Looking at Life From Both Sides Now: Melissa Lion, Bookseller/Author

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From her spot behind the counter at Diesel: A Bookstore, in Oakland, California, bookseller Melissa Lion recommends great reading from her current favorite genre, young adult fiction. Edgy titles that she likes to handsell to teenagers, and those who love them, include Acceleration by Graham McNamee (Wendy Lamb Books), Please Don't Kill the Freshman by Zoe Trope (HarperTempest), and Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson (Puffin). For these purchasers of sophisticated young adult titles, Lion also recommends a new book, published in August and displayed right on the counter -- Swollen, from Wendy Lamb Books. Swollen is an Autumn 2004 Book Sense Children's Pick, nominated by Steve Mort of Cody's Books in Berkeley, California, who wrote, "Believable characters, fantastic writing, and an incredibly compelling plot, all add up to make this the most powerful YA title I've read in years. Honestly beautiful and highly recommended."

Lion promotes Swollen unpretentiously but with genuine enthusiasm -- after all, she wrote it.

BTW recently spoke to Lion, who described seeing her book on Diesel's shelves: "It's right there; I could check on the sales figures anytime I want to. That's a real temptation for me. It's also out on the employee recommends shelf, in our store bestsellers display, and it's a Book Sense Pick. The book is right next to the cash register with a sign that reads 'I Work Here.' I don't ever say directly that it's my book; I say that this book is getting great reviews and everyone at the store has loved it."

During the year that Lion worked at her first bookselling job, at Warwick's in La Jolla, she wrote Swollen in her off hours. On the job, she developed a passion for bookselling, starting with her first handsell. "The first time I did it I was shocked," Lion said. "I couldn't believe someone was going to walk out with [my recommendation]."

Swollen is Lion's first novel, but some of her short pieces have been published in literary magazines and anthologies, and her next book, Upstream, will soon be published by Wendy Lamb Books. Lion completed an MFA in Creative Writing from Saint Mary's College of California where she received the Agnes Butler Scholarship for Literary Excellence.

Swollen tells a story of high school, first love, and loss, but doesn't take many predictable routes. At the outset, 16-year-old Samantha is plagued with the angst of a fragmented family, troubled friends, and a questionable reputation combined with a pervasive feeling of being invisible. At school, she ranks between total loser and popular girl, a middle position she also holds on the junior varsity cross country team; never in the lead, but not a straggler either. Lion credits a chance drive past a line of cross country runners from the La Jolla High School girls track team as the inspiration for the book. "I wondered what it was like to be the most middle girl in the pack," she said. "I wasn't on any sports team and I hated to run, but I remember longing to be in the lead, in anything."

The book introduces the school's leading track star and all-around golden boy, Owen Killgore, whose death is announced in the first sentence of Chapter One. The official cause of death is a congenital problem, described by the boy's parents as a "swollen" heart. This explanation does not satisfy most students and parents, and is especially disturbing to Samantha. Lion told BTW that she based this storyline on her experience. "A couple of times in my own high school, a kid died and the school just wasn't honest about it. They gave us weird, silly explanations. Why didn't [they] just tell me the truth? The book is my reaction, as an adult, to adults lying to teenagers. It's ridiculous. A popular sports star [in my school] did die. No one ever knew why --we still wonder."

The day Killgore departs the scene, an intriguing new boy, named Farouk, enters. Samantha's relationship with Farouk is filled with the desires, detours, and self-deception that epitomize teenage sensibilities. But Lion wanted the story to reflect a realistic portrayal of adolescent romance. She explained, "My problem with YA books is that they just aren't real enough.... It's this grown-up's idea of what it's like to be a teenager: 'Going to the mall, hanging out with girlfriends.'

"When I was a teenager, I was a complex person with a lot happening beyond shopping and boys. Those things are fun, but shouldn't be all consuming. I think that books that portray young women as one-dimensional shopaholics are ridiculous. I didn't want it to be that at all. I wanted it to be literary fiction that an adult would read, very voice driven. Not puffy, fluffy stuff."

She noted that the book's editor and publisher, Wendy Lamb, prevailed on her to lighten up the story, particularly the ending. "I really like a book that makes me cry at the end," Lion told BTW. "My original version was a lot darker, more bleak. When Wendy said it was too sad, the ending became a little more undecided. It was a challenge to balance my own bleak and sad stuff with public consumption."

The public is getting a chance to hear directly from Melissa Lion as she makes her initial foray into bookstore readings. She read at Warwick's, to an audience that included her parents and former co-workers, and she is scheduled to appear at both Diesel locations --the main store in Oakland and the new store in Malibu -- in the coming weeks.

Lion ponders a question that most new authors answer immediately: Would you like to give up your day job and write full-time?

"I really love being a bookseller and working at Diesel," Lion said. "John [Evans] and Alison [Reid], the owners, are just the most amazing people you'd ever want to meet, so it's such a blessing to be able to be around them. And I love the free books. Quitting is not part of my dream." --Nomi Schwartz