Lois Sepahban, an English teacher at Danville High School, is the 2023 winner of the PEN/Phyllis Naylor Grant for Children's and Young Adult Novelists through PEN America. The grant is for $5,000 and is awarded annually to a children's or young adult fiction novelist for a novel-in-progress.
Sepahban won the grant after submitting a manuscript for a novel she has finished and is hoping to publish called "Mulberry Trees," which is geared toward middle grades, beginning in elementary school and into middle school.
The idea for the story came to Sepahban about six years ago, after speaking to a few of her daughter's friends' mothers who were nurses at Ephraim McDowell Regional Medical Center. They spoke about babies born addicted to drugs and the lasting effects it has on their behavior.
“The story, when I started writing it, was always from the perspective of a boy named Eli, and he always was going to be a kid who was struggling to hold his family together, who was living in the midst of an addiction crisis," Sepahban said.
When she was working on a draft of her novel, she realized it didn't work as a story yet because no 13-year-old can realistically hold their family together. So she rewrote the novel as a novel-in-verse taking place after Eli's family has fallen apart. Eli is struggling with guilt because he was unable to keep a promise he made to his little brother, who was born addicted to drugs. The promise was that they would always be together.
Throughout the novel, Eli comes to realize that family is not always about being related to someone.
“Even though the lines of the family might change, the people involved in the family might change, it still can be family," Sepahban said.
She said the main things she wants children to take away from her novel are empathy and that family is not defined by being related to someone. She wanted to write her characters with empathy, gentleness and love, even if they made bad decisions.
"I wanted to make space for the idea that you can mess up and do bad things and not be a bad person, to separate actions from people," she said. "But also, I want kids to take away from it the idea that family is not just one thing. Family isn’t just the people you’re born to. It might be. It might not be the people you’re born to, and it might also be people you’re born to plus other people you want to add in. Family is not just blood. It’s something else too. I think a lot of kids know that, but I also think sometimes we don’t label something as family when maybe we should.”
Most of Sepahban's published books are nonfiction books. The first one came out around 2014, and she's written about 18 in total. She also has published a historical fiction novel called "Paper Wishes," which came out in 2016 and is geared toward children in grades 3-5.
Sepahban said she often feels compelled to write about emotional, complex topics, which require a lot of research.
An idea for a book can start with months or years of researching a given topic out of curiosity. With "Mulberry Trees," that included research on the impact of being born addicted to drugs, what the issue looks like in Kentucky specifically, information about the foster care system, and about grandparents or great-grandparents raising children.
In describing her research process, she said, “It’s sort of like cotton candy, where it goes around and the ideas just start sticking.”
Then, she takes her ideas and turns them into story. From the beginning with both of her novels, she had a sense for the main character and created them in her head, and as she collected information, the character came to life.
“This isn’t something that I ever learned or did intentionally — it’s sort of instinctive, and I think that one of my strengths as a writer is voice and character," she said.
She said she hopes that children who are going through a difficult experience or who are in pain can read her books and identify with them, and that they will help children navigate their experiences.
About winning the award, she said, “It’s really wonderful because it’s super affirming. In writing ... it’s mostly rejection. And it’s rejection of something very personal to you. You loved it into existence, and people are like ‘No, thanks.' That’s so painful, and so something like this award, it’s like saying 'this thing you loved into existence is really beautiful.' So that is huge."
Patsi B. Trollinger, a local author who wrote Sepahban a letter of recommendation for the award, said, “She’s just a natural, and her knowledge of literature is so great that at any given moment on any problem a fellow writer’s having — voice, research — Lois can say something wise and move you to the next level."
- Danville Independent Schools
- PEN/Phyllis Naylor Grant for Children's and Young Adult Novelists
- lois sepahban
- pen america