Fan Fiction Takes Flight

Fan Fiction Takes Flight

Many years before Harry Potter was born, his parents, Lily and James, met and fell in love at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. At first, Lily thought James was nothing more than an annoying show-off, but then she got to know the boy behind the bravado. Their romance was shaped by tribulations, triumphs, and the understanding that they were destined for something tremendous.

About that last part…really? Yes, according to Those Green Eyes, a work of online fan fiction by Summer Sellers, a Massachusetts teenager.

Sellers penned her tale about James and Lily as a way of working through a tough time in eighth and ninth grade. She posted Those Green Eyes on Figment, an online writing community for young adults, at her mother’s urging. She could not have anticipated that it would become the “Most Hearted” fan fiction post on Figment, but it did.

Now a senior, Sellers is still writing—and deeply immersed in the fan fiction, or “fanfic,” universe, where fans craft stories that borrow characters, settings, and/or elements from books, movies, TV shows, cartoons, comics, manga, games, and even the lives of celebrities. The vast majority of fan fiction writers don’t make money or become famous. For Sellers and other teens, the reward is being in the company of fellow writers they admire and respect. “The fan fiction community is so diverse…you can really see the fans giving back to the authors,” she said. “The people who write fan fiction commit to it and finish their fan fiction—they’re authors to me.”

Fan fiction sites—including Fiction Alley, a huge online Harry Potter fan fiction archive, and Twilighted, hosting all-“Twilight” fanfic—have been around for years. But it took a publishing phenomenon for fanfic to hit the mainstream radar. In 2012, the extraordinary success of E. L. James’s “Fifty Shades” trilogy (Viking), erotic fan fiction inspired by Stephenie Meyer’s “Twilight” series, brought fanfic to the world’s attention. Since then, Amazon has launched a fan fiction publishing program, Kindle Worlds; authors have confessed to fanfic writing pasts; and fanfic-centered novels have become bestsellers.

The generation of teens who grew up reading “Harry Potter” is embracing fandom and fueling events such as LeakyCon, an annual convention for fans of many stripes that convened in Orlando, Florida, from July 30–August 3. These young people don’t see fan fiction as something residing in a murky corner of the Internet but as a creative outlet: a way to express love for an author’s work, a venue for exploring sexuality and emotions, and a liberating space to share and receive feedback on writing. As Robin Brenner, a teen librarian at the Brookline Public Library in Massachusetts, said, “My teens all know about [fan fiction], talk about it, and don’t particularly judge each other for being involved (or not involved) in fan culture. It’s ordinary, even expected, now, if you love a thing.”

Fan fiction has its own ethos and language. “Worlds” are the many different fandoms to which one could belong (e.g., “Lord of the Rings” or “Vampire Diaries”), while “The Powers That Be” are copyright holders (more on that later). People who act as editors—correcting grammar, refining dialogue and plot—are called “betas.” There’s the “canon”—the official, original story of the work being written about—and “head canon”—the plot lines, backgrounds, character pairings, etc., that a fan makes up in her imagination. For many, fanfic’s allure is being part of this community of shared enthusiasms. It’s about reading, analyzing, and asking, “What if?”

A Place to Explore

Once upon a time, fans shared their stories at conventions and in zines. Today, they post on Tumblr and sites such as, Livejournal, and Wattpad, which boast millions of users. The fan-run nonprofit site Archive of Our Own has nearly 350,000 registered fans, and Figment includes roughly 100,000 teen contributors.

“In various ways, fan fiction resembles all storytelling,” says Anne Jamison, an academic who both studies and writes fanfic, in the introduction to her book Fic: Why Fanfiction Is Taking over the World (BenBella/Smart Pop, 2014). “People like to swap stories, period, and the Internet is like a big electronic campfire.”

Fan fiction has its own ethos and language. “Worlds” are the many different fandoms to which one could belong (e.g., “Lord of the Rings” or “Vampire Diaries”), while “The Powers That Be” are copyright holders (more on that later). People who act as editors—correcting grammar, refining dialogue and plot—are called “betas.” There’s the “canon”—the official, original story of the work being written about—and “head canon”—the plotlines, backgrounds, character pairings, etc., that a fan makes up in her imagination. For many, fanfic’s allure is being part of this community of shared enthusiasms. It’s about reading, analyzing, and asking, “What if?”

There are no taboos or rules in fan fiction, and much of it can be sexually explicit, shocking, and/or avant-garde. While this raises issues for the under-18 set, the lack of regulation also makes fan fiction welcoming for the LGBTQ community and teens examining their sexuality. “I can write a story in which I can imagine other kinds of relationships, and no one says, ‘Oh, that’s your sexuality,’” said Henry Jenkins, Provost’s Professor of Communication, Journalism, Cinematic Arts, and Education at USC Annenberg. “Instead it’s a story I wrote.”

“Slash” fanfic, focusing on same-sex relationships, is one way that young adults can explore. Jamison notes in Fic that “‘Harry Potter’ slash helped shape and challenge attitudes toward sexual diversity among the generation that grew up reading it and arguing about it (a lot) online.”

At the same time, Jamison said, “the sexual life some fan fiction imagines for ‘Harry Potter’’s underage characters has long been a source of discomfort for their creator.” On most fanfic sites, young people can sign up for accounts at age 13. Which means, Jenkins said, that “you have space that exposes underage kids to sexually explicit material without a lot of adult supervision. It’s such a loaded category.”

The genre is also a venue for teens to probe their emotional lives, as Sellers did with Those Green Eyes. “Writing was a great outlet for me. I just portrayed my characters and the love that Lily and James felt for each other as the epitome of what I want for my life,” she said. “I made them go through difficult things and always come out scarred, but alive, because that’s how I felt a lot of the time.”

A Place to Grow


“What I love about fan fiction is that there are no rules. There are no storytelling rules.”
Rainbow Rowell


Seventeen-year-old Alaskan teen Maggie Clark devotes up to 10 hours a week to her fan fiction. “I spent a lot more time reading fan fiction than books,” she said. However, Clark, who has been writing fanfic since she was 15, said that she “wanted to get involved in fandom partially to become a better writer.” She believes her hours crafting stories, interacting with fans, and reading fanfic have helped her do just that.

Fan communities also offer young writers a place to share work without fear of judgment. “It creates a space where young people get real, enthusiastic, critical responses to what they write,” said Jenkins, “as opposed to getting a paper back with an ‘A’ written in red on the top and ‘good job’ next to it.”

Seventeen-year-old Daphney Diaz, a high school student in Queens, New York, also felt that her time on made her a stronger writer. “The fandom community was really friendly. Most of the other writers and readers would comment on my stories with encouraging words or tips on how to make the story and my writing better,” she said. “Of course, there was the occasional hater, but they would be ignored.”

“What I love about fan fiction is that there are no rules. There are no storytelling rules,” said Printz Honor-winning Rainbow Rowell, author of Fangirl (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2013), a young adult novel about a college freshman immersed in fandom. In fact, Rowell said, reading fan fiction inspires her to be more daring in her own work. “It’s incredibly experimental, and it’s very exciting for me as a writer to read a story that maybe I would never write or it would never occur to me to write…it’s very invigorating.” Rowell was scheduled to read from a “Harry Potter”- inspired novella she wrote at LeakyCon last month.

Fielding Copyright Issues

Legal matters are an issue for fanfic writers of any age. Complicated copyright and trademark laws are made even more so once companies have a stake in an author’s work. The website Chilling Effects provides information about what’s legal in fanfic and how to face challenges.

However, “I can’t think of very many cases where individual authors have sought legal recourse against fans,” said Jenkins. “I can think of many where legal regimes become much tougher once corporations take over.”

A campaign by Warner Bros. to protect the Harry Potter franchise exemplifies Jenkins’s point. Although Rowling released a statement in 2004 that she was “flattered” by the writing her books inspired, the studio behind the Harry Potter films sent cease-and-desist (C&D) letters to hundreds of “Harry Potter” fanfic sites in the early 2000s, requesting that they remove content and/or shut down. The letters resulted in domain names being confiscated, but they also caused a public relations disaster and uproar from fans threatening to boycott the films.

Some writers just don’t want fans playing with their characters, as Game of Thrones (Bantam, 1996) author George R. R. Martin made very clear during a November 2013 press conference. “I would rather they made up their own characters and their own stories,” he said.

Going from fanfic to professional writer can be tumultuous. Sarah Rees Brennan, the author of “The Demon’s Lexicon” trilogy (S. & S.), has been accused of everything from plagiarism to selling out. “I wrote a ton of free stories for fun and if people enjoyed it they don’t owe me anything—except that I would truly appreciate it if they would just quit torturing me,” Brennan wrote in a heartfelt February 2014 Tumblr post, explaining how her teen fanfic past has hurt her professionally. “It was years ago. I’m sorry I did it.”

No Longer Underground

Other authors’ openness about their fanfic affiliations has helped to erode the stigma. Neil Gaiman, author of the 2009 Newberry Medal winner, The Graveyard Book (HarperCollins, 2008), has written H. P. Lovecraft and “Chronicles of Narnia” fanfic. “Princess Diaries” series (HarperTeen) author Meg Cabot confessed to writing “Star Wars” fan fiction when she was a tween. Cassandra Claire, author of the bestselling “Mortal Instruments” series (S. & S./McElderry), was once a hugely popular fanfic writer. Her “Harry Potter”based “Draco Trilogy” and “Lord of the Rings” parody, “The Very Secret Diaries,” are now legendary. S. E. Hinton, author of The Outsiders (Viking, 1967), has written fanfic about the paranormal TV show Supernatural, visited the set, and even made a cameo in a season seven episode.

Rowell’s critically acclaimed Fangirl, which has sold 250,000 copies worldwide, has inspired its own fanworks—something that Rowell embraces. “It leaves me awed to think that people are invested in my stories and my characters so much that they want to make their own art and their own stories about them,” she said.

The Magicians (Viking, 2009), the first novel in Lev Grossman’s best-selling “Magicians” trilogy, involves a boy who is admitted to a secret college of magic in upstate New York and has been compared to “Harry Potter” in many laudatory reviews. While Grossman was worried about “people dismissing [my books] as knock-offs or works of plagiarism,” he said, “There’s been very little. People have been very receptive.”

The trilogy’s homage to Rowling’s series, C. S. Lewis’s “Chronicles of Narnia,” and other works of fiction, from T. H. White’s The Once and Future King to Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, is deliberate, Grossman explained. “The line between the ‘Magicians’ and ‘Harry Potter’ fan fiction? There’s no line. It’s part of that continuum,” he said. “I’m certainly comfortable thinking of it as fan fiction.” The Magician’s Land (Viking), the trilogy’s final title, is out this month.

Profiting from Fanfic

Meanwhile, some organizations are still striving to make a profit without alienating the fanfic community. In April, Wattpad announced that it had raised $46 million, bringing the company’s total funding to more than $60 million. Investors believe the site, which is free for contributors, will one day make a lot of money. How this will impact Wattpad’s more than 25 million users is uncertain.

It also remains to be seen how Kindle Worlds, Amazon’s fanfic publishing platform, will affect fandom. The venture is unique in that fanfic writers can earn royalties, and the “worlds” are sanctioned by rights holders. Since its June 2013 launch, Kindle Worlds has published more than 500 stories. Its current focus is on expansion and providing opportunities for newbie writers, general manager Nick Loeffler said in an email exchange. “Every rock [and] roll superstar guitarist started as an air guitarist, idealizing and mimicking their favorite musician and in many cases wishing they could learn and collaborate directly with their idols,” said Loeffler. “Storytelling and prose are similar. We want to take this engagement to a new level.”

