The Power of Personal Storytelling
By Ingrid Ricks
Back then, I wasn’t sure that Hippie Boy was even a YA book. Though it’s a story about a teenage girl trying to navigate a rocky adolescence, I knew it didn’t have the life and death elements of Hunger Games or any of the paranormal characters that have made other YA books a success. What’s more, I had been told by a literary agent that teens didn’t like non-fiction books.
My perception started to change shortly after publishing Hippie Boy last October, when I received a surprise email from High School English Teacher Marjie Bowker. Marjie told me Hippie Boy was the kind of story she knew her students would identify with, and contained a message of hope and strength that she wanted them to hear. She said she planned to teach it to her juniors and seniors and asked if I was interested in partnering with her.
I jumped at the opportunity but was still unsure how her students—at-risk teens who have endured hardships that are difficult for most people to imagine—would respond to my story. I got my answer when I walked into her classroom and was greeted with hugs by several students. I learned later that a football player who was struggling in school and usually hated reading refused to put Hippie Boy down during math class. That moment will go down as a highlight of my life.
Because of the enormous life obstacles her students have faced, Marjie and I decided to use Hippie Boy as a guide to help them claim their power by finding their voice and writing their personal stories in a narrative format.
Our month-long partnership was supposed to end with an in-class reading of the students’ work. But by the time the reading rolled around, the students were so charged up that Marjie and I decided to keep going and help interested students publish their personal stories in a group story collection. That collaboration resulted in We Are Absolutely Not Okay: Fourteen Stories by Teenagers Who Are Picking Up the Pieces, a revealing collection of true personal stories about gang life, depression, cutting, drug addiction and gender identity issues. But it’s also about how the student authors have dealt with these issues and are now moving forward with their lives.
The impromptu mentoring/publishing program was so empowering for the student authors involved that Marjie and I are continuing our school partnership this year, and have recently launched www.weareabsolutelynotokay.org, a Web site designed to help teens connect with other teens through personal storytelling.
It’s hard to put into words how incredible it is to be a part of this fast-evolving teen publishing program. I’m thrilled that my story is resonating with high school students. But what blows me away is the idea that because I shared my story, numerous teens are now finding their voices and sharing their stories; and in doing so are overcoming painful pasts and claiming their power. They are also connecting with other struggling teens—letting them know that they are not alone and that life gets better.
That’s the power of personal storytelling.
2 Paperback Copies of Hippie Boy
1 Paperback copy of We Are Absolutely Not OK
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