Many thanks to reviewer Priscille Dando for sharing her experience attending the Alex Awards program last weekend at ALA in Anaheim:
Fans of AB4T probably already know all about the Alex Awards, the YALSA award “given to ten books written for adults that have special appeal to young adults, ages 12 through 18.” A highlight of Annual conference for me is the Alex Awards program, and this year’s celebrated the 10th anniversary of the award with one of the best line-ups in recent memory. The packed room heard from Ernest Cline (Ready Player One), Rachel DeWoskin (Big Girl Small), Brooke Hauser (The New Kids: Big Dreams and Brave Journeys at a High School for Immigrant Teens), and Erin Morgenstern (The Night Circus), and at the end of the program, attendees were treated to a signed book from each author. Highlights of their remarks follow.
Ernest Cline has a background in screenwriting and found that there were benefits to that form (“Writing a screenplay is great because most of the page is blank”), but ultimately there were too many restrictions. A writer’s imagination doesn’t have to worry about budgets, special effects, or sets when creating a novel, and he needed that freedom to combine his two loves: 80’s pop culture and sci-fi. He counts Roald Dahl as his greatest influence, especially James and the Giant Peach. Cline created Ready Player One as a reflection of the pop culture of his youth, unsure about its appeal beyond himself. He’s been gratified by its success, and especially with teens. Parents have thanked him for the book–it’s the first time for many that their kids have expressed interest in their childhoods–and he loves that teens apparently read his book with Wikipedia open to understand all the 80’s references. Currently he is driving around the country on his paperback tour in a DeLorean, which is the prize in his own contest based on an Easter Egg hidden in Ready Player One. Cline describes his next project as “Dead Poet’s Society meets Lord of the Rings.”
Rachel DeWoskin’s Big Girl Small is a portrait of Judy Lohden, a 16-year-old little person with a gorgeous singing voice who finds herself embroiled in controversy. DeWoskin’s moving characterization is filled with sarcasm and humor, taking a realistic look at a modern teenager who finds herself publicly humiliated, with the added complication of being 3 feet, 9 inches tall. DeWoskin was inspired by her daughter’s obsession with The Wizard of Oz movie. After watching it countless times, DeWoskin noticed that the credits didn’t name any of the Munchkins, referring to them instead as “The Singer Midgets.” She then wondered what it would be like as a parent if her daughter had been born a little person, and what a teenager’s perspective might be. DeWoskin’s previous writing focused on her acting career in China, and she published a memoir, Foreign Babes in Beijing, about her life playing a Western vixen on a Chinese television show. Her current project is focused on the life of a blind teen, and she’s been reading tons of YA literature to help her research.
Brooke Hauser is a journalist who often writes celebrity profiles, but her first book The New Kids is a nonfiction account of the lives of immigrant students in an international high school. She started off her talk by thanking the committee for the Alex Award, “I can’t imagine a better award to win.” She was inspired to focus on the school and the teens who attend there after first writing a piece about the prom experience for kids just learning English. Many of the international students did not know what prom is–they watched Mean Girls together to prepare. For the book, she decided to follow a selection of students, and it was not difficult to identify them. She simply asked the teachers, “When you go to sleep at night, who are the students you can’t stop thinking about?” Hauser has heard from adults, particularly teachers, who have brought her book to the attention of teens, and it’s become a textbook of sorts for some classes teaching English language learners. It’s been most gratifying that the book has been embraced by teens. As a working journalist, she continues to write for The New York Times and other major publications.
Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus has fans of all ages, but teens are surely some of the most passionate supporters of the book. It came about as a personal project over the years with intense work during National Novel Writing Month, although the difference between her drafts and the final book is huge. In fact, main character Celia didn’t even exist in the first draft. Morgenstern appreciates the full-circle feeling associated with winning an Alex Award. She remembered noticing that John Connolly’s The Book of Lost Things had a blurb on the back touting it as a 2007 Alex Award winner and thought to herself, “I want to write like that.” She also loves the concept of adult books for teens since she herself never really read YA as a teen, preferring Stephen King. However, she made a deliberate move to have the character Bailey (who she says is often people’s favorite) be an American, since as a child reading Narnia, she always lamented that it was British children who got to have all the fun. Morgenstern has bits and pieces of her next book completed, which she describes as a film-noir style Alice in Wonderland.
Congratulations to Alex Committee chair Karen Keys for a wonderful program!