St. Martins's Press Presents: How To Be Brave

How To Be Brave: A Novel

By: E. Katherine Kottaras

St. Martin’s Griffin
Publication Date: November 3, 2015
Hardcover: 9781250072801 / $18.99 USD
eBook: 9781466884670 / $9.99 USD


An emotional contemporary YA novel about love, loss, and having the courage to chase the life you truly want.

Reeling from her mother's death, Georgia has a choice: become lost in her own pain, or enjoy life right now, while she still can. She decides to start really living for the first time and makes a list of fifteen ways to be brave - all the things she's wanted to do but never had the courage to try. As she begins doing the things she's always been afraid to do - including pursuing her secret crush, she discovers that life doesn't always go according to plan. Sometimes friendships fall apart and love breaks your heart. But once in a while, the right person shows up just when you need them most - and you learn that you're stronger and braver than you ever imagined.  -Goodreads


HOW TO BE BRAVE addresses issues of positive body image. Was this something you set out to address or did it spring up organically? Is body image something you struggled with?

When I was growing up in the 1980s, I didn’t have access to the amazing body of work known as “YA literature” as it exists today. I was fairly obsessed with Sweet Valley High, but Elizabeth and Jessica were suburban twins (I’m an only child) with “perfect size-six figures,” and that was totally outside the realm of my experience.

Thankfully, I did have Judy Blume, who was bravely offering characters that worried and obsessed about their growing bodies. Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret? and Blubber spoke to me about my awkward body and bullying and the need for kindness.

But for the most part, I didn’t belong in the books I read. I was the only child of a Greek father and Russian-Jewish mother who were both of peasant stock (farmers on both sides) and who owned a restaurant in downtown Chicago. I didn’t know anything about suburban high schools, about size six.

This last one was especially hard for me. When I was twelve, my pediatrician told me that I needed to lose twenty to thirty pounds, thus starting a lifelong battle with my weight. My ballet teacher told my mother I was too big too dance and she was wasting her money. I was constantly picked last in gym, alongside my BFF, who also struggled with her body. When I asked her recently what she remembered of our time as kids, she said:

“I remember our PE teachers who didn't help or guide but rather assisted with shaming by making the whole class wait for ‘free day’ until a pull-up was done (as though the situation was rooted in straight up defiance rather than inability) leading to a life-long dislike of physical activity.” 

I remember those many days, feeling embarrassed and shamed by my teachers, which led to feeling more uncomfortable and awkward (as though my own self-shame wasn’t enough). By the time I was in high school, I absolutely hated my body.

I spent my twenties battling my weight. I yo-yo’d between diets and hunger and new workout trends and gyms. No matter what I did, no matter how hard I tried, I never was able to become a perfect size six – nothing even close to that – and my body retained its fullness, its roundness, its hardy, muscular, stocky, peasant stock shape. My short arms weren’t going to suddenly become lean and long. My thick thighs always remain thick. My belly likes being round, what can I say?

I fought it for so very long. And then, after giving birth to my daughter, I stopped fighting. I had to. I learned to love my body in a new way. It was life-giving. It was strong. It was mine.

So when I sat down to write my own book, I knew the character had to be several things: she had to be Greek, she had to live in Chicago, and she had to have immigrant parents who didn’t always understand her. I also knew that she would struggle with her body. BUT. I didn’t want losing weight to be central to her experience. I knew I didn’t want it to be a goal. For the longest time, it was for me. I didn’t want to do that to her.

HOW TO BE BRAVE is about a girl who has lived her life in fear and who sets out to try new things, despite her insecurities. Before her death, her mom commanded Georgia to live differently—to try everything at least once and to never be ruled by fear.

When Georgia is first creating her list, she asks her best friend, Liss:
"What about losing weight?"

And Liss responds: "You don't need to be brave to do that."

Georgia agrees, but of course, her insecurities don’t just disappear. They are always there. However, at the end Georgia finally realizes, “I’m not going to kill myself trying to achieve microscopic proportions. I’m still curvy me, and I always will be.”

Of course, there are many similarities between Georgia and me. Georgia also feels uncomfortable in her body that’s deemed “overweight” by society’s standards, and part of her storyline is that she finds confidence in her body, as it is – that losing weight does not equal being brave. This has been part of my storyline has well. 

What was your path to publication? How long did it take you to write the book? Was this the first book you wrote or just the first one that got published?

I’ve been writing since I was four years old (strange little odes to Crystal Gayle’s, my favorite country singer of the ‘80s – oh how I wanted her hair). I wrote throughout high school via environmentally-themed zines that my friends and I Xeroxed and handed out to the entire school, as well as secret poetry written in journals stashed under my bed. Of course, there were all those papers for college and grad school. (I’m a freak because I love writing essays for school.)

However, I didn’t pursue creative writing seriously until I was 25 when I signed up for classes at UCLA. About seven years later after taking classes in short story, nonfiction, and YA, I finally decided to start submitting my work places – poetry, short stories, essays, etc. Around the same time, I decided to write a book. It’s YA paranormal, took me four years to write, and was rejected by absolutely every single agent I queried. Not even one request.

So, after a bit of soul-searching and some acceptance that perhaps this book wasn’t “the one,” I started over. I took some more classes through Litreactor where I started the book has eventually become HOW TO BE BRAVE. I’ve been extreeeeeemely lucky as the process has been fairly quick from initial draft to publication. Between beginning the book and publication, it will be a grand total of two years and nine months, which is actually quite amazing!

