Jo Ann Beard. It is about being in the 9th grade in Zanesville, Illinois — about a girl whose dad drinks, whose mother is hanging by a thread; about the lives of two best friends in this middle-sized mid-American place. A place where crazy neighbors are treasured, because they are not like everybody else.

Beard's narrator, a young girl, doesn't have a name in the book. "She didn't tell me [what it was]," Beard jokes. "I felt so close inside her head, that it really didn't occur to me to name her all the way through, because I felt in some way that I was her. And so, when the moment came when somebody asked me why she didn't have a name, I just trusted my instinct and I withheld it."

Beard chose to go back and reflect on a painful time of life — the early teenage years, after a friend mentioned that she should try young adult literature.

"Why did I decide to do it? I'm not sure," Beard says. "Someone asked me if I would be interested in writing for a younger age group, and I automatically said no. But then the idea started to take hold inside me, and I started remembering specific incidents from my own childhood and young adulthood, and getting interested in how I could twist them and expand them and portray them on the page. And I got really excited about writing in a way that I hadn't for a long time. And so I just immersed myself in it, and it was really, really fun."

The main character in In Zanesville says that she misses her childhood, which she describes in the novel as "one long trance state, broken only by bouts of sickening family dischord."

"Well she may not remember what happened before she was 12, but I have a pretty good memory of what happened to me when I was really young," Beard says. "I'm not sure why that is, except that like the narrator in this book I was an observer. I felt slightly sidelined."

In the book, Beard manages two feats that are quite remarkable: she nails what it is like to be in school at that age, and she makes school funny without ridiculing the kids.

"I don't know how funny it is," Beard demurs. "For me as the writer, I didn't find it to be that amusing, but when I go back and I look at certain sections of it now, they do make me laugh. The girls actually make me laugh, because they are such a strange combination of earnestness and foolishness. I now find them very endearing, now that I don't have to spend every day for five years with them."

Jo Ann Beard has written for Tin House and The New Yorker. She teaches at Sarah Lawrence College. Jennifer May hide caption

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Jennifer May

The heroine and her friend Felicia, who she calls "Flea," cope with some truly horrific babysitting scenes, with boys, with beer, with what to wear and with one particularly wonderful scene when they ditch marching band during a parade. But where they finally run into something they can't handle is when the pair come into contact with the school's token "cool kids."

"They get discovered by the cheerleaders, quite by accident," Beard says. "They would definitely not be on the radar of any of the popular kids except that a new girl, Patty Michaels, gets transferred from another school and becomes a cheerleader, and she doesn't realize that the two girls are not popular. So she has a birthday party and she spontaneously invites them, which throws them into a tailspin, because even though Patty doesn't understand they don't belong at that party, they understand that. And so they are frantically nervous about going to the party, and frantically nervous while at the party."

It's always the cool kids, the followers, Beard's book seems to say, that create the most problems for others as teenagers.

"It's interesting in this book, because I felt exactly that way when I introduced [the girls] to Patty Michaels and the other cheerleaders," Beard says. "But then I had to live with them for a while, and I had to force myself to see them all three-dimensionally, of course, which is what a writer has to do. And what I discovered about them is that each one of the 'popular' kids has their own issues, and I actually became quite fond of them in all of their obnoxiousness, and I say that while admitting that the two main characters in the book also have their own obnoxiousness as well."

The book implies that the main character will leave Zanesville one day — that the ordinary town will launch her into a less ordinary life.

"I think that 'what's her name' will leave Zanesville at some point, but Zanesville will never leave 'what's her name,'" Beard says.

Excerpt: 'In Zanesville'

In Zanesville by Jo Ann Beard
In Zanesville
By Jo Ann Beard
Hardcover, 304 pages
Little, Brown and Company
List Price: $23.99
Read An Excerpt

We can't believe the house is on fire. It's so embarrassing first of all, and so dangerous second of all. Also, we're supposed to be in charge here, so there's a sense of somebody not doing their job.

"I told you to go up there and see what they were doing," Felicia says.

"I told you to go up there," I reply.

We've divided the kids up, three each, and two of hers were upstairs playing with matches while the third, and all of mine, were secured in the backyard.

