Heidi Henneman

Scandalous affairs, decadent parties, steamy rendezvous and scheming friends: In her new novel for young adults, The Luxe, Anna Godbersen captures the essence of Gilded Age New York high society at its most lavish and luxurious.

Told in a series of vignettes from the perspectives of several interwoven characters each with his or her own agenda The Luxe follows a young debutante, Elizabeth Holland, as she navigates the world of late 19th-century New York aristocracy, a world filled with backstabbing friends, salacious affairs, strict societal rules and lots of gossip.

In all, the characters seem remarkably similar to teenagers today or at least the ones we see on Gossip Girls or The Hills. And with a first printing of 200,000 for this first entry in a scheduled three-part series, HarperCollins is expecting this clique of characters and their charmed lifestyle to be just as popular. The author of this teen sensation got her start in writing as the assistant to the literary editor at Esquire magazine. I wrote a review almost every week, Godbersen recalls, and it was a real learning experience. Though she reviewed mostly male-oriented books for Esquire, her personal reading on the side included plenty of more girly books. From there she went on to ghostwrite a series of books for teen readers under a pseudonym. It was a fun thing to do, Godbersen says, and I made a small amount of money. Ultimately, she got a lucrative book deal of her own, and this one, The Luxe, became her labor of love, she says.

Once Godbersen got the green light for the book idea, she started researching the Gilded Age in New York. "I had a fondness for the Edith Wharton-type of novel," says Godbersen, a Berkeley, California, native and Barnard graduate. She also expected the glamour and excesses of the time to appeal to her teenage readers. Because she lives in New York City herself, it was easy to choose Manhattan as the setting for the book.

"New York was where that type of society was strongest during that period, she says, and I thought readers would be able to identify and recognize the places here." As for the characters, Godbersen tried to create believable and empathetic personas, each with his or her own issues. " Elizabeth is the heart of the book and I wanted her to embody certain aspects of the period," she says. "As the eldest daughter of a wealthy widow, Elizabeth must maintain a certain type of decorum in order to marry well. I started thinking about the ways that she would have had to conform to the period and that she would want to appear to be a very pristine, elegant and obedient girl of the time," Godbersen recalls.

But Elizabeth has secrets that even her closest friends and family do not know, including a clandestine love affair, a dark secret about her deceased father and a passionate yearning to escape the life she has been born into. "I ended up thinking about all of the hyper-accomplished women in high school these days who have high test scores, play sports and have lots of extra-curricular activities and the frightening pressure that all of that encompasses," the author says. "They are so taxed by having to appear perfect all the time."

But not all of the characters in The Luxe are do-gooders and overachievers. Elizabeth's supposed best friend, Penelope Hayes, is just the opposite. " I really wanted her to be evil," Godbersen says. And through backstabbing, man-stealing, blackmail and quite possibly murder, the author gets the job done. As for the men in the book, the author has tried to create a certain fantasy about men through her male characters. "I think they embody a type of courtliness that is true to the times," she says. " Not because they were more romantic, but because there were so many more layers of ritual and subterfuge associated with their courting." But she doesn't portray the men as infallible either: Henry Schoonmaker, Elizabeth's betrothed, is a known womanizer and drunkard; Teddy Cutting is lovelorn romantic who himself has proposed to the eldest Holland girl on several occasion; and Isaac Philip Buck is a scheming hanger-on who helps to plot Elizabeth's demise.

With the publication of her book this month, Godbersen will learn whether her pampered 19th-century party girls (and boys) and her vision of long-ago decadence will catch the imaginations of today's teen readers.

 

Heidi Henneman writes from the decadent city of New York.

Scandalous affairs, decadent parties, steamy rendezvous and scheming friends: In her new novel for young adults, The Luxe, Anna Godbersen captures the essence of Gilded Age New York high society at its most lavish and luxurious.

Excuses. Excuses. Excuses. For many of us, they are the cause of frustration, but to 14-year teaching veteran and acclaimed author Jordan Sonnenblick, they are also the inspiration for his new young adult novel, Notes from the Midnight Driver.

Sonnenblick, a fifth-grade teacher in rural Pennsylvania, faced a flood of excuses after his class acted up for a substitute teacher. He was absent from the classroom for only one day, but that was enough for the substitute filling in for him and she left him a note saying so. "It was like her last note before she became overrun with the insurgency," recalls Sonnenblick, who was livid about the incident. "I felt so taken advantage of, and when I confronted the students about it, they just rolled their eyes."

