Teen ‘Literature on the Lawn’ and the Value of Mentors

Flyer for the teen ‘Literature on the Lawn’ reading.

As all the work and celebration of the teen issue of the Inlandia: A Literary Journey Journal concludes, I want to reflect one more time on the value of creative work—of the value both of managing to create when doing so seems a burden, and of being an advocate for others’ work as a teacher, mentor, or perhaps simply as a part of the cheering squad.

Inlandia’s June “Literature on the Lawn” event in Riverside featured some of our teen authors, who read their work. I enjoyed speaking with their cheering squads— parents, family and friends—as well as with the teens themselves. Listening to the authors present their work added another layer of enjoyment in experiencing their writing. 

Cati Porter introducing the teen writers.

Earlier in the process, I was less sanguine. I had worried that the work of our IE writers was being judged by teen editors. Carissa Myung’s poetry is very mature, quite professional—hardly the stuff of Instagram posts that has made it into teen collections. Audrey Vazzana’s creative narrative looks at the the ravages of Alzheimer’s from both the point of view of a great granddaughter as well as from Alzheimer’s Disease itself, describing its progression in destroying personality. Joseph Salvinski’s story takes place across the Atlantic more than two centuries ago. Kiyani Carter’s narrator is wonderfully quirky and isolated. Aubrey Medina Gaines’ work combines horror with the lonesomeness of a child grieving a parent. Would the teen editors enjoy the individualism and the depth of each piece? Happily they did, proving to me it was the right choice to have them make the selections and, other than myself, to leave adults out of it. 

Kiyani Carter reading from “Counting People.”

As the evening was an opportunity to celebrate emerging writers, I felt it was serendipitous that I had read, on the same day, two encouraging media posts. The first, from the Academy of American Poets: according to new findings by the National Endowment for the Arts, in the past five years the number of poetry readers in the United States has almost doubled to a total of 28 million adults. I have seen a similar increase in teens wanting to read poetry in my school library.

Aubrey Medina Gaines reading from “Seasons.”
Carissa Myung reading two of her poems.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The second, which speaks both to writing and to being a mentor, I saw in a blog post by editor and writing guru Jane Friedman. She stated that in the most recent Glimmer Train bulletin, Jon Chopan discusses how one of his greatest struggles as a writer and human being is to find purpose in what he does, and to help students find purpose. He writes:

“Despite the notion that we are voiceless, it seems to me that the challenge of a good creative writing instructor is to teach students that they do indeed have a voice and that their voice, that all our voices in concert, have meaning. … We should be struggling with our students as writers, and students of writing, to leave behind something worth protecting, worth defending, something that contributes to the growth of this culture.”

Joseph Salvinski reading from “Exitus.”

Finally, in what felt like more than a coincidence, I read an essay in Philip Levine’s My Lost Poets that serves as a reminder of why writers need supporters. “In a portion of an essay [poet Larry Levis] tries to define the essential qualities of his most influential teacher, and in so doing he gives us a road map to his own notion of a person’s spiritual and social uses. ‘What still strikes me as amazing, and right, and sane, was his capacity to share all that energy, that fire, with those around him: students and poets and friends. The only discernible principle I gathered from this kind generosity seems to be this: to try to conserve one’s energy for some later use,  to try to teach as if one is not quite there and has more important things to do, is a way to lose that energy completely, a way quite simply of betraying oneself.’ What Levis seems too kind to say is that it’s also a way of betraying one’s friends, one’s fellow poets, and one’s students.”

Audrey Vazzana reading “Another Life Destroyed by Alzheimer’s.”

Further on Levine continues the thought, again quoting Levis’ discussion of his mentor: “‘Because we mattered so much to him, we began to matter to ourselves. And to matter in this way, to feel that what one did and how one wrote actually might make a difference, was a crucial gift … given to each of us.’”

Congratulations to the teens whose work was selected. Congratulations to all writers that keep at it and make a difference. And if you are someone who supports writers, to whom good literary citizenship is a daily practice, and who is giving a crucial gift to society by reminding writers that they matter—well, congratulations to you, too.

