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“Writing For Myself”: A morning with four Alex Award recipients

This past Sunday, I gathered with a number of librarians and other ALA attendees to meet with and hear from four of the ten authors whose books were honored with the Alex Award, which is given to books that are written for adults but have special appeal for young adults. The four authors that were able to come were Ernest Cline, author of Ready Player One; Rachel Woskin, author of Big Girl Small; Brook Hauser, author of The New Kids: Big Dreams and Brave Journeys at a High School for Immigrant Teens; and Erin Morgenstern, author of The Night Circus. Each author was given time to speak about their goals and roads to writing their books, and all four authors, in their own way, shared one idea: they wrote for themselves first.

Ernest Cline started writing Ready Player One to please himself. He was once given the advice to write the book you’ve always wanted to read, and the book he wanted to read was full of 1980s pop culture. He was very much influenced by the writing of Roald Dahl, particularly James and the Giant Peach, and wanted to include a lot of the underlying darkness in his own novel. His greatest discovery about Ready Player One, he said, is that he never expected it to go beyond a small cult sci-fi novel, let alone appeal to anyone who didn’t live through the Eighties, but he gets emails from teens all the time who love the adventure stories. To them, Eighties pop culture is more like an adventure — and since some of them read it with Wikipedia open, it really is like a create your own adventure story. Not to mention teens and their parents can make a great bonding experience out of it.

Rachel DeWoskin was also inspired in part by a children’s story with underlying darkness.  Watching The Wizard of Oz with her young daughter for the 598th time, she was horrified to discover that the hundreds of little people that populated Munchkinland were not named in the credits; they were merely called “The Singer Midgets”. She was plagued with the idea of a girl, like her daughter, watching this movie: what if she wanted to be Judy Garland, but really identified with the little people? What if she, herself, was a little person? And she had to deal with being a teenager on top of all this? DeWoskin thinks that writing a teenager was the greatest, most delicious experience she’d ever had, because it felt like the ability to tell the truth. She talked to teenagers and little people in order to write Big Girl Small, and while this is her first book with a teenage character, her next book is going to be about teenagers and for teenagers because of the experience. She is so grateful for having been parachuted into the YA universe and hopes to stay here for some time.

“Imagine a school like Freaks and Geeks or Degrassi High but all the kids come from Tibet and Sri Lanka and all different kinds of places around the world.”  Brooke Hauser wrote The New Kids for adults but really hoped that it would appeal to young readers. Having written celebrity profiles in her daily life, she was interested in telling stories that hadn’t already been told, and wanted to give her time to people who could use it. She approached the New York Times about writing about students at the international high school in Prospect Heights and was able to follow two different groups of students: one for the article and a near completely different one for The New Kids. She encountered some interesting questions (and answers!) along the way: what it would be like for teenagers who had never had a prom before, or even heard of the idea, in the case of some students? Watching these students come through their formative years in such an environment was awe-inspiring for her, and she hopes that any readers, young or old, will be inspired by their stories.

And finally, there was Erin Morgenstern. The daughter of a children’s librarian, she tried to write children’s and YA literature earlier in her career, but couldn’t really get things together. Revisiting The Book of Lost Things by John Connoly, which was an Alex Award recipient in 2007, she recalled the definition of the award itself, and thought “that’s what I want to write.” And so, when she developed the later drafts of The Night Circus, she wanted to write a story not only including a love story between two people, but a love story between a boy and a circus. And she knew that she wanted this boy to be American, because the kids that got the adventure in fantasy stories were all British. This boy would not be special or the chosen one, but just a kid who had a dream and wanted it enough to chase it. Later, during Q&A, she discussed beginning a story about a circus for National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) and revisiting the idea every November until eventually she had over 200,000 words about this circus — this is probably the only first draft ever that does not include the heroine of the story. But something about this circus drew her every time she sat down to write, and with her ideal entertainment venue in her head, she was ready to add the rest of the story. Erin Morgenstern wrote The Night Circus for everyone who believes the extraordinary is possible, and that doesn’t have an age limit.

There was time for some Q&A and signing each of the authors’ books after they spoke. Questions ranged from movie deals to what the authors were reading! All around, it’s great to see and talk to authors, not just about their books but their whole writing styles and goals. And I think the authors enjoyed themselves, as well. We’ll see whose books we’ll be talking about in 2013!

— Jessica Pryde, currently reading Crossed by Allie Condie and making her way through Geektastic a few stories at a time