What's Next?

In March 2014, the Organization for Transformative Works, a nonprofit run by and for fans, hosted a series of online chats about “The Future of Fanworks.” Fan studies scholar Dr. Paul Booth expressed restrained optimism about fandom’s path toward legitimization. “I’m not sure if the geeks shall inherent the Earth yet—but it’s getting close.”

Rowell expressed a similar sentiment. “I think there’s going to be a real shift, where fanfiction is not this niche thing, and we all sort of know what fanfiction is,” she said. “It’s where these young writers are first trying it out.”

Kaila Hale-Stern, a trust and safety ambassador at Tumblr as well as a novelist and journalist, believes her nearly 20 years of “trying it out” by writing fan fiction led to her professional writing career. “I give more credit to having written this stuff and read it as a kid; I think that’s what made me a writer,” she said. “More than writing classes or being an English major, it was engaging with the incredible writers I was reading at 14 and 15, learning from them, writing in these communities, and reading comments and feedback and support. It’s invaluable.”

This article appeared in the August 2014 issue of School Library Journal. 

“I’m not sure if the geeks shall inherent the Earth yet—but it’s getting close.”
Dr. Paul Booth

YA Authors Who Give Back

YA Authors Who Give Back

Judy Blume is not a woman with a lot of free time on her hands, yet she serves on the board of directors for the National Coalition Against Censorship. Linzi Glass, author of Ruby Red (Penguin, 2008), has won awards for her philanthropic work and is a cofounder of the Forgotten Dog Foundation, dedicated to rescuing and rehabilitating dogs in need. Cammie McGovern, whose YA debut novel Say What You Will (HarperCollins) publishes this month, is also the founder of Whole Children, an organization offering programs for young people with special needs and disabilities.

These are only a few examples of the philanthropic endeavors that young adult authors have embraced. They support charities, start nonprofits, and donate their talent as well as their time to numerous causes. Other writers who give include Deborah Ellis, a peace activist and author of the bestselling “Breadwinner” series (Groundwood), about a girl in Afghanistan who disguises herself as a boy under Taliban rule. Ellis donates most of her royalties to charities, including Street Kids International and UNICEF.

Author A. S. King, known for Everybody Sees the Ants (Little, Brown, 2011) and editor of Dear Bully: 70 Authors Tell Their Stories (HarperCollins, 2011), has traveled the country to engage with teens and adults about issues such as bullying, drinking and driving, and drug use. Lady Gaga got behind King’s message last year, when she made an appearance at the St. Paul Public Library during “Read Brave,” the library’s community-wide event that embraced Everybody Sees the Ants to raise awareness about bullying.

Melissa Walker, who wrote Ashes to Ashes (HarperCollins, 2014), encourages readers to celebrate their wonderful, awkward years by submitting photos to her “Before You Were Hot” project. On a larger scale, YA superstar John Green, author of Looking for Alaska (2005) and The Fault in Our Stars (2012, both Dutton) and a prolific vlogger, codirects, with his brother, Hank Green, the Foundation to Decrease World Suck, which raises and contributes money to charitable causes.

The altruism generated in this community goes far beyond the writers: activism extends to their fans, as well. Much of the YA world, from publishers to tweens on Twitter, inspires, encourages, and supports altruism. Here is just a sampling of some of the good things these authors do.

It Hurts to See Kids in Need

Ellen Hopkins is best known for her novels in verse, including Crank (2004), Glass (2007), and Fallout (2010, all S. & S.), that take on gritty, dark, and difficult topics, such as prostitution, drugs, and sexual abuse. As a New York Times bestselling author, Hopkins does many school visits, during which her readers share their often-heartrending stories with her. “It hurts to see kids in need….a lot of their stories are ‘I don’t know where to go. I don’t know what to do. I don’t know where to find help,’” said Hopkins.

Inspired by such encounters, in 2012, Hopkins and her daughter Kelly Foutz launched Ventana Sierra, a nonprofit organization that gives young people who have aged out of the foster care system a place to live. Their first home opened in Carson City, NV, in June 2013. Since then, they have experienced successes as well as failures. Residents struggled with rules about drugs and drinking. Toxic romantic relationships lured some girls away. Not all residents have been willing to work or go to school. “You start with a big idea,” said Hopkins. “And then you have to fine-tune it as you go.”

Nineteen-year-old Alyssa Rowley is one of the beneficiaries of this “fine-tuning” and of Ventana Sierra’s swift growth from one house to two homes and an apartment. Despite graduating with honors, Rowley found herself homeless after high school. Her parents were doing drugs again, and her dad had sabotaged her chance to go to college. About four months ago, the Reno native moved into a Ventana Sierra apartment. Now, she is looking forward to studying business or child psychology this summer. “[Ventana Sierra] gave me a really good opportunity,” said Rowley. “They opened the doors for me to go to college and to provide a better life for me and my sisters.”

Authors T Cooper and Allison Glock-Cooper (right) post “unselfies” on their site, in which people to express their emotions through pictures of things they see around them rather than focusing on themselves.

Promoting Empathy and Anti-Bullying

Like Ventana Sierra, the We Are Changers campaign is still in its early days. Authors T Cooper and Allison Glock-Cooper launched this “empathy project” in late 2013, shortly before the husband-and-wife team published the debut novel that inspired it, Changers: Book One: Drew (Akashic), in February 2014.

The couple’s initiative to promote empathy is a reaction to studies about the cultural decline of this trait. It’s also a response to the plugged-in world, with all its cruelties and narcissism, which their two teen daughters are navigating. “You do feel a lot what they go through on a daily basis,” Cooper said, “and that changes your emphasis and your worldview, naturally.”

The We Are Changers website is a forum where visitors can take polls and watch videos of celebrities whom the couple has identified as “changers among us.” The site also includes a gallery of “unselfies,” pictures with short captions that convey emotions. The April unselfie winner was a picture of a sign reading “You are Beautiful” with the words “feeling beautiful starts from inside.” Another snapshot showed a terminally ill pet in a happy moment. Cooper and Glock-Cooper say that unselfies are a response to the proliferation of selfies, self-portraits taken with cell phones. “It’s literally the physical idea of turning the camera around and considering what life is like for other people,” said Glock-Cooper.

Bullying and self-esteem are important issues to many teen lit writers. Jay Asher, the author of Thirteen Reasons Why (Penguin, 2007), a novel about a depressed teen who commits suicide, is touring the country as part of Penguin Young Readers’s “50 States Against Bullying” campaign. Heather Brewer, author of “The Chronicles of Vladimir Tod” series (Dutton), also speaks nationally about bullying. And last June, writer e.E. Charlton-Trujillo undertook a self-funded, cross-country book tour to talk with at-risk youth about themes from her novel Fat Angie (Candlewick, 2013). Several writers joined Charlton-Trujillo at some of her stops or appeared in At-Risk Summer, a documentary about her trip. They included King, along with Cecil Castellucci, author of Tin Star (Roaring Brook, 2013); Andrew Smith, whose most recent book is Grasshopper Jungle (Dutton, 2014); and Meg Medina, who wrote Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass (Candlewick, 2013).

Writers concerned about teen mental health—including Nancy Garden, author of Annie on My Mind (Farrar, 1982); Brian Katcher, known for Almost Perfect (Delacorte, 2009); Robin Reardon, author of A Question of Manhood (Kensington, 2010); and Jordan Taylor, who wrote Wonder Dogs (Reel Dogs, 2009)—contributed stories to Awake (Cheyenne, 2011), an anthology compiled by editor Tracey Pennington. Book profits benefit the Trevor Project, an organization dedicated to ending suicide among LGBTQ youth.

Writing That Prompts Good Works

Sometimes books alone will galvanize good deeds. A significant case in point is the Harry Potter Alliance (HPA). Founded in 2005 by Andrew Slack, an ardent fan of J. K. Rowling’s fantasy novels, the HPA is a bighearted force to be reckoned with. HPA members organize to battle “real-world horcruxes” (in Rowling’s titles, “horcruxes” are nefarious objects that contain parts of the evil Lord Voldemort’s soul) that threaten the global population, from illiteracy to homophobia and genocide. Their undertakings are ambitious. In January 2010, the HPA joined the organization Partners in Health (PIH) to send five cargo planes of supplies to earthquake-ravaged Haiti.

Rowling is also known for her generosity. In 2012, she was scratched from Forbes magazine’s billionaires list because her charitable giving and taxes knocked her down to the millionaires club. While members of the HPA draw motivation from the novels, not the woman who created them, Rowling herself has spoken about imagination and social transformation. “We do not need magic to change the world, we carry all the power we need inside ourselves already,” she said during a 2008 Harvard commencement speech. “We have the power to imagine better.”

Like HPA members, John and Hank Green’s Nerdfighters operate independently from their source of inspiration. Via forums and blog posts, Nerdfighters ( encourage one another to volunteer, champion causes (including the Greens’ Foundation to Decrease World Suck), and provide support to fellow “nerds.” The Green brothers’ fans take on global warming, poverty, and human rights violations, but they also tackle bad days and loneliness. One post in the “Decreasing World Suck” forum asks members to share favorite jokes, and another requests that Nerdfighters send cheering notes to a member’s friend who is fighting cancer.

Among organizations that authors have created to support literacy, a standout is 826 National, a network of eight nonprofit tutoring centers established by Dave Eggers, author of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (S. & S., 2000). YA literati who serve on 826 boards include Lois Lowry, author of the “Giver Quartet” (Houghton Harcourt); M. T. Anderson, known for Feed (Candlewick, 2002); and Susan Shreve, who wrote The Lovely Shoes (Scholastic, 2011). ReaderGirlz is another organization founded by wordsmiths. This literacy and social media organization, which won the National Book Foundation’s Innovations in Reading Prize, was launched by authors Dia Calhoun, who wrote Aria of the Sea (Macmillan, 2003); Janet Lee Carey, author of The Beast of Noor (S. & S., 2011);Justina Chen, author of North of Beautiful (Little, Brown, 2009); and Lorie Ann Grover, who wrote Hold Me Tight (S. & S., 2007).

Organizations that Do Good

826 Valencia
A nonprofit organization supporting students ages six to 18 with literacy and writing skills and to helping teachers inspire student writing.

Before You Were Hot
Devoted to the belief that “every swan was once an ugly duckling.”

The Forgotten Dog Foundation
Committed to rescuing, rehabilitating, and finding homes for stray, abused, and abandoned dogs.

Foundation to Decrease World Suck
This all-volunteer organization has the sole purpose of raising funds to be donated to other nonprofit organizations.

Harry Potter Alliance
A coalition of fandom leaders and members who are passionate about the power of story to inspire and bring about social change.

National Coalition Against Censorship
Promotes freedom of thought, inquiry, and expression, and opposes censorship in all its forms.

Increases social awareness, while cross-supporting the Foundation to Decrease World Suck.

The Pirate Tree
A collective of children’s and young adult writers interested in children’s literature and social justice issues.

Promotes teen literacy and corresponding social service.

