My new book, “Our Last Best Shot,” began as a personal quest. My son Jeff, then 11, was showing signs of early adolescence—you know, big feet and amouth to match—and I hadn’t a clue how to react. What did I need to know to guide him successfully through the next few years? If adolescence was typically a time of turmoil, as I had heard, how would I know when he was really in trouble?
Unable to find a book to help me—those in my local bookstores and library focused on older teens—I decided to write what I could not find. But what form should the book take?
I considered adopting the feature style of most newspapers, telling stories of kids in traditional narrative fashion. But would that be enough? Authors often ask (or should ask) for whom they are writing. An equally important question is what the needs of those readers are.
I had read books about kids by several fine narrative journalists including Alex Kotlowitz, Tracy Kidder, and Edward Humes. Their stories had moved me as a reader but didn’t satisfy me as a parent. I wanted to know how experts would analyze the accounts of the children’s lives. I also wanted to hear what they, as gifted observers, had concluded about the kids they covered and whether as a working mother I could use any of what they had learned. I didn’t have time to ponder or try to read between the lines. I found the explanatory notes at the end of such books, which some authors provide, unwieldy.
I knew from covering children and families for The Washington Post that top scientists were beginning to pay attention to kids from age 10 to 15. But their findings, some of them startling, were neither easily accessible nor very readable. I realized I could play a helpful role by translating their results in ways parents and other adults could understand and use.
I also knew from writing for the Post’s Style Plus, a daily page focused on stories affecting ordinary people, that readers devour issues presented up close and personal. So I abandoned the traditional writing approach and break up each narrative with scientific explanation and personal analysis. As I set out to report and write, on leave from the Post, I had no idea of the size of the task I had assumed.
Letting Youngsters Tell Their Stories
In an effort to appeal to a broad readership, I sought kids in three very different communities: urban Los Angeles, medium-sized Durham, North Carolina, and rural Ulysses, Kansas, a town of 6,000. I looked for diversity in the kids, also, using measurable tools such as family income, race and ethnicity, family composition and school performance. I avoided extremes.
I observed 18 youngsters from August 1996 through July 1997. When I started writing in the subsequent year, I narrowed the group to 12. It was tempting to base the book on one child only, one family or one community. Any of those three approaches would have made the reporting and writing easier but also made it more likely that readers would dismiss my findings as exceptions. To identify the assets all kids need to pass successfully through early adolescence, I had to cast my net as wide as I could and still be able to write with intimacy, clarity and drama.
Reporting “Our Last Best Shot” required sustained, focused observation of minute details. As any nonfiction writer knows, such things as physical appearance, tone of voice, even photographs displayed at home can flesh out, reinforce, or contradict what a subject says. Chip Thomson of Durham swore to me during one visit that he was no longer using drugs, but his red eyes and chafed, runny nose told a different story. Angela Perales of Ulysses didn’t have to describe how deeply she depended on her friends; the 50-plus pictures on display in her bedroom were all the evidence I needed.
I took notes on everything, unsure which scenes I would want to recreate later or the meaning I would attach to them. On my first visit to the state hospital outside Durham where Chandler Brennan stayed for four months, I jotted down descriptions of the playground and kids’ bikes outside. Those notes came in handy later as I wrote about Chandler’s father Daniel driving onto the hospital grounds one afternoon for a visit, and weeping in memory of the sweet, compliant little girl Chandler once had been.
I spent hours and hours with families so that they would learn to relax around me. Sometimes this included staying overnight in their homes, my notebook tucked away in a suitcase. On one such evening in South Central Los Angeles, I watched eight hours of action adventure movies on TV with a boy, his mom and dad. The next morning, Dad puttered around the kitchen in a worn, navy blue bathrobe—a sign that I had succeeded in putting him at ease.
The kids preferred being observed and interviewed away from home: in a school classroom, at a pizza joint, at the mall. I learned a lot when they were gabbing with their friends, probably because they forgot I was there. It was in a Los Angeles mall’s food court, for example, listening to Libby Sigel and two other seventh-graders discuss the meaning of “blow jobs,” “jacking off,” and other sexual terms, that I first began to truly grasp how adolescent friends define for each other the dynamics of human relationships, and how important such conversations are to kids as they learn how to convey new feelings.
In order to elicit intimate details from these families, I had to be willing to share my own experiences as a child and a parent. Angela’s sister Alana, for example, was reluctant to talk about her mother abandoning her and Angela when they were young until I told her about my parents’ divorce. This past spring, four years after our initial conversations, a reporter asked Alana why she had talked to me so candidly. “We have a lot in common,” Alana replied. “Her mother left her, too.”
In between trips to the three sites, I combed through science journals,specialized publications and local newspapers, attended conferences, and interviewed experts in the sciences. I hired graduate students to help with the reading, reminding them that our focus was to answer my chief question of what makes young adolescents do well or poorly.
