Sixteen-year-old Emily Beam, the protagonist in Jenny Hubbard’s YA novel And We Stay, has been whisked away from her home town to attend a boarding school in Massachusetts. It’s midway through Emily’s junior year, an odd time for a student to be starting at The Amherst School for Girls. Emily just wants to be left alone, though, and she keeps her head down and her cards close to her chest. It’s clear that she’s suffered some sort of trauma and her parents have decided she will not be returning to her old school to “deal with the whispers and stares and, of course, the memories.”
Emily settles into life at Amherst as best she can. Her roommate, K.T. is friendly and not too nosey and that’s good because Emily isn’t willing to talk about her life. The most she is willing to divulge is that she’s come from Boston – which isn’t exactly true.
Although she doesn’t want to talk about why she’s started school half way through the year, her story is revealed to the reader in short order: her boyfriend, Paul, has died. The details of his death are revealed through flashbacks and the poetry Emily begins to write, in part, inspired by Emily Dickinson. As it turns out, Dickinson had been a student at Amherst one hundred years before.
Hubbard is clearly a poet. Poetry figured in her first YA novel, Paper Covers Rock, a book I really loved, too. In And We Stay, Emily uses her poetry as a way to try and make sense of the senseless. In her poem “Ashes” she writes:
The same sky that once
held her dreams has stolen
her story. And the stars
will know just
how to tell it:
night after night
over and over.
Slowly, Emily opens herself up to the possibility of recovery and healing, but the journey is not without its difficulties. Hubbard negotiates Emily’s journey with a keen sense of the teenage heart. Perhaps one might view Emily Dickinson as a plot device, but it didn’t feel that way to me. Poetry is the art of heightened emotion, of making the unknowable knowable and Emily is trying to do just that: make a horrific act something that she can survive – because she can. Because she must.
And We Stay is all the things I want my YA books to be: beautifully written, smart and engaging, emotionally intelligent and a page-turner. The book won several awards and is, in my opinion, deserving of them all.