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 teenink.com 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.

6 Young Adult Books That Would Make Awesome Movies

1. Every Day by David Levithan follows A, a teenager who wakes up each morning to find himself in the body and sharing the mind of another. A common concept throughout this novel is how love has the capacity to “reach beyond” things such as appearance and gender. I love this book and I feel it is one that should be shared outside of the standard YA reader audience.

let_it_snow_cover2. Let It Snow by Maureen Johnson, John Green, and Lauren Myracle is a unique literary compilation written by three accomplished YA authors with similar writing styles and a common sense of humor. It tells the overlapping stories of three different pairs/groups of friends who are brought together by fate on Christmas Day. It’s funny, heartfelt, and really capitalizes on the magic and meaning of the holiday season.

3. Legend by Marie Lu would make an awesome dystopian action film due to its fascinating world building and interesting use of two very different narrators in two very different situations.

4. Encouraged by a friend, I read Wings (the first book in the Wings series) by Aprilynne Pike a few summers ago hoping for a quick read. The book hugely exceeded my expectations and I ended up getting the rest of the series the next day. Wings follows Laurel, a seemingly normal teenage girl, as she discovers the truth of her past, her ancestry, and herself. She soon finds herself in a world of faeries, human-like beings that couldn’t be less human. They are, ultimately, plants instead of animals. I think that it would be awesome to be able to see this supernatural world in a more visual way.

will_grayson_cover5. Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan is an captivating and inspiring story about two very different teenagers with the same name that are brought together by fate. This book contains everything–from humor; to support of the LGBT community; to friendship; to love; to a Tiny Cooper musical. This is a truly amazing book and I believe it would make a great movie.

6. I’m not exactly sure of the status of the film rights for I’d Tell You I Love You But Then I’d Have To Kill You (the first book in the Gallagher Girls Series) by Ally Carter. I have heard that they were purchased and sold and bought and expired. I have seen conflicting information, but last I heard, Tonik Productions had undertaken the project. If this is true, I am excited to see their final project. If it’s not, I am disappointed that they overlooked such an amazing opportunity. This series is a compilation of the journal entries of Cammie Morgan, a student at a clandestine spy-training academy disguised as an pristigious prep school for “exceptional young women”. If you haven’t read it, I encourage you to do so, but don’t judge the series by its first book. 😉

What books do you wish to see on the big screen?

-Danielle K., 9th grade

Book Review: We Were Liars, by E. Lockhart

we_were_liars“Welcome to the beautiful Sinclair family. No one is a criminal. No one is an addict. No one is a failure…We are the Sinclairs. No one is needy. No one is wrong. We live, at least in the summertime, on a private island off the coast of Massachusetts. Perhaps that is all you need to know.” (3)

With its thought-provoking title and captivatingly blurry cover-photo, I expected We Were Liars to be an interesting read. That being said, the book largely exceeded my expectations.

We Were Liars is told in the first person point of view and bounces back and forth from summers past to present. These snippets of information provide the reader with a detailed history of the Sinclair family; along with a deeper understanding of the protagonist’s character and motives.

This contemporary, realistic YA novel contains stories of criminal activity; childhood adventure; constant action; uniquely limited friendships; forbidden romance; excruciating loss; unconditional love; utmost regret; what it means to belong; and the truth regarding mental inadequacy.

One specific facet of this story that I liked was the humor; strategically placed between solemn moments of the novel, We Were Liars had me laughing out loud in the middle of English class. The comedy utilized is clean, spontaneous, John Greenesque, and (in other words) inexplicably hilarious.

“‘Don’t look at my troll feet,’ says Gat suddenly.

‘What?’

‘They’re hideous. A troll snuck into my room at night, took my normal feet for himself, and left me with his thuggish troll feet.’ Gat tucks his feet under a towel so I can’t see them. ‘Now you know the truth.’

…‘Wear shoes.”

‘I’m not wearing shoes on the beach…I have to act like everything’s okay until I can find that troll. Then I’ll kill him to death and get my normal feet back. Have you got weapons?’

‘No.’

‘Come on.’

‘Um. There’s a fire poker in Windemere.’

‘All right. As soon as we see that troll, we’ll kill him to death with your fire poker.’

‘If you insist.’” (72)

Another aspect of We Were Liars that I came to enjoy was E. Lockhart’s particular style of writing, which is notably similar to Tahereh Mafi, author of the Shatter Me trilogy. Occasionally their prose transforms into free verse and then back again like a flicker of poetry, in a fashion that successfully mimics the subconscious rant-like thought process.