The Compassion Factor

All of this good work raises a question: Are writers and readers just more empathetic? An October 2013 study published in Science found that “reading literary fiction may hone adults’ ToM [Theory of Mind], a complex and critical social capacity.” In non-geek speak, this means that psychologists determined that reading literary fiction increases empathy among adults.

Though studies have not yet been conducted on the effects that reading YA literature may have on empathy, the community’s authors resolutely believe in fiction’s ability to promote and strengthen understanding. In a speech Green recently delivered at his alma mater, Kenyon College, he spoke about “Thoughts on How to Make Things and Why” and his conviction that reading and writing make better people of us all. “Through story, I can imagine others more generously and complexly,” he told a full auditorium. “I can glimpse the richness of their inner lives.”

Slack from the HPA has also spoken to the power of imagined narrative to inspire good. “What if we gave our teenagers the opportunity to imagine themselves as the heroes that they have grown up watching, rather than treating their precious minds as nothing more than a way to line the pockets of some CEO?” he asked in “Cultural Acupuncture and a Future for Social Change,” a 2010 Huffington Post piece about the HPA.

Slack is on to something, according to a publication released by the Coalition of Community Foundations for Youth, Best Practices in Youth Philanthropy. “Youth philanthropy programs provide authentic opportunities for young people to develop skills and knowledge that will make them better students and citizens in the present,” wrote the study’s authors, Pam Garza and Pam Stevens. Such involvement, Garza and Stevens maintain, will “increase the chances that they will continue to play active roles in the community in the future.”

In addition, “having friends that volunteer regularly is the primary factor influencing a young person’s volunteering habits,” according to a 2012 survey from, which encourages young people to embrace social change. If a teen’s friends are justice-loving Nerdfighters or wizard-worshipping activists, she’ll likely want to “imagine” herself as a hero, too.

Doing Good Despite the Challenges

Though the number of U.S. nonprofits increased 25 percent between 2001 and 2011, to number around 2.3 million in 2010, “the amount of money coming into the sector has pretty much stayed the same,” said Sandra Miniutti, vice president of marketing and CFO for Charity Navigator, America’s largest charity rating service. “So more and more charities are fighting over the same level of contributions.” One percent of charities draw 86 percent of funding—which makes it tough for new and smaller nonprofits to get off the ground.

While working for a cause can be extremely time-consuming, authors feel that the reward is worth it. Hopkins falls into bed each night exhausted and daydreams about finding time for her work in progress. “Man, it’s like ‘Whoah! I need to go on a writing retreat,’” she said.

However, Hopkins knows that she can rely on her author friends and her publisher to donate resources and time for Ventana Sierra fund-raising endeavors. “It’s crazy the support I’ve gotten. I feel like [members of] the YA community are so supportive of each other….I’m blown away,” she said.

Among those who’ve reached a certain level of achievement, there’s also a desire to pay their good fortune forward. “At this age and stage in my life, you start to reflect on what you’ve done,” said 45-year-old Glock-Cooper. “I’ve built a nice career, and I’ve had so many blessings and great things happen. I wanted to give back concretely.”

This article appeared in the June 2014 issue of School Library Journal. 

Artist Will Cotton

Artist Will Cotton

In 1985, Will Cotton was an art student at Cooper Union who saw himself more in the tradition of Church than Basquiat. When the dean suggested that he apply for La Napoule Art Foundation’s first artist-in-residency program, Cotton needed no persuading.

Thirty years later, Cotton remembers the summer of 1985 at the Château de La Napoule as transformative—a period of time that forever changed how he would create his now seminal depictions of confectionary landscapes and sugary portraits.

During a recent telephone conservation, Cotton spoke about his creative process, working with pop singer Katy Perry, and why he’d love to return to La Napoule.

How would you compare the work you were doing as a twenty-year-old art student to the work you’re doing now?

La Napoule was my first experience with plein air painting and landscape painting, which has vastly influenced my work—I guess you could say in a negative way in that the difficulties of working outdoors were made apparent to me during my stay…wind, changing weather conditions, changing light conditions, exposure to the elements [laughs.] All these things pushed me when I returned to the studio. I still wanted to paint something that was landscape related. I began building maquettes in the studio so that I could have a constant light source. No changing weather conditions, etc.

Having that experience [at La Napoule] definitely pushed me toward the working method that I’m still using today. It made me realize that I wanted more control over my subject matter—as opposed to just walking through nature, finding a nice vista, putting down my easel, and painting it. I realized I could have more control over the symbolism if I actually built the scenery myself.

The Telegraph called you “a painter of fantasy landscapes.” Do you see yourself as such?

Yeah. I think so…certainly. My interest is in making them all look as real as possible. And of course La Napoule comes in because that was where all the instructors were chosen for their relationship to realism. I’ve taken that as far as I can because as soon as you hit fantasy there’s the possibility that you’re looking at something that doesn’t look real. There’s something that looks very clearly fake, like a children’s book illustration.

So my getting into building these maquettes and working directly with them—as opposed to say working from my imagination—the goal there was to have a situation that was itself as close as possible to the situation of finding a painting. It just happens to be indoors. In other words, I’ve got a real tangible object in front of me with all its quirks and strangeness. If you said, “Hey, Will, paint a picture of a tree,” what I would come up with would be something entirely different and, in my opinion, less interesting than if I went to the grounds of La Napoule and picked out one of those big parasols and was surprised by what I saw.

I like to be surprised by what I see. I always am.

What do you hope people experience when they look at your paintings, sculptures, and drawings?

I think about audience a little bit, for sure. I mostly think about myself as audience, because I’m the only one I’m certain of. And what I want to do is believe this is a real place. And if there happens to be a figure in the picture, I want to feel like I could be that figure. That that person could be a stand in for me. This is across gender. I paint a lot more women than I do men. When there’s figure in these landscapes, it’s meant to say, “This is not a miniature. This is a real place you could go to.”

I wanted to, if anything, start viewers on a path of asking themselves questions about paradise and about utopia and about what it would really be like.

I guess what I’m after is something that’s captivating enough and believable enough that viewers have an experience like they might watching a movie or reading a book, something that’s narrative to the point that they feel involved personally.

If you can separate yourself from one of your pictures, “Beyond the Pleasure Principle” for example, do you see the vision as a utopia or do you see it as something darker?

That [painting] really goes to the tradition of Boucher, who painted a lot of allegorical pictures of sunrise and sunset….They’ll often involve figures from mythology, Venus-like figures. And, in many cases, there’s these sea nymphs riding on dolphins that don’t really look like what we know to be dolphins now.

It all seems to me kind of primordial, like [Boucher is] looking at the beginning of something. And I’m transposing that into a world where everything is made of ice cream and this is a sea nymph that’s riding on a ice cream fish that’s been born out of the material within which it’s actually swimming. I think she looks maybe slightly concerned or curious, but I don’t think she looks scared. That’s wasn’t my intent.

She’s there largely so we know we can be there, too.

You painted the cover for Katy Perry’s 2010 album Teenage Dream, which brought your art to the attention of the public at large. How did that exposure affect your work? Has it?

That’s a very funny thing—only because I think, to a large extent, that I don’t know.

I’m in my studio alone. I produce six or eight paintings a year. I’m not even watching the sales happen, so I don’t know if at the gallery there’s a conversation about “Oh, this is the guy who painted Katy Perry.”

There are a few concrete things I can point to. One is that the National Portrait Gallery in Washington recently acquired a painting I made of Katy. So I can certainly say that came out of our project.

In terms of the notoriety, it’s funny and it’s interesting….Say, I’m on an airplane and someone asks me, “What do you do?” If they have children of a certain age [laughs], I know that I can say, “I’m the guy who painted the cover of Teenage Dream.” And they’ll know my work….I’ve been to Katy’s concerts and [the audience] is overwhelmingly preteen girls, so of course their parents end up knowing all about her.

It was a fun way to play with pop culture. And to be able to be a part of it, instead of just making references to it. As you know with Pop Art, Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein made references to pop culture. But I think with this Katy project I was able to have more of a conversation. I’ve even made a few paintings based on the video for Teenage Dream that I worked on. I took that as a jumping off point and then changed certain things, so there is this actual back and forth, this dialogue.

Between film medium and painting?

Yes, between mediums and between source and final product.

Was the music video for “California Gurls” your first time directing?

Technically, I wasn’t the director. A guy named Matt Cullen was. He’s wonderful. He’s part of a company called Motion Theory in Los Angeles.

After I had already been working with Katy on the album cover, making paintings with her, [Cullen] called me up. He said, “You know, Will, I’m directing the [“California Gurls”] video and I’ve got my office covered with pictures of all of your paintings. We’re basically trying to make this look like Katy is walking around the world you’ve created over the last ten years.”

He asked me if I would be willing to come out and essentially advise them on making [the video] authentic in terms of my work. So I was called “Artistic Director.”

Thank goodness, because directing looked so hard. I couldn’t believe what Matt had to do. But my job was really terrific. I wound up building some props and sets and directing other people on how to do so. In the end, we shot the whole thing against green screen and I dropped in a lot of my photos, source materials, from old paintings to make backdrops.

How fantastic that the director looked at your paintings and saw a continuous world.

And to be good enough to call me and to hire me. Because, honestly, artists are referenced constantly in advertising and videos and not asked to work on [them]. And in this case, they did…and I really appreciate that.

Going back to when you were an art student studying painting in the South of France, has your career turned out as you hope it would thirty years ago? What would most surprise your twenty-year-old self about your current life?

That’s such an interesting question.

And difficult, I know.

In some ways, not. It sometimes surprises me how much I have exactly the life I hoped I would have—which was a real long shot in a way.

When I got to New York in 1983, Mary Boone Gallery was like the hottest thing there was. David Salle, Eric Fischl, Ross Bleckner, Julian Schnabel, and all the biggest artists were showing there and it just seemed like the happening place. So I kind of set my sights on that gallery—even though there was nothing pointing to that ever actually happening.

By 1999, serendipitously, Mary came to my studio because one of the people she had started representing had liked my work. And she liked my work and so I’m working with Mary Boone.

You know the classic dream of the artist in New York is to have a big loft space—which I have…it’s almost cliché—and, most importantly, to be able to wake up every day and go to your easel to make your work. To not have to have another job at this stage. I went through periods earlier on where I did have to have another job—but if my twenty-year-old self could see me now, it would definitely put a smile on my face.

Can you think of anything else you’d like to add?

Um, I want to go back to La Napoule.

I’ve found that I really like doing residencies, and La Napoule was my first. I’ve probably done a half dozen since then, or maybe a few more.

What do you find beneficial about residencies?

When I’m in residency, I get to be a bit of a madman and wake up really early and go to work late into the evening. I get a real pleasure out of doing that for a short period of time. It’s kind of an unsustainable life. In a way, it’s a monk-like existence that allows me to totally self-indulge in my artwork without the interruptions of daily life.

I think being thrown out of one’s usual surroundings is stimulating to the creative mind.

Will Cotton is represented by the Mary Boone Gallery in New York. “Will Cotton: Vistas of Candyland” is on display at the Cornell University College of Architecture, Art, and Planning through March 18, 2015.

This interview originally appeared on the LNAF website. 

Meet Michelle Colte, SLJ’s School Librarian of the Year

Meet Michelle Colte, SLJ’s School Librarian of the Year

At the library at Hale Kula Elementary School in Wahiawa, Hawaii, third graders play Minecraft to learn about economics, fourth graders chat with a volcanologist through Google Hangouts, first graders learn how to code, and the sight of camouflage-clad soldiers perched on kid-size chairs reading picture books is not at all rare.

