The five Young People’s Literature nominees gathered before the press conference: (l. to r.) E. Lockhart, Laurie Halse Anderson, Judy Blundell, Kathi Appelt and Tim Tharp. Photo: Joe Pacheco.

For the 11th year running, the National Book Foundation held a National Book Awards Teen Press Conference, which allows the five nominees in the Young People’s Literature category to read for and field questions from their books’ audience—teenagers.

Held on Tuesday at the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, the event, attended by around 200 New York City high school students, was emceed by the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, Jon Scieszka. Following introductory remarks by the Schomburg Center’s Christopher Moore and Sherrie Young, director of marketing for the National Book Foundation, Scieszka took the stage to introduce the five finalists and get to what he called the “coolest part” of the event: “feeding these authors to the wolves.”

But before taking questions, the authors each read passages from their nominated titles. Laurie Halse Anderson began with a section from Chains in which Isabel, a young slave in 1776 New York City, learns that her sister has been sold to a family in the West Indies. Kathi Appelt followed with Puck, one of her curious kitten protagonists, venturing out from The Underneath. Next, Judy Blundell shared a mother-daughter heart-to-heart conversation from What I Saw and How I Lied.

E. Lockhart’s reading from The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau Banks—about a prank involving bras of every shape, size and color that Frankie orchestrates—got a lot of laughs from the crowd. But the strongest reaction came to Tim Tharp’s reading from The Spectacular Now, with the audience erupting in cheers after Tharp’s rendition of his main character’s gangsta rap (“Listen up, ’cause I’m serious / I drive the girls delirious”) during a lament about his love life.

Following the event, teens gathered outside the auditorium for a reception.
Photo: Joe Pacheco.

Then it was on to the Q&A period. Although Scieskza had cautioned against “softballs” (offering “Where do you get your ideas?” and “How much money do you make?” as examples), the questions generally focused on plot points, with the lion’s share of them going to Lockhart and Tharp. Asked about whether the ending of her book was happy or sad, Lockhart said she was glad that it didn’t seem clear-cut. She then spoke about two types of feminism, one that embraces working outside the system, the other creating change from inside, noting that Frankie’s attempt to infiltrate and control the all-male secret society at her school plants her in the latter category.

About the origins of his book (“it’s not autobiographical”), Tharp said that the character of Sutter Keely began in a short story—an incarnation in which Sutter, while still a heavy drinker, was “surly” and “kind of bitter.” Realizing that “no one wanted to spend the story with that guy,” Tharp chose to make him more upbeat. “The floodgates opened up,” he said. ‘The book was practically dictated to me by Sutter Keely.” (Scieskza added that Sutter “makes Holden Caulfield look like a schmo.”)

In answer to a question asking why Isabel and her sister Ruth didn’t try to run away, Anderson responded that, at the time, the only means of escape from Manhattan were swimming and one guarded bridge. “The chances to get away were slim and none.” She had previously noted that when Isabel would have been living in New York City, 20% of the city’s residents were slaves. “We don’t talk about that because it makes us feel awkward,” Anderson said, noting that talking about uncomfortable things “is how we make our country better.”

Teens had a chance to speak one-on-one with the authors. Here, a boy gets a book signed by Tim Tharp. Photo: Joe Pacheco.

Appelt was asked about the significance of the crescent moon on the forehead of the kitten, Puck. “I used it to endow Puck with the magic of the moon,” she said, in keeping with the magical realism in The Underneath. “I think of the moon as a kind of watcher, watching over him and his sister.”

And in response to a question about why she didn’t reveal in her book the specifics of a particular character’s death, Blundell said that that very uncertainty was what she was after. “If someone you love lied to you, but you don’t know if it’s a lie, how do you go on?” she mused. She confessed that her editor, David Levithan, had initially asked her, “Are you sure it’s for kids?,” but that she felt certain the book was. “I think teens deal with very adult themes in their lives.”

With settings ranging from an elite East Coast boarding school to post-World War II Florida, and characters that include alcoholic teens, colonial slaves and a centuries-old snake, this year’s nominees “could not be more different from each other,” Scieszka noted. “There is something out there for everyone.”