Reyna Marder Gentin, author of the Star Award finalist in outstanding debut fiction, “Unreasonable Doubts,” has found a new voice, writing a poignant novel for middle grade readers about the struggles of dyslexia, which will be released on January 19. The community is invited to a virtual book launch of “My Name is Layla,” sponsored by Bronx River Books, on January 19 at 7:30 p.m.
Gentin, who lives in Scarsdale and is a member of YIS, expertly creates a story with a mature voice to address issues young people face regarding relationships, loyalty, communication and learning differences. Because of this and the story’s more nuanced presentation of family issues, “My Name is Layla” is perfect for middle grade readers, their parents and others dealing with learning disabilities. Young readers, parents and educators alike will find their heartstrings being pulled as they watch Layla learn to thrive with her dyslexia.
On the first day of eighth grade, 13-year-old Layla has a pretty good idea of what’s in store for her—another year of awkward social situations, mediocre grades and teachers who praise her good behavior but find her academic performance disappointing. Layla feels certain she’s capable of more, but each time she tries to read or write, the words on the page dance and spin, changing partners and leaving her to sit on the sidelines. But this year will be different. Her new English teacher, Mr. McCarthy, senses her potential and pushes her to succeed. Layla almost rises to the challenge before making a desperate choice that nearly costs her everything.
One can’t help falling in love with Layla when she tells you, “At home, I’ve always been called ‘munk,’ short for Chipmunk. I was small and cute when the whole thing started, but there’s a lot more to it than that. Total strangers tell me that my given name, Layla, is ‘beautiful,’ ‘poetic,’ ‘lyrical; even. But it was ‘given; by my father, a big Eric Clapton fan who turned out to be a big disappointment, to put it mildly. My mom can barely say my name, it reminds her so much of him. So ‘munk’ stuck.”
The Jewish Link asked Gentin how she was able to write in the “voice” of a teenager, changing genres from her novel “Unreasonable Doubts,” a romantic legal thriller, inspired by her own career as an appellate attorney with a public defender’s office. Gentin said, “I felt the voice came easily to me, perhaps reaching back to my own teen days, and also, of course, from being around my kids. My children are now 22 and 20, but I can certainly still channel their teenage voices in my head.”
“‘Unreasonable Doubts’ was based on people I had known in my life,” she continued. “Writing ‘My Name is Layla’ was both more difficult and somehow liberating, in that the characters and the stories came much more from my imagination. Writing a main character with a learning difference was challenging for me because I didn’t have that personal experience, and I had to really try to dig deep into the universal emotions of frustration, needing to be heard, and wanting to succeed.”
Gentin studied at The Writing Institute at Sarah Lawrence College, where one workshop was devoted to writing for youth. She wrote a chapter each week about “Layla,” over the course of two semesters, with her teacher and other students contributing helpful suggestions. Gentin also credits her “wonderful editor at TouchPoint Press, who further helped make sure the language and actions of the characters were relatable and realistic.”
Writing during the pandemic has had its own challenges. “This time has been good and bad as a writer,” Gentin explained. “I miss taking classes in person and interacting with writing friends. And although I do have lots of time to work now, there are challenges with everyone trying to work in the house at the same time. Launching a book during the pandemic is very difficult. The comparison to the launch of my first book in 2018—with so many live events, meeting readers, celebrating with friends and family—is so stark. It’s a very different experience now.”
Gentin graciously offered advice to aspiring writers: “Don’t be afraid to try!” She started as a writer after a long career in law. “I didn’t have any preconceived notions of what I wanted to write, and I had no knowledge of the process of writing a novel or of publishing and promoting one. But what I did have was discipline, a supportive family and writing community, and the desire to tell a story to the world.”
Gentin wants to support local independent bookstores during these challenging days and, as such, would like to encourage people to pre-order “My Name is Layla” from Bronx River Books at https://bronxriverbooks.com/my-name-is-layla. After the publication date, “My Name is Layla” will be available at local bookstores and online.
To register and receive Zoom information for the book launch, please visit bit.ly/LaylaLaunch.
Gentin’s website is: https://reynamardergentin.com.