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Teen Slate

Natalie Standiford's new young-adult novel brings her back to Baltimore

Tobias Everke
Natalie Standiford

By Lee Gardner | Posted 11/4/2009

"When I was in college, one of the TAs of one of my writing seminars asked me, 'Why are all your stories about kids?'" Natalie Standiford recalls. At the time, she says, "I thought, Well, I'm 18, what do you expect me to write about?"

After she graduated from Brown University and moved to New York in the early 1980s, however, she found herself supporting her hoped-for career as a novelist by working for Random House's children's books division. "I thought, I'll stay there six months and move into adult books," she says. "But once I got there, I felt so at home. I felt like I really should be doing this."

Now 47, she still is. Having written a few children's books while working as an editor, she struck out on her own and over the past 20 years has penned everything from easy-reader titles such as The Stone Giant to the six volumes of young-adult novel series The Dating Game. Last month, Scholastic published How to Say Goodbye in Robot, her first young-adult novel in hard cover and the first book she's set in her Baltimore hometown.

Robot centers on Beatrice, a high-school senior starting over in a new city and school. She's feeling alienated from her parents (hence the robot reference) but she's also alienated from the established school social scene. The only person she doesn't feel alienated from is classmate Jonah, who is even more alienated from everything and everybody than she is. As they make their way through their last year of high school and try to solve a mystery in Jonah's family's past, they navigate what their relationship is--and isn't. They also navigate an easily recognizable Baltimore, from the slightly fictionalized (Canton School is a stand-in for North Baltimore's private Friends School) to the right up the street (the Hopkins Club, Alonso's).

The book's knowing details and obvious Baltimore affection bespeak Standiford's deep local roots. She grew up in Roland Park and graduated from Friends. She frequented defunct North Charles Street institution the Peabody Book Shop beer stube, fictionalized here as the Carmichael's Book Shop; her brother John (the former co-owner of the Charles Theatre) was a fan of quirky local senior-citizen call-in radio show Over 50 Overnight, which plays a major role in Robot's story in its redubbed guise as The Night Light Show.

Many of the books Standiford has written, like many children's or young-adult books in general, were based on licensed characters or established stories or had to fit the parameters of a series. When she started working on the free-standing Robot, she found herself thinking back to her own teenage years.

"When I remember those times, I remember places in Baltimore," she says by phone from her New York home. "And once I started writing about it, I wondered why I had never set anything in Baltimore before. It sort of became a character to me--it's such a rich resource as a place.

"I wanted to make it a little bit of a fantasy Baltimore," she continues. "Like there are places that have been closed for a while that I kept open. But it's fiction, so if I want it to be open, it can still be open," she laughs. "And I wanted it to be almost a magical Baltimore, to reflect how the two main characters are living there and creating their own world there."

Indeed, even though Beatrice is a Baltimore newcomer, she feels like a very Baltimore character: a teenage girl who stays up all night listening to old-folks radio and enjoys taking photographs of herself dressed up as vintage movie characters. Such eccentricities help keep Robot from the predictable paces of some young-adult fiction. Jonah's family mystery may be a little outlandish, for example, but the emotions it stirs up are played convincingly terse and straight. Likewise, Beatrice and Jonah's intense relationship defies simple boy-meets-girl but will feel familiar to anyone who's ever stumbled across a soul mate. In the end, everyone winds up with what they want, more or less, though it's probably not what the characters, or the reader, expected.

It's an adroit take on a genre that presents challenges to its practitioners that adult novelists don't face. "It's tricky because you're aiming for [readers of], say, 13-and-up, but there are also the gatekeepers for the readers--the teachers, the parents, the librarians--and they have different standards than the kids do," Standiford says. "There was one librarian who reviewed one of my books by counting how many swear words there were in it and gave it a rating--R." While Robot contains enough underage drinking and f-bombs to give it verisimilitude, "compared to a lot of books, it's pretty tame," she says. "A lot of them have fairly graphic sex."

Standiford is already working on her next novel for Scholastic, also set in Baltimore, but with a different set of characters--and still for young readers: "I do feel like I've found a place where I fit well, that works for my voice as a writer."

"I really like the energy of the teen readers, because I don't see that among adults so much," she says, adding that her web-friendly audience provides feedback through e-mails, blog posts, and Tweets. "It's usually very gushy and happy and, 'I love your book.' Sometimes, people write and say, 'Oh, I have a friend just like Jonah.' 'I cried,' stuff like that. That passion. It's great to write for people who get so excited."

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