Light Contemporary YA

Last June, a voracious seventh grade reader who mostly reads fantasy novels finished The Fault in Our Stars and lay down on the dirty floor of my classroom. She informed me that she had loved the book, but it had completely destroyed her and she was never going to recover (or something similarly dramatic). She needed a book that would make her feel good.

I could have encouraged her to find comfort in one of her favorite books, like The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making or anything by Terry Pratchett. But I decided it would be great if I could hand her a layered, smart, light contemporary YA novel that she could happily lose herself in. Granted, students hadn’t cleaned out their lockers yet, so a lot of books from my classroom library were still checked out. But it took me a while to come up with a good option for her.

Recently, I came across an interview with author Kelly Fiore on fellow author Dahlia Adler’s entertaining and informative blog. I had read and really enjoyed Dahlia’s debut, Behind the Scenes, and Kelly’s second published novel, Just Like the Movies, so I was excited to read their interview. The whole post is great, but I especially enjoyed the “Dahliafied bio” for Kelly, which opens like this: “Kelly Fiore writes adorable light contemp (thank the freaking Lord) with seriously awesome premises…”

I laughed out loud when I read that, because I often feel similarly thankful when I discover a well done light YA book. Don’t get me wrong: I love sad, dark stories, too. But like my student who was heartbroken over The Fault in Our Stars, I need some balance in what I read. When I read a lot of contemporary YA with devastating deaths and heartbreaking circumstances, I begin to crave something fun.

But the thing is, by “fun” and “light” YA, I don’t mean simple or superficial. Light books can still feature characters with complex backstories who confront difficult feelings and face big challenges. But there’s something about the tone of light YA books that lets readers relax a little and feel pretty certain that everything will work out okay and nothing over-the-top devastating will happen during the book (although the characters might be recovering from devastating things that happened before the book starts).

Sarah Dessen is a master at creating comforting and fun, but still rich and complex, YA novels. I especially love The Truth about Forever and Along for the Ride—both summer novels that feature type-A girls who have to learn to let go of some of their control. In addition, here are some new contemporary YA books that are layered, smart, and also light.

1.) and 2.) Let’s start with the two books that got me thinking about this topic, Behind the 19520993Scenes by Dahlia Adler and Just Like the Movies by Kelly Fiore. These two novels share a focus on Hollywood. The main character in Behind the Scenes gets a job as an assistant on a TV set because she needs money for college after her dad is diagnosed with cancer, and the two main characters in Just Like the Movies decide to use strategies from their favorite romantic comedies to improve their own love lives. These characters have complex backstories and are 18018509dealing with real challenges (especially Ally in Behind the Scenes and Lily in Just Like the Movies), but their stories are romantic, mostly lighthearted, and just plain fun. I happily tore through both this summer. Just Like the Movies is fairly innocent while Behind the Scenes feels a little older and sexier in its tone…which is great! We need both kinds of stories.

3.) Speaking of Hollywood, Amy Finnegan’s Not in the Script is another fun read, coming out this fall. I’m impressed with how relatable the two main characters are, since one, Emma, is a very successful teen movie star and 18480474the other, Jake, is a gorgeous model-turned-actor. Amy Finnegan strikes a perfect balance between letting readers imagine themselves living an extremely glamorous and exciting lifestyle and showing that everyone has their own insecurities and traumas to deal with. (Incidentally, this is the third book in Bloomsbury’s “If Only” line, which I’m excited about since the books are billed as “clean teen” and appropriate for age 12 and up, so they’re great for middle schoolers.)

4.) And then shifting from Hollywood to the music industry, another great new book is 16081202Open Road Summer by Emery Lord. After a rough year, Reagan goes out on the road with her best friend, a country music superstar. Reagan is vulnerable, self-protective, and flawed but also loyal, smart, and brave. I like that Reagan is emerging from a dark place, so she is a layered character who has endured a lot and grown up fast, but readers are spending time with her when she is in a more hopeful place, and therefore the tone of the story feels lighter than it would if the book had taken place a few months earlier in Reagan’s life. The book has a fabulous romance, but it also focuses on the strong, fun relationship between Reagan and her best friend.

5.) and 6.) The last two books on my list also feature both satisfying romances 18189606and complex, important female friendships. Since You’ve Been Gone, by Morgan Matson, starts after Emily’s charismatic best friend, Sloane, disappears, leaving only a to-do list full of things Emily can’t imagine doing. And at the beginning of My 18594344Best Friend, Maybe, by Caela Carter, Colette’s estranged friend, Sadie, asks Coley to come along on a trip to Greece, claiming that she needs Coley to be there with her. Both of these novels have excellent character development, feature fun summer adventures, and address some interesting big ideas, like how friendships shift as people grow up.

Any other light contemporary YA you’d recommend? Any lighthearted realistic YA books that are more targeted toward an audience of boys? I’d love to hear any input.

