Issue 38 - Being Real, Being True: YA Authors Writing for Teens - Ellen Hopkins, Carla McClafferty, Pam Munoz Ryan

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riting for a YA audience is akin to teaching teenagers in the classroom—a rewarding give-and-take relationship. It’s a challenge to connect with this age group and capture their attention. But on the flip side, once you do, they return the favor. The intense emotion, enthusiasm, and loyalty that cascade from young readers can encourage writers to return to the YA audience again and again.

Author Liz Rosenberg found a few minutes to share her thoughts about the inspiration she finds in writing YA books—even though she was in the middle of a challenging move from the U.S. to London. “London is not an easy city to navigate. Luckily, the people are beyond lovely and helpful.” Rosenberg tells us one of her inspirations is travel. Perhaps those lovely London people patiently explaining how English appliances work and where the nearest green grocer is will find their way into her next book.

Although Rosenberg’s latest release, Home Repair, is her first adult novel, she has written in many different genres including two YA novels, Heart and Soul and 17, touching on mental illness. Both her poetry and her children’s books have been award winners, with The Carousel appearing as a selection on the PBS children’s TV program Reading Rainbow. Her writing has also appeared in the New Yorker, the New York Times, the Atlantic Monthly, Harper's, and Paris Review. Rosenberg and her work have been included in two documentaries: Six Artists Who Happen To Be Women and How A Book Is Made.

Rosenberg’s family encouraged a love of reading from an early age. She went on to secure her BA at Bennington College in Vermont, her master’s degree in the writing seminars at Johns Hopkins, and her doctorate in comparative literature at the State University of New York at Binghamton. Her enjoyment of teaching has led her to guest teach and lecture around the world. Hence, the move to London!

Married to fellow writer David Bosnick since 1983, Rosenberg has two children: Eli and Lily. Her latest poetry book, The Lily Book, captures memories of the adoption of her daughter from China.

WOW:  Since the theme of this column is “inspiration,” can you tell us what inspires you to write?

LIZ:  I have always felt inspired to write, from the time I was a small child. My very first poem was inspired by the desire to describe something I found strange and beautiful—the inside of a pomegranate fruit. The red seeds looked like hundreds of tiny garnets. I think things that are strange and beautiful still move me—stories about people and moments that are unexpected, that startle you into a deeper awareness of the world’s wonder. It can be something small, like a bird flying by. It can be something you read in a newspaper. Definitely inspiration also comes from real life, all the time. Just keeping your eyes open—you’ll always be inspired.

WOW:  I would love to read that first poem! I think of you primarily as a fiction writer, but you do have several poetry books. How does poetry fit into your writing?

LIZ:  Poetry was my first love. Maybe it’s who I am essentially. One thing about poetry is that I think it does come like a fire from heaven. I don’t know that you can just labor your way into a poem. The poet Byron talked about “the fires of inspiration”—but we forget that he added, “But you have to keep fanning the coals!”

And yes, I do think my poems tend to come from a more personal place than fiction or nonfiction. It’s not a conscious decision; it’s truly what moves you, what makes you feel you have to write something down. At times, you might feel in fact you are writing too much about one thing, but you should follow your instincts and write about what you are passionate about. You always think it will last forever. It never does. Later you look back and say, “Thank heavens, I wrote those twenty-five poems about when my daughter was three. Or those fifteen poems about heartbreak.” Maybe only five or six survive the editing.

“ should follow your instincts and write about what you are passionate about.”

Stanley Kunitz, who lived to be over one hundred and was inspired right to the very end, advised poets, “Follow your folly.” Which is another way of saying, “Follow your passion.” You can always edit later. Also, the music of a poem comes all at once or not at all. For me, anyway. So in that way, the poem really comes on wings of music or not at all. The actual writing of a poem can be incredibly fast—and the revisions can take months or even years.

WOW:  I’ve always been in awe of writers who can turn words into poems. I seem to lack the “music-of-a-poem” gene. You’ve traveled quite a bit on teaching engagements. Do you feel being in a new place with a new outlook gives you new things to be passionate about? How does the teaching process influence your work?

LIZ:  I’m always inspired by teaching young people. I read what they write and am blown away by the beauty and depth they reveal. Yes, I have been lucky to travel all over the world teaching—in Austria, Russia, Sweden, and now England. Any time you leave your comfort zone, you are likely to be inspired and to see the world anew. Or as the Buddhists would say, “To see with a Fresh Mind.” Gertrude Stein used to say she become an expatriate in order to see more clearly. A lot of writers have done this, but I think I’d get too homesick. On the other hand, I’ve done a lot of my writing on the move—on trains, in cars (not driving usually!), and even on long walks. Any new perspective helps—shakes something loose.

“I think YA books should move fast, should really delve into the truth of how it feels to be no longer a child, [and] not yet an adult in the eyes of the world.”

WOW:  You’ve written a variety of different books: picture books, poetry books, YA, and now adult fiction with your latest release Home Repair. But what is your favorite thing about writing for the teen audience?

LIZ:  I love the YA audience because it is so passionate. I think almost everything inspires teenagers—first love, idealism, hopes, fantasies, disappointments even. It’s such an intense time that it makes for an intense audience. Almost any book about people from about ages thirteen to eighteen has the potential to be a YA book; but beyond that, I think YA books should move fast, should really delve into the truth of how it feels to be no longer a child, [and] not yet an adult in the eyes of the world.

WOW:  You wrote the YA novel 17 about mental illness within a family. This could just have easily been an adult novel. Why did you choose to frame it as a YA book as opposed to adult?