“I plunge down,
to rocky rocky bottom, and
I can see the base of Beechwood Island and
my arms and legs feel numb but my fingers are cold. Slices
of seaweed go past as I fall.
And then I am up again, and breathing.
I’m okay,
my head is okay,
no one needs to cry for me or worry about me.
I am fine,
I am alive.
I swim to shore.” (142)

Liars is truly a roller coaster full of unexpected twists, sharp turns, and gut-wrenching drops; I guarantee that you will be kept on your toes as Cadance strives to recover her past, no matter what that might mean or whom it may affect.

I recommend this book to anyone looking for a good read, particularly fans of John Green, Lauren Myracle, Maureen Johnson, Scott Westerfeld, Ally Carter, and Libba Bray.

-Danielle K., 9th grade

Book Review: Between the Lines by Jodi Picoult & Samantha Van Leer

between_linesDo you ever wish that fiction could be turned into reality? That you could just jump inside a story and live there instead–in a world considerably more interesting than your own? That you could be whatever you wanted to be, anytime you wanted to be it? I know I have. And that is precisely the case for Delilah McPhee, a fifteen year-old, book-wormish girl who happens across a strangely addictive fairy tale.

Despite the fact that it was initially meant for children, Delilah inexplicably falls in love with the story and finds she is able to empathize with the protagonist, who also lost a father at a very young age. I won’t say anything more, for this novel can be easily spoiled and if you have any intent of reading it, I do not wish to do so. That being said, I absolutely love this book. It is both thought-provoking and whimsical, and I recommend it to anyone who who enjoys reading or writing, which I hope is every one of you. Also, this book was co-written by high school student Samantha Van Leer, who originally pitched the book idea to her mom, bestselling author and co-writer (of Between the Lines) Jodi Picoult.

While reading Between the Lines, I began thinking a lot about literature (more specifically, fiction) and its effects on our lives, and I came to the realization: that is precisely why it exists. Writers do not write because they feel like it or because someone told them they should: they write because they have something they need to say; something they wish for others to hear.

There is a quote by bestselling author Dani Shapiro that goes, “Why write? To shine a light; to right a wrong; to shape chaos into art; to know what we think; to pose difficult questions; to challenge our own beliefs; to connect. Because we have to.”  Me, I write because I cannot not write. I read because I want to explore.

In retrospect, I am amazed at how heavily literature has impacted my life.

  • What if Tolkien had gotten precariously ill and never regained enough strength to complete Lord of the Rings?
  • What if C. S. Lewis had decided he fancied a medical career rather than a literary one?
  • What if John Green had become a biochemist alongside his brother Hank?
  • What if J. K. Rowling had never written Harry Potter?

What if all of our favorite authors, the essential beacons of the abundant knowledge we have obtained through reading, had not ever considered writing in the first place? Would your life be the same?

Comment and share what books/series/authors you couldn’t live without. 🙂

-Danielle K., 9th grade

Shakespeare? Or Nah?

shakespeare_or_nahNow, I know that a lot of you guys are hardcore literature lovers, and thus would be fundamentally incapable of comprehending why and how people could ever dislike the works of William Shakespeare. I know; frankly, I am right there among you.

But recently, I read about a study that revealed that only a small percentage of teenagers like/enjoy/appreciate Shakespeare’s works. To me, this is sad and disappointing, but I have also discovered it to be a hard, distinct truth of reality. Maybe this has something to do with the fact that students are forced to study his works in school and thus the requirement of doing so makes it unfavorable; maybe it has something to do with laziness, and not having the capability or attention span to dissect his extravagant use of language; or maybe because of all the modern, contemporary ways of passing leisure time, reading to comprehend the works of the Bard is an activity viewed upon as trivial, inconsequential, and pointless.

I wholeheartedly believe this to be untrue. For one, Shakespeare is an unprecedented phenomenon; no one since has been able to harness the English language as brilliantly as he did. We all know that his plays are world-renowned, but the real question is: Why should we choose to read Hamlet when we can SparkNote the play in candid, easy-to-understand, modern-style English in only a few precious seconds?

Michael Mack, an Associate English Professor from the Catholic University of America once compared reading Shakespeare to listening to music. As a self-proclaimed professional music listener, I declare this statement to be surprisingly accurate. The first time we hear a song we notice things like beat, repetition, genre, and whether or not we’d be able to dance to it. It is not until we have listened to the song many times that we begin to recognize the singer/songwriter’s message and start to discover the lyrics’ true meaning.

If you have never tried to read anything written by Will Shakespeare, I encourage you to pick up Romeo and Juliet (a story most everyone pretty much already knows) and read it in its original, non-abridged version. See if you like it. I hope you do. If you don’t, then I digress. I remain the type of person who (re)reads Shakespeare on the weekends for fun.

For those of you who have tried and not been able to navigate the Shakespearean language (no one blames you, trust me) there are also versions of the plays called “Shakespeare Made Easy” which includes the original and a modernized version of the text, along with explanatory footnotes that can be very useful, especially if you are reading for school. These are great reading tools and I encourage you to utilize them.

