Parenting, Writing

The Amazing “True” Story of a Teenage Single Mom

Katherine Arnoldi, author of the powerful graphic memoir THE AMAZING “TRUE” STORY OF A TEENAGE SINGLE MOM, is a champion of teen mothers everywhere. Originally published as a zine to distribute to teen Moms near her home in New York City, the book was published by Hyperion in 1998. It has just been reprinted as a paperback by Graymalkin Press.

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As a teen services librarian in the early 2000’s, I observed this award-winning book in constant circulation. Our library’s copies were often marked in the system as lost or stolen, a sure sign of a popular book. It wasn’t until a few months ago, though, that I had the chance to be introduced over email to Katherine through a former library patron (thank you Dana!) and to read her book. Arnoldi’s story is indeed an amazing story and inspiring example for teen moms and others. It’s also a sexual assault survivor story, and gives support to the (too many) people with similar experiences. Above all, it’s a story of tenacity in the face of many obstacles.

Below, my interview with Katherine. I continue to remain inspired by all that she’s done in her life, through writing, art, and beyond. Thank you, Katherine, for your time, for sharing your images, and for your book.

JB: Please describe your original intention in creating and publishing this book, and what subsequently happened with its publication. Can you talk about the different experiences of working with a large press, a small press, and self-publishing?

KA: This was first a “zine” that I would copy myself and take with me, along with FAFSA forms and college applications, to GED programs, neighborhood centers, homeless centers and at Charas Community Center on the Lower East Side of New York City where I ran a College Mom Program. My idea was that, if I told my story of my own struggle to find the way to college, that the teenage mothers would understand that I had had similar experiences as they were having.

It was so fun to go to the 24 hour Kinko’s on Astor Place in New York and spend the entire night putting together a new copy of the zine. Actually, the manager and employees would join me on the floor in putting the zine together. It was a blast. When it was published, I took a copy to the manager to thank him for his support.

Of course, Hyperion is a big publisher and so they arranged for me to appear on the Today Show, the Nightly News, CNN Entertainment Today, the Lenny Lopate Show and many others, which allowed me to say my soundbite, that “teenage mothers do not have equal rights to education.” Also, I do not know if it would have been chosen as One of the Top Ten Books of the Year by Entertainment Weekly without a big press. The fact that it won two American Library Association Awards meant that it was in all of the 6,000 plus libraries in the United States.

[Then] David Zindell, of Graymalkin Media, contacted Binghamton University, where I took my Ph.D, to try to find me to ask if he could publish The Amazing True Story of a Teenage Single Mom as a paperback. I am so grateful for the courage and support of Graymalkin Media. Now that it has been updated and re-released as a paperback by Graymalkin I am focused on contacting libraries in hopes they will order it. Robert Clough also bravely wrote a review for the Comics Journal. http://www.tcj.com/reviews/the-amazing-true-story-of-a-teenage-single-mom/

JB: The graphic memoir seems to be the perfect format for this story. What was the process of creating it like?

KA: Fun! My undergraduate degree is in Art, my Master’s and Ph.D. are in Creative Writing, so this form allowed me to combine those degrees with my increasing awareness of the political implications of my own experience.

JB: To sum it up in the most basic terms, your book tells the incredible story of your path from single motherhood – truly unable to rely on anyone – to your starting college and finding a supportive community. Looking at your resume, it looks like the incredible story continued. Can you give a brief synopsis of what you’ve been up to since your early college days (including your scholarship for teenage moms who go to college)?

KA: I would work, then go to school, then work, then go to school. Finally, I now have a Ph.D. But the highlight was my Fulbright Award in 2008-9 to Paraguay. I am an adjunct Professor at CUNY and Fordham University in New York City. In 2005 the Kennedy/Marshall Film Company bought the film rights to The Amazing True Story of a Teenage Single Mom and I took some of that money and opened a Calvert Foundation Giving Fund Award. It gives a scholarship each year (from $400-500) on the interest it earns. The most recent recipient in 2017 was at John Jay College in NYC. This award will go on forever.

JB: Even though this is a serious topic, and a lot of terrible things happen to you over the course of the story, there are touches of humor in the book. Can you talk about using humor in writing about serious subjects?

KA: For example, someone gives me a small tip at a restaurant and tells me to “buy something to wear for myself” but my thought bubble says, “But I wear the same clothes all the way to the end of this book.” The humor is often very self-reflective. Thanks for noticing!

JB: Why is “true” in quotation marks in your title? Is that part of the tribute to superhero stories? Do you consider it to be any less true than any other memoir (beyond the disclaimer at the beginning)?

KA: I was making fun of the first issue of superhero comics, such as the Amazing Spiderman or the Incredible Hulk but, in my case, all I wanted to do was go to college, a very simple desire. Everything in the book is true, and happened to me, but I am not a cartoon character and those huge events are not completely portrayed in such a short book. I chose the events that would move the story forward and tell about my struggle to find the way to college. Much is omitted, of course.

