Author Tags: Kidlit & Young Adult
CITY/TOWN: North Vancouver
DATE OF BIRTH: July 22, 1956
PLACE OF BIRTH: Vancouver, BC
AWARDS: Dancing Naked: ALA Quick Pick 2000, CLA/ YA Honour Book 2002, White Pine Award (Ontario Readers Choice Award) 2002.
Allegra by Shelley Hrdlitschka was nominated for YALSA's Best Fiction for Young Adults list. YALSA is a division of the American Library Association.
Dancing in the Rain (Orca 2016) Ages 12+ $14.95 9781459810655
Allegra (Orca 2013) $12.95 978-1-4598-0197-4
Sister Wife, 2008, Orca Book Publishers
Gotcha!, 2008, Orca Book Publishers
Sun Signs, 2005, Orca Book Publishers
Kat's Fall, 2004, Orca Book Publishers
Dancing Naked, 2001, Orca Book Publishers
Tangled Web, 2000, Orca Book Publishers
Disconnected, 1998, Orca Book Publishers
Beans on Toast, 1998, Orca Book Publishers
[BCBW 2016] "Kidlit"
Dancing Naked (Orca $8.95)
Shelley Hrdlitschka hoped to call her teen novel Dancing Naked in the Moonlight, but it sounded too much like a romance novel. The title was shortened to Dancing Naked (Orca $8.95) by her publisher. Now the grade-12- boy hired to create the book’s website is having trouble getting the name accepted by some search engines—-because the novel about a teenage pregnancy might be a porn link. The irony does not escape Hrdlitschka (pronounced Herda-lich-ka). Dancing Naked reflects her worries as a parent that sex is everywhere—advertising come-ons are rampant—in a world that expects kids to be abstinent. “I’m writing teen fiction and I have teenage daughters,” she says, “so sometimes I wonder if I’m writing out my nightmares.”
Kia, the 16-year-old lead character in Dancing Naked, gets pregnant, having properly used a condom during her first and only tryst. The father of her child is not a mature, responsible or even particularly likeable guy. Maybe it is a mistake to sleep with someone for their looks, but that’s hardly an error made only by adolescents.
At the hospital for her baby’s birth, Kia visits an 80-year-old woman named Grace who is dying of cancer. They first met when Kia had volunteered at a senior’s ‘home.’ Confined to a wheelchair, Grace tells Kia a story from her own youth. “Our heads are often at odds with our bodies,” Grace tells Kia, “and it doesn’t change in old age. I still feel young at heart. I’d like to jump out of this wheelchair and dance naked in the moonlight, but, obviously I can’t. When I was young and lithe, I didn’t, because my head told my body not to. Now it’s the other way around.”
Shelley Hrdlitschka lives in a quiet North Vancouver neighbourhood, wholesome not wealthy, where bear attacks used to be her primary worry. Now her concerns are broader. Dancing Naked includes a fabulously gay youth group leader, Justin, both sides of the abortion issue, Kia, who is overcome by physical desires, and Grace, the octogenarian who regrets she never danced naked in the moonlight.
It’s one thing to discuss Madonna as a feminist, but how can a young person really figure out the complicated ways that sex is power, without getting it all mixed up?
Help is needed. As a member of the Unitarian Church, Hrdlitschka is not keen on judging and preaching or forcing models of behaviour onto young people. Instead she tries to empathize with the tough choices they face. Hrdlitschka respects the curiosities of the body, while doing everything she can to inform the mind. “If you talk to a 16-year-old, you’d be amazed at how naïve they really are. The way I address it as a parent, and this comes through loud and clear in the book, is through education.”
Her oldest daughter attends a human sexuality course called OWL at the Unitarian Church. It’s a 26-week course, and the acronym stands for ‘Our Whole Lives.’ “They address everything you can imagine,” says Hrdlitschka, “By the end of it kids have absolutely no questions anymore. The idea of practicing putting on a condom with a banana is such a great idea! Most of us learn at the wrong time.”
For a girl, who can start to feel that acting out sexually is part of being a ‘modern woman,’ part of asserting herself, part of gaining equality with men, sexuality brings with it complicated issues.
“I think most parents would rather their children become adults before being sexually active, but how can you really expect that in the society we live in? My kids watch re-runs of Friends while I’m making dinner at night, and that’s all about sex. My nine-year-old sits there, taking it all in. As for books, I would never tell my kids they can’t read something. I find that when they’re not ready for something they don’t read it anyway.”
After becoming pregnant, Kia almost has an abortion. She jumps off the medical table at the last moment, crying out for them to stop. This is the closest Hrdlitschka comes to expressing her opinion on the procedure.
The challenge now is to get Dancing Naked in the proper hands. Hrdlitschka hopes it will be used as a vehicle of discussion between a mother and daughter.
“We used to live in Surrey, and there is no way our kids would have read this book in their class. I don’t ever try to talk down to teens and I don’t have a certain ‘teen fiction’ style. It’s the story that matters most. You don’t dumb it down, you just choose something they care about. Sex is definitely one of those things.”
