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SLJ and BookExpo America | BEA 2014

SLJ attends this year's BookExpo America (May 28-30) at the Javits Convention Center in New York City and took the opportunity to catch up with award-winning authors, like A Plague of Unicorns (Zonderkids, 2014) Jane Yolen, and even famous actors like "How I Met Your Mother's" Jason Segel whose children's book Nightmares!M/em> comes out in September through Delacorte.

Author Cece Bell with SLJ Reviews editors Kiera Parrott and Mahnaz Dar.

(Looking for A Conversation with Veronica Roth and Alex London? Click here.) At this year’s BookExpo America (May 28-30) at the Javits Convention Center in New York City, SLJ took the opportunity to catch up with award-winning, prolific author Jane Yolen, on hand to tout her latest title, A Plague of Unicorns (Zonderkids, 2014), a middle grade fantasy based on a short story she’d written years ago. In Unicorns, a young boy must help an abbot get rid of a herd of voracious unicorns bent on devouring the abbey’s famous golden apples. Known for her love of fairy tales and her unique ability to play with well-known tropes and themes, Yolen said that she wanted to invert the way unicorns are typically seen. Instead of portraying them as gentle, ethereal beings that can purify poisoned bodies of water or heal the sick, in her latest, she depicts them as hungry and destructive. Yolen shares that her book was inspired by two seemingly disparate experiences riding Lippizan horses and dancing ballet as a child. Though these horses look majestic and gorgeous from afar, up close, she said, they are active, rough creatures. Similarly, many ballerinas seemed light and airy from the audience but seeing them up close, sweaty and exhausted, revealed what an arduous undertaking ballet is. BEAauthor

Author Jane Yolen

While the author said she loves the simplicity of shorter forms of work—poetry and picture books are her favorites to write—there’s no form she hasn’t tried out: from early readers to longer novels to short stories to graphic novels. Yolen says she has a whole room in her house devoted to all the various editions of her more than three hundred works, but with another fantastical work on the way, Centaur Rising (Macmillan, 2014), she shows no signs of stopping. Friday morning was the Children’s Book & Author Breakfast, hosted by Jason Segel, the actor and screenwriter best known for The Muppet Movie and his roles on the comedy series How I Met Your Mother and Freaks and Geeks. Segel, who has a middle grade fiction fantasy novel out with co-author Kirsten Miller (Bloomsbury, 2006), opened by wisecracking about being “a grown man with a house full of puppets.” Segel revealed his love of reading as a child and his realization that children have an innate capacity for suspension of disbelief. “A magical thing happens when a child meets Kermit,” Segel said.“They stop seeing the puppeteer. He becomes invisible…there is only Kermit the Frog.” The actor, who was wracked with night terrors as a child, explained how he translated those vivid experiences into his first work of fiction for children, Nightmares! (Delacorte), due out September 2014. BEA-TomAngleberger

Author Tom Angleberger shows off the latest in his "Qwikpick Papers" series, Poop Fountain.

The morning’s panelists included Carl Hiaasen, whose upcoming YA novel, Skink—No Surrender (Knopf, September 2014), features a character from his adult novel, Double Whammy (G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1987); Mem Fox, who read aloud her new picture book, Baby Bedtime (Beach Lane, August 2014) and alternately had the audience in laughter and tears as she opined on the joys and realities of being a new grandmother; and Jeff Kinney, who announced that his tremendous success with the “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” franchise has enabled him and his wife to purchase the site of a dilapidated general store and open an independent bookstore in their hometown of Plainville, Massachusetts. Kinney joked that they are not just embarking on this new business because they love books, but because "they want to get rich," a sentiment that had the audience, packed with independent booksellers, roaring with laughter. Tons of exciting new YA novels are on the horizon, and the subjects range from teen angst to dark, dystopic fiction. At the YA Book Buzz on Friday morning, authors Frank Portman, Amy Ewing, Robin Talley, and others discussed what led them to write their works. Portman’s King Dork Approximately is a sequel to his cult classic King Dork, a book John Green once described by saying, “Basically, if you’re a human being with a basic grasp of the English language, King Dork will rock your world.” Portman said King Dork came out of his own background as a punk rock musician; when one of his young fans grew up to become a literary agent, he encouraged Portman to write a book capturing the sensibility of his songs, which the author described as targeted at “socially unsuccessful young men.” Humor is an integral part of Portman’s work, and he “tried to put at least one joke on every page to reward the reader for the effort of turning the page.” BEApanel

YA panelist authors (from left to right) : Cynthia Weil, Ryan Graudin, Robin Talley, Frank Portman, and Amy Ewing.

