Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Wednesday, August 8, 2018: Maximum Shelf: Dear Evan Hansen

Poppy Books: Dear Evan Hansen: The Novel by Val Emmich with Steven Levenson, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul

Poppy Books: Dear Evan Hansen: The Novel by Val Emmich with Steven Levenson, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul

Poppy Books: Dear Evan Hansen: The Novel by Val Emmich with Steven Levenson, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul

Grand Central Publishing: Dear Evan Hansen: Through the Window by Steven Levenson, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul

Dear Evan Hansen

by Val Emmich, Steven Levenson, Benj Pasek, Justin Paul

The novelization of Steven Levenson, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul's six-time Tony Award-winning musical Dear Evan Hansen is compelling and deeply emotional. Evan Hansen, through Val Emmich's (The Reminders) skillful interpretation, is a complex, well-developed character whose struggles with depression and anxiety read painfully true.

"My name. That was the last thing I wrote. On another kid's cast. Not quite a goodbye note. But hey, I made my little mark. On a broken limb. Seems about right." Readers familiar with the play will know right away that the first-person account that opens the book isn't our protagonist, Evan Hansen--it's the person whose pain, suffering and eventual suicide make Evan our protagonist.

It's the first day of Evan's senior year and he's writing a letter to himself: "Dear Evan Hansen, Today is going to be an amazing day, and here's why." Dr. Sherman, Evan's therapist, gave the anxious teen this letter-writing assignment to help him "explore" his feelings and, hopefully, to allow him to gain a more positive outlook on life: "Positive outlook yields positive experience," after all. The first line is easy for Evan--it's what Dr. Sherman told him to start with--but the rest of the letter is "tricky." After the opening statement, Evan has to find words to support the concept: he has to "prove why today is going to be an amazing day when all the evidence suggests otherwise." Evan is on medications that help, but on days like today, his anxiety peaks.

His mother's worried but hopeful attempts at connection don't ease his angst. Evan's mother, a "young mom" who is raising him without the help of his emotionally and geographically distant father, works long hours as a nurse while also taking night classes. "You just have to find a way to put yourself out there," she says to Evan before the two leave for work and school, "Why don't you go around today and ask the other kids to sign your cast?" The very idea terrifies Evan, who has been in virtual isolation since he broke his arm falling out of a tree while working as an apprentice park ranger. She hands him a Sharpie, and, unwilling to disappoint his mother (further, he thinks), he takes it.

As Evan fears, the first day of school is not amazing. He isn't suddenly confident, interesting or approachable, and he doesn't make tons of friends to sign his cast. He does, however, have an uncomfortable run-in with "the mysterious creature known as Connor Murphy," a teen with a "school shooter chic" style who also happens to be the brother of Zoe, Evan's crush. Jared, Evan's "family friend" (and all-around douchebag), makes a comment about Connor that gets Evan shoved to the ground. Zoe stumbles upon the scene and apologizes to Evan, calling her brother "a psychopath." Unsurprisingly, Evan stumbles over this surprise interaction with Zoe, which proves to him he is worthless.

Evan goes to the computer lab to finish the letter he started in the morning and, supremely unhappy after his failure of a first day, writes a letter full of despair: "I wish that everything was different. I wish that I was a part of something. I wish that anything I said mattered, to anyone.... would anybody even notice if I disappeared tomorrow?" He prints it out--but Connor grabs it from the machine. The two have an outstandingly awkward interaction in which Connor tries to connect with Evan and signs his cast so they "can both pretend [they] have friends." Then, Connor takes a peek past the first line of the letter--"Dear Evan Hansen"--and sees his sister's name. He gets angry and suspicious, accuses Evan of writing "some creepy sh*t" because he "knew that [Connor] would find it," and stalks off with the letter.

That evening, with the letter still in his pocket, Connor kills himself; Connor's parents think the letter is a suicide note specifically written to Evan. Instead of clearing the air and explaining, Evan pretends he was Connor's secret best friend, convincing himself that he's easing the Murphys' grief by giving them someone to connect with. Evan allows the lie to build, and begins spending time with the family, making up stories about his and Connor's close friendship. When his lies begin to unravel, he and Jared create backdated e-mail "proof" of the relationship that Evan shares with the Murphys. Evan tells himself the lies will give the family some peace, but as he becomes a surrogate son to the devastated parents (and begins to date Zoe), it grows obvious that Evan's life is improving because Connor took his own.

