When I heard about J.B. Howard’s debut novel, When I Was Summer (Viking Books for Young Readers, April 30, 2019) and saw the absolutely gorgeous book cover, I began counting the days until it would be in my hands. Intrigued by the promise of music and mystery (maybe some mating too?!), I pre-ordered the novel and anxiously await its arrival. If it turns out to be anything at all like its author–because what work of fiction doesn’t include at least part of the soul from which it comes–I can’t imagine it’ll be anything less than awesome.
Here’s a description of When I Was Summer from the publisher:
A relatable novel about unrequited love, rock ‘n’ roll, and what you find when you go searching for yourself.
Sixteen-year-old Nora Wakelin has always felt like an outsider in her own family. Her parents and older sister love her, but they don’t understand anything about her: not her passion for music, not her all-encompassing crush on her bandmate Daniel (who is very much unavailable), not her recklessness and impulsiveness. Nora has always imagined that her biological mother might somehow provide the answer as to why she feels like such an outsider.
Grief. It’s universal, but something that each of us experiences in our own way. And while there’s no real antidote for managing the pain of losing someone or something we love, books that tackle the topic with heart, authenticity and gorgeous writing can help us feel heard and understood. And maybe even make life feel a bit more bearable if not beautiful.
Following her raw and riveting debut (and bestselling) novel, Girl in Pieces, Kathleen Glasgow delivers on all counts with her young adult novel, How to Make Friends With the Dark (Delacorte Press, April 2019).
If you’re looking for a new young adult book title to add to your TBR list, Our Year of Maybe (Simon Pulse, January 15, 2019) by Rachel Lynn Solomon may be a great addition. Already earning a starred review from School Library Journal, Our Year of Maybe examines the complicated aftermath of a kidney transplant between best friends.
Here’s a description of the book from Solomon’s website:
Aspiring choreographer Sophie Orenstein would do anything for Peter Rosenthal-Porter, who’s been on the kidney transplant list as long as she’s known him. Peter, a gifted pianist, is everything to Sophie: best friend, musical collaborator, secret crush. When she learns she’s a match, donating a kidney is an easy, obvious choice. She can’t help wondering if after the transplant, he’ll love her back the way she’s always wanted. (more…)
When I heard that my all-time favorite Broadway musical*, Dear Evan Hansen, was going to be made into a young adult novel, my heart swelled. Not only do I love reading YA books, but I’m working on two of my own as I pursue an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts. I was excited for us DEH fans to have a different way to enjoy the overwhelming and satisfying experience that is Dear Evan Hansen. But mostly, I was excited for this novel way (see what I did?!) to share the story with teens and adults who may not get to see the show in person. The book (along with the soundtrack) are truly excellent surrogates that can be enjoyed again and again.
Despite the daunting task of turning a brilliant Tony- and Grammy award-winning musical into a YA book, Val Emmich—with book writer extraordinaire, Steven Levenson, and the dynamic, Oscar-winning duo, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul—did it. The book is wonderful. It’s moving. It touches your heart. I was admittedly very nervous to read it, because how could it measure up to the Broadway musical? But any fears I had about the novel not being able to capture the magic of the stage production disappeared in an instant. Like the show, the novel made me laugh and cry. And, like the show, it’s one I will be sure to visit again.
After fan-girling over Emmich, Levinson, Pasek and Paul at both BookCon last spring and at the Dear Evan Hansen: the Novel book launch this month (see photos below), I had the pleasure of doing an email Q & A with the multi-talented Emmich.
At BookCon 2018. From left to right: Justin Paul, Benj Pasek, Steven Levenson & Val Emmich.
When I learned a friend of friend wrote a book called Dear Rachel Maddow, I was overjoyed. A big fan of The Rachel Maddow Show which airs weeknights on MSNBC at 9:00 P.M., I often joke the show is the glue to my marriage.*
Here’s a description of Adrienne Kisner’s debut young adult book, Dear Rachel Maddow, from Amazon:
Brynn Haper’s life has one steadying force–Rachel Maddow. She watches her daily, and after writing to Rachel for a school project–and actually getting a response–Brynn starts drafting e-mails to Rachel but never sending them. Brynn tells Rachel about breaking up with her first serious girlfriend, about her brother Nick’s death, about her passive mother and even worse stepfather, about how she’s stuck in remedial courses at school and is considering dropping out.
Then Brynn is confronted with a moral dilemma. One student representative will be allowed to have a voice among the administration in the selection of a new school superintendent. Brynn’s arch nemesis, Adam, and ex-girlfriend, Sarah, believe only Honors students are worthy of the selection committee seat. Brynn feels all students deserve a voice. When she runs for the position, the knives are out. So, she begins to ask herself: What Would Rachel Maddow Do?
