In the acknowledgments for Brenda Rufener’s debut novel, “Where I Live,” the Durham author speaks of “writing from the heart.”
She does just that in telling the story of teenager Linden Rose, whose intelligence and wit make her successful in academics and with friends. But no one knows she is homeless. She has devised clever methods to live in her high school without detection.
Rufener succeeds in her desire to create “a young woman who’s more than her crisis.”
“She’s complex, she’s flawed, she makes mistakes,” Rufener said. “But she’s a different face of homelessness. She’s more than this one issue.”
Rufener fully realizes her goal in a novel that is as much about finding love and self as it’s about hiding homelessness.
The book will be published Feb. 27 by HarperTeen and will be accompanied by author appearances at numerous bookstores, including at Raleigh’s Quail Ridge Books.
Rufener realized that writing from her heart and crafting an issue-driven book meant taking a risk.
“What is in your heart may not be in everyone’s heart,” she said.
That’s especially true for Rufener as she drew on raw emotions she had experienced herself as a teenager. As a teen, Rufener said she “lived on the brink of homelessness” and yet, she managed to get into college. While there, she volunteered with a literacy program that focused on homeless women and teens.
“I was drawn to these women,” she said. “What they lacked in resources, they more than made up for in their hopefulness and their desire to push forward and achieve goals.”
She knew she wanted her heroine, Linden, to have that same resiliency.
“She has this strong drive to succeed, but she had all these circumstances beyond her control to handle,” she said.
Rufener believes revealing this part of her personal life is worth the risk, “even if you only reach one teacher or child and give them hope in the face of adversity.”
Teachers and librarians have praised Rufener’s “Where I Live.” Unlike many YA novels about homelessness, the story doesn’t feel dark. “Linden could be the-kid-sitting-next-to-you-in-class,” one teacher wrote her.
Linden has a dark past, but Rufener discloses this history in small bits. Only nearing the end of the book do readers completely know Linden’s tragic past. This was a conscious choice on Rufener’s part.
“I didn’t want to dump all of her backstory down in one section,” she said. “I seeded it throughout so that she could be more than her crisis. It might have been easier to dump all that info early on and we would have been sympathetic to Linden. Instead, I had us work toward understanding her.”
Indeed, Linden wins readers’ respect on her own merits.
She notes that Linden has a teacher who cares and friends who become like family.
“Perhaps it’s knowing you have that support system that pulled Linden through the darkness,” she said.
Rufener will be appearing on panels with North Carolina authors Amber Smith and Amy Reed, both who write issue-driven books.
“Rather than standing solo and reading, it’s nice to get questions going between the authors since we’ve all read each other’s books,” Rufener said. “That way we can spark more interaction in the audience and create more awareness.”
Rufener has much to share with audiences. Most aren’t aware that Raleigh has only one or two homeless shelters that focus on teens, nor that this is the case throughout the country.
“It was quite eye-opening for me to hear a teen say, ‘I don’t feel safe in a shelter and I’m not going to go there.’” she said. “Teens form groups that live together on the streets protecting each other. Kids running away from bad situations are already traumatized, and they don’t need to feel unsafe in a shelter.”
Susie Wilde is a Chapel Hill-based writer. She can be reached through her website ignitingwriting.com.
“Where I Live,” published by HarperTeen, is for ages 14 and older.
Brenda Rufener will appear with authors Amber Smith and Amy Reed to talk about their respective books.
▪ March 2, 7 p.m., Quail Ridge Books, 4209 -100 Lassiter Mill Road, Raleigh, in North Hills.
About the books
▪ “The Last to Let Go,” Amber Smith (McElderry Books, ages 14 and up). Brooke Winters, a junior, has a fresh start planned for her year. Her plans are derailed when Brooke’s mother, who has suffered for years from domestic abuse, stabs and kills her husband. This poignant novel shows the many and long-reaching effects of domestic violence.
▪ “The Nowhere Girls,” Amy Lynn Reed (Simon Pulse, ages 14 and up). Grace Salter, distraught about the gang-rape and bullying of another teen, bands together with two other girls to confront sexism.