Author Interview: Samantha Van Leer

off_the_pageHave you ever wished you could live in a different place? A different world? How about inside your favorite book? This is precisely the concept behind Between the Lines, a fantasy novel co-written by Jodi Picoult and her daughter, Samantha Van Leer. However, this is not just a lighthearted fairy tale; readers quickly learn that “happily ever after” isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Off the Page – a companion novel to Between the Lines – will be available soon in bookstores everywhere. I was given the opportunity to ask Samantha Van Leer about her experiences and goals as a teen author.

When did you decide you wanted to be a writer?
I don’t think I ever formally decided I wanted to be a writer. When I was little I used to tell my mom I wanted to be like her when I grew up, but since my childhood I have named many other jobs I aspired to have. However, I have been writing poetry and short stories for as long as I can remember. I think I was just born with writing in my blood and somehow found myself in the career of a writer. I still don’t even consider myself an author. I feel like a really lucky girl who has somehow managed to get a lot of awesome people to read her work.

What draws you to the fantasy/fairy-tale genre?
I’ve always loved the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen’s original fairy tales because they aren’t the sanitized Disney versions – they are brutal and dark. The idea of a fairy tale filled with so much suffering and strife makes the concept of “happily ever after” that much more desirable and that much more incredible if it is attained. I try to reflect that in my books. I don’t want my characters to just be given their happily ever after; I really want them to earn it.

How do you balance writing with school and other activities of being a teen?
That is a very good question. It isn’t easy. This year I’ve managed to jump out of classes into cars to go to New York City for an interview, or a meeting at Random House, or a photo shoot, and then drive back to school that night to be up and ready for my 9 a.m. class the next day.
My sanity comes from amazing friends and a meticulously mapped-out schedule. I feel like I can get anything done if I plan out every second of my week. As long as I stick to the schedule, nothing can go wrong! My friends are incredibly supportive and loving. They’re great at getting me out into the happy college zone after a long week of work.

What do you consider to be the hardest thing about writing?
The hardest part of writing is actually sitting down and writing. I could name 500 other things I could do at any given moment instead of writing, but I have to ignore them and take the time to focus and simply write. My mom always says, “You can edit a bad page; you can’t edit a blank one.” It’s true. It’s better to work with a total mess than to have a wordless page at the end of the day.

How does having an acclaimed author as a mom give you a unique perspective into the life of a writer?
I think I’ve gotten to see how informal the writing process can be. It’s not as if authors sit in their business clothes, in their fancy offices, typing out their novels till their fingertips burn off.
The truth is that authors wear their pajamas. They write between watching episodes of “Grey’s Anatomy.” And when they’re stuck, they eat candy and stare into space. It’s not a beautiful job. It creates a beautiful thing, but by no means do you look great doing it.
I also learned that publishing means a lot more than just the writing of the book. There is so much that goes on to promote it – from interviews to Q&As like this one – so that readers actually know your book has hit the shelves.
Writing isn’t just about sitting down and typing. It involves the planning that makes a great story, and it involves the promotion that gets that story read.
Writing books together is a very collaborative process. How did you and your mother divide up responsibilities?
We honestly split the work 50/50. We sat beside each other for eight hours a day, writing. We would talk back and forth while my mom typed. She might say a sentence, and then I would jump in with the next one. Sometimes we said the same exact sentence at the same time, which was both awesome and totally creepy.

Who is your favorite author?
I think the queen of teen-girl YA is Sarah Dessen. She just gets all those dramatic teen-girl feelings and perfectly bottles them into a single book.

Which character’s point of view did you enjoy writing from the most?
I loved writing scenes that involved Seraphima. She is a hilarious spin on the classic Disney princess. She was born and bred royal, but she has no actual skills to keep herself alive on her own. As for the three main narrative voices, I liked writing Oliver the most. It was really fun to imagine what trouble he’d get into in the real world.

Were any of the characters ­inspired by actual people?
Some. The science teacher, Mrs. Brown, was inspired by one of my teachers in high school who also had an addiction to self-tanning. Many of the names of the characters in our story are also pulled from reality: Delilah is named after one of my donkeys; Oliver is named after one of my dogs. And Mr. Elyk, the math teacher, is named after my brother Kyle, who is also a math teacher.

What advice do you have for aspiring teen writers?
Finish your work, even if you get bored by it. One of the hardest things in writing is getting to the end of your story, poem, etc. Even if you have other ideas popping up in your head, you should try to finish the piece you’re already working on, or else you’ll end up with a hundred half-told stories.

This piece is also available on and has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine. Come meet Samantha Van Leer and Jodi Picoult in Mission Viejo this Saturday, May 23rd, when they speak about their latest book… Prince Oliver will be there too! More details here.