 

Props for the Teen Issue of Inlandia

Still in the crazy space, but on the upside, there was this fun article about the teen issue of Inlandia Literary Journeys Journal in the Press Enterprise. I was interviewed, as were Cati Porter (executive director of Inlandia Institute) and three of our eight teen editors. Plus, there’s a nifty photo in the rose garden of the institute’s office.

Inlandia staff and teen guest editors for the online literary journal, “Inlandia: A Literary Journey,” recently launched the first all-teen issue. Pictured from left are Cati Porter, founder; Stephanie Martinez-Beltran; Kiyani Carter; Aubrey Gaines and Victoria Waddle, managing editor. Photo by Malie Hudson, contributing photographer

Young Inland writers express themselves in Inlandia’s first all-teen issue

 

Navigating the Darkness

It’s fun to buy books at the book fest. (Well, it’s fun to buy books anywhere, anytime.) I always get some from my favorite authors, but I also like to support authors who are new to me. Anthony Breznican and Jeff Garvin are those new finds this year.

I can’t help putting in one last word for the Ontario Teen Book Fest. It’s full of great positive energy for readers and writers, and that’s one reason I’ve always enjoyed it, have reserved the school van to chauffeur teens in my book club, and when I was a representative for the region in the California School Library Association, organized OTBF field trips for members. However, another reason I like it is because it embraces the darker side of life as a teen–and thus, the literature about that dark side–while reminding anyone who is immersed in the darkness that good books engage the topics they are struggling with and offer solace.

This year, both the keynote addresses and the breakout sessions tackled issues of harassment, drug abuse, suicide and more.

The first keynote speaker, Josephine Angelini, spoke about the  #timesup movement in terms of understanding that words–all words–matter. Her own experience with harassment as a young woman made her stop keeping a journal. Audience members had a chance to pause and consider the many things that girls will try in order to stop being harassed. At one point, Angelini shaved her head to stop strange men from catcalling at her on the street. As she points out, it didn’t work.

Jeff Garvin, also one of the featured speakers, presented on identity,

The IRL: Navigating the Darkness panel featured Robin Benway, Anthony Breznican, Jeff Garvin, Ellen Hopkins, and Kim Turrissi with Isabel Quintero as the moderator.

particularly on the aspects of it that individuals can’t choose. Identity is a construct that impacts the way you experience your life. Garvin discussed how his environment and his peers pushed him to construct a negative identity for himself. As a preteen, he thought of himself as a misfit with uncool clothes when other boys made fun of his brands. He was humiliated and beat up in high school. In response, he identified as a victim and decided to attend a new arts high school. However, only a year later, he decided to return to his home school. As an adult, he learned that the guy who beat him had been beaten by his own dad as a teen.

In coming to understand that everyone has a backstory, Garvin also came to understand that by judging people based on their school clubs or activities, and writing off popular or good looking peers, he’d missed opportunities to make connections.

Garvin went on to draw a line from today’s political environment, when the country is crying out for change, to the need for teens to have an alternative version of themselves. He noted research on challenging beliefs, which shows just how difficult it is for people to change their core beliefs, even in the face of facts which contradict them. In other words, people don’t change their minds about subjects that challenge their identities. He inspired the audience to be open minded and push the envelope of identity.

Ellen Hopkins, the book fest’s main keynote speaker, discussed her background as a freelance journalist, a career that gave her many opportunities for adventure including swimming with orcas and parachuting with military air squads. However, she stopped working in nonfiction and came to write YA novels when her daughter became a meth addict. Hopkins’ ex-husband was an addict, and her daughter became one during a court-ordered visitation when she was sixteen years old. Hopkins says that she discusses her private life because she wants people to know that her novels are based on facts, and that life can change more quickly than one could ever imagine. She implores teens to consider their choices very carefully.

