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Teacher ‘Shifts’ into new kind of YA sisterhood

ROME TOWNSHIP — It was a chance to see inside the working process of creating literature as nationally known young adult genre author Jennifer Bradbury brought her lecture of wit and common sense to students at Fairland High School.

Bradbury’s appearance Monday morning was part of the ongoing Ohio River Festival of Books that runs through Sunday and was funded in part by the West Virginia Council for the Humanities.

A native of Owensboro, Ky., Bradbury burst on the YA literature scene two years ago with her novel, “Shift,” the story of two teens biking cross-country, basing events partly on a trip Bradbury and her husband took across the southern part of the United States for their honeymoon. Characters, however, came mostly out of her imagination.

“Everybody I’ve written about has a place in my head and in my heart,” she told the students.

She began her career as an author with book, rather than pen, in hand, absorbing a wide range of literature from children’s classics to the adult masterpieces such as “Pride and Prejudice” or “Jane Eyre.”

“Anything I could get my hands on and sink my teeth in,” Bradbury said. “I was a person who loved stories.”

Ironically, she was also a self-admitted inadequate student who found an avenue for her storytelling passion when she got on the school newspaper under the tutelage of a journalism teacher who ran her classroom like a newsroom.

“I got to tell stories in a way I never experienced before. I learned from her how to tell a story,” Bradbury said. “Now I try to write fast and short.”

However, it was the classroom, not the newsroom, that drew Bradbury who taught high school English in Burlington, Wash., for several years before entering a Fulbright teaching exchange that sent her to India.

There she had 60 students per class at a school that boasted two computers, both kept under covers to protect them from the dust clouds that poured across the country.

It was as a teacher that she discovered the Young Adult literature where she now focuses her energies, a genre once overlooked by major publishing firms. Nowadays it is attracting older readers along with teens who are devouring Stephenie Meyer’s “Twilight” saga or Suzanne Collins’ “The Hunger Games” trilogy.

“Publishers have come to realize this is where the party is at,” said Bradbury, who to research the literature read 300 YA books in two years. “I wanted to try this. It looked like so much fun. So I decided I’m going to try to write a novel in a year. I did and it was terrible.”

The next time she tried she took her manuscript to her future readers — her students — for sometimes daily feedback reading the draft to her class for their take on what she’d written. There the some times blunt comments got her to shorten her sentences and tell her story more directly.

“It’s like when you’re a kid and stacking Legos. I’d do that with words,” she said.

“Young adult readers are smart, smart, smart. It is so much fun to write for them.”

With a manuscript ready, Bradbury started the next leg of the three-year book journey by finding an agent. Sending out query letters over six months she got finally an acceptance from one who sold it to Atheneum Books for Young Adults, Simon & Schuster. Next came revisions and copy-editing before her work was published in May 2008.

“It is a long, long process but it doesn’t seem as long when you are in it,” she said.

For any teens listening to her and wanting to duplicate her story, Bradbury advised them to look within for their inspiration.

“You have so much in your lives to draw on,” she said.