So to make up for their misbehavior, he made each of them write a note of apology to their parents. Sonnenblick thought that exercise would be the end of it, but when he read the students' letters, he was appalled. "They were flippant, self-serving, non-responsible, blaming notes so much so that I couldn't even send them to the parents." A few days later, after his frustration had passed, Sonnenblick decided that this would be a great concept for a book. "It was my way of dealing with the stress of the kids having really made me mad, and once they heard the story, they completely realized it was their stuff."

Notes from the Midnight Driver follows a teenager, Alex, in the midst of his parent's breakup, who gets drunk on his dad's vodka, steals his mom's car, mortally wounds a lawn gnome and then blames everyone but himself for his behavior. Although the plot deals with divorce, drunk driving, estranged families and, ultimately, death, it is more a story of the narrator's growth from excuse-making boy to responsible young man.

"I don't think it pounds you over the head as a message book," Sonnenblick says, "but I needed it to be serious enough for the kids to get it." While the concept of excuse-making is deliberately drawn from the episode on that fateful day in the classroom, the characters themselves are drawn from Sonnenblick's own life. The main character, Alex, is fashioned after the author himself. Alex's best friend, Laurie, is a compilation of some of his students. And Sol, the crotchety old man Alex befriends, is based on Sonnenblick's wonderfully outspoken grandfather.

In a strange twist of fate, the author had received a call only hours after he decided to write the book, telling him that his grandfather was sick in a Florida hospital. Sonnenblick flew down to be by his side and when he arrived, his grandfather was sitting up in bed, belting out songs in Yiddish and making the nurses laugh. "I felt like it was a sign that he had to be in the book, and I had to write it," the author says.

This isn't the first time Sonnenblick knew he had to write something. His first book for young readers, Drums, Girls & Dangerous Pie, was similarly inspired. "I had a student whose little brother had cancer," Sonnenblick says. During a parent-teacher conference, "I carelessly mentioned to the mother that her daughter seemed to be handling things very well. The mom replied, 'No. She's not. She's hiding it,'" remembers the author, who was mortified at his misunderstanding.

To make up for his mistake, Sonnenblick offered to find a book for the student that would help her cope with the ordeal. After quite a bit of research, he came up empty-handed. "I couldn't find a book to help her, so I decided to write one." Ten short weeks later, Drums, Girls & Dangerous Pie was born. Getting that first book published however, proved to be a much more lengthy and difficult process. Initially, Sonnenblick signed with DayBue Publishing, which went out of business just four days after Drums was released. In the midst of that difficulty, Sonnenblick was hit with worse news: The brother of the child who inspired the book relapsed and died three weeks before the book came out. "It was bittersweet," Sonnenblick says. "I was excited for the book to be published, but it was too late to help the kid for whom I had written the book."

It wasn't too late for others, however. Since the publisher was going out of business anyway, Sonnenblick convinced the company to donate 4,000 copies to SuperSibs, a charity organization that supports siblings of cancer patients. "The swan song was to get it to those kids who really needed it," says Sonnenblick. After a bit more publishing turmoil, some lucky connections and a weird series of coincidences, Drums was picked up by Scholastic Press and reprinted. It received numerous honors, among them a nomination for ALA's Best Book for Young Adults 2005, a BookSense Pick for Teens and loads of great reviews.

Sonnenblick, who has continued to write a book a year since Drums in 2002, is taking a hiatus from the classroom this fall, but he says he has a good excuse to return to teaching middle school one day. "I love the ironic reaction I get from people: They are glad that I am doing it, but they think I'm a little nuts." And that's an excuse he can live with.

Excuses. Excuses. Excuses. For many of us, they are the cause of frustration, but to 14-year teaching veteran and acclaimed author Jordan Sonnenblick, they are also the inspiration for his new young adult novel, Notes from the Midnight Driver.

When Kate DiCamillo was in her 20s (not that long ago), she told everyone she was a writer. At least she thought she was a writer. In fact, she knew she was. But there was a problem: She hadn't written anything. After graduating from the University of Florida with a degree in English, she got jobs at Circus World and Disney World, where she worked the ride lines. She also called bingo at a children's camp.

"At the time I thought I was going nowhere," admits the critically acclaimed author. "Now I can see there was a pattern." When she relocated from her home in Florida to Minnesota and took a position at a children's bookstore, the pattern working with kids really began to materialize, and her dream of being an author soon came to fruition. "I finally realized that I actually needed to write something to become a 'writer,'" says DiCamillo, "so I started writing short stories."

