Debut YA Author Sara Kocek Talks About Suicide Prevention Week, Lady Gaga, and How Fiction Can Make a Difference
Hi, everyone! Sara Kocek here. I’m the author of the contemporary YA novel PROMISE ME SOMETHING (Albert Whitman Teen), and today I’m thrilled to be making a guest appearance here at Becky’s Barmy Book Blog.
In honor of Suicide Prevention Week, which begins tomorrow, I thought I would take this opportunity to discuss some of the darker elements in my book. While PROMISE ME SOMETHING has plenty of lighthearted moments, it also tackles some weighty subjects, including bullying, homophobia, and teen suicide. Without giving too much away, let’s just say that a certain character in the book kills herself in part because her friends, family, and teachers react cruelly when she comes out to them as gay.
One of the hardest things about writing my book was doing research on this subject. There was one day in particular when I sat down and typed “gay teen suicide” into Google, hoping to find some statistics or details that would help me understand what drives so many gay teens to the brink of depression. I thought reading the stories of real gay teens would help make my gay characters more believable.
What I didn’t realize was just how many news stories I would find from all over the globe—terrible, tragic news stories that left me feeling outraged and heartbroken. I sat there for hours reading true stories of teens who were betrayed in the worst possible way by their families, schools, and churches, and who ultimately took their own lives as a result. The most disturbing part of this research was the fact that the same cast of characters appeared in nearly every story. I saw the same culprits again and again: teachers making bigoted comments in class; parents teaching their children to feel ashamed; students relentlessly bullying their peers with hate speech that they sometimes didn’t even realize was hurtful.
The upside of my research was discovering all the anti-bullying organizations that exist, and all the people who are working hard to create a safer, kinder, more tolerant world for gay and straight teens alike. From the Trevor Project (a 24-hour, national crisis and suicide prevention lifeline) to The National Center for Bullying Prevention to GLSEN (The Gay, Lesbian, Straight Education Network), educators, celebrities, and student leaders are working tirelessly to prevent bullying in schools, provide resources for students, and to serve as support for teens in crisis.
But my favorite organization of all is The Born This Way Foundation. Led by Lady Gaga and her mother, Cynthia, the BTWF aims to “reach youth and create a new culture of kindness, bravery, acceptance and empowerment.” I am a huge fan of Lady Gaga, especially how she uses her star-power to promote such a strong, clear message of love and tolerance. Lately I’ve been following her #BRAVEstamp campaign, which asks teens to share a message of bravery by completing the sentence “I am brave for…” on their wrist in black marker. If my character Olive weren’t fictional, she would totally have a BRAVEstamp on her wrist. It would say “I am brave for Grace.”
I didn’t have a political or social agenda in mind when I first set out to write PROMISE ME SOMETHING. I just had characters floating through my head, and I wanted to get them down on paper. But somewhere along the way, I realized that bullying and homophobia are issues I feel incredibly strongly about. And I started to feel hopeful that maybe my book could have a positive influence on teen readers—readers who, like Reyna, are confronting certain prejudices for the first time in their lives—prejudices that have been passed down from their families and, in some cases, their religions.
While PROMISE ME SOMETHING is a work of fiction, these issues are far too real. So if you are a fan of the book, I want to encourage you to take an active role in preventing bullying and homophobia in your community. If you have time to get involved with an anti-bullying organization or afterschool club, great. But if not, why not start with something even simpler? Be kind to those around you. Be tolerant. Be accepting of people’s differences. And most importantly, as Olive says to Reyna, “Follow your better nature.”
Title: Promise Me SomethingAuthor: Sara Kocek
Publisher: Albert Whitman & Co.
Whitman Teen, 2013). She received her BA in English from Yale University and her MFA in Creative Writing from New York University, where she taught fiction and poetry to undergraduates. A freelance editor and college essay coach, Sara has served as the Program Director at the Writers’ League of Texas, a literary nonprofit. She is also the founder of , a team of freelance editors and writing coaches based in Austin, Texas.
Link to author(s)’ websites: www.sarakocek.com and/or www.sarapolsky.com
Next stop on the tour tomorrow:
Sunday, September 8
The Mod Podge Bookshelf