Hrdlitschka got to share the process of writing with her daughters, who advised her at the dinner table if a certain idea was boring or silly. Her oldest daughter helped revise the email sections of the book, putting the email letters into proper teen talk.
“It’s important to tell a well-paced story. Kids who are used to instant messaging and DVD’s won’t wade through boring parts. It’s called writing books for the instant gratification generation.”
Dancing Naked follows Hrdlitschka’s Beans on Toast, about a teenage girl coping with her parents’ divorce, and two novels about twin teenage boys who were separated at birth, Disconnected and Tangled Web. Dancing 1-55143-210-2; Disconnected 1-55143-105-X; Tangled Web 1-55143-178-5
[Lisa Kerr / BCBW 2001]
Beans on Toast (Orca $7.95) & Disconnected (Orca $7.95)
Madison crams a lifetime of growing up into two weeks at Band Camp in Beans on Toast (Orca $7.95), a first novel by Shelley Hrdlitschka. With her parents’ divorce and her recent move to the West Coast, making friends hasn’t been easy for Madison—and she finds it isn’t much easier at camp.
Hrdlitschka is a former teacher whose second novel, Disconnected (Orca $7.95), concerns ‘psychokinesis’. Two boys are inexplicably drawn together from a great distance. 1-55143-116-5
[BCBW WINTER 1998]
Tangled Web (Orca $8.95)
I know where you live. A single sentence on a sheet of paper in Tangled Web (Orca $8.95) plunges 15-year-old twins Alex and Tanner into danger, and, once again, their lives depend on outsmarting the vicious criminal Hap. First introduced in Disconnected, the brothers, separated at birth and only recently reunited, struggle for common ground.
Tanner is confident, impulsive, while Alex, who’s endured a rougher life, is justifiably cautious, yet they share a rare psychic power. That power may be all that can save them, as the boys discover Hap’s diabolical reach has infiltrated Tanner’s Internet search for their birth mother and a suspicious medical study of twins.
Surrey author Shelley Hrdlitschka, a teacher for many years, discovered a love of children’s literature during the daily storytime. Her first book Beans on Toast, chronicles a girl surviving her parent’s divorce as she struggles to find her place in a new world. 1-55143-178-5
Told in the form of online communications, Sun Signs (Orca, $9.95) by Shelley Hrdlitschka follows the struggles of 15-year-old cancer patient Kayleigh Wyse who is unable to attend school while she undergoes chemotherapy and radiation. In order to complete a science project on astrology, she enlists the help of other on-line learners, assuming everyone is as truthful as herself. She slowly realizes the world of the internet is about as unreliable as astrological predictions based on ever-shifting heavens. 1-55143-338-9
Allegra by Shelley Hrdlitschka (Orca $12.95)
from Louise Donnelly
Don’t stand so close to me. At what point does a teenage crush on a teacher cross the line? When does a teacher’s support and admiration of a student become suspect?
These are the questions Shelley Hrdlitschka explores in Allegra, her ninth novel for teen readers.
“In music, the term allegro means ‘lively, with a happy air,’” says Mr. Rocchelli. The music teacher, with the faded jeans and the dimples, smiles at Allegra. “Does that describe you?”
“I think that’s what my parents were hoping when they named me,” Allegra mutters. It’s only the first morning at Deer Lake School for the Fine and Performing Arts and already the place is a disappointment.
“And?” prompts Mr. Rocchelli.
“I let them down,” Allegra says.
Allegra’s mother is a harpist in the symphony and her father is the bass player for a band called the Loose Ends. Her mother is all for classical training while her dad, self-taught, would scoff at someone like Mr. Rocchelli. Her dad’s been performing for years while her mother’s only recently gotten work as a musician. But it was her mother who made her complete the “highest level of piano performance” at the National Music Academy before she’d consider letting Allegra study dance. Allegra’s gotten math and biology out of the way at summer school and now she just wants whatever academics she needs to graduate. It doesn’t make sense she has to take a lame music theory course, especially since she could fill that block with another dance class. You’d think a high school for the arts would get that.
She can write the final exam immediately, Mr. Rocchelli tells Allegra, and she has to concede “how nice he looks when he smiles.” Acing the exam still doesn’t get her out of his class but he promises something “really special.” The project turns out to be a melody he’s composed. “It’s like a black-and-white sketch,” he tells her. “I want you to turn it into a full- colour painting.”
Meanwhile, things are getting worse between her parents. Her dad’s on the road so much her mom always gets this “weird kind of nervousness” when he’s about to come home. It’s more than that, though. There’s a simmering undercurrent Allegra can’t quite read. But she has an idea it might have something to do with one of the guys in the symphony, the one named Marcus who drives her mother to performances.
Still, some of the kids at school aren’t so bad. Tall skinny Spencer, for one. And the project Mr. Rocchelli proposed—expanding his melody into a full orchestrated version—is more fulfilling than Allegra imagined it would be. Soon she and Rocky—as he invites the kids to call him—are spending more and more time together working alone in the studio, caught up in the music and Allegra’s startling talent, a talent way beyond her teenage years. Then everything begins to fall apart. She and Spencer aren’t friends anymore, her dad’s moved out. But Allegra’s still got Noel.
