Author Sarah Lynn Scheerger talks about her upcoming novel Are You Still There, which character from her book can she relate to the most and more. Plus, read on for an excerpt that will surely make you ask for more!
From writing picture books for young readers, you also now write as a YA author. What were the changes you encountered while writing for a different demographic?
Writing and revising a novel takes significantly more time than that of a picture book, but I find that the plotting and character development comes more naturally for me. There are also so many different ways a story can progress, so that makes it easier to write something unique.
There are so many brilliantly creative picture books out there in the world, and I find it challenging to come up with a new idea. Picture book text is also so sparse, so the author has to be able to convey so much with very few words. It’s an amazing, poignant, and challenging art form.
I have really enjoyed the process of writing my easy reader series. Much of the story is told through dialogue, and the characters are so silly that the writing process is particularly enjoyable.
Interestingly, my Young Adult work tends to come out edgy and dark, which is different from my day-to-day personality. Hmmm. What does that say about me?
What other genres would you want to explore in writing YA/Teen novels?
I think I’m a realistic fiction kind of girl. I don’t think I’m creative enough to write science fiction or fantasy. I also prefer to read realistic fiction. That’s just what resonates with me. I do like writing for younger kids though, and I hope to do more of it.
Now, tell us something about your upcoming YA novel, Are You Still There.
In the aftermath of a threat of massive school violence, a group of kids sets out to make things better. They train for and work on a crisis helpline. Gabi, an AP honors student, joins the helpline and suddenly her world expands. She realizes that there’s so much more out there in the world besides her textbooks. She has her first dating experiences, she expands her friend group, goes to her first “real” party, and changes the way she thinks. As a listener on the line she also learns how many kids are struggling out there. To spice things up, there’s a love triangle, conflictual relationships and tons of mystery. Everyone’s a suspect. The perpetrator of the threat, Stranger, is calling the Line, leaving messages for Gabi, and seems to be watching her. Stranger’s going to strike again. Is Gabi a part of the plan? And can she stop Stranger before it’s too late?
I’ve read that you were actually a part of a real helpline. How did it help in writing the character of Gabi who is also part of a crisis help line in your book?
Yes! My second year of undergrad, I trained and tried out for a crisis helpline. At that time in my life I was still figuring out my major, and to be honest, I was still trying to figure where I fit in. I’d had a wonderful circle of friends in high school, but we all went separate directions for college, and my university campus was so enormous that I felt lonely in a sea of people. Once I started training for Helpline, I knew I’d found my people. First of all, they were just about the coolest group of people I’d ever met, but second of all, we had a mutual purpose. We all bonded over the idea of helping other people. Ultimately this led me to a career in social work. The helpline I’ve created is fictional, but we did have a secret office with a secret code on the door. There were several Helpline romances that developed over time… even a Helpline marriage. We all still keep in contact today.
Give us an insight about Stranger. What/Who inspired you to write such an intriguing character?
I, like many others, am so concerned about the acts of school violence in our communities and on our campuses. So often the act is done by someone who flies under the radar. As a school social worker, I provide counseling to at-risk kids, but I only see the students who are referred to me. What about the kids who are struggling and angry and desperate that no one notices? I feel like our schools and our society in general need to find more ways to reach out to the people who are suffering in silence.
Is there a particular character you see yourself in your novel? If yes, who and why?
Yes. The character most similar to me is Gabi. As a teen, I was definitely a pleaser. I wanted to please my parents, get good grades, and I didn’t start dating until later high school. I was pretty naïve, for sure. I also remember moments when I felt like I was letting my parents down by having a social life. I remember one particular lecture when my dad was talking to me about “my priorities”. He just wasn’t used to having me be so social. Now as a grown up looking back, I think being social is an important part of a well-rounded life. In college I was a listener on a real helpline, and as I’ve said before, it was the most amazing and best experience. It expanded my world and gave me a sense of purpose.
Any recent projects?
Yes! My early chapter book series debuted in the spring: The Boulder Brothers: Meet Mo and Jo. Low word count, easy to sound out words, lots of humor, silly pictures and concepts. The art is amazing. Check it out here.
