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This article appeared in the September 2010 issue of Louisville Magazine. To subscribe, please visit

Jessica Leader grew up in New York City, whereere she began a career as a playwright and went on to teach middle-school English. She moved to Louisville in 2004 and taught at St. Francis of Goshen before becoming a teaching artist with Actors Theatre’s New Voices program, leading playwriting workshops in schools. Nice and Mean, a middle-grade novel, is her first book and was included on the website’s Summer 2010 Kids’ Indie Next List of recommendations from independent booksellers. Asked about her interest in writing for young people, Leader says, “I really connect to this age group — their worries, the things that excite them. They’re funny and creative and you get to fill your books with great action. If my life were a novel, the version set in seventh grade would definitely be a lot more fun.”   

Book you are reading now

Charles & Emma: The Darwins’ Leap of Faith, by Deborah Heiligman. “This is a nonfiction book about the Darwins for the middle-school set. I like to read the ‘heavy medals’ (award winners). You need to know what’s out there and what people are reading. I really like how she humanizes Darwin.”

Book you plan to read next

The Selected Works of T. S. Spivet: A Novel, by Reif Larsen. “It’s a novel about a 12-year-old map prodigy who’s also sort of a naturalist. I’ve never seen marginalia like this! There are drawings, asides, notes — it’s very multi-textual.”

Favorite book or author when you were (about) 21

Mrs. Dalloway, by Virginia Woolf. “So many of Virginia Woolf’s characters are practically paralyzed with a certain level of emotion — pretty much like college students. I think there’s something about the novel that parallels the college experience, that idea that we are all experiencing the same thing in such different ways.”

Great book you know you ought to have read but never have

Moby Dick, by Herman Melville. “It’s a great American novel, a story about a failed dream. It seems very long.”

Book you think ought to be required reading for high school

The Passion, by Jeanette Winterson. “The story is about Napoleon’s chicken cook and a girl with webbed feet from Venice named Villanelle. It’s a love story and about obsession. I think it would kind of blow (high-schoolers’) minds with what she does with storytelling and the history.  It’s a really fun approach for kids who have only read books like The Scarlet Letter.

Book that has most guided or served as a model for your professional outlook or artistic vision

“E. Lockhart’s books for teens, especially the Ruby Oliver series, blend hilarious, pitch-perfect renderings of the high-school scene with feminist insights for everyday life. The books are set in contemporary Seattle and are about a self-described neurotic teenager who struggles to understand how to deal with real friends rather than idealized versions of friends.”

Photo: Louisville Magazine

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