Today we’re happy to be hosting a guest post from Reyna Marder Gentin, author of the new middle grade book My Name is Layla.
The Time Warp
by Reyna Marder Gentin
I’ve been in a bit of a time warp lately. Awaiting the publication of my first middle grade novel, My Name Is Layla, early readers are asking the inevitable question: is this coming-of-age story drawn from my own experience? The answer isn’t simple. While the specific characters and plot are imagined, the question has caused my mind to drift back to my young teenage years, days of braces and a Dorothy Hamill haircut growing out oh so slowly, social awkwardness, and navigating new emotions. For me, my fourteenth year was punctuated by the sudden illness of a family member that was transforming in the moment and had deep repercussions for years to come. While mine was a very happy childhood, that time of my life is not an entirely comfortable place to revisit, even from the distance of decades passed.
By many measures, I was very different from my novel’s protagonist, Layla. She is growing up in fictional Hollow Hills, a small American town with a non-descript main street, where everything except the bar closes by dinner time and the most exciting event each year is the homecoming game at the local high school. Layla’s brother Nick is focused on his escape, which he’s pinned on a basketball scholarship, but which he achieves on a daily basis with video games, driving his car aimlessly, and pretty girls. Layla struggles with undiagnosed dyslexia, which makes it hard for her to succeed academically, and leaves her sad and frustrated. Her home situation is equally stressful, as she and Nick are raised by a single mother whose ability to focus on their problems is limited by the necessity of working to keep the family afloat after their father, a drifter, has abandoned them. And at a critical moment in her eighth-grade year, Layla makes a desperate choice that could seriously impact her future.
Unlike Layla, I was fortunate to live with both my parents and my two older sisters. My father worked hard, but ate dinner with us every night at 6 p.m., and my mother stayed at home, nurturing all of us and totally available for the family. We lived in suburban Long Island, a stone throw’s away from all the attractions and vibrancy of New York City. The school system was excellent, and I loved to read, spending hours in the local public library. As for big decisions, it’s barely an exaggeration to say I had no more important choice to make than waffle cone versus sugar at the local Haagen Dazs.
But to conclude that Layla and I had nothing in common would be far from the truth. While my day-to-day life as a young teen differed from Layla’s, her emotional life and mine at that age dovetailed in more ways than one might expect. Her feeling of inadequacy, her nascent and surprising inklings of romantic feelings, and, most of all, her yearning for family stability are the key memories of my youth as well.
While I was generally a very good student, my eighth-grade honors algebra class was a disaster. I couldn’t for the life of me keep my binomial equations straight, nor did I have any clue why I’d want to solve for x. And although I was terribly ashamed when I had to repeat algebra in the ninth grade, my relief at understanding the material far outweighed any lingering embarrassment that I felt.
Academic frustration wasn’t the only new feeling I remember from that time in my life. Like Layla, I went from being basically oblivious to boys, to an awareness that they existed and might at some point complicate and/or enrich my life. To cut to the chase, his name was Joe. When I was 14 years old, he asked me to go to the movies. My first date. I remember considering the logistics–how do two kids get to the movie theater? does a parent come along? what sort of movie would be appropriate? I wondered how I would feel when the lights were dimmed.
What I also remember was the fear and excitement that accompanied the invitation and which I walked around with in my heart for several days, unable to answer yes or no. What happened next would be hugely impactful for the rest of my life, but it had nothing to do with Joe’s invitation, which went forever unanswered.
In November of 1980, just days before Thanksgiving and while Joe’s request was still pending, my father had a serious heart attack. He was 51. My older sisters were living away from home, one in college and one in medical school. My mother, not wanting to frighten me with the news while she was at the hospital with my father, made up a story about needing to go out of town and arranged for me to go home from school with a friend. Although I didn’t know it then, I still picture that sleepover as a turning point of my childhood.
In the days that followed, I learned the truth of my father’s condition and it was dire. I can remember sitting in the hospital waiting room trying to do my schoolwork, my sisters summoned home, all of us wondering if our father would make it. I don’t remember how long he stayed in the hospital, but the heart attack was a demarcation–life before, and life after.
Thank God, my father survived. But his illness changed everything, puncturing the stability and sense of safety that had been so carefully built by my parents for their three children. When he got home, I would often watch for the telltale sign that he wasn’t feeling well, the emergence of the tiny brown bottle that held his nitroglycerin pills that he would surreptitiously slide under his tongue when the angina hit.
That awareness of the fragility of life, and an underlying anxiety regarding my father’s health, would be with me from that day in November, 1980, forward. The heart attack turned out to be the first of many cardiac events; over the next twenty years, I’d be called back to my father’s bedside several times from college and once from a trip to Europe. I would sit with my family in different hospital waiting rooms as he underwent bypass surgery and stent procedures. Years later, when I got married, I would tearfully plead with my father not to dance at my wedding because I was afraid he’d collapse. And while I was 33 years old, a wife and mother, when my father passed away, the impact of those days when I was 14 can’t be minimized.
So while Layla’s insecurity and her longing for a more stable family situation stem from different causes, she and my teenage self share a similar vulnerability. At the beginning of the novel, Layla entertains the fantasy of her parents reconciling and her absentee father solving all of her problems, even though they haven’t been together since she was a baby. But as Layla moves forward and discovers her own strengths, she gains a more nuanced view of her relationship to her parents and her brother and the positive role each can play in her life. She won’t be able to “un-live” the difficult experiences she’s had, but she’ll face life’s challenges with a maturity beyond her years.
I don’t know too many people who would voluntarily return to middle school; we’ve all hopefully learned so much since then. Although Layla is not “me” by any stretch, I hope that drawing on my memories of a formative time helped to make her a relatable and sympathetic young teen.
School will never be the same.
On the first day of eighth grade, thirteen-year-old Layla has a pretty good idea of what’s in store for her: another year of awkward social situations, mediocre grades, and teachers who praise her good behavior but find her academic performance disappointing. Layla feels certain she’s capable of more, but each time she tries to read or write, the words on the page dance and spin, changing partners and leaving her to sit on the sidelines.
This year will be different in ways Layla could never have predicted. Her new English teacher, Mr. McCarthy, senses her potential. When he pushes her to succeed, Layla almost rises to the challenge before making a desperate choice that nearly costs her everything she’s gained. Will she be able to get back on track? And who can she count on to help her?
Reyna Marder Gentin grew up in Great Neck, New York. She attended college and law school at Yale. For many years, she practiced as an appellate attorney with a public defender’s office before turning to writing full time. Reyna has studied at the Writing Institute at Sarah Lawrence College, and her work has been published widely online and in print. Her debut novel, UNREASONABLE DOUBTS, was named a finalist for the Women’s Fiction Writers Association Star Award in 2019. Her first novel for children, MY NAME IS LAYLA, was published in January 2021, and Reyna’s latest adult novel, BOTH ARE TRUE, will be published in October, 2021. Reyna lives with her family in Scarsdale, New York. To learn more, please visit reynamardergentin.com.