Local author Heather Terrell is looking for readers — in the schools. | Literary Arts | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Local author Heather Terrell is looking for readers — in the schools.

Terrell says her latest book, Relic, fits well with new education standards.

Author Heather Terrell visits teacher Sarah Shotland's junior writing class at the Pittsburgh High School for the Creative and Performing Arts.
Author Heather Terrell visits teacher Sarah Shotland's junior writing class at the Pittsburgh High School for the Creative and Performing Arts.

The idea that history depends on who tells it is itself pretty old. But local author Heather Terrell bets that her new young-adult novel exploring the theme is a good fit for schoolkids of today. And she's got the air miles to prove it.

Relic, the first in a planned trilogy, takes place a few centuries hence, in a dystopian future in which survivors of a massive flood live on an Arctic island, in a pseudo-medieval society called the New North. The protagonist, 18-year-old Eva, is bucking tradition as the first female in generations to attempt The Testing, a grueling series of physical and intellectual challenges designed to determine who leads the patriarchal New North.

The New North's ruling document, The Lex, calls that historic flood "The Healing," and regards it as their gods' punishment of a wicked society obsessed with modern technology and other luxuries. It's a belief system enforced through The Testing: Testors must scour the frozen landscape for "relics" that have washed ashore, and then interpret them — but only in accordance with The Lex.

Inevitably, Relic recalls The Hunger Games. But the book's mystery and romance elements notwithstanding, it's the theme of interpretation that Terrell emphasizes. And that theme happens to jibe with the Pennsylvania Core Standards, the state's take on a national educational-reform movement. The Core Standards seek to foster critical thinking, and Terrell says her book can help. "It's about how history and societies are formed, and how leaders can manipulate myths," she says.

So since the fall, Terrell has been traveling the country promoting Relic. Along with bookstore visits, she's taken the somewhat unusual step of speaking in schools in numerous other cities, and in a number of public and private schools in Pittsburgh. The book's publisher, a new imprint called Soho Teen, has even distributed a glossy, 12-page Educator's Guide for teachers.

In November, Terrell visited junior writing students who'd been assigned Relic at Pittsburgh's High School for the Creative and Performing Arts. Terrell told them about her first exposure to a radically shifted point of view: The Mists of Avalon, Marion Zimmer Bradley's 1983 retelling of Arthurian legend from the perspective of typically marginalized female characters like Morgan le Fay and Guinevere. Terrell read it as a teenager. "To me it was just revelatory," she says. "I could not believe how different the story became when it was told through another character's eyes." In Relic, she says, "I wanted to examine our time through a future person's eyes."

Another influence was Neil MacGregor's book A History of the World in 100 Objects, which documents turning points in human history by highlighting items from the British Museum. As an exercise, Terrell hands each student a photo of one object in the book and gives them 10 minutes to write a short story inspired by it, with pen and paper. Some of the 14 students read aloud their responses to these typically obscure objects, including a 13th-century astrolabe.

Then Terrell asks them to consider how their own points of view affect what they've written. Something similar, she says, is true of her New Northerners and their relics: "They take a story they want to tell [and] fit the object into it." In Relic, one object found by a Testor is a flash-drive on a cord, of the kind the CAPA students use. Relic's characters believe the device was "a special amulet."

"So they think we worshipped technology?" says one student, as a couple others chuckle ironically.

Although she sometimes voices concern about our society's digitally enabled "cult of self," Terrell isn't particularly anti-technology. She simply values the power of altered perspective. "Are the people in the book wrong," she asks, "when they say we started to worship at some really crazy altars?"

Terrell, who's in her 40s, grew up in Upper St. Clair. She wanted to be an archaeologist, but instead became a commercial litigator, in New York City. She says she was good at it, but didn't like it much; she started taking archaeology classes, and tried her hand at fiction. Her earliest novels — including The Chrysalis and Brigid of Kildare — were archaeological thrillers. Her first novel, The Chrysalis, took her eight years to write; it was published in 2007 and marketed in 10 other countries.

She got the idea for Relic, her sixth novel, two years ago. The Arctic setting appealed to her — Terrell loves research — but mostly she wanted to explore mythmaking.

Relic exemplifies the ongoing boom in young-adult fiction, presaged in the 1990s by the Harry Potter books and now led by the Hunger Games franchise. Contemporary young-adult books are finding their way into classrooms alongside classics: Teachers and librarians love anything that'll get kids to read. Relic, in fact, is the first in a planned trilogy called "The Books of Eva," with the second installment due in the fall.

So Terrell and Soho Teen agreed on a novel marketing strategy: keying off the Common Core standards. The standards were developed by the National Governors Association to both raise educational standards in the schools and make them uniform nationally. Versions have been adopted in 45 states, and Pennsylvania schools are now implementing the commonwealth's iteration. The standards emphasize analytical thinking. One language-arts standard for Pennsylvania eighth-graders is: "Determine an author's point of view or purpose in a text and analyze how the author acknowledges and responds to conflicting evidence or viewpoints."

While the Common Core prefers nonfiction texts, especially for older students, Terrell believes Relic addresses the standard in its own way. With input from her mother-in-law, a former superintendent of schools in Rochester, N.Y., Terrell and Soho Teen developed an educator's guide to facilitate Relic's use with Common Core curricula in English, history and social studies. The guide, for instance, suggests building lessons around everything from the nature of dystopia to Relic's incorporation of elements of Inuit language and culture. (Terrell's New Northerners treat indigenous Arctic people as a servant class.) Students are even prompted to compare the New North's founding text, the Praebulum, to the preamble to the U.S. Constitution.

"Heather was really the pioneer that made the most of what we're doing with our school and library strategy," says Soho senior publicity manager Meredith Barnes. Soho has sent Terrell to schools in cities including Los Angeles, Houston, Chicago and Boston. Meanwhile, Soho Teen, with distribution by textbook giant Random House, mailed out thousands of teacher guides for Relic, says Barnes.

The approach seems to be working. So far, Soho Teen has shipped 10,000 hard-cover copies of Relic — modest by multimillion-selling Harry Potter standards, but this year-old imprint's highest-performing title, says Barnes. And of the copies actually sold, Barnes estimates, about 30 percent have ended up in classrooms — twice the usual proportion for a young-adult title. (Additionally, some 40 percent of young-adult titles go to libraries, she says.)

For her part, Terrell prefers discussing Relic in classrooms to the social-media-heavy marketing she did with her first foray into young-adult fiction, her two supernatural "Fallen Angel" books. The latter approach "didn't feel authentic and it didn't feel as meaningful," she says.

Reviews of Relic have been mixed. While The School Library Journal  says "[f]ans of The Hunger Games will devour this book," Kirkus calls Relic "standard-issue dystopia" and "yet another also-ran in the hordes of books vying to be the next Hunger Games or Divergent."

But the book seems popular in the classroom, even among those not using it as part of a formal curriculum. Relic "really speaks to the kids," says Anna Chough, a counselor at Pittsburgh Classical Academy who chose the novel to be read as part of one eighth-grade class's daily "engagement session" before first period. Terrell also spoke to an assembly of all the school's eighth-graders. Adds Chough: "She expects more out of the kids, and she respects who the kids are."

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