Write It for the Young at Heart
What are the prevailing trends of and possibilities for books written for the young at heart? How do enduring stories get made? What do we do with the beguiling reality that not all teens think the same, talk the same, want the same? What can we learn about teen readers when we ask them what they read, and why?
“Write It for the Young at Heart,” a ten-part video series, offers an insider’s view. With segments ranging from “Bad, Good, Excellent?” “From Truth to Fiction,” and “Getting the Facts Right in Fiction” to “Building the Hearth of Your Story,” “He Said/She Said,” and “War Stories,” the series names and defines key writing challenges, celebrates the work of authors who have gracefully met those challenges, and offers writing tips and cautions. The series goes far beyond a traditional “how to” series by placing issues within historical, literary, and personal context.
With a dozen acclaimed young adult books to her name, Beth Kephart’s books have received multiple stars and best-of-year citations, been selected by the Junior Library Guild and Scholastic Book clubs, and been translated into multiple foreign languages. Kephart is a frequent review contributor to the Chicago Tribune, has presented keynote addresses on behalf of Bank Street, Publishing Perspectives, and elsewhere, has appeared on numerous national and local panels, and has traveled the country to visit high schools, middle schools, and libraries. She chaired the 2001 Young People’s Literature Jury for the National Book Awards, where she first developed her criteria of excellence. She is a teacher of creative nonfiction at the University of Pennsylvania, where she won the Beltran Family Award for Innovative Teaching and Mentoring. She is the author of a dozen other award-winning books for adults and a monthly contributor to the Philadelphia Inquirer. Finally, she is a partner in Juncture Workshops.
Write It for the Young at Heart
In this introduction, I tell the story of how I got my first contract for a YA/MG book, and how that launched me into this whole new world.
What counts for excellence in the MG/YA books? Against which yardsticks should we be measuring our work? And what should we be reading to inspire the writing that we’ll do? In this lecture I look back at the criteria I developed as chair of the Young People’s Literature Jury for the National Book Awards in 2001 and at the books that inspire the writing I do.
Passionate, urgent fiction most often carries forward strands of the truth. Even Suzanne Collins (Hunger Games), JK Rowling (Harry Potter series), and AS King (I Crawl Through It) have found, lodged within their science fiction, fantasy, or surreal novels, personal realities. In this lecture I reflect on the many ways that writers move from truth to fiction. I then share some truth-to-fiction prompts designed to get writers writing.
In this second part of the truth-to-fiction lecture, I look at what we learn from Jacqueline Woodson, Sherman Alexie, and Ellen Hopkins as they convert their personal lives to fiction, at how Patricia McCormick transformed the truth of another into fiction, and at how my own memories of my teen years launched my first book for younger readers, Undercover. I then make suggestions about how writers can move, in additional ways, from truth to fiction.
Every book of fiction, even if it comes from a personal, known place, is improved by research. Here I look at two of my own books and how they got their start in deep research. I then make suggestions about what resources might help launch or develop the YA/MG novels of others.
Every book of fiction also needs a centering place, a place from which the characters emerge and, perhaps, return to. Those centering places, those homes, are built detail by detail. Here I tell a story about how that gets done and provide some thoughts about what that word “home” can mean in fiction.
It’s much too easy to assume that books written for the young at heart are somehow easier to write than other kinds of books. That isn’t true. In fact, we have an obligation to elevate this category with intentional complexity by honoring the intelligence and complexity of our reader (and characters). I reflect on how that gets done in this lecture.
Too many teen books feature too many teens who sound precisely like every other fictional teen. Here we look at the importance of distinguishing young voices, and what we learn from multiple-voice novels as we work on the ways our characters talk.
Here I stop to recall the teens I met a few years ago at the National YoungArts program in Miami, where I served as the master writing teacher. They had a lot to say about what they actually read and why. I share parts of our conversation with the hope that inspires other writers to pay attention to the broader spectrum of storytelling possibilities.
In this final lecture in the series, I reflect on war stories and what the best war stories teach us about the possibilities of stories written for the young at heart. The lessons from this lecture can be applied to any number of additional story “types.”