Louise Rennison

Georgia Nicolson memorably burst upon the literary scene two years ago, star of Angus, Thongs and Full-Frontal Snogging. Her self-obsessed, keenly observant, gleefully teenage persona strikes at the heart of adolescence, for teenagers and ex-teenagers alike.

Author Louise Rennison--whose previous career encompasses stand-up comedy (including a one-woman autobiographical show entitled Stevie Wonder Felt My Face), comedy writing, radio work and a newspaper column, among other things--fell into children's books by accident. Brenda Gardner, managing director of Piccadilly Press in London, read one of Rennison's columns in the London Evening Standard and invited her to try her hand at a book for teenagers, which led to the creation of Georgia.

Georgia now appears in three novels (all published in the U.S. by HarperCollins), the latest of which, Knocked Out by My Nunga-Nungas, is coming out next month. The first two have sold more than 275,000 copies combined, and the books have been published in 26 countries so far.

One of the things Rennison enjoys most about the success of her books is the mail she gets from teenage fans (girls and boys). "I tend to have warm relationships with my readers," she says, "and I'm thrilled to get their letters." Rennison, who lives in the British seaside city of Brighton, says that local girls "invite her to come out and hang with them on the Pier"--an invitation she finds amusing and flattering, and sometimes she's almost tempted to join them.

If it were left up to her teen correspondents, Rennison says, "I could go on writing those books for the rest of my life. The books are like a companion to them now." However, she has many other irons in the fire--she's working on a teenage musical cartoon for TV, and is also a regular contributor to Woman's Hour, a long-running show on BBC Radio 4 (her latest assignment: a report on "being sent 'round to golf clubs to meet men").

She's also putting the finishing touches on a fourth book starring Georgia, titled Dancing in My Nuddy-pants (due out here next April). And she's mulling ideas for what to do next with Georgia: perhaps a class trip to France, or even a visit to New York City.

In other Georgia news, Paramount is doing a film version of Angus, Thongs, with Rennison consulting. She'd read the script for the first time just before our conversation, and was dismayed to discover that "they want to set the movie in America." From her fan mail, she well knows that part of the charm of the books is the British slang, which would be eliminated if Georgia turned into an American. Rennison states, "American girls write me all the time saying, 'We're practicing being British, do you have any more words we can use?' " So now she's contemplating how to raise the proper objections to the studio.

The author quite freely admits that many of Georgia's antics are autobiographical, taken directly from her own childhood in Leeds. Recently, Rennison got back in touch with her group of friends from her all-girls' school (who served as the inspiration for Georgia's pals). And the boy on whom Georgia's boyfriend--"the Sex God"--is based has also been tracked down. "He's still playing in the same band, in the same town!" she reports. She hears that's he's still "groovy-looking," and she's contemplating a reunion with her girlfriends at one of his concerts. Georgia would most definitely approve. --Diane Roback

Jack Gantos

Somewhere in the library of Ashland Federal Prison in Ashland, Ky., there still may exist an aging copy of The Brothers Karamazov with a 20-year-old inmate's journal scrawled between the lines of print. The words were written by children's book author Jack Gantos in the early 1970s, when he served an 18-month sentence for smuggling hashish from St. Croix to New York City. Although Gantos never recovered his journal, which was confiscated on the day of his release, he has managed to vividly re-create his dark journey from "violation to redemption" in the riveting autobiography, Hole in My Life (FSG, Apr.).

Thirty years following his imprisonment, after becoming a successful writing professor and penning 35 novels (including the Rotten Ralph, Joey Pigza and Jack Henry series), Gantos decided "the time was right" for this book. "I always planned on writing it," the author muses, "but first envisioned it as an adult memoir. Then I began writing children's books and realized Hole in My Life would be a good story for upper YAs."

Gantos believes that his firsthand experience with crime and punishment could be a cautionary tale for teens who "have not yet made mistakes," and for those who have, it could be a reminder that "you can still pull yourself together."

He begins his autobiography by describing an image of himself in a prison mug shot. Then he goes back in time, skillfully unveiling the young man behind "the pocked mask." One of the reasons he wrote the book, he says, is that "teens growing up in a zero-tolerance world need to know that there are consequences for foolish behavior, but there are second chances, too."

While writing Hole in My Life, Gantos strove to make his story "authentic," and refrained from censoring or softening gritty elements of prison life. "These days, when we look at YA literature, we look at literature that is adult. Characters face adult experiences," he remarks. "In adult books there are older protagonists stooping down to recreate youthful experiences, while in YA books, you have younger protagonists looking up at the adult world."

Gantos also made a conscious effort not to become too reflective, but to "stay the age" of his character. He kept his writing focused on issues most pressing to contemporary readers. "I had to weed out a lot of material about the late '60s and early '70s culture, because teenagers wouldn't be able to relate," Gantos reflects. "In my book, I don't get into Watergate or the antiwar sentiments expressed by the conscientious objectors I met in jail. Instead of making a political statement, I wanted my autobiography to remain a personal-journey book. I had to be careful to keep the story line and theme right over the plate."

