First Look at Eyes Open
I recently returned from the NCTE conference in Columbus, Ohio, where I saw — and signed — the advance copies of my forthcoming YA verse novel Eyes Open. It was an exciting moment made even more exciting by the reception at the Lerner booth when I signed the ARCs. Even though mine was the last signing of the day on the last full day of the conference, a long line formed to pick up books and every copy was taken. In addition, all of the copies of Torch that my publisher brought sold out immediately. I’m sure it helped that the display copy was stuffed full of bookmarks showing its starred reviews and awards.
Like Torch, Eyes Open portrays teenagers growing up under tyranny. In this case, it’s the 48-year right-wing dictatorship known as the Estado Novo, ruled until 1968 by António Salazar and for the next six years by his hand-picked successor Marcelo Caetano. As in communist Czechoslovakia during this period, the secret police use invasive and brutal tactics to root out opposition and are aided by networks of snitches among the population. However, in Portugal, women and girls had even fewer rights: they could not travel out of the country without a man’s permission, reproductive rights were nonexistent, and only men could own property and pass it to male heirs in a twentieth century version of the feudal right of male primogeniture.
Teenager Sónia Dias chafes against the restrictions in her life. She writes poems to honor her boyfriend, Zé Miguel Machado, who dropped out of school to work as a print shop apprentice to support his family. She dreams of creating children’s books that he will illustrate. When Zé Miguel is arrested for distributing anti-government materials and the fado restaurant owned by Sónia’s family is shut down for hiring a banned singer who sings a banned song (and whoever must have snitched on them?), she too must leave school for a grueling and dangerous job in a hotel laundry. There, she discovers the difference between writing poems for a hero and becoming a hero herself.
Eyes Open has already received three glowing blurbs from authors I admire. Bestselling author Ellen Hopkins, whose verse novels gave me the idea that I, too, could write in verse to explore the interior lives of young people living in extreme circumstances, wrote, “Sensuous. Atmospheric. Compelling. You won’t want to put this one down.” She doesn’t write historical fiction, so I’m especially gratified that Sónia’s story drew her in from the very beginning.
Kip Wilson is an accomplished, award-winning author of historical novels in verse. Her three published novels White Rose, The Most Dazzling Girl in Berlin, and One Last Shot are among my all-time favorites. Her take:
Eyes Open highlights a brutal time in Portugal’s recent history through the eyes of a passionate, poetry-loving teen. Sónia’s urgent need to follow her heart leads to clashes with her parents, supervisors, and the secret police of the Salazar dictatorship, but she’s willing to risk everything for love and freedom. This story takes place in Portugal in the 1960s, but it’s just as relevant to young people facing oppression today. Beautifully-written verse perfectly captures this young poet standing up to injustice. A must read!
Finally, Melanie Crowder’s Audacity — a fictionalized biography-in-verse of the early 20th century Jewish American labor activist Clara Lemlich — was one of my mentor texts in writing Sónia’s journey from observer to activist. So I was thrilled when she sent this:
Eyes Open is both a revealing, timely glimpse into Portugal’s frighteningly recent history and a passionate, authentically teen portrait in verse of one young woman finding her voice, claiming her power, and writing her way to freedom.
I also received a homework assignment from the NCTE conference. With more teachers wanting to use Torch in the classroom, the folks at Lerner have asked me to write a longer Educators’ Guide that includes the excellent discussion questions and discography/filmography that already exists but also provides additional historical context related to the Cold War and follow-up activities that bring in music, art, and creative writing. And as long as I’m putting a guide together for one book, I might as well do it for another! In other words, Eyes Open will also come with an Educators’ Guide that will be ready in time for its publication in May 2024. It’s a timely publication date as well, because the fiftieth anniversary of the Carnation Revolution that ended Portugal’s dictatorship will be on April 25, 2024 — and I’ll be there!