“Perfect features, the right shoes, luminescent lip gloss and the instincts of barracudas” is how Melissa Jensen describes a group of high school freshmen in The Fine Art of Truth or Dare, her most recent novel.
A writer, teacher and unabashed music junkie, Jensen is a part-time lecturer who teaches two versions of English 121 in the University of Pennsylvania’s College of Liberal and Professional Studies. One is “Writing for T(w)eens,” the other “The Cat in the Sorting Hat: Reading and Writing Kid Lit.”
A native of San Francisco, she’s a two-time Penn alumna who fell in love with Philadelphia and has been teaching at the University since the fall of 2009.
“I love the neighborhood-y feel. It’s like living in a village,” Jensen says. “I love lots of little things: the fact that I can walk from home to my kids’ school to Penn, Sabrina’s Café, Reading Terminal Market, TLA-Theater of Living Arts, the Franklin Institute and Museum of Art, the Wissahickon, the Ben Franklin Bridge at night….” And the list goes on and on.
From high school students to adults going back to school to finish their bachelor’s degrees to retirees, LPS offers learning opportunities to traditional and non-traditional students at various stages in their academic careers.
“I love the combination of less- and more-experienced students,” Jensen says of her work in LPS. “Some are fresh out of high school. Others have followed other paths for several or many years. It’s great to have multiple perspectives and realms of experience in any writing class.”
Long before The Hunger Games became wildly popular, Jensen was introducing it to her classes every semester.
“It’s Theseus meets Gladiator meets Lord of the Flies -– with a ‘kick-butt’ girl as the lead,” Jensen explains. “It’s a well-written, terrific read with more than enough good story and just enough of an important message to make it enduring.”
Over the years, Jensen has written a few magazine articles, a syndicated newspaper etiquette column and a handful of novels, including Truth or Dare and Falling in Love with English Boys, but she wrote her first book at age 7. After mishearing her teacher, who announced she was going to read Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to the class, Jensen went home and made Nora and the Seven Doors, a construction-paper book. While the book is long gone, Jensen recalls that it had something to do with making the right choice without knowing what was behind any of the doors. “I guess I’m kind of still writing about that,” she says.
Writing for young readers has always been enlightening for Jensen.
“I love the teen audience. I love the drama and the emotion and the complete conviction that they know absolutely everything,” she explains. “I’m pretty convinced that I can learn a lot more about life and living from my readers than they can learn from me.
“Things are never quite as interesting or vivid as they are during the teen years: music, clothes, hair, friends (and frenemies) and opinions. That’s what I try to capture and the people I want to write for,” she says.
Jensen’s inspiration comes from other people’s stories that make her ask “What if…” -- especially novels like Jane Eyre that might be so different if they were written today, non-fiction books about mean-girl baboons and songs like Comet Gain’s “Clang of the Concrete Swans.”
She’s just finished a movie screenplay that’s set on a fictionalized version of Penn’s campus. It’s a contemporary romantic comedy that showcases the campus’ key landmarks like Locust Walk and the Button.
For her next young adult book project, Jensen is trying to decide between a sweet love story with Irish bog bodies or a ghost story with lobsters in Maine.
“I love my work,” she says.