What we said about YA at Penn's Kelly Writers House

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Yesterday's bleak rain had nothing on Kelly Writers House. Indeed, as it so often does, the old house on Locust Walk sheltered the alums and prospective students, the local community and faculty who braved the weather and found their way in. It sheltered and fed them.

We were there to talk about the making of books for younger readers. We were ably, intelligently led by Liz Van Doren, Editorial Director of Book Publishing for Highlights for Children and Boyds Mills Press. We—Kathy DeMarco Van Cleve, Lorene Cary, Jordan Sonnenblick, and I—were, perhaps, as different as four writers could be.

Where do books begin?, we were asked, and one said with an image, and one said with tone and sound, and one said with a plot, and one said with an idea about the world, an idea about books as vehicles for getting something done.

What do we do about those adult figures who figure in books for the young? Make them real, one said. Don't let them overwhelm the story, one said. There's a reason why Harry Potter was an orphan, one said.

How do we make historical fiction pop?, we were asked. By making the characters gritty (a graffiti artist, a thief, an angry pregnant girl), one said. By not worrying about whether or not the story pops, but about whether or not it feels lived in and true, another said.

How do we maintain authenticity in the voices of our young characters?, we were asked. By hanging out with teens and listening to how they talk, we all said. By testing our work in laboratories made of child readers, one said. By not being afraid to write differently, one said, for not all teens sound the same, not all fit the currently popular formula of some parts ironic softened by some parts tender.

And so we went—building on each other, challenging each other, defending one's own cover art as being fully born of the book itself (okay, Jordan, that tag is for you). A rigorous conversation moderated by a woman with great knowledge. So many in the audience with leading questions of their own.

Respect for the form, for the art, for all the ways that we can write to the music in our heads—that was what was on display yesterday. Different instruments. Different beats.

With great thanks to Jessica Lowenthal, for making this event possible and for doing such consistently fine work at the Writers House (Jessica has made it possible for former New Yorker fiction editor/former Random House editor/author of the fine My Mistake Daniel Menaker to visit the House next February 24, but more on that soon). With thanks to Ilene Wong, for this photography, above. With thanks to all who came. (Kathye, Chelsea, so many — I'm looking at you.)


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