The Gray Area Between Middle Grade and Young Adult Fiction

Back in 2010, Mary Kole, who was then a literary agent, wrote a post called “Is it MG or YA?” on her excellent site kidlit.com.  I should note that the publishing market has changed between 2010 and 2014, so I can’t say whether this post would be the same if Kole had written it today. But she was responding to a question from a writer who wondered whether to classify a novel with a 14-year-old protagonist as MG or YA, and she advised this writer to “Get out of that gray area!” She went on to acknowledge that there are certainly exceptions to the middle grade versus young adult distinctions. “But to give yourself the strongest chance at success (and publication),” she wrote, “I’d urge you to follow the rules for the project you hope will be your debut, and decide whether you’re writing MG or YA.” She encouraged the writer to make his protagonist 13 for a middle grade novel or 15 for young adult.

It’s extraordinarily difficult to get a novel published. I know that plenty of manuscripts with a whole lot going for them don’t sell because they aren’t right for the market, and publishing is a business. So this “make sure to fit into a category for your best shot at success” advice makes a lot of sense.

But as a middle school English teacher, I live in the gray area between MG and YA. My students are generally between 11 and 14. Many of the sixth graders read novels that would be shelved in the middle grade section, but many seventh and eighth graders do not. As literary agent Marie Lamba wrote in her Writer’s Digest article “Middle Grade vs. Young Adult: Making the Grade,” “Middle grade is not synonymous with middle school. Books for the middle-school audience tend to be divided between the MG and YA shelves.” In the second half of middle school, many readers are drawn to those YA shelves rather than the MG ones.

Most people realize that kids and teens like to read “up,” about characters who are a bit older than they are, but since there is so much edgy/sad/mature YA fiction with 17 or even 18-year-old protagonists, a lot of 12-14-year-olds are reading way up. Also, at both of the schools I have worked at (both pre-K to 12th grade private schools), the middle schoolers read more YA fiction than high schoolers do. There’s more flexibility in the curriculum to include contemporary YA and to encourage independent reading in middle school, whereas high school English classes at the schools I know focus more on the classics. Plus, students seem to get busier and busier the older they get, so many of them have less and less time for pleasure reading in high school. YA might be targeted at readers 14 and up, 13 and up, or 12 and up, depending on who’s doing the targeting, but sometimes those 12-14-year-old readers are reading more of it than their 15-18-year-old counterparts.

I am not saying there is anything wrong with mature, dark YA books at all. But I often wish there were more contemporary novels in that gray area between MG and YA *as well* because I know firsthand that there are readers who crave them. Probably not surprisingly, I also gravitate to writing stories that would appeal to this in-between, sixth-to-eighth-grader demographic.

I’ve been pleased to see that the in-between gray area is getting more attention recently. In her Writer’s Digest article, Marie Lamba distinguishes between younger middle grade, with protagonists who are around 10 years old, and “older, more complex” middle grade books with protagonists up to age 13, and she also distinguishes between “younger YA with cleaner content aimed at the middle-school crowd,” with protagonists who tend to be 14-15, and older, edgier YA with older main characters.

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In the past few months, I’ve read a few new books that are upper MG or young YA. Rebecca Behrens’s When Audrey Met Alice and Paul Acampora’s I Kill the Mockingbird feature protagonists who are in eighth grade or about to enter ninth grade, respectively, and Gwendolyn Heasley’s Don’t Call Me Baby has a fifteen-year-old main character who is in ninth grade but feels pretty young. (She also is not yet in high school, since high school starts at tenth grade in her area.) Both Behrens’s and Heasley’s books have been a hit 18602791-1with my students, and I think Acampora’s will be, too, when I add it to my
classroom library come September. Writer Carie Juettner also has a terrific blog post about the confusing MG and YA distinctions; she distills the MG vs. YA guidelines from several sources into a very helpful chart and shows how I Kill the Mockingbird walks the line between MG and YA.

In addition, there’s a recent Publishers Weekly article that addresses 18465605the challenge of how to shelve MG and YA novels now that age distinctions are becoming blurrier, and Bloombury launched its “If Only” line this spring. Publishing director Cindy Loh explained in a Publishers Weekly piece that “every novel will be aspirational and ‘clean teen’ – suitable for readers as young as 12.”

So maybe things are changing, and the gray area isn’t such a tricky place for a writer to be anymore? But then again, literary agent John Rudolph wrote a post on July 31st in which he describes being surprised to hear a lot of writers pitch middle grade books with 13-year-old protagonists, because, to him, a 13-year-old main character would traditionally mean that a book is YA. (This is interesting in itself, since Marie Lamba and Mary Kole classify a book with a 13-year-old main character as MG.) John Rudolph explains that even if things are changing, “the last thing I want to hear from an editor is that they love the book but aren’t sure where it would live on the shelf–that’s a classic rejection line.”

So does dwelling in the gray area mean that writers are more likely to rack up rejections from editors and agents? Are there other books you know of that hit the upper-MG or young-YA note well? Are these categories at all different for fantasy and science fiction than for realistic fiction, which is what I tend to read? I’d love to hear what others think.