These are just a few examples of how librarian Michelle Colte’s library reflects her own love of learning. “She believes that libraries as learning organizations have to involve community members who define the needs and shape the direction of the library,” writes University of Hawaii at Manoa professor emerita Violet Harada about Colte. “She strives tirelessly to infuse learning that demands asking the why, how, and what if questions.”

Hale Kula is located on the Schofield Barracks Army Installation in this suburb of Honolulu on the island of Oahu. Colte, the library media specialist, and her colleagues must meet the unique requirements of a school where 99 percent of students are military dependents. Her dedication to creating a feeling of ohana (“family” in Hawaiian), her creative programming, innovative use of technology, talent for collaboration, and passion for learning are why she is the winner of the inaugural School Library Journal (SLJ) School Librarian of the Year Award.

The School Librarian of the Year Award, which is sponsored by Scholastic Library Publishing (SLP), recognizes an accomplished K–12 library professional who is using 21st-century tools to engage students and promote multiple literacies. The two finalists, Andy Plemmons, a librarian at David C. Barrow Elementary School in Athens, Georgia, and Colleen Graves, a librarian at Lamar Middle School, in Flower Mound, Texas (see profiles on p. 34 and 36), each won $500 in materials from SLP. Colte, whose application essay listed “The Top Ten Reasons I LOVE Being a Librarian,” won $2,500 worth of print and digital materials from SLP and a cash award of $2,500.

Even though she has lived in Hawaii for 20 years, Colte still has a whisper of Wisconsin, her home state, in her voice. Her Twitter avatar shows a woman with a wide smile and a Dr. Seuss red-and-white striped Cat in the Hat topper pulled over dark blond hair. Judging by her tweets, it’s safe to bet that her favorite punctuation mark is the exclamation point. Colte remembers her elementary school librarian fondly and speaks about her most cherished childhood book, E. L. Konigsburg’s From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler (Atheneum, 1967), with the particular reverence of a bibliophile.

After graduating from St. Olaf College in Minnesota with a degree in English and a concentration in teaching, Colte took a job as a high school English teacher in Hawaii. Then came marriage, the birth of her son, enrollment in library school at the University of Hawaii, Manoa, the adoption of her two daughters, and, in December 2004, her MLIS degree. She began working in the 796-square-foot Hale Kula Library in September 2005.


The School Librarian of the Year Award is not the first recognition Colte has garnered. In May 2013, she was one of 50 educators worldwide chosen to attend a Google Teacher Academy in Sydney, Australia. That year, Colte was also selected to take part in the Library of Congress Teaching with Primary Sources Summer Teacher Institute. Colte says she was “shocked and surprised” when she found out about her latest honor, and made a point to mention several times that without the support of Hale Kula teachers, librarian assistant Janet Huszar, library clerk Amanda Pemberton, and principal Jan Iwase, she would not be able to accomplish anything.

Colte had to teach herself about the technology she now shares with students and colleagues. “I’m not tech-savvy at all,” she says. “That was actually one of my biggest fears about going into the library.” Approaching educators she doesn’t know via Twitter or Google Plus to ask for guidance, tips, and insight still feels uncomfortable for Colte, a self-described introvert. However, she knows that in order to continue developing her professional knowledge, she must also continue to overcome reticence. “Most recently, I’ve been more daring, and I’ve asked folks, ‘How did you do this? Can you help us?’” she says. “That’s not my nature. I’m really shy.”

Though initially resistant to changes Colte implemented, Hale Kula teachers and administrators embrace the technology she introduced. “Frankly, she pushes me out of my comfort zone and keeps me on my toes!” Iwase writes in a recommendation letter for Colte. “Our school has developed a reputation as forward-thinking and a true 21st-century school. That [wouldn’t] be the case without Mrs. Colte’s involvement and relentless energy and commitment to teaching and learning!”


At present, Hale Kula has 920 students, but the school population can fluctuate widely as military families are assigned permanent housing. Kids can be at Hale Kula for as little as two weeks before moving to another school district, or they can stay for years. How do you help transient students, guardians at home, and deployed parents feel like they’re a part of the library ohana?

Colte’s solution includes providing play-centric and engaging programming, hosting family-friendly events (such as book fairs and research contests), and maintaining a library website that keeps deployed parents up to date on their children’s activities. The site offers information about class projects, slide shows, research resources, photos, videos, and links to fifth graders’ individual websites. “For most local students in Hawaii, their aunties and grandmas and grandpas can look on the refrigerator to see their work, or they can go to the play or the sporting event,” says Colte. “For our families, the weekly website became that refrigerator work.”

Colte, who is a former coordinator and vice president of programming for the Hawaii Association of School Librarians, believes she wouldn’t be the librarian she is today if she hadn’t had mentorship from Harada and librarian Karen Muronaga, another University of Hawaii faculty member. When she needs inspiration, Colte will take to Twitter, read education blogs, and virtually mingle with educators late into the night. She is constantly combing her community for ideas. “Each of my [own] kids is the kind of student that the traditional school doesn’t address,” she says. “That’s really challenged me as a librarian, because I’m thinking, ‘What can I be sure to do so I’m reaching each student at his or her strength?’”

Coding, Colte discovered, is an activity at which some students who struggle academically excel. In December 2013, she organized the participation of every Hale Kula student in Hour of Code, a global event in which newbies are introduced to computer science for one hour. Students’ participation garnered a $10,000 donation to Hale Kula from the educational nonprofit “Coding is a language, and so I think it is one of the literacies,” Colte says. “As an educator, my job is to promote digital literacy, informational literacy, and, of course, reading literacy.” She runs a coding class for students third grade and up as well as a coding club.

Colte used the donation to purchase Chromebooks and Nexus 7 tablets. She is always looking for ways to supplement her $10,000–$25,000 annual budget, including entering contests, holding book fairs, and applying for grants. “I don’t know if she sleeps or not,” says Pemberton.


Hale Kula students participate in Poem in Your Pocket Day, Read Across America, the Global Read Aloud (in which kids worldwide read and discuss one book via social media), and several other reading-centric events. For last October’s Global Cardboard Challenge, during which children build constructions from cardboard and other recycled materials, students created items such as racecars and board games and soldier volunteers built an elaborate maze. “We have a lot of soldier support and we use it,” says Pemberton, whose seven- and ten-year-old daughters attend Hale Kula. “It’s really neat. [The soldiers] really like it.”

The library may sometimes sound more like a playground than a place to study, but the atmosphere exemplifies Colte’s belief in the importance of making time for play. She has plenty of other solid advice for recent MLIS graduates, including “Foster a growth mindset,” “Get involved with local and professional organizations,” and don’t worry about failure—that’s where the real learning begins.

Thanks to a $26.6 million grant from the Department of Defense and $6.6 million from the Hawaii State Department of Education, an overhaul by Architects Design partners Incorporated of Hale Kula’s facilities is underway. This past spring, Colte and her colleagues went through the library’s over 16,000 print titles, selected some for the temporary library space, and packed up the rest. Colte had significant input into the design of the new library/media/student center, which is scheduled to be completed by 2016.

“The greatest joy is seeing students when that light bulb goes off,” she says. “Seeing them empowered, seeing that they’ve learned something and they’re going to go help someone else.” Such moments are why Colte loves being a librarian. Such moments make her feel laki—lucky, indeed.

This article originally appeared in the September 2014 Issue of School Library Journal.

The Real Boy by Anne Ursu

The Real Boy by Anne Ursu

What You’re Made Of ‘The Real Boy,’ by Anne Ursu

Anne Ursu, the author of “Breadcrumbs,” has written a lovely and sophisticated new middle-grade fantasy that asks readers to wrap their heads around abstractions and accept a lack of absolutes. There is no one bad guy, people are simultaneously greedy and miraculous, and even a monster deserves understanding. In “The Real Boy,” magic is unruly, and legends feel steady under the feet until a new bit of information rolls in like thunder and unsettles history.

The Real Boy Anne UrsuEleven-year-old Oscar is a hand to Master Caleb, the “first magician in a generation,” on the island of Aletheia. The “odd” boy’s quiet life is dictated by routine, which suits him just fine. He collects flowers and herbs for his master to make into charms and potions to sell to the inhabitants of the Barrow Village and the privileged people from Asteri, “the Shining City.” He spends the rest of his time avoiding the cruel apprentice, Wolf, taking care of a menagerie of cats and sneaking into the magician’s enormous library.

Oscar’s predictable life begins to fall apart when Master Caleb goes to the continent to sell his enchanted wares and Wolf is killed by something large and hungry in the woods. The adults of the Barrow don’t want to believe that a monster is attacking them, so Oscar and his friend Callie, the headstrong healer’s apprentice, must uncover the truth behind Aletheia’s magic on their own. Why was a terrible plague able to cause so many deaths years ago? Why did the wizards of old turn themselves into guardian trees? And why are the children of Asteri, who are supposed to be perfect, coming apart like paper dolls left in the rain?

Oscar — who has trouble looking people in the eye and reading emotions — is forced by Callie and by circumstance to help the sick city children. “I cannot understand what people mean when they talk,” he tells Malcolm, an ex-magician. “I am not . . . I’m not made of the same thing as everyone else.” But what sets Oscar apart (his methodical knowledge of plants, his ability to create “maps” of information in his head) also enables him to become a hero.

“The Real Boy” contains delicate allusions to “The Adventures of Pinocchio,” by the 19th-century Italian author Carlo Collodi (magical wood also plays a role in this story), and is rich with beautiful, heady notions that demand to be lingered over: If the earth can be saturated with enchantment, then a city can be scarred with grief. Magic is a natural force that “serves at no one’s pleasure but its own.” And truth “punches you in the stomach as it puts its loving arm around your shoulder.”

Readers will need to go slowly, both to savor Ursu’s descriptions and to avoid confusion. As Oscar and Callie try to understand their history and why Aletheia’s magic is losing strength, they develop and discard theories the way citizens of Asteri might throw away old charms, but those who stay with their mission will be aptly rewarded.

Ultimately, Oscar must make a daring and self-sacrificial effort to get rid of the monster for good. It takes an act of great bravery to free him from self-doubt. He goes from being a “puppet with no master” to a real boy indeed. In Aletheia, as in the real world, it turns out to be “a beautiful lie . . . that you could have magic without monsters.” And so destructively true that “small enchantments make us dream of big ones.” Perhaps, as Malcolm suggests, instead of relying on magic it’s better “we dream of a big world” — a world that has plenty of space for “odd,” unexpected heroes like Oscar.

New York Times Link

Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor

Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor

Chimeras, Angels and a Girl in Prague in Laini Taylor’s Latest

Daughter of Smoke and Bone Laini TaylorAny book that opens with “Once upon a time” is inviting high expectations. It’s a phrase that inevitably evokes fairy tales and leather-bound classics about epic adventures, setting up the anticipation that readers will discover worlds filled with magic. And it may be a cliché, but it’s not necessarily an unwelcome one.

In this case, the story that follows, by Laini Taylor, a 2009 National Book Award finalist (“Lips Touch: Three Times”), is a breath-catching romantic fantasy about destiny, hope and the search for one’s true self that doesn’t let readers down. Taylor has taken elements of mythology, religion and her own imagination and pasted them into a believably fantastical collage.

