Sarah Henstra grew up visiting her library every Saturday morning with her siblings and her mother, who was an elementary school teacher. “My love for reading combined with a competitive streak, so that I often borrowed more than I could physically cart home by myself,” she says. As a writer, she keeps lists of questions as she writes. When she has met her word count, she rewards herself with a visit to a reference library, sometimes staying there all day.
Henstra’s new Young Adult novel We Contain Multitudes describes the relationship that develops between two teenage boys who are assigned to be pen pals. “I wanted to experiment with the limitations and possibilities of old-fashioned letterwriting in a contemporary teenage world,” she explains. The book’s title comes from a phrase made famous by Walt Whitman, someone Henstra first read in high school. It wasn’t until graduate school that she reread the poet and “fell in love with Whitman’s rambling, generous, bawdy way of interacting with the world around him.”
She hopes that her book will “convey an overall sense of joy and uplift despite the difficult challenges faced by its protagonists.” Henstra says that the two boys teach other “there’s so much more to life than high school.” From this perspective, the world is full of natural beauty, art, food, and exciting places to travel.
Henstra drew from a wide range of books featuring adolescent male narrators while she was writing We Contain Multitudes—everything from The Catcher in the Rye to The Outsiders. She also looked at other texts written in letter form. Her own voice was shaped by writers as diverse as John Le Carré, Margaret Atwood, Judy Blume, Laura Ingalls Wilder, and J.R.R. Tolkien.
Henstra, who is a professor, tries to write a thousand words a day but often doesn’t meet her goal. What’s important, she says, is showing up every morning at her desk and staying in touch with the project she’s working on. She finds that “analyzing stories in class” helps her to be more efficient with structure and plot in her own writing.
She doesn’t have a smartphone, so instead she tucks a novel in her purse at all times. “Reading for me is solace and escape,” she says. “I’d encourage others to read because it’s the best way I know to engage in deep thinking and attention—the opposite of the novelty-seeking, shallow kinds of brain activity encouraged by Instagram and Google News Feed.”
She encourages everyone to read what appeals to them: “Read manga, read comics, read Nascar magazines—whatever will feel like pleasure and entertainment instead of a chore.”
Her life lesson for readers? “Allow yourself to dream of a brighter future. Nurture and cultivate that dream even if it seems like it could never come true. Having the dream—just holding on to it when things seem grim, returning to it regularly in your mind’s eye—makes you more likely to steer towards it in a million small, undetectable ways as your life unfolds from day to day.”
Sarah Henstra’s new book We Contain Multitudes is out May 14 and is available at Queens Public Library.
Photo of Sarah Henstra by Paola Scattolon.