The Lure of Team Written Books: Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan

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Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist
Note: Not the movie version cover
I hugely enjoy team written books. It's possible the first one that really registered off the scale on my YA literature radar was Nick and Nora's Infinite Playlist by David Levithan and Rachel CohnThese two writers refined the idea of using alternating chapters with different points of view (in this case, the two protagonists, one male, one female) to push a story along in the most compelling way.  The book is sweet, funny, poignant and sexy and in one night, two characters grow more than they did in the months preceding.  I've actually given it as presents to kids who have found it life-altering. Full confession: I couldn't bring myself to watch the movie.  (I have an issue with books into movies - I believe the motion picture industry, in a vain attempt to avoid original work, attempts to find excellent books and then ruin them onscreen.  Nicholas Sparks is the exception to this rule; his books are "neh" but the movies are usually much better.)  I think a book with so much internal monologue is destined for disaster on the movie screen since either you do voice over and it's cheesy, or you leave out all the vulnerable internal stuff and the characters look snarky (which happened here based on my watching trailer clips and interviewing kids who actually watched it and were terribly disappointed).  I also hate it when the sad, pathetic friend with a drinking problem is the comic relief - there is plenty that is incredibly funny about the book, but alcoholism isn't part of it.

David and Rachel followed it up with another good effort (although not as earth-shattering as Nick and Nora's Naomi and Ely's No Kiss List, about two best friends who have to come to terms with their feelings when a boy comes between them and causes them to confront truths about their relationship.  In a similar vein, I was excited to see that they have a new project due to come out this fall, Dash & Lily's Book of Dares, so I'll be buying a couple copies for the library very soon. So we know David Levithan is a genius cowriter when he's got Rachel Cohn in his back pocket, but what about someone else?  Enter John Green, genius, Printz award winner, cofounder of Nerdfighters Made of Awesome, and premier video blogger.  The perfect collaborator for a very special book.  Anyone who can turn out amazing books like Looking for Alaska, An Abundance of Katherines (my all-time John Green favorite) and Paper Towns deserves to wear a sparkly crown and have people bow to his every whim.

Will Grayson, Will GraysonWill Grayson, Will Grayson is definitely a good union of these two author's styles.  I was actually surprised at how dark the David Levithan portion was, but let me explain the premise first in case you haven't heard anything about the book.  Here's the description from the website:
One cold night, in a most unlikely corner of Chicago, two teens—both named Will Grayson—are about to cross paths. As their worlds collide and intertwine, the Will Graysons find their lives going in new and unexpected directions, building toward romantic turns-of-heart and the epic production of history’s most fabulous high school musical.
Hilarious, poignant, and deeply insightful, John Green and David Levithan’s collaborative novel is brimming with a double helping of the heart and humor that have won both them legions of faithful fans.
 Readers familiar with Levithan and Green's individual books will easily tell who wrote which chapters.  David Levithan's Will Grayson is a dark, depressed individual struggling to come to terms with his family life and his sexuality and the tone of these pages reminded me a lot of Levithan's book about 9-11, Love is the Higher Law.   John Green's style is obvious with his usual trademarks in evidence - a vulnerable, funny Will Grayson placed in often absurd situations who happens to have a vibrant sidekick, in this case the over-the-top, football playing, musical writing, very out of the closet, Tiny Cooper.  At a recent YALSA session featuring John Green, a librarian asked when we could expect Tiny Cooper on Broadway and the whole room burst into excited applause (no musical is planned as of yet).  There were times that the Chicago area setting felt a little like an homage to John Hughes' films - I could even hear the uber cool playlist in the background.  Will Grayson, Will Grayson is a great addition to each authors collection and it's great to see two such different writer merge styles into such a successful project.

Let It Snow: Three Holiday RomancesIn thinking about highly successful collaborative writing projects, I have to plug a project that did not get enough press when it came out.  Let It Snow is a fantastic project John Green wrote with Maureen Johnson (known for her Scarlet books) and Lauren Myracle (of ttyl fame).  Also written in alternating chapters starring different characters, a Christmas blizzard intertwines the lives of these teens as they find romance and friendship, sometimes where they least expect it during an often extremely surreal holiday.  John Green seems to have two partners in his often bizarre and laugh out loud sense of humor so anyone who has enjoyed his books would do well to pick this one up, whether or not it's Christmas or just Christmas in July.

