When her controversial novel Shine was nominated for a National Book Award on Oct. 12, Lauren Myracle enjoyed only two hours of ''amazing awesomeness'' before learning it had all been a mistake. Due to an astounding error, the National Book Foundation had listed her novel Shine instead of Franny Billingsley's Chime in the Young Readers category. As the debacle snowballed, the foundation asked Myracle to withdraw herself from the running. She graciously complied. ''I had a lot of teary days after that because it was humiliating and very public,'' says the author, 42. ''I felt caught like, 'Ha-ha, the trick's on you.'''
Still, Myracle knows that in the scheme of things, an almost nomination is not the end of the world, and good has come from it. At her request, the National Book Foundation donated $5,000 to the Matthew Shepard Foundation, which is fitting given the subject matter of Shine: a teenage girl's search for answers after her gay best friend is found beaten into a coma, a gas-pump nozzle shoved down his throat. All of this occurs in Black Creek, a town deep in the backwoods of North Carolina that's roiled by poverty, fundamentalism, and meth addiction.
It would be easy to dismiss Shine, published in May, as a brazen attempt to attract controversy, but that would be selling it short it's a bleak, artful novel that paints a nuanced picture of hatred, one that has sold well in hardcover and will get a 75,000-copy paperback release come January. What Myracle calls her ''involuntary empathy'' toward characters living on society's fringes stems from her own divorce-fractured childhood, when she shuttled back and forth between a ''feral'' existence in rural North Carolina and a privileged life at a wealthy Atlanta private school, where she felt like an outcast.
Her split childhood might also explain her multiple personalities as an author. Before Shine, she was best known for the Internet Girls, a brightly packaged series of books composed entirely of the gossipy, emoticon-riddled instant messages of three best friends. ''People are so dismissive of those books,'' she says. ''Even my friends are like, 'Yeah, I'm not going to read those pink ones.' Secretly, I think there's more going on in those books than people realize.'' Angry parents didn't let the Internet Girls books go unnoticed, and they landed on many a challenged-book list. ''The three biggest things that people get upset about: thongs, tampons, and erections,'' Myracle says.
Controversy serves a purpose, though. Gay teens have emailed Myracle about Shine; others have even come out to her at school assemblies. ''I just want to hug them and say, 'You're going to be okay!''' she says, ''and hopefully they will be. It's neither my job nor within my capabilities to save people. But a book sure can try.''
Pushing Every Button
Myracle's surprisingly perceptive IM novels engross teens but have riled some parents. Here's why:
One of the girls gets caught up in an inappropriate teacher-student relationship. Other topics: drunken behavior, first heartbreak.
One girl starts doing drugs to impress her pothead boyfriend. Other topics: fighting over boys, running away from home, getting arrested.
In the most mature book of the series, the shiest of the girls experiments with sex. Other topics: birth control, cyberbullying.