Star YA Authors Reveal Inspirations and Challenges | SLJ SummerTeen 2014

On July 24, SLJ's SummerTeen virtual event, attended by nearly 800 conference goers, was chock full of popular and thought-provoking YA authors, such as keynoters Gayle Forman (If I Stay) and Matthew Quick (Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock), who reveal some of the more personal asides, challenges, and stories behind novel writing. It was Quick who said, "Good literature, he said, “[comforts] the disturbed and [disturbs] the comforted."
SLJ_Summerteen_2014_600pixOn July 24, School Library Journal held its third annual virtual SummerTeen all day conference where nearly 800 virtual conference goers attended the event during which popular YA authors talked about their writing experiences and current and forthcoming titles in an engaging, conversational format, including live Q&As with the audience. EH072214_Matthew-Quick

Matthew Quick

Co-keynoters Matthew Quick, author of Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock (FSG, 2013) and Gayle Forman, author of If I Stay (Dutton, 2009), led the conference with their opening address where each author spoke of the tricky-yet-richly-rewarding process of taking a story from page to screen. The two weighed in on their film adaptations—Forman’s If I Stay releases next month, while Quick’s Silver Lining Playbook (FSG, 2008) was released in 2012, and his Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock has “been optioned for a film”—the writing process, and the importance of authenticity. Though both authors had to deal with changes and alterations to their works, overall, they felt that the modifications were for the best. David O. Russell, director of Matthew Quick’s Silver Linings Playbook, for example, made a number of musical choices that Quick was surprised by. “They were never the songs I would have picked, [but] I think the way he used the music is brilliant.” Similarly, Forman said that though not every scene she wrote made it into the film version of If I Stay that the filmmakers captured the tone and feeling of her work. “Readers may think they are looking for a line by line representation,” she said, “but they want the essence, the overall feel.” For Forman, being true to her readers was crucial, and as she told the filmmakers, “We [already] have a focus group,” explaining that reader reactions to the film would be useful in shaping the movie. EH_140715_GayleForman