Promoting Teen Reading with Web 2.0 Tools - Part II: Author Madness

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Yes, I'm still thinking about the terrific YALSA Preconference I attended a month ago.  (I take time to percolate on things - whatever.)  This half day event (which should have been an entire day) started off by having some wonderful academics speak about recent research in the area of teens and reading, but I've already blogged about that part.  After hearing about the research, it was great to have the next chunk of the preconference be about online reading and the art of interacting with readers.  Did I mention who the experts were?  Just amazing AUTHORS who happen to excel at this art of connection.  Cha-ching.

Violet on the RunwayDone in panel form (the world of YA literature seems to be small enough that all authors seem to get along really well or at least have some kind of special handshake that makes them instantly like each other), our experts consisted of Melissa Walker, Malinda Lo, and Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl.  Melissa Walker, author of the Violet series, came from a unique background of fashion magazine editorship and said that she felt so many magazine really did not address the aspect of teen reading to the extent she would have liked.  Rather than sit around kvetching, she not only became an author herself, but became a blog editor for Readergirlz, an incredibly popular blog covering YA literature and known for good author interviews and online chats.  Readergirlz chooses books with strong female characters and has the unique angle of its featured authors writing 10 questions for readers to consider when thinking about their books (bring, bring - dialing librarians...instant book discussion fodder here).  Readers are encouraged to create playlists that they feel fit the book's tone (also a great book discussion club idea) and just engage in general with the authors who they get to chat live.  On her personal blog, Melissa said she took the reader engagement seriously by asking her readers for ideas.  In a recent book, her editor suggested that she take the known bands referenced in the novel and substitute fake band names to keep the book from getting dated.  Melissa turned around and asked her readership for band name suggestions and the material she got back was so terrific she used several.  In the area of continued empowerment, Melissa is also a founder of the Before You Were Hot blog, in which people submit shockingly embarrassing photos of their young selves.  She said that no follow up "hot photos" are required of submitters because the blog authors allow people to define their own hotness. 

AshMalinda Lo was the next author in the panel and anyone who has not yet read her book, Ash, a retelling of the Cinderella story, needs to get off their duff and hop to it.  Malinda started out as an entertainment reporter and realized the importance of authors having coherent websites and contact information since she experienced several with neither quality.  She spoke about how she actually spent so much time working on her website that it became overwhelming and she realized (with the help of her editor) that she needed to back off and focus on her writing.  She simplified and streamlined her website after this revelation and said that, while her blog entries are less frequent, they are far more relevant and meaningful.  She maintains a strong professional boundary between herself and her audience and because of the GLBTQ content of Ash, she said that she often gets some very heartfelt and revelatory emails from young men and women in the midst of dealing with issues surrounding their sexuality.  Working in a school, I am used to listening to kids reveal inner thoughts and feelings (and knowing when to call in advisors and school counselors so we could work as a team to make sure these students were healthy and supported) but Malinda's concerns seemed to inspire a lot of head nodding from the public librarians who are obviously in a tough position when it comes to privacy and helping teens yet maintaining an awareness of boundaries.

Beautiful CreaturesLast up was the team of Margaret Stohl (who asked us to call her Margie, that's a hard "g" thank you) and Kami Garcia.  They are the team that made buzz history with the response to their novel, Beautiful Creatures, a book that was written on a dare from Margaret's teenage daughter.  Margie and Kami were joking about how they should write a book together (Kami was a longtime friend and an English teacher) and Margie's daughter taunted them with the idea that they would never finish the project if they tried to write a novel.  Twelve weeks later, she was eating her words!  Kami and Margie said that for them it was like writing a "bedtime story" to a very specific audience.  The daughter and her friends became a focus group for the author duo and they discovered that these young women (and occasionally a young man) wanted a more powerful female protagonist than what they were reading, specifically one that didn't have to be rescued, and they enjoyed a strong sense of place, particularly a highly regional one with magical overtones.  Enter Beautiful Creatures, which has been termed a Southern Gothic paranormal romance, and not just by me in my blog entry about it.

