Author Colleen Nelson finds time to write when she's not teaching. (Great Plains)
I have a lot of compassion for those boys who are now bound together by a tragedy.
—Colleen Nelson, author
Grief, confusion, change - Colleen Nelson has spent years
observing how young people handle the seismic events that mark adolescence.
The Winnipeg-born author has made the most of her living teaching in schools, first as an English instructor in Japan, then teaching full-time at Charleswood Junior High from 1998 to 2005.
While she's currently teaching preschool, it's her experience with young teens that's shaped her latest young audience novel, The Fall.
"I think it's a fascinating time," Nelson says. "I feel like that's the age they're really trying to find themselves. The 'self-conscious switch' goes on in grade eight...Kids begin identifying themselves strongly as group members."
The Fall shatters
the worlds of its three main male characters when a friend plunges to his death
before their eyes.
Each of the young men copes with the trauma in a different
way - one dulling the pain with alcohol, another finding new companionship and
self-punishment in a gang while the youngest, the main character Ben, withdraws
inside himself and the escapist world of trick skateboarding.
While not drawn from specific events, Nelson says the story is informed by the experience of watching her male students struggle to cope with a classmate's death
"I have a lot of compassion for those boys who are now bound together by a tragedy," Nelson says, explaining that while the girls at her school openly cried and talked about their grief, the boys were more constrained with how they could express their pain.
"We have so many expressions in society about manning up, or crying like a girl. We've given societal permission for girls to cry, we need to help our sons know it's okay to express themselves."
The ability of boys to talk out their emotions, particularly to their mothers, is of keen interest to Nelson. She has two boys, aged six and eight, who are already diverging when it comes to communicating feelings.
"My youngest, he likes to talk and express himself, while my eight-year-old slinks to the basement," she laughs. "He's not a verbal communicator. I can already see his adolescence is going to be quieter."
Nelson says she's had to work hard to keep the lines of communication open, both with her sons and, in the past, with her students. Her practice listening to kids is evident in the book's pages, where the teens' exchanges with adults as well as their peers ring true.
Nelson admits the slang and skateboarding terms - gleaned from hours watching YouTube - might be dated in a few years. For now, the school groups and friends' kids she's presented the book to have given it their stamp of approval.
"I really hoped I nailed it," she says. "Being a 38-year-old woman it hard was to channel these young boys. I spoke out loud when I was writing to help channel the characters. I certainly pulled on language I observed when I was a teacher.
"I hope I did justice to these boys' voices."
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