Book Review: Steelheart by Brandon Sanderson

steelheartWhat would happen if suddenly, hundreds of random people across the world got incredible super powers including flight, control over the elements, invulnerability, precognition, and hypnotism?

David Charleston has spent his whole life researching these super humans, or Epics as they’re widely called, and may finally get his chance for revenge on the Epic who killed his father, Steelheart. But if it’s going to work, he needs the help of The Reckoners, a group of undercover agents who kill off Epics by using technology, wit, and sometimes their own two hands.  Oh, and it helps when they’re facing their imminent death with absolutely no chance of survival. But even so, Steelheart is the toughest target that they’ve ever gone after and it will take everything that they’ve got, and a little more, to have a chance at taking him down.

I enjoyed reading this incredible book, because, like Gone by Michael Grant, it provides many deep ideas with little explanation, giving the reader a larger impact over how they picture the story.  It was extremely fun to read and extremely hard to put down.  I loved this book so much that I finished it the day after I got it.  I recommend this book to comic nerds, and fans of Gone, Doctor Who, The Maze Runner, The Hunger Games, Divergent, I Am Number Four, The Giver, and any other science fiction novel.  The only problem is that, once started, it will be practically impossible to think about anything else until you’re done, and even then, you’re going to want the sequel!

-Evan G., 6th grade

Book Review: The Kite Fighters By Linda Sue Park

kite_fightersFlying wind, fighting kites, floating line.

1473, in Seoul, Korea, two brothers are excited for the New Year kite celebration, which means kite fighting. Both have the passion, but each has different skills. The elder, Kee-sup, can build a kite fit for a king but cannot handle a kite much less fight with it. The younger, Young-sup, knows how to “speak” to the wind and kite, which allows him to control kites with ease. Unfortunately, with a new year comes growing up and Kee-sup officially becomes an “adult,” which strains the brother’s relationship. During this time, Young-sup befriends the king of Korea, which brings a new conflict between the boys and their loyalty to their father and the king. Yet this doesn’t stop the boys from doing what they truly want to do for the kite festival.

The Kite Fighters is one of my favorite books that I have read over and over again. There is a huge theme about the relationship between brothers. Unfortunately, to fully understand the story main conflict, it is necessary to have  knowledge of the strict honoring system in Asian culture. Despite this, I love how the author manages to write a captivating story combined with the uncommonly written Asian history. There is also a great theme of how very different people can become the most unlikely of friends. This is a perfect book for any age. It’s not a high action fierce or  fighting story, but it brings a good tale of family and friendship. This, of course, is only what I think, so decide for yourself if it’s a book for you!

If you would like to read my review of another book by Linda Sue Park, A Single Shard, click here:

-Sarah J., 9th grade

Book Review: Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys

between_shades_grayBetween Shades of Gray is not your everyday World War II book. For example, Hitler and the Jewish people are not the main characters. Instead, this novel focuses on Joseph Stalin. Before reading this book, I knew nothing about Stalin. I thought that Hitler was the only thing going on during this war. Maybe you thought so, too. If so, this is a fantastic historical fiction novel which provides another side of the conflict. It was not only Jews who were affected during this time frame.

The story follows Lina Vilkas and her family through the hardships they face after being deported from Lithuania. After months of travel, in a crowded train car, they are brought to a place much different than Lithuania, and here they are forced to work every day, with a small piece of bread as their payment. After some time, the family is again transported. However, this time to a much harsher climate, where surviving is even more difficult. They face disease, severe weather, the deaths of close ones, and brutal treatment from almost all of the NKVD guards. Through it all, Lina keeps track of what happens in journals and drawings, in hopes that she might one day contact her father again.

This novel is very touching. I would not recommend it if you are sensitive to the somewhat graphic treatment of death in this novel. Stalin’s repressive measures against his people and the imprisonment and execution of “enemies of the Soviet people” were heavy themes throughout the book. Nevertheless, I learned a lot about this important part of history.

My favorite part of the novel was the very end. You’ll have to read it for yourself to understand, but the epilogue was a perfect conclusion to this novel.

-Leila S., 9th grade

Book Review: The Summer of the Monkeys by Wilson Rawls

summer_monkeysThe Summer of the Monkeys by Wilson Rawls is a novel about an inquisitive boy of 14 years named Jay Berry who lives on his family farm in Oklahoma. Jay Berry has a twin sister who has special needs due to her crippled leg. His parents and grandparents are trying to save enough money for the treatment of her leg. One day, Jay Berry discovers a group of monkeys at the river bottoms while in search of the family cow; he then informs his grandfather about his discovery. His grandfather explains to him that the monkeys had escaped from a circus truck after it was in an accident.

