Almost Home is a very raw story of 7 teenagers, who find themselves intertwined with each other on the streets of Los Angeles. Though they've created their own sort of family, they're all too often alone. Author Jessica Blank goes into the gritty details of youth runaways' lives, while making the reader see from their perspective, why they each had to leave home.
The book begins with Elly, only 12 years old when she runs away from home to escape her disconnected parents, bullying at school, and the fact that her stepbrother rapes her. She quickly connects with other youth who are fighting to survive on the streets.
The teenage characters in Almost Home show the reader what it’s like to struggle with other issues youth face, such as sexual abuse, drug use, homosexuality, and violence.
These 7 young characters may be fictional, but unfortunately their situations are very realistic and similar to that of real youth who deal with homelessness everyday.
Do you think it’s important for youth who have not had to face these types of issues to read this book?
Absolutely! The teens in the book are in an extreme situation, but many teens struggle with some of the same issues in less intense ways, and Almost Home will speak to them. And even if readers don't grapple with the characters' issues in a literal way, the teens in the stories have emotions and struggles that I think all teenagers have--trying to fit in, find friends they can trust, falling in love, having their hearts broken, balancing courage and fear and figure out who they are and what's important to them.
From where did you draw the inspiration to develop the seven main characters in this story?
I know this is sort of a cliche, but they kind of just came to me! I wrote the chapters out of order and originally was thinking of them as stories, not parts of a novel. Laura came to me first, and Tracy showed up in her story...I was compelled and intrigued by Tracy and the effects she might have on other characters. Critter's story came next, and then I realized this might be a whole group of kids. I wrote the others out of order--Tracy's story was the very last I wrote! The whole process was pretty intuitive; I figured it out as I went along.
The experiences of these characters seem very realistic. Did you research street life, or was this something familiar to you?
I've never had any firsthand experience with being on the street. When I was in college, I worked at a restaurant that gave away our leftover food every night, and there was a group of homeless gutter punk kids that always came in. I never got to know them well, but I was around them a lot, and I guess they stuck with me. I did research on the internet as I went along, when I got stuck or there were questions I didn't know the answers to. A lot of the work I write (I'm also a playwright and a screenwriter) is about people whose lives are very different from my own (my husband and I wrote a play called "The Exonerated" based on interviews with innocent people on death row, and we're currently working on another based on interviews with Iraqi refugees)...so I have some practice thinking and learning about worlds that are different than the one I exist in. Stories ask us to empathize with the protagonists (relating to the characters is what makes reading affect us!) and I really believe in asking readers to empathize with people whose lives are often overlooked and ignored by our culture...I think opening those worlds up to readers can change the way they think about the world.
L.A. seems to come alive, and each of the different characters take the reader through a different part of it in Almost Home. What makes L.A. a good setting for a story about homeless youth?
I'm fascinated by L.A. My husband and I are also actors, so we stay out there from time to time, and I've always found it an intriguing place. We're based in New York and I think of NYC as my home, so when I'm in LA I always feel like a bit of an outside observer, which is a great perspective to write from. The city is such a rich and complicated place---all that gloss and glamour on the outside, and then underneath it's really gritty and there are lots of people who are really struggling. I think that tension is really interesting, and its powerful to think about these kids who live in an environment that's supposed to be so glamorous.
In Almost Home, experiencing a single event through the eyes of different characters, changes how readers feel about a situation. For example: Tracy is attacked by Scabius in an alley, and while reading her account, it’s obvious that Scabius is the villain in this situation, but while reading Scabius’ version of the events, his actions, although not excused, almost seem rationalized. Is it difficult to write in such a way that allows the reader to feel compassion for a character even after they’ve done something horrible?
I think that all human beings deserve compassion. That doesn't in any way mean that all actions are okay--obviously Scabius' attack on Tracy is not okay at all. But I do believe that no person is inherently horrible. People learn to abuse from being abused themselves, and that's what happened to Scabius. I wanted to show something about the cycle of abuse, and to challenge readers to see the humanity of everyone--even the people who do awful things.
What advice can you offer to young readers who have friends that are struggling with or who may be at risk of becoming homeless?
I'm not a social worker and I don't have any credentials in this field, so everything should be taken with a grain of salt! But I would say that the most important thing is to listen to them and to earn their trust. And the second most important thing is to get them to connect with adults who they trust and who will help them. If their families are abusive (as some are), then help them find adults outside their families (teachers, social workers, etc) who can help them out. Also, there is a great organization called National Safe Place that every at-risk teen should know about. It's a network of businesses (locations of McDonald's, Tops Supermarkets, Arby's, etc) who display the "Safe Place" logo and can connect teens with the resources they need -- right away. Shelters and social workers can be hard to find, especially in an emergency--but with Safe Place, all a teen needs to do is go into one of these locations and ask for help.
What can people do to help prevent youth from ending up on the streets?
Again: listen to them. If you're an adult, and a teen you know seems to be going through a really hard time, don't overlook it: earn their trust and get them to open up to you--and then help them. Work to get systems in place that help abused teens and create safe space for them. Urge your government to fund and train more social workers so that the foster care system becomes less overwhelmed and can devote more resources to helping kids. And if you can, volunteer at a shelter or drop-in center--it makes a big difference.
What made you want to write a book for young adults?
When I started writing this book, I actually had no idea it would ever be published. Usually, I work in film and theater--which are two very, very collaborative mediums. I wanted a creative project that I could work on by myself, for myself, on my own time. While I was working on the first stories, I took a creative writing class at UCLA, and my teacher encouraged me to put the stories out there in the world. Through my playwriting agents, I found a literary agent. He told me that since the protagonists were teenagers, he thought the best way to publish it was as a young adult book. And he was right! I've always related to teenagers and think they are great. I even thought about working with teens as a career at one point in my life. So it's great to have contact with them through my work. And teenagers are the best readers---I remember the books that I read when I was that age affected me more powerfully and were more important than most of the books I've read since (and I'm a big reader!) I think when you're in the first stages of figuring out who you are, the books you read play a big part in shaping your relationship to your identity and the world. And it's an honor to be part of that process for my readers.
Is there any advice you can give to young adults who would like to pursue their own writing career?
WRITE! Don't worry about having a "career" as a writer. That will come, and you'll figure it out as you go along. I cannot over-stress the importance of getting training in your art form. Go to college (even if you have to take out loans to do it), and study creative writing, and keep studying writing, and write in a disciplined way. You cannot become an artist--in any art form--without training, and without discipline. Don't put too much pressure on yourself: nothing is "good" right away. I rewrote "Almost Home" about twenty times total, when you count the rewrites on the individual chapters, and then the rewrites of the whole book. Keep it flowing--edit and shape it later. You don't have to know what the whole story will be before you start writing it; you just need a starting place. And that starting place can be anything--a character, a moment, a sentence. Just start.