Character Likability

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Some readers find Alice in SIDE EFFECTS MAY VARY unlikable…but I think this is an important book BECAUSE Julie Murphy depicts Alice’s anger in such a raw, honest way.

If you’ve ever read reviews on Goodreads or Amazon, you know that readers find characters unlikable ALL THE TIME. The fact that some readers find a character unlikable doesn’t mean that a writer has done anything wrong. Certain characters simply elicit strong positive and negative reactions.

One of the most powerful things about reading is that readers can empathize with characters even when characters do unkind or unwise things. Readers can recognize themselves—even the parts of themselves that they’re not proud of—in characters, and that can be a huge relief.

While every reader does not need to like every main character in every moment, most writers probably don’t aim to create alienating characters. I’ve been thinking about character likability lately because I’ve been working on a book with a narrator who is a bit…prickly, at times. I was lucky to have a couple of very insightful writer friends read my manuscript earlier this summer, and they pointed out a few places where my character was off-putting in ways I hadn’t intended. That feedback was extremely valuable as I revised.

Based on my friends’ feedback on my story and the reviews I’ve read for other people’s stories, I think there are a variety of reasons why readers might struggle to like a character. Those reasons include:

1.) Whininess. If a character whines too much and feels sorry for him or herself, that’s often a turnoff.

2.) Lack of obstacles/antagonists. This one is related to whininess. If a character is having a hard time or complaining a lot but things seem to be going pretty well, readers may get impatient.

3.) Lack of growth. If the character doesn’t seem to be growing or changing at all throughout the story, that can also be frustrating.

4.) Cruelty to likable characters. If the protagonist thinks mean things about or does mean things to kind, generous secondary characters, then readers might begin to dislike the protagonist. (Unless the reader understands why the character is pushing others away and the character is likable in other ways.)

5.) Extreme Cluelessness. It can be compelling to read about a character who doesn’t yet realize something that the reader knows to be true. But if there are too many blatantly clear signs of something (such as another character’s affection), the reader is likely to get annoyed at the character’s cluelessness. (Again, unless the reader understands why the character cannot recognize something that seems obvious.)

Corey Ann Haydu doesn't shy away from letting her characters do some unsettling things, and I think her books are important for that reason (but may not be right for all readers).

Corey Ann Haydu doesn’t shy away from letting her characters do unsettling things, and I think her books are important for that reason (but can be tough to read at times).

6.) Extremely risky decisions. Some readers might also shut down when they read about a character who puts herself in physically or psychologically unsafe situations. That doesn’t mean that characters shouldn’t do ill-advised things, but I think it’s useful to know that some readers might put a book down when a character is doing a whole lot of dangerous, cringe-worthy things. (Although, again, if readers understand why the character is making those decisions, that will help.)

Now, this is all pretty subjective. One reader might have an especially low tolerance for whininess, and another reader might balk at too many dangerous situations. Writers can’t control everybody’s reactions. But when it’s time to revise, I find it helpful to look out for these six potential issues.

As I was working on my new manuscript, I found that it’s also a good idea to balance potentially off-putting moments with positive ones. I tried to create relationships and situations in which my character could be her kindest self. Often, in the moments that my writing friends flagged, too many pages had elapsed since I’d included a positive scene, so I needed to find a way to add one. (Last year, I mentioned how Lyn Miller-Lachmann effectively weaves in positive moments in Rogue in another post on character likability.)

I also found that I needed to incorporate moments when readers can clearly see my character’s vulnerability. Readers need to see what she yearns for and fears even if she doesn’t want to acknowledge those things. Because, as I suggested throughout my list of potential likability issues, if readers see deeply into our characters and understand the reasons for the characters’ thoughts and actions, they are likely to hang in there and love our characters even in moments when they don’t especially like them.

What do you think? Have you noticed any other likability issues? Have you read other books with characters who are occasionally unlikable but still lovable overall?

Knowing Yourself and Your Characters (Or Trying to, Anyway)

Well, it’s been a while since I’ve posted anything, but I have a good excuse! Or, actually, a few good excuses. First I was busy with the end of the school year, then I was busy getting married, and then I was in Maui and Kauai for a glorious two-week honeymoon! But now I have returned to moderately calm, regular life for the first time in a while, and here I am back on the blog.

Since we’re in the midst of summer vacation, I won’t have any new student-author interviews for a while, but my students and I had a lot of fun doing the first six interviews (with Amy Rose Capetta, K. A. Barson, Lisa Graff, Trent Reedy, Tara Altebrando, and Maria E. Andreu—check them out if you missed them!). I’m hoping to line up another batch come September!

For now, though, I’m focusing on revising a middle grade novel (which started off as one YA novel and then turned into a very different YA novel before finally shifting into MG). In this revision process, and I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to know yourself and what it means to know a character.

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Us about to get married!

