With the release of her fourth book for young readers, Susin Nielsen reinforces her standing as a master of balancing tough issues with perfect humour
In the seven years since publishing her first middle-grade novel, Word Nerd, with Tundra Books, Susin Nielsen has gained a reputation for tackling gritty topics – including suicide, bullying, violence, homophobia, and assault – with an unflinching eye tempered by warm humour.
Consider the Vancouver author’s new YA novel, We Are All Made of Molecules (Tundra). On the second page, we learn that 13-year-old Stewart Inkster is excited to become a big brother – until his mom’s “pregnancy” is diagnosed as ovarian cancer and she dies 15 months later. Nielsen uses just 35 words to tell this poignant story, launching readers into a two-protagonist tale of trauma, grief, social triangulation, and family-building. That Molecules is also sweet and laugh-out-loud funny underscores why Nielsen’s three previous titles have earned a truckload of literary nominations and awards, including the 2012 Governor General’s Literary Award for children’s text and the 2013 Ruth and Sylvia Schwartz Award for best YA book for The Reluctant Journal of Henry K. Larsen, about a young boy’s experience dealing with the aftermath of his older brother’s murder of a high-school bully and subsequent suicide.
Molecules was intended to be a sunnier book, but “it goes from a much lighter story into something kind of gut-wrenching,” says Nielsen. “I’ve taken on a few darker things, I guess, in the last couple books.”
If you’re beginning to see Nielsen as an earnest and issue-driven YA storyteller, it’s time to rewind; she has no interest in pushing an agenda on her young readers. Each book focuses on characters, not lessons, but the author doesn’t shy away from placing those characters in the path of crisis. “Honestly, I can’t stand reading YA books where the issue takes the forefront,” says Nielsen, who turned 50 last summer. “To me, that’s just boring and kind of lazy writing.” It’s an important distinction from a writer who has spent nearly her entire career telling the stories of unique and often marginalized teenagers.
Raised in London and Chatham, Ontario, Nielsen moved to Toronto after high school to study radio and television arts at Ryerson University (then still Ryerson Polytechnical Institute). An editorial assistant job with Global News quickly revealed that “working in the world of fact over fiction was not necessarily a good fit for me.”
Nielsen soon found her tribe as a production assistant on a “straight-to-video, triple-B slasher flick” called Graveyard Shift (1987). “Even though it was a terrible movie, I loved the atmosphere of being on a movie set.”
After Graveyard, Nielsen was hired to provide craft services for the now-celebrated Degrassi Junior High television series, which had just started shooting in Toronto. Serving muffins and egg-salad sandwiches was not exactly Nielsen’s true calling, but after sharing a spec script with Degrassi’s head writer, she was asked to create more episodes for the non-union show’s second season. “They couldn’t hire all of the good writers who were part of the Writers Guild of Canada, so I guess they felt it was worth taking a shot with me,” says Nielsen, with trademark self-deprecation. “I’m eternally grateful, because that show became my training ground.”
Between 1988 and 1991, Nielsen wrote 16 episodes over four seasons of Degrassi Junior High and Degrassi High. During the same period, Degrassi co-creator Linda Schuyler asked Nielsen to write character novelizations for a series of Degrassi books publishing with James Lorimer & Company. Nielsen wrote four (Shane, Wheels, Snake, and Melanie – familiar names for Canadian teens of the ’80s), which she says solidified her desire to write an original YA novel.