As a Southerner far from home, the first frigid winter in Minnesota took its toll on the author. "I was homesick and couldn't afford to go home," she remembers, "and it was the first time I didn't have a dog." Out of this experience came the idea for her first book, Because of Winn-Dixie (2000). The story of a lonely little girl named Opal who adopts Winn-Dixie, a muddled mutt with a loving heart, the book set in sunny Florida won a Newbery Honor and climbed onto The New York Times bestseller list. DiCamillo's next effort, The Tiger Rising (2001), was based on a character she had written about in one of her short stories. Rob Horton, a 12-year-old mourning the death of his mother, makes an amazing discovery: there's a tiger in the woods behind the Kentucky Star Motel, where he and his father live. The magical creature opens up new possibilities in Rob's life, including a friendship with a feisty, dark-eyed girl named Sistine. Another critical success for DiCamillo, The Tiger Rising was a National Book Award Finalist and a Book Sense 76 selection.

Her latest book for young readers came about in an entirely different way. The Tale of Despereaux was inspired by the son of one of DiCamillo's closest friends. "He wanted a story about an unlikely hero," recalls DiCamillo, "and the hero had to have exceptionally big ears." She tried to explain to the boy that characters don't just materialize on demand; they have to exist as ideas in the writer's head in order to work. But over the next few months, as she thought about the request, something clicked for DiCamillo. Three years later, The Tale of Despereaux was complete. The novel's mouse-hero, Despereaux Tilling, has fallen in love with a human, the beautiful Princess Pea, whose family owns the castle he calls home. But the romance is thwarted by his father, and Despereaux is soon imprisoned in a dank dungeon. To the mouse's magical story, DiCamillo adds the adventures of the castle's other inhabitants, including a rat named Chiaroscuro, and Miggery Sow, a young servant girl who dreams of becoming a princess. With its old-fashioned, fairy tale qualities and whimsical pencil drawings by Timothy Basil Ering, the book is definitely a departure for DiCamillo, but one readers are sure to love.

Her next project, a picture book, is already in the works. Nowadays, though, the popular author has a new responsibility answering mail from fans. "It's thrilling when a kid writes you," she says, "and it breaks my heart to think they would take the time to write and get nothing back." As for future children's novels, DiCamillo promises there will be more. "I'm at the mercy of whatever character comes into my head," she explains. "Every day I get up and write two pages and only two pages. It's an easy goal that I know I can do, whether I'm working on a book or not." More importantly, it ensures that this former Disney World employee and bingo caller will continue to prove her claim that she really is a true, honest-to-goodness writer not that any of her readers ever thought differently.

 

Heidi Henneman writes from San Francisco.

When Kate DiCamillo was in her 20s (not that long ago), she told everyone she was a writer. At least she thought she was a writer. In fact, she knew she was. But there was a problem: She hadn't written anything. After graduating from the University of Florida with a degree in English, she got […]

Wonderfully innovative, Locomotion is the story of a young boy named Lonnie, a.k.a. Locomotion, who loses his parents in a house fire. His younger sister, Lili, is adopted by a wealthy family, while Locomotion is placed in a foster home. The story is told through Lonnie's eyes as he attempts to express his anguish, fears and dreams through poetry.

For Jacqueline Woodson, writing about an inner-city African-American boy was only one part of her project. Locomotion not only tells the thoughtful, insightful story of a young boy in search of himself, it also teaches its readers about the art of verse. "I hated poetry growing up," says Woodson, who was raised in Greenville, South Carolina, and Brooklyn, New York. Which is why one of her writing teachers was so surprised to hear that she had written an entire book devoted to the genre. "I think it was more that I was afraid of it," says Woodson. "I didn't understand it until I started getting rid of the line breaks."

The fear of line breaks wasn't Woodson's only obstacle to enjoying poetry. "When I was growing up, we read Robert Frost's poems. I didn't know what it was like to 'stop by the woods on a snowy evening'," she says, "because nothing like that ever happened in Brooklyn or South Carolina."

It wasn't until she read a poem by Langston Hughes called "I Loved My Friend" that Woodson felt she could actually relate. "He was one of the first people I understood," she says.

Woodson has written numerous titles about city life and the neighborhoods she grew up in. Her book Miracle's Boys received the Coretta Scott King Award and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize in 2001, while If You Come Softly was named an ALA Best Book for Young Readers in 2000.

With Locomotion, she hadn't planned to delve into a poetry narrative. "I had been reading some poetry that my friends had written, and a light came on in my head," she explains.

