Author Reyna Marder Gentin does a wonderful job depicting today’s teens’ challenges and concerns. Eighth grade can be tough no matter what, but growing up in an unconventional home with a single, working parent and an undiagnosed learning difference adds to teenage angst. Layla is in a constant struggle to prove herself, yet the challenges keep coming and she almost loses sight of her potential. My Name is Layla (Touchpoint Press) is a wonderful story of perseverance; the love and support of family, friends and teachers can greatly impact the success of young people. I loved this middle-grade novel and was rooting for Layla all the way!
Author Q & A
Q: What inspired you to write a middle-grade book?
A: I wrote Layla in 2017 while I was waiting for the publication of Unreasonable Doubts. I didn’t have an idea of what my next project would be. I signed up for a class at the Writing Institute at Sarah Lawrence College on Writing For Youth, and my classmates and the teacher inspired the novel.
Q: How did you come up with the character, Layla, and why choose to have her struggle with dyslexia?
A: I have a lot of memories from when I was Layla’s age, and her voice and her personality came easily to me. I was interested in having the character struggle with something serious that could make her so frustrated and be so damaging to her self-esteem that she couldn’t keep going along as she had up until that time. I was looking for something with a breaking point, and I thought that dyslexia and the inability to succeed in school could be that struggle. As an attorney, I represented both kids and adults who had reached a moment when acting out, in a dangerous or even violent way, suddenly became an option because they had no other. I wanted to get into the mind of a 13-year-old and see what could cause that tipping point and lead to a cry for help.
Q: It is important for parents and teachers to pay attention to their kids, give them confidence and teach them to be their own self-advocates so problems may be addressed before it is too late, but life can be complicated, and often it is easier said than done. Mr. McCarthy stepped up to get Layla the help she needed. Did you have a teacher who made a difference for you?
A: I had a lot of wonderful teachers growing up who fostered values that have stood me in good stead ever since. My high school chemistry teacher, with whom I’m still in touch, took a special interest in my whole group of friends. She made us feel special and gave us the confidence to accomplish great things. The teacher who conducted my high school orchestra insisted that we play the great symphonies from their original scores, no watered-down versions, which was empowering and instilled a desire for excellence.
Q: It seems like any single thing can create insecurities in a middle schooler’s mind — a not-so-perfect home life, unstylish clothes, lousy grades — what is the message you want readers to walk away with after reading My Name is Layla?
A: I hope readers come away with a desire to be resilient, but also to have compassion for themselves and for everyone around them. In our house, we like to say “everyone has something,” meaning that everyone has challenges they are facing, no matter how perfect they may look from the outside. The challenges can be combatting racial inequality, or dealing with a learning difference, or financial hardship, or chronically ill parent, or mental illness. It doesn’t matter. Recognizing that everyone has hurdles to overcome can spur us on toward kindness and understanding, and these are skills our children need to learn.
My Name Is Layla is available for purchase.
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