Kami and Margie, while using focus groups (Margie came from a video gaming industry background and said that soliciting feedback in this way seemed very natural for her), never lost sight of the fact that they felt their readership was a global one, a wise consideration since the book has been translated into a few dozen languages and been a best seller across the globe.  They have a Facebook page for the Caster Chronicles series (and their individual Facebook pages are open ones to the public and therefore maintained by them in a professional manner), Kami is on Twitter and in fact says she is happy to respond to questions via that format.  They each have their own blogs and promote some pretty great fan pages (check out Caster Girls & Boys), have contests, support their publisher websites and have a YouTube Channel.  I'm exhausted just listening to them.  Even the other authors began cracking jokes about how they needed to step up!

At this point, the moderators opened up the panel to questions from the audience and you could hear the cogs turning in librarian minds about how we can apply all this information to help our teens recreationally read in the most energizing and fun way possible.  One librarian was rather tongue in cheek, asking the authors if they felt that their personal website for their blog or book was better than the official publisher one, but the authors didn't take the bait (one or two waived to their editor who was in the audience with a cheeky smile) and they said that it was always a good addition.  Margie Stohl mentioned that the "cult of personality" is big among teens so the more personal the connection to the author, the more likely teens are to read and be engaged.  There was quite a happy and enthusiastic discussion about Skype among the authors, who said that they wished they could get out to libraries more to connect with teens and that Skype was a method they were comfortable using.  They mentioned the great "skype an author" website set up for this purpose of connecting authors and readers, and they all said they would never charge a library for skyping them (*heart you, authors!!!*).  Interestingly enough, they also said that in their experience, students are MORE engaged and revelatory in Skype sessions since the medium kept them from being tongue-tied around authors.

The session concluded with the authors telling us about their upcoming books.  Of course, Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl have their sequel to Beautiful Creatures, Beautiful Darkness, coming out in October. (Side note: as with all YALSA things the giveaways are awesome and we received a tote bag with a few ARCs, including Beautiful Darkness!) Kami and Margie said that the sequel is darker than the first book and that they believe that fans will be very satisfied.  Melissa Walker said she is working on her next book, Small Town Sinners, due out in 2011 about Hell Houses.  Does everyone know what those are?  In case you don't, Hell Houses are kind of like the haunted houses you can visit around Halloween, but instead of Frankenstein and chainsaw-wielding maniacs, evangelical Christians act out the horror and consequences of major sins in the hope that onlookers will become born again Christians or be confirmed of their already existing beliefs if they already are one.  Melissa said she was interested in a female protagonist who, through her participation in a Hell House and through the lives of her friends, begins to question her beliefs and wonder if life isn't more complex than she was brought up to believe.  Malinda Lo said that she is working on a companion novel to Ash called The HuntressThe Huntress is set in the same world as Ash but is more of an origins story several hundred years prior to the Ash's world.  Since Ash's world deals with some rather major conflicts around religion, I know I'm riveted in my seat if I get to find out more about how those tensions began.  It's due out in April 2011.  I can't wait for all of them!

A Series That Thrills Me...The Wicked Lovely Books by Melissa Marr

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I'm really enjoying the recent books published dealing with the fairy realm.  It's just a wild guess, but I think the popular response to all the vampire books has given authors and publishers permission to take a walk on the wild side and go a little darker when it comes to fairies.  This has placed stories out of the Tinkerbell genre and right where they belong from a literature and myth perspective - in very dangerous territory.

Radiant Shadows (Wicked Lovely)
I don't know why I haven't blogged before on fairy books that I've loved, but suffice it to say that I'm fixing this now.   Melissa Marr leads the pack (in my heart) in this respect of all things fairy - her books are dark and sexy with great characters and a subculture that knocks your socks off.  With the latest installment of the Wicked Lovely series here in the form of the book Radiant Shadows, readers have gotten an even more compelling novel that will leave them craving more.  HarperCollins has been a great publisher for her since I love the way they don't hesitate to plug their video booktrailers.  Hopefully they realize they hit the jackpot with Melissa since she is such a social network maven with her great blog and Twitter posts that brighten everyone's day.  Check out the Radiant Shadows booktrailer to get a sense of what I mean. 

