After graduating from the University of Pittsburgh with an English degree, Sharon Flake could have concentrated on fiction for adults, poetry, or any other style of writing. Instead, the Stanton Heights resident became a children’s writer, penning young adult titles including “The Skin I’m In,” “Bang” and “Begging for Change.”
Flake is one of many Pittsburgh-area writers who embrace the challenge of writing for kids.
“A good children’s book is unique in its ability to exist in two spaces at once,” says Jonathan Auxier, an author from Regent Square. “These are books for and about children, about questions of childhood, but they are all written by adults. The best children’s books seem to reflect those twin identities at the same time.”
Nick Courage of Brookline, whose latest book is the YA adventure, “Storm Blown,” puts it this way: “The best children’s literature explores big, universal themes that appeal to readers of all ages: hope, wonder, empathy and getting through tough times.”
One of the pleasures of reading is being able to experience something beyond one’s own experiences. For kids especially, tales of young protagonists overcoming seemingly insurmountable obstacles are especially appealing.
“When I was a kid, I liked stories that were a little bit scary or felt a little bit dangerous,” says Jim Rugg, the creator of the “Street Angel” graphic novels and is the illustrator for the recently re-issued “The Plain Janes.” “That’s part of what makes storytelling so great. You can have these experiences without actually being in danger. But it’s an entirely useful thing to have those thoughts and have that surrogate experience. I think that’s been part of storytelling forever.”
Here’s a roundup of some of the area’s most accomplished YA and children’s writers, and how they approach their craft.
Sarah Tarkoff, a Marshall Township resident and graduate of North Allegheny High School, just published “Ruthless,” the third book in her “Eye of the Beholder” YA series. A staff writer for the TV series “Arrow,” Tarkoff also has written for shows including “Mistresses,” “Witches of East End” and “Vixen.”
“The experience of being a young person has changed so much, even in the past decade,” she says. “No matter what age you are, you have to have the teenagers in your life educate you. How have things changed? How do you talk to your friends? What are you worried and thinking about?”
Joshua Bellin is a professor of English at La Roche University and a Regent Square resident. His newest YA book, “The Last Sensor,” will drop on April 22 – Earth Day. As the final book in Bellin’s fantasy “Ecosystem Cycle” series, the novel imagines that Nature has become a conscious entity and is waging war against humans.
“The most important thing is being honest,” he says. “No matter how imaginary the world in which the novel is set might be, it’s essential to create teen characters who are recognizable as real people. And it’s also essential to explore issues that actual teens face, such as the issue of how human beings are impacting the world young people live in.”
A native of Connellsville, Jim Rugg won an Eisner Award for Best Publication Design for “Little Nemo: Dream a Little Dream.” A multi-faceted illustrator, designer and comic book artist, Rugg’s latest release is the re-issue of “The Plain Janes,” a three-volume collaboration with writer Cecil Castellucci. Rugg also is the creator of graphic novels, including the “Street Angel” series and “Rambo 3.5.”
“When I started doing comics,” he says, “sometimes I would have very detailed things in the background or maybe in the captions. I’d think, ‘nobody’s going to get this.’ And when the book was published, everybody would comment on that detail. It made me impressed by the audience. They are on the ball, they’re looking at this stuff as closely as I am, they’re smart, they know what I’m referring to. I realized to make this work, I needed to challenge myself as the creator, and readers will come to that.”
One of the founders of Littsburgh, the online clearinghouse for all things literary in Pittsburgh, Nick Courage is currently working on this third YA title, “Snow Struck,” about a snowpocalypse that paralyzes the Eastern Seaboard.
“In general, kids tend to be closer and more careful readers than adults and they’re a lot less forgiving when it comes to plot,” he says. “The best kid lit has to be immersive and compelling and completely air-tight, so I spend a lot of time working on that as an author. It’s not about making the books good enough for grown-ups. It’s about making them good enough for kids, who are a much tougher audience.”
With a range that extends from the youngest readers (“You are NOT a Cat”) to incisive examinations of teenage life (“The Skin I’m In”), Sharon Flake writes stories that connect with readers of all ages. A Philadelphia native and University of Pittsburgh graduate, Flake’s next book is a follow-up to “The Skin I’m In” that’s slated to be published in 2021.
“I write a lot about seventh-graders partly because middle school was hard for me,” she says. “In the seventh grade, you look in the mirror and think your teeth are too big. You’re too skinny. You think, `I don’t look like my sister’ or ‘I’m not as pretty as the girl sitting next to me.’ I think around that age, you’re coming into your teenage years, and when you get there, you’re feeling very awkward.”
Squirrel Hill resident Caroline Carlson is the author of five books for young readers. Her most recent book for ages 8-12, “The Door at the End of the World,” just was released in paperback. The story is about a young girl who is the gatekeeper to a series of interconnected worlds.
“When I write for a young audience,” she says, “I don’t shy away from using words and concepts my readers might not be familiar with, but I do make one concession that I wouldn’t necessarily make for adult readers: I try to provide a little extra context for unfamiliar language so kids won’t have to put the book down to search for a definition.”
Mt. Lebanon native and resident Kit Frick is the author of three YA novels, including the forthcoming “I Killed Zoe Spanos,” to be published on June 30. She also works as a freelance editor and published a collection of poetry, “A Small Rising Up in the Lungs.”
“Everything already feels like it’s life-or-death when you’re a teen, so as a writer, placing my characters in heightened, thrilling situations that coax those emotional stakes into literal ones feels right and true,” she says. “Reading mysteries and thrillers is both an exhilarating way to escape from real life and a way to see the darkness teen readers may be feeling reflected in the experiences of the characters they’re connecting with on the page.”
The Regent Square resident admits he writes “strange stories for strange kids.” As a writer and illustrator, Jonathan Auxier has produced compelling titles that blend adventure and fantasy, including “Sweep: The Story of a Girl and Her Monster” and “Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes.”
“Better writing seems to come when I’m really listening carefully to who I am right now and what I need to hear or say. And also, who I was in the past when I was maybe the age of the characters and the issues they’re dealing with, and what I needed to hear or was able to express at that time. Basically, I’m mostly trying to channel, reflect and engage with past, present and occasionally future versions of myself.”