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Northwest Passages: Virginia Euwer Wolff

Pete Springer/OPB

a href=”” target=”_blank”>Virginia Euwer Wolff reads her work out loud as she writes. She jokes that’s why it’s taken her so long to finish her Make Lemonade trilogy. The first book in the series came out in 1993; the second won the 2001 National Book Award and the third was just released this year.

The trio of novels capture the voices of LaVaughn, a high school girl living in bad public housing whose mother’s drive keeps her focused on college; Jolly, a 17-year-old single mom with an elusive background; and other young people seeking room in a complicated world.

The story emerged from a creative writing exercise that terrified Wolff: Be Something or Somebody you are not. She chose babysitter, and wrote this:

Those kids, that Jeremy and that Jilly
were sloppy and drippy
and they got their hands into things you’d refuse to touch.
They acted their age so much they could
make you crazy.

Those very first lines she tried stayed in the published version of the first book.

My favorite passage comes in the middle of the middle book, True Believer:

Well, listen to this: There is a pink jellyfish
so beautiful
no human could make anything
so filmy and graceful and alive, floating along in a hidden lake
thousands of miles away from this ugly place.
There’s hardly any food, so it grows
a whole garden of plants inside itself
to feed on. This jellyfish stays in the sunlight all day
and photosynthesis makes its plants green.
Then at night it goes down deep in the water
where lots of nitrogen is,
for fertilizer.
This creature is just a jellyfish.
And it’s figured out a way to go on living
when the odds are against it.

It’s adaptation, I learned it in Biology,
and I keep thinking how it’s a good lesson
to keep remembering.

Wolff writes what’s known as the verse novel (here’s a list of young adult examples). She offers no descriptions of her Make Lemonade characters that confirm their race, hoping instead that different readers will imagine them differently — whatever race readers need the characters to be.

Wolff and I found instant common ground in a love for the literary giant Nikolai Gogol. She also traces her influences and inspirations to Shakespeare, the Luigi Pirandello play Six Characters in Search of an Author, and a childhood rhyme. And classical music.

Wolff’s books are aimed at “young adults” but they’re a good read even for those of us who consider ourselves a bit older. In addition to the Make Lemonade triology, she’s written three other books for young people and one adult novel she’d rather forget. We’ll talk with her about LaVaughn and Jolly, about writing for teenagers as a grandmother, about Gogol, music, September 11 and how language puts people in or keeps them out of a group. If you’ve read one or more installments of the Make Lemonade trilogy, or the Oregon Reads youth selection Bat 6, or any of Virginia Euwer Wolff’s other work, what did you think?

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