A few friends and family members who were there when my husband Mike and I got married at the end of June have commented that the wedding and all of the related details and festivities “felt like us.” It made me really happy that they said that. It’s incredibly exciting but not particularly easy to plan a wedding. I wanted the wedding to feel right to us, but I also wanted it to feel right and happy and comfortable for all of the people who are important to us. Ultimately, it felt like we were able to make the wedding a reflection of us as individuals and as a couple, and other people seemed to have a pretty good time, too (or were too polite to tell us if they didn’t).

Us on my first boat dive. Unsurprisingly, I was nervous the night before. It might be hard to tell with all of the stuff covering my face, but sure enough I was happy in the moment.

Us on my first boat dive. Unsurprisingly, I was nervous the night before. It might be hard to tell with all of the stuff covering my face, but sure enough I was happy in the moment.

People throw around phrases like “be true to yourself,” and being true to myself is always a primary goal for me…but I don’t think I’ll shock anybody when I say that it’s an ongoing process to get to know yourself. I like to think I’m a pretty self-aware person, but occasionally other people will surprise me by articulating something about me that I hadn’t quite realized. On our honeymoon, we did some scuba diving, which is something new for me, and Mike noticed that I tend to express nervousness or uncertainty ahead of time with new things but then blow past what I thought were my limits when I actually try the new thing as long as I don’t feel any pressure to do it. I wouldn’t have been able to clearly state that tendency, but I recognized right away that he was right.

As complicated as it is to get to know yourself, it’s even more complicated to get to know a character you’re creating, especially because a writer often has to understand more about a character than a character understands about him or herself. During my MFA program, I learned to ask myself what my main character consciously wants and what she subconsciously wants. I learned to break down what drives her actions—to ask what she believes about herself and the world that causes her to think and act as she does, even if she isn’t aware of the reasons for her behavior. I learned to consider what the character lacks—what kind of void she feels inside, and what early experiences or relationships have carved out that void.

These are all things that we might consider about ourselves and others might help us to realize…but they’re hard questions that would take us a lot of time and emotional energy to figure out. Sure, maybe the stakes are lower when you’re asking these questions about a fictional person, but when you’ve been thinking about a character for many years and are invested in telling that character’s story, it feels important to get them right.

What I find especially challenging about writing is that I can attempt to answer all of the big questions about a character early in the writing process, but many of my initial answers have to change as I get to know the people and story better (or, you know, as I completely overhaul the set-up of a novel a couple of times). So I have to come up with some tentative answers about why my character is the way she is and why she wants what she wants, but then those answers crystallize or shift or even completely change throughout the writing and revision process. If I cling too tightly to my initial answers, the story I’m writing loses its vibrancy, but if I don’t have any answers in mind when I begin, then I have no idea where I’m going.

And aside from all of that, it’s also tricky (but thrilling) to write from a character’s perspective when I know things about a character that she doesn’t realize about herself. One of the things I’m working on right now is making it clear to a reader why a really kind and wonderful boy is interested in the main character in the book I’m currently working on. Now, I love this character even though she is certainly flawed and has some unkind thoughts that she is quick to share in her narrative. I see her from the inside and the outside, so I’m not surprised that this boy thinks she’s special. But I need to make sure that readers see all of the amazing, endearing things about her even though she doesn’t see them in herself yet. Otherwise, they may get tired of her or wonder what the heck other people see in her. Difficult stuff!

Can anyone think of books that do this especially well—subtly help readers to realize things about a character that the character doesn’t yet understand about him or herself? Or has anyone realized important things about a character after spending a lot of time getting to know the character and writing his or her story? I’d love to know your thoughts.

Student-Author Interview 6: Maria E. Andreu

I’m excited to present the newest student-author interview, featuring Maria E. Andreu, author of The Secret Side of Empty. This is an extra special interview because Maria visited our school, so the student interviewers got to meet her in person and eat munchkins with her. In fact, here’s Maria with the gang, post munchkin-eating.

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Maria with her student interviewers (one was absent, so we had another student fill in). If you look closely, you can see that they made a welcome sign on the whiteboard while I was escorting Maria to the classroom.

Maria’s debut novel, The Secret Side of Empty, is loosely based on her own experiences. It tells the story of M.T., a high school senior with a wonderful best friend, an exciting new crush…and a very big secret. M.T. and her family are undocumented immigrants, and as her friends get more and more excited about planning their futures, she feels more and more alienated and lost.

Maria spoke to seventh, tenth, and eleventh graders at Friends Select, and her visit was a great success. The Secret Side of Empty is an important book, and I was thrilled that Maria could share M.T.’s story with students at my school. There’s some difficult content in the book, so it isn’t the right fit for all 7th and 8th grade readers. However, four mature and thoughtful 7th and 8th grade girls—Lydia C., Lydia S., Mary, and Lili May—were eager to read the book, and they had some terrific questions for Maria.

More love for THE SECRET SIDE OF EMPTY!

More love for THE SECRET SIDE OF EMPTY!