Although the authors for the breakout session “IRL: Navigating Darkness” have written about some of life’s worst moments and tragedies, they reminded the audience that all discussion of darkness–including YA novels–must be balanced with light and with hope. The particular difficulty for teens in hanging on to hope is that they have a large responsibility load, but minimum freedoms. Family problems, depression, and anxiety can seem uncontrollable, nevermind the problems of the larger world. However, the authors reminded us that teens do have the power to make change, as we see now with students pushing against the NRA and Congress for gun control legislation.

Though it is a cliche to say that things gets better, it is also true, and that’s important to remember. Some of the panelists could think back to teachers who exemplify Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall (Part II)” with their ‘dark sarcasm.’ But they also remembered those adults, including teachers, who ventured in and helped pull them out of the sadness. They gave a nod to what Mr. Rogers told us long ago: Look for the helpers.

Much of what I heard at the book fest was a call for a dual activism: Fight for yourself and your identity. Then take the fight outside and help others.

That’s a hopeful message in the darkness, and that’s the message of good YA books.

 

Ontario Teen Book Fest This Saturday!

Each spring for several years now, I’ve gathered my book club to attend the annual Ontario Teen Book Fest. Some of the teens accompanying me are more than just fans of the featured authors; they are writers, and the book fest is their first venture into the writer’s conference milieu. There they find community with the featured presenters, other teens, and local adults who gather to celebrate the world of Young Adult literature.

Now in its seventh year, the annual book fest is produced by the Ontario City Library. It’s coming up on Saturday, March 3, from 9 AM to 5 PM at Colony High School in Ontario. If you are a reader or writer of YA fiction, don’t miss it. Ellen Hopkins, whose novels in verse are New York Times bestsellers and wildly popular with local teens, will be the featured speaker.

Josephine Angelini, Mary E. Pearson, Jessica Brody, and Jonathan Maberry are

Celebrating her new book with Isabel Quintero.

also favorites among teen readers I know. (I, too, am a big fan of Maberry’s zombie dystopia in his “Benny Imura Series.”) The Inland Empire’s own Isabel Quintero will be a panel moderator. Her “Gabi: A Girl in Pieces” won the American Library Association’s William C. Morris YA Debut Award, given to a work of young adult literature by a first-time author writing for teens. I have book talked it to many students and despite having over fifteen copies, I had to have a waiting list for checkouts in my library. In addition to being a wonderful novelist and poet, Quintero is incredibly generous with her time and talents, consistently advocating for the literary arts in the IE.

Connie Joyce, teacher librarian at Rancho Cucamonga High School, and some of her students enjoy the 2017 Author Speed Dating with author Julie Buxbaum.

Nearly twenty authors will be presenters, panelists, or discussion moderators. All will participate in the popular ‘Speed Date the Author’ event, in which attendees have the opportunity to ask questions about books, characters, and the writers’ processes. Lunch from Panera will be provided free to all attendees. Throughout the day, Once Upon a Time bookstore will sell copies of books by the book fest authors. After the sessions conclude at 3:15 PM, participants may stay for the author book signing.

Many of the sessions are centered on the craft of writing. At past book fests, panelists have discussed how the process of writing books helps the author to push past fear toward self-confidence. Jessica Brody, who will attend again this year, has reminded us that writer’s block is really just ‘perfectionist block.’

While we don’t yet know what Ellen Hopkins will say, the keynote speeches

OTBF 2017 keynote panel

have always been riveting. Jay Asher (author of “Thirteen Reasons Why”), Stephen Chbosky (author of “The Perks of Being a Wallflower”) and John Corey Whaley (author of “Noggin”) were standouts. Last year, E. Katherine Kottaras, author of “How to be Brave,” discussed her family tragedies. When Katherine was 17, her father died; when she was 30, her mother died. When teens ask her how to find the courage to face life’s most difficult moments, she tells them that reading books, writing, and being engaged with art help one not only to work through fear, but to understand how to live with it.

