Last week (possibly the week before — life seems to be moving at the speed of light these days) I attended Cindy Pon’s Diversity Tour in Cambridge. I learned several things, the first being that Cindy, no slouch herself, rolls with some amazing authors.
The panel discussed, among other topics, how to get YA readers to look at books outside their comfort zone. One of the authors noted how, growing up, she never read books with heroines that looked like her – they simply didn’t exist then. What made her continue reading certain authors and genres was that the writer managed to make an emotional connection – a point of contact — that stretched across physical and gender characteristics.
Simple and elementary, but it struck home with me. As a kid, I loved Robert Parker’s novel Ceremony. (I still do.) I read it somewhere around fifth or sixth grade, when a friend whose father ran a Woolworth’s gave me a copy as a birthday gift. If physical similarities were all that mattered to readers, I would have identified with the misguided April Kyle, a pretty blonde teenager from suburbia. But of course, it was Spenser the wise-cracking detective who captured my heart, who made me think about honor and codes of conduct and the value of loyalty and love, important stuff for an evolving pre-teen. The point of contact Parker made with my then-self lasted until his death this year, and I still can’t bring myself to read his most recent book, knowing it is the last.
The second point, made by author Malinda Lo, was that YA authors don’t have the luxury of starting their novels with backstory. They need to get right to the story — BOOM — and keep it moving. Otherwise they’ll lose their readers.
I love stories that take their time unwinding, but ya know what? Lo is right, and not just for YA authors. Here’s how I know: I’d planned to buy only Cindy’s fabulous new book Fury of the Phoenix, but the signing line was long and I found myself browsing. I picked up The Demon’s Lexicon by Sarah Rees Brennan, read five pages, and was completely hooked. I bought it, read it in a night, and wound up downloading the second in the series the next day.
Will I be starting my next novel with a car crash or demon attack? Probably not. (Though you never know.) But will I be reading each and every word to make sure it grabs my reader by throat, and keeps her turning pages, maybe even skipping them, until the very end? Abso-stinkin-lutely.