Home—New York, NY. Office—Expository Writing Program, New York University, 411 Lafayette St., 3rd Fl., New York, NY 10003.
Writer and educator. New York University, New York, NY, teacher, instructor in expository writing program and creative writing teacher at school's summer program in London; Teachers and Writers Collaborative, New York, NY, teaching artist. Former reading and literacy teacher in the Washington, DC, New York and New Jersey metropolitan areas.
Organization for Research and Creative Activities grant, Brigham Young University, 2000; Excellence in Teaching Award, New York University Expository Writing Program, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007; Delacorte Press Prize for a First Young Adult Novel, 2005, for Notes on a Near-Life Experience.
Notes on a Near-Life Experience (young adult novel), Delacorte Press (New York, NY), 2007.
In her first young adult novel, Notes on a Near-Life Experience, Olivia Birdsall tells the story of fifteen-year-old Mia, who is caught up in her parents' messy divorce. In addition, she experiences her first love. Both of these events cause problems, which Mia tries to ignore until her psychotherapist convinces her that she can only deal with her problems by facing up to them. "I wanted to write about redefining and reconstructing family because my own experiences with an evolving concept of family (divorce, the death of a sibling) were the ones that shaped me the most as a person," the author noted in an interview on the Cynthia Leitich Smith Web blog. "I think one of the most difficult things we face as we're trying to figure out how to grow up is making sense of things that don't look the way they do on TV, that don't turn out the way you expected them to."
Winner of the prestigious Delacorte Contest for a First Young Adult Novel, Notes on a Near-Life Experience received widespread critical acclaim. Catherine Ensley, writing in the School Library Journal, noted Birdsall's "spare style, her likable characters, and the witty voice she's given her protagonist." Calling the author a "smooth writer," a Publishers Weekly contributor added that she "punctuates her heroine's self-absorbed navel-gazing with gimlet-eyed observations and wry humor."
Birdsall told CA: "I realized that words and stories could be powerful in second grade when I wrote a little paragraph in school on that gross newsprint paper with enormous lines for practicing handwriting (see the pic on my Web site that says ‘My name is Olivia’). I wrote about how I had just moved and left my best friend, Natalie, and I said something about how much I missed her. And my mom saved it and put it in my scrapbook, and wrote on it in red pencil: ‘This makes mommy cry.’ And when I found it a couple of years later, I realized that words were really powerful. But I didn't decide I wanted to be a writer until my freshman year of college, when I took all of these pre-med classes. I realized that I was much more interested in what was going on in my literature class, and that even in physiology, I liked the stories the teacher would tell much more than I liked learning about how the human body worked.
"The story I wanted to tell in Notes on a Near-Life Experience was one that came from the perspective of a teenager who didn't have the benefit of being able to look back as an adult and interpret things. In adult literature, even a very young protagonist often has a certain degree of insight, or a retrospective capacity that doesn't quite match their age. I wanted to be true to what teenagers know and think as their lives unfold, which is what YA lit. does. I'm working on two new novels right now, another young adult novel, and a regular old adult novel. So I don't feel like a YA writer, necessarily. I just try to be true to the story, characters, and perspective I envision, and sometimes that makes a book a young adult book.
"In terms of YA literature, I love Holden Caulfield [in J.D.Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye] because he can be both brutal and sensitive in the way he approaches the world. But usually I think (and am inspired) in terms of relationships, not individuals. Like when I think of Holden, I think of how he interacts Phoebe, his professor's wife, etc. I love the relationships between the characters in [Harper Lee's] To Kill a Mockingbird, where the whole range of human emotion and its various shapes and consequences are laid out so beautifully and hopefully. I love the relationships depicted in [the film] The Royal Tenenbaums. Complicated, human, funny, heartbreaking moments/ interactions/relationships are the most intriguing things in the world to me."
When asked how her first book came about, Birdsall answered, "I started writing a version of it during my last year at BYU. I took a YA writing class from Louise Plummer, and I decided to write about a family in the midst of a divorce. The book was very different then: the protagonist had an eating disorder and the older brother was going to run away from home and live in a video arcade. Anyway, I put it away for a year while I worked full time and applied to grad school, and then when I got to NYU, I got it out again, finished it, and sent it off to the contest."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, March, 2007, Deborah Stevenson, review of Notes on a Near-Life Experience, p. 285.
Kliatt, January, 2007, Claire Rosser, review of Notes on a Near-Life Experience, p. 8.
Publishers Weekly, February 5, 2007, review of Notes on a Near-Life Experience, p. 60.
School Library Journal, March, 2007, Catherine Ensley, review of Notes on a Near-Life Experience, p. 203.
Big A Little a,http://kidslitinformation.blogspot.com/ (July 25, 2007), Kelly Herold, review of Notes on a Near-Life Experience.
BYU NewsNet,http://nn.byu.edu/ (September 30, 2005), Laurie Frost, "BYU Alumna Wins Contest for Young Adult Novel."
Cynsations,http://cynthialeitichsmith.blogspot.com/ (June 8, 2005), "Delacorte Prize Goes to Olivia Birdsall's Notes on A Near-Life Experience."
Cynthia Leitich Smith Blog,http://blog.myspace.com/ (June 12, 2007), "Author Interview: Olivia Birdsall on Notes on a Near-Life Experience."
Teachers & Writers Online,http://www.twc.org/ (July 25, 2007), profile of author.
Teenreads.com,http://www.teenreads.com/ (July 25, 2007), Amy Alessio, review of Notes on a Near-Life Experience.