My advice: Defy society. Read Shakespeare in public.

-Danielle K., 8th grade

Play Review: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, by William Shakespeare

midsummer_nights_dreamLast month, I performed in my school’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I played the part of Puck, and as I know the majority of the script by heart, I decided to right a review on this whimsical and unusual play by Will Shakespeare.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a fantastical fairy-tale comedy that tells the story of four young lovers named Hermia, Lysander, Helena, and Demetrius. Long story short, both the men love Hermia but Hermia only loves Lysander (and Helena loves Demetrius, who doesn’t love her in return). Hermia’s mother, however, feels that Hermia should marry Demetrius. When Lysander and Hermia decide to run away together in order to avoid this fate, they are followed by Demetrius who is followed by the faithful Helena. Upon observing Demetrius’ cruelty towards Helena, Oberon (the king of the fairies that live in a nearby forest) sends his servant, Puck, to put a spell on him to make him fall in love with Helena.

Unfortunately, Puck is revealed to be a careless (and also very mischievous) fairy and he accidentally puts the spell on the wrong man. From this point on, the story follows the amused Puck as he reluctantly sets off to correct his mistakes and restore peace to Athens and regularity to the lovers.

I was ecstatic when I found out that my drama class was going to be doing this play, and it proved to be just as fun as I thought it would be. Puck is a very unique and confusing fairy with a ton of dialogue, which made it fun (and challenging) to learn and play the character.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is very exciting. There are numerous unexpected plot twists and the characters are unique and strangely captivating. It is also a very good play/ book to have read to be able to reference in essays and whatnot. I recommend A Midsummer Night’s Dream to anyone who enjoys theatre, Shakespeare, or fantasy novels.

-Danielle K., 8th grade

Book Review: House Rules, by Jodi Picoult

house_rulesInexplicably, although unsurprisingly, New York Times Bestselling Author Jodi Picoult has once again succeeded in throwing me into an alternate world of her personal creation—almost instantaneously. I was forced to forget everything pertaining to actuality prior to reaching the final page; alas I sat both cherishing and lamenting the book’s resolution for the entire duration of a four hour return flight from Atlanta, Georgia.

Jodi Picoult seems to possess an unwavering habit of pulling me (and all her readers) into the aperture of her novels—both mentally and emotionally. Although I found myself unable to adequately empathize with the main character of this book in particular, I was able to understand and relate to many of the other characters and their personal anticlimactic struggles.

I really believe that Picoult has not received nearly enough recognition for her incredible contributions to literature (although I am sure it is because I am in 8th grade and her books, it seems, are geared toward a marginally older audience. Plus, no one reads for fun these days! At my school, people read for required Reading Counts points; if it wasn’t for the RC program, I doubt most of them would read at all).

House Rules tells the captivating story of an eighteen-year-old boy named Jacob who has Asperger’s Syndrome (which is declared to be “a form of autism”) and a knack/obsession for forensics (crime scene investigation). Although he is academically empowered and intellectually brilliant, he is also socially impaired; and cannot transform thoughts to words or read social signs as people without Asperger’s can. Little, random things bother him that other people wouldn’t even notice, such as the crumpling of paper, brightly shining lights, or miniscule interruptions to his meticulously planned-out Life Schedule. He cannot lie, for it is nearly impossible for him to tell anything but the undiluted, unmistakable truth; his mother dubs this as “a symptom of Asperger’s” in the midst of the novel. Jacob is a real, living, non-Divergent Candor, so to speak (I realize that describing a fictional character as “real” and “living” is an absurdly paradoxical statement, but I digress).

One aspect of this book that I greatly appreciated was its authentic and…candid…approach to the subject of love. Not only is her perspective true and honest, Picoult seems to voice the things that we are afraid to say. She addresses the fact that love and hate can be felt simultaneously; and that sometimes, even when we love someone dearly, we still wish for them to be a little more perfect than they are in reality. Love, although indescribable in context and unmistakable in its climax, may be transformed into an immovable burden. Jacob’s fifteen-year-old brother, Theo, feels this way when he realizes that he will have to take over caring for Jacob when their mother is no longer able to. He knows he will, though—out of his love for Jacob—which angers him, because he feels like he isn’t given a choice either way. But later in the book, he states that “when he finds a girl he loves and is ready to propose, he’ll just have to make sure she knows that Jacob and himself are a packaged deal, and that she’d just have to deal with it”.

Note: House Rules is a murder mystery. I purposely did not address any specific events/introduce certain characters in fear of giving something away.

This book was enthralling in a way I cannot even put into words. I would recommend this book to anyone who a) likes murder mysteries, b) has read—and liked—any of Jodi Picoult’s other novels, or c) has read—and liked—The Fault In Our Stars by John Green.

-Danielle K., 8th grade