Gayle Forman

A pivotal scene from the book, in which the protagonist Mia plays checkers with her father and tells her, “Sometimes you make choices in life, and sometimes they make you,” wasn’t included in the film, but Forman knew that this particular line had resonated with readers (some of them even tattooing it on themselves), and so the sentence, though not the scene, was incorporated. Both authors have had to field concerns from parents unsure of how appropriate their works are, but they strongly believe in ensuring that their books are as genuine and real as possible. For Quick, making readers uncomfortable is even part of his job. Good literature, he said, “[comforts] the disturbed and [disturbs] the comforted. We need to give kids as many books as possible. That’s how you promote tolerance.” strangeandbeautifulFollowing the keynote, was the Romance panel. (A conference discussing young adult literature wouldn’t be complete without conversation about romance.) Whether first love or first heartbreak, panelists Una LaMarche, Gena Showalter, and Leslye Walton shared with readers what inspired them to write their recent teen titles. In Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender (Candlewick, 2014), Walton felt it was important to not only feature romantic love, but all kinds of affection, and “Ava Lavender is a story about tolerance, acceptance, and not just romantic love, but love that we have for our children, siblings, friends, [and] dogs. Maybe if we put emphasis on all of these other loves , there wouldn’t be so many lonely people out there.“ like-no-otherLaMarche was motivated to write Like No Other (Penguin, 2014) by the ultimate young romance tale of Romeo and Juliet. “I wanted to do a more of a traditional dramatic romance with the intensity of Romeo and Juliet, Say Anything, and West Side Story.  A place so insular and where the stakes are so high that they practically put up a wall in between people.“ For this reason she chose the culturally different and historically divided Crown Heights neighborhood in Brooklyn as the setting to her star-crossed lovers’ tale. Her protagonists are a Hassidic Jewish girl and a West Indian boy who live on opposite sides of the Eastern Parkway. TheQueenofZombieHearts_coverYA lit can range in steaminess and sexual content. Showalter, whose Queen of Zombie Hearts (Harlequin Teen, Sept. 2014) re-imagines Lewis Carroll’s Alice and Wonderland, lets her characters decide the “age-appropriateness” of the book she’s writing. She enjoys writing teen romances because she’s always been a true romantic at heart. “I put the beliefs in my books that there is someone out there for everyone and that love conquers all.” During the Sports panel, we learned that Kwame Alexander’s novel in verse about two basketball-playing brothers, Crossover (HMH, 2014), seemingly came out of nowhere. The author was approached by an editor at an event, who asked if he’d ever considered writing a novel in verse for reluctant readers. crossoverkwameThough Alexander had never thought about it, his response was an exuberant: “Yes!” During the panel, Alexander discussed how he came to write his book, as well as the response he’s gotten from fans. As SLJ reviews editor and panel moderator Kiera Parrott observed, Alexander’s novel resonates with those who enjoy sports and those who aren’t athletically inclined. Alexander says that’s because he draws upon some his very real feelings and emotions when writing Crossover. He, himself, wasn’t a basketball player as a teen—his sport of choice was tennis—but he experienced the same feelings of competitiveness, which he brought to the book. “I wasn’t crisp like [tennis players were],” he said. “I’m this six-foot-four dude in corduroy shorts... playing tennis and trash talking… I tried to bring that to the characters in Crossover, which may not necessarily be how seventh and eighth grade boys play basketball, but it’s how I played [tennis] when I was in ninth grade.” Though athletics are a big part of the book, there was also far more that the author wanted to explore in order to reach reluctant male readers. Family played a huge role in particular, with Alexander revisiting his own complicated relationship with his father. “I knew I wanted the book to [have] a relationship about a boy and his father primarily, because it was something I had never dealt with,” he said. “My father was an academic [and wasn’t] emotive. I didn’t hear him say, ‘I love you.’ How did I know this man loved me?” Exploring that complex father-son bond became the jumping-off point for Crossover. He cited a phrase his mentor, poet Nikki Giovanni, uses—”dancing naked on the floor”—to explain his philosophy toward his work. “You can like it,” he said, “you can check it out and laugh... but we’re putting it all out there.” Alexander’s authenticity is working--kids who ordinarily would never read are glued to his books, and he couldn’t be happier, he told viewers, describing a moment when a self-described nonreader told him he couldn’t put the book down. “That was the moment there,” Alexander said. “That was it for me.” bluegoldDr. Susan Stan, professor of children's and young adult literature at Central Michigan University moderated the panel on International Authors/International Stories. The authors, who included Elizabeth Stewart (Blue Gold; Annick Press, 2014); Kat Beyer (The Demon Catchers of Milan; Egmont, 2012), Tanuja Desai Hidier (Born Confused; Scholastic, 2002); and Michael Williams (Now is the Time for Running; Little, Brown, 2011); were beaming into SummerTeen from around the globe—London, South Africa, Vancouver, and Michigan. There books represented a diversity of countries, cultures, and genres—from contemporary realism set in modern day Africa, China, and Canada to dark, magical fantasy set in Milan to a coming-of-age journey set in the New York City Club scene and in the streets of Bombay to a harrowing portrait of a family working in the diamond minds of Zimbabwe. Questions from the virtual