We encourage our children to read but what are they reading? We talk to two authors, one for children and one for young adults, who discuss juggling their desire to entertain with the necessity of teaching young people about ethics, history, and tougher topics like drugs and addiction.
- Linda Fairstein, author of Into the Lion’s Den: The Devlin Quick Mysteries
- Ellen Hopkins, author of The You I’ve Never Known
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17-06 The Crafts and Responsibility of Writing Books for Young Readers
Marty Peterson: It’s tough for young people to find a good book – they need to be challenged but able to understand the story, which is why there is such a proliferation of fiction aimed at children and young adults. We talk to two authors who write for two different crowds – elementary students and young adults. First up is the children’s author Linda Fairstein.
Linda Fairstein: The reason I decided to write books for young readers is that was the age, sort of 7-8, when my mother stopped reading to me and I found books on my own.
Peterson: Fairstein is a former New York City prosecutor and made a second career for herself writing mystery novels for adults.
Fairstein: My two careers have been easier interaction than most people would think. I grew up wanting to write books, it’s all I dreamed about doing, it was every yearbook said. My father, I say it with a laugh, he used to be very loving but very practical and he would roll his eyes and say, “you have nothing to write about, get a career.” Turned out, by the time I graduated from college, I thought it was right – went to law school, became a prosecutor at a time in the 70s when not many women were doing criminal law work in the courtroom, but I never gave up the dream of writing. So, I wrote my first five adult crime novels while I was still prosecuting, then continued I’ve written 18 thrillers for adults and I also had a dream, always, to go back and do what Nancy Drew did for me as a kid – so I set out to do this new book “Into the Lions Den” for 8-12 year olds.
Peterson: Part of the reason Fairstein says writing for children was so enticing was the knowledge she would have a platform to really make an impact.
Fairstein: Kind of like to entertain the reader, here in the case – kids, middle-grade kids, but I love that they might come away a little smarter for having spent time in a book. This was just a chance for me to reach an audience that I know can be so critically impacted by something that lands before their eyes and in their minds.
Peterson: Fairstein says a part of what she hopes her impact can be, is teaching children about diversity and acceptance. For example, it was no accident that she wrote Devlin Quick’s best friend and partner in crime solving, Booker Dibble, as an African American.
Fairstein: I think diversity of all kids is a really important thing in life, it’s very much the way I live my life, I grew up in Mt Vernon New York, it’s just north of the Bronx – just north of New York City – it was a very diverse community. I live in Manhattan, I don’t think life gets more wonderfully diverse than that – this to me is what life is in America, this is what should be in America, so there’s pretty much diversity of all kind on the second Devlin Quick book. One of the key players is a graduate student who’s here from China and she brings an entirely different perspective of what her life has been, so it’s how I see the world and how I think our children should see the world.
Peterson: Fairstein also taps into some of the experiences from her previous career when developing her stories.
Fairstein: I’ve drawn really heavily on the themes of my prosecutor work for the writing – one of the things that my father was right about when he said I had nothing to say for literature when I was 18 – really has been influenced by my work in criminal justice, so I certainly draw themes from that; motive, sometimes characteristics of people, I’ve never written a book about a particular case that I’ve done, I have been asked to but have avoided doing that.
Peterson: And Fairstein says she weaves her past cases into all of her books, even the ones for children.
Fairstein: In ‘Into the Lions Den’ for example, I wanted the setting to be a great library, the New York Public Library, so I knew one of my earliest cases in fact – before I did Special Victims work – was a prosecution of a man, his name was Victor Phillips in the 1970s’ – he had gone cross country stealing books from great university libraries, which usually have rare book collections. When he got to New York he lived in Greenwich Village, he had stolen books from the New York Public Library they thought, he was arrested, and the police came to me that day because I was on duty that day, asked for a search warrant for his home. When the police returned they had boxes and boxes of stolen books – rare books, mostly maps, and atlases, or borrow books that had Audubon print in them – I wanted to find something non-violent for kids, I wanted to find something that they might be able to relate to; the beautiful maps. So I did pull on the theme of the fact that there was really a map thief doing that.
Peterson: Ultimately, Fairstein says she hopes her books can inspire a new generation of elementary aged readers – the way she was when she was young.
Fairstein: I wanted to jump in the pages of Nancy Drew books and sort of run alongside her and her friends, nothing would please me more if girls and boys began to feel this way about Devlin Quick and Booker Dibble; that they were just doing such interesting things, trying to do justice when they saw somebody commit a wrong, I’d love kids to like these books the way I loved Nancy Drew.
