YA in the LV: Young Adult Literature is Not Just for Kids Anymore

By Melanie Gold

Once upon a time, young adult literature (called “YA”) seemed to be limited to fairy tales and sports stories. In truth, YA authors tackle the fanciful worlds of wizards and vampires, and anything else that interests teens. The high quality of YA books has led to increased—and in some cases, unprecedented—sales. The runaway popularity of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series and Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight saga suggests that a significant number of adults are reading YA too, hearkening a “golden age” for young adult literature.

The Lehigh Valley is known for its writing talent, and three local authors shared with us the reasons they write books for young people.

Josh Berk: Great Beginning

When Josh Berk’s first book, The Dark Days of Hamburger Halpin, enjoyed critical acclaim, healthy sales and an award nomination, he worried about being a one-hit wonder.

“I thought I should just retire,” Berk says.

The son of librarians, Berk says he rejected reading at age 10, when he preferred “to play sports and listen to music and make my mom mad.” After he graduated college, he played in a band while attempting to land a “real” job that would allow him to help people.

“I thought we’d all live together, and take jobs wherever, while we rocked out,” Berk says. “I took a job at Allentown Library, thinking this wasn’t going to be my career.” But after the band broke up and he married the lead singer, Berk continued to work at the library, reading books, playing guitar, and making art projects with local children. During this time he also earned his master’s degree in library science from the University of Pittsburgh.

While pursuing his master’s degree, Berk discovered young adult literature. “I was still young enough to remember high school, but old enough to have perspective.” The Hamburger Halpin manuscript, Berk’s third book attempt, landed him an agent and a contract with Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers.

After receiving favorable reviews and a nomination for a Read Kiddo Read award, Berk was flush with his first success. But it took him a while to write again. How could he meet or beat his first book? And if he hung out at Wegmans with his notebook and pen, would he actually write something in it, or merely doodle on the pages? Instead of writing, he obsessed about the one little criticism, rather than focusing on the many favorable comments he received.

“At a certain point I realized that the pressures were of my own creation,” Berk says. “Whether people tear it apart is beside the point.”

Berk’s second book, Guy Langman: Crime Scene Procrastinator, is scheduled to go on sale this spring. Langman is what Berk would call a “slacker.” When Langman joins the forensics club at school and someone actually dies, he is forced to investigate his own life, too.

Berk, who says he, too was a slacker as a teen, now has several new manuscripts in the pipeline and a new position as library director at the Nazareth Public Library. His website is joshberkbooks.com.

Molly Cochran: Happy Accidents and Finding Family

Molly Cochran fell into the YA world by accident. An award-winning mystery and fantasy writer of 30 books, she’d given up writing for about five years to attend to some personal matters. She also moved out of the Lehigh Valley to be closer to her son as he attended college.

“Then I lost all my money in the stock market. My life was in chaos,” Cochran says. She returned to the Lehigh Valley and wrote Legacy, published in December 2011 by Simon & Schuster, in the spare bedroom of her best friend’s Bethlehem home. Her marriage dissolved, her parents deceased, and her son on his own adventures, Cochran felt alienated and alone.

So she wrote a story about Katy, a teen whose mother is dead and whose father is too busy to be a parent. Against her wishes, Katy leaves Florida to attend a New England boarding school where everyone has magical powers. Suddenly Katy doesn’t feel so freakish about her own unusual abilities and–despite her initial misgivings–she finds camaraderie, family and even love at the school.

“Sometimes what’s ‘bad’ is the best thing to ever happen,” says Cochran. Over time, she saw that not only was art imitating life, but perhaps life would imitate art as well. Like Katy, Cochran emerged from personal challenges and embraced her special abilities to find happiness again. She recently sold Legacy’s sequel to her publisher.

All of Cochran’s future book ideas feature young people as the main characters. “Young people have a truer sense of what’s important,” Cochran says. “Things are pure. Love is pure, desire is pure and truth is absolute. I like that.”

Her website is mollycochran.com.

Jordan Sonnenblick: On Curveballs, Cancer and Cryptic Mentors

Jordan Sonnenblick may have grown up in New York City, but he’s firmly entrenched in the Lehigh Valley now. His latest book, Curveball: The Year I Lost My Grip, published by Scholastic, is now in bookstores. Set in a small Pennsylvania town, the story follows a high school baseball pitcher who ruins his arm while dealing with his grandfather’s advancing Alzheimer’s disease.

Sonnenblick is no stranger to writing about healthcare dilemmas in coming-of-age stories. His first book, Drums, Girls, and Dangerous Pie, was, in his own words, “a funny book about a kid with cancer.” Sonnenblick, a former teacher, wanted to comfort a student whose brother was battling cancer. He wanted to recommend a book to help her through it, but unable to find the right one, he wrote it himself.

“I didn’t think the book would magically save her or rescue her,” says Sonnenblick. “She, in fact, rescued me. But it could be a resource for other kids.” Dangerous Pie is Sonnenblick’s best-selling work, endorsed by the late Frank McCourt, whose memoir Angela’s Ashes won the Pulitzer Prize and became an Oscar-nominated movie. McCourt’s story of poverty in Ireland and his emigration to the United States is also, Sonnenblick points out, “screamingly funny.”

McCourt was a creative writing instructor at Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan’s West Village, where he admonished the comedic teen Sonnenblick to “head for deeper water.” Sonnenblick describes his former teacher as a “caustic but also very cryptic” mentor.

“It took me a long time to connect the dots,” Sonnenblick says. “I had to read Angela’s Ashes to really get it,” and to understand how humor and emotional depth complement each other.

“I feel lucky,” he says. “I inadvertently wrote that book just as YA was entering a golden age. I have no idea where it’ll play out technologically, but YA has the best writers writing, and readers are as passionate as they’ve ever been. That’s all I care about.”

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