Student Spotlight
The next Rowling?

Hardly talking by age 3, Francesca Zappia ’15 was screened for autism. “The teacher doing the testing said that I was the lowest-functioning child she had ever seen,” says Francesca, apparently just a late bloomer. Yet she was graduated as a Dean’s List senior on May 2 with a bachelor’s degree in Computer Science, minoring in Mathematics.

Her next big day was May 19, when her debut novel, Made You Up, a quirky, thoughtful teen mystery, was released nationally in 448-page hardcover by a subsidiary of big-league HarperCollins Publishers. The Greenwillow Books imprint specializes in Young Adult fiction, the genre popularized by such mega-selling writers as J. K. Rowling, Suzanne Collins, and Indianapolis’s own John Green.

“I remember when I got my first request for a manuscript, I threw the letter at my mother; I was so frazzled and excited.”

The national marketing push includes a social media campaign as well as outreach to librarians and educators. And Francesca already has deals for translations in Germany, Brazil, Taiwan, and other nations.

An early start


Francesca’s author photo from her book Made You Up.

This dizzying turn of events is just a milestone in a journey that began at age 8, when Francesca started reading Rowling’s Harry Potter series and realized that writing was a potential vocation. Soon her free time was consumed with writing stories and drawing pictures.

By age 10, she was developing characters and themes that appear in her new book. At 15, she began hunting online for an agent.

She eventually gained the attention of New York-based agent Louise Fury, who agreed to represent her in their first phone conversation. Made You Up went through four rounds of editing before it was shopped to publishers in 2012.

Francesca was stunned when she scored a two-book deal with Greenwillow, the publisher of “the book I read 50,000 times in third grade,” Robin McKinley’s fantasy novel The Hero and the Crown.

“I had a good half-hour freak-out about that,” says Francesca, known to friends as “Chessie.”

Matter of perspective

Made You Up, which takes its title from a Sylvia Plath poem, is the tale of a smart, plucky teen trying to manage her mental illness and survive senior year in a new high school where strange things happen, and the arrogant and mysterious valedictorian who may or may not eventually let his guard down and team up with Alex.

The book is a witty and sensitive look at adolescence and the human quest for identity and acceptance.

“It’s about accepting that it’s OK to ask for help,” Francesca says. “If you need help, there’s always somebody out there who will help you.”

She wanted to steer away from the dark, apocalyptic sci-fi and fantasy themes that have fueled the recent top-sellers. She made sure her endearingly flawed heroine had a healthy sense of humor.

“They’re always thrillers or psychological horror, or the main character is jaded or just bitter, kind of hostile,” she says. “I didn’t want Alex to be like that.”

Francesca also wanted to craft a thoughtful portrayal of mental illness and its impact on a family, so she did extensive research on paranoid schizophrenia. The publisher even had a psychiatrist read the manuscript for accuracy.

More to come

Francesca has appreciated the perspective and support gained at UIndy, including the creative writing and literature courses.

“If you want to go to a school with smaller classes and professors who are there for you, definitely go to UIndy,” she says.

“It’s just very comfortable. It’s very conducive to learning in general.”

She is keeping her eyes open for conventional job opportunities but is already at work on her next novel.

“I put on noise-canceling headphones and just write for hours,” she says. “I was just made to tell stories.”

—Scott Hall