Hurray for YA
Kepler's event features writers of teen fiction
Broken hearts, boyfriends, otherworldly bridges and bands are just some of the topics up for discussion at the Kepler's "YA Extravaganza," a celebration of young-adult literature to be held April 18 at the Menlo Park bookstore. The 7 p.m. event will feature a panel conversation with touring authors Gayle Forman, Jess Rothenberg, Nina LaCour and Stephanie Perkins.
Palo Alto writer Heidi Kling will moderate. The author of the 2010 YA novel "SEA" and a contributor to local e-book publisher Coliloquy, she said she's thrilled to be guiding the discussion among "four of the most popular contemporary YA authors around."
There will be plenty of time for questions from the audience, and "a little birdie told me there will be games," she said.
How to define YA fiction? It's very eclectic, including everything from realism to paranormal romance to dystopian sci-fi, according to Kepler's event coordinator Angela Mann, who blogs and reviews YA novels for the store at thebookbind.blogspot.com. But though its subject matter varies, good YA literature has the adolescent experience at its heart.
"YA is generally written from the point of view of young people. And these days, the best of YA is insanely innovative, gorgeously written, funny, moving, terrifying," author Forman said.
The novels also often tackle controversial and provocative topics and can be extremely popular among adult readers as well, Mann noted.
Writing YA fiction is appealing because of the combination of "innocence and fierce determination of youth," Kling said. "Without the adult constraints of bills, raising children, 9-5 jobs, our characters have so much freedom. As a writer, (one finds that) the YA sky is limitless."
East Bay native Nina LaCour always planned on being a writer, but it wasn't until taking a graduate class in young literature at Mills College in Oakland that she decided to try her hand at writing for teens. She wrote her first novel, "Hold Still," as her thesis and never looked back. LaCour also works directly with teens in her day job as a high-school English teacher, with her students giving her insights into adolescent culture and inspiring her further.
Her newest book, "The Disenchantments," centers on a group of San Francisco friends and bandmates on a bare-bones tour of the Pacific Northwest following high-school graduation.
"My first novel was very serious, dealing with a best friend's suicide, so I was ready to write something more fun," she said of the novel, which finds its main character betrayed by his BFF and struggling to decide what to do with his life post-tour.
Because YA fiction usually features protagonists on the verge of adulthood, the exhilaration of new experiences is often a common thread, she said. "There's something about road trips that encapsulate what it means to grow up and be independent."
Forman, the author of the tearjerker "If I Stay" and its sequel "Where She Went," said she's always written for and about young people. Though as a former journalist (including a stint as a senior writer for Seventeen Magazine), she didn't turn to fiction until after the birth of her first child. YA was a natural fit. "Those have always been the stories that have spoken to me," she said.
Jess Rothenberg, too, has long felt a connection to teen literature.
"I never stopped loving books written for a young audience. I have so many memories tied to great books and the joy of reading," she said.
A full-time writer now, Rothenberg worked for six years as an editor of YA and middle-reader fiction, included the popular "Vampire Academy" series.
Since she began working in publishing, "I always hoped I would end up in that realm," she said, calling it a "fascinating market," with many opportunities for writers in the wake of the Harry Potter-era of YA successes with both young and adult readers.
Though she's a Brooklyn resident, Rothenberg is a big Bay Area fan. Her debut novel, "The Catastrophic History of You and Me," is even set on the Peninsula, with the Golden Gate Bridge serving as a gateway to the great beyond.
"San Francisco is one of my favorite cities in the world," she said. "I dream about living there, but my family would kill me because it's too far away."
In her book, the teen protagonist literally dies of a broken heart after her boyfriend tells her he doesn't love her. She then must navigate the world of the afterlife (with the help of a hunky guide) while observing her friends and family struggle with grief over her death.
"It's a big mix of sad and funny, light and dark, with a supernatural spin," Rothenberg said. The novel's plot was inspired partly by her own past relationship woes.
"I was in the midst of a broken heart and I started writing this to sort of write my way through those emotions, those grief stages," she said.
For Rothenberg, "the coolest thing about this whole experience" has been the response from fans.
"It's been amazing getting so many emails from all over the world," she said, from readers who relate to the heartache and emotions expressed by her characters. Rothenberg said readers have written messages telling her: "I'm going through these things, too," and "I hugged your book; it helped me through."
She's currently working on a second book for teens, but said she hasn't ruled out writing other types of books in the future. "I just want to follow the story."
What: "YA Extravaganza," an author event with four authors of young-adult literature: Gayle Forman, Jess Rothenberg, Nina LaCour and Stephanie Perkins. Moderated by Palo Alto author Heidi Kling.
Where: Kepler's bookstore, 1010 El Camino Real, Menlo Park
When: 7 p.m. April 18
Info: Go to keplers.com or call 650-324-4321.