Elana K. Arnold, author of “What Girls are Made Of” captivated the audience with her personal tales of the ways boys and young men tried to control her when she was beginning to date. In one, a young man living in her college dorm held a box cutter to her throat and told her that he could rape her if he wanted to. She was afraid to scream in case it was all just a big joke, and people would make fun of her later. As an adult, Arnold feels the important thing that came out of her experiences was for her to ask, “How did I become the kind of girl who felt like I wasn’t worth screaming for?”

Arnold now uses words to show how her experiences have shaped her; for her, shame, fear, and obsequious desire can be transformed through literature into pride, anger, and action.

Every year, feeling both joyous and empowered, the audience moves on to attend breakout sessions. Choices for this year’s sessions will include: I Heart You; IRL (Navigating Darkness); World on Fire; Epic Firsts (Debut Authors); On Beat; and Stranger Things (Sci-Fi/Fantasy).

Leaving the book fest, participants feel all the emotions that authors hope to convey: empathy, acceptance, hope, and connection. Gather up your favorite teens and make the Ontario Teen Book Fest your annual event.

Note: I reviewed books by many of the authors I mentioned at http://SchoolLibraryLady.com. See http://www.ontariotbf.org/ for information and updates on participating authors.

Happily, this article was posted in the California News Group today.

 

Gabrielle Prendergast Interview

Zero Repeat Forever, which is Book I of The Nahx Invasion. She teaches screenwriting and creative writing and has written for television, print, and online. She lives in Vancouver, BC and was kind enough to answer some questions about the writing life and her recent publications.

VW: I want to focus on Zero Repeat Forever as I just finished it, but I’d also like to ask a few questions about your writing for Orca Book Publishers. Some writers, even writers of YA fiction, may not know of Orca, which is a Canadian publisher that serves struggling teen readers. I first learned of Orca when I became a teacher librarian. Our reading classes would come to the library, and I needed something that would interest the students. Over the years I read and book talked many novels from Orca imprints. (Two of yours that I recommend are The Frail Days and the recent Pinch Me.) I am deeply grateful for the existence of such books and I know many teens are as well.

I’m wondering how an author decides to write books for ‘undiscovered readers’—a term that is so much better than ‘reluctant readers.’ Does the publisher approach you based on your other work? Do they set specific limitations on vocabulary and the length of the book?

GP: While Orca has a sort of stable of authors who often write these books, they accept submissions from any Canadian citizen or permanent resident. When you’re writing for the “hi/lo” series, they usually contract the books based on a chapter outline and three chapters. My editor invited me to submit for “Limelights” (The Frail Days)  but I decided to submit for “Soundings” (Pinch Me) on my own. The aim is a reading level of about grade 2-4 for “Soundings,” so we just go on what our writing software tells us.  With “Limelights” the reading level was a bit more flexible. The word lengths are pretty strict though. 14-16K for “Soundings” and around 20-25K for “Limelights.” Vocabulary is not exactly simplified but we choose words carefully and use short sentences.

VW: All of the Orca novels I’ve read have an upbeat message; characters often solve problems in original ways. Is this something that Orca asks for or did it occur naturally in your work?

GP: For those series, yes I think that’s what Orca wants, though they don’t specifically ask for it. Since they are aimed at undiscovered readers we don’t want the kids to feel miserable at the end! I also feel that when writing for kids, stories should be resolved in some satisfying way, maybe not in the first book, but by the time the series ends. That said, I always feel like at the end of a YA or middle grade novel the story is just starting, since the characters are still so young with their lives ahead of them. I could write a sequel to every book I’ve ever written!

VW: The storyline of both The Frail Days and Pinch Me involve teenage musicians. One of the things I enjoyed in both these novels was how the characters’ natural creative drive was part of the problem solving. It’s so tiresome that young people are made to think that their creativity is not an asset and that cultivating it is a waste of time. Thanks for helping to prove otherwise! Are you a musician in your life outside of work?

GP: I was a musician as a teen. My band was called Fall Down Go Boom and The Frail Days is dedicated to the other members. Two of them still play together and work as professional musicians in Toronto.