Starting with 17-year-old Karou, who is far from a typical teenager, with hair that grows in a bright ultramarine, no rebellious dye required. That’s not the only thing setting her apart from her fellow students at the Art Lyceum of Bohemia in Prague. The monsters Karou draws — one woman who is serpent from the waist down, another with human eyes but a parrot’s beak — are not of her imagination. They are real chimeras, demons, and they are the closest thing she has to family. When Karou sees a crow with bat wings, she knows it is summoning her for yet another trip to collect animal and human teeth.

What Karou doesn’t know is why Brimstone, a stern, horned monster with the golden eyes of a crocodile who is a kind of father figure to her, needs the teeth. But she realizes the wishes he grants her are worth her troubles, allowing Karou to make her ex- boyfriend itch in unmentionable places, eradicate her own pimples and cause a rival’s eyebrows to grow unattractively bushy.

The teeth-collecting mystery is one of many in Karou’s life. Why does she have hamsa tattoos on the palms of her hands? Why does she feel so desperately lost and lonely? And why can’t she shake the feeling that there is “another life she was meant to be living?”

Just as she did in her story collection, “Lips Touch: Three Times,” Taylor — who, like her protagonist, is an artist with an unnatural hair color, bright pink — tackles themes of longing and self- actualization with a sympathetic understanding of her audience. Who as a teenager didn’t feel like a chimera, a mix of seemingly disparate parts forming an uncertain self?

As Karou runs Brimstone’s increasingly frantic errands, traveling between magic portals to a black-market auction in Paris and a bazaar in Marrakesh, beautiful winged beings around the globe are burning black handprints into the portal doors, marking them for reasons that soon become violently apparent. Enter the love interest. Akiva is a seraph, an angel, and an attractive one. “Oh, thought Karou, staring at him. Oh. Angel indeed.” She is immediately drawn to him: “He was the most beautiful thing Karou had ever seen. Her first thought, incongruous but overpowering, was to memorize him so she could draw him later.” Akiva, likewise, finds himself captivated by Karou even though he knows she works for the chimera, the seraphim’s enemies in a longstanding war. The first time they meet he nearly kills her. The second time, she him.

After a series of supernatural fires causes Karou’s world to collapse, her pull toward Akiva and his toward her feel powerful enough to be destiny. Each kiss is given the importance of Paris’s lips meeting those of Helen of Troy. “This new thing that sprang up between them, it was . . . astral. It reshaped the air, and it was in her, too — a warming and softening, a pull — and for that moment, her hands in his, Karou felt as powerless as starlight tugged toward the sun in the huge, strange warp of space.” (Ah, teenagers.) And as with the lovers whose romance launched a war, love between the blue-haired girl and the angel is fraught.

Secondary characters, like Karou’s pixie-size human best friend, Zuzana, provide humor and wisdom. The high-stakes action scenes — I’m not giving away too much by saying there is plenty of seraphim-on-chimera combat — balance out the more contemplative moments. And the world-building descriptions and language stop your heart and then, like a defibrillator, start it up again. Prague is “a city of alchemists and dreamers,” where “Gothic steeples stood ready to impale fallen angels,” and new love is a “sweet tango.”

As I raced through the final pages, it took longer than it should have for me to realize the obvious: the ending was not coming. “Daughter of Smoke and Bone” is a series opener. I should have known better. I wanted this novel to be an epic, complete in itself. But series are hot items in teenage lit, and Taylor leaves plenty of questions unanswered for sequels. Like a woman who has waited hours for a date, I felt stood up — but like a hopeless romantic, I will be back for more.

Karou’s first story ends with an anguished epiphany, the promise of a new adventure and, of course, what Emily Dickinson called “the thing with feathers” and what Brimstone calls “the real magic,” hope.

Read this review on the New York Times.

Beyond Magenta

Beyond Magenta

Thinking Beyond Pink and Blue

What exactly does “gender fuck” mean?

According to Cameron, an aspiring doctor and activist, “Gender fuck is blending stuff, having something girl and something boy and something neither.”

Well, now you know.

Cameron and the five other transgender young adults who are profiled in Susan Kuklin’s newest nonfiction work for teens, Beyond Magenta, have to create new gender terms. The old ones won’t work for them. They must grapple with stuff as seemingly arbitrary as pronoun usage as well as the complexities of sexuality, gender, and identity.

Gender fuck, indeed.

Beyond Magenta

At the same time, Jessy, Christina, Mariah, Cameron, Nat, and Luke are like so many other boys and girls their ages. They doubt. They feel uncomfortable in their bodies and that adults don’t understand them. They worry about relationships and looking good and dream of glittery, beautiful futures. “Transition? Everyone goes through one kind of transition or another,” said Mariah. “We go through transitions every day. Except mine is maybe a little more extreme.”

Author and photographer Kuklin has a history of tackling weighty topics in her books for teenagers. In No Choirboy, she wrote about adolescents on death row. What Do I Do Now covers teen pregnancy. She has published volumes on child slavery, AIDS, and the American justice system. With Beyond Magenta, she joins the small circle of authors who have written about transgender concerns or characters for a young adult audience. Within that tiny community, her book offers something new. Using a combination of photos and words, it allows readers to glimpse into the lives of real teens who must negotiate transitioning in the real world. Beyond Magenta is Kuklin’s most ambitious work to date and the one with the most of her in it. “This is my story too,” Kuklin said. “To pretend that I’m not there didn’t seem as honest.”

Finding the Characters

Beyond Magenta, which will be published Feb. 11, 2014, could be mistaken for a coffee-table book. The glossy cover features a fashionable young person wearing a bright pink button-up, black bow tie, rainbow belt, and baggy jeans. The interior is clean, bright, and carefully designed. However, this is not a book to browse. It is one to take in.

Each chapter is told from the first-person perspective of one of the teens. Their experiences have similarities: Many were bullied, many were confused, and many felt trapped in bodies that did not belong to them. But their stories are also as different as their photographs. Some had supportive families and friends. Some did not. Some have arrived at a peaceful place of self-acceptance. Some are still searching. “I’ve always been interested in limitations,” said Kuklin. “What about the wall when you’re in your own body?”

The veteran author, who lives in New York City with her husband, wanted to assemble a group of introspective young people to profile in Beyond Magenta. With the help of the Callen-Lorde Community Health Center in Manhattan and the Wisconsin-based Proud Theater (a nonprofit group composed of LGBT kids and their allies), she met six individuals who were willing to sit through multiple interviews and long photo shoots.

As a group, they are racially diverse and come from a wide range of economic, religious, and social backgrounds. Mariah (who asked not to have her picture in the book “because I’m not comfortable with my body”) was raised by her grandmother in a poor neighborhood. Jessy is Thai; he and his family moved to the U.S. for his diplomat dad’s job. Christina grew up in a Catholic household. At home, Nat’s family spoke Spanish and English. Cameron is from Westchester County, but “not one of the rich, white Westchester towns you hear about.” And Luke lives in Wisconsin with his two parents and older sister.

Each teen has a reason (some many) to be wary of adults.

Christina, who began her transition while at an all-boys Catholic school, had problems with her high school teachers and was punched by a man in her neighborhood. Mariah’s mother once “almost killed” her by throwing beer bottles at her head.

So why did these six young people trust Kuklin? What did she do that allowed them to feel safe enough to speak openly about painful memories, sex, mental illness, violence, and heartache?

“There’s just one word,” she said. “And that’s ‘listen.’ I listened to them. I didn’t challenge them. I didn’t judge them. I just listened to them.”

Kuklin made it a point to call me back after our initial conversation to further explain. “They know in advance that I am not out to do an exposé.” It also helped that adults whom the teens did trust recommended Kuklin and that she asked for their input as the project progressed. When it came time to finalize the title, they offered their opinions. Cameron didn’t like the original, but Beyond Magenta, a concept from one of Luke’s poems, received a universal “yes.”

A Theater Kid Running (Just a Little) Wild

As a teenager growing up in Philadelphia, Kuklin wanted to be an actress. Her parents were not on board. Referring to the subjects of Beyond Magenta, Kuklin said, “I related to the kids, because I relate to people whose parents might not approve of them. I think all kids have that.”

Kuklin describes her childhood as “very normal.” She didn’t have siblings, but she and her cousins were close. Her favorite books included Little Women, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz, and the “Nancy Drew” series, and “Judy Blume’s novels made it easier for me to write nonfiction.” Her Russian grandmother read her fables in translation. Her life was full of art, theater, dance, and music.

Like any “very normal” adolescent, Kuklin had moments of rebellion. In high school, she would cut class and hop the train for New York City. There she’d go to a show or visit with actor friends she’d met during summer-stock theater. Steve McQueen (aka “The King of Cool”) was a “good buddy,” Kuklin said. But he wouldn’t let her ride his motorcycle. It was too dangerous.

Kuklin recalls her hooky days as amazing learning experience — maybe they were even more of an education than school. “I shouldn’t say that,” she said. But she did, and her wistful tone betrayed how much she meant it.

Kuklin fell into photography after her uncle bought her a camera, and becoming a writer was a natural transition from a youth spent on stage. Training as an actress helped Kuklin hone her empathy. It taught her how to inhabit another’s person’s skin.

The State of “T titles”

“While there are a lot of teen books that deal with gay and lesbian teens now, there is a serious lack of books that deal with more marginalized groups within the LGBTQ community — teens who are trans, HIV positive, queer, sex workers, polyamorous, or even bi,” wrote transgender activist, teen librarian, and YA editor Jackson Radish in an email exchange. “Books that deal with more marginalized LGBTQ groups are in the same place that general LGBTQ teen fiction was 10 or 15 years ago.”

Both Radish and youth librarian Kyle Lukoff (who is a self-described “member of a sprawling swath of queer and trans people who think about this stuff ad nauseam”) lament the quality of the few “T titles” for teens that do exist. “The specific lack I see of T titles is, for one, that the most well-publicized titles are written by well-meaning cis people who research what it’s like to be trans, rather than writing fiction grounded in an authentic lived experience,” wrote Lukoff in an email.

Arguments about quality and authenticity aside, there’s evidence to suggest that the world might second Radish and Lukoff’s call for more T YA lit. Kirstin Cronn-Mills’ Beautiful Music for Ugly Children, a novel about a teen who was born as Elizabeth and wants the world to accept him as Gabe, won the American Library Association’s 2014 Stonewall Award. David Levithan’s Every Day is a New York Times best-seller. Its story revolves around a character known only as “A” who wakes up in a different body each morning. A has no gender. A is every gender. A’s life is a “gender fuck.” T Cooper and Allison Glock-Cooper’s Changers, which will also be published this month, takes place in a “post-gender and post-sexuality” society. So is now the golden age for YA lit that introduces intricate understandings of gender identity?

Not completely.

Take, for example, Kelly Huegel’s GLBTQ: The Survival Guide for Queer and Questioning Teens. This 2003 title is currently on the Parents Protecting the Minds of Children’s “Twenty Shocking Books at Fayetteville, Arkansas School Library” list. Amy Sonnie’s Revolutionary Voices: A Multicultural Queer Youth Anthology made the American Library Association’s (ALA) “Top Ten Challenged Books” list in 2010. Michael Cart’s Love and Sex: Ten Stories of Truth and Levithan and Billy Merrell’s The Full Spectrum: A New Generation of Writing about Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, Questioning, and Other Identities have also been challenged or outright banned from libraries and schools.