Peterson: But what if your children are a few years older than Fairsteins demographic? Well, then they may be reading the works of Ellen Hopkins. She is most well known for her book, “Crank” and recently released a new book, “The You I’ve Never Known.” Hopkins says her reasons for writing young adult fiction are deeply personal.
Ellen Hopkins: I think I’m helping to shape the future – I’m helping to shape generations. My first book came out in 2004 or so, that’s a couple of generations now, which seems weird to me because sometimes it seems like yesterday I got started. You know what I mean? I feel like that is something that I’m supposed to do. With “Crank,” which is my first book which is about meth addiction and inspired by my daughter’s story of meth addiction, so I needed to write that because I wanted to turn teens away from that if I could do that and I know I’ve been able to do that because of the communications I’ve had from them. There’s a great responsibility there as well, but I also feel like it’s something I was supposed to do.
Peterson: Another thing that Hopkins says is deeply personal to her is her subject matter. Over the course of her career, Hopkins has written about all sorts of sensitive subjects including; teen pregnancy, drug abuse, and abandonment issues. Many of which come from real struggles she’s had to face like she did with her daughter’s addiction.
Hopkins: There’s catharsis in doing that, in being able to write out things. There are threads of my life or my friend’s lives in all the books I do because real life is what inspires character and inspires stories for me too, but it really brings realism to the books. You know, the emotion that you’re gonna find… especially one of the characters in “The You I’ve Never Known” is definitely my emotion, you know the idea of what is it like to lose a child? And will you ever find that child? How will you get the child back if you do? Those kinds of things, when you experience them – they can bring that essence of what that was like. The emotion of that into those characters or into that story; I think on some level all authors do that – we bring little pieces of our lives – for me, sometimes it’s more.
Peterson: And Hopkins says the most rewarding part of her job is when she sees the impact her books are having.
Hopkins: When I’m talking to these young people and seeing the positive difference that a book can make in their lives, it’s very interesting really. Right now I’m getting all these communications because I’m signing books plates for kids who have ordered this book and they all come to me, “you don’t know how much you’ve changed my life. You don’t know what you let me see. You don’t understand how much this book touched my life.” And so, for me, that’s a gift that I can do that for young people.
Peterson: But it’s not all positive feedback, Hopkins says dealing with provocative topics leaves her open to a lot of criticism from parents groups. Her books have been challenged and banned in school districts around the country, but she says it’s important that she writes about the real issues people are facing.
Hopkins: Every reader deserves to see themselves in a book – see, I personally believe – you know my books are a hard subject matter, I actually think they belong in middle schools because they illustrate choices and outcomes. If you’re in 7th grade and someone hands you a joint; hands you weed, you can decide whether you’re going to do that or not. So, knowing possible outcomes of saying “yes” to that or snorting that line or to deciding you’re gonna go all the way with your boyfriend, whether you’re probably to young or not too young – all those choices have outcomes and I think if parents who would rather censor would try to talk, open those lines of communication, read the books with your kids, discuss with them – I think that’s really really important because those temptations aren’t going to go away just cuz you don’t want them to be there.
Peterson: Similar to how Fairstein makes an effort to write racially diverse characters, Hopkins says she always includes characters of different sexual orientations.
Hopkins: You will find LGBT characters in all my books but they’re not always front-and-center. Cuz I’m writing the teen landscape and they’re there. You know you go into a high school and there’s a gay kid over there, there’s a lesbian couple over there, whatever – they’re there. So I have them around, they don’t HAVE to be there, I just feel like I want to paint a picture of the teen landscape as I see it – it is a diverse landscape and it’s become more so.
Peterson: And though she writes primarily for young adults, Hopkins says she hopes to write books that parents can find helpful as well.
Hopkins: I’m really interested in adult readers reading to understand their own kids but also to just keep an eye on the future. This is our future, so these books are kind of illustrating the issues that these kids go through – that touch their lives every day – that is going to create the future, so the most we can do for them as adults is to understand them and to accept that these things do touch their lives.
Peterson: You can find Linda Fairstein’s books, including “Into the Lions Den” the first of the Devlin Quick novels and Ellen Hopkins books, including “The You I’ve Never Known” in stores and online now. You can find more information about all of our guests on our site, ViewpointsOnline.net. Our show is written and produced by Evan Rook. Our executive producer is Reed Pence. Our production director is Sean Waldron. I’m Marty Peterson.
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