Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Friday, November 21, 2014

Friday, November 21, 2014: Kids' Maximum Shelf: All the Bright Places

Alfred A Knopf Books for Young Readers All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven

Alfred A Knopf Books for Young Readers: All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven

Alfred A Knopf Books for Young Readers: All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven

Alfred A Knopf Books for Young Readers: All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven

All the Bright Places

by Jennifer Niven

Jennifer Niven's (American Blonde; Ada Blackjack) first YA novel is the story of two teens whose dark paths join to become filled with light and humor. In the opening scene--one of the funniest in literature, for young people or adults--two teens from opposite sides of the social spectrum meet on the roof of their high school, where they've both come to contemplate jumping.

"Take it from me, the worst thing you can do is look down." These are 17-year-old Theodore Finch's first words to former cheerleader Violet Markey. Finch continues, "Come here often? Because this is kind of my spot and I don't remember seeing you here before." Although his friends call him Finch, he's more widely known as "Freak" since eighth grade--reinforced by his outlandish behavior. So everyone naturally assumes that Violet saved Finch from leaping to his death, rather than the reverse. To Violet's credit, she sees "Freak" in a new light after their shared experience, and becomes willing to be seen talking with him in the hallways. She even consents to be Finch's partner in a U.S. geography project called "Wander Indiana."

Niven constructs the project as not only a physical scavenger hunt of Indiana's star attractions but also a literal quest. In alternating chapters narrated by Violet and Finch, each opens up to the other about their pasts. Violet confides in Finch about her survivor's guilt following a car accident that killed her sister, Eleanor, and from which Violet walked away. Finch tells Violet about his father's departure last summer for "the final time" (trading in Finch's family for "a new one he liked better") and the betrayal that led to his nickname. They bring out the best in each other, beginning with lines from Virginia Woolf they share on Facebook.

Together they adhere to their "Rules for Wandering." They take turns choosing the destination; they "take something, leave something" at each spot. First, they explore Hoosier Hill (the highest point in Indiana, at 1,257 feet); Finch takes Violet's hand for the first time, and she feels "a little shock." Next they go to Violet's choice, Bookmobile Park; Violet gets into a car for the first time since her and Eleanor's accident. They travel to Blue Flash, a roller-coaster ride created by grandfatherly John Ivers to give him a rush akin to drag racing ("I love the thrill of impending, weightless doom," Ivers tells them). And on the first warm day of winter, the pair heads to the exquisite Blue Hole in Prairieton, Ind., a three-acre lake on private property. It is both their worst and best day thus far: the worst because Finch stays submerged for so long that Violet fears he's drowned; the best because the cathartic argument that follows when he resurfaces seals their intimate connection.

In many ways, Violet and Finch's lives begin with the novel's opening scene. Finch's presence in Violet's life precipitates her ability to connect with her true self, to tap into her gifts as a writer, and to acknowledge that she needs to move forward from the blog she cowrote with her sister ("[T]here is something about the act of writing that makes me feel as if I'm cheating on her") to create her own platform for  collaborating with new writers. Niven subtly draws a parallel between Violet seeing "The Wall" in Finch's bedroom, where he sticks his ideas, thoughts and collected quotes, and the bulletin board in Violet's room where she begins to aggregate categories for an online magazine.

But just as Violet is winding up, Finch begins a downward spiral. Niven captures with precise language how it feels to Finch to battle his wild mood swings. The spaces around him grow and shrink, sounds and colors get too loud. He keeps track of suicide facts and methods (death by jumping, hanging, poison, carbon monoxide), always with humor, often with irony. He can recite the suicide notes of Virginia Woolf, Russian Revolutionary poet Vladimir Mayakovski and Italian poet Cesare Pavese. His contemplations of suicide occur not only at his lowest points, but also at his peaks. Does he savor life's moments more because of his contemplation of its end? Probably. One of the best illustrations of this occurs on his birthday, when he creates for Violet the Jovian-Plutonian  gravitational effect, an experience of weightlessness described by Sir Patrick Moore in 1976.

When Finch disappears soon after, his best friends Charlie Donahue and Brenda Shank-Kravitz--and even Finch's mother--assure Violet that this is "normal" behavior for him. But Violet thinks otherwise, and follows the as-yet-unvisited sites on their Wander Indiana map in search of Finch.

In Violet, Finch finds his "Great Manifesto," and through Finch, Violet finds a way back to herself. Teens will devour this funny, smart and insightful love story in one sitting. --Jennifer M. Brown, children's editor, Shelf Awareness

Knopf Books for Young Readers, $17.99, hardcover, 400p., ages 14-up, 9780385755887, January 6, 2015

Alfred A Knopf Books for Young Readers: All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven

Jennifer Niven: A Germ of an Idea

Jennifer Niven's character Violet Markey, who had written a successful blog with her sister, Eleanor, summons the courage to start an online magazine of her own called Germ. Niven decided to start an actual magazine by the same name; readers will note the correlation between Violet's ideas and the categories in the real magazine. Niven lives with her fiancé in Los Angeles. Here she discusses the relationship between life and art in All the Bright Places (Knopf, January 5, 2015).

