Discussion Guide for the Books of Joan Bauer

Guide by Teri Lesesne

Page 1 of 2


Have you ever felt as though you were disconnected from the rest of the world, left dangling with more questions than answers in a particular situation? If so, you will immediately connect to the characters in the novels of Joan Bauer. All of Joan Bauer's novels center on the characters trying to forge connections. Those connections may be to family, to friends, or to the past. Each courageous young female, setting off on a perilous journey in search of some missing piece that will help her better form a complete picture of herself, attempts to reach beyond herself to find answers in a world full of questions. Whether the young woman is a waitress, or an amateur historian, or a shoe salesperson, all these characters are attempting to come one step closer to realizing a goal. Along the route each takes are important life lessons, lessons that extend beyond the pages of the book and seem to transcend boundaries of age, gender, and region. What readers discover is that the journey will continue past the end of the story. As in real life, the journey is never fully over, the goals never completely realized. Perhaps this, then, is the great power of Bauer's stories: They present realistic characters who show gradual change and incremental growth. We know that Hope, Ivy, and Jenna will survive; we just don't know their story in its entirety. Like all great fiction writers, Bauer leaves readers with more questions than answers. So, if you are up for a journey where the destination will change along the way, if you are unafraid of strong-willed, intelligent young women, if you are looking for connections yourselves, read Hope Was Here, Backwater, and Rules of the Road. The journey will be one you will long remember.


Hope Was Here

Another move. Another town. Another school. Hope is an old hand at starting over. Ever since her mother abandoned her as a baby, the only constant Hope can depend upon is her Aunt Addie. Hope longs for some permanence. One aspect of that sense of belonging would be finding out the identity of her father, another person missing from Hope's life. With the transient nature of her life, with absent parents, with all the difficulties associated with never staying in one place too long, it would be simple for Hope to surrender. Instead, she forges ahead, buoyed by her love of waitressingwhich forces her out of herselfand her fervent "hope" that one day she will find her father. Mulhoney, Wisconsin does not hold much promise as the town that will see Hope's dreams realized. But as she discovers, maybe "the land of lactose" can offer exactly what Hope needs. Political intrigue, mouthwatering menu selections, and perhaps a budding romance combine to make a warm and warmly humorous coming-of-age novel.


Ivy Breedlove likes nothing better than delving among musty tomes of history, researching the accomplishments of Breedlove family members from long ago. She longs to make history her career. Unfortunately, Ivy is descended from a succession of lawyers and judges. Her father has other plans for Ivy, beginning with college and then law school. After that, Ivy should join the ranks of the other distinguished barristers of her clan. A chance remark about a relative sends Ivy off hiking the Adirondack Mountains in search of Josephine Breedlove. Perhaps Aunt Josephine, who lives in the backwater, will help Ivy make the connections to her family's history and to her future.

Rules of the Road

Life is about to get even more complicated for Jenna Boller. She is already dealing with an alcoholic father who shows up at inopportune moments, a grandmother who is losing touch with reality due to the ravages of Alzheimer's Disease, and hair which arrives at "warp frizz" on humid days. What is the new complication? The shoe store that has been her employer and her refuge from life's challenges is about to be sold out to a big company that plans radical changes. The one bright note in Jenna's life is her new driver's license and the used car, which allows her some measure of escape and, perhaps, independence. Mrs. Gladstone, the president of Gladstone Shoes, Jenna's employer, wants to fight the corporate takeover. When Mrs. Gladstone asks Jenna to be her chauffeur and come along on her trip cross-country to visit the stores and drum up support for her fight, Jenna does not have a clue about how her life will change. The journey is one of self-discovery, a trip that will give Jenna the courage to face the "complications" in her life without fear.


Joan Bauer was born in River Forest, Illinois, the eldest of three sisters. Her mother was a schoolteacher with a great comic sense; her father, a salesman that no one could say no to. Her maternal grandmother had been a famous storyteller and had a striking effect on Bauer's early years. "She would tell me stories with five different voices and as many dialects. I would sit on her enormous lap transfixed at how she could teach me about life and make me laugh through her stories. She taught me the significance of humor and how it intersects our daily lives."

Bauer managed an eclectic list of jobs from assistant typing teacher at age twelve to high-school waitress. In her early twenties, she was a successful advertising and marketing salesperson. Professional writing for magazines and newspapers followed, then screenwriting, which was cut short by a serious car accident. She regrouped and wrote Squashed, which won the Delacorte Prize for a First Young Adult Novel. Five novels for young adult readers have followed: Thwonk, Sticks, Rules of the Road, Backwater and Hope Was Here (Newbery Honor Medal).

Joan lives in Darien, CT with her husband and daughter.


"Ivy Breedlove is another strong and quirky heroine who addresses serious issues head on."
The New York Times Book Review

"A fast and funny tale of one big-boned (and big-hearted) gal's summer of discovery on the road."
The Los Angeles Times Book Review


Why is humor so vital to your writing?

Because humor is so vital in my life. When I utilize humor in my writing, I'm connecting to a deep place in myself that says, "No matter how bad things get, there is hope." I believe that with all of my heart. That's what I love about humorat least the kind that makes us look at life's difficulties differentlylaughing in the midst of pain says to me that we are already on the road moving away from it. We're going to make it. I'd like to think that readers connect to that sentiment, too. We need to laugh for so many reasons. It brings perspective; it brings healing; it builds relationships; it brings release. People have asked me if I would ever write a "totally serious book." I have to say that I do write totally serious books that use laughter against the storm of life.

Your novels do deal with serious subjects. How hard is it to walk the fine line between laughter and tragedy?

It's brutal sometimes. I agonize over words, motives. I do not want anyone to think I am making fun of alcoholism, Alzheimer's disease, death, divorce, being overweight. But here's the thing: my first drafts are rarely funny and I am grimly sober while writing them. But I am getting down to the serious underpinnings of the story. Then I do look and see where the funny voice can break through. I see where comic relief can cushion a hard scene. I ask myself constantly, where can the humor break forth here and make a point?

How are you like Hope?

I'm hopeful like she is, and I've had to fight to stay that way. It isn't my natural state. I work at hopefulness. I don't expect life to be easy. Like her, I am an over-comer. I had a deep need as a teen to have a healthy fathermine was an alcoholic. I was a waitress as a teen and a good one. I love food; it is a passion for me. I have also had to work on my anger over the years. Hope and I are very alike.

But here is where we are different. I never moved from place to place. I lived with my mom, grandmother, and two sisters in the same house. Hope has a good sense of herself, what she is good at and what she's not. I didn't have that much when I was a teenager.

She is more patient than I and better able to absorb the quirkiness of people around her. One of the things I like best about her is the fact she has great faith that her father is going to find her and she keeps these scrapbooks for him so that when he finally shows up she'll be ready to tell him about her life. I would have never done that.

What is a typical day at the "office" like for you?

I try to clear my mind for the work ahead. I try to remember what Ernest Hemingway said about writing: Stop for the day when you've written something you feel good about. That makes it easier to get back to it the next morning. I don't wait for inspiration; I just go to work. More and more I read things out loud to check for authenticity of voice. I did that a great deal for Hope was Here. One of the big words in my life is "revision." It's kind of like labor and delivery. The baby is coming out and you don't have a lot to say about it.

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