VW: I’d like to turn the conversation to Zero Repeat Forever, the first book of the Nahx Invasion. It’s a work of science fiction in which an alien race of tall, armored anthropoid beings have invaded the world and seem bent on the destruction of the human race. Our human protagonist is Raven, who along with some friends, has survived the initial invasion because she is at a camp in the wilderness preparing for the summer campers to arrive. As survival becomes difficult, Raven encounters Eighth, a Nahx, who, like all Nahx, is voiceless and follows directives he receives in his mind. Circumstances require that they attempt to work together, a situation that creates its own set of dangers.

This may seem like a strange connection, but bear with me. I’m working on an article that has caused me to read and reread Kazuo Ishiguro’s Nobel lecture.  One of the many things he says about good writing has to do with why readers connect with characters: “The reason why so many vivid, undeniably convincing characters in novels, films and plays so often failed to touch me was because these characters didn’t connect to any of the other characters in an interesting human relationship. And immediately, this next thought came regarding my own work: What if I stopped worrying about my characters and worried instead about my relationships?”

While Zero Repeat Forever is exciting and fast-paced in terms of danger and hope, one of the wonderful things about reading it is that a teen and an alien have a very engaging ‘human’ relationship. This is an achievement because Eighth can’t speak. Did you model their relationship on any that you know? How did you come up with the sign language that Eighth uses?

GP: Oddly Eighth’s side of the relationship is inspired by the way animals form relationships with humans. You know how cats bring strange little gifts to you or dogs seem to be trying to understand you when they turn their heads to the side? And how loving and non-judgemental companion animals are, sometimes even to people who neglect or mistreat them. And of course how they can eventually thaw even the coldest hearts. August [Eighth] is a bit like that with Raven, very loyal, maybe even by his very nature.

Raven’s side is partly Stockholm syndrome, partly the relief of being able to vent all the rage she has built up inside her. She basically has a tantrum in one scene and afterwards she feels like a changed person, all her rage is gone. One reviewer described her as a “hot-head” and that’s fairly accurate. She was having a bad year even before the invasion and never was able to fully process all her feelings. That with the loss of Tucker [her boyfriend] and the terror at what’s happened to the world was too much. Being with August was like a safe place where she could rage and be alone to think and work it all out. And not be judged for it. That’s key.

August’s silence is one of the things that makes him perfect for Raven. She has to verbalize her way into understanding him and everything that’s going on while he just listens. She needs a good listener.

The sign language was inspired by tactical hand signals used in the military, which the Nahx adapted to be a more complete communication system. The idea is that anyone who is denied language will spontaneously develop a communication system with whatever tools are available to them. This has been observed in deaf kids who are denied sign language instruction – they invent their own languages which can be quite complex.

I watched a lot of ASL videos also, just to get a feel for how sign language looks. I also took a course in Auslan (Australian sign language) years ago, so I kept those lessons in mind too. That said, Nahx language is meant to be a “sign system” rather than a complete sign language.

VW: I really enjoyed the settings of Zero Repeat. Although it takes place in real (Canadian) spaces, you needed to make your reader see and feel them. I’m a good example—I live in Southern California, which sadly, is on fire right now even though it’s technically winter. I’ve never lived anywhere that’s truly cold, yet I felt Raven’s suffering when she lacked the proper gear. In creating a dystopian world, do you use any of your own experiences with nature and neighborhoods? (I’m wondering if you’ve nearly drowned in freezing water. . .)

GP: I certainly called upon my childhood enduring Saskatchewan winters. I’ve never nearly drowned, but I have swum in many a near freezing lake. It’s…refreshing! We spent a lot of time outdoors as kids and the winter cold was both beautiful and terrifying. It was important to me that the winter be almost like another antagonist in the book, someone you can’t turn your back on, you can’t trust. Someone who will kill you if given the chance.  

VW: Writers and readers alike are always interested in the title and cover illustration of their favorite novels. Both the title Zero Repeat Forever and the cover illustration of a dandelion splashed with liquid metal are based on important events and themes of the novel. They are wonderful choices for the North American edition! Did you know right away what the title would be? Did you influence the cover art or was that a decision that was out of your hands? Why does the UK edition have a different cover that looks more like a Stranger Things connection?

