Beth Kephart is one of those enviable people whose talent seems limitless. She is a prolific writer—of YA novels, memoirs and nonfiction. Her first book, the memoir A Slant of Sun, was a finalist for the National Book Award.
She teaches at the University of Pennsylvania, reviews books frequently for publications like the Chicago Tribune and has a passion for photography. And she holds a day job running a boutique marketing and communications firm.
When we meet on a sunny summer day at a quaint coffee shop near Kephart’s home in Devon, Pennsylvania, I ask her how on earth she has time to do so many things at once. With a smile, she explains, “I don’t sleep much, obviously. I wish I slept more and I want to sleep more. But I am so passionate about words and about story that it’s just hard to stop myself. When there is a story percolating, when there is an opportunity to do something with language, I’m unstoppable.”
Indeed she is. Over limeade (hers) and a latte (mine), we spend an afternoon discussing Kephart’s 14th book, the mesmerizing teen novel Small Damages. It’s the story of Kenzie, a 17-year-old American who is sent to Spain to wait out a surprise pregnancy before giving her baby up for adoption—a plan her mother has concocted to save face in their suburban Philadelphia town. Kenzie is not happy about the move; it will take her away from her home, her friends and the father of her baby, Kevin. But she agrees to go abroad, relieved to escape her mother’s judgment and have some space to contemplate the difficult journey ahead of her.
While the plot of Small Damages may sound sensational, Kenzie’s pregnancy and plans for adoption are only part of the story. As Kephart tells me, “This is not a political novel. But it is a novel about making choices and about not judging either way. It never occurred to me that I was writing a book about a pregnant teen. It was just a story that had to be written.”
An American teen sent to Spain to wait out a surprise pregnancy finds a new sense of family and belonging.
When Kenzie arrives in Spain, she is immediately struck by the beauty of the landscape and the richness of the culture all around her. She travels from Seville to a bull ranch outside of town, where she will serve as a cook’s assistant. Filling out Kephart’s story is a cast of unforgettable characters. There is Miguel, who trains bulls on Los Nietos, the ranch where Kenzie stays; Estela, the “queen” of the ranch who encourages Kenzie to master the art of Spanish cooking; Luis, Estela’s long-lost love; Esteban, a mysterious young ranch hand with whom Kenzie strikes up an unlikely flirtation; and a roaming band of gypsies.
Kephart’s descriptions of Spain—the scenery, the food, the people and the history—bring the story to life. It’s remarkable how much Kephart can say in so few words, and while the novel moves quickly, certain passages beg to be reread and savored.
The inspiration for Small Damages came from Kephart’s own travels through Spain, though the novel took her more than 10 years to write. “It wasn’t the direct line that many of my stories have been,” she says. The novel originally began as a book for adults, but after conversations with her son, Jeremy, Kephart decided to focus on Kenzie—and her relationship with Estela.
“I’m always interested in inserting the wise older person into my books for young adults. I think there’s so much to learn. I wanted someone who had the Spanish Civil War experience. I wanted it not to be a history lesson, but a reminder of what people have gone through and what they have to give up—and the lessons that they try to pass on to those they truly love. Once I discovered Kenzie as a character, Estela developed, because it is the tension between them that truly defines them.”
As Kenzie spends more time on the ranch, she grows to love—and feel truly loved by—the people around her. Estela transforms from a brash taskmaster into a wise, supportive presence, encouraging Kenzie to listen to her heart and live a life without regrets. She shares her story with Kenzie—a story of love and loss in the time of the Spanish Civil War—and gives Kenzie a perspective on family and belonging that she had been missing. When she thinks about the baby growing inside of her, Kenzie thinks about her father, who has recently passed away, and she begins to question her mother’s plan to give the child up for adoption.
While Small Damages is a book for teens, it is a novel that adults will enjoy, too. Of this crossover, Kephart says, “When I took the leap [to write YA] I said I will never write down, I will never do anything other than honor the intelligence of young readers. I’ve had the privilege of spending time with them and I know how smart they are. I write with great respect for their intelligence. I think that’s also why my books get carried forward to the adult reading world.”
No matter the audience, there is one thing Kephart hopes readers take away from her novel: not to judge others. Of her protagonist, she says, “Kenzie is very loving, intelligent, moral. She is in a situation. I think no less of her and I don’t want my readers to think any less of her.” Kephart speaks with such compassion for her characters and such passion for her work that it’s hard not to be inspired by such an unassuming, accomplished woman. Of her career, she reflects, “I never want to look back and say, ‘Well, my best book was my first one or my fifth or my seventh,’ so I’m highly motivated to not just slide. I try to break form or go to a new place in the world or tell a story that hasn’t been told before. I’m invested in challenging myself and going to the verge or taking the risk.”
Small Damages is a book well worth the risk. Kephart has created a lyrical, beautiful story about a young woman at a turning point, struggling to reconcile her choices, find her place in the world and discover the true meaning of family.