By Kim Underwood Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools
SEPTEMBER 11 – Cate Tiernan has written 22 books for young adults that have girls – often with magical powers - as the central character. When Tiernan came to Mineral Springs Middle School last week, eighth-grader Jada Chalmers seized the opportunity to get some writing advice from a professional.
Since last spring, Jada has been writing a book about five princesses working to break a spell that was cast on them. She’s calling it The Five Cursed Princesses.
Tiernan met with the school’s 160 eighth-graders in the auditorium. When the others returned to class, Jada stuck around to ask questions about things she had been wondering about. After a few minutes of Tiernan cheerfully answering each one, Jada said, “This is my final question.”
What did Tiernan think about using real names?
“I never use real people’s names,” she said and went on to explain the pitfalls.
“It was great talking with you,” Jada said.
Talking with Tiernan made her feel inspired about her own writing, Jada said. “As long as you have faith in it, it will go on.”
Tiernan, who lives in Durham with her husband and four children, was one of a number of authors in town for the BOOKmarks Book Festival who volunteered to go out to schools last Friday. Inspiring people such as Jada is just what Tiernan hopes to do with her books.
Each of her books, Tiernan said, is about “a young woman discovering who she is, discovering her personal strengths and taking control of her own destiny.”
In her first two series – Sweep and Balefire – magic was an integral part of the story, and her third series – Immortal Beloved – is about immortals who practice magic. Although girls are the protagonists, boys like the stories, too, she said. “I get a lot of letters from boys who like the subject matter.”
She hopes that, after reading the books, young people will be inspired to take charge of their own lives. “I put it out into the world hoping that my words will mean something to someone else….I want my books to have a positive message…I want my books to help people.”
Inspiring students such as Jada is also what Mary Naber, the media coordinator at Mineral Springs, had in mind when she invited Tiernan to the school. “I think it’s wonderful and impressive when someone can make a living doing what they love.”
Joan Celestino, who teaches eighth-grade language arts, put together a welcoming committee of four students – Marcia Fuller, Emily Meadows, Erik Sanchez, Erica Florido – and sent them to the auditorium early to visit with Tiernan while everyone waited for the rest of the eighth-graders to come in. The members of the welcoming committee liked spending time with a professional writer. “Really cool,” said Emily.
“I like how she is writing books for young women and trying to encourage them not to let men overrule them,” Marcia said.
When everyone was there, Tiernan spoke to the students about how liberating reading had been for her when she was young. “Reading was such an escape for me,” she said. “I could be a pirate on a desert island. I could be a fighter pilot or a nun hiding children from Nazis during World War II. I could be anyone.”
When she grew up and went to work for a publisher she was bothered by books that came across her desk in which girls took a secondary role to boys. When she embarked on her life as a writer, she wanted to say to young women, “We can determine the course of our lives.”
Tiernan filled the students in a bit on what her life as a writer is like. She works at home, and, when she reaches a place in the writing where she’s not sure what should come next, she might stop and vacuum or do laundry or rake leaves. “I go and do something mindless,” she said. “Any kind of mindless, repetitive task is fine.”
After talking about her life and work, Tiernan took questions. Students asked where her ideas came from, whether movies had been made of any of her books, how much money she makes, how she makes all the action in the books hang together and her advice to those thinking about becoming writers.
“Read a lot,” she said. “Read a lot and practice writing…and try to understand what you want to say to people.”