First, here’s what the students like most about THE SECRET SIDE OF EMPTY, with some commentary from Maria interspersed:

Lydia C: There are very few books that I can read in front of the TV while my sister is watching TV, but this was one of those books that I could sit in the corner and read and the TV was on and it didn’t phase me.

I love reading in front of the TV too!  Sometimes it’s the only way to hang out with someone when you don’t want to watch what they’re watching.  I’m glad TSSoE held your attention.

Lili May: I liked the fact that it was really well-written, so even at points when I wanted to stop reading because it was making me sad or nervous, it was really believable so I didn’t want to put it down. It was so suspenseful and I was so worried about M.T. that I had to keep reading even though I had homework.

I’m sorry I made you worried!  But I’m honored that you think the book is well-written.

Lydia S.: I liked that it involved biking, because I’ve found biking to be a good way of dealing with stress. I also liked M.T.’s relationship with Chelsea and how they could stay friends even though they’re in such different financial situations.

I like biking too!  And I love that she had Chelsea in her life.  Everyone deserves a good friend like that.

Mary: When I first looked at the book, I liked that the flap copy had a bunch of good things, like about the reasons M.T.’s life isn’t bad, but then the flap copy turned bad when it talked about her father and things like that. When I was reading the book, I liked the description the most.

Thank you!  I like closing my eyes and picturing things, then trying to put those things into words.

Now for some questions about the book:

Lydia C.: I’m curious about M.T.’s mom. I’d like to know more about how you got the idea for the mom character. Was she inspired by your mom? Also, what happens to her after the end of the book?

Definitely some of the inspiration for the mom character came from my mom the way she was when I was growing up.  But I’ve known a lot of women like that.  It’s hard to move to another country and not know the language and leave your whole family behind.  It leaves you isolated and vulnerable.

If M.T.’s mom is like most people who move here (and I think she is), after the years she spent being afraid of this new world she slowly started to try new things.  (You can see the beginning of that in the book with the job and the English classes).  I bet she goes on to do really great things.

I can share with you that my mom now owns her own house and has a business that provides jobs for about 5 other people.  She’s touched thousands of lives with it.  So I think there’s a lot of good things in M.T.’s mom’s future as well.

Mary: Did you ever have different expectations about M.T.’s future or a different outcome of the book?

Yes, I originally wanted her to get an amnesty, which means she would have been put on a path to citizenship.  I had some conversations with my editor and we agreed that it probably wasn’t realistic to end it that way in today’s political climate.  It felt like maybe today’s reader would consider it too much of an “easy” ending.  But I do still hope that she and others like her eventually get the chance to be citizens.

Lydia S.: Did you base the friendship with Chelsea off of a real friendship that you had?

A lot of the details of what she does with Chelsea are fictional, but I definitely had my own “Chelseas” growing up.  In high school, there were 3 of us that went everywhere together.  We are still friends today.

Lili May: I really thought of giving up on the book when M.T. started thinking about killing herself. What were your thoughts as you added that part? How did you decide to do that? Did you have any worries about how readers would react?

Thank you for not giving up on it!  I know it’s hard to read about that sometimes.  It’s difficult to imagine why someone would consider suicide.

I put that in for a couple of reasons.  First, I wanted people to understand the impact of how it feels to be living a life that seems to have no good options.  I wanted people to understand the damage that can do inside.  Second, I put it in because it was something I thought about as a teenager and young adult.  I don’t think I really ever wanted to go through with it, but when I ran down the list of how to fix my situation, it sometimes popped up in my head.  I’m so glad I found reasons not to do it because my life has been amazing.  None of this would have been possible if I had made such a bad decision early on in my life.

I guess the other reason I put that in is in case anyone knows someone who is feeling that sad and hopeless they will know to tell someone and ask for help.

Lydia C.: Did you have worries about getting to go to college like M.T. does because of your undocumented immigrant status?

I absolutely did.  Most of the years I was in high school I was pretty sure I wouldn’t be able to go.  (When I was in middle school I hadn’t started to worry about it yet, because my parents kept telling me one day we’d move back to Argentina and, anyway, no one in my family had gone so I didn’t even know what it was).

Even once I became a legal resident and later a citizen, it took me longer than the average person to go to college.  I had to work full time and go to school at night.  It was hard, but I loved every minute of it.

Lili May: Did you also have a “secret side of yourself” and not tell people about your immigration status?

Absolutely. I was in my 30s when I finally started to tell people about my story.  I was so scared to do it before then.

And finally, some questions about when Maria was in middle school:

Lili May: Did you always know you would be a writer? Did you always know you would write a story based off of your experience?

I did always know I wanted to be a writer, although, of course, I thought about lots of other things too.  I had a great biology teacher who inspired me to be a scientist for a while.  I can be kind of dramatic sometimes so I thought I might make a good actress :)  But writing always came kind of easily to me and I enjoyed it, so when I was twelve I wrote in my diary, “Most of all I want to be a writer.”

