What would you be willing to do to gain acceptance by the most popular group of kids at school? Would you do what you know is right, or would you do the things that would make you popular? Jericho Prescott, a junior at Frederick Douglass High School, is offered the opportunity to pledge the most popular club at the school--the Warriors of Distinction. On the surface the club seems to be wonderful--it's been around for almost fifty years and is highly respected by the community. The club even conducts a toy drive at the holiday season to help needy children. But under the surface, the club has many undisclosed activities, known only to those who go through the secret initiation rituals.
The Battle of Jericho is about the power of peer pressure, and making decisions which might affect the rest of one's life. Should Jericho go to the pledge night activities, or go to the tryouts for college? Should he humiliate a friend in a wheelchair or obey the pledge captains? Should he leave the club and lose his girlfriend?
I wrote this book at the suggestion of a ninth-grade student. She said, "Why don't you write a book about what they make us do to be accepted around here?" I asked her what she meant and she just shrugged and said, "Oh, you know, just stuff." I was intrigued and started asking young people around the country what they thought about the idea. Students offered suggestions about activities, clubs, and sports teams that involved activities that could be classified as hazing, which is illegal in all states. Other students told me about dealing with the kind of peer pressure that is unspoken, but very, very powerful.
Jericho's battle is with himself, his friends, and his future. What decisions will he make? What would you do in the same situation?
1. In THE BATTLE OF JERICHO, you address a number of complex social issues facing teens today, including the influence of peer pressure and the importance of “fitting in” socially. What are some suggestions that can help teens combat these pressures in their day-to-day lives?
Young adults need to know that they are not alone, that many teens feel exactly the same as they do. It is easy to feel isolated and pressured by the larger group, but when young people learn to express their true feelings to friends and family, the pressure and immensity of their problems can be lessened. Good friends are powerful allies. Many teachers at school are available for counsel, and most parents are willing to listen as well. If Jericho had been willing or able to talk over his doubts and fears, tragedy may have been averted.
2. High school hazing is a subject that is often ignored or underestimated. What should young people know about the dangers of hazing?
I did a great deal of research into the problem of hazing on college campuses in preparation for writing The Battle of Jericho, but I found that very little research had been done on high school hazing, not because it did not occur, but because peer pressure is so strong during adolescence that teenagers simply refuse to tell. According to one study, more than 1.5 million high school students in the United States are being subjected to some form of hazing each year. If the choice must be made about whether to do what is right, or do what is necessary to be accepted, most teens will choose peer acceptance, even though data shows that most high school students don’t perceive even the most dangerous initiation activities as hazing. Remember, however, that anything that makes a person feel uncomfortable, or that they are forced to do in order to be accepted into a social group can be defined as hazing.
3. Dana Wolfe’s character in THE BATTLE OF JERICHO is an important figure for young teenage girls to examine as she is both strong-willed and confident, yet often puts herself in precarious situations in order to prove herself to others. What lesson(s) do you hope to teach young women about growing up female and how do you think Dana can help girls make healthy choices in their own lives?
Teenaged girls today need strong, positive role models that can show them how to be independent thinkers and confident decision-makers. Dana is proud and self-confident, which is good, but she does not always make wise decisions. Rather than make her a super woman, I balanced her with difficult situations that could have been handled better. Her strength, however, shines through. This way, a young woman can read the book, discuss Dana's actions, and reflect on the decision-making in her own life.
4. What is the role of music in THE BATTLE OF JERICHO and in Jericho’s life in particular?
Jericho's love for his music influences his decisions throughout the book. It helps him express his complicated feelings about his home life, his girlfriend, as well as his self-esteem. When he plays his trumpet, he is more than the pieces of his life--he is whole. I strongly encourage young people to find a musical or creative outlet, for creativity is what helps us see the beauty in life. Music helped save Jericho's life.
5. What is the significance of Eric’s character in THE BATTLE OF JERICHO and how do you think his handicap affects his outlooks on life? The way others see him?
Teenagers with disabilities are just like their peers. They want to be accepted, to have friends, to be included in the social life of the school. Eric understands the pain of being ignored and overlooked, and I've given him a voice to show his humanity. He represents all those young people, who have feelings as well as dreams. I wanted to give those kids, who are often treated as if they are invisible, a chance to be heard, to be seen as the individuals they are, not the machines they ride in, or the disability that defines them.
6. Do you write with a particular audience in mind? If so how does this affect your narrative? Where do you get the inspiration for the novels you write? The themes in your novels are often heavy; why do you concentrate on these issues?
I write for young people--teenagers--all of them. I try to deal with topics that are both current and topical. I also hope that by reading it young people can perhaps apply some of the messages to their own lives. Abuse and death are topics that need to be discussed by young people. They are not pleasant, but by talking about the difficult realities of life, perhaps someone can be made stronger. I write about these things because, unfortunately, those are the realities of life for many teenagers today. I hope to say something that will change their lives for the better.
I visit dozens of school every year and the joy on the faces of the students I meet, their fascination with the characters and their lives, and their excitement about reading more is what keeps me going. I'm writing as fast as I can--trying to write stories that young people can enjoy. Sometimes I get them from newspaper articles or events I see on television. Sometimes I get ideas from students who write me or from students that I speak to when I visit their schools. My mind is always buzzing with new ideas for stories. There are thousands of teenagers in schools today. Each one of them has a story.
7. What would you like your young readers to get out of your books?
When a young person reads my books, I want them to say, "Wow! That was great.!" I want them to remember them, to cherish them, to pass them along to their friends. Amazingly, that is what happens many times. Kids who have never read a book all the way through before tell me that they read my book in one night, and do I have any more books they can read. That's a wonderful feeling.
8. Describe your writing process.
Writing for me is a very fluid process--I sit down a wait for the words to come. They usually do—in buckets and waves. It's amazing. I look upon it as a blessing because the words come so easily. I start with an idea, or a problem or a conflict, or even a situation that might be pertinent to the lives of young people, then the characters grow from that point. I try to make strong characters that change and develop and learn from their mistakes. I try to make characters so real that young people believe they are real people, and many do. I get letters from kids who ask for Rhonda's home phone number, or who are angry at me because of something that happened to one of the characters. I think the layering comes in the story development. The plot is born from the idea, then is crafted by the characters and how they respond to what happens to them. It's a thrilling, exciting process.
9. How does THE BATTLE OF JERICHO fit into the kind of books your readers seem to love? Why do you write this genre of young adult fiction? Will there be more books about Jericho and his friends?
I seem to be able to capture the mind and heart of the adolescent. Young people write me all the time and tell me how much they identify with the characters and plots in my novels. One young woman sent me an email that said, "I liked how it showed the peer pressure that was put on Jericho. Kids today are constantly pushed to do things they don't want to, just like Jericho, even though the activities got pretty extreme. I think everyone my age should read this book as we get ready to enter high school. It shows the serious consequences of doing something just because of others." And yes, more books about Jericho and the young people at his school can be expected.
10. If you were asked to coalesce your work into one sentence, what might that be?
I try to write powerful, meaningful stories for young people and show them I understand the difficulties of growing up, and to let them know I care.