Are You There God? It's Me, Decatur Book Festival.
Young adult lit gets a seat at the big kids table for this year's Labor Day literary event
Decatur Book Festival program director Terra McVoy has the full schedule of the Labor Day literary event in front of her when she starts speaking about young adult fiction. "It's important as a writer to know how to write a sonnet, a haiku, a short story, a long narrative essay, a critique. As a smart writer you need to know all these different forms — novel in third person, novel in second person, you know whatever. So, why not know also how to write a middle grade novel or a teen novel?"
McVoy's question is rhetorical. She's well acquainted with the wide literary landscape she describes, as evidenced in a broad and exciting festival lineup that runs from the contemporary noir of George Pelecanos to the magical realism of Karen Russell to the Pulitzer Prize-winning poetry of Natasha Trethewey. Yet there's no mistaking where her personal loyalties lie. McVoy is the author of three young adult novels, Pure, After the Kiss and, most recently, The Summer of Firsts and Lasts. She's also the former manager of Decatur's children- and young adult-focused Little Shop of Stories, where she still runs a reading group for young adult readers.
McVoy's been involved with the book festival since its beginning in 2005, though this is her first year taking over the program director title from co-founder Tom Bell. The 2011 festival bears her influence in a big way: Keynote speakers Colin Meloy and Carson Ellis are the author and illustrator, respectively, of Wildwood, a sprawling middle grade fantasy novel that reads like Harry Potter for budding hipsters. But the choice of the Decemberists frontman and his wife isn't just an indication of McVoy's taste. The overwhelming success of series such as Twilight, Hunger Games and the aforementioned series by JK Rowling puts young adult literature at the forefront of popular culture, regardless of reader age. The festival's keynote selection puts a fine point on the cultural phenomenon: Young adult authors are welcome to the same seat occupied by Jonathan Franzen last year.
By McVoy's definition, young adult literature simply describes books that take an adolescent perspective seriously and without condescension. She counts J.D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye as much a part of the young adult canon as it is classic literature. There's also Judy Blume's 1970 novel, Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret., heralded as a classic of the YA form for subtly exploring issues of religious ambiguity and sexual awakening through the coming-of-age experiences of a pubescent girl.
Among the young adult authors lined up to read at the festival is Lauren Myracle, who Publisher's Weekly recently described as "This Generation's Judy Blume." Myracle's written a number of book series aimed at middle grade and young adult readers. The Internet Girl series, whose titles include ttyl, ttfn, and l8r, g8r, adopts the abbreviated prose forms of electronic messaging to tell stories of class difference in Atlanta. Myracle's latest, Shine, follows a girl determined to find the perpetrators of an anti-gay hate crime. "If you asked women of my generation how they learned about sex, well, they would say they read Judy Blume. And I think a lot of girls from this generation would say Lauren Myracle," says Penguin publicist Casey McIntyre.
Meloy is best known for his band the Decemberists, a rock group that projects a literary sensibility through thick-framed glasses and music video allusions to David Foster Wallace. His wife, Ellis, has worked on illustrations for a couple of children's novels, but is known for her precise and fantastical illustrations for the Decemberists' album covers. Ellis has a sophisticated style, bearing the influence of a modern painter like Balthus as much as the traditions of illustrated fairy tales. Wildwood is their first published book together, but not the first they've collaborated on. Over the phone, the couple recalls a scrapped children's novel they attempted about a decade ago, when the Decemberists were still a nascent side-project of Meloy's. According to the couple, the book was so psychedelic and weird, it would have been a children's novel only adults could read.
Wildwood is the first in a planned series of three books reimagining Portland, Ore., adjacent to a magical, dangerous forest full of talking animals and mystics. Prue, the book's bicycle-pedaling, steamed-milk-sipping, library-book-addicted adolescent female protagonist acts like a child extra from the hipster-satire TV show "Portlandia," sassing her parents with Latin phrases she isn't sure how to use correctly and forgoing meat. Meloy's prose is clean and strongly visual: "Prue slipped her black flats into the toe clips and pedaled the bike into motion. The wagon bounced noisily behind her, Mac shrieking happily with every jolt. They tore through the neighborhood of tidy clapboard houses, Prue nearly upsetting Mac's wagon with every hurdled curb and missed rain puddle. The bike tires gave a satisfied shhhhh as they carved the wet pavement." Wildwood is twee and precious in a way that listeners of the Decemberists will recognize from the consistent aesthetic Meloy's built into his songwriting. His fans, and the children of his fans, will likely tear into the series with the same voracity as they would Harry Potter.
Meloy explains that he wasn't drawn to or able to work in the modernist forms that predominate adult literary fiction. "There's no way I could write a David Foster Wallace novel. That's beyond my ken for sure," says Meloy. "And it's not something I was really interested in doing. Maybe when I was in college it was something I would've wanted to do, but this really came about because Carson and I wanted to collaborate."
McVoy echoes Meloy's sentiments when she discusses how young adult fiction fits in with the Decatur Book Festival's larger literary landscape. She sees no difference in quality or importance, just a difference in form. "For me, in my life and upbringing, you read as much as you can and you write in every style that you can until you find one you that you really like."
Wildwood by Colin Meloy and illustrated by Carson Ellis. HarperCollins Children's Books. $16.99. 560 pp.
Shine by Lauren Myracle. Amulet Books. $16.95. 376 pp.