Three authors whose books are geared toward readers between 12-15, gathered for a panel entitled It’s Complicated: Secret, Schemes, and Friends at the New York Society Library in Manhattan to swap secrets, writing tips, and thoughts on social media to an audience of mostly teens on Sunday, November 8. Jennifer Hubert Swan, middle school librarian and director of library services, Little Red School House and Elisabeth Irwin High School, moderated the panel, comprised of Paul Acampora (I Kill the Mockingbird, Macmillan/Square Fish), Valynne Maetani (Ink and Ashes, Tu Books), and Rebecca Stead (Goodbye Stranger, Random/Lamb). Author Richard Peck underwrote the event, in addition to recently expanding the library’s YA section through a charitable gift.
Hubert Swan kicked things off like a true chat show host, by asking the panelists to divulge a secret from their own childhoods. Acampora confessed that his biggest secret is probably related to how often his mind wanders when people are talking to him, and their words inspire a story or dialogue, “if people knew how little I pay attention…” he shook his head. Maetani’s secret was that when she was very young, she “used to watch these horribly, horribly violent movies with my grandpa,” films about samurai and the yakuza, which ended up inspiring her novel. Stead said that she was a “pretty good kid,” but recounted a story that when she was younger, her parents didn’t let her have “junk cereal,” though she “longed for it.” A neighbor her age was allowed to have it, so one day “we just pounded a box of Cap’n Crunch. We heard my mom’s key in the door and we just threw the cereal out the window.” Moderator Swan recalled reading Stephen King’s novel Christine without her mother knowing.
Moving from the past to the present, Swan wondered if the panelists believed it is possible to have secrets in a world with social media. Acampora said: “Online is a version of life, but life doesn’t happen online.” Maetani’s concern was that “we’re sharing a lot of highs, but not a lot of lows. For me, it’s discouraging to see.” Stead concurred, adding that the way people present themselves online can leave some to think, “I guess I’m the only one dealing with negative emotions.” Despite the dark side to social media, the authors saw some positives to social media: being able to remain in contact longer with friends, and the We Need Diverse Books movement, which started online and drew people together via social media, and of which Maetani is a member.
The authors took turns discussing the origins of their latest books, how they address writing dialogue, and how they research books, all for the benefit of the young writers in the audience. Stead “did a little Instagram spying” to research her book Goodbye Stranger, and Maetani said she wrote her novel for her 18-year-old sister, to offer a story about a Japanese-American girl, of which there is a shortage, especially books in which the characters aren’t in a WWII internment.
The authors were asked where they see books for teens going in the future, and there was a consensus that more diverse books will not only be needed, but hopefully more available. Maetani said, “The [current] representation of people of color [in books] is not reflective at all of our reality. I wanted [to create] a book about people of color without racism, and I hope we see more like that.”