YA Wednesday: The National Book Award Contenders
This morning the finalists for the National Book Awards were announced in five categories, including Young People's Literature, and it's a stellar line-up of books. The winner will be revealed on the evening of November 14 and John Corey Whaley, author of this year's Michael J. Printz winner, Where Things Come Back, will host the National Book Awards Finalists Reading the night before. It's times like these that I wish I lived in New York, what a fantastic way to spend an evening...
Check out the list of contenders for Young People's Literature below, plus an exclusive interview between finalist Eliot Schrefer (Endangered) and David Levithan.
- Endangered: Set in the dangerous world of the Congo, one girl must save a group of bonobos--and herself--from a violent coup that forces all of them from sanctuary.
- Goblin Secrets : In this atmospheric fantasy and adventure novel, a young boy joins a theatrical troupe of goblins in an effort to find his only living relative--his big brother.
- Out of Reach: When Rachel's brother goes missing she's forced to face his addiction and her own dark secrets in an effort to discover the truth about his disappearance.
- Never Fall Down: Based on a true story, a boy becomes a child of war under the Khmer Rouge and confronts horrors and hardships in the killing fields by living the credo never fall down.
- Bomb: The Race to Build--and Steal--the World's Most Dangerous Weapon: The story of a race that spanned 3 continents as covert activities and scientific genius converged to create the world's most formidable weapon--the atomic bomb.
David Levithan Interviews Eliot Schrefer (you can read the whole thing after the jump)
DL: For many YA novelists, like myself, “research” involves looking at old journals, or going on Facebook. But for ENDANGERED, you traveled to Congo and spent some time with bonobos. What was that like?
ES: Lola ya Bonobo, the bonobo sanctuary where I stayed, is on the palace grounds of the former dictator of DRC. It’s a lovely place, with a river running through and dense overhanging greenery. Oh, and there are also sixty-odd bonobos shrieking at all hours. And some crazy fast ants. And a resident Siamese cat who sometimes goes missing and returns with her whiskers gone, because the gardeners can sell them on the black market as sorcery reagents.
When I flew to Congo, I had already read plenty about the bonobos, and their characterization in my book didn’t change terrifically once I was there. But those other unexpected observations—particularly the human element of Congo, which I got immersed in when one of the sanctuary’s surrogate mothers brought me around her village—opened the country up to me. I flew there because of the bonobos. But by the time I left I’d come to see the bonobos as part of a system and of a world.
DL: What is the strangest thing you did with a bonobo while you were there?
ES: I’m not sure if the gentle people of Amazon really need to know this, but I inadvertently tongue kissed an ape. We were playing a game where I’d blow on her lips, and this little three-year-old turned out to be impossibly strong. She decided she wanted to kiss, and I had no option in the matter. I did a big cartoonish spit-take once I managed to get free.
DL: I know you were haunted by one image in particular involving a bonobo, which found its way into the book. Can you talk about how that one image spurred you on?
ES: In the process of researching ENDANGERED I read the quarterly reports from Friends of Bonobos, the non-profit behind Lola. One story made me cry when I read it. An orphan bonobo infant named Kinsuke arrived at the sanctuary too weak to survive. She was rescued from a bushmeat trader only to spend one night in safety, surrounded by people who wanted nothing more than for her to live. She had been restrained with a rope, and when the resident vet cut it and went to pull it away, she clutched it to her. It had been what imprisoned her, but it was also her only possession. She died cradling it.
Reading about Kinsuke spurred me on in two ways. I became even more resolved to find out more about the bonobo crisis and what the rest of the world can do to help. On another level, though, that tension—that your greatest torment can become your greatest treasure—is a theme I made it my goal to explore in the novel. ENDANGERED is dedicated to her.