I never thought I’d write a story based on my experience of being undocumented, though.  Never, ever!  Remember, I thought it was an ugly secret to hide.  I’m glad I figured out it wasn’t.  The results have been amazing.

Lydia S: What were your favorite books when you were in middle school? Did any of those books inspire you later?

I loved Judy Blume.  I probably read Tiger Eyes a little later in middle school or early in high school and absolutely loved it.  I also loved A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.  She wasn’t undocumented or Hispanic, but Francie and I had a lot in common. And, of course, I just loved Anne Frank.  I thought, like millions of people, that if we had just had a chance to get to know each other we’d have been friends.

Mary: What was the longest book or story that you wrote then?

I wrote in diaries a lot.  I used to make up stories about what it would be like if I met my favorite singers and they fell madly in love with me or if the boys I liked from afar… also fell madly in love with me.  I wrote a lot about boys falling madly in love with me, I guess.

Lydia C: How much did you understand when you were in middle school about how it impacted you to be an undocumented immigrant, and how much did you not realize until later?

I didn’t understand a lot about it.  I knew we were undocumented, but I didn’t understand until later how it would impact my future.  When I was in middle school I still thought I would have to move back to Argentina.  I was twelve the first time I wrote in my diary that I didn’t want to move there.  But it wasn’t until later in high school that I realized that my options here were limited too.

I got my legal permission to stay when I was 18.  Even after that I didn’t think a lot about the issue of how being undocumented had affected my life and how many other lives it was affecting.  It took almost 20 years for me to “get it.”  I can be a slow learner sometimes!

——————-

Everyone, thank you SO much for taking the time to read the book and to put together your thoughtful questions.  I hope I’ve answered them to your satisfaction.  If there is anything that is still unclear or if you think of other questions, let me know! I hope I get to visit your school again one day soon.

Thank YOU, Maria, for visiting our school and for your fascinating answers! We hope we can have you visit again, too.

Student-Author-Interview 5: Tara Altebrando

When I was a kid, I loved books that felt real. Judy Blume’s Just as Long as We’re Together and Here’s to You, Rachel Robinson were two of my favorites because I could completely relate to the main characters. Tara Altebrando’s middle grade debut The Battle of Darcy Lane is just the kind of book I adored most back then because of the sensitive, realistic portrayal of twelve-year-old girls and their dynamics with each other, boys, and their families. Don’t get me wrong—I still loved this book as an adult—but I was especially excited to share it with three sixth grade girls because I could picture my sixth-grade-self sympathizing with the main character, Julia, and cheering her on throughout the story.

18079892In The Battle of Darcy Lane, Julia is looking forward to a summer of fun with her best friend Taylor, but a new girl named Alyssa moves to her neighborhood, introduces Julia and Taylor to a ball game called Russia, and criticizes everything Julia does. Pretty soon Taylor and Alyssa are acting like best friends, and Julia has to fight to be included. There is change everywhere Julia looks, so she throws all of her energy into the one thing she might be able to control: a giant Russia showdown where she’s determined to beat Alyssa once and for all.

Three sixth grade girls, Izzy, Nyeema, and Alex, read The Battle of Darcy Lane and had some questions for Tara about the book.

izzy nyeema alex.darcy lane

First, here’s what they liked most about the book:

Alex: I liked all the drama, because it felt really realistic. I liked when Julia saw her crush Peter with Alyssa and freaked out. I thought Julia and Peter were a cute couple.

Nyeema: I liked the Russia throw-down. I liked how we got to see Alyssa’s mom get so frustrated. It was funny but it also showed that Alyssa’s mom cares more about her daughter winning than about her daughter, which was sad.

Izzy: What stands out to me is how Alyssa sort of steals Taylor because it reminds me of things that really happen in middle school.

And now for some questions about THE BATTLE OF DARCY LANE!

Izzy: Will you write any more books about middle schoolers? How is it different to write books about middle school students versus older teenagers?

I’m really enjoying the experience of writing for middle schoolers so yes, I’m going to do it again. When I write for older teenagers, there is typically some kind of romance at the forefront of the story and it’s nice to be freed from that for a while. I remember my middle-school years as ones of big dreams and messy friendships and longing, before all the insanity of puberty and, eventually, dating, started, and I think there’s a lot of great material to work with in there.

Alex: How did you come up with the characters’ names?

I struggle with this! I usually end up going to the Social Security website, where they list popular baby names for each year. I read through the lists until I find a name that feels right for each character.

Nyeema: Will you write a sequel about what happens after? If not, what are you working on now?

I have so many ideas for different books that the notion of sequels has never appealed to me that much. I think I left Julia in a good spot and readers can imagine what the next few days and even years will be like for her. So I’m working on my next middle-grade novel, which is called My Life in Dioramas, and is about a girl who copes with moving out of her childhood home by making shoebox dioramas of her life there. She’s also secretly trying to sabotage the sale of the house.

Alex: How did you decide to include the game of Russia? Have you tried to play it and have you gotten all the way up to 13? We think it seems hard!