Though Beyond Magenta has received three-starred reviews to date, its publisher, Candlewick Press, is preparing for the possibility that Kuklin’s new title will also have to overcome obstacles in order to get into readers’ hands. “We are definitely ready,” said Kuklin’s editor, Hilary Van Dusen. “We expect it. When I signed this book up I knew what I was in for.”

As for Kuklin herself, she said, “I guess I’m trying to prepare myself…I guess you’re never really prepared.”

Kuklin’s good friend Robie Harris, whose book It’s Perfectly Normal: Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex, and Sexual Health has been on the ALA’s “Top Ten Challenged Books” list multiple times, compares children being told to not read certain books to admonishing them not to put peas up their noses. If you forbid it, they’re going to find a way to do it anyway. “It’s the book that matters,” said Harris. “Maybe I’m an optimist, but those books find their way to many, many, many people.”

Nonetheless, being an optimist doesn’t mean that Harris isn’t worried about the young people who need to find books like Beyond Magenta but can’t.

“I Want My Story to Help”

Regardless of the challenges Beyond Magenta may face, its six subjects are hopeful that their stories might aid other teens, whether they are transgender, straight, gay, poor, rich, or just trying to understand experiences different from their own. In an email from Thailand, Jessy wrote, “We are no different from other teenagers that are looking for love and support while trying to discover who they are in such a diverse and complicated world.”

Like Jessy, Kuklin dreams that Beyond Magenta will reach a wide swath of readers. She wants for it to be a means through which all teens can realize that “we’re not all the same. There’s much more fluidity in sexuality and in gender.”

As for Jessy, Christina, Mariah, Cameron, Nat, and Luke, Kuklin has dreams for them too. “I hope they find love. I hope their families will understand and cherish them for who they are,” she said. “I think we all want that.”

Read the article on BuzzFeed.

What Makes a Good YA Road Trip Novel?

What Makes a Good YA Road Trip Novel?

“All I wanted was to go somewheres; all I wanted was a change.” And with this simple statement, the chain of events leading to Huck Finn’s trip down the Mississippi River begins. Mark Twain published The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn one hundred and twenty-five years ago this February, but Huck’s adventures with Jim — the excitement of two friends setting out for the unknown, the importance of the lessons they learn — has not grown old. Huck Finn still embodies freedom. As Huck put it, “We said there warn’t no home like a raft, after all. Other places do seem so cramped up and smothery, but a raft don’t. You feel mighty free and easy and comfortable on a raft.” Huck’s words resonate because the allure of setting out on an anything-goes adventure transcends time, place, and even the age of the reader.

However, if we’re settling down with a contemporary book, chances are that our travels aren’t going to happen on a river, but rather out on the open highway. From Jack Kerouac’s On the Road to Tom Robbins’s quirky Even Cowgirls Get the Blues to Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, the harder edge of adult road trip novels has trickled down to modern YA books. Just as Huck Finn answers to the imagination in each reader, adult road trips appeal to an almost innate need for adventure. The road for YA narratives has been “paved” (pun intended) both by Huck and risk-taking adult novels.

Young Adult Literature Road TripThis year’s Printz Award went to a road trip novel: Going Bovine by Libba Bray is surreal, trippy, funny, beautifully written, and has the best elements of what makes a road trip novel such an engrossing read. A good road trip adventure has the spirit of Huck’s rafting trip. It should never read like a Lonely Planet travel guide, nor should it drown the excitement of travel in excessive landscape description or getting stuck in characters’ heads for too long. A good road trip novel is a careful balance of an outward voyage with an inner journey. It is a literary smorgasbord, mixing elements of a hero’s quest, “armchair” travel, and a bildungsroman. And the very best road trip books end slightly unresolved, leaving readers with a sense of wonder and the hope of possibility.

But what is a road trip novel? What makes one book a road tale and another a vacation story? says a road trip is “a journey via automobile, sometimes unplanned or impromptu.” Well…yes and no. A road trip novel does not always need to be in a car (sometimes there’s walking, swimming, horse-riding, sailing, etc., involved). But it needs to be about a journey where the road provides both geographical and narrative structure.

Cynthia Voigt’s 1981 novel Homecoming, her first about the Tillerman family, is a perfect example of how a road trip is not always “a journey via automobile.” After their overwhelmed mother abandons them in a mall parking lot, thirteen-year-old Dicey leads her three younger siblings from Connecticut to their grandmother’s house on the eastern shore of Maryland. When possible, they get rides, but most of the time they walk. As the determined siblings trek, readers are kept on edge, wishing along with the Tillermans that strangers will continue to be kind and that police will leave them alone. After all, they’re no delinquents; as Dicey reassures her siblings, “We’re runaways to, not just runaways.” Voigt’s talent for description wraps readers in the landscape, and Dicey, as an old-for-her-age protagonist, draws them in until they are right there with her worrying about the next meal, the next place to sleep, and hoping she, James, Sammy, and Maybeth find a place to call home.

While Voigt’s novel is defined by the road trip, two of John Green’s books, An Abundance of Katherines (2006) and Paper Towns (2008), are as much about quests as they are about a journey. In Katherines, Colin Singleton, a former child prodigy with an aptitude for anagrams, gets in a car with his best friend in order to forget being dumped by the nineteenth Katherine he has dated. Paper Towns, however, begins with a quest that culminates in an impromptu, kinetic drive from Florida to New York and is the more exciting travel narrative for it.

In Paper Towns, what starts as a mission for high school senior Quentin Jacobsen to find his runaway neighbor and love, the high-spirited and elusive Margo Roth Spiegelman, evolves into a lesson in self-discovery. When he finally finds her he recognizes, “I stand in this parking lot, realizing that I’ve never been this far from home, and here is this girl I love and cannot follow. I hope this is the hero’s errand, because not following her is the hardest thing I’ve ever done.” In evoking the “hero’s errand,” Quentin joins the ranks of others who have undertaken quests for love, and like Don Quixote giving up the illusion of Dulcinea he too must give up the fantasy-Margo he had constructed as well as the real damaged Margo he had traveled so far to find. The end breaks your heart, and yet it feels right.

Strong road trip novels do not always need to end with an epiphany like Quentin’s, but the characters need to be changed by their travels in some way, however small. Some other good road trip novels with male protagonists like Walter Dean Myers’s Newbery Medal Honor book Somewhere in the Darkness and Gary Paulsen’s The Car are characterized by character growth so subtle it’s almost easy to miss. Somewhere is the stronger of the two stories (The Car ends too abruptly, leaving readers feeling like the trip just took a dive off a steep turn), but both novels are satisfyingly fast paced. In Somewhere, Harlem-raised Jimmy joins his father Crab, who’s fresh out of jail, on a helter-skelter voyage that is propelled more by Crab’s need for redemption than it is by Jimmy’s burgeoning maturity. The sad ending is both honest and true. Myers’s writing tugs at the heart (“There wasn’t time enough or world enough to piece together their prison dreams”) yet somehow manages to leave room for hope.

Andrew Smith’s 2009 novel In the Path of Falling Objects is another male road trip narrative worth mentioning, if only because of how different it is. Smith’s blistering book combines the best elements of crime thrillers and road trip narratives, giving it noir-appeal and a hook for the reluctant reader crowd. Objects opens with a murder and ends with a map, and in between sixteen-year-old Jonah and his younger brother Simon set out across the desert, leaving behind their New Mexico home in hopes of finding their oldest brother who may or may not have left combat in the Vietnam War. Their adventure truly begins when they hitch a ride in a convertible containing a crazed killer, a beautiful girl, and a nearly life-sized statue named Don for Don Quixote. By the end of Smith’s page-turner, the body count is high, but the brothers’ bond is strengthened. Jonah realizes, “Maybe brothers need to do that, to deal with the most horrible things, just so they can see what they’re really made of, what’s really between them. Because sometimes, I think that’s a force that’s more powerful than all those other things we can’t do anything about.”

The violence in Objects didn’t faze me, but then again even in middle school I’d read Stephen King, R. L. Stine, and Christopher Pike. However, if you like suspense without a body count, Lynne Rae Perkins’s recent As Easy as Falling Off the Face of the Earth is an excellent book to dive into. Protagonist Ry’s madcap journey begins with a missed train in Montana, followed by a car trip to Wisconsin, then Florida, then a nail-biting plane ride to San Juan, ending with Ry sailing (and sinking) a boat near the island of St. Jude’s in the Caribbean. Though the story focuses on Ry’s growth from a lost boy with one boot and a black eye to, in his words, a “teenage ninja cowboy sailing guy,” it is also about the “Faraway but Related” adventures of Ry’s parents, his grandfather, and two dogs, Olie and Peg. Ry’s clumsy earnestness and Perkins’s quirky narration are a memorable, energizing combination.

An Interview with Libba Bray

CHELSEY G. H. PHILPOT: Don Quixote had Sancho Panza. Cameron had Gonzo and Balder. Who would be your cross-country co-pilot?

LIBBA BRAY: It would have to be someone who likes to drive, because I can’t. Well, technically I can, but I drive like your ninety-year-old great-grandma when she gets a new eyeglass prescription. It would take us three years to go thirty miles.

I’d probably pick one of my best gal pals, although I have to say that David Levithan and I were great road trip partners. We seem to have the same rhythms for laughing and talking and for falling into long stretches of contented silence. I would also pick my husband, but only if there’s a GPS, because he gets really frustrated when I try to read a map, and I hate to see him bang his head against the dashboard.

CP: Music plays a significant role in Going Bovine. What songs would be on your perfect road trip mix?

LB: Probably a mix of mellow and contemplative, rock out loud/head thrash, cheese-o-rama sing-a-along, and oh-my-god-you-cannot-be-serious weird stuff. For grins, there’s a playlist for Going Bovine posted at

CP: Describe your ultimate road trip vehicle.

LB: A fully stocked RV painted with pink-and-purple glitter and stick-on decals of strange, slightly-cuddly-but-possibly-homicidal anime-worthy creatures on the back.

There would definitely be bullhorns on the front. And a horn that played James Brown’s “Sex Machine”. I was also very partial to the Partridge family’s bus. But only because I thought I’d get to sit next to David Cassidy.

CP: If you could design your own bumper sticker, what would it say?

LB: “I like you. You’re neat.” I find that the friendlier you are, the more freaked out people get. I’d probably have the road to myself.

CP: What’s your favorite road trip book from childhood?

LB: If you mean what is my fave childhood book featuring travel, I would have to say The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (hey, they travel to Narnia!). If you mean what was my favorite book to bring with me on a trip, probably the Little House books. And one of my fave road trip books of all time is On the Road.

CP: How is reading a book like taking a trip?

LB: Travel is a narrative, a hero’s journey in which you always hope you will be the transformed and transforming hero of your own life. Reading takes us on an interior journey, and we are different for the experience.

CP: Any other thoughts on books and road trips?

LB: Yes. You never have to change the oil in a book. You’re welcome, readers.