Wicked Lovely (Wicked Lovely (Quality))So what is the Wicked Lovely series, exactly?  (We all know booktrailers leave a great deal unsaid.)  Wicked Lovely was the first book in the series (and I'd recommend reading them in order just to catch all the character development) which introduced us to an unnamed gritty city in which Aislinn, a young teenage girl, lives with her grandmother and desperately tries to have a normal existence.  Rather a challenge, considering that she can see fairies.  I gather this is quite a talent considering that no human is supposed to see a fairy unless that individual fairy wants to be seen.  She catches the eye of Keenan, the Summer King, who has been trying to find a queen for his court for centuries, a development that does not thrill Seth, Aislinn's edgy boyfriend.  Keenan is not without emotional baggage either, and his former girlfriend, Donia, not only still loves him but might be the heir to the Winter Court, which would mean she would be set in polar opposition to him in the fairy power play.

Ink Exchange (Wicked Lovely (Quality))And so starts the series, which basically hovers around the conflict and complications of the interaction between the fairy realm and the human world.  The second book, Ink Exchange, while still showing us the lives of the previous book's characters, is much darker.  It deals with Aislinn's friend, Leslie, who has suffered at the hands of her brother's drug dealing friends.  She decides to get a tattoo from local artist, Rabbit, and ends up bonded to the king of the Dark Court, Irial.  This places her in another kind of hell as she physically needs him to live (and he needs to use her as a conduit to give dark human feelings and emotions to the fairies of his court so they don't go out and try and make them happen on their own).  Through sheer chutzpah and the help of some sympathetic fairies, she manages to forge a new life for herself, although the fairy players in this game do not remain unaltered by their experience with her.

Fragile Eternity (Wicked Lovely)Just when you thought the first two books were exceptionally well-written and things couldn't get better, the third book, Fragile Eternity, knocks your socks off.  Focusing on Seth, who is still in love with Aislinn despite her recent ascent to Summer Queen, this novel explores the bargains intelligent mortals are willing to make for love.  Taking him to the fairy realm, Seth follows his heart and causes some rather important players in the fairy world to feel tied to his cause.  The price he has to pay is a large one, but he might actually cause a shift of power to take place as important fairies decide to back him and give him access to what he most desires - Aislinn.  But things aren't so simple as Aislinn doesn't know anything except the mortal love of her life has disappeared and her Summer King is willing to help her believe that Seth may have abandoned her cause in the hope that she will turn to him for solace.

So now we come to Radiant Shadows, the second to last book in the series (don't you love that the trailer drops "penultimate" on you?  Way to keep it classy, HarperCollins!).  We are introduced to two of the best characters in the series (who knew?) Ani, tattoo artist Rabbit's sister, and Devlin, the brother and assassin to the High Queen.  Devlin has only disobeyed his sister once, when she ordered him to kill Ani and her sister as children, and now the girl he thought was human has turned out to be the half-fey daughter of Gabriel, leader of the Hounds.  While Ani wrestles with her fairy and mortal desires, Devlin must wrestle with his desire for her and the knowledge that something more important is taking place as Ani attracts some powerful attention.  What is her significance in the fairy world and how can the two of them help restore order to a world threatening to come apart?

The final book, Darkest Mercy, is due out in 2011 (*frustration*) and promises to bring all these characters and plot lines together.  With another writer I might be nervous about their ability to thread all these strong individuals together coherently, but not Melissa Marr.  I have a feeling she will not disappoint!

Why Do People Shy Away from Books About Autism?

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Marcelo in the Real World (Schneider Family Book Award. Teen)It's a good question to ask because I've done it.  Marcelo in the Real World by Francisco X. Stork had been on my reading list for most of the school year but I kept putting it off - surely there was another vampire book, werewolf-zombie love triangle book, book about talking grasshoppers, etc. I should be reading rather than a book that sounded like a tough sell to my kids?  We have students that land on the autism spectrum in our school and they are wonderful, unique students, so why do I hesitate to read about them? 

My best guess is that I know that these kids live in a hard world, one that was not designed to understand them or play to their strengths, and since I notice I tend to avoid books about other hard subjects, I'm going to chalk my hesitancy to the same impulse that sends me out of the room to get a glass of water or vacuum the bedroom when something tense or sad is happening on the Law & Order episode I'm watching.  I'm not proud of it, but there you go.