Hole in My Life, which does indeed emerge as a psychological journey, may win Gantos new YA fans on both sides of prison walls. In a final note, he expresses his excitement over upcoming visits to juvenile correctional institutions outside Chicago and in West Virginia, where he has been invited to speak to inmates. "I look forward to working with young writers there," he says, "but I'm not sure how I'll feel walking back through those prison doors." --Lynda Brill Comerford

Wendelin Van Draanen

The biographical blurb on the back flap of Wendelin Van Draanen's novel Flipped (Knopf, Sept. 2001) is a definite attention-grabber, asserting that the writer "has been everything from a forklift driver to a high school teacher."

The first-mentioned was not exactly an occupation, explains the California-based author, but part of a task she undertook in her early 20s, after tragedy struck her family. "My parents were both chemists who emigrated from the Netherlands," she says, "and for a while they successfully pursued their 'American dream' and started a business manufacturing chemicals used in the coating of blueprint paper. Then a fire set by an arsonist destroyed their factory and my father died six months later. Though this left our family financially and emotionally devastated, my brothers and I vowed to rebuild the business." They literally rebuilt the factory--hence the forklift reference--and Van Draanen began her first career as an industrial chemist.

Her initial foray into writing was, in her words, "a cathartic undertaking that came out of this same tragedy. I wrote a screenplay about what had happened to my family, since I thought at the time that it would make a good movie." Though she soon realized that that wasn't likely, Van Draanen was hooked on writing. "I embarked on a 10-year adventure writing novels for adults," she notes. "In the meantime, I got married and took a job teaching high school computer science. I woke up at five every morning, wrote for an hour before going off to teach and came home, exhausted, to a mailbox full of rejection slips from publishers."

Van Draanen recalls that one day her husband brought home a copy of Ray Bradbury's Dandelion Wine, one of his favorite novels as a child. "The book made me start thinking about all the mischief my brothers and I got into as kids and I began writing a story about that," she says. Though she wrote it as an adult novel, after receiving a number of rejection letters from publishers and heeding her husband's suggestion that perhaps it would be best suited to the children's market, Van Draanen resubmitted her novel to children's departments.

The manuscript was plucked out of the slush pile at HarperCollins by then associate editor Nancy Sisco, who suggested that Van Draanen cut the story by half and shape it into a book for younger readers. She did, and HarperCollins published How I Survived Being a Girl as a middle-grade novel in 1996, launching Van Draanen's career as a children's author.

Since she never abandoned her practice of rising before dawn to write, by the time her first novel appeared in print, Van Draanen had already penned four mysteries starring a young tomboy named Sammy Keyes, who lives with her grandmother while her mother goes off to make it in Hollywood. Sisco, who had since moved to Knopf, signed up the books, and the debut title, Sammy Keyes and the Hotel Thief, appeared in 1998. As Van Draanen observes, "I got so fired up about Sammy that it was very easy for me to get up at five o'clock and write about her."

The fire burns still: Sammy Keyes and the Search for Snake Eyes, the seventh novel starring this spunky sleuth, is due out in May from Knopf. "Sammy has become very real to me and I feel as though I want to leave her in a safe place at the end of each book, so I can have a sense of peace myself," Van Draanen muses. "Though she solves her mystery at the end of each story, as a teacher I always want to make sure that I weave into each book a little bit of social commentary that kids can take and apply to their own lives. I want these novels to do more than present and solve a puzzle."

The mother of two sons, ages eight and 10, Van Draanen has left her teaching post to write full-time. Though she misses the daily interaction with students, she doesn't miss all of the paperwork and dealing with school politics. However, she welcomes any opportunity to appear in schools as author rather than teacher. In her words, "School visits are great, because I get to be around kids and they really listen to me--they actually settle down without my having to tell them to do so. And I don't have to grade their papers. It really is the best of both worlds." --Sally Lodge

Andrew Clements

With four books appearing on publishers' spring lists and two more slated for fall publication, Andrew Clements has obviously been spending a good deal of time at his keyboard. These most recent and upcoming releases by the author, whose 1996 novel, Frindle, has just passed the million-copy mark in sales for Simon & Schuster, span the full spectrum of children's genres, from young adult novel to picture book. Fitting into the former category is Things Not Seen, a March title from Philomel about a boy who one day awakens to discover that he has become invisible; and due in September from Simon & Schuster is Big Al and Shrimpy, a picture book sequel to his very first book, Big Al, both of which feature art by Yoshi. Falling between these two works in targeted age range are three S&S spring releases: Dolores and the Big Fire, the third installment of Clements's Pets to the Rescue series for beginning readers; Jake Drake, Class Clown, the fourth Jake Drake title portraying elementary school life; and The Jacket, a middle-grade novel about a boy who must confront his own racist feelings. And in September S&S will bring out another novel aimed at middle graders, A Week in the Woods, which centers on a boy who has an adventure in the woods during an outdoor education program.

