When Cindy Copeland was in seventh grade in the early 1970s, an English teacher encouraged her to become a writer. Shortly after that, the Keene resident landed an internship as a “cub reporter” with a local journalist, following her to public meetings and learning how question people powerful people—most of them men. And Cindy did all this while navigating the tricky minefield of fraught friendships, cliques, and bullying that so often characterize life in junior high.
This month, Copeland publishes a graphic memoir for young adults about coming-of-age moment in her own life. It’s called Cub. She spoke about it with NHPR’s Peter Biello.
Cindy Copelands Top Five Reading Recommendations and her "Groovy Playlist" on Spotify.
1. The Complete Maus by Art Spiegelman. "The first graphic novel to win a Pulitzer Prize, Maus is a brilliantly-crafted and deeply moving memoir. The author interviews his aging father about his dreadful experiences during the Holocaust, seeking to understand and connect with him before it's too late."
2. She Said: Breaking the Sexual Harassment Story That Helped Ignite a Movement by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey. "The harrowing tale of two fearless and persistent New York Times investigative reporters who broke the Harvey Weinstein sex abuse scandal, leading to the movie producer’s downfall and the rise of the #MeToo movement. An unforgettable look into the painstaking and precise work that quality journalists must undertake in pursuit of a news story."
3. Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? by Roz Chast. "The New Yorker cartoonist recounts the final years of caring for her aging parents in this darkly funny and heartbreaking graphic memoir that was published to much critical acclaim."
4. Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt. "A beautifully-written, classic children’s book (with cross-over appeal to adult readers) that satisfactorily addresses the question: What if you could choose to live forever?"
5. Bossypants by Tina Fey. "Because we all need a little comic relief right now."
In Cub, young Cindy really admires her English teacher, who encourages her to become a writer. Is that how it really happened for you, in real life?
That’s exactly how that happened for me. I have a very strong memory of that. I loved my English teacher, Mrs. Schulz. And I remember being at the school one day a little late and she was sitting alone in her room and I just wanted to tell her how much I loved her and admired her. I said, “When I grow up, I want to be an English teacher too.” And she said, “I love teaching, and I think you’d be a great teacher, but I think you’d be a better writer, and I’m going to see what I can do to make that happen for you.” So she called the local newspaper and found a young, female journalist willing to mentor me: Leslie Jacobs. It was wonderful from there on. Leslie pulled up in her Volkswagen Beetle in front of my house. She was cool and hip and probably the first real feminist I got to know well. She took me off and we went to different events around town and meetings and it was just really terrific. It was a wonderful adventure.
In this book, Cindy is juggling two different worlds. She’s got the world of journalism that Leslie Jacobs is introducing her to. There’s also the world of middle school drama where, as Cindy says, there are groups of “predators” (the bullies) and the “prey” who make up the rest, who just try to lay low and stay out of the bullies’ way and be nice to each other. How do you see those two worlds braiding together?
What Cindy in the story (and real Cindy) needed was a real shot of self-confidence, to be able to stand up to kids in school when it was needed. I also think an outside activity of any kind, really, for kids today as well, whether it’s writing, taking photos, or dance, or music, whatever it is—an outside activity lends perspective. I think those social interactions feel so high stakes when you’re 12 years old. Every single thing that happens in school feels huge. But when you have something happening outside of school that is a passion, an interest of yours, it helps you to get perspective on what’s happening in school and it just gives balance to your life as a young person. So I think that’s one of the takeaways that I think kids get from the book, too, in addition to the important role that jouranlists and journalism plays in a democracy, I hope they take away the importance of having passions outside of school.
One of the elements in this book is the sexism that Cindy faces. Leslie Jacobs, to a certain extent, also faces it. In one scene, Cindy hears her father heap praise and encouragement for professioal development to her brothers of a similar age, but none of that goes to Cindy. In the bbok, we see dad at the kitchen table with the brothers and Cindy’s at the sink with mom washing dishes. Tell us a little bit about the sexism here. Why did you want to explore that in the book?
My family was very, very loving. But very old fashioned. My dad wanted my brothers to be successful and he wanted me to be safe. I think that’s how I described it in the book, and that’s actually what’s happening. He’s very protective and loving but I don’t think he envisioned the same kind of future for me as he did for my brothers. He was an old-fashioned dad.
This was in the early 1970s.
And I would say my dad was more of a dad of the 50s, say, than the 60s or 70s. Very old fashioned. And so part of the story is having him see me in a different way. And having him be able to envision for me this same kind of exciting career possibilities that he did for my brothers. And so that’s a moment in this story where I get a photo published in the newspaper and he suddenly looks at me in a different way and then decides he’s going to build a dark room in the house. I think he saw me as a soon-to-be young woman who’s going to be looking at my career options, as opposed to just wanting me to marry well. I think he actually saw that there were some really interesting professional opportunities for me in the future.
Is Leslie Jacobs still alive?
She is not. However, Mrs. Schulz, my English teacher, is. I tracked her down. She’s living in Florida. She retired from teaching. And she was so happy to hear from me. And she actually wrote me a note that said something to the effect of, “I always wondered if I’d made any impact on my students in all my years of teaching, and I’m so grateful that you reached out to me and told me that you had.” So there’s another kind of subtle message: Everyone thank your teachers. Because she changed the trajectory of my life. She opened up my eyes to what women could do for careers and just having my favorite teacher say to me, “You’re good at this, and you could do this as a career” was so impactful, so meaningful to me.