Emmich takes the reader deep into Evan's head as he agonizes over every aspect of his life, each thought exploding into ever more dismal tangents as he beats himself up for not being "confident.... interesting. Easy to talk to. Approachable." His bleak thoughts pile on top of each other, giving a clear vision of how claustrophobic and exhausting it is to live with anxiety and depression. As his lies spiral out of control and Evan becomes ever more unlikable, Emmich's deft touch keeps him relatable and sympathetic. The occasional chapters from beyond the grave allow the reader to get to know Connor, his state of mind (and being) represented with nuance and delicacy. While Dear Evan Hansen originated on the stage, it needs no lights, meticulously designed sets nor choral arrangements to deliver a haunting, powerful exploration of mental and emotional health and the things humans do to cope.

--Siân Gaetano, children's and YA editor, Shelf Awareness
Poppy/Hachette, $18.99, hardcover, 368p., ages 13-up, 9780316420235, October 9, 2018

Back Bay Books: The Reminders by Val Emmich

Levenson, Pasek, Paul and Emmich: Complementing Each Other in Beautiful Ways

Val Emmich, Benj Pasek, Steve Levenson and Justin Paul (photo: Sasha Illingworth)

Steven Levenson is the Tony Award-winning book writer of Dear Evan Hansen. His other award-winning plays include If I Forget, The Unavoidable Disappearance of Tom Durnin, Core Values, The Language of Trees and Seven Minutes in Heaven. He worked for three seasons as a writer and producer on Showtime's Masters of Sex and is a founding member of Colt Coeur and an alumnus of MCC's Playwrights Coalition and Ars Nova's Play Group.

Benj Pasek and Justin Paul are the Tony, Oscar and Golden Globe-winning songwriting team behind the award-winning Broadway musicals Dear Evan Hansen and A Christmas Story: The Musical. Their other musicals include Dogfight, James and the Giant Peach and Edges. Their film projects include La La Land, Trolls, The Greatest Showman, Snow White, Medusa and Aladdin. TV credits include Smash, Sesame Street, The Flash and Johnny and the Sprites and A Christmas Story Live! musical.

Val Emmich is a writer, singer-songwriter and actor who was dubbed a "Renaissance man" by the New York Post. He has had recurring roles on Vinyl and Ugly Betty as well as a memorable guest role as Liz Lemon's coffee-boy fling, Jamie, on 30 Rock. His debut novel, The Reminders, was a Barnes & Noble Discover selection that Library Journal called "quirky, touching & addictive" and Popsugar deemed "beautiful and beguiling."

What did you find the most challenging about translating the show into a novel? Conversely, what did you find the most rewarding about translating the show into a novel?

Emmich: There were many challenges. I think the hardest part was trying to get key dramatic scenes from the show to have the same impact in the book--Steven, Benj and Justin really wanted to match the emotional intensity achieved on stage. Of course, as a show, Dear Evan Hansen uses music, actors and lights to create these moments, whereas I had to find a way to do it with only words on a page. But the most challenging part was also the most rewarding. It was maddening at times trying to meet the ideal of the show (and a few times, I worried that it just wasn't possible), but when I finally got it right, it felt pretty great. I'm also proud of the things I was given the privilege to add that weren't from the show, particularly the fleshing out of Connor's character.

Levenson: The most rewarding thing was getting to go back into this world and revisit these characters. With Val, we were able to unearth parts of the story that got lost along the way, to discover depths and dimensions of the story that we didn't know were there.

The book includes material that needs a deft touch. How did you achieve the appropriate level of sensitivity toward the subject of suicide while writing this novel?

Emmich: I give full credit to Justin, Benj and Steven. They had already spent many years navigating these tricky ethical waters and anytime I steered off course, they gently nudged me back to safety. Our editor, Farrin Jacobs, was also helpful. It was a process of trial and error, constantly adjusting as we went, making sure we were striking the right tone.

Do you think the "show to book" conversion is akin to the "book to movie" conversion? How do you think Dear Evan Hansen the book stands with/next to Dear Evan Hansen the show?

Levenson: In some ways, it's sort of the exact opposite. When you're adapting a book to film, you're likely to compress and economize. But with a "show to book" conversion, you're taking something that's 2.5 hours and trying to turn it into a more capacious, in-depth story. It's a privilege to have the freedom to explore the characters and open up the world more, instead of closing it down.

How do you feel about the final product?

Pasek: It was wonderful to see how Val took the emotional high points and wrote them in prose. We're so impressed with how he was able to make these characters as rich and as emotionally complex as they are in the show, without music providing the undercurrent of emotion.

Paul:  We are really proud of what was created and surprised by it, too. While we were writing the musical, we never dreamed something we came up with for the stage could go back onto the page in novel form. We're always thinking about the backstory of these characters even if we can't put it on the stage but with Val leading the charge, we were able to explore these characters in ways we'd not been able to before. Getting to work on a novel was a fun and surprising process because we could really dig down into characters' backstories and fine tune what led them to where they are in the musical. The novel and musical complement each other in a beautiful way.

--Siân Gaetano, children's and YA editor, Shelf Awareness

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