Books Change Lives: Guest post by Jay Montville

Saturday, September 12, 2009

I was an English major, so I've read a hundred books, a thousand, a million. (Okay, not a million. But a lot.) And there are at least a few dozen I could name that had a major impact on me, but the one that I want to talk about today is The Changeover by Margaret Mahy. I read this book when I was a sophomore in high school and I've read it at least once a year since then. The Changeover isn't an "important" book. It's not a book that's likely to be taught in school.

I didn't learn any important lessons from The Changeover, like I should love my neighbors, or not be racist, or share my crayons. It's not that kind of book. But here's what you can learn from The Changeover (or, at least, what I learned):

1. That New Zealand is a lot like suburban Wisconsin, except that they have prefects in school.

2. That working mothers are the same around the world--they mean well, but they don't always see what you're going through because they've got a lot to handle.

3. That everyone has a friend who thinks you'd look cooler with a streak in your hair.

4. That boys who can do magic are hot.

Also, Margaret Mahy? Can really write.

The Changeover is about a girl named Laura. Laura's been having a rough life lately, what with her dad having a new family, and money being tight at home, and her being a total non-entity at school. Pretty much the only good thing happening for her is her little brother Jacko, who she adores. So when something happens to him, Laura is not only scared, she's also angry, and she'd do anything to save him, including speaking to Sorensen Carlisle, prefect and witch.

The Changeover changed my life in two ways: first, as a reader, in the way all good books change you, just a little. And second as a writer, by showing me that characters should be real. The book has demons and magic in it, but all of the characters are 100 percent real. Laura is difficult, and crabby, and impatient, even with people she loves. And Sorry Carlisle is sly and defensive and not 100 percent trustworthy for reasons of his own.

Laura lives in a dodgy neighborhood (while walking to Sorry's house one night, she recalls a new report of a girl getting raped). She wants to be popular, but she doesn't have the money to do what it would take (and she probably would want to, even if she did). Her mother works in a bookshop and dates a sort of cheesy guy. Laura lives in a three-dimensional world.

After I read it, I looked at all the stories I wrote, all the ones where the only thing that mattered was the main plot and nothing else, and realized I was doing it wrong. It wasn't until after I read The Changeover that my characters began to live on the page, that I understood that they had to have more going on than just the story they'd been put down to tell. They had to be real, the way Laura Chant and Sorry Carlisle were real. They had to breathe. If I get a book published (fingers crossed) it will be because Margaret Mahy taught me what characters were. And that prefects are sexy.

Jay Montville is an aspiring young adult writer and an attorney. Her blog, How Do I Know What I Think Until I See What I Say, is at

This guest post is part of Book Change Lives September, on Hey! Teenager of the Year. To read all the guest posts, click here.
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