February 22, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Magical Thinking in the Real World: YA Lit at SLJ’s Day of Dialog 2015


From the left: Patrick Ness, A.S. King, Allan Stratton, Moira Fowley-Doyle,
Daniel José Older, and moderator Angela Carstensen.

A panel of acclaimed and debut authors with upcoming YA novels that blur the line between reality and fantasy told the audience just what pushes their buttons as writers and world-builders during School Library Journal’s 2015 Day of Dialog. Moderated by Angela Carstensen, head librarian at the Convent of the Sacred Heart School in New York City, the lively session included speakers Moïra Fowley-Doyle, Patrick Ness, Daniel José Older, Alan Stratton, and the day’s luncheon keynote speaker, A.S. King.

DOD-YA-ICrawlThroughIt-KingMost of Printz Honor winner King’s work has some magical element. In her forthcoming novel, I Crawl Through It (Little, Brown), the surrealistic aspect chose to explore her, she said, instead of the other way around. “I didn’t expect it, but it showed it up,” she told the audience. “I’ve been in shock a few times, and every time, it’s absolutely wild and surreal. Shock is an unbelievable head mess.” The book focuses on four teens living in a suburban development, including China, who is a walking digestive system, and Gustav, who is both a building and a helicopter.

DOD-YA-TheDogs-StrattonFor Stratton, a Printz Honor winner, the surrealism in The Dogs (Sourcebooks) happened by accident. “I had flashes about some trauma [involving] my dad and was working it out in a story,” Stratton said. “And I remembered a story that I read when I was 14, about wild dogs running around in a property. They both served as triggers for my main character, and I started hearing his voice.” The thriller takes place in a dark cabin in which a young teen and his mom are hiding from his dad, who has been searching for them for years.

Ness balked at the delineation between realistic and fantasy fiction: “I don’t believe that there’s anything really realistic. All books have contrivances,” he said. ”It’s what you choose to do inside the world of the book that…makes it realistic. All books are magic. They’re just made-up sh*t. None of it is real.”

DOD-YA-AccidentalSeason-DoyleFantasy can be a cathartic way to think about the most difficult aspects of life, shared Fowley-Doyle. Her debut novel, The Accident Season (Penguin), is about a 17-year-old Irish girl whose family becomes accident prone every year around the same time period. When the teen discovers photographs of a girl who seems to be present not only in her family’s past but in its present, she begins to grapple with what is real and what isn’t.


Patrick Ness.

Several of the authors set out to subvert the “Chosen One” concept—the narrative idea that every protagonist is special and has been chosen to save the world—in their latest books. Two-time Carnegie winner Ness wanted to play with that idea by including concurrent stories in his The Rest of Us Just Live Here (HarperCollins): one about the indie kids—named Hazel, Finn 1, and Finn 2—who are trying to save the world and the other about Mikey, a regular kid who just wants to graduate and go to prom before the indie kids blow up the school—again.

“YA often answers the question ‘Why are you different?’ But what about the rest of us who are never going to feel like that? We just want to have lunch, for Christ’s sake,” Ness quipped.


Daniel José Older.

Older also tackled the Chosen One motif in Shadowshaper (Scholastic), which he was first inspired to write after reading the “Harry Potter” books. In it, 16-year-old Sierra Santiago, an Afro-Latina teen from Brooklyn, paints murals that come to life. “The bad guy [in this novel] mistranslates a Spanish poem and thinks he is the ‘One and Only,’” Older said. However, the book’s real hero is the community that unites as one.

Carstensen pointed out that in many of the works, the setting is just as important a character as the protagonists. In Fowley-Doyle’s story, the west of Ireland setting plays a huge role in the magical and creepy tale,  inspired by her home country. The author wanted to explore what occurs when unexpected things happen in mundane environments, like school and home.

King wanted, most of all, to explore the “standardization of the world” in her new book. A farm where King spent many years as a young person was recently bought by a developer. “I have witnessed something that used to be beautiful that has now been turned into something else,” she said.

The rewards of creativity and creation motivate these authors to complete their books, they shared. “My books are my brain babies,” Stratton said. “Every book has my DNA in it, and it’s astonishing. The fact that these abstract objects called ‘books’ and blobs on paper called ‘words’ can make us feel things is a miracle.”

“For me, creation was my voice,” King added. “I didn’t have a voice. Giving my characters life is giving them a voice.”

The panelists were also inspired to create these fantastical works by other writers who were not afraid to blur boundaries. For Fowley-Doyle, it was Francesca Lia Block and her ability to explore “the idea that the mundane can magical.” In addition, David Almond’s novels have shown her that “Extraordinary things can happen but ordinary things can be interpreted as extraordinary, too.”

Older gave shout-outs to Octavia Butler, Walter Mosely, and Junot Diaz for showing him “for the first time [that] you can tell your story in your way.” He added, “There was some reclamation to be had. I want teens to see people of color in these sci-fi stories, because we don’t often see ourselves” in them.

Ness admitted laughingly that The Rest of Us was most inspired by the first five seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

He concluded the session by reiterating that no matter how powerful stories are, “they’re not reality. They have a beginning and an end. But they can be a method of finding a truth. We created religion to explain our fear of death and comedy to explain our fear of life. And we created books to the find the truth.”

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Shelley Diaz About Shelley Diaz

Shelley M. Diaz (sdiaz@mediasourceinc.com) is School Library Journal's Reviews Team Manager and SLJTeen newsletter editor. She has her MLIS in Public Librarianship with a Certificate in Children’s & YA Services from Queens College, and can be found on Twitter @sdiaz101.

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