In the beginning of June, the annual Bay Area Book Festival kicked off in the heart of downtown Berkeley with all the literary awesomeness that any book lover will love. Tents, stages, art installations, food, and book lovers filled the closed-off streets.
Everywhere you turned, you see people standing in lines for panels, carrying books picked from the Lacuna installation-library, chatting with the staff and volunteers who made this festival possible at the tents, browsing the farmer’s market that happens every Saturday. Everybody that attended was here for the books.
Saturday was my only free day, so I stopped by the Festival, hoping to make up for my lack of panel attendance last year and meet some awesome authors that I adore. I only managed to attend two panels: 1. “Crossing a Bridge: Moving Between Tween and Teen and Back Again” with Tim Federle, Lauren Myracle, and Jason Reynolds; and 2. “A Sense of Place: Writing Where We Live (and Lived)” with Stephanie Kuehn, Stacey Lee, Elizabeth Percer, and Yvonne Prinz.
Crossing a Bridge: Moving Between Tween and Teen and Back Again
- What made you want to write for kids or teens in the first place as opposed to writing for adults?
Lauren didn’t choose to write about kids/teens; she just wanted to write about the experiences from her childhood that resonated with her.
Jason talked about how he’s perpetually 16 years old, and how he still thinks about stuff he thought about when was 16. He’s still “rambunctious and rebellious and full of angst.” He also talked about as a kid, he didn’t have books that were about people like him or documented his childhood experiences.
Initially, Tim didn’t want to tell stories, he wanted to be a vessel. He “wanted to dance stories.” When he was working on the Billy Elliott production, he worked with young people between ages of 10-18, and realized that kids were fun to be with because “they get every joke but they aren’t jaded.” He wanted to write about tweens/teens because he wanted to reach people who weren’t in the room with him.
- All of the authors have written for different age groups, why did they write for different age groups?
Jason wrote for tweens and teens because he was told they couldn’t publish more than one book a year. (Publishers didn’t want him competing with himself.) He decided to write picture books, but they were very hard. He talked about friends who treat YA as less then. Jason said, “look, I gotta paint the Mona Lisa, and you have to paint the Mona Lisa, we both gotta paint the Mona Lisa except I have half the palette. Who has more skill?” With picture books, you get half a palette when picture books compared to literary fiction. Jason just wanted to write books, so he went to write Middle Grades (after failing at picture books).
Tim talked about when Tequila Mockingbird went out on submission, his agent asked if he didn’t want to use a pseudonym. He didn’t because he wanted his name for his MG, YA, cocktail books, broadway shows, and so on. He just wants to make the audience laugh no matter who the audience is, and that could always be him and not the cocktail guy or YA guy.
- How different is the reader response between the age groups?
They talked about how young readers are so enthusiastic of the world. A fifteen year old will be more aware that there’s more to the world and to the drama outside of them, whereas tweens are in their own bubble.
Tim shared a story about a kid emailing him that he found his book with questionable material and put it back on the shelf, but it was really his parents who wrote the email, and the kid really enjoyed Tim’s Nate books. Parents are more resistant, but young readers are so open.
They talked about how a conversation between them and a teenager versus them and a twelve year old will be different. Teenagers will not say or ask anything during discussions or Q&As, but would come to talk afterwards. Middle Graders will ask random question about anything like favorite movies and such.
- Language, slang, idioms, pop culture references has changed so much, how do you avoid your novel sounding dated because by the time you’re done with your manuscript and when it’s published?
Lauren talked about how there are certain rules in publishing you follow to make a book not sound dated like you have to make your characters wear jeans and a white t-shirt. Lauren doesn’t care for those rules. She leave behind those pieces of thing that make it “dated” because it’s an artifact.
Tim talked about how Rainbow Rowell does this great thing where she says in the beginning of her book that her books takes place in 2014, making it a historical fiction even though it takes place six months ago. Tim always makes his character lose their phone quickly in a way that makes sense. (In Better Than Never, Nate runs out of battery on his phone when he runs away to New York.)
Jason talked about how it doesn’t matter if a book has dated terminology or pop culture references because it’s not like it affects the overarching themes of the book. He referred to To Kill A Mockingbird, and how there are details in that book that makes no sense, but it’s considered a Classic because the themes of the book perennial.
- Why did you want to tackle macho-culture and guns in your books?
Jason lost a lot of friends to hyper-masculinity. It’s so prevalent in his community, and it’s something that’s killing people. Kids, especially young boys, don’t have a safe space to express their emotions. They will hold in their emotions until it festers and grows into something terrible. With his books, he let young people know that it’s okay to cry and to be afraid.
