Telling our stories can save lives

Why Janis?

I’m getting asked that a lot.

Why write a biography of Janis Joplin? And why for teens?  

 As one children’s writer, who doesn’t understand why I can’t write “happy stories,” pointed out, “She had problems! She was loose! She died of a drug overdose, you know.”

“Um, yeah,” I told her, “I sort of figured all that out.” In fact, that’s why I decided to write about Janis for teens.  

I wrote Janis Joplin Rise Up Singing to allow teens a glimpse into the world of a woman who used her amazing, amazing voice to rise above bullying even though she began as one lone teenaged girl who looked in the mirror and saw an outsider reflected there. Instead of losing herself in silence and fear, she chose to use her remarkable voice to make the world a better place for others outside the mainstream. In that way, she saved me as a teen. She gave me courage and a voice. Janis’s influence encouraged me to speak out against wars that I found unjust and to speak in favor of rights for all humanity and to speak of ways to encourage diverse perspectives. Janis’s influence gave me a road map for my life as a writer, as a friend and as a parent in a racially and culturally diverse family.  

But even as I answer why Janis, I find myself cringing at censors who have the power to take this book out of the hands of the very people who most need to read it. I cringe at the idea that people who support institutional homophobia will discover that this book honestly portrays Janis’s sexual curiosity. I’m afraid they’ll use their homophobic power to remove this book from library shelves almost before it has a chance to make a difference.  

But I believe this book can make a huge difference even if only one person reads it. I think we can learn from Janis Joplin who knew what it felt like to be bullied because she stood out in high school with her frizzy hair and loud laugh – and not in a way that made her feel good about herself. Either because she came from an enlightened family or because she recognized that being an outsider gave her license to speak out for others who were persecuted, Janis spoke up for school desegregation in her tiny community. Her reward was to have pennies pitched at her by a group of boys. Her response was to become louder, to read more and to seek a better more enlightened world. She found that world through her music. And we can find a better world if we speak out and seek to make the world a better place through our choices, through our own work, through the literature we write, the lives we study, the art we embrace.

I think it’s important to speak out for books and music and art that talks about tough issues. These works are often lifelines to the world’s outsiders. I wrote about Janis Joplin’s wild, crazy, beautiful and tragic life because I wanted to write about the single artist who encouraged me to speak out and defend my own choices and values. I hope my book helps one person stand up and be heard or that it gives a single bullied person hope that good life waits if he or she can just dig deep enough to find the courage to seek one trusted person who can help.