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Teen Voices Author Tour Roundtable Interview with Jen Bryant, Simon Cheshire, E. Lockhart and Tanya Lee Stone

Jen Krieger and Marisa Emralino of sat down with four authors of young adult fiction who participated in The Teen Voices Author Tour sponsored by Random House Children's Books. Jen Bryant, Simon Cheshire, E. Lockhart and Tanya Lee Stone discussed a wide variety of topics, including their childhood literary influences, the state of teen literature today, the advantages and disadvantages of writing from the first person point of view vs. third person, and the feedback they've received from readers.

Childhood literary influences and reading habits:

Tanya Lee Stone was always an avid reader as a child, and spent a lot of time in her elementary school library. She explained that her reading habits were greatly influenced by the school librarian, who would even hold new books for her so she'd be the first to check them out.

As a teen, she read mostly adult fiction interspersed with young adult authors like Judy Blume and Beverly Cleary. Some of her favorite books were WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE, THE PHANTOM TOLLBOOTH, THE LAST OF THE REALLY GREAT WHANGDOODLES, and HAROLD AND THE PURPLE CRAYON. "I especially loved HAROLD AND THE PURPLE CRAYON because I was fascinated by the idea that you could create your own life --- that you could draw your own life."

Also an avid reader, E. Lockhart read some young adult fiction but felt that they didn't influence her as much as adult literature, mainly because the genre wasn't nearly as popular as it is today. "Growing up, we didn't have as broad a selection of YA literature as we do now. Authors like Judy Blume and Robert Cormier were around, but they were so heavy and so serious that I turned to some lighter reads like Beverly Cleary."

Jen Bryant cites Dr. Seuss as her favorite childhood author, and as her earliest poetry influence. During her teen years, she enjoyed reading spy novels like EYE OF THE NEEDLE, as well as any books about horses she could get her hands on, like ALL CREATURES GREAT AND SMALL by James Herriot and the Black Stallion books by Walter Farley. 

She became interested in writing from her father, who owned a funeral parlor. She explained, "I was fascinated by the obituaries he wrote because they summarized all the details of a person's entire life into just one little paragraph."

Simon Cheshire's childhood reading habits worried his parents. "They would always yell, 'Go out! Get some fresh air!' and I'd prefer to hide in a corner with a book!"

Ironically, he credits television --- specifically the BBC --- for his progression from reading children's books to adult books. He described the afternoon programs the channel would air, which featured old sci-fi B-films. "These movies fired my imagination! And they got me started on science fiction novels." 

One of Simon's favorite books was THE HOBBIT by J. R. R. Tolkien. What he loved the most about this classic was the fact that, regardless of how many times he had read it, he would find something new in the story each time.

Writing from a confessional, stream-of-conscious-like, first person point of view:

Simon Cheshire discussed the "pluses and minuses" of writing in this particular style. He explained that because that voice is so personal, he thinks that writing in first person is a much easier vehicle to get inside his characters' minds. "I find it liberating to write in first person. To write as someone thinks is freeing from formal prose, and it's quite attractive to most audiences."

Despite the benefits of writing from the first person point of view, it also has its challenges and limitations: "The minus is that all of the action of the novel is limited to one character."

Writing in first person is a bit of a departure for Tanya Lee Stone, who writes mostly from the third person perspective. She explains, however, that her novel, A BAD BOY CAN BE GOOD FOR A GIRL, calls for that change. Because the book has three different protagonists, she "wanted to capture each character's unique voice authentically, and make those voices believable."

E. Lockhart often writes in first person, preferring this narrative style to others. She admits, "I honestly just do a better job writing in first person. I've always been interested in how people talk and how their brains work."

However, she finds the stream-of-consciousness style of FLY ON THE WALL to be challenging. "It's difficult to sequence because it involves very little reflection. Everything happens in the moment."

Jen Bryantbelieves that the first person voice actually "chose her." By setting PIECES OF GEORGIA in the same area where she herself had grown up, the story takes on an autobiographical element; from there, the personal narrative style just arose naturally.

Jen also finds a didactic element to writing in this manner. She explained, "I wasn't formally trained to be a writer, so I had to study the "masters" just like Georgia [her protagonist] studies the Wyeths. This was a good exercise for me in psychology."

Writing for a young adult audience:

Tanya Lee Stone talked about how she cares deeply for her audience and wants them to know who they are and how to make choices. "I had a lot to say to girls about love and sex," she mused. "I relied on my perspective and hindsight because my teenage years still feel like yesterday. Teenage years are complicated and intense, so they stay with you."

She also made it clear that she didn't know what would happen to each of her protagonists in A BAD BOY CAN BE GOOD FOR A GIRL; instead, she just wanted to portray a similar situation happening to very different girls and see where the characters would take her.