What's currently in your TBR pile?

My L.A. buddies:
For the Record, Charlotte Huang and The First Time She Drowned, Kerry Kletter

The Lies About the Truth, Courtney Stevens (my publication date buddy)

Hoodoo, Ronald L. Smith (we were classmates!)

Are there any "must-haves" at your work station? (M&Ms, coffee, etc.)

Dark chocolate at the ready. Another chair so I can put my feet up. Two Ugly dolls as elbow support. My cat, purring underneath my chin and blocking my view of the screen. She’s doing it right now. (Purr, purr, purr.)

What advice can you provide aspiring authors?

READ. A lot. Both in the genre/style you want to publish in and ABOUT writing – all aspects – the writing process, the publishing process, etc. There are hundreds of blog posts about the writing life, etc. and I read them obsessively to understand what I had to do to get published.

Also, WRITE a lot, of course. Just keep writing, no matter what, even if it’s a journal for yourself where you write a little bit everyday. And keep submitting – the rejections are difficult at first, but it gets easier.

Writing is hard and fun and frustrating and exhilirating. I can’t imagine not writing. And if you write, you understand this strange demand – it’s not a desire; it’s a necessity. Follow that call, whatever it is inside you that asks you to write - and keep writing, no matter what.

How did the idea for HOW TO BE BRAVE first come about?

Though the story is not autobiographical, much of HOW TO BE BRAVE is “true” in the sense that it was written after a difficult period of my life. After my mother passed away when my daughter was ten months old, I found myself sandwiched between the death of my best friend and the presence of this new life. It was a dark and confusing time – I wanted to drown in my grief but also knew I had to keep myself afloat for the sake of my new baby. I started writing with this in mind – I was looking forward to the life of my own daughter, thinking about what I want for her.
That’s when I turned to writing. On my darkest days, my husband would tell me to take time for myself – to go for walks, yoga, etc. – but more often than not, I would find myself at the library, writing. The act of writing was a way for me to work through my own grief and to also find new purpose my life.


My Thoughts

It is very true that How To Be Brave is a very well written, and at times extremely poignant 'coming of age' story that deals with a whole host of issues in the life of 17-year old, Georgia Askeridis.  It is also true that said story does an excellent job of putting its reader in the heart and mind of its brave, emotionally intelligent, and sensitive heroine.
The Problem(s)?

The List
The plain truth of the matter is that there is truly no need for this list.
It does nothing to enhance Georgia's connection with the memory her mother.  That is done through their shared love for art.  As well as through Georgia's much more relevant personal poems, remembrances, and musings concerning both her mother's life, and Georgia's attempts to come to terms with her death.

The list also works against the message of the book, because its importance is negated by the afore mentioned issues that plague both Georgia and those closest to her.
When faced with the choice between finding out whether Georgia does No. 15 (see book) or if she confronts her father's very closed way of dealing with the lose of his wife. Who really cares all that much about the overall possibility that No. 15 may or may not happen.

At best, the list serves as a plot driver.  A segue into events or realizations.
At worst,  it's about as annoying as a cute younger brother at a sleepover.  (A cute novelty for the first five minutes.  A reoccurring candidate for the Have You Seen Me? wall at the local Walmart for the rest of the night!)

The Pollyanna Principle
Author E. Katherine Kottaras takes very laudable steps in the direction of contemporary germaneness with her attempts at addressing topics such as:  self esteem, death, grief, suicide, body image, and drug use.
So, it is quite surprising that by book's end, every issue that Georgia and those closest to her have had to face has somehow righted itself for the better.  A shiny, happy, and oh so new day is on the not too distant horizon for all. (Insert REM's Shiny Happy People here.)

The 'everything works out in the end' scenario that readers are presented with here, once again puts readers at crossed purposes with the realism that the author works so hard to convey.
With the exception of Georgia's mother still being dead, there is not a single happily...bow left untied here!

The Advantage(s)

The Light At The End Of The Tunnel
This story is a wonderful example of someone experiencing the pain of losing a parent, and finding the strength to live their own truth.
Georgia is strong enough to both honor her mother, but careful not to let her mother's mistakes become her own.
She also learns to find her voice, depend on the resources around her, and strive to be happy in the process.

The Writing
This book is a veritable wonderland of poetry, prose, word play, snark, and wit.  A large part of this read's appeal lies in the fact that one is never quite sure what is going to be said next, or the form that said sentiment is going to take.
Georgia is allowed an intelligence that is befitting her emotional depth.  In giving her main character this, author Kottaras also ensures that her book will appeal to both adult and teen readers.

In Short...
This is a good book with a strong and empowering message!
Please take the time to read it?  You'll be glad you did!

E. Katherine KottarasE. Katherine Kottaras is originally from Chicago, but now she writes and teaches in the Los Angeles area. She holds an M.A. in English from the University of California, Irvine and teaches writing and literature at Pasadena City College.  She is at her happiest when she is either 1) at the playground with her husband and daughter and their wonderful community of friends, 2) breathing deeply in a full handstand, or 3) writing. She now lives in Los Angeles where she's hard at work on her next book.


St. Martin’s Griffin

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