'I'm not trying to be dark. I'm trying to tell the stories that need to be told.'
From Harry Potter to The Hunger Games, young adult fiction continues to lure readers of all ages who are drawn to imaginative tales of young people triumphing—at least eventually—over challenges big and small. Meet three award-winning Unitarian Universalist authors who are making their mark in this competitive field.
Author of Living with Jackie Chan, See You at Harry’s, Pearl, Jumping Off Swings, and Lessons from a Dead Girl.
Vermont author Jo Knowles isn’t afraid to take on tough topics. Case in point: Her debut novel, Lessons from a Dead Girl, focused on a girl who was sexually abused by a female peer, sparking controversy in at least one school district in Kentucky where it was banned.
Her other books have touched on the bullying of a gay student, teen pregnancy, and the death of a young child.
"I've been accused of writing dark books,” Knowles says, “but I’m not trying to be dark. I’m trying to shed light on dark things. I’m trying to tell the stories that need to be told, despite how hard that might be, so that we can stop pretending these things don’t happen. I’m proud that so far I haven’t been afraid to do that.”
Knowles joined the First Universalist Society of Hartland Four Corners in Vermont at a difficult period in her own life, after her brother died and she had just moved to the community. She later served as the church’s director of religious education and helped run its youth group for a few years.
“I think the goals I have in sharing stories reflect the overall mission of our church, as well as the doctrine of the church,” Knowles says. “The act of writing and sharing stories is all about sharing our light, as is the quest for truth and justice. Saying those words at church each week is a constant reminder of how I want to live, and what I hope my writing will accomplish.”
Knowles, who has her master’s degree in children’s literature, wrote for ten years before she landed her first book contract. “My big break came when I won the pen New England Children’s Book Discovery Award for unpublished writers,” she says. “Winning the award connected me with my editor at Candlewick Press, Joan Powers. It took two revisions with her before she bought the book, but we’ve been together ever since.”
Knowles’s work has made the New York Times’ list of Notable Children’s Books of the Year and garnered several other honors, including the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators Crystal Kite Awards and the International Reading Association’s Young Adults’ Choices Reading List.
But what she’s most proud of are the connections to her readers.
“Whenever I get a letter from a reader who tells me a book made him or her feel less alone, I feel an overwhelming sense of gratitude,” Knowles says. “As a shy kid who felt alone most of my life, I know what that means.”
Author of the Spellcaster and Evernight series.
Claudia Gray’s timing was perfect. She had just penned a book about a vampire academy when Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series took off. Publishers started calling around to literary agents in search of paranormal novels, and Gray had her big break—a book deal with HarperCollins.
“I wrote for almost fifteen years as a hobby, but I never seriously attempted to write something to be published. I just didn’t have the confidence,” admits Gray, a pseudonym for New Orleans writer Amy Vincent. “Once I finally made up my mind to do it, it happened almost stunningly quickly.”
Gray, a former attorney and journalist, wrote her first three books on the side while she continued to work in legal marketing. Now a New York Times bestselling author, she concentrates on writing full-time and finishes one to two books a year.
Gray describes her books as “romance adventures” or “romance suspense” in which teen love is just part of the story. After her hit vampire series Evernight, she turned her pen to witches in Spellcaster. Her next trilogy, Firebird, is a science fiction story that stars a young girl who chases her father’s killer through other dimensions. Gray describes herself as a “geek” who has always been drawn to paranormal stories.
“You get to have so much fun with metaphor,” she says. “Vampires are the ultimate metaphor—they can stand for death, they can stand for sex, they can stand for outsiders, they can stand for anything. They’re the little black dress of the supernatural world.”
Although Gray doesn’t currently belong to a UU congregation in New Orleans, where she now lives, she still considers herself a UU and was very active in a UU church while living in Chicago. The same open-mindedness that drew her to Unitarian Universalism is also something she tries to convey through her writing.
“So many people think that writing for teenagers means teaching them a lesson,” she says. “I really try to make the books more diverse in terms of sexuality, people’s backgrounds, and the experiences that they have. . . . But you don’t want it to be preachy and PC; you have to do it organically.”
Gray loves interactions with her fans, who are much more likely to get in touch in this era of social media. “Teen readers are some of the most enthusiastic, vocal readers that you could ever get,” she says.
But Gray isn’t surprised that so many adult readers gravitate toward young adult fiction, too. There’s a certain universality about the school years that disappears after high school, when people’s lives start to take different directions based on careers and other life choices, she observes.
“But everyone has the experience of falling in love for the first time, of establishing your independence for the first time,” she says.
Author of The Archives of Varok series.
Cary Neeper earned her Ph.D. in medical microbiology before deciding to dedicate her career to science fiction instead of science. But despite the extraterrestrial settings of her novels, the New Mexico writer tries to explore topics that she believes could have important implications for life here on Earth. She describes her style as “inspirational sci-fi.”
“My main focus is steady-state economics [characterized by a stable population and rate of consumption that remains at or below carrying capacity]. We are living on an overpopulated Earth that is using up resources . . . but classical economics doesn’t recognize that our resources are limited,” Neeper says. “The story is about the aliens on their planet, which is a steady-state planet, and what that looks like. It’s not stagnation. It’s more creative, it’s more equitable, so you have a sustainable, long-term future.”
Neeper published the first book of The Archives of Varok series, A Place Beyond Man, nearly forty years ago, and wrote the rest of the series within a decade. Every decade since, she has revised and updated the books and is now re-releasing them with the independent Penscript Publishing House.
Her books are marketed as crossover fiction for both young people and adults: The Webs of Varok recently won a silver medal in the midgrade/teen fiction category of the Nautilus Book Awards, which celebrates books “that inspire and connect our lives as individuals, communities, and global citizens,” and the same book was also a finalist in the adult science fiction category for ForeWord Reviews’ 2012 Book of the Year.
Neeper, a former director of religious education for the Unitarian Church of Los Alamos, says her work is influenced by the Seven Principles of Unitarian Universalism, in particular the “interdependent web of all existence.” But she hopes her books are entertaining as well as educational.
“YA seems to be overloaded with vampires and dystopia right now,” Neeper says. “I’m trying to put out a fun fantasy.”
Her next book is Conn: The Alien Effect. “It’s a really fun story where our same aliens are invited to come to Earth and teach steady-state economics, so there’s a lot more material that I can introduce to the reader that comes from the nonfiction books on this topic,” Neeper says.
She also writes for her local newspaper and blogs for astronaut.com about possibilities for life in the solar system.
“The human identity is what’s important to me. What are we as humans, how would we relate to aliens if they were too close to ignore?” Neeper says. “I’m trying to excite the imagination and stimulate thought in the process.”
Although all three authors have distinctly different styles, they share a passion for young adult fiction, whether they’re reading it or writing it. “I love YA literature because no matter if it’s fantasy, science fiction, historical, or contemporary, it’s almost always universally about that grand awakening that happens during the teen years, which can be both liberating and terrifying,” Knowles says. “I love reading and writing about people gaining a greater awareness of their world and their role in it. There’s a loss of innocence going on, but there’s also a gaining of incredible knowledge. I don’t know if there’s a more exciting time.”
This article appeared in the Winter 2013 issue of UU World (pages 50-52). Illustration (above) © Robert Neubecker; photographs (from top) by Eli Carini, Lorie Reilly, and Penscript Publishing House, LLC.
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Nicole Sweeney Etter, a member of First Unitarian Society of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, is a freelance writer and editor.