E. Lockhart expressed her frustration with the idea that "Literature for teenagers is judged as a message machine --- that because characters in books smoke, do drugs, party, etc., this is representative of all teen literature and the message that these books convey."

"I find it heartbreaking," she continued. "Books should be used as things of discussion. You don't have to agree with what the book is saying --- the message is unilateral and should be a source for discussion." But, on a lighter note, the fun of writing without a "motive" is that "things just pop up." To illustrate this Lockhart drew our attention to one of her short stories, "Bake Sale," that involved the creation of "breast cupcakes." "I didn't have a MESSAGE about breast cupcakes," she laughed. "I just thought they were funny."

Jen Bryant doesn't have an intended message or "moral" in mind when she writes for young adults. Instead, each book is driven by character. She described how she writes about loss, because that's what she knows: "My father was a funeral director, so I was always surrounded by grief." 

"I didn't set out to write about them [the themes in her books]," she continued. "They just arose naturally. The plot came as a surprise, and the novel was just a lens to examine an issue."

Simon Cheshire talked about how all authors work through aspects of themselves. "This drives the writing, and the message is secondary. If there happens to be a message, that's fine. And if there's no message, that's fine too." To prove his point, he told us: "Some of my readers have approached me and said the reason why they like PLASTIC FANTASTIC and KISSING VANESSA is because there IS no message!"

Writing for other age groups:

All four authors agree that, if writing for an audience other than teenagers, they don't consciously alter the ways they write.

Jen Bryant shared a few examples concerning her neighbors, Jerry and Eileen Spinelli: "Eileen would often get her ideas for her children's books from the poetry she wrote for adults. And Jerry would always say, 'I didn't even know I was writing for children!'"

Simon Cheshire believes that the story will set its own tone.

Tanya Lee Stone, who also authors picture books, finds the transition between writing children's and young adult literature particularly easy. As the mother of a four-year-old son, she has experience in getting herself into a much younger mindset. "But," she laughingly admitted, "The YA voice I use is closest to my psychological age."  

E. Lockhart contributed that her main characters belongs to the age group for which she is writing, which, in turn, influences the rest of the ways her novels are shaped.

The definition of young adult literature:

Simon Cheshire bristled at the idea that all young adult fiction is viewed through the lens of certain popular teen series like The Clique or Gossip Girl. "It's like saying all adult fiction is THE DA VINCI CODE," he protested. "It [young adult fiction] is too broad a term…it's too expansive to be categorized by one off-shoot." Furthermore, "Teens are more spread out than people give them credit for --- it's not valid to stereotype them. Teens want broadness in what they read, as long as it comes in a relevant form."

Tanya Lee Stone and E. Lockhartboth agree that it is disappointing when book critics and other adults seem to think that there is only one kind of young adult literature being written.

Popular misconceptions about today's teenagers:

All four authors agree that the most frustrating misconceptions about teenagers are similar to the most popular misconceptions regarding young adult literature --- simply that they (teens and books) are all the same.

Jen Bryant believes that most people don't think that teens --- girls, especially --- are interested in knowing so much more about the world around them. "During this tour, I've come across readers fascinated by politics, art, and so many other subjects. Their minds aren't just limited to clothes and makeup and Peoplemagazine."

Readers' comments that have affected them:

Jen Bryant shared an experience she had while meeting a student from Springfield, PA, who spoke to her about their school activities --- many of which also involved their parents. This conversation made her realize that teens these days don't have much time for introspection anymore. When readers can really connect with her characters and when they say to her, "That is how I feel all the time," it affects her deeply. One comment that struck her was a reader's statement of affinity with Georgia, from PIECES OF GEORGIA. "I'm just like her. I like to be by myself," the young woman stated. "Georgia is my other self."

Simon Cheshire welcomes any kind of feedback. He believes that often he can see the impact his work has on his young adult audiences by their physical reactions when they talk to him: "You can see it in someone's facial expressions," he said. "The best kind of feedback is often found in the facial expressions [of readers], not the words --- their faces say 'I understand that; I went through that.'"

Tanya Lee Stone gets emails from readers saying, "Thank you for your honesty!" and "Thank you for characters who you trust to figure things out for themselves." She also receives many comments from readers who say, "I am a lot like [your characters]; I see myself in them."

In the end, she believes --- and the other writers agree --- that teens appreciate books that don't have a "big moral message" but those that let their characters stumble, fall, pick themselves up, and learn from their mistakes.

Advice for aspiring writers:

All the authors chimed in to answer this question simultaneously. They said to "be readers; be revisers; be persistent but write freely; take an internship at a publishing company or start off by simply writing little things on a blog."

Simon Cheshire added, "Write as much as you can, even if you just tear up your pages and no one reads what you've come up with. You can even keep a journal for your own personal use."