My sweet father is eighty-seven now and was a scientist in his working life. (He’d be so tickled to know I was writing about him.) He has a Ph.D in physics (which honestly makes my brain hurt) and has always approached the world from a place of logic and reason and proof. When I was five, he explained surface tension – in excruciating detail – when I made the mistake of asking about the ripples in my bathwater. But he has always been so much more than a scientist. He adores classical music, especially opera, and was an avid fiction reader. He could quote the first lines of all his favorite books, among them Rebecca and Scaramouche. My dad understood his bookish daughter.
I was all about literature and art and music and writing. My high-school counselors and my friends, however, assured me that those things would get me exactly nowhere in the great wide world. Oh, sure, it was nice that I had such high grades in English and history and choir and all the non-science-y things, but now it was time to grow up, get serious, and decide what I wanted to be for the rest of my life. At seventeen, I felt enormously ill prepared to make such a monumental decision, but I went to college and declared myself a psychology major. I thought I would be good at listening and helping people. But I had no idea that listening and helping people would require me to suffer through so much science and math and spend long hours in creepy labs late at night. With Statistics bearing down on me the second half of my sophomore year, I knew I was in deep trouble. I loathed my classes, my psychology professors were deeply weird, and I had nothing literary in my academic life to make my heart sing.
When I arrived home for the Thanksgiving break, I was anxious and depressed and utterly exhausted from pulling all-nighters just to get B’s and C’s. I felt stupid and incompetent. (I should have failed freshman math, but I wept through so many “extra help” sessions that the professor felt sorry for me and gave me my first and only “D.” ) That’s when my dad gave me the life-changing advice about studying something that made me happy. So that’s what I did. I went back to school, changed my major, dropped all my psychology classes, and enrolled in the English program.
From then on, I was on the Dean’s List every semester. I loved my classes and my professors. I was accepted into graduate school and earned an M.A. in English, taught middle school during the year I was writing my thesis, then moved to Washington, D.C. and became a writer/editor for a company that did contract work for the National Cancer Institute. All of my jobs after graduate school involved writing about some completely unfamiliar, highly technical field. I found myself eagerly learning about medicine and engineering and biochemistry because I had to write about those things. I only needed to approach them from the outside in, in a way that made sense to me – with words, words, glorious words. Could I actually be a scientist? Absolutely no way! But I could write about technical topics and issues with authority and confidence. I can’t even begin to tell you how much joy and satisfaction this gave me. I wasn’t stupid after all!
Eventually, though, after many years of technical writing and editing and crafting fundraising proposals and grant applications on tight deadlines, I became burned out. I was writing for other people, and what I created was not really mine. I wasn’t writing from my heart, from my soul. I yearned to write my own stories, even if I was the only one who ever saw them.
One day, my husband came home from work to find me sitting at the kitchen counter with a (rather large) glass of wine, my head in my hands, on the verge of tears. I was working then as the Director of Foundation and Corporate Relations for a huge university, and the work had become unfulfilling, intensely political, and incredibly frustrating. “Honey, what’s wrong?” he asked. “I hate my job, ” I sobbed. He was quiet for a moment, and then he said, “Why don’t you quit? We’ll be okay. You should be writing your own books.” (And yes, he is my hero and the best man in the world.)
So I took his advice, gave my notice, left that job, and began to work on my own writing. Rhyming picture books at first, then YA fantasy (which were straight-up wretched), and then, finally, Sparrow. I approached this work as though it was a full-time job. I showed up at my desk early every morning and wrote all day. Even after many false starts and tons (TONS!) of rejection, I was doing the most joyful, creative, challenging, empowering work of my life. Writing and publishing Sparrow, working with my brilliant editor Susan Chang and the entire Tor Teen team, has been a dream come true.
My husband and my children are proud of me. My lovely dad, who gave me that advice decades ago, is unwell, but he is still with me. In just a few weeks, he’ll hold my first book in his hands.
Everything has come full circle, darling Dad.
I’m doing the work that makes me happy.
Mary Cecilia Jackson has worked as a middle school teacher, an adjunct instructor of college freshmen, a technical writer and editor, a speechwriter, a museum docent, and a development officer for central Virginia’s PBS and NPR stations. Her first novel, Sparrow, was an honor recipient of the SCBWI Sue Alexander Award and a young-adult finalist in the Writers’ League of Texas manuscript contest. She lives with her architect husband, William, in Western North Carolina and Hawaii, where they have a farm and five ridiculously adorable goats.
In the tradition of Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak, a devastating but hopeful YA debut about a ballerina who finds the courage to confront the abuse that haunts her past and threatens her future.
There are two kinds of people on the planet. Hunters and prey
I thought I would be safe after my mother died. I thought I could stop searching for new places to hide. But you can’t escape what you are, what you’ve always been.
My name is Savannah Darcy Rose.
And I am still prey.
Though Savannah Rose―Sparrow to her friends and family―is a gifted ballerina, her real talent is keeping secrets. Schooled in silence by her long-dead mother, Sparrow has always believed that her lifelong creed―“I’m not the kind of girl who tells”―will make her just like everyone else: Normal. Happy. Safe. But in the aftermath of a brutal assault by her seemingly perfect boyfriend Tristan, Sparrow must finally find the courage to confront the ghosts of her past, or lose herself forever….
Prize: Win a copy of SPARROW by Mary Cecilia Jackson (US/CAN Only)
Starts: 17th March 2020
Ends: 31st March 2020
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