Growing up on a retired apple farm in Highland, Christa Avampato read everything she could get her hands on, from the Nancy Drew mystery novel series for young readers to the New York Times discarded after her father finished reading it. Her family lived on the poverty line, and there wasn’t money for travel or vacations, so reading became her escape. As a kid, she even sent away for travel brochures advertised in the back of the Times Sunday magazine, keeping them under her bed to pore over and dream of the places she would go someday.
“That was how I was able to figure out there was a whole other world out there that I hadn’t seen,” says Avampato. Now based in New York City, the Highland native has written her first book, a young adult fantasy novel planned as the first in a series. Possibilities Publishing Company will release Emerson Page and Where the Light Enters on November 1. The book is available now for pre-orders on Amazon.com.
“My desire to spread and promote healing through literature is one of the main reasons I wrote the book,” Avampato says. “The main message of my story is that the human imagination is the best tool we have to build a better world.”
Despite growing up in constrained financial circumstances, access to books and all the reading she did allowed her to feel that she could create her own world, she adds. “And I think it was a healing experience for me to know that, and not just say, ‘this is what I was born into and nothing can help.’”
In writing Emerson Page and Where the Light Enters, Avampato says she wrote the novel she wanted to read in her youth but couldn’t find, “one that places women and girls at the very center of a story in which they save themselves and lift others as they rise. The book also incorporates elements of history, science, technology and mythology while it celebrates the power of books to transform lives and communities.”
The storyline follows 13-year-old Emerson Page as the young girl searches for answers to the mystery of her mother’s unusual death five years earlier. Emerson’s mother, Nora, a renowned anthropologist known for her research on ancient cultures, appeared to have simply fallen asleep on the steps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and failed to awaken. According to the synopsis on the back cover, “The police gave up their search for answers. But Emerson didn’t. Her journey to discover the answers about her mother’s mysterious death takes her deep below the streets of New York City on a dangerous adventure into a magical world of books. There she learns the stunning truth about her mother and her own destiny to continue her mother’s legacy.”
Much of the book is set in Manhattan on the Upper West Side where its writer lives. Avampato envisions Emerson’s story continuing through nine more books, until her heroine turns 20. “At the end of the first book, she is left with a mission; how to uphold the legacy that her mother left for her. So that’s going to take some books for her to get there! I also really love the character; there are so many different threads to pull through from that first book that can be developed. It took a lot of time and effort to create Emerson’s world, and now that it’s there, I feel like, why wouldn’t she go on to have other adventures and do other things?”
Avampato’s own adventures after graduating from Highland High School included earning a degree from the University of Pennsylvania and pursuing a passion for theater by managing Broadway shows and national theater tours. After getting an MBA at the Darden School at the University of Virginia, she spent five years in corporate America and then started her own consulting practice, working with education-based nonprofits that included Sesame Workshop, PBS and the New York Public Library.
She is currently employed by Patron Technology, which provides marketing software for performing arts organizations, and has written as a freelancer for Washington Post, HuffPost and Royal Media Partners magazines.
Avampato’s interest in helping young people find their own voices has led her to serve as a volunteer middle and high school teacher for New York City public schools. She’s been an invited speaker on the power of the imagination at several organizations and at New York and Columbia universities, and while living in Washington, DC she led creative writing workshops for the nonprofit 826DC.org group that works with kids up to age 18 on their writing skills. Having moved back to New York, Avampato is now a teaching artist with 826NY.org, and says she’d be happy to come up to the Hudson Valley to offer the same kind of mentoring for young people here.
“I can read parts of the book and help kids through their own writing. I always loved it when we had any kind of guest speaker when I was in school, because it was a glimpse of another world out there. Kids now are more connected and aware of that, but I think it’s always exciting to see someone who started out where you are and went on to do other things.”
Avampato credits her upbringing in Highland and its school district with having had “an enormous impact” on her career as a writer. “I think my earliest inkling that writing was what I wanted to do with my life at some point, in some way, happened as a result of my education in Highland. I had two teachers specifically, now retired, who were very instrumental in encouraging my writing. Elyse Scott, my English teacher in 7th and 8th grade, and Patricia Steffens, my Spanish teacher in middle school and later very involved with the theater group at the high school when I was there. I also had an amazing guidance counselor, Jim Wherry.”
Guidance counselors don’t always get the credit they deserve, says Avampato. “But I would not have gone to Penn as an undergrad without Mr. Wherry. He was a tremendous influence in my life; I wouldn’t have the life I have if he hadn’t been my guidance counselor, and believed so deeply in me.”
College was by no means assumed in her situation. “The tuition was more money than my mother made in a year,” she adds. “We were on the free lunch program all through my schooling, and very fortunate to have programs like that because sometimes it was my only full meal in a day. But having those supports and having my teachers and Mr. Wherry made me realize that I could move beyond how I was raised. That it didn’t have to define me; it could influence me and it could drive me, and make me want to work harder and achieve more, but just because I didn’t have enough, didn’t mean that I wasn’t enough.”
That was a powerful message, she says. “I think the only reason I pursued my creative work was because my ideas didn’t get squashed. Nobody told me I couldn’t be a writer or I couldn’t do anything I wanted to do. If anything, they pushed me further and wouldn’t let me discount myself in any way. So that changed the equation; it changed everything for me.”
Avampato says she used to shy away from talking about things like needing the free lunch program as a kid. “There is definitely an embarrassment that comes along with needing that kind of help. There’s no way around that. But then I realized, if I don’t talk about it, who is going to? I think that adults who benefit from these programs and do go on to do well actually have to talk about it. And those kids who are getting this help now shouldn’t think that it defines them. And they shouldn’t feel like they’re never going to get beyond this. It’s a lot of work and it takes a lot of time, but I’m a living testament that it can be done.”
Avampato says she hopes that the young readers of Emerson Page and Where the Light Enters will feel less alone for having picked up the book. “I think that no matter what kind of childhood you have, there are times that you are lonely. Or you think that no one understands you, that no one has ever gone through what you have gone through. But the amazing thing about stories, is that there are these universal themes, and we can all relate to certain things. Books connect people across states, and across time, even. Long after I’m gone, this book will live on. And as a writer, you’re able to help people that you’ll never even know.”
Contact Christa Avampato at firstname.lastname@example.org.