audience touched upon issues of activism in the Third World, using the lens of food to explore culture, and how the derivation and history of words and phrases can inform language and word choice. The issue of cultural appropriation and authenticity also came up. Beyer commented, "Write what you want to write... We need writers of every color to write about what they love." Desai Hidier added, "Never underestimate the value of your own story." seventhLondonAnd during the Graphic Novels panel, authors of recent graphic novels explored the history, problems, and potential of this all-encompassing format. Beau Schemery, author of The 7th of London, discussed some of the challenges that graphic novels have faced, bringing up how they are are still marred both by the stigma that they’re inherently childish and that they’re bad for children. However, he believes that graphic novels are essential for children, calling them “gateway books” because of their ability to reach reluctant readers. “It’s easier to hook people because they’ve got a visual [element]. It’s less of a burden on the reader for them to just start reading. It’s a great way to get kids interested in reading.” Daniel Lafrance, author of War Brothers, said he finds that many parents do assume that graphic novels are child appropriate: a mistaken judgment, as his own book deals with child soldiers in Uganda. He doesn’t believe that books should be banned or restricted. “It’s just a matter of making sure people know who the book is for,” he said. Barbarian Lord author Matt Smith added, “A lot of times, people assume [these books are] for younger readers, even though the ideas and scenarios are best understood by an older audience.” Chasing ShadowsSwati Avasthi, author of Chasing Shadows, spoke of the problematic nature of comics and how she addresses that in her own work. She grew up reading comics but was uncomfortable with some of the sexualized, objectifying images of superheroines such as Wonder Woman and the Black Canary. With Chasing Shadows, a work that’s part graphic novel, part prose, she chose to use her book to challenge the assumption of what a comic book heroine has to look like. Drawing inspiration instead from seminal Hindu texts and a comic book based on the Hindu story of Savitri, a brave and wise woman who uses cunning to save her husband from death, Avasthi was gratified to be able to expose readers to a protagonist of color. She emphasized the importance of having access to mirror and window books--books that reflect a reader’s experience as well as those that provide a look at the experiences of others. Lafrance agreed, stressing that with War Brothers, he wants to give kids information on things happening in other parts of the world. “Our teenagers get a sense that the world’s a big place, [that] there’s issues out there.” While novel-writing is often a solo gig, the presenters on the Tag Team panel spoke about how their recent works were products of collaborative efforts. Prolific paranormal romance author Julie Kagawa shared that she had lots of fun writing a short story for the Grimm collection (Harlequin Teen, 2014), inspired by the original fairy tales and edited by Christine Johnson. She also shared that every book has more than one person involved in the behind-the-scenes creativity. “All writers have to collaborate with their agents and their editors. If you want to write, you have to be willing to listen. A collaborator can bring a new perspective to the story—can see things that you wouldn’t have thought about. As a writer, you have to be open to suggestions.” Quarantine-feature Lex Hrabe and Thomas Voorhies, who together wrote the “Quarantine” series (Egmont USA) under the name "Lex Thomas," agreed. After a career as screenplay writing partners, the pair decided to try their hand at writing YA novels. “I think even if you write alone you need someone to bounce ideas off of. Those ideas don’t become real until you voice them and see them from a different perspective,” Hrabe shared. The duo wrote the first post-apocalyptic book about a highschool that becomes quarantined in a space of two months, with Voorhies writing the first draft and Hrabe expanding upon it, each partner trusting the other’s creative decisions. Kiersten White and Jim DiBartolo took a slightly different approach for In the Shadows (Scholastic, 2014), their hybrid illustrated novel. White was responsible for the text of their book, while DiBartolo told his part of the story through illustrations. Seemingly unrelated, the alternating text and visual narratives give hidden clues to the secrets each storyteller planted in their specific chapters. The partners would send a completed chapter to the other and would be influenced in their own work so that the text-heavy and wordless sections inform upon the other. White shared “I found myself incorporating more visual elements in my writing than I have in the past because it gelled better with Jim’s art.” It took a lot of communication and coordination to make the project work, Bartolo added, but they strived to keep their sections true to their own vision. “We were each our own storytellers.” Monstrous affectionsHusband-and-wife team Kelly Link and Gavin Grant, co-editors of Monstrous Affections (Candlewick, 2014), are used to collaborating with each other. Longtime editors and publishers of their own small press and zine, the pair works on projects so often, they have to force themselves to pause until the next day. They were inspired to reach out to authors for tales about monsters on a road trip with Holly Black. “We were discussing why vampires usually date people in high school. If we were vampires, we would spend time in a retirement community, chatting with someone who had the same childhood and adolescent experience as you. Those comments just got the ball rolling about all the different kinds of interactions that monsters have with human beings,” Link said to the audience.

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