YA Novelist Inspired By Upstander Youth in NIOS Film | Not in Our Town

YA Novelist Inspired By Upstander Youth in NIOS Film

This summer, a comment arrived in response to our video “Lowell Students Dance Away the Hate,” a short film featuring an inspiring student response to a visit from the hate group known as the Westboro Baptist Church. “This is so sweet,” the commenter wrote, “I found out about this video after I read the book Miss Fortune Cookie! It incorporated this event in the book and included the link to this video at the end. It's so cheerful and happy. =)”

Miss Fortune Cookie is a young adult novel penned by Lauren Bjorkman, an author who attended high school in the San Francisco Bay Area and now lives with her family in Taos, New Mexico. We connected via email about her interest in the video and how she fictionalized it in her book.

Author Lauren Bjorkman
Author Lauren Bjorkman.
Photo Courtesy of Marjorie Olsen

It was so exciting to hear that one of our films had inspired a scene in a YA novel. First, tell us about Miss Fortune Cookie.   

High school senior, Erin, usually keeps her mouth shut. She worries that her friends will dump her if she lets her true feelings out in the world, so she expresses her quirky, warm-hearted, and very strong opinions through an anonymous advice blog, Miss Fortune Cookie.
My novel, Miss Fortune Cookie, is about Erin finding the mojo to speak up.
How did you first come across the short film, “Lowell Students Dance Away the Hate”? What about it inspired you?
Erin lives in SF Chinatown and attends Lowell High School. While in the midst of a serious revision of the novel, I went on a research jag of Lowell to add depth to the setting. That’s when I found an article about the hate group Westboro Church and their picket of Lowell. The article led me to your film on YouTube. Thank you Google and NIOT.org :)
Before all that, a Lowell student, Katie, had answered a bunch of my questions about the school. She and several of her friends also gave me access to their personal blogs. In a moment of synchronicity, I discovered that Katie’s friend, Kevin, had helped organize to counter-demonstration to the picket. Though I never interviewed Kevin, I learned from his blog about how events unfolded that day.
How did you fictionalize it for your novel?
Strangely enough, the first draft of Miss Fortune Cookie already had several chapters devoted to a student-led demonstration organized by Erin’s best friend. When I learned that real Lowell students had “danced away the hate,” I wanted to honor their courage by writing about the true event instead of my imagined one.
After looking at every video, blog, and article on the Internet, I described the scene through Erin’s eyes, using mostly real details from that day. I made up one thing up, though, an opportunity for Erin to do something really terrifying and meaningful and brave—sing about love in front of hundreds of people.
What do you hope your readers take from this scene?
Many people (including me) avoid conflict and confrontation. Most people don’t agree with Westboro’s hateful message, but have trouble reacting to it without reflecting back more hate and anger. I wanted readers to experience how it feels to answer hate with positive energy.

Kevin at Lowell High School counter protest

Kevin's blog about the events leading up to the counter protest showed me what young people today are made of. The Lowell High School administrators planned to shield the students with barriers, and create alternate routes for them, to insulate them from the outpouring of hate from Westboro—an admirable adult sentiment. But the Lowell students didn’t want to be protected. They wanted to respond.
And the beauty of their response blew me away. They invited the people from the JCC to play music and teach Jewish folk dances. Students of every race and religion wore paper yarmulkes. Others dressed in flamboyant costumes or expressed themselves with signs. They held mini dance parties, enjoyed by young and old. The students turned an ugly event into a celebration of diversity.
They spoke up for their classmates. They answered hate with love.
Several of our Not In Our Town groups host book clubs as a way for communities to gather together and discuss important issues, ranging from immigration to sexuality to matters of faith and fairness. Since you’re a YA novelist, are there any books you’d recommend for the middle or high school teachers and their students in our school program?
I gravitate toward books that are funny, with interesting characters, ones that delve into deep territory without going too dark. My recommendations are skewed in that direction.
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian by Sherman Alexie (straddling two cultures)
The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart (gender equality)
Boy Meets Boy by David Levithan (gaytopia)
Operation Redwood by S. Terrell French (young activists)
American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang (two cultures)
Parrotfish by Ellen Wittlinger (transgender)
Miss Fortune Cookie by Lauren Bjorkman (cultural identity, activism)
Thanks for having me on NIOT.org.
Learn more about Lauren Bjorkman and her work at her website. Lauren offers free Skype visits to book clubs reading Miss Fortune Cookie. If you are interested, email her at lauren@laurenbjorkman.com

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