An afternoon with four awesome YA authors at the Decatur Book Festival

Last weekend, I attended the Decatur Book Festival’s Teen Stage panel “Thicker Than Water.” It was a discussion on the family bonds that make up YA novels. The panelist were authors Una LaMarche (Don't Fail Me Now), Elizabeth Lenhard (Our Song), Marie Marquardt (Dream Things True) and Katie M. Stout (Hello, I Love You).panelFamily loyalty was one of the first topics to be addressed, one of the main themes in Marquardt’s novel.“Alma’s family is primarily an undocumented immigrant family from Mexico,” she said speaking about the protagonist in Dream Things True. “Evan’s family is a politically complicated family. They are so different but in fact they share a lot in common, they feel a pull to live up to what their families want them to be.”Stout’s treatment of family bonds in Hello, I Love You prompts her protagonist Grace to hide from her family in a boarding school in Korea.“You don’t get to choose them,” Stout said, speaking of one’s family. “And you might not always like them, but they are still people that you need to love as human beings. We might not be best friends and disagree but I choose to love and respect you.”Some of the authors admitted mining their own family experience when crafting the families in their stories.authors“It’s been a struggle for me as an author to branch out from what I know,” said LaMarche. “It’s easy to write about families that care about each other but it’s also interesting to write about the opposite, to define yourself outside of their example.”Lenhard said even though she had a very supportive family, it wasn’t until later in her life that she realized how much she had in common with her parents. “It shows that we are connected to our parents in more ways than I knew,” she said.

A matter of self-discovery

Asked about the self-discovery aspect of escaping one’s family Lenhard said “it is a teenagers job to separate and find their own identity.”LaMarche echoed this sentiment.“It is important to that age group,” she said, “Who are your parents? What have they done? What have they done to you? It’s normal to think ‘I don’t want to do that.’ ‘I want to do this differently’ and set yourself apart, whether the family is good or awful.”Marquardt honed in on the cultural aspect of self-discovery. “We talk about this universal experience of  wanting to grow up,” she said, “but what their families expect from them growing up is different for Alma and Evan.” Alma comes from an undocumented immigrant family and Evan from an old-money Southern family.“For Alma (growing up) is becoming more embedded in her family and for Evan, his family is trying to push him away to become more independent. It is a cultural thing and the expectations are different,” explained Marquardt.booksLaMarche added that despite these cultural differences, the feelings are the same across the board.While interviewing Hasidic Orthodox Jewish women as research for a character, LaMarche said she “realized how similar the teenage experience from different cultures are.”“I went into this meeting thinking I wasn't going to have anything in common with these women. I walked away feeling very naïve about what it means to be a human being,” she said.Part of that shared experience is the suffering associated with growing up, said Marquardt.“Being a teenager is hard and there is a lot of suffering,” Marquardt said. “There is suffering everywhere, no matter how privileged you are and how perfect your family looks from the outside. YA literature is showing that.”

Why they write YA

Asked why they write YA, Stout boiled it down to “you are just writing about another human being.”LaMarche said “I have a lot of residual feelings from that time. I still remember a lot of that pain and angst. It’s unpleasant to go back. I have to do embarrassing research and ask real teenagers about things.”“I’m motivated by rewriting history,” said Lenhard. “It feels good. The boy can be awesome instead of what they really were.”For Marquardt it was a broken heart. “Where your heart is broken shows what you love. This is a very powerful way to start, I wanted to give readers a time to walk in the shoes of an undocumented immigrant from Mexico and see these complex issues through the eyes of love.”To learn more about these authors go to:Una LaMarche (Don't Fail Me Now)Elizabeth Lenhard (Our Song)Marie Marquardt (Dream Things True)Katie M. Stout (Hello, I Love You)