Lurlene McDaniel knows she has a reputation for melodrama: “In the ’90s, librarians started referring to me as the crying-and-dying lady,” she told the audience during an appearance at Kepler’s Books in Menlo Park, Calif.
But letters she gets from readers prove that her stories resonate, she said. For example, she received an email saying that Six Months to Live – a book about teen friends battling cancer – inspired a fan to go to medical school.
Cultivating compassion was the major theme at this stop of Random House’s Life Actually tour, which centered on McDaniel and her new book, The Year of Luminous Love (Delacorte). Thirteen other authors of realistic YA fiction joined her at different points along the way, for appearances in seven markets coast to coast.
The tour was designed with different combinations of authors, and a mix of backlist and frontlist books, to give readers a chance to discover and share stories that might resonate, said Dominique Cimina, director of publicity and corporate communications for Random House Children’s Books. At Kepler’s, Dana Reinhardt, author of The Things a Brother Knows (Random/Lamb), and Wendelin Van Draanen, author of The Running Dream (Knopf), joined McDaniel.
These authors certainly do not shy away from heavy material: McDaniel’s new book includes another character dying of cancer; Reinhardt’s protagonist is a boy whose brother returns from war as a different, damaged person; and Van Draanen jokingly admitted after introducing her book – which deals with a runner who loses her leg in a bus accident – that “it’s a horrible premise for a story.” (McDaniel’s response: “Not for me!”)
But while the topics may be challenging, realistic books help young readers figure out what to do in the uncomfortable moments that they have to face at some point in their lives, Van Draanen said. And the books help them develop compassion “for the person you think you know,” but really don’t. She said in her own book, the protagonist – though herself a victim – also learns to care about another disabled girl that she had previously dismissed.
During the evening, there were some tender moments that showcased the power of these realistic books: McDaniel read a handwritten letter –protected in plastic – from a girl with a cleft lip and palette who wondered, “Will a guy ever like me enough to take me out for a burger?” Van Draanen says that after the Boston Marathon bombing, she heard from an 11-year-old girl who wanted to buy copies of her book to send to victims.
There was also evidence of the lasting appeal of realistic coming-of-age stories. During the book-signing portion at the close of the event, an exuberant audience member told McDaniel she has been a fan since middle school, and now she’s in her late 20s. When another attendee called her a fan girl, she corrected her with a laugh, “I am a fan woman now.”
The Year of Luminous Love by Lurlene McDaniel. Delacorte, $16.99 May ISBN 978-0-385-74171-2