"Poem Book," the first poem in Locomotion, helped put her creative energies in motion. As young Lonnie says, "This whole book's a poem 'cause every time I try to/ tell the whole story my mind goes Be quiet!"

From there, Woodson explains, things just took off. "I started thinking of different circumstances and different types of poems," she says. "Commercial Break," "Lili," "God Poem" and "Pigeon" were all inspired by experiences in Woodson's own childhood, whether it's noticing the differences between TV and real life, combing out hair braids, "roofing bottles," or watching the neighbor tend to his pigeon coop.

As she began writing through Lonnie's eyes, he became a character all his own. "As it happens with many of my characters," Woodson admits, "I began to like him a lot."

The character Woodson has created in Lonnie gives the reader rare insight into the mind of a young boy on the verge of becoming his own person. It's a glimpse full of anger, sadness, fear and confusion feelings that many young readers will be able to relate to.

Equally as important, Lonnie's story reminds us that poetry is not just about sonnets and odes or Dr. Seuss rhyming. It does not have to be intimidating. Woodson, who teaches at the National Book Foundation Summer Writing Camp, offers this advice to young readers who may be put off by the genre: Try not to think about the line breaks when you read a poem for the first time. Then go back and read it a second time with the breaks, so that you can better understand it.

Indeed, if there's one thing Woodson's audience will learn from Locomotion, it's that verse can be a powerful, meaningful way to express one's thoughts. That's right—poetry is cool.

 

Heidi Henneman writes from San Francisco.

Wonderfully innovative, Locomotion is the story of a young boy named Lonnie, a.k.a. Locomotion, who loses his parents in a house fire. His younger sister, Lili, is adopted by a wealthy family, while Locomotion is placed in a foster home. The story is told through Lonnie's eyes as he attempts to express his anguish, fears […]

Murder, guns, drugs, violence. Caldecott Award-winning author Sharon G. Flake leaves no holds barred in her newest book for teen readers, Bang!. This eye-opening novel follows an inner-city boy, Mann Martin, as he struggles to overcome the loss of his younger brother and his fear of life on the streets. BookPage reached Flake at her home in Pittsburgh to find out more about the inspiration and message behind this haunting coming-of-age story.

BookPage: What motivated you to write Bang!?
Sharon Flake: Like a lot of U.S. cities, Pittsburgh goes through seasons where there seem to be a lot of killings in the inner city. Two years ago, this was the case. It made me sad, and I wanted to do something about it, so I started writing a short story about a boy who would solve the problem. It didn't work well, so I dropped the idea. Then a year later the shootings started again, and Bang! was born.

BP: Are any of the characters or incidents in the book based on your own life experience?
SF: The incidents and characters are all made up. But as an African American, I grieve, as many of us do, especially for what is happening to our boys in regards to violence and murder. So it is not such a big leap to take their hurt and give it a face.

BP: There is quite a bit of death and loss in the book. What message are you trying to send to your readers regarding this?
SF: Bang! is what happens when the six o'clock news goes off. Night after night we watch the news and see families who have lost loved ones via violence. We eat our dinner, shake our heads and keep on moving. But for families that have lost loved ones, life is never the same. Bang! is a reminder that what is happening is not right and that we should be speaking up about it, and a reminder to me that those who are lost should not be so easily forgotten.

A little while back, I was speaking to a friend who is a principal in a Philadelphia school. One of her students had been murdered. She had gathered students in the auditorium to talk about it. She asked if anyone had known anyone else who had been shot. She said almost every hand went up. That's when I started asking students the same question after I read a chapter of Bang! to them. It stunned me no matter the city, many hands would go up, sometimes all of them. Some black, some white, some Hispanic. It let me know that there are many, many students in our schools who are grieving, or angry, at the very least hurting over loss, and I wondered, who is talking them through their pain? I'm hoping that Bang! will do that, as well as provide a platform for them to discuss the issue of violence and what it does to individuals and families.

BP: Mann is also good at drawing and painting. Why did you make him an artist?
SF: Writing isn't just about what you think should happen, it's about what your characters tell you should happen. I follow their lead mostly. But this I will say, I believe that there are no boxes for inner-city youth. That they are as big, as deep and as wide as we as writers make them, and we as parents and people believe them to be. So I am always writing characters that I hope readers see and say, Yeah, somebody living there can do that.