Although I had never read an epistolary novel before, I so enjoyed Kisner’s book. I found the format to be an effective way to tell Brynn’s story. Her struggles in school–and in the context of her family–were compelling, and the humor sprinkled throughout the novel was a nice touch that drew me in. Despite the book’s title, Kisner does not beat readers over the head with politics; instead, she seamlessly weaves in subtle descriptions of Maddow’s personality and show to support Brynn’s admiration for her.
Kisner was kind enough to do an email Q & A about the book and her writing life. Here are the highlights.
Zied: I read on your blog that you were inspired to write Dear Rachel Maddow after having your first child aka Screamy Baby. Can you elaborate?
Kisner: I live on a college campus. Our cable television was great for late-night-don’t-sleep types until one sad day right after my daughter was born. They took away the WE network and I didn’t really know what to do with myself. I aimlessly flipped until I settled on our new assortment of myriad news channels. Rachel Maddow repeated at least twice a night . . . possibly more, my memory from those days is dream-like. Then I discovered her podcast where I could listen to her while doing chores. Things are always new when your short term memory is shot from sleep deprivation. So it’s like it didn’t even repeat.
Zied: What is it about Rachel Maddow that led you to make her someone your protagonist reveres/reaches out to (if mainly in spirit)?
Kisner: Rachel is so smart and civil and engaged in this world. All the things my main character does not think herself to be, but to which she really aspires deep down. Rachel’s often really funny on her show, too. How can you not like that? (I mean, I know it’s possible. I’ve seen Twitter. But still.)
Zied: To write the book, did you plot or pant, or do some combination of both?
Kisner: I’m a pantser, all the way. Plotting baffles me.
Zied: Did you have a specific schedule/routine while writing this book?
Kisner: None. I have to squeeze in writing whenever I can, around work and family and stuff. I’d have an hour one day, fifteen minutes the next, none for two weeks.
Zied: When and how did you decide to use the epistolary format to write this book?
Kisner: Initially I’d planned to really rip off the Dear Mr. Henshaw format—write half of it in letters, then go to more of a journal. And it sort of goes like that. But Brynn, the main character, wouldn’t really write in a journal. I think she wanted to connect with someone, outside herself. She’d only write (or dictate) if it were to someone else.
Zied: You hold both a master’s and doctorate degree in theology. How do you think your studies have informed or influenced your book (if at all)?
Kisner: I don’t know. The longer I went on studying faith, the more I became convinced that people who claim to know God’s will, probably don’t. Mystery and faith seeking understanding and dialogue are stressed in the circles I run in. Here, notions of what “sin” is become more situated in the unknowable mind of God, so I got more and more pissed off that the government should try to legislate off the unknowable mind of God. If anything, the excessive amount of time I spent studying theology gave me a true appreciation for the importance of the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause in the First Amendment. That people are screwing with that in the name of the ineffable is infuriating and dangerous.
Zied: What made you want to write novels for teens?
Kisner: Teens are awesome. I don’t understand why everyone doesn’t write for teens. I assume people who write for adults do so because writing for kids is too hard.
Zied: How did your MFA studies at Vermont College of Fine Arts** help prepare you both creatively and professionally to become a young adult novelist?
Kisner: VCFA gave me a community of writers, many of whom are now my best friends. I’ve had other people simply stop talking to me because I was too much or not enough or something tied to my life as a creator of things. That sucked. The inevitable ups and downs of the industry make for a wild ride, too. VCFA gave me lectures to polish my craft, but also gave me mentors and friends who are always in my corner. I love them all.
Zied: Have you shared your book with Rachel Maddow (if she’s anything like I’d suspect, she’d be flattered not to mention gracious).
Kisner: Welllll . . . I think she got an ARC? Lol. Not from me, per se. Because she is a real person whose name is on this thing that I wrote. I honestly wrote it thinking it would be another novel that no one would ever see (like so many of my novels before it). So when it was the one that sold, I thought she should be allowed the space to ignore it entirely. I have no doubt she’s lovely. But I don’t try to push it. I don’t want her to feel like she ought to be gracious. Fame has to be wearing enough without one more thing. (Though I have friends who @ her on Twitter. I do think that’s kind of funny, I admit.)
Zied: What’s next for you?
Kisner: A book about girl birders. I think of it as “Dear Rachel Maddow” meets “The Big Year.” I have dream goals of inspiring a few readers to both vote and go birding.
*My like-minded husband and I love Rachel’s ability to tell stories and give context to the ever-changing state of the union. Especially now!
**I began my MFA studies at VCFA in July. Read about my writing journey here.
To learn more about Dear Rachel Maddow and Kisner’s work, visit her website here.