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

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am Muñoz Ryan’s credit list is prolific, to say the least. With twenty-five published books to her name, Ryan has touched on several fiction genres, including young adult, middle grade, and children’s picture books. However, it’s often her YA novels, Esperanza Rising and Riding Freedom, that garner the most attention—mainly due to several prestigious awards the books have won. Esperanza Rising checks in with the Pura Belpré Award among others, while Riding Freedom was awarded the National Willa Cather Award for Best Young Adult Novel in 1999.

Ryan’s career building blocks are in the education sector: she was both a teacher and administrator. On a personal level, she raised four children. These glimpses into Ryan show her ability to capture the hearts and minds of her young adult audiences.

Ryan was so kind to share her insights into writing for young adults during a busy time—at the cusp of the release of her new YA book, The Dreamer, which follows the life of a young Neftali Reyes of Chile, otherwise known as the poet Pablo Neruda.

1.Your published books range in genre/target audience from board books and story books to middle grade and YA. Why the variety?

I like to change channels, to stretch and try different genres. It’s very easy to get into predictable patterns of writing, and it’s fun and a challenge to try something different.

2.Do you have one “favorite” genre? Are you, for example, hoping to return to YA or to fully concentrate on picture books?

A subject may lend itself to one form over another, one age over another. If I’m passionate about the subject and it works best as a picture book, then I will write in that format and vice versa. I don’t have any plans to limit myself.

“I don’t have any plans to limit myself.”

3.Personally, I have trouble identifying with teens and sometimes even older children. Was it difficult to get into the heads of the young characters?

Not at all. It’s really more about finding the character’s voice, discovering the character’s likes and dislikes, and ferreting out the character’s wishes and fears.

4.How is that best accomplished? How do you get inside their heads so well?

I was a teenager once, too and raised my own four teenagers. There are many themes which are universal: trying to discover who you are and where you fit into the world, coming to terms with parents, resolving issues with friends and siblings, feeling comfortable in your own skin, and somehow finding a way to voice your hopes and dreams. As I write, the characters feel very real to me.

5.What is your best advice for hopeful YA writers?

For adults who are aspiring YA writers, I would recommend that they read heavily in the genre (go to the American Library Association’s website for young adult literature for book lists and book awards), attend conferences and listen to YA authors speak, get involved with the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, and write. Spend more time writing than you spend mastering the business of publishing.

“Spend more time writing than you spend mastering the business of publishing.”

6.I noticed that some inspiration for Becoming Naomi Leon came from a trip to Oaxaca. Mexico is close to my heart, too. Where else have you visited? What other inspirations have you got from your travels?

I traveled to South America, to Chile, to research my new novel, The Dreamer.

7.My children (ages six and ten) have Hello Ocean/Hola Mar in their room, and we often read it as a bedtime story. Did you write the Spanish and English, or was that a translation?

Although many of my picture books and all of my novels have been published in Spanish (Esperanza Renace; Yo Naomi Leon, Un Caballo Llamada Libertad, Pinta el Viento, and El Soñador), they have all been translated by professional translators.

8.Esperanza and Naomi are both teenage Latina girls. Have you ever felt up to writing from the viewpoint of a young male? Do you think it would be more difficult?

The Dreamer has a male protagonist, and my novel that follows it will, too. No, I don’t find it more difficult—just different. I have two sons, and the house has always been full of their friends as it was with my two daughters as well.

9.When you built the characters of Naomi and Esperanza, were you writing with a young Latina audience in mind? Or were you writing for girls in general? Or youth in general?

I never know precisely who my audience might be. My first and foremost concern when I am writing any story, whether I achieve it or not, is that the reader, regardless of their heritage, feels compelled to turn the page.

“The momentum I feel from revisiting the manuscript over and over again is far more important than inspiration.”

10.Can you tell us a little about your writing process?

It’s not really a process but rather a very messy evolution. I start in a scene and go from there. I always begin the same way—with a very bad first draft, which becomes nothing more than something to fix, change, and hopefully make better. It’s hard to know the precise number of times I rewrite because with the computer, there are many times in which I revise a manuscript but don’t print. I would say that I rewrite each story, regardless if it’s a picture book or a novel, somewhere between twenty and thirty times. I’m a persistent writer. I work on a story even when I don’t feel like writing. I approach it as a commitment I make to the book. I don’t wait for inspiration. There is really nothing glamorous about it. I just sit down day after day and try to move the story forward. For me, the momentum I feel from revisiting the manuscript over and over again is far more important than inspiration.