JB: How old is your daughter now? What does she think of the book?

KA: My daughter recognizes that the book helps to inspire teenage mothers to go to college. She is in her late 40’s.

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JB: What advice would you give to your younger self at the outset of the project? Advice for readers who want to tell their own stories?

KA: My advice to myself and others would be to be bolder, to realize the significance of our own experiences and to understand how they apply to many, many others.

JB: Anything else you’d like to add?

KA: Because of the book, I was invited to New York Civil Liberties Union and we started a class action lawsuit against the New York City Board of Education for coercing teenage mothers to leave school. Now, things are better. However, there are 12,000 new teenage mothers each year in NYC and only 700 slots in the child care program in the high schools. What happens to the other 11,300 mothers? I urge everyone to find out how teenage mothers are faring in your community.

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Parenting, Writing

Back to School

Back to School

The first words emerge slowly, like extracting the quarter-inch of honey that remains at the bottom of the jar. It’s only been a few weeks since I’ve put pen to paper, as it were, but that writing muscle of mine loses definition quickly. The days between my last writing session and this one have been full of profound and mundane activities – organizing the kids’ clothing drawers and back-to-school shopping, saying goodbye to the preschool community our family has been part of for the last five years. Today Helen started Kindergarten and Caleb started 2nd grade. It has taken time, but I bit by bit I’m beginning to feel like part of the school community. Oh, and we adopted 2 4-month-old kittens, a brother and sister, Hana and Hilo:

 

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Transitions are hard for Caleb, so he was the one in tears, Helen the one smiling, as the school bus pulled away from our corner this morning. It is no wonder that I’m having difficulty getting started on my writing this morning, with the image of Caleb’s splotchy, tear-stained face at the bus window at the forefront of my mind. Before the bus arrived, I tried to reassure him that 2nd grade would be a lot like 1st grade, with his same friends and daily routines.
“But it will be harder,” he said. “There will be all these things I don’t know how to do.”
That is the trick about school, about childhood, isn’t it? A near constant process of taking in new information, (maybe) figuring out how to process it, and then more new stuff. I don’t have the heart to tell Caleb that this doesn’t disappear in adulthood. How much of my daily life is full of skills I have mastery over? Parenting? Hardly? Writing? I am constantly learning. Even at the gym, working with my trainer, each set of exercises she gives me is by design a physical challenge.
Maybe the difference, for me at least, is in the attitude. As a kid I was like Caleb, where new situations made me anxious. They still do, but alongside the anxiety is excitement. I love learning new things. True, I often get to choose what I take on as a learning experience, and everything isn’t new all at once, like it is when you are in elementary school. But I liked to be stretched. I like the surprise involved in learning, in taking on something new.
Earlier in the summer, Caleb and Helen and I were discussing school rules and routines, and what Helen could expect when she started Kindergarten.
“Don’t run in the hallways,” Caleb told Helen. “No tattle-telling.”
“Well,” Helen said, “If I’m doing something I’m not supposed to do, I’ll just say ‘I didn’t know. I’m new here.’”
Clearly Helen has already figured out a key skill when in a new situation: plead ignorance. I should try to remember to have that mindset.

My new endeavors this fall include a writing class (as a student, not a teacher) at Hugo House in Seattle. I’ll be taking a class called “Narrative Time: Balancing Pace and Plot” taught by longtime Hugo House instructor Michael Shilling. I’ve been obsessed with narrative time ever since I heard a lecture on the subject by Jess Walter, which I blogged about here. In the class I’ll be working on something else new (or, haven’t done in 20 years, which counts as new): fiction writing. An inspiring talk by author Anthony Doerr last May and a kid-free cross-country flight for me shortly after planted some fiction seeds in my brain. Not much above-ground growth at this point, but it’s been a fun project to work on bit by bit alongside revisions to my memoir.

I’ve been trying to make a habit of reading some poetry at the beginning of each writing session, so I’ll include a September poem here. It can be seen as an old or a new poem, depending on the time context you set it in. I’ll leave the choice up to you.

September, 1918
BY AMY LOWELL
This afternoon was the colour of water falling through sunlight;
The trees glittered with the tumbling of leaves;
The sidewalks shone like alleys of dropped maple leaves,
And the houses ran along them laughing out of square, open windows.
Under a tree in the park,
Two little boys, lying flat on their faces,
Were carefully gathering red berries
To put in a pasteboard box.
Some day there will be no war,
Then I shall take out this afternoon
And turn it in my fingers,
And remark the sweet taste of it upon my palate,
And note the crisp variety of its flights of leaves.
To-day I can only gather it
And put it into my lunch-box,
For I have time for nothing
But the endeavour to balance myself
Upon a broken world.