Seeking to earn the award for capturing the monkeys, Jay Berry has his eyes set on the $100 monkey, and will also get $2 each for the smaller ones; with the money, he hopes to buy a .22 gun and a pony. Devising numerous methods to abduct the monkeys, Jay Berry has great trouble trying to do so, because the most valuable monkey, named Jimbo, acts as though he is human; Jimbo protects the other smaller monkeys like a mother protecting her babies, which makes Jay’s mission much harder. To find out what happens to Jay Berry and the monkeys, read this amusing novel.

I enjoyed this book, with mixed feelings about it. Set in rural Oklahoma, I liked the book because of the way the author described in detail the attempt of apprehending the monkeys. Jay Berry’s character was interesting, and I loved his perseverance and how he was not discouraged from capturing the monkeys. Although the book had an intriguing plot, the execution could have been improved. Recommended for 8 year-olds and above, I might have liked this adventurous book better if had read it in Elementary school. Overall, a great, quick read for somebody looking for a simple, heartwarming story.

-Anmol K., 8th grade

Book Review: Hunger by Michael Grant

hungerThree months after all the adults disappeared in the blink of an eye, 15 year old Sam Temple is holding together what remains of the city, but as food starts to become scarce, the problems start to pile up.  From children developing superhuman abilities to a powerful entity hungry in the dark, what’s left of society is starting to crumble.

Sequel to the best selling novel GoneHunger is an emotional and deep story that deals with the stress of leadership and overall guilt.  The first book ended in major suspense and this book has followed its lead.  I originally picked up Gone because it seemed very similar to a book I loved called The Young World by Chris Weitz who had come to speak to us bloggers at the Mission Viejo Library/City Hall last year.

Hunger has been a fascinating sequel. It takes the reader away from everyday drama and stress by wrapping them up in this malicious world. This helps the reader to appreciate their own life so much more after they put this book down.

I would recommend this book to anyone who wants a temporary distraction from their own life as it is riveting, interesting and easy to get stuck in. I enjoyed this book and am already starting the next one in the series, Lies.

-Evan G., 6th grade

Book Review: Orchards by Holly Thompson

orchardsAn unfortunate incident at school during Kanako’s 8th grade year sent all her friends away for the summer. They were sent away to cope with the loss of Ruth, a bipolar student at their school who committed suicide because she was bullied.

As the story unfolds, the reader finds out about Ruth’s life. Ruth had a hard time communicating how she was feeling because of her condition. Only one boy, Jake, understood how she felt, since his sister had a similar condition. When one day a popular girl throws a mean comment in Ruth’s direction, she decides her life must come to an end and hangs herself in an orchard. All it took was that one mean sentence, uttered in jealousy, which caused so much harm to another person, her family, and her friends, not to mention the rest of her community.

Though she didn’t know it at that time, the popular girl was a bully and her verbal abuse led to another’s suicide. It’s so sad that something as horrible as that could happen, but it does.

The narrator of the story tells of her summer, living with her mother’s family in Tokyo, coping with the loss apart from all her friends. Kanako makes several references during this time to events that remind her of Ruth, like the orchard where the family routinely picks fruit.

The story seems to be coming to a conclusion as the summer ends, but all of a sudden, the story hits a sharp turn in the road. It then veers off into a sadder direction, regarding another of Kanako’s peers. This last major event, as well as Ruth’s suicide, really leaves a mark on the reader, emphasizing the severity of bullying of any kind, verbal or not. This novel deals with direct bullying, through in-person contact. However, other kinds of bullying, especially online or through social media, are also a serious problem in today’s world.

Last year, I went to a Character Forum through my middle school that was sponsored by the City of Mission Viejo, which discussed this issue of virtual bullying in more depth. I learned that people either don’t know how to stop the virtual bullying or fear that their involvement will make them the bully’s next target.

Though this novel deals with several heavy topics, my favorite part was the ending, because it was so sweet and uplifting and incorporated a unique Japanese tradition. I also enjoyed the freestyle way the book is written. The approach is free verse poetry and is very different from the poetry you read in school. It really lets you see what the narrator is thinking all the time.

As one of the first novels I’ve read dealing with the subject of suicide, I thought Orchards was a good introduction. The bullying which led to Ruth’s suicidal actions stayed with me even after the story ended. Whether bullies outright attack their victims in person or hide behind an anonymous screen name, they always inflict harm in their actions. In Ruth’s case, the seemingly insignificant bullying which led to her suicide showed me that every little thing said or done can hurt and affect someone, possibly even causing irreparable harm. While it’s hard to know what to do, the 7th and 8th graders that attended the Character event learned that a person’s character is the most important thing in such a situation. Everyone has to care for one other and demonstrate this in their actions whether interacting with others or posting a comment on social media. Together we must take a stand against bullying.

– Leila S., 9th grade