In her book LEAVING KENT STATE, debut author Sabrina Fedel, brings to life America’s political and social turmoil as it ushered in the new decade of the 1970s.
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This visceral young adult novel reveals the modern relevance of the 1970 Kent State University shootings with stunning historical accuracy.
Leaving Kent State tells the story of seventeen-year-old Rachel Morelli at the turn of the decade between the 1960s and 70s. Determined to leave home and attend Pratt University to pursue her dream of becoming an artist, Rachel must navigate the turbulent waters of a nation at war. Throughout the harsh winter of 1969-70, Kent becomes a microcosm of an America facing racial, social, and political upheaval. Teens today will recognize in Rachel’s Kent the eerily similar problems of racial and gender inequality, terrorism, and war that continue to plague our nation.
Rachel has pinned all of her hopes to convince her dad, an English professor at Kent State University, to let her go to Pratt on the return of her next door neighbor and crush, Evan, from Vietnam. But when Evan returns home injured, losing all his own dreams, Rachel must forge her own path out of Kent, while she struggles to find some peace for Evan. In her desperate attempt to convince her dad to let her go, Rachel gets swept up in the KSU protests of May 4, 1970, where National Guard troops opened fire on unarmed student protesters, killing four and wounding nine. Caught up in one of the darkest days in American history, Rachel is forced to challenge the establishment in ways she’d never imagined.
A new young adult novel, Leaving Kent State (Harvard Square Editions), by debut author Sabrina Fedel, brings to life America’s political and social turmoil as it ushered in the new decade of the 1970s. Throughout the harsh winter of 1969-1970, Kent, Ohio, became a microcosm of the growing unrest that threatened the very nature of democracy. On May 4, 1970, the campus of Kent State University became the final turning point in Americans’ tolerance for the Vietnam War, as National Guardsmen opened fire on unarmed student protesters, killing four and wounding nine. It was one of the first true school shootings in our nation’s history.
Told from the viewpoint of seventeen-year-old Rachel Morelli, Leaving Kent State explores themes of the day that are strikingly similar to our own: terrorism, war, racial injustice, and gender inequality. As Rachel struggles to convince her dad that she should go to Pratt University in New York to pursue her dream of becoming an artist, Kent slips ever further off of its axis, in step with the growing discord across the nation. Caught between her love for her next door neighbor, Evan, a boy who has just returned from Vietnam, and her desire to escape Kent, Rachel must navigate a changing world to pursue her dreams.
About six years ago, I saw something on television about the Kent State shootings. It immediately struck me that what happened at KSU was the ultimate coming of age story for our entire country, not just the students who protested that day. It was a story that seemed so important to me, and yet I didn’t remember seeing anything written about it for kids. I did some research and couldn’t find any novels that dealt directly with the shootings. I already knew how I wanted to frame the story. The idea of the daughter of a professor who didn’t want to go to KSU wasn’t a stretch for me because my dad worked my whole life at my alma mater. When I wanted to go somewhere else for college, he didn’t tell me no. But every time I brought him a potential school that I wanted to consider he told me “that’s a terrible school.”
I began researching online and with nonfiction books about the tragedy. When I had a solid idea about what had happened, I started making trips to Kent. I visited the Kent State library where I poured through the local newspaper archives, searching through every day in the timeline of my story for what had been happening in Kent. I talked to people at the local music store, the historical society, and the Kent State May 4th museum, which was just being planned when I first started to go to Kent.
I researched Billboard’s top music for the period, and read the oral histories that Kent State has collected. I drove around Kent to decide where Rachel would have lived and gone to high school, and looked at maps to understand the local geography. I walked the campus and attended several of KSU’s memorial celebrations. I talked to people who were on campus that day and I met with a Vietnam veteran and interviewed him about his experience in the war and when he came home. I read autobiographies of Vietnam Marines and other nonfiction books about the war.
When I had finished writing the first draft, I knew that I had a story that was worth telling, but I had a lot of obstacles to get it published. The big houses, riding high on fantasy and dystopian blockbusters, weren’t very interested in historical fiction, especially from a debut author. My word count was also a red flag for them. One big name agent told me that my writing was evocative but he just didn’t “know how to make it (the novel) stand out in an overcrowded YA market.”
Feeling completely dejected, I stumbled across a list of small publishers collected by Poets & Writers’ magazine. I started to go through it, checking each one to see if they published YA fiction. I selected several that looked promising and sent the manuscript out, and on the day I sent my query to my publisher, they got back to me and asked to see the full manuscript. A few weeks later, they made me an offer to publish it and the day after that, another small publisher asked to see the full manuscript. I decided to accept the offer that was on the table, and my publishing journey began.
I definitely encourage authors to consider smaller publishers. Both large and small publishers have their advantages and disadvantages, and I know that my story found the right home for it.
Sabrina’s work has appeared in online and print journals and anthologies. Her young adult short story, Honor’s Justice, about a girl who must come to terms with the murder of her best friend in an act of honor violence, was nominated for a Pushcart Prize, a storySouth Million Writers Award, and a Sundress Publications Best of the Net ’16 award by Antioch University’s Lunch Ticket. She holds a Masters of Fine Arts degree, with a concentration in Writing for Young People, from Lesley University. An earlier version of Leaving Kent State received a Merit Letter from the SCBWI WIP Grant in 2014.