Taking a photo with a cell-phone camera and forwarding it to friends is something most teens (adults too) think very little about — snap, click, send!
With today’s technology, taking and sending silly photos is both easy and fun.
But what happens when a naive teenage girl wanting to give her boyfriend, who is leaving soon for college, something to remember her by and impulsively takes and sends him a naked photo of herself? It seems harmless enough, until they go through a bad breakup, and he decides to take revenge by forwarding that private photo to his entire baseball team. Suddenly her naked photo, that she envisioned only being seen by her boyfriend, has gone viral, and she is left ostracized.
That’s the story presented in Jennifer Brown’s newest novel, “Thousand Words.”
Brown is an award-winning YA (young adult) author living in Kansas City who writes about social issues facing teens today. Her books are popular among high school students, but “Thousand Words” is a story that parents should think about reading too, said Jackie Hawes, director of Washington Public Library. Ideally, it will spark a conversation.
Brown will be in Washington Tuesday, Feb. 25, for two presentations at the high schools — at Washington High School, for students who are interested in the writing process or the topic of her books (those enrolled in psychology and child development classes, for example) and others who have read her work; and at St. Francis Borgia Regional High School.
That evening Brown will speak at Washington Public Library at 7 p.m. This event is open to the public (teens and older), and Hawes is hopeful parents will take advantage of the opportunity.
“Brown tackles some difficult subject matter in her novels that pertain to young people,” she said. “(We) are hoping that her presentation will provide a platform for parents and teens to discuss some of these tough issues.
“Even though Washington is a safe community, today’s teens deal with or know someone that has dealt with these tough issues,” said Hawes. “Anyone who uses a mobile device and/or the Internet needs to be aware of how one seemingly small action can have huge consequences. Parents are not always as tech savvy as their children, so it’s important to be informed. Knowledge is power!”
Ann Loesing, the library media specialist at Washington High School, said Brown was invited to speak to students partly because her books are of such interest to the teens, but also because she’s a top author who lives in Missouri.
“That makes it very real for our students,” Loesing remarked.
And while there are other authors who may be writing about these topics, Brown does an excellent job of making the story connect with teens.
“Readers are able to learn from the experiences of characters in Jennifer Brown’s novels, hopefully making them think about the actions of the characters and how they would handle similar situations in their own lives,” said Loesing.
“Young adults are faced with many difficult situations in their lives, some of which may not seem like a big deal to them at the time. They often don’t realize the impact one small decision can have on their entire future, as well as how it affects all of those around them,” she said. “Brown’s novels make students think about teen life and difficult situations that any teenager may face.”
‘Is Digital Me Who I Want to Be?’
Brown is only the second author ever invited to speak to students at WHS. Last year, YA author Mike Mullen, who wrote the “Ashfall” series about a 15-year-old who “struggles to survive and find his family after the Yellowstone super volcano erupts, plunging the world into a cataclysmic natural disaster,” was a guest speaker through an outreach from Barnes & Noble. The students had a great response to his presentation, “which made me want to try something like it again,” said Loesing.
At WHS, this year’s slogan has become “Is the digital me who I really want to be?” and Brown’s book “Thousand Words” fits in perfectly.
“One of the things we like about ‘Thousand Words’ is its focus on how even the normal kid can make a simple and innocent mistake without thinking twice about it,” said Loesing. “With all the technology available in our society today . . . people taking pictures, video, text messaging . . . we want our students to realize how important it is to always present themselves in a proper manner.
“We want students to think about the language they are using in their text messaging and if that is the way they would really talk to someone in person. Is the image that they are posting of themselves on a social media site the way they really want people to see them.
“While something so simple, innocent, and fun at the time may not seem like a big deal, it can have lasting consequences for both the individual as well as their family and friends,” Loesing remarked.
From Humor Column to Social Issues Books for Teens
Before she was a novelist writing YA stories, Brown was a humor columnist writing for the Kansas City Star where she twice won the Erma Bombeck Global Humor Award.
“Humor comes easily to me, but it’s the least comfortable,” she said.
“It’s hard to make people laugh and it’s easy to offend them in trying.”
As the mother of three children, ages 21, 13 and 10, and the wife of a psychologist, Brown is aware of the social dangers facing kids today and she writes realistic stories involving those dangers.
Her debut novel, “Hate List,” opens five months after a school shooting and tells the story of what it’s like to return to school for a girl whose boyfriend was the shooter and picked his targets off a list they made of people they both hated.
She must come to grips with the tragedy that took place and her role in it, in order to make amends and move on with her life.
Brown has written two other novels, “Bitter End,” about a teenager who finds herself being abused by her boyfriend, someone she thought was her soul mate; and “Perfect Escape,” about a girl growing up in the shadow of her brother who has a mental illness.
Brown said the ideas for her books come from a number of places.
“I’m hardly ever inspired by one thing,” she told The Missourian.
The premise for “Thousand Words” grew out of a discussion with her editor about her next book idea. Her editor said something about “sexting,” or sending sexually explicit photos or messages over a mobile phone, and Brown’s mind went to work.
One of the reasons she liked the idea of writing about sexting is that it would allow her also to write about cyberbullying.
“So many teachers and librarians told me about cyberbullying issues, and I knew it needed to be addressed,” Brown said.
For her presentations at WHS and SFBRHS, Brown plans to talk about her writing process, including how she does research for her books. She may bring a PowerPoint presentation on her book covers and talk about how the designs are decided.
For the evening event at the library, Brown will talk about all of her books, not just her YA novels. She also writes women’s fiction under the name Jennifer Scott and books for middle school-age students.
Brown was quick to point out that her presentations here will not be lectures on the topics of cyberbullying or sexting, although she can share some details of what she found in her research.
“Sexting itself is way more prevalent than many parents realize,” Brown told The Missourian.
She found true stories where the sexting photos or messages went viral and the teens were humiliated, at best, and also worst-case scenarios where a teenage boy who was involved in sexting was ultimately charged as a sex offender and had to register as such. There’s also the potential for naked photos of underage teens being sent innocently enough to a boy- or girlfriend to be considered child pornography, Brown noted.
For these kinds of reasons, many educators and schools used Brown’s books as a learning opportunity for their students. Teacher guides for each book are available through her publisher.
Brown recalled that one school promoted “Thousand Words” as a mother-daughter summer read and then held a luncheon where they all came together for a discussion. Each table had questions set out for the mothers-daughters to talk about as a group or with each other.
That’s something Brown thinks all parents can do on their own. She encourages all parents to read (or at least know about) the books their children are reading, and not just ones about social issues.
“It gives you something to share, to have a conversation about,” she remarked.
Looking back on the start of her career writing books, Brown said she didn’t intentionally write about social issues, but now that she has found a niche and teens have responded, she feels a responsibility to keep going.
“There’s a certain responsibility . . . to keep coming up with topics that are current, but different, things teens are going through today,” she said.
Brown’s next YA novel, “Torn Away,” tells the story of a girl who loses everything in a tornado, much like the EF5 that hit Joplin in May 2011, which was her inspiration. “Torn Away” should be available in May.