What’s the most difficult part to write in Are You Still There?
This is a great question. Warning, Spoiler Alert: I just couldn’t make Stranger an entirely evil sociopath. I could not get into that kind of person’s head. However, the misunderstood kid in pain—I know kids like that, we all do. So I channeled that kind of character. Perhaps I could write about an entirely evil character like that in the third person, because there’s more emotional distance that way.
Also in all my manuscripts, the hardest part for me is cutting text. I tend to be wordy, so slimming it down is sometimes painful.
Hope you enjoy the book!
Are You Still There
Sarah Lynn Scheerger
I am a speck of dust
Invisible to the naked eye.
Unless the sun glances against me just so
And you see for a moment
That I am one of many.
Flecks. Floaters. Dust parachuters.
Dirt in the air.
Do you know
That you are bumping into me?
That you are surrounded by me?
That you are breathing me?
And then you are contaminated.
Infected by what is me.
We are not so different,
You and I.
You just don’t know it
Barefoot, I step onto the cold toilet seat in the girls’ bathroom and it doesn’t even gross me out. I’d shoved my clunky sandals in my backpack an hour ago when this whole thing started. I knew I might have to hide. And if I had to hide, I couldn’t make a sound. My life depended on it.
Somebody is coming.
I hold on to the side of the stall to brace myself and try not to breathe. Well, try not to breathe loudly. Don’t panic, I tell myself. It’s probably just a drill. Maybe the resource officer is running around checking that all the teachers locked their doors, according to protocol. Maybe Principal Bowen’s voice will come back on the loudspeaker and tell us the lockdown has been lifted. That this was just a drill, and we all passed it with flying colors.
Even me. The idiot who picked the wrong time to pee. That’s why I’m stuck in this bathroom instead of hiding under a desk like everyone else at Central High. I can still hear the echo of Principal Bowen’s words, “Students, if you’re not already in a classroom at this time, do not attempt to return to one. You will be putting yourself at risk of harm. Stay put and take cover.” But exactly how do you take cover in a public bathroom?
Just a drill, just a drill, just a drill, I promise myself. But drills last fifteen minutes, max. They rush us through the protocol so that we can get back to the important business of solving quadratic equations and dissecting fetal pigs. It’s been way more than fifteen minutes. I’ve been hiding in the girls’ bathroom for over an hour.
I hear them again. Shushing footsteps against the concrete. Like someone’s trying to sneak up on me. Since the whole world has been flipped to mute, the shushing seems loud. My heart beats in my ears. Pulsing, thudding, pumping…echoing through my body. We used to make fun of my sister, Chloe, for saying strange things like that when she was little. “My elbow’s hungry,” she’d say. “My nose is afraid.” “My pinky toe wants a turn.”
Only now the thoughts of Chloe grip me and make the pulsing, thudding, pumping of my heart stop so suddenly that the blood pools in my veins. Because I know Chloe’s stuck somewhere on campus right now too. Hiding.
If she’s still alive.
I pee in my pants. Just a little. Not enough to soak through my jeans. But still. I haven’t done that since elementary. The shushing footsteps pass me by, move on down the hall, and I relax for a moment. Big mistake. Because that’s when I pee.
How ironic that here I am, standing in girls’ bathroom, hiding out, and here, of all places, I pee in my pants. I’ve been holding it since I got here. Because I got all freaked out about peeing. Like it’d make too much noise.
It’s been boring. I won’t lie. My legs ache from standing in the same position for so long. And all I can do is think, so it’s driving me crazy. Because I know how this plays out. I’ve watched the news. I’ve debated gun control laws in AP government. Some crazy kid with a revenge agenda plows down fifteen innocent students.
But I’m not supposed to be on this end of it. I’ve already sent in my early admission application to my top-five colleges and everything. I’m the kind of kid that’s supposed to be going somewhere in this world. Not the kind of kid to die in a bathroom stall.
Shushing steps. Many of them. They’re in the bathroom now. I can hear them breathing. They can hear me breathing. It is then that I realize something that sucks more than anything has ever sucked in the history of my seventeen years of life. This is not a drill. And I’m gonna die. On a grimy public bathroom floor.