It is hard! But there was a time when I was great at it. It came through hours and hours and hours of practice. Would you believe when I shopped this book around to publishers it was called Russia? I thought that having that intense game in the book was a neat way to sort of highlight how friendship often feels like a competition. It really shouldn’t! And I don’t think it does when you get older, but in middle school totally.

Nyeema: Which character is which on the cover? I think it’s: Julia, Alyssa, then Taylor. Is that right?

Julia’s by the porch for sure. But Taylor’s the one in the middle. She’s described in the book as having super-blonde hair. Or wait, hmmn. Did that get edited out? I’m not sure! :)

And finally, some questions about when Tara was in middle school:

Alex: Did you have friend drama or play Russia when you were in middle school?

Yes and yes. Big time. The book is inspired by my own sort of toxic friendship triangle when I was twelve, and yes, we played Russia all the time. There was a never a big Russia showdown, but I definitely experienced a lot of what Julia’s experiencing.

Nyeema: Did you have a phone when you were in middle school?

I went to middle school a very, very long time ago. We didn’t even have cordless phones at home, and my parents didn’t let me have my own extension in my room until I was in high school. That must sound crazy to middle schoolers now! It sounds sort of crazy even to me and I was there.

Thank you, Tara, for answering these questions! We’re glad to hear you’ll be writing more middle grade novels!

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Book cover from Goodreads. Photo of Tara by Peter Lutjen, from taraaltebrando.com. 

Student-Author Interview 4: Trent Reedy

Welcome back for the fourth installment of the Student-Author Interview series! This time, I’m excited to feature Trent Reedy, a fellow VCFA alum and a prolific author who writes brilliantly across genres. Trent was a member of the Iowa Army National Guard and served in Afghanistan. Trent’s first published novel is Words in the Dust, a powerful middle grade story that honors Zulaikha, a girl he met during his time in Afghanistan. He then wrote a second middle grade novel, Stealing Air, before making his young adult debut with Divided We Fall, an action-packed novel that kicks off a thrilling trilogy and takes place in the US in the near future.

18114594In Divided We Fall, seventeen-year-old Danny has no idea what he’s getting into when he joins the National Guard. Danny is looking forward to spending his senior year playing football and hanging out with his girlfriend, but he finds himself in the middle of a major conflict that ultimately sets the stage for a second US civil war.

Three 8th grade boys—Saras, Jake, and Jacob—read Divided We Fall and had some questions for Trent about how he came to write this thought-provoking book.

boys with DWFFirst, here’s what the students liked most about DIVIDED WE FALL with some commentary from Trent interspersed: 

Jake: I really like all of the action. It felt like I was there right with Danny, especially during the fighting. I also like how Trent incorporates blurbs from the news throughout the book. The blurbs give a good idea of what’s going on in the big picture and show the conflict among American citizens. I thought those blurbs were really unique—I’ve never read a book that had something like that.

Trent: Thank you for your kind words.  I’m glad you enjoyed Divided We Fall.  As I write this, I’m also hard at work on book two in the trilogy called Burning Nation.  This book should be out in early 2015.

The blurbs you mention are what I call “media noise” sections.  I think they come in handy getting a very big national story across to the reader even though the story is told from the point of view of Danny who doesn’t care about big national stories that much.

Saras: I liked that there were so many feelings in the book but they often weren’t stated right away—you had to figure out how Danny was feeling rather than being told. I also liked that Danny had conflicted ideas and didn’t know what he should do so often, and I liked the Facebook-like posts that are incorporated and how you could see how many stars people’s comments got.

Trent: Saras, you bring up a good point about Danny’s conflicted ideas.  From the very beginning of my work on Divided We Fall I was determined to make a story in which not only the main character would be conflicted, but where the reader would also be a bit unsure of the right or wrong answers in several of the difficult situations.  I hope I’ve portrayed a fairly complicated scenario that readers will enjoy puzzling out for themselves.

Jacob: What I liked best is how everybody in the community has conflicted ideas, but people still come together and Danny’s friends have his back, even when they are shocked about what’s going on and might disagree with him. It’s interesting to see who is backing him and who isn’t in the blurbs and news stories, too.

Trent: You bring up a great point, Jacob.  I wanted Danny to have a rock solid group of friends.  I remember really enjoying that sense of loyalty, and a family-like friendship among many of the characters in the Harry Potter series, and I wanted to bring that sense of friendship to my own series.  I wish I had been blessed with such a great close group like that when I was growing up, but I’m glad I didn’t have to deal with all Danny must deal with.

Now for some questions about the book and Trent’s writing process:

Jake: How did you come up with the idea for this particular book? It seems like there are lots of things you could have written about involving the army, so what made you choose to set your story in the near future and have the country be on the verge of civil war?