That’s Rocky’s real first name. And then another student accuses Allegra and Mr. Rocchelli of an inappropriate relationship. Has she destroyed his career? His life? And what has she done to herself? In the dark days that follow, when there is “no reason to get out of bed” and “dancing is pointless,” Allegra discovers solace—and redemption—in an unexpected source. Her father.
Shelley Hrdlitschka’s other novels include Kat’s Fall, where 15-year-old Darcy must come to terms with his mother’s horrific crime—throwing his sister from a fifth floor balcony—and Sister Wife, an exploration of the enforced plural marriage of young girls.
Shelley Hrdlitschka came to writing as a school teacher. 978-1-4598-0197-4
Louise Donnelly writes from Vernon.
“Recently I felt compassion for the Sechelt teacher, Heather Ingram, when I read Risking It All, the story of her relationship with a student. The media made mincemeat of her at the time, and I’m as disgusted as the next person when a teacher preys on a vulnerable student, but we’re often too quick to judge before we have all the facts.
“I received many hugs from my students when I was teaching, back in the ’80s, and my own daughters have given and received hugs from caring teachers. None of these were ever inappropriate but a male teacher friend confessed that he squirmed the entire time he was reading Allegra, not knowing where the teacher/student relationship was headed. He said he kept reflecting on all the times he’d been put into awkward positions by his own students, both male and female. When he wants to reach out and show genuine caring to his students—a quick hug or even a squeeze on the arm—he has to hold back for fear of his intentions being misconstrued.
“I understand why strict guidelines are now in place, yet it’s unfortunate that it has to be this way, and I suspect that many teachers will continue to reach out with human touch and kindness when it is called for in the classroom.”
— Shelley Hrdlitschka
Dancing in the Rain by Shelley Hrdlitschka (Orca $14.95)
from Alex Van Tol
Shelley hrdlitschka hit it out of the park with Dancing Naked (Orca 2002), a YA novel about a young girl’s course through pregnancy and her eventual decision to adopt her child to another family. Fans wrote and asked, What happened to the baby? followed by, What happened to the BABY?? but Hrdlitschka had no intention of following it up with a sequel
Then, four years ago, a young woman wrote to Hrdlitschka saying she had been moved by Dancing Naked as a teenager and had faithfully been combing the shelves ever since, looking for the next book. “She was in her twenties!” says Hrdlitschka. “She had kept waiting for ten years.”
That has given rise to Dancing in the Rain, the story of that baby, sixteen years later, when Brenna, her adoptive father and adoptive sister are trying to pick up the pieces after Brenna’s adoptive mother, Joanna, has succumbed to fast-moving breast cancer.
Before and after her mother’s illness, Brenna volunteers at the wildlife refuge on Grouse Mountain, where her mother used to work. This job grounds her; it keeps her putting one foot in front of the other, as she moves through grief.
As Brenna commutes from the bottom of the hill to the grizzly bear enclosure every Saturday, she gets to know a friendly Australian tram operator named Ryan, who adored Joanna as a sort of surrogate mother while he was away from home.
As part of his own healing in the wake of his own mother’s struggle with drugs and alcohol, and his brother’s death in a car accident, Ryan takes Brenna under his wing, convincing her to hike the Grouse Grind as a way of dealing with the grief. Brenna accepts; a friendship turns romantic.
Ryan provides strong support for Brenna as she watches her younger sister, Naysa, try to drink and party the pain away. Brenna’s hurdles include navigating a new life with an empty chair at the dining room table and reading the journal that her birth mother, Kia, had kept during the time she was pregnant with Brenna.
The journal is tougher than the Grouse Grind. Brenna tries to understand the forces at work in Kia’s life that ultimately persuaded her to give her baby to another family to raise.
Alerted to Joanna’s death by a mutual friend (the minister, Justin, for those who know the characters from the first book), Kia’s sister Angie reaches out via Facebook. It rattles Brenna to have her birth aunt suddenly be in touch after all these years, but Angie is Brenna’s only link to Kia, who isn’t yet ready to reconnect with her daughter.
Angie gradually becomes a source of support for Brenna, helping to stabilize Naysa and drawing the aching family back together.
Although Ryan returns to Australia when his mother is discharged from rehab, he and Brenna maintain their connection, with him encouraging her to take part in a relay on Grouse to raise funds for breast cancer research.
We can’t reveal what happens next, whether the past can be reconciled with the future. Suffice to say Hrdlitschka is once again trotting around all four bases.
Dancing in the Rain is an uplifting, heartwarming book that reminds young readers to look outside themselves for support when times get hard.
Adoption is an issue close to Hrdlitschka’s heart because she has three adopted siblings. “In my extended family, there are all kinds of adoptions,” she says, “and many across race lines.”
Hrdlitschka sprinkles some good guidance around, showing her characters making good and not-so-good choices from which they learn. Everybody hurts, and nobody’s life is perfect—not even in the end. But it’s real. And there’s a real beauty in that. 978-1-4598-1065-5
Alex Van Tol is the author of Aliens Among Us: Invasive Animals and Plants in B.C.