Since much of Clements's fiction features school settings (including the earlier The Landry News, The Janitor's Boy and The School Story), it is hardly surprising to hear that he came to writing by way of teaching. "After studying English literature at Northwestern and completing a one-year master's program at a small college nearby, I taught for seven years in the Chicago area, first as a fourth grade teacher and then as a teacher of eighth grade and high school English," he recalls. When shrinking enrollments resulted in teaching staff cuts, Clements explains, "I migrated to New York City with my wife and two-year-old son and after trying a number of other things ended up working for Allen D. Bragdon Publishers, which was essentially a packager. There I was introduced to all aspects of publishing, including editorial, design and production."

Clements then moved on to Picture Book Studio, where he became v-p and editorial director of the company before it was acquired by Simon & Schuster in 1994. While searching out illustrators for book projects, Clements met Yoshi, who was interested in illustrating a story with an underwater setting. Clements decided to write such a tale, which became Big Al, published by Picture Book Studio in 1988. After the S&S acquisition, Clements worked as a consultant to several publishers while he wrote Frindle, which was originally conceived as a picture book. In that format, the author reports, "it was politely but firmly rejected by five editors" before he reshaped the story into a chapter book.

The success of Frindle, for which Clements won the Christopher Award and children's choice awards in 21 states (it was nominated for the same in an additional 18 states), earned the author a contract with S&S for two more middle-grade novels, specifically to be set in schools. This dictate, he states, "was not at all a hardship for me, since I had my teaching experience and was beginning to spend time in schools as a parent. I am very at home with school settings."

These days, Clements returns to the classroom periodically on school visits and makes occasional appearances in bookstores in the area around his Westborough, Mass., residence. But this father of four boys, whose ages range from 17 to 24, notes that he resists promotional tours that would take him on the road. "I still have school-age kids and I find it very hard to be away," he notes. "Though it's very gratifying to visit schools and see how children, teachers and parents have taken my books to heart, right now I am in a putting-first-things-first mode." That entails staying close to home--and to his keyboard. --Sally Lodge

Margaret Peterson Haddix

When Margaret Peterson Haddix wrote Among the Hidden, about Luke, a third child raised in hiding because the government only allows families two kids, she wasn't planning to continue the story. But she kept hearing from people, including her husband, who wanted a sequel, and her publisher, Simon & Schuster, wanted a series. "I kept saying, 'No, I'm not going to do it,' " she recalls. Then she got ideas that she wanted to explore. "I kind of talked myself into it," she says.

Her third installment, Among the Betrayed, features a new protagonist, who was a very minor character in the second title, Among the Imposters. The population police interrogate Nina, who has been accused of treason, then imprison her with suspected third children, pressuring her to inform on them. She must decide if she should sacrifice them to save herself. Luke, she says, does make an appearance at the very end.

Haddix says that writing a series has trade-offs. For one thing, it's difficult to know how much background information to include in each book. "My attitude has been that I want book three to be a book you can pick up and enjoy even if you aven't read books one and two. And that's hard."

But it's fun to revisit characters, she says, and to develop them further. "With every book I've ever written, there's been some little tangent or something about a character that I've known in my head but it hasn't fit in the book. And by doing the series, I've been able to think, 'Okay, well, I can't fit it in this book, but it may go in the next book.' "

A voracious reader as a child, Haddix says she had wanted to become a writer since the second or third grade. She published a few pieces while at Miami University in Ohio, where she majored in creative writing and journalism. She also wrote her first novel, about a high school graduate unsure about what to with her life, as a senior honors project.

After college, Haddix took newspaper jobs writing in her spare time and published short stories, almost all for adult audiences, before quitting to become a full-time writer. "I didn't ever have any grand epiphany--like, 'Aha, I'm supposed to write for kids!' It was more that several of the story ideas I had bouncing around in my brain seemed to be best suited for kids," she says. Now, living in a suburb of Columbus, Ohio, with her husband and two children, Meredith, nine, and Connor, seven, Haddix has published nine books; Among the Betrayed will be her tenth.

She's already written number four in the series, Among the Barons, and another novel, Because of Anya, is due out in fall. She is also working on revisions for Aunt Memory, which is to be published in the fall of 2003. "I've got kind of a backlog there," she says.

She works with Simon & Schuster's David Gale, who has been her editor since her first published novel, Running Out of Time. Haddix says she feels lucky to have been able to work with the same editor throughout her career, and has a lot of respect for his edits. "In fact," she says, "my husband is a newspaper editor, and he says that he's learned from looking at the comments that David has had on my work."

Are there other characters she wants to return to? She admits she has some ideas for sequels to a couple of her books. "Right now my platter's pretty full," she says. "So, I'm thinking, Okay, I'll get through this series before I start thinking about continuing any other stories."

She noted on a recent school visit that readers seemed glad to hear that more books in the series on their way. "When I said that there were going to be a total of seven books, the kids were like, 'Yeah!' " she says. "So that was really encouraging." --Kate Pavao