Elana Kuczynski Arnold (M.A., English, ‘98) is a finalist for the National Book Award in the Young Adult category. Her novel What Girls Are Made Of is one of five books shortlisted for the award. The shortlist was announced Oct. 4 and the awards will be presented Nov. 15.
“It’s such an honor,” Arnold said in an interview from her Huntington Beach home. “I am absolutely floored to see What Girls Are Made Of in such luminous, brilliant company.”
This is the fifth of her young adult novels, all of which have focused on young women making discoveries – many of them painful – about the world and themselves.
Arnold said the book was “hacked up full of hair and bones and blood and teeth. It was vastly uncomfortable to write. “There’s a lot of stuff in this book’s 200 pages that raises hackles. That disturbs. That may offend.”
What Girls Are Made Of is the story of Nina Faye, 16, who is infatuated with her boyfriend she will do anything for. Then he breaks up with her, leaving her wondering who she is. This is set against her dysfunctional home life and a mother who tells her bluntly that unconditional love is a myth. Nina’s volunteer work at a high-kill animal shelter only reinforces that love comes only to those who look pretty and stay quiet.
This book and her last novel Infandous are “thematic sisters” that were not easy sells to publishers. Lerner Books/Carolrhoda Lab published both.
“I’m very grateful to them – they really embraced it,” Arnold said.
The books are not memoirs, but are “about me casting back to my own adolescence and sense of shame,” she said. “They are about the bloody side of being a female.”
Arnold has had her own traumas connected to being a woman – the biggest one came at UC Davis. She had spent a summer on campus as a high school junior, fell in love with the school and community, and came back as a university freshman. During her first quarter, she was attacked by two male students. (What Girls… contains an afterword about that experience.)
She left UC Davis and completed her undergraduate studies at UC Irvine, then immediately returned to UC Davis for graduate work.
“It was restorative to come back,” she said.
In 2013, she taught young adult and creative writing in the English department for a year. Along with YA novels, she has also had three middle grade and chapter books published and is a frequent speaker at schools, libraries and writers’ conferences.
Since finishing her master’s degree, she has also been raising two children – a son, and a daughter named Davis.
The National Book Awards, started in 1950, are presented by the National Book Foundation. Winners in each category receive $10,000.
— Jeffrey Day, content strategist in the UC Davis College of Letters and Science