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November 20, 2013

YA and Wine: My Experience at the HarperTeen Author Dinner

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Last Wednesday night, I attended the HarperTeen Author Dinner at the National --- a super chic bar and restaurant in midtown east --- as a representative of The Book Report Network, specifically TeenReads and 20SomethingReads. Now, I’ve been to author events before (how glamorous am I?), but I’d never been to a full-blown dinner before. The natural first step in preparing for a dinner honoring three people who have written books is to actually read their books, which I did with pleasure. I’ll admit that I’m not much of an aficionado when it comes to YA (YAficionado?), but I do love me some good, well-written young adult stories, and the three books that were being celebrated --- Lauren Oliver’s PANIC, Melissa Kantor’s MAYBE ONE DAY and Katie Cotugno’s HOW TO LOVE --- certainly fit the bill. My expectations were pleasantly exceeded.

I arrived at the National --- all three books in tow like a real rookie (publishing events are never short on complimentary advanced copies) --- and was greeted warmly by Patty Rosati, Director of School and Library Marketing at HarperCollins Children’s Books, and my host for the evening. My heart ballooned up into my throat when I saw there were three tables, beautifully set to seat about ten people around, and my name written in decisive black ink on a place card atop a fine, monogrammed plate. Charming as I seem on the Internet, I’m never optimistic about my social skills in intimate settings.

It seemed, though, that I wasn’t the only one choking down my anxieties. I was introduced almost immediately to Katie Cotugno, who was not only a debut novelist, but also a debut guest of honor. This was her first (but not even close to her last!) author event ever, and she was admittedly a little bewildered. She and I sipped wine and laughed about MFA programs (I told you I was glamorous). I was shocked to learn that she started writing HOW TO LOVE when she was in high school, and submitted the first draft as her senior thesis in college. That’s nothing short of amazing, especially considering how sharp and insightful the book is.

We didn’t have too long to chat before all the guests were asked to take their seats for dinner. Each table had one of the authors and some members of her publishing team, and I was a little bummed that I wasn’t at Katie’s table (it’s poor strategy, at one of these things, to bond with one of the honorees --- turns out, honorees make the worst party buddies). My table’s author was Melissa Kantor and, despite my initial disappointment, she was really lovely. In addition to the eight books she’s had published, she’s been teaching English to high school and middle school students for almost 20 years. There was something about the way she carried herself, and the smart, patient way she spoke, that made me imagine she was probably exactly the kind of person you wanted to be teaching your high school English class. She, along with everyone else at the table, expressed a deep passion for getting kids to read good books, both classic and contemporary.

As an icebreaker, Patty had us write down the book that meant the most to us when we were kids. I cheated and wrote down three: A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN, the Betsy-Tacy series and, in case my first choices mis-dated me, ELLA ENCHANTED. Patty was pleased to announce that all three of my choices were HarperCollins books, an observation that got a big laugh in a room full of publishing people. And although not exclusively HarperCollins, the books other people chose were great, too (the big winner, to our collective delight, was V.C. Andrews’ notorious FLOWERS IN THE ATTIC).

The highlight of the whole thing for me, though, was a conversation my table had as a result of a throwaway comment I had made earlier in the night. I’d admitted to having trouble getting through HOW TO LOVE because it reminded me too vividly of my own first love (the book reunites high school sweethearts almost three years after their first attempt at love failed). I intended the comment to give credit to the accuracy of Katie’s writing, but also to be charmingly self-deprecating at a dinner party. What I didn’t expect was that almost everyone at the table admitted to having experienced the same thing, in varying degrees. One of the women even confessed that she had been inspired to contact her old college boyfriend to interesting and emotionally gratifying results (and I couldn’t help, of course, writing that email to my own ex-college boyfriend in my head: Hey X, I was just reading a YA novel about two people who find love again three years after their devastating breakup. How long has it been for us? Also three years…? Cooool.).

You always kind of know that first love and first loss are universal experiences, but it’s nice to be sitting at a table with people, grownup and not-quite, who remind you that you’re not alone. And, not coincidentally, I think that’s part of the power of good YA fiction --- it gets at those early transformative experiences in a way that’s completely sincere and indulgent and moving. I also think that's part of why adults are so drawn to these stories that are intended for young(er) adults. And it’s a testament to these authors that they can capture all that --- the whole storm in the bottle --- so wonderfully.