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Reader's Guide to A Beat on Ruby's Street

When I started work on The Beat on Ruby's Street, I was looking for kids. Were there any in Greenwich Village in the 1950s? Were their parents artists? Some of the Beat poets had children, but they didn't talk about them much, and not much has been written about their lives. After a while, I gave up trying to find a real kid and created one of my own. I'd always wanted to grow up in a place saturated with art and artists, so I folded the childhood I wished for into a story. And, as stories do, it slipped away and turned into The Beat on Ruby's Street.

I can tell you a lot about the Beat Generation, but so much has been written I think it best to give you a quick sampler and link you up to sites that will help you find more. One of my favorite stories, and the one I started with, is about Jack Kerouac's novel On the Road being written on a long, continuous roll of paper. Ruby finds out what the scroll was really made of toward the end of the book; you can find out the story behind it now, or when you've finished The Beat on Ruby's Street.

You may think Beats started writing poetry in the 1950s, but things really got rolling in the 1940s in New York and San Francisco. Jack Kerouac supposedly coined the term "Beats," which meant beaten down by society with no prospects for success. Poets like Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Gregory Corso were part of the scene and became known for questioning authority and mainstream America.

Allen Ginsberg's first book Howl and Other Poems is thought to have spurred the first wave of the Beat Generation's poetry. Howl was published by Lawrence Ferlinghetti's press City Lights, and Ferlinghetti was brought to trial the next year on obscenity charges. The judge ruled the poem was not obscene and the case brought enormous attention to Ginsberg and other Beat poets.

Though the most famous Beat artists are Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and William Burroughs, there are tons of Beat writers whose work is exceptional — including women who played a huge role in the inspiration for this book. Elise Cowen, Diane di Prima, Hettie Jones, Denise Levertov, and Anne Waldman wrote superbly during the years when Beat poetry was flourishing — and there are many more.

Recent movies like Howl, On the Road, and Kill Your Darlings can show you how Hollywood sees Beat writers, but the only real way to find out what they cared about is to read their work. I hope you'll check out some of my favorites:

Constantly Risking Absurdity — Lawrence Ferlinghetti
My Alba — Allen Ginsberg
Weather — Hettie Jones
Trees — Jack Kerouac
People at Night — Denise Levertov

To learn more, read "This is the Beat Generation" by John Clellon Holmes from The New York Times, The Beat Book (edited by Anne Waldman), and The Portable Beat Reader by Ann Charters.

Questions for Discussion

  1. Given Ruby's patchy eating habits, do you think she was trying to take the orange from the fruit stand? Or was she falsely accused?
  2. What kinds of subjects do you think Ruby and her friends cover at Blue Skies? What would you choose to study if you were with them?
  3. Things seem a lot easier for Ruby's brother Ray than for his sister. Is it because of Ray's personality, or how people treat him?
  4. There's a saying that "the road to hell is paved with good intentions." What choices could the characters have made so things might have turned out differently?
  5. Does Ruby's relationship with Manuela change her life? What does Manuela learn from Ruby?
  6. Is Ruby's mother making the right decision in order to bring Ruby home?
  7. What role does Ruby's cat Solange play in the book?
  8. Sophie's mother is a comedy writer, which was extremely rare for women in 1958. Can you find any examples of other non-traditional roles played by women in the 1950s?
  9. What do you think Ruby learns about herself at the end of the book?
  10. Ruby believes poetry (and art) aren't good for anything except "making you feel better." Do you agree? Why or why not?

The Beat on Ruby's Street
Visit the Beat Street blog
Listen to a book excerpt (mp3)
Reader's Guide
Fascinating Authors Interview: Jenna Zark

Purchase The Beat on Ruby's Street
Amazon paperback
Kindle edition
Barnes and Noble