GP: My agent suggested the title, and I immediately loved it as it was already such an important scene in the book. I had no influence on the cover(s) but loved both of them when I saw them. I think the UK cover skews a little younger and less literary, which is where they wanted to aim the book, I suppose. All they said was that they thought their design would work better. I love them both!

VW: Characters must suffer in order to grow, yet many authors have a hard time putting theirs through some of the worst moments. Both Raven and Eighth suffer mightily. Did you have a hard time with that? How do you manage to drag your characters through a life of torment?

GP: It was easy enough at the time, but the more I wrote, the harder it got to punish them. I don’t think anyone wants to read books about people with perfect lives, so I don’t write them. But, in particular, I didn’t want to sugar coat the reality of war, invasion, occupation. These are present day situations for a lot of people. Some reviewers have praised the “realism” in ZRF, which is ironic given that it’s science fiction. But I did try to keep as much as possible grounded in reality to make it feel real.

VW: As Zero Repeat Forever is the first book of a series, I wonder if you had the general plot outline for the entire series before you began writing or whether the story develops as you write.

GP: I had a general idea but a lot of that has changed. I feel like the world has changed a lot recently and some of my ideas no longer felt relevant and fresh, so I changed them.

VW: Writers tend to suffer because they have to deal with so many rejections. Do you have any advice in terms of dealing with rejection? Have you always had something new coming out, new work, so that rejection was more easy to accept?

GP: I have a neurodivergence that makes dealing with personal rejection sometimes catastrophically hard. But for some reason, I think that makes professional rejection much easier. I get nervous, but I’m never hurt by criticism or rejection or my work because I see that as separate from me.

But yes, I do always like to have a few things lined up, not so much for making rejection easier but more to keep up the momentum of my career.

VW: You have written in a variety of genres and for different age levels. Do you try different methods of writing/different writing styles just to see what works? Or does a specific genre seem like a natural match for the story from the outset?

GP: I pretty much know how each story is going to be told and who the audience is. A lot of that is because I always have a “comparable” or “comp” in my mind. Comps for ZRF included The Hunger Games and Divergent. The comp for Pandas on the East Side was Because of Winn Dixie, etc.

VW: Writers always ask successful authors about their writing routines—such as whether they write daily. Since no two people are alike, I find it strange that anyone believes in a magic schedule. However, I do know that all people have fluctuating energy levels that affect their schedules and can derail their plans to write. Do you have any hints for increasing creative writing energy when you need it?

GP: I try to write pretty much daily, though sometimes I give myself breaks. Writing with a friend (not co-writing, just you writing your book and them writing theirs) helps. At the end of the day, you can compare notes and discuss your word counts, etc.

VW: Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts with us!

GP: My pleasure.

Gratitude: Local Literary Events

I always think about giving thanks after Thanksgiving is over. That’s because before Thanksgiving, I’m getting ready for it. Afterward, I have no desire to shop, either in person or online. So, with leftovers packed in the fridge, I’ve always had a few days freed up from work and toiling around the house.

While I have much to be grateful for—health, family, and friends—I’m thinking about local and lesser known authors who enrich my life. While I regularly read from bestseller lists, prize lists, and the classics, as a constant reader, one of my joys is stumbling upon and reading midlist authors and those who have been published by small presses.

I enjoy the little serendipities that make their way into my days—this is one from a few weeks ago. The tea bag tag says “‘No person has the right to rain on your dreams.’ —Martin Luther King, Jr.” The cup admonishes that ‘Friends don’t let friends write bad books.’ I love this combination: help others hone their craft and then support their way forward. It’s good advice. But stumbling upon writers who don’t get much publicity isn’t that easy.

And so I am making a greater effort to brave bad traffic and get to author events. I always find being tired or overworked is a good excuse not to go. But it also turns out that when I do push myself to arrive, I am more than rewarded.