The door to the bathroom stall slams inward. If I had not been standing on the toilet seat, it probably would have broken my nose. I grip the walls, paralyzed, and stare at the three cops pointing guns in my face.
They haul me off the toilet and pat me down, but I think they can tell right away that I’m not who they’re looking for. Maybe my tear-streaked face and blackout-worthy hyperventilation gives me away.
“Come with me,” the bald-headed cop whispers, grabbing onto my arm. “Don’t speak. Just walk quietly. We’re still in a lockdown situation.”
I walk with him because, come on, what am I going to do? Argue? He has my arm gripped so tightly that my fingers are losing circulation. The bright southern California sunlight blasts me with rays, and I squint.
This is the real deal. No drill for sure. The air feels thin, like we’ve somehow gained hundreds of feet in altitude and I can’t get enough oxygen in my brain.
The cop is ushering me toward an evacuation point and I think he’s more nervous than me. I wonder if he knows who my dad is. Most cops do. The campus is so quiet it has that eerie ghost-town feel. Maybe it’s the stress, but the corners of the buildings blur as I pass them, as if they’re all part of a painting and the artist is smearing the edges.
I hope I don’t pass out.
We all gather on the far end of the football field. Clustering like frightened refugees, huddling together for warmth because even though this October day is seventy-five degrees and clear, my bones are cold.
My ears are malfunctioning. Everything I hear is blunted, far away. Like I’m underwater. Bomb found on campus after anonymous tip. Bomb has been disarmed successfully. Police will conduct a thorough investigation. Safety precaution. Everyone will be released to guardians. One by one. Procedure will take hours. Be patient. Stay calm.
Everyone is milling about, stunned. I’ve gone to school with some of these kids since elementary, but in this moment I only care about one. I scan the crowds, searching for the purple streak in my sister’s thick, black hair. She’s got the kind of hair that tangles easily, so she only brushes it when she first gets out of the shower and it’s all conditioned up. She’s been wanting to cut it for at least a year, but Mom says short hair will make her face look too full, so Chloe settled for dying it black. Mom was not happy.
Back before the hair dyeing, people used to call us Irish twins. Thick, ropey red hair, green eyes with hazel flecks. People call Chloe’s natural color “strawberry,” but that makes no sense if you really think about it. Strawberries are truly red. Her hair is more the color of freckles. So Mom got all pissy when she dyed it black. The purple streak was just icing on the cake. How so totally Chloe. Same as sticking out her tongue with a big fat “Screw You” pierced through it.
Chloe’s shirt finds me before her face does. All black, but with little-kid rounded yellow letters. Pooh is my homeboy. As much as I’d tried to talk her out of it when I first saw her ordering that shirt on the Internet, for a moment I love Pooh. And Piglet and Tigger and everyone else in the Hundred Acre Wood.
Her face is red. That dark-dark mascara and eyeliner combo has smeared down into the hollows of her eyes, making her look like a Halloween character back from the dead. I run like I’m in a movie—all slow motion and hair flapping behind me—and bear-hug her, and she squeezes me back and buries her face in my neck.
“Gabi,” she whispers, her breath smelling like red licorice, “I thought I’d never see you again.”
I try not to cry and then I’m crying anyway, holding on to her like she might turn to sand and slip through my fingers.
And then it comes to me. I don’t think we’ve hugged like this since we were little girls.
Mom’s chin goes all taut when she’s tense. She’s thin anyway, but when she juts her chin forward, her skin has to stretch further and her whole face looks tight. Like an ad for plastic surgery gone wrong.
Chloe and I have parked ourselves at the kitchen table, eating grapes. “We’re okay, Mom. Relax. It’s over,” Chloe tells her and pops a couple grapes in her mouth. She never washed off the black makeup, so I can’t look straight into her eyes.
Mom sits perched on the edge of the kitchen chair, looking like a nervous little bluebird. “Dad won’t be home until late tonight. They’ve called him out to the school to help with the investigation.” She clasps her hands together and flexes and un-flexes her fingers. I’m tempted to reach over and place my hands on hers to make her stop, but I don’t.