LIZ:  I really always wanted to address some of the special pressures that fall on young people. For me, being a teenager was often a time of intense emotions—both good and bad—and I felt that this story would reach the right people if I wrote with a young heroine in the center. Of course, her mom is an adult and is suffering from the real mental illness in the family—manic depression. So you’re right, theoretically it could have been a book for adults. But I wanted a book for and about teenagers who not only deal with the problems of the grownups they live with but their own pressures, coming from things like first love, family dynamics, falling in love with the wrong person, friendships...

WOW:  Mental illness is a difficult issue for many people to talk about. Why did you decide to tackle it in 17?

LIZ:  I think I wanted to tackle it precisely because it’s such a hard issue to talk about. Yet anywhere from ten to twenty percent of our total population suffers from one kind of mental illness or another—depression especially. So it’s a secret tribe that suffers too much in silence, and I wanted to bring some of that out into the open. People should not be afraid or ashamed to talk about what they are going through or what their families are experiencing. You wouldn’t feel that way if you had a diabetic in the family.

WOW:  As the mother of two teenagers, I know they’re wary of talking about something as mundane as what happened in English class let alone real problems. Many teenagers either refuse to talk about the problems in their lives or have limited opportunities. For some, reading YA books might be their sole opportunity to “meet” people going through the same issues they are. Does that give you, as the author, a feeling of responsibility to be not just entertaining but also helpful?

LIZ:  Absolutely! And I truly want to be both, and that is what I set out to do both in Heart and Soul (my first YA novel) and in 17—and for that matter in the new novel, which is really for grown ups and YAs, Home Repair. The mail and e-mail and Facebook messages I get in response to these books is so touching to me and always blows me away.

WOW:  Does knowing that a teenager somewhere may be relying on your writing to be much more than just an entertaining read make the writing more difficult? Or more rewarding?

LIZ:  More rewarding. We all write from a sense of purpose and a desire to reach out—across time and across space. And when I feel like the work has touched someone, that’s the best feeling in the world. Never be afraid to write to an author—we love to hear from you!

“One person made a very significant choice as a result of reading a particular passage, and now she keeps me on her Christmas letter list.”

WOW:  It sounds like your readers have lots of opportunities to reach out to you. Did you have any experiences with 17 where a reader told you the book helped them with a situation in their life?

LIZ:  Yes, I’ve had some very moving correspondences where readers have told me that they were feeling lost or in the middle of something difficult, that my work provided a kind of map for them. One person made a very significant choice as a result of reading a particular passage, and now she keeps me on her Christmas letter list. That is the best feeling in the world and makes you feel that the writing and the effort and the hours have all been worthwhile.

WOW:  Are the reactions of your teen audiences different from the reactions of your adult audiences?

LIZ:  No readers are more intense than the YA readers. They’ll tell me, “I’ve read your book 3 times,” or “I keep your book by my bed.” In some ways, teenage audiences are very private; but in other ways, they reach out more—they follow authors on Facebook and Twitter and are at ease doing that. It’s like earning a true friend. I feel touched and amazed by each and every contact, for that reason. If a teenager reader is with you, they are with you all the way.

Sometimes they contact me by e-mail or Facebook, but it’s almost always online—I think for teens that’s a comfort zone. Only adults have called me on the phone or written me actual snail mail.

“...humor, to me, is a saving grace. I try to include it in every book.”

WOW:  Did you have any titles or authors that helped you as a young adult? Or books you wish had existed then?

LIZ:  Well, to be honest, I often wished there were more books when I was a kid about other young people who suffered from depression—and I think it made me treasure the few that did. I Never Promised You a Rose Garden, the poems of Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar: I clung to those books. But I wish something like Shizuko's Daughter or 17 had been around then. But I had plenty to love and read—Anne of Green Gables, Little Women, A Wrinkle in Time—all of those heroines deal with some pretty daunting life events. And there's humor in all of those books; and humor, to me, is a saving grace. I try to include it in every book.

WOW:  It seems the humor makes it more realistic. I always notice that funny situations seem to crop up, even in the most serious times of my life. Besides humor, how else did you create characters that rang so true in 17?

LIZ:  Part of us always remembers what it is to be a child—what it is to be a teenager. We really don’t lose that; we just might lose track of it. My advice would be—remember. Pay attention. The material is all there—you just have to trust it and yourself, and you can access it again.

WOW:  You seem so enthusiastic about the genre—have you ever considered another YA book?

LIZ:  Absolutely! In fact I’m working on one now, but I won’t give away any details quite yet.

Thanks so much for making me part of this! Readers are welcome to contact me on Facebook (notes are welcome along with Friend requests), or to write to me at lrosenb[at]binghamton[dot]edu.

WOW:  We have so many YA writers. I think you’ll be getting a deluge of mail from WOW! writers after they read your books. And now that you’re keeping secrets, I can’t wait to read your next book!


Jodi M. Webb lives in Pottsville, Pennsylvania with her husband and three children. She has written hundreds of articles for publications such as The History Magazine, Pennsylvania Magazine, and Christian Science Monitor. She has also contributed to anthologies on baseball, gardening, pop culture, married life and the military. Pennsylvania Trivia (Blue Bike Books), a book she co-authored, was released in September 2008. In her spare time, she works on her first novel—the story of a group of women on the home front during World War II.

Jodi is also WOW! Women On Writing’s Blog Tour Manager. You can email her at jodi[at]wow-womenonwriting[dot]com.


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