A squall line approaches from the south. Distant rumbles of thunder follow the flashes of lightning that streak through the column of the cumulonimbus drifting slowly across the horizon. Fascinated, I watch the storm grow in strength. Anyone out there is in for ride.
A gurgling rumble sound to my left brings me back to the beach. Just off shore, something is stirring beneath the surface of the water. With a diesel protest and grinding of gears, a massive yellow bulk emerges from the surf. I catch a glimpse of black lettering as the driver’s window rolls down. A torrent of seawater pours onto the sand, along with three mackerel, two starfish and a horseshoe crab. The driver’s head appears. Coughing and choking, he manages to get out a single question: “Is this the way to Mill Valley High School?”
Folks and fellow castaways, help me welcome Barbara Ehrentreu, author of the teen novel If I Could Be Like Jennifer Taylor. This book has been racking up 5-star reviews all over the web, and for good reason. It explores one of the toughest things a teen can face, and that’s self-image.
Let’s face it. Liking the face in the mirror is one of the most challenging things about being a teen. So, without further ado, Here’s a conversation I had with Barb:
Cyrus: Teen years are rough on most anyone, especially when you’re not the one of the “beautiful people.” Why would you want to take us back there with If I Could Be Like Jennifer Taylor?
Barbara: You know I based this on my younger daughter who was going through similar experiences at the time. She happened to be a senior in high school, but I wanted to write a younger character. Carolyn popped out when I started fleshing the character out and soon her experiences came to me.
Cyrus: Are there any episodes in the book based on your personal experiences?
Barbara: Carolyn is very tongue tied around her crush and that happened to me a lot. Also she wants to be popular and I always did too. I didn’t want to be a cheerleader, though, but I did always want to look like Jennifer Taylor.
Cyrus: I think most of us as teens could point to one person or another out of our class and think that was the ideal person. They not only had it all together, they actually remembered where they put it. They were the most beautiful, or the most buff. It’s hard enough to figure out who you are at that age without the pressure of having to measure up to what or who we think is “perfect.”
What is the bottom line of the story? What One Thing do you want your readers to come away with?
Barbara: I think one thing anyone who reads this book should feel after you finish is that the best person to be is yourself. It’s kind of like the old cliche, the grass is always greener on the other side. A lot of kids are always wanting to be like someone else. You will have to see if this is true for Carolyn, my heroine.
Cyrus: Am I correct? Did I hear that your book is being used in schools already? How do you get it into a school?
Barbara: No, it is not being used in schools, but I would love if it was. I am contacting librarians soon to see if I can start getting some readings. Then I will bring books and sell them or sell the ebooks. If the school wants to buy the book for their curriculum I would love that very much! Meanwhile that hasn’t happened, but the school year is beginning and I’d love this to work.
Cyrus: What other projects are in the works?
Barbara: I have a finished novel also YA called When My Life Changed, which is about a fifteen year old girl whose father has a heart attack and undergoes triple bypass surgery. It’s all about how her life changes in a moment and the implications for both her family and her friendships. How she changes is the story. It is just about ready to submit. I’ve worked on it for about seven years!! Also I will be having five poems in an anthology for charity called Beyond the Dark Room coming out in September. In addition I have several stories that will be published in children’s magazines.
Cyrus: The story is told from a girl’s POV. Is there anything in there that boys can identify with as well?
Barbara: Actually, as you and several other men have mentioned, this brings men back to their high school days. A lot of boys were bullied and men can identify with my character and the environment. I just got a 5 star review from a man on Amazon, so I do think it appeals to men. I had a ten year old boy want an autograph from me too.
Cyrus: Here’s the blurb, folks:
Carolyn Samuels is obsessed with the idea of being popular. She is convinced that the only thing keeping her from happiness is her too heavy for fashion body and not being a cheerleader. Hyperventilating when she gets nervous doesn’t help. When she is paired for a math project with the girl who tormented her in middle school, Jennifer Taylor, she is sure it is going to be another year of pain. With Carolyn’s crush on Jennifer’s hunky junior quarterback, Brad her freshman year in high school looks like a rerun of middle school. When Jennifer is the only student who knows why she fell in gym class, Carolyn is blackmailed into doing her math homework in return for Jennifer’s silence. Jennifer takes on Carolyn as a pity project since she can’t be seen with someone who dresses in jeans and sweatshirts. When Jennifer invites Carolyn to spend the night to make her over and teach her to tumble, Carolyn learns Jennifer’s secret and lies to her own friends to cover it up. Will Carolyn become a cheerleader and popular? Does she continue to keep Jennifer’s secret? Or will she be a target of this mean girl again?
