Writing for herself — and then the world

Writing for herself — and then the world

Brattleboro author sees publication of her first book, a young-adult novel

BRATTLEBORO — When Ann Braden, discouraged by rejection, tried to stop writing, she realized she needed that activity in her life.

Her persistence was vindicated on Sept. 4, when her first book, The Benefits of Being an Octopus, was released.

The book follows Zoey, a 12-year-girl, struggling as the caretaker for her three young siblings, watching as her mother's confidence get diminished by a boyfriend, and wishing for invisibility. Zoey takes comfort in her favorite animal, the octopus, and its ability to do multiple things at once.

The last thing on Zoey's mind is school - until her debate teacher encourages her to join the debate club and to look at her situation differently.

Braden used to be a middle-school social-studies teacher, before having kids, so getting in the mindset of a 12-year-old girl came easily. In fact, she considers herself a 12-year-old girl in her soul.

“I think there is a vulnerability of 12-year-old girls, so to get in the mindset, it is all about being honest,” Braden said. “I had to clear my schedule, clear my brain, like go into this cave where you can shed a lot of your armor and just be completely vulnerable and then you can listen in a way that you can't always listen.”

Stuck on the couch

“When my son was born, and I was nursing him on the couch; he would fall asleep and I would be stuck there for hours.” Braden said.

She read a lot.

One book was Louise Erdrich's The Blue Jay's Dance: A Birthyear, which “talks about this woman who's living this beautiful hermit life,” said Braden. “She has a newborn and she goes into her writing studio in the woods to write when the baby naps. I thought, 'That sounds so civilized.'”

Her first thought: she couldn't do that.

Over the next three hours, the longer Braden sat, the more she thought about writing.

“After a while, I thought, 'What would I write?'” she said. “And then an hour later, I was, like, 'I could write this and this and this.'”

She made the leap and got a netbook. On that small laptop computer she typed what she described as a “very bad, one-handed manuscript.”

Still, she said, “I loved the way my brain could tackle it.” Working with fictional characters “was very much like when you know people and understand people.”

And by the end of the process, “I found that I could write a novel,” she said.

Writing for herself

After she started writing, Braden wrote one manuscript a year for the next six years. By the time she started writing The Benefits of Being an Octopus, her hopes of getting published were nonexistent.

But by that time, Braden said she wrote with pure honesty, to keep her sane. She no longer wrote for others.

Then, she heard that an editor from Sky Pony Press, a children's book imprint of Skyhorse Publishing, a fast-growing young publishing house, loved her most recent manuscript.

“I had built this emotional wall that was so big, nothing could get in at this point. There were so many rejections,” Braden said.

It took her roughly a month to feel joy about being published.

“I was so numb to the whole process,” said Braden. “Now, people are reading it, and it's amazing.”

In the days leading to the book's release, Braden has been spreading the word out to circles of teachers on Twitter.

“I've had arcs sent to those teachers, and they are talking it up in a huge way,” she said. “They are so excited to see their kids that they teach reflected in a book series. And so, that's a huge piece of it.”

Braden has an educators' guide and is partnering with Equity Solutions, “a local group to bring cross-class awareness.” She hopes the Brattleboro-based organization will “help make the book and teachers use [the book] as equitable and empowering.”

The book is getting good reviews, including one from Karen Hesse of Brattleboro, a Newbery-Medal-winning author of books for children and young adults.

““This is a compassionate look at poverty, hard choices, and defending one's right to be treated humanely,” Hesse wrote. “A very fine first novel, written with a deft hand.”

Reflecting on the themes of the book, “I think that we all have superpowers,” Braden said. “Sometimes it is harder to see one person's superpower because of all sorts of things in society that are making it hard, whether it is how much money you have, whether you have a stable home, whether you have time to do your homework.”

“[I]t's a matter of finding those superpowers and bringing them out for the world to see,” said Braden, who hopes that her book will reach people of all ages.

“I think my favorite part is that it doesn't feel like a story to me - it feels like real life,” Braden said.

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