On a wall above Robin Benway's dining room table rest dozens of porcelain thimbles, each one housed in its own tiny curio-cabinet shelf. Her family brought them back as gifts for her grandmother from wherever they traveled; after she died, Benway said, she discovered that "inside each thimble is a little piece of paper with her handwriting that says who gave it to her and when." Benway wrote much of her latest YA novel, "Far From the Tree" beneath those mementos.
It's her sixth book, and one of five finalists for the National Book Award in young people's literature. The awards will be held Wednesday in New York.
"Far From the Tree" tells the story of three biologically related teenage siblings who suddenly become part of one another's lives. The bonds of family — how they're formed and displayed and strengthened — are a preoccupation of her work.
"What makes your family your family?" Benway asked, sitting on her living room floor in Silver Lake. Her home is bright with natural light and dotted with glossy-painted vintage furniture she refinishes herself. Hudson, her rescue dog, trotted from the balcony door to her lap.
Her questions about family tumbled out at a clip; because she's excited by them."Is it blood? Is it time? Is it shared experiences? Is it all of the above? Is it none of the above?"
"Far From the Tree" probes these family themes. When middle sibling Grace puts her baby up for adoption, she goes in search of her biological family, discovering a younger sister, 15-year-old Maya, and an older brother, 17-year-old Joaquin. As they begin to forge relationships and gain entrance into one another's lives, secrets emerge and braid their stories further; they need to find each other in order to find themselves. "Far From the Tree" knits family ties, but it also tackles serious subject matter, including teen pregnancy and racial discrimination in foster care.
The novel's lead-up had been struggle — until it struck with a bang. After abandoning another concept she reluctantly told her publisher that the book would be late. A week later, outside of a Costco, Benway heard the first lyric to a Florence and the Machine song — "a falling star fell from your heart and landed in my eyes" — and the inspiration was immediate.
"This is a book about adoption" she recalled thinking. "I knew Grace and Maya and Joaquin, and I'm sitting in the parking lot and I literally tapped out an email to my editor. She wrote back almost immediately: 'This is the book'." Well-plotted and told from multiple perspectives, "Far From the Tree" pairs pitch-perfect teenage voices with an empathy for their real pain and complex struggles. After she puts her baby up for adoption, Benway writes, "Grace needed to be tethered to someone again," and like all family, she and her sibling's lives become intertwined. "It's not just their mom; it's not the biological," said Benway. "It's caring about one another."
Benway has no personal experience with adoption; she spent roughly half a year on research, reading about racial identity in foster care and transracial adoption. In private adoptions, she tells me, "a white girl might be $10,000 more than an African American boy" and that children of color are placed in foster care at a higher rate, which "creates a cycle that's impossible and expensive and disruptive."
The more she read, the more strongly she felt that "all three of these kids can't be white, because I don't know how to tell a story about adoption and not talk about race and talk about the effect it has on the foster care system…. Of course, by making that choice, then I felt a lot of responsibility," she said. "I'm a white woman from Orange County, Calif. I carry so much privilege." In the novel, Grace and Maya, both white, live with their adoptive families; Joaquin, who is Latino, has remained in foster care.
"More than anything," Benway said, "I wanted to make sure that if a young person read the book they would feel impacted by it, whether they'd be able to sympathize or empathize with these characters."
For Benway, writing in a heightened state of teenage feeling is part of the appeal of young-adult literature. "It's such an emotional time … you feel things so strongly, whether it's romance or sadness or uncertainty." She embraces a shift toward challenging subjects in contemporary realism written for younger readers — "it's tough stuff, and it should be" — and says the genre as a whole possesses the room to go deep. "I think that's what YA really captures, whether it's a dystopian novel or it's a romantic comedy, there's always going be heightened emotion because it's not so much the setting or the plot. It's about the feeling."
Benway credits her knack for capturing teen voices to memories of being that age and treading the line between who you're becoming and how you want to be perceived. (Of her red-headed adoptive family's gallery of portraits, dark-haired Maya asks Grace: "Did you see the Sears Portrait Studio out there…. One of these things is not like the other.") Benway's characters speak with a brashness that belies vulnerability; their desire to belong — so urgent at the precipice of adulthood — is palpable. "I remember that," she said. "Having to speak differently to different people … and yet I was never really saying what I felt."
She was adolescent, yet adult. I was really serious." It's easy to imagine her as a studious kid; plot points for each main character in "Far From the Tree" still hung on her wall — on color-coded Post-its. "I've been like, 40 years old since I was 10 years old," she joked with a big, bright laugh.
The day she discovered she'd made the National Book Award long list, Benway was helping her mother pack for a move in Orange County. "I let out a noise," she said. "My mom just came running." Her brother, to whom she dedicated "Far From the Tree," checks her Goodreads page and sends her quotes from his favorite reviews, and above her writing space sit those thimbles, the tenderness of gathering them and preserving their stories is a gesture that reaches out. "Especially in the past year, post-election, there have been so many family fights and breakups…. I've seen friends go through it," she said. Bonds may crack, dissolve, even break, but family remains. "Even if you think you can walk away," she said, "you can't."