Photo by Denise Baratta Ashland author Jennie Englund poses in the young adult section of Bloomsbury Books, where her book ‘Taylor Before and After’ is sold. Englund was nominated for the Oregon Book Award for Children’s Literature.
Ashland author Jennie Englund describes her first book, “Taylor Before and After,” as a bold and courageous look at coming of age through a central character going through a tough year.
The story of this eighth-grade heroine has certainly resonated with readers and was recently named one of five finalists for the Eloise Jarvis McGraw Prize for Children’s Literature at the annual Oregon Book Awards.
In early March, Literary Arts announced 35 OBA finalists in seven genres, selected from 202 titles. Englund, the only finalist from southern Oregon, said she was “honored and so happy to have southern Oregon on the creative map.”
“Taylor Before and After” won the Women Writing the West Willa Literary Award for Young Adult Fiction and Nonfiction. The Oregon Book Award winners are scheduled to be announced April 25 at the Portland Center Stage at The Armory.
“Taylor Before and After,” released in February 2020, takes readers through a year in Taylor’s life via in-class writing prompts, alternating between timelines.
“Through it all, Taylor has her notebook, a journal of the year a fatal accident tore her life apart,” according to the book’s description. “In entries alternating between the first and second semesters of her eighth year, she navigates joy and sorrow, gain and loss, hope and depression.”
Critics called the book an inspirational story that “switches like a wave from tragedy to hope, from despair to resilience.”
“I tell people it’s a wild ride,” Englund said. “And I tell people this is a book for a sophisticated sixth grader and up.”
From Englund’s perspective, in an overly broad third-to-eighth-grade reading market, her book falls into a critical gap.
“‘Taylor Before and After’ helped usher in this whole new market that is still trying to define itself,” she said. “You write the story you’re called to write and then you see where it lands.”
Once the story was written, the setting found its home on Oahu, where Englund spent five weeks as a National Endowment for the Humanities fellow.
The parallels between the title character’s roots in Oregon and her new home in Oahu draw on similarities such as open, friendly people and a significant coastline that attracts surfing, Englund said.
Of Taylor’s family members, her mother has the hardest time adjusting, she said, and she misses Oregon agriculture as she manages her mental health through gardening. When the family moves, the mother encounters new obstacles like fire ants and the challenge of trying to grow up in a new climate.
Taylor feels like she’s part of something bigger — a family, a community and a social group — but she’s also not a full part of it, she said.
“I thought of it as an island, and then I thought, ‘It’s like Oahu,'” Englund said.
“It must be part of the continental United States, but it’s also very rich in history, culture and self-reliance,” she continued. “I have a line in there, ‘He cries out for both independence and rescue.’ Isn’t that the quintessence of the majority?
The book is about alienation, isolation and exclusion or being on the outside, she said.
“It’s a brave book, it’s a bold book, it’s strong,” Englund said.
In mid-March, Englund completed a 27-year teaching career that spanned elementary and middle school, community college, university, four departments and multiple subjects.
With a second book on the editorial agent’s desk, Englund has found herself in the midst of a shift in publishing as stakeholders grapple with how to write contemporary history post-pandemic.
“Many writers and editors struggle to define post-COVID writing,” she said.
What does it look like? Should we include it? Has that changed everything?
A week into the COVID-19 lockdown, Englund began a diary of pandemic-related observations, chronicling daily activities and some predictions as her three children returned home fearful for their jobs and relationships.
“We were going for walks, time was slow, the fish were coming back to the canals of Venice,” she sums up. “I wanted to keep track of this historical period because I am a writer, I can’t help it, and I knew it would be an extraordinary event with unique and extraordinary economic, sociological consequences.”
The newspaper evolved in response to the death of George Floyd, the Almeda fire, and other major events during the pandemic.
“I learned things were bigger than COVID,” she said. “Community was bigger than COVID, nature was bigger than COVID.”
As an author writing contemporary history today, Englund said material needs to somehow echo pandemic experiences such as school closures, online learning, mask-wearing, vaccines, etc
“More than the specifics, I think anything written about during or after COVID for kids needs to address the fear, the unknown, the in-between,” Englund said. “What will happen to my family? What will happen to me?
Englund said she curiously awaits when the middle-class market is ready for a COVID story, and to see what form the narrative takes.
Contact reporter Allayana Darrow at [email protected] or 541-776-4497.