Cyrus: Okay, I want you to set up a scene and let us have short look at If I Could Be Like Jennifer Taylor:
Barbara: This scene takes place in gym and Carolyn is speaking with her best friend Becky while Jennifer Taylor and her popular group are behind them in the bleachers. Then it moves from there:
* * * *
"Maybe it won't be so bad this year, Carolyn." Becky always tries to cheer me up now. This wasn’t true a few years ago. I had to cheer her up a lot. Becky’s brothers are just turning five, and they’re both in kindergarten. Her mom remarried after being divorced for ten years. Becky was just getting used to her new stepfather when her mom got pregnant. I remember how miserable Becky was the first year of middle school when her mom spent so much time with her twin brothers and didn’t have enough time to help Becky with her homework. Luckily, Becky’s stepfather is a history teacher, so she got very interested in history and current events.
"Right, Becky, and maybe I'll learn to be a gymnast in ten minutes. Reality check, remember last year?"
"Okay, I'm hoping it won't be so bad."
"You mean like the dentist finding you only have one cavity and filling it the same day?"
"You’re so lame, Carolyn. Since we're all older, maybe she'll treat us differently. People change over the summer you know."
"Look at her, Becky."
Becky turns to look over at the group at the top of the bleachers and then turns back to look me in the eye. “You know you have to put that stupid day behind you.”
I pretend not to know what she’s talking about. “What stupid day?”
Like I don’t remember every detail.
“The zip line day.”
“Oh, that day,” I say with a combination grimace and smile. “The day I wound up having to climb off the platform. I wanted to bore a hole into the ground so I wouldn’t have to walk past them but couldn’t, and everyone screamed at me:
“Breathe, Carolyn, breathe.”
“You have to admit it was funny the way the gym teacher ran up the ladder like a squirrel to rescue you. Everyone laughed at how stupid she looked. Jennifer got the whole class going with that ridiculous ‘breathe, Carolyn, breathe.’” Becky looks behind her to Jennifer. “You know I wanted to run over and punch her, but I couldn’t because I was still on the platform, and it was my turn to go.”
“Yeah, if I had a few more minutes, I would have been able to get up the courage to grip the zip line and hook myself to it. Stupid teacher didn’t give me a chance. This not breathing thing when I get nervous really sucks.”
Becky nods because she knows me so well.
“So then Jennifer started with that horrible chant, and of course, the whole class followed her, like always.” My eyes fill with tears as I remember, and my breathing is getting worse by the minute.
“I thought it was a dumb idea to do ropes course stuff in school. We did it at my camp the summer before, and no one was forced to do it. Anyone could get nervous with Jennifer in front of them,” Becky comforts me.
I continue talking as if I’m in a trance. “Remember how last year whenever I ran into Jennifer she would whisper ‘breathe, Carolyn, breathe,’ so no one could hear it except me. Once she did it just before I had to go up in front of the class in math. Sometimes she would do it in front of everyone and, of course, get a big laugh while I wanted to turn into a piece of furniture.”
Becky grabs my arm. “Do we have to go back over this again? You need to forget about it.” She takes her hand away from my arm as I continue to speak.
“Becky, I can’t. The thing is it’s this bad movie in my brain looping the same horrible scenes. The funny thing is, most of the time, she would ignore me. I would never know what she was going to do. You have to admire someone so single-minded she managed to get to me at just the right time. You remember don’t you? And today did you see how she wore the same outfit as me? It’s spooky.”
My funny breathing returns as Miss Gaylon tells us to line up on the yellow line alphabetically. I hope there will be someone to go between Jennifer and me. No luck. Jennifer is going to be behind me all year. I hold my breath. I couldn't stand more of the same this year. I pray for the day to end soon. A glance at my new watch shows me fifteen more minutes left of the period. Is Miss Gaylon's voice getting lower? What is that pounding in my ears?
Jennifer turns to face me and I hear, "Breathe, Carolyn, breathe.” Then my world turns black.