When Jandy Nelson started working toward her M.F.A. in children's and young adult book writing at Vermont College, her intention was to write picture books. But that changed the very first night of the program.
Nelson, who already had an M.F.A. in poetry from Brown, read aloud her poems about growing up, and her fellow students encouraged her to write a verse novel. "It was that moment I said, ‘Oh my God, I'm going to do that! That is a fantastic idea!' "
She began with an image of a "grief-stricken girl who was scattering her poems all over a town," and even though she ultimately wrote her story in prose, poetry runs through The Sky Is Everywhere (Dial), both in protagonist Lennie's lyrical narration and on the verses she scribbles on a paper cup or stuffs under a rock.
Once she started writing fiction, Nelson fell in love with it—and Lennie. "Really, she just overtook me," Nelson recalls of her narrator, who simultaneously struggles with the sudden death of her sister and the intensity of falling in love. "That was the thing with Lennie: at first I felt like she just crashed into my psyche with her clarinet."
Even though Nelson has worked as an agent for adult fiction and nonfiction for 13 years at Manus & Associates Literary Agency, she says she was overwhelmed when it came to choosing an agent for her YA book. She ultimately paired with her first choice—Emily van Beek at Pippin Properties (Nelson has continued working with Pippin's Holly McGhee since van Beek's departure).
She says the best part of her job as an agent is calling writers to say a book has been sold or is going to auction. Now she knows that moment is just as exciting for writers. "I just feel so lucky to be on both sides of that phone call," she says with a laugh.
Sky sold at auction to Dial in February 2009, and Nelson says it's been "smooth sailing" since. She says she "felt a deep affinity" with editor Alisha Niehaus, whom she calls "insightful." There was just a little more than a year between the book's selling and publication. "It was headlong," she recalls. "We were working quick."
Now that the book has been published, what does Nelson hope readers take away from Lennie's story? "I guess the fact that life is both breathtaking and heartbreaking," she says, "and that you just hopefully want to live it fully, and truly, and be true to yourself and true to your heart." She is touched by the number of readers who write to her, some of whom share their stories or tell her that Lennie has helped them through their grief. "I cry every time," she says.
Right now, Nelson, who is on sabbatical from her job, writes between three and 16 hours a day from her San Francisco home ("It's sort of an all or nothing approach," she says). She is currently working on the first draft of a new novel for Dial called The History of Luck/The Invisible Museum. The book intertwines two stories, each narrated by a twin, though "both stories revolve around their relationship with this very charismatic sculptor and how he changes their lives and they his."
Meanwhile, Sky will be translated into 10 languages and has already received several honors, including being nominated for YALSA's Best Fiction for Young Adults list. For Nelson, it has all been thrilling. She says, "I have to bite my lips from assaulting people at the bus stop, and saying, ‘My book is published!' "