The odds were stacked against her. She had dyslexia and took a decade to earn a college degree while helping raise three young nephews. But Robin Roe became a published author.
The Frisco resident’s first book, the young adult novel A List of Cages (Hyperion, $17.99), was published in January 2017 to stellar reviews; The New York Times deemed it "impressive." The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel called it "engaging, personal, heartwarming and tragic."
It has since been sold to 10 countries and has won accolades from the Texas Library Association, The News & Observer in Raleigh, BuzzFeed and more.
Author Robin Roe at The Nest Cafe in Frisco on Dec. 17, 2017.
Roe will present the paperback edition Jan. 6 at Interabang Books in Dallas.
At the heart of the book is the story of Julian, a fearful, withdrawn high school freshman who exasperates his teachers and counselor. Adam, a high school senior, gradually discovers that Julian has a secret and becomes increasingly determined to help.
The story line is searingly personal to Roe, who grew up in Denison amid what she describes as rough circumstances. Then, as a teenager, Roe and her mother took over raising three of her nephews.
The family moved to a house in Celina. Roe says she would get up at 6 a.m. to commute to her 8 a.m. class when she started college at the University of North Texas. She would get home in time to pick up the oldest boy from school before getting the little ones from day care. The youngest sometimes called her "Mom" and other times "Angel."
After two years, she transferred to Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., taking the middle boy with her and homeschooling him while she attended university. When caring for a child while going to school proved too much of a financial challenge, Roe and the child moved with her mother and the other boys to an apartment in Texas, and Roe worked two Montessori school jobs and a nanny job. She returned when she could, intermittently, to Cornell.
It took 10 years to graduate, but she finished at age 28 and went to Harvard University to earn a master’s degree in education that prepared her to counsel kids who had experienced trauma.
So when did she study writing? She didn’t, unless you count one workshop class that she fled from as a graduate student, mortified to share her work.
Robin Roe, author of A List of Cages.
Roe had wanted to be a writer since she was 7. Like her character, Julian, she hid her journals and stories in a chest by the foot of her bed. It took a debilitating illness that made her unable to continue her work mentoring at-risk teens to write A List of Cages.
"My immune system shut down," she says, which resulted in headaches, difficulty walking and trouble with her vision. "I was crazy sick and wasn’t able to work."
At a loss for what to do, she hoped a memoir would prove therapeutic. She wrote about her life. She put it aside. "It felt too intense," she says.
She thought about the way fiction had helped her as a child.
"I remember reading Bridge to Terabithia," she says, talking about Katherine Paterson’s Newbery Medal-winning novel about two children, one of whom has a secret, who create a fantasy world called Terabithia. "I was blown away by the power of words to make me cry."
Soon the stories of Julian and Adam came to her, one voice at a time, so clearly that she always knew which one was talking. She says she wrote furiously as if she were eavesdropping or entering the frequency of their thoughts, going as fast as she could to keep up. A month and more than 300 pages later, she pieced their stories together like a jigsaw puzzle, easing them into first-person chapters, labeling some Julian and others Adam, with occasional shared chapters.
Julian and Adam are their own people, but looking back, she sees how she may have mixed and melded memories. Julian is nervous and shy, just as Roe was growing up, while Adam is a natural caretaker — the other side of Roe’s personality. Julian has dyslexia like Roe and her youngest nephew. Adam has ADHD like her middle nephew.
Remarkably, Roe’s health improved as she spent time with her characters.
"Julian and Adam are both so kind. Being in their heads is a wonderful place to be. I love being in that space because it makes me kinder to myself. I have more hope and faith in the inherent goodness of the world. It gets me through things I couldn’t get through before."
A List of Cages, by Robin Roe
Roe’s nephews, who are now in their 20s, loved the book, she says. The youngest one urged her to find an agent. She took a year to research whom to approach. Not expecting much, she was shocked when she received multiple offers less than a week after sending it out.
She said yes to Peter Steinberg, who sold her book at auction two weeks later for a price that has allowed her to stay home and continue writing. Steinberg writes in an email that the novel "made me cry repeatedly, which rarely happens… I had a feeling that I rarely feel — that I couldn’t handle someone else representing her."
The book’s title came to her in a group therapy session, where she’d been "talking about the things that keep you trapped and become the cages that keep us from being happy."
A List of Cages became a key to unlocking a cage she had unwitting built around herself — a cage of fear that had kept her from sharing her stories. Her wish for her nephews to be hopeful made her want to write a book where people help each other and pursue their dreams, she says.
"You can go through life scared and angry or you can go through life joyous. … I want them to know that there are people who are kind and it’s mind-boggling what we have the power to overcome."
Plan your life
Robin Roe will appear (along with Mayday author Karen Harrington) at 2 p.m. Jan. 6 at Interabang Books, 10720 Preston Road, Dallas.
Robin Roe (Jason Janik/Special Contributor)