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Teacher rises to student's challenge

Shelbi Wescott has self-published two volumes of a trilogy written to student specs


by: K PHOTOGRAPHY - Shelbi Wescott's books contain all the suspense and drama her target audience - teen readers - could hope for.It’s easy to find a teacher willing to tell stories about complaining students who don’t like the course materials presented to them. It’s harder to find a teacher who does something about those complaints and gives students exactly what they asked for.

Shelbi Wescott is that rare teacher.

A 1998 graduate of West Linn High School, Wescott was a student teacher there; both her mother- and father-in-law as well as a brother-in-law taught there. Her first teaching job was at Gresham’s Centennial High School, where she has taught for the past nine years.

Currently teaching freshman English, she has taught creative writing, journalism and yearbook classes to older students. In 2009, she taught a reading intervention class to incoming freshmen who had been flagged “at risk” in reading. During that class, Wescott sometimes read aloud to her students, including a boy named Kevin.

“Kevin was very vocal about everything I was reading to them,” Wescott said. “Toward the end of the year, I got kind of fed up with him interrupting and criticizing.”

Since Kevin didn’t approve of any of the books Wescott had chosen for the class, she agreed to a unique challenge: to write a book to meet his exacting specifications.

“I had him write a list and told him I would write it,” she said.

Wescott started writing and then let the demands of parenthood interrupt. Her son, Elliott, an infant at the time, was joined by brother Isaac, and Wescott’s book languished as, she said, “I let having a baby consume me for a while.”

Her students, however, had no such distractions.

“Two years ago I was talking with some students about it and they ... energized me to finish it,” she said. by: K PHOTOGRAPHY - Shelbi Wescott published her first novel, 'Virulent,' in 2013.

The novel, the first in a trilogy, is titled “Virulent: The Release,” and it conformed to Kevin’s wish list, including a sinister plot, bioterrorists, war, looting, death, havoc and a band of brave high school survivors. Kevin is commemorated in the novel, with a major character sharing his last name. Wescott’s students added details to the story that ensured its realism.

“They were obsessed with the minutia of teenage life,” Wescott said, “and they let me have the plot to myself.”

Having met Kevin’s challenge, Wescott faced one more: finding a publisher.

“I tried the traditional method,” she said, “and was just hit with barrier after barrier ... this idea that the publishing houses are not willing to take any risk on new writers.”

Wescott’s novel belongs to a genre called dystopic fiction. The opposite of utopia, dystopia refers to a society facing frightening challenges or an uncertain future. It’s a very popular genre among young adult readers like the ones Wescott intended “Virulent” for. An example of another popular series in the genre is “The Hunger Games” by Suzanne Collins.

“I knew that I was writing in a genre that was timely now ... but it might not be popular in a year,” Wescott said. “So I was up against the clock and feeling there had to be a different way to get this out there. I knew I could find readership.”

A friend who works in publishing tried to steer the frustrated novelist in a direction she hadn’t really considered, self-publishing, but she remained unconvinced until she heard another writer recommend that option.

“I went to a reading of an author who had been published both traditionally and self-published,” Wescott said, “and she was really quite emphatic about encouraging young writers to go on their own. ... I left that reading and thought, ‘I can do this. I think I can do this.’”by: K PHOTOGRAPHY - Shelbi Wescott released 'The System,' the second book in the Virulent trilogy, this summer.

Wescott created her own imprint and published “Virulent,” using an on-demand print service. She published the trilogy’s second book, “The System,” in July and plans to release the final volume before the end of the year. Her students are pleased with the story, she said.

“They loved it. I didn’t expect that reaction. I thought maybe a handful of my students would read it and ... be able to say, ‘My teacher wrote this.’ But I would have kids that I had never taught before come up to me and say, ‘I read your book and I really loved it.’ It was a real community-building thing for me,” she said.

When she teaches creative writing courses, students sometimes ask her for help self-publishing their books, and she is happy to share her experience in the relatively new field.

“I think it’s exciting, what’s happening out there in publishing,” she said. “Publishing has been this really closed door for so many years, with so many good writers quitting and getting discouraged.”

Wescott isn’t planning on quitting anytime soon. She is working now on a young adult horror story, a stand-alone story this time rather than part of a series.by: K PHOTOGRAPHY - Wescott

“The world is reading,” she said. “People just want to read good literature and they don’t care where it comes from.”

Both of Wescott’s novels are available online at Amazon, in print editions or for e-readers, and by special order through bookstores.

(Editor’s note: In the interest of full disclosure, Shelbi Wescott is married to Matt Sherman, the Review’s sports editor.)

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