NewburyportNews.com, Newburyport, MA

April 18, 2008

A story of tweens finding their identity in 'From Alice to Zen'

By Charles Frost

WEST NEWBURY — Alice Bunt and Zenithal Stevie Wonder Malinowski are two completely different people. The one thing that links the two is a common goal: to survive their first year of middle school.

Alice, 11, loves baseball and playing soccer, while Zen, 12, enjoys reading fashion magazines and filling out quizzes. The oddball couple comes together after Alice moves from Boston to the suburbs and she meets zany Zen, who lives around the corner.

Alice and Zen aren't real — they are from a book titled "From Alice to Zen and Everyone in Between," written by Elizabeth Atkinson, who lives on Pleasant Street with her husband, Erik Eames, and their two children, Madeline and Nate.

Her book, released on Feb. 1, has been nominated for the New Voices Award 2008 by the Association of Booksellers for Children, an honor she called gratifying.

"It was great and very gratifying because I knew then that the book wouldn't bomb," she said. "At least I thought it can't be terrible. It's reassuring."

Atkinson, 46, said the idea for the book came from being inspired by two kids she saw walking down a road one day.

"They looked like exact opposites," she said. "I was struck at how they seemed to be best buddies. I thought to myself how did those two kids become best friends, so I wanted to write about a friendship like that."

Atkinson said the theme of the story surrounds identity and finding confidence to be your own person. She wants kids to march to the beat of their own drummer, something Alice and Zen literally do in the novel.

"I think middle school is a pivotal time when kids begin to blossom with their own opinions and interests," she said. "Unfortunately, middle school also brings the toughest social pressures to conform that you will ever face in your life. So I want to hopefully empower kids to feel OK with themselves, and really it's about learning to march to the beat of your own drummer."

Atkinson said the names of the two lead characters in the book, Alice and Zen, were no mistake.

"I wanted Zen to be named Zen because he is so on the outside and so un-Zen like," Atkinson said. "But on the inside he is completely focused and at peace with himself. Having his name be Zen was kind of a funny twist.

"I've always loved the name Alice, and I just saw this girl as an Alice because of her nature."

In the book, Alice sets out on a journey of middle school enlightenment, where she learns life lessons about self-image and gender stereotypes, eventually learning that a best friend isn't always the most popular student.

Atkinson said everyone seems to love her book, from her 12-year-old niece to her 83-year-old aunt who called the book "timeless."

"I've been really pleased with the response and surprised," Atkinson said. "Everyone seems to love it, everyone of all ages. I thought (my niece) would think it was way too light, but she absolutely loved it and has been passing her book to all her friends."

Atkinson said she has always aspired to writing older children's novels because she enjoys escaping into a children's novel even as an adult. Atkinson specifically writes for children known as tweens — those in the age range of 8 to 12.

"I write very character-driven books, and I think there is just a huge need for appropriate and relatable novels for the tween age," Atkinson said. "I wanted to write a novel about kids who are kids."

Her career did not start out quickly, however, as she began writing her first novel 10 years ago and entered it into a contest that she did not win. Atkinson said she did, however, receive a nice handwritten note in response encouraging her to continue writing, and she completed a second novel, which was never published, before finally selling this, her third novel.

Although the process of writing her book and getting it published was lengthy, Atkinson said it was one she still very much enjoyed.

"It was exciting," Atkinson said. "It was a slow process; it's not like it hits you one day. Right now I'm feeling I might be on a roll. I'm kind of dedicating myself to this, and I'm more than halfway through my next book."

Atkinson said the book was imagined in West Newbury and she put a lot of things referencing the area in the book, such as naming the middle school Sachem Regional Middle School and Alice's favorite baseball player, Carl Yastrzemski. Atkinson said her next book, "Freke Family Reunion," will be recognizable to a lot of people much like "From Alice to Zen and Everyone in Between."

"It's important to make it feel local and homey," Atkinson said. "('Freke Family Reunion') is set in Oldburyport."

"From Alice to Zen and Everyone in Between" can be purchased at Jabberwocky and online at various outlets, including Barnes and Noble, Borders, Tower Books and Amazon.