11.I’ve recently ran into some writers who don’t “believe” in writers block—insisting that it’s procrastination or something else. What’s your take?

For me, time is far more a nemesis than writer’s block. I have far more that I want to write than time to write it.

12.The January issue of WOW! Women on Writing included some “fresh start” advice on writing spaces. Where do you write?

I have a home office. It’s an extra bedroom in our house that’s mainly my workspace. I have floor to ceiling bookcases and a big L-shaped desk. Above my desk on the wall are two giant maps—one of the United States and one of the world. I also have an overstuffed chair in my office for visitors and a day bed that doubles for overnight guests, but is mostly used by me for quick naps. I also have my can’t-be-without books within arm’s reach: a dictionary, thesaurus, Spanish/English dictionary, and several grammar books.

13.Do you read MG or YA yourself?

I read heavily in both genres.

14.I’ve seen an interview that stated that you were once a “voracious” reader. When your passion becomes your job like that, does the hobby take a beating? Do you still read solely for pleasure? Or does the craft creep in, even when you’re not “on the clock”?

I read a variety of books for different reasons: pleasure, craft, information, direction. I am like everyone else in that sometimes I feel like reading something serious and thought-provoking; and at other times, I feel like reading something more lighthearted.

15.Some of your stories come from seeds such as a verbal storytelling from a relative or from a folk tale or fable you’ve heard. Can you tell us a little about how to be open to these types of inspirations?

Family stories and cultural folk tales are inspired by mining your memories. There are many ways to do that and writing exercises that help trigger those memories. Many colleges offer memoir writing classes through their extension programs, so that’s one way to start.

16.How do you feel about all the vampires "draining" the YA shelves lately?

I think that there will always be subject trends that are popular and that capture the reader. If they keep readers interested in books, then they are only furthering the cause of literacy.

“I think that there will always be subject trends that are popular and that capture the reader.”

17.With the success of the upper level YA novels that are crossing over to adult fans, have you ever thought of writing for adults or even the older YA audiences?

It has crossed my mind, but I don’t have any plans at this time due to my contractual commitments to my publisher.

18.What was the inspiration for your new book about Pablo Neruda’s childhood?

In 2005, shortly after my return from a trip to Chile, I was at a conference with author and illustrator, Jon Muth. During a conversation, I mentioned my travels and the subject of Neruda came up. Jon told me a story about the young Neruda passing a gift to an unknown child through a hole in the fence. I was intrigued; and after the conference, I found the essay Neruda wrote about the incident. That was all it took for an idea to plant itself in my mind and relentlessly hold on. A few weeks later, I received a beautiful book in the mail from a friend in Chile, who knew of my affection for Neruda. The book was, in essence, children’s answers to selected questions from Neruda’s, The Book of Questions. I began thinking about a book inspired by The Book of Questions. One thing led to another, and I began a manuscript.

19.Will this American audience be able to identify with a young Chilean boy?

I think that there are many elements in Neruda’s young life that will feel common and familiar to readers: his strained relationship with his brother, his supportive relationship with his sister and Mamadre, his struggle for independence, his painful shyness, his desire to collect and organize mementos. And also, his suspicion and hope that there was something yet-to-be discovered about himself that was magnificent—something that he had to share.

20.Who else might this book appeal to?

When I wrote the book, I often envisioned a middle-grade boy and girl as the potential readers—brooding adolescents, who might feel misunderstood and might be closet artists. I saw them carrying the book around and writing in its margins. That would have been something I might have done. From the fifth grade on, I was an obsessive reader, and I carried favorite books with me, underlining and writing in the margins. I was also a day-dreamer and pretender, who could very easily slip into my own wandering thoughts. I think that is true for many young adults.

Thank you, Pam, for taking the time to share with us your new book and insights into writing books for children.

Ladies, to find out more about Pam Muñoz Ryan, you can visit her website at:


Allena Tapia is a freelance writer and editor, and owns her own firm, GardenWall Publications:

She has contracts with Sharpe Reference, the New York Times’, and is a longtime contributor to Latino Leaders magazine. She teaches a class on freelance writing through Lansing Community College in Lansing, Michigan, and plans to retire to Mexico on the proceeds from her first novel.


Enjoyed this interview? Check out some of Allena’s previous articles on WOW!:

Manifest Magic: Exploring Magic Realism

The Fatal 5 Finance Mistakes Writers Make

Photo Essay: One Writer's Home Office Makeover


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