“Okay, so Dad might get blown to smithereens, but he’s not around much anyway, so we won’t really notice.” Chloe gets this ridiculous half-smirk on her face like she thinks she’s hilarious. I kick her under the table. Mom’s hands flex. Un-flex.
“The whole thing’s probably just a hoax, Mom. Some stupid freshman on a dare,” I tell her, pulling a grape off the vine.
“Hey, hey!” Chloe complains. “Don’t knock freshman. Frosh rock.”
“Sorry. I forgot your boyfriend is a freshman,” I tease.
She throws a grape at me. It bounces off my shoulder. Mom’s not supposed to know Chloe had this thing for a little stoner boy…He’s actually her age but he got held back a grade. Quality dating material. She always picks winners.
“Oh. Uh, just kidding.” I mouth “sorry” to her when Mom isn’t looking.
Mom stands, her chin still stretched tight. “It’s late. I guess you’d better get dressed for clinic, Gab.” Flex. Un-flex.
Clinic. The low-fee medical clinic, my volunteer opportunity because it looks good for college apps. My stomach drops fast and hard. Don’t I deserve the day off?
“Uh. I don’t think my head’s in the game today, Mom. I’d rather just stay home with you guys.” Plus, I want to scream, I’ve already submitted my top-five early admission apps. Mom wants me to get into Brown University in the worst way. She had a brief stint there herself, but she dropped out junior year to marry my dad. I have no idea why she didn’t just finish her units in California when they moved here.
Not being conceited or anything, but my chances of getting in (to at least one of my top-five schools) are pretty high, what with my four AP classes, my rocking GPA and SAT scores, my place on the cross-country team, and my dizzying array of life-broadening volunteer experiences. Just saying.
Mom nods too fast, like she is disappointed but doesn’t want me to know. “Oh. Okay. Can they manage without you?”
“Yeah,” I say slowly, my stomach dropping again but knowing I will go. Because it’s the “right thing” to do. Good little Gabi Mallory, always does the right thing. Dependable. Responsible. Disciplined. Boring yes, and social life submerged in the toilet…but destined for success, preferably at an Ivy League school. Yuck.
Mom nods again, and I can see her breathe a tiny sigh of relief. She’s seriously got this internal master plan for me, and if I don’t follow the Perfect and Ivy-League-Destined Daughter rule book to a T, she thinks the world will crumble into dust.
I look at Chloe and set my grapes on the table. The black mess under her eyes is ugly but intriguing. She looks like a model for some kind of creepy artistic magazine.
“Oh, stay home. Rebel a little!” Chloe advises, her smirk back full force. “It’ll make your boobs grow.”
I survive a four-hour shift at clinic. Then I run on the treadmill (while listening to an audiotape of my AP government textbook) for fifty minutes. Good girl, Gabi.
I’m toweling my hair dry from my post-run shower when my cell vibrates on my dresser. I peek. Gabi, are you there? It’s my bestie and study buddy extraordinaire, Beth.
Yea. Just got back from clinic.
Can you believe today?
Me neither. I’m not going to school tomorrow.
Seriously? You never miss school.
There’s a first for everything. What’s detective daddy say about all this?
Don’t know. I think he just got home. I’ll go eavesdrop.
I like the way you think.
I tiptoe over to the banister and lean against it. Little drips of water roll down my back from my still-wet hair.
My parents’ voices are low, rumbling, like they don’t want anyone to hear. Of course this makes me even more curious. “…clear message,” Dad is saying, his voice tired and soft. “…professional job.” Dad must be facing away from the stairs, because it’s hard to make out his words. Or maybe he just doesn’t want me or my sister to hear. “Took our best guys over an hour to ensure the bomb we found was disarmed.”
“Do they think it was a staff member?” Mom’s voice, somehow much clearer, and with a sharp edge. I can just imagine Mom facing him, arms crossed and demanding information.
“…not ruling it out…”
“Who else could it be? Who would want to do such a thing?”