That opening scene is a nail-biter. How did you decide to start there?

The book is inspired by real-life events. It's a story I've carried around for a long time. I'd just come off a series of books for adults, and I'd just lost my agent. I wanted to write something that really mattered. When I got the idea for the story, I sat down and wrote the first chapter just to see what would happen. I thought, "What would it be like to write from a boy's point of view?" Originally, Violet was not on the ledge; Finch was up there by himself. The first line just came out, and it just kept going.

So your characters came before the plot?

Finch came first. He came more fully formed than Violet did. I heard his voice more distinctively at first. Violet I had to work with a little bit, but then there she was, guns a-blazing.

She finds her voice when she meets Finch. He brings her out of her shell. But as her world is opening up, his begins to close down. It happens, unfortunately too often, that the people closest, for whatever reason, don't always see what's happening, but denial goes into it. [Mental illness] can be something shameful. No wonder people like Finch feel so isolated so much of the time. It often runs in families, which makes it sadder, that it goes as unacknowledged as it does.

How did you find the voice for Finch?

I think one of the things that really informed the writing is knowing people--one boy in particular who I was close to--who had struggled with the same thing, bipolar disorder primarily. I have done a lot of research for nonfiction and historical novels. If I hadn't known people who were struggling with this, I don't know that I could have written it the way I did because there's only so much you can learn through research.

We loved all of the literary references, and that these shared touchpoints bring Finch and Violet closer together. Many of Finch's refer to suicidal writers. How did you determine which to include?

The Brontës I've personally thought about, so that interest coming out of Violet is from me. With Virginia Woolf, I stumbled across a quote from The Waves, which I hadn't read before, and then I stumbled across more, just as Finch does when he's online with Violet. A friend loaned me a book that's basically suicide notes from the literary and famous, where I found many of the other references. Then I became fascinated with the Italian poet Cesare Pavese.

There's this magical thing about writing that sometimes the right quote will find its way to you at the right moment. I'd never heard of the Jovian-Plutonian gravitational effect. When you find something like that, you dance around the office.

Violet and Finch take that walk around their neighborhood, and each of the places they visit is crystal clear. You grew up in Indiana--are these real places to you, too?

I've been to some of them before. There were a couple I knew I wanted to use, including the World's Biggest Ball of Paint and the Blue Flash. The only one that's made up is the Bookmobile Park, which I hope will exist someday. The last place I found was that chapel by the lake. I was looking for the place for them to finish their project, and I thought, when I found it, "That's it."

Tell us about the seeds of Violet's online magazine called "Germ" and the online magazine that you're involved with.

Last year at about this time, I was into revisions on a manuscript and I was thinking, "Wouldn't it be cool to have a real Germ magazine?" I started sketching it out, and flash-forward to now, and we have an all-volunteer staff. There are 45 of us, the age range is between 14 and 40, but the majority  are 14-25, and they're amazing. We have editors and social media people, and a literary section as well. We're getting wonderful submissions from around the world. We handle some of the harder issues, some great writers have written about their experiences with an eating disorder or being bipolar... and then also decorating your locker.

We noticed that some of the categories in Germ correspond to Violet's when she was conceiving of her magazine: "Lit. Love. Life."

That came when I was writing the book. Then once I decided to do Germ, I decided to stick with those categories. And "Wander," too, and some of the things Violet was talking about. I was able to rewrite some things as we were doing the site.

You were able to revise things in the book based on the magazine you were launching?

I wrote the manuscript in six weeks, which is the fastest I've ever written a book. We sold the book in August 2013. Then I started thinking about Germ in October, and we launched in January 2014.

Of the kinds of books you've worked on--fiction and nonfiction for adults, this novel for teens--is there one area that's proven more challenging?

There are challenges with each book and each genre. I will say that it felt very natural to write YA. I love the whole YA world; I have to be dragged kicking and screaming out of it. As much as I've loved my other books, this is fantastic, and I think that's because I feel like not enough people are talking about these issues. I heard from a parent who really, really liked the book, but she was reluctant to give it to her teen, because she didn't want her teen knowing about or thinking about things like this. I think part of the problem is that teens know people like this, even if they're not experiencing it themselves, and that dialogue is so important. There is still that stigma--if you have the flu, people are more accepting than if you're bipolar.

I lost my ex-boyfriend to suicide a long time ago, and my dad died of cancer during the same calendar year. I was allowed to grieve about my dad, but I couldn't grieve about the boyfriend. Writing this book was really cathartic.

I went to visit a high school and we asked everyone to think about their bright places--your dog, or your mom, or a movie you love, or a book or word you love. At first they paused and thought about it, then they really got into it. We put their bright places on Facebook, and they've been posting them online, too. I would love to see other people's bright places; you can go on Twitter and Instagram to see some of the places others have come up with. I'm so grateful for everything that's happening. --Jennifer M. Brown

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