âPerfect features, the right shoes, luminescent lip gloss and the instincts of barracudasâ 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 Pennsylvaniaâs College of Liberal and Professional Studies. One is âWriting for T(w)eens,â the other âThe Cat in the Sorting Hat: Reading and Writing Kid Lit.â
A native of San Francisco, sheâs a two-time Penn alumna who fell in love with Philadelphia and has been teaching at the University since the fall of 2009.
âI love the neighborhood-y feel. Itâs like living in a village,â Jensen says. âI love lots of little things: the fact that I can walk from home to my kidsâ school to Penn, Sabrinaâs CafĂ©, Reading Terminal Market, TLA-Theater of Living Arts, the Franklin Institute and Museum of Art, the Wissahickon, the Ben Franklin Bridge at nightâŠ.â And the list goes on and on.
From high school students to adults going back to school to finish their bachelorâs degrees to retirees, LPS offers learning opportunities to traditional and non-traditional students at various stages in their academic careers.
âI love the combination of less- and more-experienced students,â Jensen says of her work in LPS. âSome are fresh out of high school. Others have followed other paths for several or many years. Itâs great to have multiple perspectives and realms of experience in any writing class.â
Long before The Hunger Games became wildly popular, Jensen was introducing it to her classes every semester.
âItâs Theseus meets Gladiator meets Lord of the Flies -â with a âkick-buttâ girl as the lead,â Jensen explains. âItâs a well-written, terrific read with more than enough good story and just enough of an important message to make it enduring.â
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. âI guess Iâm kind of still writing about that,â she says.
Writing for young readers has always been enlightening for Jensen.
âI love the teen audience. I love the drama and the emotion and the complete conviction that they know absolutely everything,â she explains. âIâm pretty convinced that I can learn a lot more about life and living from my readers than they can learn from me.
âThings are never quite as interesting or vivid as they are during the teen years: music, clothes, hair, friends (and frenemies) and opinions. Thatâs what I try to capture and the people I want to write for,â she says.
Jensenâs inspiration comes from other peopleâs stories that make her ask âWhat ifâŠâ -- 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 Gainâs âClang of the Concrete Swans.â
Sheâs just finished a movie screenplay thatâs set on a fictionalized version of Pennâs campus. Itâs a contemporary romantic comedy that showcases the campusâ 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.
âI love my work,â she says.