Christine Heppermann stands out in a crowd. It might be her hair—a vibrant red, somewhere between hot sauce and maraschino. Or the hot-pink T-shirt that says keep it surreal. Or the peregrine falcon tattooed on her arm, or the insouciant smile. But as soon as you meet her, you think, Here comes a jolt of caffeine.
Readers who pick up her stunning new verse novel Ask Me How I Got Here (Greenwillow Books, 2016) will feel the same buzz. A longtime reviewer of young-adult books for the Chicago Tribune, Horn Book, and others, Heppermann's first book was the nonfiction Urban Chickens (HMH, 2012), followed by the breakout success Poisoned Apples: Poems for You, My Pretty (Greenwillow, 2014). A razor-sharp reenvisioning of fairy-tale tropes through the warped lens of contemporary beauty culture, it was a Best Book selection by Kirkus Reviews and Publishers Weekly, garnering critical raves.
Heppermann just picked up her two teenage daughters from Poughkeepsie Day School. Sliding into a seat at New Paltz's Village Tea Room, she orders a Corsendonk Pale Ale, a vegetable hummus platter, and seasoned popcorn. She's clear-eyed and frank, discussing such personal issues as Catholicism, abortion, and eating disorders without hesitation; there's no off-the-record. It's totally badass.
Born in Omaha, Nebraska, Heppermann grew up in a community so thoroughly Catholic that she found her Methodist neighbors exotic. She and her two younger siblings went to Catholic schools, including Marian High School, an all-girls prep school known for academic and athletic excellence. Heppermann ran the 400- and 800-yard dash and the two-mile relay; she always ran the first leg to help put her team out in front.
Her interest in writing blossomed when one of her teachers brought contemporary poetry (Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, Adrienne Rich) and James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man into the classroom. "She kind of opened a space in this narrow Catholic environment," Heppermann recalls. "I was very intense about my poetry."
At the same time, she was starting to question church dogma, and lying to her devout parents. "I'd tell them, 'I'm going to mass with my friends' and we'd go to Burger King—we'd stop and pick up church programs on the way home." There were other outings: friends' brothers' bands, punk concerts in bowling alleys, mosh pits.
"I was pretending to be a good girl, and going to parties. I lied and lied badly. I was always getting caught. There was a lot of drama and 'You will be grounded!' My girls don't know the concept of grounded."
At 17, Heppermann got pregnant and had an abortion. She has no regrets about this choice, but does regret the subterfuge and self-imposed shame that ensued. This experience forms the emotional core of Ask Me How I Got Here. Its poems have the ring of unvarnished truth: "I'd give anything / for blood / on this / bone-white pad."
Most of the poems are narrated by Minneapolis teenager Addie—like the author, an aspiring poet and track star at a Catholic high school. Some, in a contrasting font, are written by Addie, many about the Virgin Mary. Addie learns early on that she's pregnant, and though she agonizes about telling her parents, they're supportive, if privately tearful.
"I wanted to show there's more than one way for Catholic parents to respond," says Heppermann, whose parents still don't know about her abortion three decades ago. Telling them at the time was "out of the question," so she faked sick to stay home from school; her boyfriend drove over to pick her up. When this cover story was blown by a neighbor who saw them together, she spun a false confession about helping a friend in trouble. Lies piled upon lies. When Heppermann had to go to track practice a few days later, she slowed down to a walk, saying she had a cramp.
The fictional Addie goes further, quitting the team without telling her parents or boyfriend, hiding out in a coffee shop during practices. One of the book's many pleasures is Heppermann's focus not on the abortion but on its long aftermath, deftly avoiding "a soap opera, capital-T capital-P Teen Pregnancy story." There's no preaching to the converted, just the soul-searching of a smart teen who's been knocked off course and is trying to figure out who she is now. And when Addie slips into a same-sex relationship, it's not because she hates men; it's simply that she's connected with someone who gets her.