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Highlights from the 2013 ALAN Workshop

Just a few of the books I can't wait to read after the ALAN Workshop!
Just a few of the books I can’t wait to read after the ALAN Workshop!

Last week I had the opportunity to attend a portion of the 2013 Assembly on Literature for Adolescents of the NCTE (ALAN) Workshop. This two-day event, which brings together a wide range of young adult authors, English teachers, librarians and others, was held in Boston this year, so I decided to take the opportunity to attend and I’m very glad I did! Though I was only able to attend a portion of the first day of the workshop, I heard both Jack Gantos and Chris Crutcher speak about their work and saw some great authors speak on panels about everything from humor to dystopias. While I could go on at length about everything I learned, this post will focus on some of the most interesting speakers and particularly on the panels I was able to attend about genre writing for young adults.

 The morning started with a short speech by Jack Gantos, who spoke about history. This topic encompassed both his own books, such as Dead End in Norvelt, and the way each reader’s book history has an impact on their life. He emphasized the importance of making sure that kids have access to books– not just to give them the inspiration to write, but also so that they all have a rich life of the mind. As someone who has never read any of Gantos’ books, I was impressed by his humorous account of the town he grew up in and it definitely made me want to go out and read his books. Existing fans will be interested to know that he is currenty working on the next and last Joey Pigza book.

Next up was a panel on fantasy books entitled “Enchanting Reads: Encountering the Magical Worlds of Young Adult Books,” which featured Tamora Pierce, A.G. Howard, Holly Black and Nancy Werlin. They all spoke about their inspiration in writing fantasies and it was fascinating to hear how their responses were alike and different. 2013 Edwards Award winner Tamora Pierce went first, talking about how she watched the Robin Hood TV show as a child and then moved on to reading everything she could about Robin Hood and Richard the Lionheart. She admitted that she often read “boy books” because of the types of stories that interested her and that when she started writing her focus was on the sorts of books that she would have liked to read, including female heroines and plenty of sword wielding characters. This led her to write the Alanna series. Now she sees that there are more strong girls out there in young adult literature but that there is still a struggle.

A.G. Howard’s inspiration came from her childhood love of Alice in Wonderland. Even as a grown-up, she still wanted to know what happened to Alice, which led her to write own books, Splintered and the soon-to-be-released Unhinged. For Holly Black, inspiration came from her mother, who raised her believing in ghosts. She said that they lived in a 100-year-old house that had been her grandparents’ and her mother had played with a ghost in the attic who she still blamed when she lost things as an adult. She also warned Holly to never astral project because if you do, anyone can possess your body. Holly also spoke of her husband’s childhood experience moving Star Wars toys back and forth between his mother’s house and her boyfriend’s house so that he could play with the boyfriend’s son. When his mother broke up with him, her husband never got his toys back. All of these childhood stories help to inspire her work and particularly her 2013 middle grade book, Doll Bones.

Finally, Nancy Werlin, who writes in multiple genres, talked about how each theme and story demands a particular genre. She made an analogy to a carpenter who builds a house that will work on the piece of land available for the project, which I found very interesting. During the question and answer period at the end of the panel, Tamora Pierce summed up the panel and young adult fantasy writing overall quite well by saying that “fantasy is a literature of passion and idealism” and that “teenagers are passionate people and fantasy answers that passion.”

After a brief remembrance of Robert Cormier by Connie Zitlow, past president of ALAN, there was an interesting panel on young adult mysteries entitled “Intrigue and Romance: Uncovering Secrets and More in Mystery Books for Teens” that included Megan Frazer Blakemore, Michaela MacColl, Julie Berry and Andrea Cremer. The authors on this panel had all written very different stories, many of which straddled multiple genres beyond mystery, such as historical, fantasy and steampunk. On this panel, I found it particularly interesting how each of the writers’ works focused on strong relationships seemingly as much as they did on mysteries, whether this meant romantic relationships or family relationships.

Perhaps my favorite panel of the day was one on dystopia, entitled “The Future Is Ours! Daring to Disturb the Universe and Other Dark Adventures,” which included Neal Shusterman, Cristin Terrill and Jeff Hirsch. The authors shared a sense that their work is just an extreme version of our own world, rather than being a completely fantastical world. In many ways, they repeated some of the same sentiments that I heard at the panel on dystopian fiction at the ALA Annual conference last summer. In fact, Terrill said practically the same thing that Patrick Ness said at that panel when she said “it’s a little glib to say high school is a dystopia, but it kind of is.” Simmons went on to add “I think teenagers feel oppressed.” Several of the authors talked about how directly they were influenced by real world events and things they heard on the news. As a fan of dystopian fiction, it was fascinating to hear them talk about how they build the worlds in their books and what elements of their own lives and current events seep into their work.

Another highlight of attending the conference was hearing 2000 Edwards Award winner Chris Crutcher speak eloquently about the importance of resisting censorship and the inspiration for his books. He spoke specifically about Whale Talk and about “this sense that there is some shame in being treated badly” and one particular girl who inspired that book. His talk mixed powerful and inspirational thoughts with humor. Perhaps the funniest moment of the day for me was when Crutcher was asked of his large body of work, “What novel or novels would you like to be remembered for?” and responded without hesitation “I’d like to be remembered for The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.” (…by frequently-challenged author Sherman Alexie, in case you didn’t immediately get the joke!)

You can see more info on the ALAN Workshop (including all the amazing panels I had to miss!) on their website. I would highly recommend attending future ALAN Workshops if you have the opportunity to do so. I heard from some great authors and discovered a bunch of fun books that I can’t wait to read!

-Carli Spina

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Carli Spina

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