These aren’t your parents’ children’s books.
The works of famed young adult author Wendelin Van Draanen might be geared toward shorter readers, but the serious subjects they tackle are a tall order regardless.
And Draanen has never sugar-coated her prose, a philosophy which has obviously come to pretty sweet ends. She’s the author of more than 30 novels for young adults, many of which have been translated into multiple languages, two of which have been made into movies; one a Rob Reiner-helmed feature and the other a Nickelodeon TV movie.
Draanen will visit Bainbridge Island’s own Eagle Harbor Book Company to mark the release of her latest novel, “Wild Bird,” at 5 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 28.
In this, what some have called “her most incisive and insightful book yet,” Draanen, the award-winning author of “The Running Dream” and “Flipped,” offers a remarkable portrait of a girl who has hit rock bottom but begins a climb back to herself at a wilderness survival camp in the desert.
It’s 3:47 a.m.
That’s when they come for 14-year-old Wren Clemmens. She’s hustled out of her house and into a waiting car, then a plane, and then taken on a forced march into the desert. This is what happens to kids who’ve gone so far off the rails their parents don’t know what to do with them anymore. This is wilderness therapy camp. Eight weeks of survivalist camping in the desert. Eight weeks to turn your life around.
The Wren who arrives in the Utah desert is angry and bitter, and blaming everyone but herself. But angry can’t put up a tent. And bitter won’t start a fire. Wren’s going to have to admit she needs help if she’s going to survive.
This will be Draanen’s second trip to Bainbridge, but her first for business. She recently chatted with the Review about her new book, relating to readers and the state of YA literature in today’s culture.
*This transcript has been edited for length and clarity
BIR: Have you visited Bainbridge Island before?
WVD: Actually, I have. For the first time, I went last summer, a little over a year ago, because I have a cousin who lives on the island and I wanted to visit her.
I was completely charmed by it and the ferry ride over. On a clear day? It was just magical.
BIR: Is this new book very different from your previous work? What do you hope readers take away from it?
WVD: It’s within the realistic young adult thing that I do. I guess what’s different about it is the setting’s completely different. It takes place in a wilderness therapy camp in the desert. And the teen that I’m writing about is very troubled. Usually I write about a character that’s going through something, but this character starts off in a really bad, belligerent, kind of antagonistic place. I guess that’s different.
I do like an uplifting ending. If you’re starting from a bad place you have room to move in that direction.
BIR: What are some of your special considerations when you begin a project knowing you are writing for a certain age demographic?
WVD: Primarily I want it to be a subject that moves me and that I think is relevant to my audience. It also has to be something that I can live with for a couple of years. So if you have an idea for a book, it needs not to wear thin after a while. It needs to have some depth to it for you.
Also, I like a book that explores new territory — at least new territory for me — so I feel like in the process I’m also learning something. To keep my interest and to keep my emotion in the work, it needs to be something that resonates with me.
BIR: You often discuss your past as a teacher and your hobbies. Do you think that having a semi-personal relationship with your readers — for them to feel like they know who you are — is more important in the young adult genre than in adult literature?
WVD: I know when I was a kid I didn’t really care who the author was. I cared about the characters in the book. I kind of tried to ignore that there was a person behind the characters, building up the characters, because I wanted to feel like the characters in the book were real and talking to me, as opposed to a construct of an adult somewhere who probably wasn’t going to be thinking the way I did or feeling the way I did.
So I try to keep myself out of the stories that I write and I’m hopeful kids will feel so connected to the characters that they forget that I’m there. That’s my goal.
In this day and age with all the social platforms and access to people, I worry about disappointing. The real life person can never be as good as the person you’ve fabricated in your mind. So if there’s someone you admire and then you get to maybe know too much about them, that can be disappointing. So I think that, in a way, it’s really nice now that kids can connect with the authors and you can have a personal relationship with them, but on the other hand I’m kind of wary of it because I don’t want the real life me to disappoint.
BIR: That being said, how do you then approach a live appearance like your upcoming stop here on Bainbridge?
WVD: I usually don’t read from my books. I know a lot of authors do that, but I don’t like to read from my books, because I get emotional for one thing. I am in danger of getting choked up when I’m reading my own stuff and that is really embarrassing. So I don’t want to do that. But also because I feel like there are other things that I can talk about that would probably be of more interest than the pages that, if you buy this book, you’re going to be reading for yourself, anyway.
When I do an event I do like to interact with the audience and I do like to make sure the reason they came has been addressed. So I will talk a little about the book and I’ll talk a little about publishing and I kind of assess the crowd. If the people attending are mostly young adults or children, then I’ll give one kind of presentation. If they want to hear about writing — because so many people are interested in writing now — or if they want to hear more about the publishing industry, then I’ll segue over to that.
I also don’t like to feel like I’m at the book store to sell, sell, sell my book. I want to be present and fulfill the reasons that people have come to see me.
BIR: What do you think is the biggest change in young adult literature in your career? Has it been subject matter, proliferation, critical interest — or something else?
WVD: Those things, for sure. But, I think the biggest shift has come with adults recognizing that they, too, enjoy young adult literature. So there’s this whole new group of readers who are not in the target age range that the publisher puts forth. Adults have come to recognize there’s something really almost magical about young adult literature, and I think that has to do with the feeling that life is ahead of you, instead of life is this dark thing that has settled upon you.
In young adult literature very often there’s this feeling that the world is out there. Go get it! And in adult literature, those are not the books that get the critical acclaim.
I think all adults want to feel that there’s still a good life out there to be had. So when you read a young adult book there’s always growth in the characters, there’s a feeling that you’ve gone through an experience that has made you a better person, or that has enlightened you in some way. But usually you get to the end of a young adult book and you feel uplifted as opposed to burdened.
Life shouldn’t be that. There should be joy in life.
BIR: Two of your books have been made into films and many translated into other languages. How much does a book, when it’s done, belong to you anymore and how much does the story become a collective idea?
WVD: I do have children, so I know the difference between books and children. It’s not [the same]. But there’s the idea that if you put it out there in the world they become adults and then they can go out there and do great things. They can go out there and they’re no longer yours, but they still hold your heart. Books are like that, too.
Sometimes, you can’t even imagine. I have these books that have gone out there in their own little areas in the world and have really affected the lives of the people who have read them and then kind of grown beyond where I ever imagined them to go. A couple of weeks ago, “Flipped” the movie opened at number five at the box office in Korea. This is 15 years after the book came out, seven years after the movie comes out, it’s made it across to Korea where it’s number five at the box office.
BIR: There are some who lament what they perceive to be a diminished capacity for literature in young people today. They claim texting and digital communication have made our children less literate. Do you agree with that?
WVD: I think there has never been a better time for young adult literature. I think there’s whole section of our population that loves to read, but they also love social media and they love to share what they’re reading. So they’ve got 140 characters that they’re putting up with the picture of a book they just read — but they’ve read the book! So I don’t think it’s fair to say that this generation has a short attention span and can only think in 140 characters. I don’t think that’s true at all. I think they can do both.