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Thursday, December 02, 2010

Story Secrets: POSITIVELY by Courtney Sheinmel + giveaway!

In honor of World AIDS Day (December 1), I am very pleased to welcome friend Courtney Sheinmel today to tell us her story secrets about her beautiful YA book, POSITIVELY.

I met Courtney in New York City when I went for BEA last summer, and she is honestly one of the nicest YA authors around. I wish I had a pic of us together! After the Teen Author Carnival (yes, another awesome author I met there!), we all went out for yummy Mexican food with a bunch of others and ended up talking the whole time.

I'm very excited to get to feature her today, and also to chat about her upcoming book, SINCERELY. Oh, and check out that amazing Be the Link photo (by Andy Tsagaris) below.

Welcome, Courtney!


POSITIVELY is about a thirteen-year-old girl named Emerson (“Emmy” for short) who was born with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. After her mom dies, Emmy has to move in with her dad and his new wife – who is pregnant and preoccupied with things like baking cookies and getting the house ready for the baby. Emmy feels isolated and filled with grief. Her dad ends up sending her to a camp for girls with HIV, where she finds hope and the will to live, even in a world without her mother.

Holly Cupala: I've been fascinated with this story even before I met you. Where did the idea come from?
Courtney Sheinmel: Okay, to tell you that I have to go back to something that happened nearly two decades ago. It was February of 1991, and I was in eighth grade. I read an article about a woman named Elizabeth Glaser. She was infected with HIV and had unknowingly passed the virus onto her two children. Her daughter died of AIDS in 1988, during a time when there weren’t many medications around to treat people with the disease. A couple months later, Elizabeth founded the Pediatric AIDS Foundation, in hopes of raising money to fund research that would save her son. It was one of the most remarkable stories I had ever heard, and I decided I wanted to get involved.
Since then, I’ve met a lot of men, women, and children who are living with HIV – just regular people who never imagined how their lives would be changed by illness. Over the years I wondered how I would handle being thrust into that situation, particularly as a young kid. So that was the impetus for Positively. In the book, Emmy has a personality that is pretty similar to my own; but unlike me, she’s HIV-positive.

Holly: It had to be an incredible process to write about such an emotional and loaded topic. Did anything unexpected come out of it?

I knew it would be a difficult, emotional book to write, but I honestly thought I’d be able to make it through the first draft just by using information I knew from being involved with the Foundation for so many years. Instead I was overwhelmed. I ended up calling my friend Carol. She used to run a camp for teenagers with HIV and I asked her if there were any kids she could put me in touch with, so I could talk to them about their experiences. There was one girl in particular Carol thought I should talk to – a high schooler from the tri-state area who had been positive since birth. Her parents had died of AIDS and she’d been raised by her older siblings. But, Carol told me, this girl had kept her status secret for her entire life, so she might not agree to talk to me. It wasn’t until then that I really came to terms with the stigma that still surrounds the disease – that in 2007 (when I was writing Positively), there were still American families who felt they had to keep HIV secret, for fear of being shunned. That raised the stakes for me, and it was motivational too: I thought if I wrote the story well enough, maybe I’d be able to show kids that HIV can touch anyone, and it isn’t so scary to be around.

Meanwhile, the girl Carol wanted to put me in touch with did agree to speak to me, and now she’s a close friend – another unexpected and wonderful consequence.

Holly: Have your own life experiences played into this story?

Courtney: Readers have noted that my characters tend to have non-traditional families – divorced parents, single moms, stepparents. I’m certain that’s because my parents divorced when I was nine years old. For years I lived with my mom and my sister in New York, and my dad lived across the country in California. I am extremely close with both of my parents, but it was tough when I was little. Like once I remember when I was fighting with my mom and missing my dad, I threw a bouquet of flowers I had bought for my mom. When they landed on the floor, the stems snapped. I was so devastated by what I had done – I had ruined something beautiful. And I brought those feelings to a scene in Positively, when Emmy destroys something that belonged to her stepmother.

Holly: Any secrets you might be willing to share?

This is a tough question for me. First of all, I was just talking about kids who can’t share their HIV status with even their closest friends, and my secrets can’t compare to that. (My friend Regan Hofmann wrote a beautiful memoir about her experience with this, called I Have Something to Tell You.)

And second of all, while I’m good at keeping secrets for other people, I’m not really good at keeping my own. So I honestly can’t think of any. I asked my friend Amy and she mentioned my height – I always say I’m five feet tall, but really I’m a quarter inch shy of that. My sister said my worst kept secret is that I don’t like dogs – and she also says that my worst quality.

I guess I have secret fears – of being alone, of not writing well enough. They’re not really secrets, just things I tend not to talk about, because I don’t want them to become too real.

Holly: So I know you have a lot of irons in the fire. What's up next?

Courtney: My latest book SINCERELY is available now. It’s about Sophie Turner and Katie Franklin, cross-country pen pals who confide in each other when their home lives seem overwhelming. Next up will be ALL THE THINGS YOU ARE, which comes out on June 14, 2011, about seventh grader Carly Wheeler, whose life is turned upside-down the day FBI agents come to her house to arrest her mother for a white-collar crime. I went to law school and practiced law for several years before becoming a full-time writer, and this book marks the first time I’ve worked any of my legal knowledge a piece of fiction.