ES: Terrifying. As I was outlining the novel I kept having these insidious thoughts of you’re a white dude in New York City. How dare you write about a mixed race girl in Congo?! But that fear lightened once I was there. I was scared to write outside my borders because I was afraid of being pegged as a fraud. But once I was actually immersed in the culture, all I could see were similarities. It freed me up to just try to be as true as I could be. I figured out that being from a different land doesn’t make me unable to observe and sympathize. It just means I have to work harder to understand.
DL: What was the hardest part of the novel for you to write?
ES: There’s a chapter, late in the novel, in which Sophie winds up trapped in a small room with a boy soldier. He’s seized Otto, Sophie’s precious young bonobo, and she takes a huge risk by confronting him to get Otto back. It’s an intimate scene, with Sophie trying to get close to the boy without allowing herself to sympathize with him. Both sides are manipulating each other. The boy seems to have more power—his weapons, his allies, even his maleness—but Sophie has Otto. And ultimately, it’s the bonobo who saves Sophie, not the other way around. It was a very scary scene to write, to get as far as I could into the mind of a child soldier while my own narrative allegiances struggled to remain with Sophie and Otto. I also had a queasy thought reverbing in my head: child soldiers are out there killing and being killed, and they aren’t something that ceases to be once ENDANGERED is closed. I had always had the comfort of pure fiction before.
DL: Your book before this one was GEEK FANTASY NOVEL, a pseudonymous romp, and the two books before that one were dark thrillers – THE DEADLY SISTER is like GONE GIRL with siblings. Do you approach books in different genres in different ways, or at the end of the day, is writing just writing, no matter what the subject or style?
ES: I feel like I learned a lot from writing ENDANGERED (and not just the bonobo trivia I keep boring my friends with!). I’ve always taken pleasure in plotting, in trying to set up events so they fall together in surprising but inevitable ways. But with ENDANGERED my heart got wrapped up in the material as much as my mind did. Writing and editing it became more obsessive than it had been for previous books. I hope I’m able to keep finding projects that take me over with as much intensity.
DL: I know (from you, and your book) that bonobos share 98.7% of humans’ genetic material. So I must ask – what do you see as your most bonobo-like traits?
ES: My fiancé’s pet name for me is bonobo, and was long before I had the idea for ENDANGERED. It just came out of his mouth spontaneously when we were watching a bonobo documentary—“you’re a bonobo!” So I guess there’s a bunch of overlap. Let me count the ways.
Bonobos are matriarchal, which means the males don’t have a whole lot to do. The boys hang out, kick at the water’s surface, throw sticks purposelessly, groom and chatter. That’s totally me. I am more than happy to have the females in charge. (And, considering the gender ratios at most publishing houses, it’s good that I am!)
Short legs and long arms. Check.
A whole lot more interest in amiable conversation than social domination. Check.
DL: I am privileged to know that your next book is going to involve chimpanzees – how is writing about them different from writing about bonobos?
ES: Chimpanzees get a bad rap in ENDANGERED. I feel a little bad about that, in retrospect. When viewed alongside bonobos, all these dark traits come out in chimps. Infanticide. War. Domestic violence. I thought of them as the jerks of the ape world. The Heathers to the bonobos’ moony Winona Ryder.
But then I read more of Jane Goodall’s work, and I came to love the chimps. She enthusiastically details their lives so each personality comes through. She shows the strategies of the females, how the most successful of them can exert as much influence as even the strongest male.
Much of ENDANGERED is about motherhood—and about the female empowerment bonobos exhibit in a country in which human women are often the first victims. The main character of the chimpanzee novel, though, is a young boy. In its own way the novel is about fatherhood, and the expectations rolled into boy-ness. As any young man who’s survived middle school will attest, it can be just as hard to come of age amid assumptions of power and invulnerability as those of impotence and submission.
DL: You’ve now written about everything from bonobos struggling to survive to bunny rabbits that burp fire. Is there any animal you have no desire to write about?
ES: Japanese Fighting Fish. A thrilling name masking a total letdown of a pet.