SELECTIONS FROM DEBORAH DAVIS’ LIBRARY
Not Like You, Clarion, 2007.
You Look Too Young to be a Mom: Teen Mothers Speak Out on Love, Learning, and Success, Perigree, 2004.
My Brother Has AIDS, Atheneum, 1984.
The Secret of the Seal, Crown, 1989.
Deborah Davis was fond of rescue stories as a child. She remembers taking her 120-pound Saint Bernard, Heidi, for a walk and lying on the sidewalk with her eyes closed. “I pretended I was unconscious and buried in an avalanche. Heidi would lie close to me and lick my face until I ‘woke up.’” As Davis reflects on the books she has written for middle-grade and young adult readers, she finds that the rescue theme is a common thread from her childhood. “My main characters rescue others or rescue themselves,” she says.
Stories welled up from Davis’s imagination when she was as young as three. She told stories, acted them out, and when she was old enough, began writing them down. By the time she reached Honors English in high school and began laboring under the rules of the structured essay, her imagination dried up. “I had an older male teacher who intimidated me,” she says. “I didn’t understand topic sentences and I choked. I grew to hate writing; it was paralyzing.”
In college, Davis chose to study Latin American literature as a way of avoiding English. “In my third year, I turned a corner with my nonfiction. My papers were praised, but it never occurred to me to do anything with it.” Instead, she instructed wilderness challenge courses for teens. Perhaps the fresh air and sunshine unlocked her imagination, because Davis began crafting stories again—this time with teen protagonists. Compelled to write, Davis filled notebook after notebook with story ideas. “I was practiced at getting words down on paper,” she says, but she was terrified of sharing her work and shoved this creative aspect of her personality underground.
The instructor of a writing workshop broke through Davis’s fear with a simple statement: “You are not responsible for your thoughts.” Davis internalized this concept and found the initial courage to share her stories with others. She began trusting her voice enough to submit her work to publishers.
Now as Davis begins a new book, she writes her first draft “without thinking a lot. I see what comes whenever it comes.” Davis compares writing a book with making a casserole from the miscellaneous fixings in her refrigerator. The taste and texture of the casserole changes depending on what ingredients she adds. Similarly, in a book, “What comes to me is filtered through my experiences and my beliefs.”
Davis met with speedy enviable success with the publication of My Brother Has AIDS(Atheneum, 1984) and The Secret of the Seal (Crown, 1989). But even though her first two novels were signed up immediately, rejection letters began pouring in for her third book. At that time, she decided it might be easier to compile and edit essays written by other people. “I have always been fascinated with birth,” says Davis, “and it was an obvious stimulus for what became You Look Too Young to be a Mother: Teen Mothers Speak Out on Love, Learning and Success (Perigree, 2004).
As a trained labor support doula, Davis saw several teen clients who were treated differently by hospital staff than her older, married clients. Davis was struck by the disrespectful way teen mothers were treated, as if the hospital assumed they would not be good mothers. On the contrary, Davis saw motivated young women who wanted support, help, and information. Davis developed a writing class for teen mothers and solicited submissions for her book. Out of the 200 teens who responded, 100 agreed to work with her, editing their essays; Davis chose 35 for inclusion in her book. The entire process lasted five years, spanning a move to India for her husband’s job, and a move to the state of Washington. Davis remarks that the project “made me ready to get back to my own writing.”
In her most recent release for young adult readers, Not Like You (Clarion, 2007), Davis began with an image of a drunken mother passed out on the floor of her trailer in New Mexico. Standing over her was her teenage daughter whose emotions hovered between responsibility and fury. Although Davis was inspired by the mother-daughter image and the conflict surrounding that image, she wrote the entire first draft about the teen girl’s sexual awakening with a wonderful older guy who is ultimately wrong for her. Davis gave the draft to a trusted friend and asked her to summarize the book in one line. Davis’s friend described it as a mother-daughter story, and set Davis in motion for a major rewrite. “The mother-daughter relationship is the crux of the story,” says Davis, in a tone that indicates she should have intuitively understood this. “It’s the relationship I developed the most.”
Currently a resident of Berkeley, Davis has lived in many parts of the country and the world. She loves traveling and seeing people in the context of their native cultures. It is the relationships between people that fuel her writing. “I love writing,” she says. “It is the hardest work I’ve ever done, but it is also the most satisfying.