Trent: Jake, I wish I had a good answer to your question.  The idea for Divided We Fall slammed into my head one day while I was driving.  Usually, I have to kick an idea around in my mind for a long time, maybe for years before I start writing.  But one day I just thought about a teenage Guardsman assigned to pull guard duty on the state line between Washington and Idaho.  For the next several hours, I could think of nothing else but circumstances that would make that state line standoff happen.  That very day when I returned home, I started writing the first lines of the book.  That almost never happens for me.  As I said, most of the time, an idea has to hang around in my brain for a very long time before I start writing.

But I also wanted to write about a country on the verge of civil war because I’m troubled by a lot of the things I read about in the news.  It seems like America is divided more now than it has been at any other time in my life, so it has been good exploring those concepts through the course of my work on the trilogy.

Saras: Why did you choose to set the book in Idaho?

Trent: I set the book in Idaho because, in general, Idaho is a fiercely independent-minded state.  It is a state where many people are passionate about preserving their rights to own and carry firearms.  More importantly, to make this story work, I needed a state where the geography provides some natural defenses against invasion.  Idaho has some beautiful and rugged mountain terrain.  I knew this would be important when my fictional Idaho National Guard set up its blockade to keep federal soldiers out.  So I chose Idaho for several reasons, but the most important one was the state’s geography and topography.

Saras: If you wanted to write about a soldier, why did you choose to write about a high school student and not an adult?

Trent: I wrote about a high school student, first, because I find the growing up years to be the most interesting.  Adults are boring!  Also, there is this idea that young people are supposed to be mostly at peace, going to school, having fun with their friends, and all that.  So putting this young person Danny Wright into the middle of this huge near-war feels even more jarring than it would have, I think, had I made the story about an adult soldier.

Jacob: Did you think of memories from your time in Afghanistan while you were writing this book and did your memories help you write this book?

Trent: Jacob, I have been home from my time in the war for about ten years now, and honestly, not one day passes when I do not think about it.  I’m trying to move on, to leave the war behind, but it’s been really tough.  Certainly my military experiences helped writing this book.  I hope my knowledge of weapons systems and military culture come through in Divided We Fall.  Also, during my time in the war, I spent a lot of time on guard duty.  I tried to convey what that felt like when I put Danny on guard duty.

Jake: Do you like football, and if not, why did you make Danny a football player in the book?

Trent: I have a complicated relationship with sports.  I was terrible at football in high school, but I do enjoy watching a good football game now and then.  I put it in the book because I wanted to establish Danny is pretty tough.  Also, as I said, football is pretty exciting, and anything can happen on any given play.  It has a lot of potential for drama, which is what you want in a book.

Jacob: What can you tell us about the next two books in the trilogy?

Trent: The next two books are intense!  I’m closing in on finishing Book 2, called Burning Nation.  As you may have guessed it is all about a civil war, and the characters don’t get through it without serious cost.  The third book will be called The Last Full Measure.  I have a lot more work to do on that book, but it is going to bring the whole story to a surprising end.

Saras, Jacob, and Jake: Who is your favorite author? Are there any authors or books that have especially influenced this trilogy?

Trent: Wow.  This question is very hard to answer.  Who is my favorite author?  Maybe Katherine Paterson because her books are amazing and really helped me out when I needed help.  Katherine is a wonderful person.  I read most of the YA dystopian books to prepare for writing Divided We Fall.  I enjoyed The Hunger Games, Divergent, Legend, and books like that.  I read those books to see how other writers dealt with a society that was holding on after the systems and rules that we now live by had collapsed.

Jacob: Was your decision to join the National Guard anything like Danny’s? It seemed like he joined because he wanted to be like his father and he thought being in the National Guard would help him with other things, like his mechanic job and football training. Did you also join because you thought being in the National Guard would help you do other things, or did you mostly want to be a soldier?

Trent: I joined the Iowa Army National Guard because my father was working hard and helping to pay for my college tuition.  I wanted my dad to be able to keep more of his money, so I joined the Guard to pay for my school myself.  Actually, I never dreamed I’d be a soldier before I wanted the tuition money.  I’d always wanted to be a writer.  That’s what it has all been about.  It turned out my time as a soldier helped both with college and writing.

And finally, some questions about when Trent was in 8th grade:

Jake: Was it your plan to join the National Guard back in 8th grade?

Trent: I did not plan to join the National Guard until after my second year of college.  When I was in 8th grade, I wanted to be a writer.

Saras: Did you plan on being a writer when you were in 8th grade?

Trent: I wanted to be a writer since I wrote this one fun short story when I was in the fourth grade.  Writing is all I’ve ever wanted to do.  It is the best job in the world!

Jacob: If not, what did you plan to do? (Or if so, what else did you think you might do?)

Trent: There was never really anything else I wanted to do besides writing.  I earned a teaching license, and was very involved in the rigorous demands of teaching high school English for four years, but during that time I was always working on my fiction or attending writing school at the Vermont College of Fine Arts.  For many many years now, it’s been all about the books.

Thank you!!

Thank YOU, Trent, for these thoughtful and fascinating responses! We’re looking forward to the rest of the trilogy!