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Allison Varnes

Rebel PhD student pens dissertation and young adult novel simultaneously

Written by Susan Groenke, professor of English education with interview by  Kristin Rearden, clinical professor of STEM education/science.

Allison Varnes and Dr. Susan Groenke graduation photoAllison Varnes (’17) has created an unlikely adolescent hero: avid reader June Harper, a middle-schooler-turned-secret-librarian. Varnes brings Harper to life in her first young adult novel Property of the Rebel Librarian (Random House Children’s Books, 2017). Her work as a doctoral student with chair Susan Groenke, professor of English education, Department of Theory and Practice in Teacher Education) catapulted her career as a young adult author.

In reflecting on her first meeting with Varnes, Groenke said she was immediately impressed. “She was a student in one of my master’s level English methods courses, and we established a connection. She was passionate then about the importance of reading and good reading instruction, and I knew she was a strong advocate for her students,” said Groenke.

While Varnes was a doctoral student, she and Groenke worked together on a research project at the Boys and Girls Club to learn more about what kinds of books middle school students chose to read when given opportunities, what motivated them to read, and what engaged them with the books they read. “This research confirmed for us that young people will read if you let them, and they often have sophisticated reasons for choosing the books they do,” said Groenke.

Fittingly, Varnes’ first book is about the right to read, highlighting young people who are excited about books and demonstrating how censorship can impact that excitement about reading. Groenke recalled when Varnes first shared the idea for the book. “I told her she had to write it,” said Groenke. “The ideas just sounded so important and timely, and I knew she was passionate.”  The theme also tied in with a focal point of the English education program at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. “We spend a lot of time helping English teachers learn how to motivate young people to read and advocate for the rights of young readers in schools. It’s important to recognize the connections between reading achievement and reading motivation,” noted Groenke.

Varnes credited her experience as Groenke’s doctoral student for her success with navigating the publishing world. “The rounds of revision for my dissertation prepared me to work with my editor at Random House Children’s Books. When my book sold, I found that the revision process in traditional publishing was similar to what I had established with Susan,” said Varnes. “Revision is collaborative. Both parties helped me see the bigger picture throughout continuous drafts, which allowed me to shape the manuscripts into much stronger works.”

Groenke also acknowledged the positive impact she’s experienced in working with Varnes. “Allison’s work has affirmed for me the importance of writing as a way to have a voice and ‘talk back’ to issues and problems in society and the world. Her novel was based on her own experiences as a teacher who wanted to use engaging literature with her students, but was censored.”

“I am so fortunate to have had my experience at UT,” noted Varnes. Look for her next middle grade novel, which is set for publication with Random House Children’s Books in 2020.

Read more about Allison here.

Featured image credit: Belinda Keller