A bit over a year ago, I listened to the poet and founding partner of Writ Large Press Chiwan Choi read from recent work. Some of his poems were about his wife’s much-anticipated pregnancy and miscarriage. His words were heartbreaking, elegiac. I wanted to take those words home with me, but they weren’t in a book yet. I bought his (then) most recent book of poems Abductions, in which he reimagines his family through an alien abduction mythology, so I still came home with a prize.

Public libraries often have reading events, and I’ve been to several. My local public library has a poetry reading on the fourth Sunday of every month except December. I’ve had the opportunity to listen to Charlotte Davidson read her darkly humorous Fresh Zebra, a book of poetry that riffs on a French language primer. (Yes, I know it sounds strange, but it’s full of the off-beat creativity the listener/reader craves.)

The local Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden sponsors a Poetry in the Garden event each April in celebration of National Poetry Month. There, I have heard local poets Cati Porter, Tim Hatch, David Stone, and Marsha Lee Binnquist Schuh among others. At one of these readings, Porter was soon to launch “My Sky of Small Horses.” Knowing this, I was on the lookout for it.

I also enjoyed listening to Tim Hatch at Riverside City College, so I was excited to see that he was on the program for the reading event to coincide with the Inlandia Institute Book Fair at the Tyler Mall in Riverside last Saturday. He plans to publish his work in about a year; meanwhile, his readings range from light to dark as he muses on everything from hair ties to childhood abuse.

Another local author whose work I admire, Isabel Quintero, was also presenting on Saturday. She’s a poet, but I know her through her YA writing. My students loved her novel Gabi: A Girl in Pieces. (Great stuff; I reviewed here.) On Saturday, Quintero discussed her new book Photographic: The Life of Graciela Iturbide. Until I heard her speak, I didn’t know that this was graphic nonfiction. I was happy to hear her say that she had become friends with the cover artist for Gabi, Zeke Peña, and suggested that he be the illustrator of this new graphic work—that the two of them were indeed honing their craft and supporting each other’s way forward. (I was so excited about the book that I bought two and reviewed it here.)

(I couldn’t resist this photo of Tim and Isabel together. They just look like confident, happy authors.)

I hope for one more event before the end of the year. Gayle Brandeis is coming to Cellar Door Bookstore in Riverside this Thursday to talk about her latest book The Art of Misdiagnosis: Surviving My Mother’s Suicide. I’m waiting to buy the book at Cellar Door because I want to support them for supporting her. But I have read several of her books and enjoyed them. (I have several reviews on School Library Lady.)

So, thank you to all the local authors that I’ve had the opportunity to hear. Your voices inspire creativity. Thank you to all the organizers of author reading events, especially Cati Porter, Executive Director of the Inlandia Institute, because you make it possible for me to bask in creative environments.

Here’s to locally-grown literature. May every community have these enriching opportunities! I encourage you to find and create them. Help others hone their craft and support their way forward. Seek others who will do the same for you.

Authors I Appreciate: Why YA and Neal Shusterman

 

I attended the Writer’s’ Digest Novel Writers Conference in Pasadena, CA during the last weekend of October despite the fact that this meant I would miss two World Series games. (I live with a lifelong Dodger fanatic–it mattered.)

I had a good conference on the whole, mostly attending sessions where agents allowed writers a window into the what and whys of their job. I also had the chance to see how very productive writers like Bob Mayer work, and to take a refresher on the writing software Scrivener with April Davila, just in time to use it for NaNoWriMo.

While the workshop sessions are the heart of a conference (learning tricks of the trade is the main reason people will part with several hundred hard-earned dollars), one of my favorite reasons for attending any conference is to be inspired by the keynote speakers. Listening to them, I don’t take notes; I don’t think about how I plan to use what I’ve learned. I just empty myself and listen. My expectation is to be energized in a broad sense. A good keynote speaker reminds me that the path I’m walking is directed toward meaning. A very good keynote speaker will remind me that the meaning can come from unexpected diversions from that path as well as the path itself.