In travel stories the co-travelers are crucial to understanding the protagonist. How would we know Huck without seeing how he protects Jim? How funny would Don Quixote be without Sancho Panza to insult? The same questions can be posed about contemporary road trip characters. We learn about Green’s Katherine-loving Colin Singleton through his rapport with his overweight, Judge Judy–loving friend Hassan. We know Voigt’s Dicey by how she takes care of her siblings. In Alex Sanchez’s Rainbow Road, three gay teens’ personalities are revealed both by what they do and how they interact with one another on a cross-country drive. Humorous passages like Kyle’s ponderings about his boyfriend Jason (“Kyle had thought this trip would be their honeymoon. Instead he’d learned his dream lover snored, took dumps, and sometimes got really, really stinky after basketball practice”) show more about uptight Kyle than they do about jock Jason.

Travel buddies are the foils that reveal main characters’ strengths and weaknesses. In Joan Bauer’s 1998 novel Rules of the Road, teenager Jenna Boller gains confidence and self-awareness after a summer spent driving cranky Mrs. Gladstone from Chicago to Texas. Jenna not only grasps that she and her passenger are more alike than they at first seemed, but she also learns to stand up for what she believes and that life, like the highway, is unpredictable. “You never know where the road’s going to take you. I think sometimes it’s less important that you get to your destination than the side trips you take along the way.”

Though Jenna is full of awkward appeal, the protagonists from Ellen Wittlinger’s Zigzag and Deb Caletti’s The Secret Life of Prince Charming make you want to hop in the car right beside them. Prince Charming’s seventeen-year-old Quinn, along with her half sister and her younger sister, undertake a whirlwind road trip to return items their Lothario father has stolen from the women in his life. The zany hijinks are entertaining — who knew a gigantic Bob’s Big Boy statue could be so hard to get rid of? — but the moments that make the book so compelling are Quinn’s ruminations on love. “The most basic and somehow forgettable thing is this: Love is not pain. Love is goodness,” Quinn ponders at the end of the book, leaving readers with the possibility that perhaps Prince Charmings do exist if you’re brave enough to search for them.

Zigzag’s leading lady Robin begins the summer before her senior year not able to imagine life without her boyfriend. “So what if I’m young! Don’t you get it, Mom? I need him! I’m nobody without Chris! I’m nobody!” she screams at her mother. But after a road trip with her recently widowed aunt and her difficult younger cousins, Robin learns to embrace the strange, the beautiful, and the unknown. Robin’s transformation is convincing, and Wittlinger’s writing is transportive; Zigzag is armchair traveling at its best.

Anyone who has taken a long road trip knows that they are an excellent time to get lost in your own head. When driving becomes particularly monotonous, memories will surface. I like a little nostalgia with my adventure, and for similar-minded readers I would highly recommend Maureen McCarthy’s intoxicating novel Rose by Any Other Name or Sharon Creech’s 1995 Newbery Medal–winning Walk Two Moons. Creech’s layered story places thirteen-year-old Salamanca Tree Hiddle in a Scheherezade-like role, entertaining her grandparents on a road trip that ends with a heart-rending twist. Rose keeps readers hooked by hinting at a tragedy in nineteen-year-old Rose’s past; her flashbacks are as mesmerizing as the coastal Australian landscape she drives through.

Finally, Going Bovine is worth revisiting and pondering. When I finished reading it, I felt the need to shake my head as if waking from a daydream. What had just happened? I swear I heard the Grateful Dead’s “Truckin’” playing in the background after I shut the cover: “What a long, strange trip it’s been,” indeed.

Main character sixteen-year-old Cameron Smith’s travels begin after he finds himself in the hospital with a fatal diagnosis: Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, a.k.a. “mad cow disease.” When a sugar-fanatic angel tells him he can save himself and the world by taking a little trip, Cameron hits the road…or does he? And does it make the experience any less real if it all took place in Cameron’s head?

Bray’s allusions to Don Quixote are deliberate — the protagonist, Cameron, does name his car Rocinante after all — but nods to Jack Kerouac are perhaps subtler. At the end of his journey (I won’t ruin the book by even hinting at how it resolves), the once apathetic Cameron has learned a lot about life: most of all to appreciate it. “Who but the mad would choose to keep on living?” he asks Dulcie, his angel love-interest. “In the end, aren’t we all just a little crazy?”

Reading this I couldn’t help but think of another road trip character who understood the beauty of craziness: Kerouac’s narrator from On the Road, Sal Paradise, who famously said:

The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes ‘Awww!’

How do I know a road trip book is really good? Because just like Kerouac’s roman candles, it makes me go “Awww!” at the end.

The Long Life of a Mockingbird

The Long Life of a Mockingbird

To Kill a Mockingbird Turns 50

To make a Tequila Mockingbird, chill your martini glass and cocktail shaker in the freezer. After half an hour, remove the shaker, throw in a handful of ice, one and a half ounces of tequila, three quarters of an ounce creme de menthe, and the juice of one lime. Shake vigorously, pour into a chilled glass, and garnish with a lime. Best enjoyed on an evening when it’s warm enough to linger on a veranda, but not so hot that ladies are reduced, as Alabama-born author Harper Lee so memorably described, to “soft teacakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum.”

To Kill a Mockingbird has inspired odder and greater things than the combination of creme de menthe and tequila. July 11, 2010, marked the fiftieth anniversary of Lee’s venerated, controversial, and unavoidable book. Celebrations were everywhere. Special readings and panel discussions took place in locales from Vermont to Alabama to Washington, the 1962 movie starring Gregory Peck in his Oscar-winning role was shown in numerous theaters and libraries across the country, and a bookstore in Santa Cruz, California, hosted a reenactment of the famous courtroom scene. Not even the satirical paper The Onion could resist Mockingbird mania with this spoof headline: “Senate Unable to Get Enough Republican Votes to Honor ‘To Kill a Mockingbird.’” Not everyone, however, was extolling Mockingbird‘s praises. In a June 24, 2010, Wall Street Journal article, “What ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ Isn’t,” journalist Allen Barra kicked Harper Lee out of the canon of great Southern writers. He called Atticus a “repository of cracker-barrel epigrams” and the book as a whole “a sugar-coated myth of Alabama’s past that millions have come to accept.” Though Barra argued that Mockingbird’s “bloodless liberal humanism is sadly dated,” last summer’s celebrations showed how great a hold it has on readers’ memories and their hearts

Now that the anniversary hoopla has subsided, will this classic that was never meant to be a blockbuster–or a children’s book, for that matter–be quietly retired? No. If anything, the fiftieth anniversary reminds us how this book has become so much more than a book. It has generated not just a cocktail but song lyrics, band names, and children’s and dogs’ names, and myriad young adult books have been inspired by its power. Mockingbird has become a part of the public subconscious, a literary and a cultural touchstone.

To attend high school in the United States is to be required to read Mockingbird. First published in 1960, this novel shocked its debut author and her publisher when it won the Pulitzer Prize and became a best seller. Since then, Mockingbird has sold nearly one million copies a year, and for the past five years has been the second-best-selling backlist title in the country. (Eat your hearts out, Stephenie Meyer and J. K. Rowling.) But how did Mockingbird become a book for youth? Is it because the narrator, Scout, is a young tomboy? Or is it because the novel is both a bildungsroman and a suspenseful courtroom drama? Or was Mockingbird eventually labeled a children’s book simply because Flannery O’Connor mused, “It’s interesting that all the folks that are buying it don’t know they are reading a children’s book”? Given Mockingbird‘s cultural permeation and multigenerational readership, it appears to be a true example of a “book for all ages.”

Mockingbird‘s hold on grown-up minds is certainly evident in the many pop-culture allusions, both obvious and subtle, to Lee’s only book. Celebrity magazine readers are probably aware that Demi Moore and Bruce Willis named their daughter Scout after Lee’s precocious protagonist. Watchers of the television show Gilmore Girls probably caught the literary reference when Rory says that “every town needs as many Boo Radleys as they can get.” And Simpsons viewers young and old undoubtedly laughed when Homer complained about reading: “Books are useless! I only ever read one book, To Kill a Mockingbird, and it gave me absolutely no insight on how to kill mockingbirds! Sure it taught me not to judge a man by the color of his skin… but what good does that do me?”

To Kill a MockingbirdMockingbird has also entered the twitterverse via Twitterature: The World’s Greatest Books in Twenty Tweets or Less by Alexander Aciman and Emmett Rensin. Aciman and Rensin have Scout narrate as @BooScout in a voice condensed to short, often snarky observations. Here’s @BooScout’s response to Atticus’s advice that to understand a person you must put yourself in his shoes: “Why does Dad say such LAME shit? I don’t want to walk a mile in ANYONE else’s shoes. Toe jam, nail fungus, athlete’s foot anybody? Gosh.” High literature Twitterature is not, but anyone who has studied Mockingbird with a long-winded lecturer will appreciate @BooScout’s humor and brevity: “Went to the trial. Tom seems innocent. Also, it occurs that our town is full of racists. Perhaps only the eyes of a child can see the truth.”

Beyond pop culture, Mockingbird has long provided the legal arena with both inspiration and fodder for discussion. Atticus’s courtroom defense of Tom Robinson, a black man accused of raping a white woman, is the subject of law school classes and law review articles. Would Atticus’s argument that Tom physically couldn’t have harmed Mayella Ewell hold water in a contemporary courtroom? Does Atticus deserve our veneration? In his August 10, 2009, New Yorker article “The Courthouse Ring,” Malcolm Gladwell takes Atticus to task for his legal performance. Gladwell argues that instead of challenging the racist status quo, Atticus simply encourages jurors “to swap one of their prejudices for another.” He also finds Atticus’s decision to have Scout lie about what actually happened the night Bob Ewell attacked her and her brother Jem problematic: “Understand what? That her father and the Sheriff have decided to obstruct justice in the name of saving their beloved neighbor the burden of angel-food cake?” Whether Atticus is a brilliant attorney or a courtroom wimp, the fact that Gladwell and legal scholars are even debating his aptitude with the seriousness they might read Supreme Court decisions speaks of Mockingbird‘s clout.

Like its impact on pop culture, Mockingbird‘s presence in literature is a combination of overt tributes and almost subconscious allusions. In Scout, Atticus & Boo: A Celebration of Fifty Years of To Kill a Mockingbird (2010), author Mary McDonagh Murphy interviews writers, journalists, and artists from Oprah Winfrey to Tom Brokaw about how Mockingbird affected their lives. Her interviews with authors including James Patterson, Adriana Trigiani, and Lizzie Skurnick exemplify how this classic, though often read in childhood, can have a lasting hold on writers. Patterson loved it because he identified with Jem and “the suspense was unusual in terms of books that I had read at that point, books that … had really powerful drama which really did hook you. Obviously I try to do [that] with my books.” Skurnick, author of Shelf Discovery: The Teen Classics We Never Stopped Reading, recalls Scout being more fascinating than the “grand themes of justice” in the second half of the book. Everyone interviewed, regardless of vocation, has a story about how Mockingbird touched him or her in a memorable way.