“…looking into it…full investigation…possibly ex-employees or ex-students…could even be a current student, but the sophistication of the layout makes that unlikely…You never know though. Some of these kids are really bright.”
I creep down the top two stairs to hear better. I can see the light reflecting off Dad’s bald head. He’s still wearing his work clothes, which look a lot more like business clothes since he got promoted to lead detective.
Mom sighs and suddenly she sounds tired too. “Between this situation today, that note you found, and that poor girl who hanged herself after all that teasing, I’m beginning to think private school is a better option.”
Note? What note?
Wait—private school? No way! My ankle cracks as I shift my position.
Dad pauses for a moment but doesn’t turn. He’s no longer whispering. “Listen, Susan, these things happen at many large high schools. Westmont High had a suicide last year and a big drunk-driving accident with all those cheerleaders. And Blackbury had that six-hour lockdown last semester when there was a domestic shooting in the neighborhood. When you’ve got three thousand people on the same campus, you get exposed to all walks of life. It happens everywhere.”
“You’re not comparing apples to apples, Al, and you know it.” Mom’s voice sharpens. “What happened today is of a whole different caliber. This wasn’t just a bomb threat. There was an actual bomb on campus. We could’ve lost both our girls in one afternoon!”
I rest my head on the banister. My temples are starting to throb.
“Let’s not overreact. I don’t think this guy actually wanted to harm anyone.”
“How the hell do you know?”
I need to take some aspirin. I rub my fingers against the sides of my head.
“This is what I do for a living, Suze. If this guy wanted to blow the place to smithereens, he would’ve. He chose not to. He carefully orchestrated the whole setup so that the bomb wouldn’t go off. He wanted to send a message.”
“Why do you keep saying ‘he’?”
“Because nearly every perpetrator of school violence has been male. I study this crap, hon. I know what I’m doing.”
Suddenly his voice softens. “I know you were scared today.” I peek down and see him wrapping his arm around her shoulders. He’s facing me now, and I shrink back against the banister. “I was too. But early tomorrow morning I’m going to meet with the assistant principals, and we’ve got some plans about how to proceed.”
“What do you mean?”
“That part is highly confidential. But the school realizes they need to do some preventive outreach. The bomb threat and the note were warnings. We’ve got to catch the guy, and until we do, we have to hold him off by showing him his message was heard.”
“How exactly do you plan to do that?”
“Since when has that stopped you?”
“There are ears everywhere.” He dips his head to the right, toward where I am crouched, my hair dripping down and soaking into the carpet.
Damn. Sometimes I hate having a detective for a father.
Sarah Lynn Scheerger is the author of THE OPPOSITE OF LOVE and several books for younger readers. ARE YOU STILL THERE was inspired in part by her time volunteering for a helpline in college, an experience that led to her career as a clinical social worker. Today Sarah runs counseling groups for at-risk teens on middle and high school campuses. She lives and writes in Southern California with her family.
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After her high school is rocked by an anonymous bomb threat, “perfect student” Gabriella Mallory is recruited to work on a secret crisis helpline that may help uncover the would-be bomber’s identity.
Gabriella Mallory, AP student and perfect-daughter-in-training, stands barefoot on a public toilet for three hours while her school is on lockdown. Someone has planted a bomb and she is hiding. The bomb is defused but the would-be-bomber is still at large. And everyone at Central High School is a suspect. The school starts a top-secret crisis help line and Gabi is invited to join. When she does, she is drawn into a suspenseful game of cat and mouse with the bomber, who has unfinished business. He leaves threatening notes on campus. He makes threatening calls to the help line. And then he begins targeting Gabi directly. Is it because her father is the lead police detective on the case? Is the bomber one of her new friends. Could it be her new boyfriend with his complicated past? As the story unfolds, Gabi knows she is somehow connected to the bomber. Even worse she is part of his plan. Can Gabi reach out and stop him? Or will she be too late?
Are You Still There comes out in 10 days! Make sure to add this book on your TBR piles and GR shelves!
Purchase Links for Are You Sill There:
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Also, stick around for I’ll be posting my book review of Are You Still There next week! Subscribe to Beatrice Learns To Read for updates!
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