2014 Teens’ Top Ten: An Interview with Joelle Charbonneau

The Teens’ Top Ten is a “teen choice” list, where teens nominate and choose their favorite books of the previous year! Nominators are members of teen book groups in sixteen school and public libraries around the country. Nominations are posted on Celebrate Teen Literature Day, the Thursday of National Library Week, and teens across the country vote on their favorite titles each year.

The votes are in for 2014, and the winners have been announced — and we’re featuring them here on The Hub. Today we bring you an interview with Joelle Charbonneau, who is on this year’s Teens’ Top Ten list for The Testing (first book of The Testing trilogy). The Testing is also a 2014 Top Ten Quick Pick for Reluctant Young Adult Readers.


Joelle CharbonneauI really loved The Testing and the way that you so vividly described your novel’s dystopian society, main character Cia’s life in it and her experience during the testing process for university student candidates.  I wanted to ask you first about why you chose a dystopian environment to relate your story/themes, and whether there are any aspects of this environment which you see reflected in present-day society?

Thanks for reading The Testing! You have no idea how much I appreciate that. As for choosing the dystopian setting – to be honest, I didn’t set out to write a dystopian book. I teach voice lessons and have helped a lot of my students go through the college admittance process. Because of that, I’ve seen first hand how stressful the process has become and wanted to explore the stress of modern day tests and our society’s expectations for the next generation. However, as much as I wanted to set it in today’s world, I couldn’t find a way to up the stakes of the tests in the way that I wanted. So, I had to look to the future and a time where there is only one university and the expectation that those who attend it will be able to fix what is wrong with the world. That’s when the world of The Testing was born.

While The United Commonwealth and its issues are fictional, there are a great number of things about the world that do reflect our current society, especially in regards to our current education system. In the last fifteen years, our educational system has become very dependent on high stakes testing. So much depends on tests – school funding, teachers’ careers, and our students’ beliefs in their own abilities and futures. These tests were designed to strengthen our education system, but most teachers, parents and students would argue that it has done the opposite. While most would agree that the system needs to be altered, no one seems to know exactly how to make those changes or has the courage to say that the things we’ve been implementing over the past fifteen years are wrong. Cia’s journey in The Testing trilogy deals with those issues and explores what happens when people allow a less than ideal system to stay in place because it on some level appears to be working.


The Testing by Joelle CharbonneauI admired both the personal qualities and analytical abilities of sixteen-year-old Cia.  You show the depth of her concern for others as well as her alert and observant nature, all of which help her in some way to withstand the intensely challenging situation that is the Testing.  I wondered what you see as Cia’s main motivations or driving forces?

Creating Cia was a great deal of fun. She reflects the hope and optimism that I see in my students as they go off to college. Cia, like most of the students I talk to, truly believes she is going to do something good in the world and she wants to learn and grow in order to make the future a stronger and better place. That desire to do something important with her future drives her to make many of the choices she does in The Testing. And despite her father’s warnings to trust no one, Cia wants to be connected to her fellow students and believe the best about them. While that characteristic is one of Cia’s strengths, it is also one of her biggest weaknesses.


What did you find to be the most challenging aspect of writing The Testing?

Up until writing The Testing, I had only written books set in modern day. Imagining a future world that had been through an intense global conflict and conveying that to the reader was a huge challenge. And telling the story in a way that didn’t cause the details of the world building to slow down the pace was an interesting puzzle which required a lot of thought and a great deal of editing. Thankfully, I have a brilliant agent and editor that helped me make the story better.


I wondered if you could describe a typical day or week in your life as a writer.

Ha! I have a six year old, so I’m not sure there is a typical day or week in my life. Most of what I do is working around my son’s schedule. But the most typical week is one where the kid goes to first grade during the day (hooray for a kid who loves school) and I get to work during those hours. Most days I answer emails in the morning then somewhere around midmorning I try to get some writing done. A good writing day means I end up with about 4-6 pages written. Once the kid gets off the bus at the end of the school day, writing comes to a halt until he goes to bed. Then I try to get another page or so written and a few more emails answered before I call it a night. Also, once a week (sometimes more), I get to do the best part of my job – visit a school either in person or through the wonderful world of Skype. Those days mean I don’t get much writing done, but I always come away from those visits inspired and ready to dive back into my story hoping that those readers will one day embrace the story as their own.


What are three things that you think young writers should keep in mind as they create their works?

Great question! Let’s see….first, give yourself permission to make mistakes. There are no perfect first drafts. Most writers get stuck when they worry about making their story perfect on the first try. Remember that you can always fix a bad page…you can’t fix one that is blank.

Second, try to write a little every day. Making writing a habit is important. Think of it like any kind of sport or exercise…every day you practice makes you stronger. It doesn’t have to be a lot of writing. Just a paragraph each day will do the trick and every paragraph gets you closer to THE END.

Third, get to THE END. So many writers give up in the middle of their work. Why? Because it gets hard. Beginnings are fun. They are filled with excitement about the new idea and the hope that the story will be amazing. Then you reach the middle and the work begins. All authors hate their books at some point in the middle. We think that the story is the worst we’ve ever tried to write and potentially the worst book every written. The middle is filled with self-doubt and angst and stress. That’s when most younger writers give up. They get a new bright and shiny idea they are certain will make for a better story, abandon the one that has gotten hard and they start anew. Don’t do that! Fight through the hard and get to the end. Even if the story isn’t what you hoped it would be, you will have taught yourself something really important – that you can get to THE END! Every time you give up in the middle of the story, you teach yourself that you can’t finish, which makes the self-doubt of the middle harder to get through the next time. Make mistakes. Write every day. Get to THE END. And trust me when I say that reaching THE END is the best moment. You’ll be happy you got there!


Interviewer’s note: Charbonneau is also the author of two adult fiction series, the Glee Club Mysteries and the Rebecca Robbins Mysteries.


-Anna Dalin, currently reading The Book of Lost Things by John Connolly