My research also took place in my own house, at my son’s school, and on the bleachers of the ballpark. I shared my observations and findings freely with friends, acquaintances and teachers, listening for their corroboration or disbelief, shaping my emerging conclusions. If this sounds like a 24-hour-a-day project, it was, almost. Blessedly, I rarely dreamed about it.
Using Explanatory Journalism as the Book’s Thread
By the second year, when I began to write in earnest, I had decided that young adolescents spend most of their time and energy figuring out four things: what kind of person they are, how and whether they fit in with their friends, what they are learning, and how they can both distance themselves from and remain connected to adults. I decided that each of those four pursuits would become its own section in the book and selected three kids—one from each community—to illustrate each aspect of their journey.
Each child’s story consisted of four long anecdotes (the narrative), told in chronological order. Between each anecdote I did what I once wished other writers would do: I analyzed the anecdote for what it revealed about the particular child and about children in general. I discovered that such explanatory journalism forces a writer to think harder than any other kind of writing. It’s like spinning out one nut graf after another.
Since I could not be present at all the key events in each of the kids’ lives, nor know in advance which occasions might become significant later, I reconstructed some of the anecdotes. I alerted readers early in the book that some events and dialogues were based on firsthand accounts of others, as well as on interviews and written records.
I consulted several people in order to write most scenes and was always glad that I had. For example, when I finally tracked down Alana’s and Angela’s mother, her version of why she left her daughters at ages three and five differed from what they and the girls’ father had told me. They had not been comfortable confiding that she had been a drug addict. She told me right away.
Since the anecdotes that best illustrated key issues for my book were not always dramatic, the temptation to exaggerate for effect was sometimes great. Fortunately, I usually had enough striking events to work with because, over time, crises and struggles occur in even the most outwardly placid lives. I remember one farmer in Ulysses agreeing to a first interview but warning me, “We’re pretty boring.” Five months later, his wife received a telephone call from a daughter she had given birth to 19 years earlier when she was unmarried and dating her first love. She had released the baby to an adoption agency and not heard from her since. Her four children did not know they had a half-sister, and she decided to tell them. Boring, indeed.
Time also meant that I became attached to the kids and some of their family members. The reporter in me wanted to write about their lives, no holds barred, but the mother in me wanted to protect their privacy. I found myself weighing whether certain potentially embarrassing details were absolutely necessary to make a point. If they were, I would write and rewrite to soften the hard edges. Before I turned the book in, I read each chapter to the child and family involved. On the few occasions where objections were raised, I discussed my reasons and made changes that satisfied us both.
Early into the project I had wondered what voice I should assume. Would my voice be that of a detached observer? Or would I assume the role of a passionate advocate? The affection I came to feel for these families, combined with the problems with which they struggled, provided the answer. I adopted with readers the same role I tried to play with my subjects, that of a trusted, hopefully cleareyed friend. My readers became the proverbial neighbors at backyard fences whom young journalists are told to address when figuring out their stories. I wrote the last chapter, entitled “From My Home To Yours,” particularly in this spirit, putting away notes and writing from the heart what I had learned about young adolescents.
Returning to the Newspaper Beat
Chronicling the lives of the rich or famous is a sexy beat. It wins reporters spots on the front page, not to mention dinner party invitations. But it’s not nearly as personally rewarding, in my view, as writing about ordinary people. I’m now back at the Post writing about the ordinary with more confidence and flair. (At least that’s what my editors tell me.)
Book writing taught me to be a keener observer and a more careful listener. It also reinforced the importance of keeping an open mind about my subjects. When I’m inclined to make a snap judgment, I recall the afternoonI accompanied a Ulysses’ girl named Shannon to her basketball game. Prior to the game, Shannon sat with her mother a few yards away from her teammates. I assumed she was too shy to mingle but she corrected my impression months later. She had hung out with Mom because “I’m more into the game, and Mom is too. All these other girls do is talk about boys and they don’t even watch.”
“Our Last Best Shot” is selling well, reinforcing my belief that journalists’ stories, long or short, need to have a point and make that point clearly. Our prose may be as lyrical as a Keats poem, but if our readers have to guess what we’re trying to say we shall lose many of them. As I write each section of a newspaper story now, I ask myself more consciously than before, “Will this surprise my readers?” “Will it change the way they think or act?” “If not, do I need it?”
As seasoned reporters who know our beat we should not shy away from speaking with authority. This comes, as Poynter Institute leader Chip Scanlan says, by not only getting the facts right but choosing the right facts.
And then not being afraid to say what they mean.
Laura Sessions Stepp is the author of “Our Last Best Shot: Guiding Our Children Through Early Adolescence” (2000, Riverhead Books). A staff writer at The Washington Post, she chairs the board of advisors of the Casey Journalism Center for Children and Families at the University of Maryland.