I also have a young readers series that will debut in the Fall of 2011 (I think). It follows a seven-year-old girl named Stella who lives in the Bay Area (like I did at that age), has a younger sister (like I do), and whose parents own a candy store (unfortunately, that part is completely made up). So far I’ve written the first two books. The titles haven’t been finalized or I’d tell you.

And I am working on something else... It’s not exactly a secret but I’m afraid to write it here because I might jinx it. But my friends know and you can ask them. Or if you see me on the street, stop me and I’d be happy to tell you.


Thank you, Courtney!

For a chance to win a copy of POSITIVELY from Courtney, comment below on one of the following: a) why you'd really love to read this book, b) how you might react if a close friend told you they'd been living with HIV, or c) what you think teens, readers, adults, society can do to help destigmatize people living with HIV or other chronic illness.

Here's a video of Courtney talking about POSITIVELY:

Plus here's a fantastic fan-made trailer:

Don't forget to follow Courtney on Twitter, and check out her blog!


  1. Wow.
    Thank you for the wonderful in-depth interview and thanks to Courtney for sharing here. I loved the video too! I'd hope everyone who's putting ribbons on their avatars, etc, will buy this book for World Aids.
    All the best,

  2. I would really love to read this book because I mostly read fantasy and I want to spread out into different things. I have never experienced anything with HIV or AIDS through my family or friends, so I have no idea what it is like. I think it would be interested to learn a little through living this character's life in this book for a little while.

    Thanks for the giveaway!


  3. What an incredible book. I would be honored to read this book. In the 1980's, my aunt Ethel was diagnosed with cancer. After several blood tranfusions, they found out that yes, she was HIV positive from tainted blood. This was before they were so good about testing for HIV in donated blood. She lost her battle to the disease when HIV induced Pneumonia set in and claimed her life. She had been a OB GYN Nurse for about 25 years and had recently gotten married for first time in her late 40's. It was so tragic to see her life end when it was just getting started for her. I would have hoped that since that time, more would have changed in the HIV fight. I know that there have been many changes accomplished and many miracles made to help combat this disease. I would love to one day smile and know that no one will ever suffer from this again. Thank you for such a wonderful book on a hard subject!

  4. What an amazing interview. I've heard such wonderful things about this book and would love to read such a unique take

    jpetroroy at gmail dot com

  5. Amazing interview. I really want to read this because I've never read a book that had anything to do with HIV and it's something that I think I, personally, have to become more aware about. And, it just sounds fabulous.

  6. I really want to read this book because my cousins friend has aids and I want to read a book from the person's perspective of having it.

  7. I really want to read this book because for the past 4 years I have been working on a story about a boy named Altair who was born HIV positive and I think that reading a book wherein a character faces a similar situation would be beneficial to my own story.

    Also, I would love to read this book in general. I think that the world needs to recognize how large a problem HIV and AIDS still are. That's why I applaud both all the celebrities signing off of facebook and twitter and other social media sites to raise money and awareness of this disease, and this author for writing a book about it, as I have thus far failed to finish doing.


  8. I'd love to read this becuase it sounds like an amazig story. This is exactly what we need to do to destigmatize people with HIV. Mostly people need to learn more about it, stop believing in all ther myths around it and stop treating it like a taboo.

    Thank you for the interview!
    entrelibros_blog at hotmail.com

  9. a) I've been wanting to read this story because it sounds like a unique concept, a rarely-addressed issue and Emerson sounds like a strong heroine!

  10. Interesting interview!
    When I grew up HIV was strongly stigmatized and not well understood.
    And I remember being moved by an interview I read with Elizabeth Glazer.

    We have a friend who is HIV and I was concerned how to explain to our children without making a 'big deal' of it. Turns out they already knew about HIV and their reactions was "Oh, OK."

  11. I really want to read this book because this topic isn't explored much in YA books. I'd like to see how the topic is handled. And I hope it opens the door for more books like it.

  12. Hey Holly, thanks for the giveaway!

    HIV is an epidemic responsible for taking thousands of lives, and some of those people don't have a choice. Like Emmy, there are a lot of children born with it. I want to read this book because it tackles a relevant yet relatively undiscovered topic in YA, and I'm interested in seeing how the author handles the story. Emmy sounds like a silently strong character, and her story has the potential to reach out to readers.

    Thank you again for the giveaway!


  13. Thank you for the interview and the chance to win. I'd love to read this book because I'm interested to see how such a controversial topic is approached. HIV is a huge deal and I think if teens can connect with the issue on a more personal level, such as forming a reader-to-character bond while reading, they're more likely to be open to being informed and be proactive in their daily lives.

    melodiousrevelry (at) gmail (dot) com

  14. I have had a friend who had HIV a few years back. We never really discusses how they got it but it was discussed. I wouldn't treat a friend any differently, its an illness they have and can't do anything about it. I would just try to be supportive. I think more people need to know about HIV in childred, people always assume HIV is a gay illness, or a premiscuous disease, or something only drug addicts get. I think if people learned more about all the faces of HIV they wouldn't judge everyone.

    This sounds like a very moving story.