- Why is death so prevalent in books? Is it because grief is part of young lives?
Tim wanted to write about grief to show where he developed his writing and his humor. A girl he went to school with died, and seeing her at the funeral changed his life. He went out to audition and stuff. It changed the way he approached his life.
Jason said that he wanted to make sure people know it’s okay to grieve about a breakup and such. He remembered being heartbroken when a girl broke up with him, and people would tell him there are other fish in the sea, which is very dismissive as if saying your feelings are not valid. He talks about how grief changes you, and that’s okay. It’s foolish to think your life will go back the same it was before. It’s okay to be sad. When the sadness subsides, you can move on. He wants his book to say “this book is showing exactly what I’m feeling and it’s okay to be bummed out. Let me just be bummed out.”
- How tough is it to write a first kiss scene?
Jason hasn’t written many of them, but when he wrote the first scene, the first draft was outrageous. His editor sent an editorial note saying that the draft was “very teenage boy fantasy.” It was a gut check for him, and made him take a step back.
Tim wrote a first kiss between two boys in his second Nate book, and wondered if it would get pushed back (and it didn’t). It was fun to write because it was rewriting his history.
- What book had the most impact on you when you were a child or teenager?
Jason: Black Boy by Richard Wright. (First book he read at 17 years old.)
Lauren: King Rat by James Clavell.
- What book character do you wish you can be for a day?
Tim: Stuart Little. (He wants to be sentient mouse with a tie on.)
Lauren: Lucy from Chronicles of Narnia.
- How can we as a society tackle hyper-masculinity?
Jason talked about how it’s important to talk to your boys early. Talking to them at 12 will be too late. Allow for them to cry and to be afraid. Talk to them about rape and consent. Tell them what they can and cannot do (instead of just talking to girls to protect themselves by telling them cans and cannots).
- What is your most autobiographical work?
For Tim, Quinn from The Great American Whatever is sort of like Tim in that, they’re both from Pittsburgh, they both like film/theater, and Tim was supposed to be named Quinn. He writes in autobiographical places because he likes to rewrite history and make his characters braver than he was.
For Lauren, it’s Eleven. There were moments in that book that were taken from her childhood.
For Jason, all his books are autobiographical. His family and friends are in the book.
Other important things that were said said:
- “Being a writer means you get to rewrite the thing that didn’t go well for you and change the names and nobody sues you.” — Tim Federle
- With Middle Grade books, authors have to shave back the cursing, and they aren’t allowed to say certain things like crap. Jason doesn’t care about those stuff because it just wants to tell his story. There’s always opposing forces that make it hard for him to write his stories.
- Young readers opens a whole new world that’s based on curiosity that didn’t initially exist in the book.
- A good librarian will tell you, “I present the books for young people despite my beliefs. It has nothing to do with me. This book has nothing to do with my feelings and such.” — Jason Reynolds
- “It has never been young readers who have objected to anything. They’re so ahead of us in terms of what they’re ready for and what they’re waiting for. It’s always the parents and the school boards.” — Tim Federle
- “Follow your dreams, and follow a whim.” — Tim Federle
- Jason shared a Shel Silverston story, where his editor encountered Shel at the HarperCollins office (this was when Shel was big), and Shel wasn’t sure if he’ll be able to write book. Even at the end of his life, Shel was unsure whether a book would work or not. That uncertainty will never go away.
- “Your first readers are important. You want them to say yes and keep going.” – Tim Federle on keeping motivated to write.
- “Try to divorce yourself from all the preciousness you think you need whilst writing. Just start writing.” — Tim Federle
A Sense of Place: Writing Where We Live (and Lived)
This panel was all about talking about how writing where the author lives helps them and the advantages of it. Most of their books have a similar setting in that their books take place where they’re living or lived, and in this case, it’s the beautiful San Francisco Bay Area.
They discussed how writing about their experiences of the Bay Area will not be all similar to, and that’s okay because everybody experiences the Bay Area differently. A non-SF Bay Area transplant will see the Bay Area through different lenses than someone who was born and raised here. They talked about how the setting of the Bay Area is a character in itself. It has a large presence that can shape a person’s decisions and thoughts.
That’s all I can remember. :P (I lost my notes for this panel, which I’m so bummed about, so excuse that this isn’t very detailed as my recap of the first panel I attended. Also, I didn’t get to take a good picture of the panel because it was very dark in the room and there were lots of people in the way.)