Brooke Hauser is an award-winning author, journalist and teacher. Her book, "The New Kids: Big Dreams and Brave Journeys at a High School for Immigrant Teens" documents the lives of teens at Brooklyn's International High School at Prospect Heights, a school specifically for immigrant students learning English. Hauser shared how she prepared for the book with JCCF Guest Contributor Zoe King. Read the full review of "The New Kids" here.
Where did you get your inspiration for writing this book?
I decided to write a book about the high school after writing an article called "This Strange Thing Called Prom" for The New York Times. For the article, I followed a bunch of seniors as they prepared for their first-ever prom--since the kids came from countries all over the world, most had never heard of "prom" before, which made it a unique experience when they finally pulled it off! The most popular girl, for instance, was a former nomadic yak herder from Tibet. I fell in love with the school that year, and knew I wanted to spend more time reporting there to write what became my book, The New Kids.
How did you prepare for your research?
While researching and writing the book, I read other books about immigration and education--like Small Victories by Samuel Freedman. I also read a lot of articles, which are cited in the back of my book. But the most helpful research was simply talking to the students themselves, and to their teachers and families, whenever possible.
As a reader, I felt as though in many chapters I was physically there watching these students' lives unfold. What was your method for getting all of the information needed for the book? How long did it take to conduct your research?
I spent a lot of time with the students, inside and outside of school. There's really no substitute for putting in the time, and I wanted to see the kids in different contexts, not just in the classroom. At school, I sometimes learned more about the students in the cafeteria than in class. School dances were also a great place to see the students just being themselves--nervous, sweaty teenagers goofing off on the dance floor or huddled on the outer edges of it. Outside of the school building, I got to know the students in different ways. I thought it was important to see where and how they lived, so I went home with kids like Jessica, who lived alone in a small room she rented in Chinatown. She is very articulate and insightful and spoke openly about what it felt like to be on her own in New York City. But actually seeing her room was very powerful. I was there when her father came to cook dinner for her. In general, I was present for most of the scenes in the book, except ones that took place in other countries. I spent about three years working on the book from start to finish. When you think about the fact that high school is typically four years, spending three years getting to know the kids really allowed me to see them grow and change, and I came to care deeply about what happened to them.
What was the process like for you in terms of gaining access to the school? Were administrators at International hesitant to have a reporter around? Did you have to go through a formal process in order to be able to be in the school?
The principal at the time allowed me access to the school. We already had a good relationship because of the New York Times article I had written about the high school's first-ever prom the year before.
I did have students, teachers, and other school staff sign consent forms for the book. Those forms were translated into several different languages for the students or their parents/guardians to sign.
All of the student's stories are very powerful. How were you able to put any feelings you had aside so that you could do your job?
Of course, it's tempting to want to help a student in need, or in trouble. As a writer, I felt it was important to maintain some distance, though. I helped students by reading over their college essays or writing recommendation letters--or simply by listening. But I always knew that the people who could help them most--other than their family members and friends--were their teachers, administrators, and social workers at the school.
What were some challenges you faced while writing the book?
It was challenging to balance all the different narratives. At one point, Mohamed's story took up way too much space in the book--I just found his story so fascinating. Eventually, with my editor's help, we cut it down. Balancing all the stories was important. I wanted the book to flow as seamlessly as possible, from one story to another.
There are many overarching issues at play that influence this book including issues of secondary education and immigration. What do you think is the most important and needs the most attention?
I tried not to include my political opinions in the book, but to let the students' stories move people and perhaps change some minds. After the book came out, I got some letters from readers who said that The New Kids made them reconsider how we, as a nation, should treat undocumented students, including DREAMers. A lot of progress has been made since then.
What do you hope readers will gain from reading this book?
I hope readers will love getting to know the students and that they will remember their stories. Despite their different backgrounds, the kids found that they shared a lot in common with each other. I hope that readers will relate to the students, as well, and realize that we're not always so different from one another as, at first, it may seem.
The New Kids: Big Dreams and Brave Journeys at a High School for Immigrant Teens by Brooke Hauser | Atria Books | 336 p.