BP: One of your characters poses an interesting question in the book, asking why kids like him should work hard or go to school when they're going to die young anyway. Do you think this is the thought process of inner-city kids today? If so, what do you think can be done to change that?
SF: These are hard times for kids: shootings, parents and strangers taking off with kids, tsunamis, 9/11. Many of them, in the city and elsewhere, think, What is the point? I think you change that by letting them know that you will protect them. That you will keep them safe. You do that by trying to provide a stable home, whether you are a single parent or not. You do that by engaging them in activities . . . so they know you care. You do that by dreaming a future for them and with them, saying, When you go to college, When you finish ninth grade and volunteer for the summer, When you . . . It's scary out here, even for parents, but kids look to us to be a lifeboat, and it only takes one lifeboat to give you hope that you can make it to shore even though the waters are rough and rocky.

Murder, guns, drugs, violence. Caldecott Award-winning author Sharon G. Flake leaves no holds barred in her newest book for teen readers, Bang!. This eye-opening novel follows an inner-city boy, Mann Martin, as he struggles to overcome the loss of his younger brother and his fear of life on the streets. BookPage reached Flake at her […]

Violence, substance abuse, death and depression are just a few of the tough topics acclaimed author Chris Lynch has tackled in his works for young adults. Now, in his latest book for teens, Inexcusable, Lynch delves into the often taboo subject of date rape and as an intriguing twist, tells the story through the eyes of the accused.

While the topic of date rape is not a personal issue for Lynch someone else suggested the idea to him he thinks it's a subject closer to most of us than we probably realize. "The nature of the crime is that I could well be acquainted with someone who has been there without my ever knowing about it," he says. As the father of teenagers, Lynch is highly attuned to the possibilities out there. "I read an interview with John Irving recently where he described the feeling exactly," he says. "If you have children and have an imagination, you should have enough brains to be worried about everything.'"

Lynch, who grew up in Boston and now lives in Scotland with his family, started writing for young adults as part of his post-graduate course work at Emerson College. He never expected to be writing for this age group, but realized early on that it came easily to him. "To my surprise, I discovered I had a great deal of material from adolescence, and an inclination to speak in that voice." Perhaps that combined with his concern for his own children explains why he is so capable of addressing the harsher realities of adolescent life in books such as Freewill (a Printz Honor book about suicide), Dog Eat Dog and Iceman. "Usually I'm writing fairly true-life stuff," Lynch says, "and as far as I've seen, true life is crammed with these issues." Now he finds it harder to sidestep the issues than to get at them. "Tackling serious business feels like we're accomplishing something," says the award-winning author.

And serious business it is, especially in Inexcusable. Lynch's portrait of Keir, the accused date rapist and narrator of the book, is a departure from the usual victim's story of date rape. "I think it's a dangerous idea that any story, no matter how horrific, has only one side," says Lynch. "Perpetrators are made, not born. There is always more to a story, and a story is always much longer than the scene that ends it." This holds true for Keir, who Lynch is able to show as a genuinely warm, caring, and somewhat vulnerable high school senior. The story follows Keir through various moments leading up to the rape of his best girl friend. "We are all more than our worst qualities and our worst moments," Lynch says, "but often our lives wind up being defined by exactly these." For Keir, a violent football play, an unpunished hazing incident and the constant reminder from others that he is a "good guy" regardless of his actual behavior, leads him to blur the line between right and wrong without being aware of it. "I believe it is incredibly common for people to be in denial about the things they do," Lynch says. "That's what makes so much of the awfulness in the world possible."

As the story progresses, we see several instances if alternate choices had been made where the rape could have been prevented. Keir's father, his coach, his siblings or his friends could have stepped in to set this young man straight on various occasions. "If he had been dealt with more forcefully at some of the earlier warning points in his life," Lynch explains, "he could well have been molded into a stronger individual. But instead, he was allowed to devolve by being unchallenged." Although we are able to sympathize with Keir and his situation, Lynch is not at all dismissive about the heinousness of the crime. "Keir is allowed to see himself as a loveable rogue rather than a genuine threat to society," Lynch points out. "And, I fear this is not an uncommon situation."

Whether Inexcusable will become required reading for young men everywhere is yet to be seen, but opening a discussion of date rape among those who might be at risk both to as perpetrators and as victims is certainly a step in the right direction.

Violence, substance abuse, death and depression are just a few of the tough topics acclaimed author Chris Lynch has tackled in his works for young adults. Now, in his latest book for teens, Inexcusable, Lynch delves into the often taboo subject of date rape and as an intriguing twist, tells the story through the eyes […]

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