What do you do when you already have seven best-selling books for teens under your belt, numerous awards on your mantel and an uncanny talent for relating life’s toughest challenges with humor and hope? According to author Joan Bauer, you simply have to put your Best Foot Forward.
In Bauer’s latest novel, readers meet up once again with Jenna Boller, the beloved character introduced in Rules of the Road (1998). Struggling with a difficult situation at home, Jenna shines in her after-school job at a shoe store. In Best Foot Forward, Jenna is starting her junior year in high school and the family-run Gladstone Shoes is in the midst of a corporate takeover. "When I finished Rules of the Road, I didn’t think I had another book in me," Bauer tells BookPage from her home in Brooklyn, "but it was so interesting to revisit the characters and realize there was so much growth. It was like running into a couple of old friends that you haven’t seen in a long time."
One of those friends is Mrs. Gladstone, the feisty matriarch of the Gladstone dynasty. This time around, we find her struggling with the takeover of the company she and her late husband built. With a conniving son trying to make a quick buck and a corporate machine that is ready to make a profit at any cost, Mrs. Gladstone serves as a beacon of morality in a sea of unethical chaos. "She speaks her mind and has the kind of courage I wish I had," Bauer says.
Jenna, however, is the real star of the show. Her struggles to decipher right and wrong, her frustration with her family, especially her alcoholic father, and her difficulty in being able to trust other people make her both endearing and tough. "She is a survivor," says Bauer. "Jenna faces hard time after hard time and it makes her stronger." Like Jenna, Bauer herself has been through some difficulties in life. "She and I have the most connections of any of the characters," admits Bauer. "We certainly share some of the pain—my dad was an alcoholic and my grandmother had Alzheimer’s, just like Jenna’s."
But Bauer’s own most difficult hurdle may have been the life-threatening incident that prompted her to start writing for the teen market in the first place. Bauer had just made the move from newspaper journalism to screenwriting when she was involved in a serious car accident, severely injuring her neck and back. During recovery, her enthusiasm for life, not to mention writing, was starting to dwindle. "One day I saw a picture of a guy standing next to this big pumpkin that he had grown. I laughed out loud and thought, who in the world would want to grow something like that." The more she thought about it, the more interesting the notion became. And soon, Bauer started writing a story about a teenager in Iowa trying to grow a record-setting pumpkin. "It was a crazy interconnection in life where this other part of me came rushing in like fresh water," says Bauer. The book, Squashed, which started out as a screenplay, won the Delacorte Press Prize for First Young Adult Novel, and Bauer was soon on her way. "It was one of those moments—the humor in that story saved my bacon," Bauer recalls.
These days, writing itself makes the author feel alive. "There is something about telling stories," she says. "I love struggling with words and creating characters." Bauer claims she got the talent from her grandmother, who was a professional storyteller. "In our house, we explained the world through fiction; it has real truth to it." And Bauer still follows the family recipe. In every story she writes, she tries to explain a little about the world, "a part of the hurt, a part of the present that can be overcome or a part of the world that makes some people nuts."
Interestingly, Bauer found that a shoe store was the perfect setting for making points about commitment and the need to do our best. "I so wanted to have a symbol that I could take deeper," says Bauer. As she sees it, someone who is willing to sell shoes has a helping heart and doesn’t mind getting down on their knees or dealing with smelly things. And, says Bauer, "I like the metaphor of how our feet take us down life’s road." With that in mind, Bauer puts her Best Foot Forward and proves that although life’s journey can be difficult, it can teach us some funny, poignant and powerful lessons.