Both Lisa See and Heather Graham reminded me of the diversions, the way family and career life each lead to experience and storytelling. In honor of the Halloween weekend, Graham did so in a killer Maleficent costume.

But I was anticipating Neal Shusterman’s presentation as I am more familiar with his work. As a high school teacher librarian, I purchased not only most of Shusterman’s novels, but multiple copies of those I liked to book talk. My favorite–and I bought thirty copies of it–was Unwind, a future dystopia in which the US has fought a second Civil War over abortion. The anti-abortionists win, but with the stipulation that if a child doesn’t work out for some reason, parents can agree to have him or her ‘unwound’ during the teen years; that is, the teen can be used for various body-part transplants. If every part of the teen’s body is given life in a new form, he is not technically dead. This engenders some heavy thoughts about what consciousness is and how it gives life meaning. (I’ve reviewed the novel more fully here.) Still, it’s easy to book talk. As a writer, I also realize that it’s easy to pitch.

In 2015, Shusterman published Challenger Deep, a book very different from his previous work. In an afterword, he discusses the relationship of the novel to his real-world family life. His teen son, Brendan, was diagnosed as having schizophrenia, and the novel includes many sketches that he drew while he was, as Shusterman says, “in the depths.”

Challenger Deep is a complex book, a moving and metaphorical (partly hallucinatory) story of mental health treatment and the tricks of the mind. It won the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, rightly so. It’s difficult to describe in a few sentences. (I wrote a full review here.) So I was hoping that Shusterman would take questions after his presentation. I wanted to thank him for his work, which has helped me to do my job to cultivate reading among teens. But I also wanted to know how he would pitch Challenger Deep, considering it’s dive into the brain of a mentally ill boy.

Shusterman gave a presentation that covered the arc of his career. He started with tales of his youthful writing, his time in the elementary school library, and his storytelling career as a camp counselor. He was by turns comic and thoughtful. He ran out of time for questions, so I didn’t get to ask about pitching a complex book, but he did part with a serious story. Years ago, he received a letter from a girl whose best friend had died shortly after the two were ATVing and the friend was thrown from her ATV. The letter writer told Shusterman how his Everlost (Skinjacker) series helped her through her grief. Everlost images a world beyond death inhabited by children who lose their way to the afterlife. Some of the things most precious to them in life return to them there.

The grieving teen’s letter was both poignant and articulate.

Although I had purchased numerous copies of Challenger Deep for my library, I bought another because Shusterman was signing books. I wanted this one for my teen niece. When I got to the front of the line, I asked to take a selfie, joking that it would make my colleagues jealous. Shusterman very graciously agreed. But I also thanked him for his work. I told him as quick a story as I could–there were still some folks behind me in line–about how when I would book talk Unwind to remedial reading classes, teens who had never before read anything willingly literally leapt across the table to grab copies before anyone else could get them.

I wanted to tell him that it was unlikely that these teens would (or could) articulate their feeling in the sort of letter that the grieving girl had written, so he wouldn’t hear from them anytime soon. But that his work was helping them not just to leap across the table, but to leap up and grab those lower rungs of the literacy ladder. When saying this, I felt myself tearing up. Oh my God, I thought, he’ll think I’m a nutbucket. I quickly finished my story, took the selfie, thanked him again, and left.

I worry that by talking too much about YA literature, I’m going to pigeonhole myself. While I am working on a YA novel, I’ve recently completed an adult novel. All of the short stories and essays I’ve had published or that are slated to be published soon have been for adults. But I want to give YA fiction its due.

Days after the conference, I was attending my writing group and discussing my experience. One of the writers commented that earlier that week, a woman had asked him, “What’s the point of YA fiction?” and implied that it was lousy stuff that no self-respecting reader would want to pick up. Another of my group members answered, “She’s not the audience.” And that, I thought, was true.

As my experience shows, YA authors not only have an audience of literate, thoughtful young readers; they create readers whose lives will be forever changed by the experience of their books. For that, we adults owe them our thanks.