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Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Hell House comes alive in YA novel Small Town Sinners by Melissa Walker



This book is so so good. I think the trick to writing a YA novel like this is you can't come across like you have all the answers (okay, any novel, really). You can't make fun of your characters. You can condescend to them. You have to live them, you have to make the reader empathize with them even if they don't know what they're talking about. I didn't grow up in a tiny town with nothing to do and had no idea what Hell House was until a few years ago when Julie Klausner acted in the play (make of that what you will, you don't learn a lot about these things in Teaneck or Berkeley). But Lacey wanting to play "Abortion Girl?" I'm so with her. I like Lacey Anne Byer as a character a lot. The first paragraph I quote below, if we take it away from the context of Hell House, well, what teenager hasn't wanted the spotlight? What adult for that matter, whether on a small scale or a big one?

Melissa Walker nails a lot of things, and one of them is teen alienation, even for good girls. It's gripping and I'm only sad I don't have more time to devour this ASAP. Here's the review in the New York Times, which they wisely gave to Carlene Bauer, author of Not That Kind of Girl, who could bring her evangelical upbringing into it.

See also: USA Today, "Young adult novels explore religion:"


The novel was inspired by an article Walker did for ELLEgirl magazine on Hell Houses, haunted houses often run by fundamentalist Christian churches. Their emphasis: people who don't accept Jesus as their savior are condemned to hell.


Also, the heart in the apple on the cover? Genius. Read it!

From Small Town Sinners by Melissa Walker:


Last year I watched Julia Millhouse play a pregnant teenager. When the lights went up in the nursery, where they staged her scene, she said her lines with so much emotion that people in the audience started to cry. I'd see them come through the lobby after the show and hear them talking about her performance. I want that spotlight. I want to be able to affect people that way too.

I've grown up with Hell House all my life, but Dean's cousins in the next county over think it's something weird that religious nuts do. It's not. It's a way to show people the right path. My dad always plays the devil--he thinks it's funny to be the children's pastor and the Antichrist. And Pastor Frist's Jesus bathes Hell in white light at the very end, leading the audience into Heaven (also known as the church library, all done up in white sheets and cotton clouds), where they get decision cars. Most people fill out the cards and agree to at least explore a Christian life. It's a magical weekend and an incredible outreach, especially for young people who don't have a path to Christ like I've grown up with. Mom always reminds me how lucky I am to have that.

I'm sitting with Starla Joy and her sister, Tessa, who's finger-coming her wavy brown hair as we wait to hear about this year's production. Tessa played and EMT last year in the drunk driving scene, and she got to say, "I'm sorry, Mrs. Kerner, your daughter is dead." Everyone thinks she'll get a big part this year since she's pretty much the senior girl with the most rank here. Even in church--especially in church--there's a social hierarchy.

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