The smoke isn't too bad at this point; basically it smells like a campfire. We still can't find where it's coming from, although the third- floor bathroom is a pretty safe bet, if we listen to Renee, who is accusing Derek of setting a toilet paper fire in a wicker wastebasket.

There is no sign of Derek anywhere; he set the fire and moved on to the next thing. Renee, loitering in the hallway, had played Barbie until the last possible moment and then gave up when the smoke began swirling, calling out, "Fire!" in an annoyed voice.

"He said if I told, he'd murder me," she trilled, loping down the stairs and out, eluding us.

We've been babysitting for the Kozaks all summer, five days a week, eight hours a day; six kids — Derek, Renee, Stewart, Wanda, Dale, Miles — and various other, easier-to-control creatures: a tarantula, a python, a rat snake, some white mice, and an elderly German shepherd with bad hips who lies in the dirt next to the doghouse all day, licking his stomach. We each get seventy five cents per hour, which doesn't sound like enough when we're here but blooms into an incredible bounty on the weekends, when we're lying around trying to decide how to spend it. Almost a dollar an hour, accumulating slowly and inexorably, in a revolving series of gagging diaper changes, nose wipings, placing of buzzing flies in the tarantula's terrarium, assembly- line construction of baloney- cheese- mayonnaise sandwiches, folding of warm laundry, chipping of egg crust off the vinyl tablecloth, benevolent dispensing of Sno-Kone dimes, helpless shouting, appalling threats, and perusal of their porn library.

We are fourteen, only three years older than Derek, who is the oldest of the Kozak children. Derek isn't much work because he disappears for most of each day, showing up only when the parents are due back home, which is fine with us. He won't mind, he cusses, and he once threw a handful of worms at us after a rainstorm. The other five kids range in age from one and a half to nine; some in fact claim to be the same age, although none of them look even vaguely alike. We can't figure it out, but then again, we don't try to.

* * *

"Man, are we in for it," Felicia says, panting.

We're evacuating the pets. She's struggling with the smaller snake aquarium, which houses, along with the python, the python's furniture — a bent log, a plastic bowl, and a rock for the mice to hide behind. The snake, a young albino, is gently probing its ivory nose at the jumbo box of ice cream sandwiches we've put on top to hold the wire mesh lid in place.

I've got the tarantula cage under one arm and all seven white mice, which are riding in a pillowcase. Once outside, I go through the gate, past the semicollapsed garage into the alley to where the sticker bushes are, set the pillowcase down, and give it a poke. The mice nose their way out and disappear into the bramble.

"The mice just escaped," I announce to the kids as I come back through the gate.

"Wanda ate gum off the fence," Dale reports.

Wanda is hanging upside down from the rusty jungle gym.

She opens her mouth and something purple lands in the dirt.

"Dale stole money," she calls out.

"Shut up and stay there," I tell them.

"Our mom said if you told us to shut up one more time, she'd shut you up for good," Renee informs me. This has the unmistakable ring of truth to it — her mother has a thatch of black hair that she sets on hot curlers every morning, and once when she was taking out the curlers, she said, "Look," and when I looked she had popped out her false tooth and was leering like a jack-o'-lantern.

So far, no smoke is visible outdoors, but when we go back inside, the hallway is swirling, and it stinks quite a bit, more like a toilet paper fire now than a campfire. It takes both of us to handle the rat snake aquarium; we're staggering, trying not to breathe, but we both hate the rat snake and are scared it will get loose, so we stop and rescue some food to pile on top — a box of cereal and some fl at packages of cheese — and then lug it toward the door.

The snake, agitated, puts his head under a corner of the lid, and about four inches of him leaks out, right near my hand. I start screaming and then Felicia sees him undulating there and starts screaming too. For a moment, we revolve in panicked circles, holding the aquarium between us and screaming. The sound is so loud and frightening in the narrow, smogged hallway that we calm down and use a package of cheese to direct him back inside where he belongs.

"Now what are we supposed to do?" Felicia asks, once we're outside.

The children, clustered by their swing set, stare over our heads. Behind us, like a dragon, their house has begun to exhale long tendrils of smoke.

Excerpted from In Zanesville by Jo Ann Beard. Copyright 2011 by Jo Ann Beard. Excerpted by permission of Little, Brown and Company. All rights reserved.