Portman wasn’t the only author inspired by music; former songwriter Cynthia Weil (who, along with her husband Barry Mann, wrote classic hits such as “On Broadway” and “You’ve Lost that Lovin’ Feeling”) drew on her own past in I’m Glad I Did, a semiautobiographical mystery about a young woman working as a songwriter and gofer in a Brill Building–esque setting, much as Weil did in her early 20s. Meanwhile, watching the thriller Taken one lazy Sunday afternoon inspired Amy Ewing to pen The Jewel, a book in which young women are auctioned off as surrogate mothers in a Handmaid’s Tale–esque tale. For Robin Talley and Ryan Graudin, turning to history resulted in their works. In Talley’s Lies We Tell Ourselves (Harlequin, 2014), set in 1959 Virginia, an African-American girl is one of the first students to integrate a formerly all-white school. Unexpectedly, she and a bigoted white girl find themselves drawing closer─even falling in love, in this book that combines themes of racism and bigotry with romance and friendship,which Talley says was “a nerve wracking story to climb inside of.” BEA-feature

Amy Laughlin, children's librarian at Darien Library in Connecticut, attends her first BEA with Chewbacca.

For The Walled City, Graudin drew upon a real-life secluded city in Hong Kong, an enclave that contained over 30,000 inhabitants, where sunlight wasn’t visible, and where drug rings and brothels thrived. Graudin left the readers with three cryptic but essential rules for those entering the city: “Run fast, trust no one, and always carry your knife.” Compared with works like The Hunger Games or Divergent, realistic YA fiction sounds straightforward. However, during the panel “Real YA,” authors E. Lockhart, Gayle Forman, Meg Wolitzer, and Jandy Nelson quickly laid that assumption to rest. These authors’ works push the boundaries of the genre. Forman, for example, was “surprised” when If I Stay, a novel about a girl who has an out of body experience after a car accident was described as a fantasy. The accident kills her parents, leaves the main character in a coma, and while in a coma she must decide whether to stay on earth among the living or die. While Lockhart said that it’s natural to try to label books with genres, many of these books defy categorization. Wolitzer raised the point that while we all experience real life, “we all live fantasy in our minds”─or in other words we all flash back to previous events or fantasize about the future. While Nelson said that her books often contain an element of magical realism, she has “no idea what the magic will be” when she starts writing. “A lot of the time it surprises me when magic happens.” Though all these authors address realistic subjects, Lockhart pointed out that the thread that unites their work is that they focus on “an interior struggle─the central subject is the inside of someone’s head.” The jam-packed #WeNeedDiverseBooks panel on Saturday’s BookCon portion of BEA was a highlight of the consumer-focused day. The program featured authors who write children’s books with and about people of color. An energetic crowd of more than 200 convention goers (made up of teens, educators, and industry professionals) lined up at least an hour before the session’s start time and the buzz that preceded the weeks before permeated throughout. Campaign organizers who championed the need for diverse children’s literature via social media during May, explained the initiative’s origins as a response to the practically all-white BookCon panels. Author and #WeNeedDiverseBooks spearheader Ellen Oh said to attendees “This is a call to arms, and you’ve all answered.” Panelists included Lamar Giles, Mike Jung, Matt de la Peña, Grace Lin, and Jacqueline Woodson. They each spoke about how they first became involved in the campaign, what diverse books inspired them as writers, and how they will continue to promote the need for diverse voices, “until there’s no need for panels like this one,” as Woodson quipped.

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