Young adult books such as Jan Marino’s 1997 novel Searching for Atticus and Loretta Ellsworth’s 2007 In Search of Mockingbird are unabashed love letters to Mockingbird and maybe even Harper Lee herself. Both books feature teenage girls who set out on quests of self-discovery with Mockingbird as their inspiration. In Atticus, Tessa Ramsey tries to reconnect with her surgeon father who has returned from the Vietnam War, while in In Search of Mockingbird Erin runs away from Minnesota to find the reclusive author of her favorite book. Also Known as Harper (2009) by Ann Haywood Leal, National Book Award winner Mockingbird (2010) by Kathryn Erskine, andThe Mockingbirds (2010) by Daisy Whitney pay homage to Harper Lee, with varying degrees of genuflection and success.The impact of To Kill a Mockingbird on a text is not always apparent from the title. Sometimes the novel is used in a story as a character litmus test: if a protagonist is reading it and loves it, readers know he or she is a good person–extra points if the copy is dog-eared and not required homework reading. In a similar vein, though Atticus might not be named in a text, it is hard not to think of him in any middle-grade or young adult novel with a courtroom setting. (Monster by Walter Dean Myers and John Grisham’s foray into children’s books, Theodore Boone: Kid Lawyer, come to mind.)

It’s even harder, if not impossible, to see words closely resembling mockingbird on a page and not think of Lee’s work. Suzanne Collins, whether intentionally or not, recalls To Kill a Mockingbird with her mockingjay creature in the Hunger Games trilogy. In the final book of the series, Mockingjay, Collins’s protagonist Katniss describes a mockingjay, a combination of a (fictional) jabberjay and a mockingbird, as “the symbol of the revolution” and goes on to explain why she must represent the mockingjay herself and “become the actual leader, the face, the voice, the embodiment of the revolution.” Katniss’s understanding of the emblematic importance of the mockingjay brings to mind Scout’s discussion with Miss Maudie Atkinson about why she should never shoot a mockingbird: “Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corncribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.”

To Kill a Mockingbird is perhaps our foremost example of the private reading experience writ larger by its communal–and now multigenerational–replication. Fans and the indifferent alike can remember when and where they were when they read the book, voluntarily or not, for the first time. Recollection of that memory of reading, perhaps even more than the book itself, is the reason To Kill a Mockingbird has become an enduring metaphor for justice, goodness, and the bittersweetness of growing up.

From the May/June 2011 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

LA Review of Books: The Phantom Tollbooth Turns 50

LA Review of Books: The Phantom Tollbooth Turns 50

IN AN AUGUST 2004 ARTICLE for the New York Times entitled “Why Teachers Love Depressing Books,” writer and critic Laura Miller wrote, “I decided that there were two types of children’s books: call it Little Women versus Phantom Tollbooth. The first type was usually foisted on you by nostalgic grown-ups. These were books populated by snivelers and goody-two-shoes … The people in the other kind of book, however, were entirely different. They had adventures.”

The Phantom TollboothThis October marked the 50th anniversary of Norton Juster’s story about a little boy named Milo, who is rescued from disenchantment by a magic tollbooth that transports him in his little car to the kingdom of Wisdom. There he meets Azaz the Unabridged, king of Dictionopolis, and the Mathemagician, ruler of Digitopolis, who charge him with the daunting task of rescuing the exiled Princesses Rhyme and Reason. Milo, a child who “didn’t know what to do with himself — not just sometimes, but always,” rises to the challenge, aided by his friends, the Watchdog Tock (who literally has a clock in his side) and the foolish, beetle-like Humbug. With buoyant, humorous drawings from artist Jules Feiffer, The Phantom Tollbooth is the kind of book you want to start over as soon as you finish.

Tollbooth  didn’t win the big one (the John Newbery Medal), but it is a “classic” nonetheless. Critics have compared it to works as varied as John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows, and Lewis Carroll’s Alice stories. In November 1962, the Times Literary Supplement said: “The Phantom Tollbooth is something every adult seems sure will turn into a modern Alice.”

As a child, I dutifully read Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, Johanna Spyri’s Heidi, and other books in the “snivelers and goody-two-shoes” tradition. But Tollbooth, I raced through. Reading it as an adult is both the same and different; a contradiction Canby, a character who is both graceful and clumsy as can be, would likely appreciate. I still laugh at all the same parts, like when the Whether Man says, “If you happen to find my way, please return it.” I still wish I had a dog like Tock the Watchdog, and I completely relate to Milo’s initial malaise. When we are young we hate seemingly meaningless rituals (dentist appointments, standardized tests), and only because we are forced to do accept the banality and boredom of routines, commutes, and filling out tax forms as adults.

The first time I read The Phantom Tollbooth I wanted to be friends with Milo so he would give me a ride in his electric automobile, but if I were to meet him today, I would pat him on the back and say, “Kid, I’d tell you the ennui disappears, but that would be a lie.” Adults not only take short trips to the “Doldrums,” they make entire vacations out of existential despair. The adventure in Tollbooth doesn’t change; it’s the meaning we find in it that evolves.

Some critics wondered if this quirky tome was best suited to gifted children or adults. Library Journal was one of those hesitant publications, writing in January 1962: “The ironies, the subtle play on words will be completely lost on all but the most precocious children. Definitely for the sophisticated, special reader. Only the large libraries can afford to experiment with it.” Feiffer, naturally, disagreed, saying in an interview in the October 2011 School Library Journal that “the most important responses I got were from kids who had some learning disability that they had to get past, and they did perfectly well with the story.”

Regardless of whether the reader is a wunderkind or a reluctant student, the book lingers long after turning the final page. As novelist Michael Chabon wrote in an April 2011 blog post for the New York Review of Books about traveling with Milo as a young reader: “While you were there, everything seemed fraught and new and notable and when you returned, even if you didn’t suffer from Milovian ennui, the ‘real world’ seemed deeper, richer, at once explained and, paradoxically, more mysterious than ever.” A classic indeed.

How Tollbooth came into existence is as legendary as the Princesses Rhyme and Reason’s expulsion from Wisdom. The tale starts when Juster, a young architect, won a fellowship to pen a book for children about urban planning, and subsequently became more interested in a very different kind of narrative. He paced the floors of his Brooklyn apartment, pounding out his ideas, while his neighbor below, Feiffer, a cartoonist for the Village Voice, drew. How they met, perhaps while Juster was taking out the trash, or Feiffer was looking for a free meal, is not important. What matters is that they met and became fast friends, bonding over adolescent pranks and eventually sharing a house; and, as Juster would write, Feiffer would sketch. Feiffer’s girlfriend at the time was able to get Tollbooth to an editor with enough pull to get their unusual book published. Thus, a writer who described his childhood self as a “funny, introverted, introspective kind of kid,” and an illustrator who was famous for his satirical comic strip, created what Maurice Sendak declared a “masterpiece.”

In the introduction to the 35th anniversary edition, Sendak wrote, “The Phantom Tollbooth leaps, soars, and abounds in right notes all over the place.” This fall’s 50th anniversary brings with it a new edition with an introduction from Chabon (his blog post was a teaser for the longer essay) and a delightful annotated edition researched by children’s literature scholar Leonard Marcus.

Annotated editions are to book lovers what food festivals are to foodies: feasts where they can gorge themselves until buttons start popping. Marcus’s annotations range from the playful and amusing to the erudite and insightful. In one note he discusses how the tradition of clicking drinking glasses came to be, and the next he examines the psychological benefits of daydreaming. Marcus’s language is delectable and he makes thought-provoking comparisons, finding commonalities between Tollbooth and E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web, Jack Kerouac’s On the Road (does that make Milo Dean Moriarty and Tock Sal Paradise?), and Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essays. The annotated edition will be cherished by nostalgic adults and inquisitive children alike.

Tollbooth  is also for the crowd that loves numbers and words; or at least they will be much more likely to appreciate them both by the end. Milo learns about infinity by trying to climb a set of stairs to that unreachable number. At the top of the stairs is “a dreadfully poor place,” where “they can never manage to make ends meet.” He doesn’t get there, of course, but he does meet a .58-size child who is part of an average household of 2.58 children.

Juster’s delight in the possibilities of words makes Tollbooth read like a love letter to the English language. In conversation with Marcus for the scholar’s book Funny Business: Conversations with Writers of Comedy, Juster reflected, “As a kid I would say a word and repeat it and repeat it and repeat it until it had no meaning and was just a series of sounds. It seemed magical to me.” Indeed, the language of Tollbooth is “magical.” Some of the words are just fun to say (dillydally, superfluous, exquisite) and are light and fluffy as they roll across the tongue, while others are fantastic to ponder (macabre, quagmire, flabbergasted) and look important and heavy as if they were paperweights holding down the pages.

The Phantom Tollbooth  also asks readers to embrace puns. For example, the “Senses Taker” helps people “find what they’re not looking for.” Puns are used as barbs by Shakespeare, the Marx brothers, and hip-hop artists. They are the zingers of satire and poetry. I agree with Chabon when he writes, “I can’t see how anybody who claims to love language can fail to marvel at the beautiful slipperiness of meaning that puns, like aquarium nets, momentarily catch and bring shimmering to the surface.” Puns are jokes that make you work for the “aha!” moment. You’re left to figure out the punch line on your own and it’s all the funnier for the thought it requires.

While my appreciation for a good pun is one of the elements of Tollbooth that has not changed, what has evolved for me — as I am no longer a child in rural New England, but an editor working in New York City — is Juster’s examination of urban landscapes and modernity. When Milo and Tock stumble upon an invisible city, their guide, an airborne boy named Alec, explains that while the city was once beautiful, “No one paid any attention to how things looked, and as they moved faster and faster everything grew uglier and dirtier … Because nobody cared, the city slowly began to disappear.” Marcus calls the phenomena of the neglected city Juster’s “critique of the depersonalization of modern city life.”

And there is much more than a consideration of urban environments: Tollbooth dissects modernity as a whole. Sendak writes, “The book treats, in fantastical terms, the dread problems of excessive specialization, lack of communication, conformity, cupidity, and all the other alarming ills of our time. Things have gone from bad to worse to ugly. The dumbing down of America is proceeding apace. Juster’s allegorical monsters have all become too real.” What would he have to say now that Google and Facebook have become verbs and cell phones rest at the hips like cowboys’ holstered guns? Juster’s “monsters” seem especially real in the current political climate where presidential hopefuls’ squabbling and finger pointing echo the ridiculousness of King Azaz the Unabridged and the Mathemagician fighting over the superiority of words or numbers. One of the wonders of Tollbooth is that many of its insights remain pertinent. Fifty years later, cities are still alienating, adults still act foolishly, and Rhyme and Reason still seem banished.

Will the generations of children who do not know a time before E-Z passes love The Phantom Tollbooth with the same devotion? When I read the classic I was fascinated by Milo’s toys, and that he got to walk home from school by himself, but kids who have Wii and cell phones might not be similarly impressed. A December 1961 review in the Atlantic Monthly declared, “This unusual fantasy, besides being very amusing, has a quality that will quicken young minds and encourage readers to pursue pleasures that do not depend on artificial stimulation.” That such an insight stands to be as true now as it was then, gives me hope. Because Tollbooth is rich with puns, allegory, and social commentary, it’s easy to forget that at heart it’s a fantastic adventure story. After each reading, whether as a child or as an adult, the everyday seems a little fuller of possibilities. When Milo realizes that, “there was so much to see, and hear, and touch” outside his window, and, “things to invent, and make, and build, and break, and all the puzzle and excitement of everything he didn’t know,” right there in his room, readers too will find their sense of wonder renewed. Like other classic children’s tales, The Phantom Tollbooth leaves you with the sensation that the best adventures happen when you least expect a magic rabbit hole, a transporting tornado, an enchanted wardrobe, or a phantom tollbooth.

This article originally appeared in the November 2011 edition of the LA Review of Books.