I'm an idiot for putting off Marcelo in the Real World, however, because it's one of the best books I've read all year.  Not only is the main character of Marcelo Sandoval so incredibly well-written that you want to begin hanging out with him (and understand more about autism) but the supporting characters are fully developed human beings.  The location of the Boston area is accurately depicted (natives will recognize many neighborhoods and landmarks) as should be expected from Francisco Stork who both studied at Harvard University and now lives and works as an attorney in the area.  Before I get ahead of myself, let's take a look at how the publisher describes the book:
Marcelo Sandoval hears music no one else can hear--part of the autism-like impairment no doctor has been able to identify--and he's always attended a special school where his differences have been protected. But the summer after his junior year, his father demands that Marcelo work in his law firm's mailroom in order to experience "the real world." There Marcelo meets Jasmine, his beautiful and surprising coworker, and Wendell, the son of another partner in the firm. He learns about competition and jealousy, anger and desire. But it's a picture he finds in a file -- a picture of a girl with half a face -- that truly connects him with the real world: its suffering, its injustice, and what he can do to fight. Reminiscent of "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time" in the intensity and purity of its voice, this extraordinary novel is a love story, a legal drama, and a celebration of the music each of us hears inside. (from Scholastic's website)
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time I suppose you can't get around the comparison to The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time since it was also a successful and acclaimed book starring an autistic protagonist, and let's not forget the recent movie, Temple Grandin, of the writer and scholar of that same name who made her autism a defined asset in her academic work with animals.  These books, now accompanied by Marcelo, are offering insight into the different ways that brains work when autism is added into the equation and the result is nothing short of fascinating.  In addition to the information and perspective of autism, however, I was floored by the inclusion of a couple other themes in Stork's novel.  While this is undoubtedly a coming-of-age tale as Marcelo is pushed out of the comfort zone of his school for special needs students, he must also confront not only the human interaction that sometimes challenges him, but other issues of race and class.   His nemesis Wendell (also the son of one of the law partners) casts up the ethnicity of Marcelo's father, inferring that Mr. Sandoval's more modest background and legal achievements were somehow a result of affirmative action (versus Wendell's WASP background and his father's old boy network).  Wendell's pursuit of Jasmine, which is certainly more carnal than romantic, also has class overtones as he assumes she would be an easy sexual mark because of her working class Vermont background.  The Latina background of the young girl victim and the hard working Hispanic lawyer who is trying to get her justice also is another wonderful layer to this story.

Another surprise for me was the religion theme in this book.  While modern young adult literature often wrestles with ethics, and therefore moral codes explicit or not, many authors seem to shy away from more in depth discussions of religion in the lives of their protagonists unless it is vital to his or her identity or the plot. Marcelo has religion as his "special interest", the term he uses to describe the intense focus on a particular topic sometimes experienced by people on the autism spectrum.  His mother wisely introduced him early on to a wonderful female rabbi who has become one of Marcelo's close friends and who helps him deal with some of the cruel realities Marcelo faces as his father places him in the "real world".  The sweetness of the deepening friendship between Marcelo and Jasmine and the potential it possesses to become something more is a valuable romantic perspective.  When so many recent YA novels have been about obsessive, passionate, all-consuming love, it is nice to remember that sometimes love is gentle and just sneaks up on you.  This novel does a lovely job showing how that kind of love can be just as enthralling as the "jump off a cliff if I can't be with you" variety.

From the standpoint of a librarian, we have got to stay on top of the wave of information about autism, not only for the students in our lives dealing with this issue but also because so many of our non-autistic students have family members also coping with this issue.  Add to that our commitment to librarians to all types of diversity and our obligation becomes an imperative.  A recent School Library Journal article offers a host of information and good links and can be an excellent starting point for educating ourselves.  Love the Marcelo in the Real World, too, but uncertain of how to promote it?  Scholastic Books had renowned booktalker, Joni Bodart, write out a booktalking script for the novel that would be a great starting point. Author Francisco X. Stork's website has great discussion questions for getting a book group rolling on these topics and themes, and a great author interview can be found at (a website which never disappoints to encourage recreational reading). 
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