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Five Questions for Caroline B. Cooney

Veteran YA novelist Caroline B. Cooney is providing the keynote address for School Library Journal‘s upcoming virtual conference, SummerTeen: A Celebration of YA Books, and I thought this would be a good time to ask her about her electronic life–via email, of course.


Roger Sutton: Your latest novel The Lost Songs (Delacorte) relies on cell phones and texting for several key turns of the plot. How does teenagers’ 24/7 access to cell phone technology change the rules for contemporary YA realism? What might you have to change about The Face on the Milk Carton if you were writing it today?

Caroline B. Cooney:  I love my cell phone, which is a surprise to me, as I am not fond of talking on the phone.   But texting! What a joy. And to Google things! Definitely joy. I have never asked a question that somebody hasn’t already asked. But if I were to write The Face on the Milk Carton today – what a problem! In that book, a kidnapping that happened a dozen years earlier is difficult for Janie, the heroine, to research. Today, there would be no microfilm at the library or long drives hoping to spot something familiar. Two minutes on the internet, and Janie would have a lot of information and plenty of photographs. Luckily, the four Janie books – and a fifth next year – are not about research and communication. They are about love, and about what good people do when there is no good thing to do. That transcends technology.

RS: What are your personal preferences for reading: hardcover, paperback, Kindle, iPad, phone? Do you read differently depending on the “platform”?

CBC:  I love books. When I moved to a smaller house, I got rid of hundreds of them, and I still have hundreds, and I still miss all the ones I left behind. I love libraries and bookstores. I love the look and texture and beauty of books. I love to buy them, borrow them, stockpile them and list them. I have read books on my Kindle, but gave the Kindle to my daughter. I have books on my iPhone but have not finished one. In Bible study last week, a woman was using a Kindle Bible instead of a physical Bible but I don’t think I could do that. To me, every book has its own physical character, from the font to the jacket art and the scent of the page. I don’t want to give any of that up.

RS: You’ve been writing for teens long enough to see many trends come and go. What would you say is the greatest difference between YA novels today and those of 25 years ago?

CBC: Perhaps the age of the reader is the most radical change. There’s now an astonishing spread. YA is read by children as young as third or fourth grade, which gives me pause when I think of some of the very dark books now popular. YA is also read by young people right through high school. I used to think if you weren’t reading adult books by the time you were 16, there was something wrong with you. But now YA books can be very adult. It’s difficult to write when you realize you could have an eight year old and a seventeen year old both reading the same paragraph.

RS: Given what we know about what you like to write, what would surprise us most about what you like to read?

CBC: I read a lot of history. My next  book will be about the children who eventually sail on the Mayflower, so I am reading about Tudor and Stuart England, about Holland and that part of Europe the first two decades of the 17th century, and about family life in those decades. I have a big study wooden coffee table on which I have about sixty books piled right now – biographies of Pilgrims, etc. I usually read within a time period and then go on to another. When I was in England in May visiting the villages from which most Pilgrim families came, I stumbled on the filming at Lincoln Castle of an episode of Downton Abbey and spent a happy morning watching that. So now I am branching out into lovely books about England before and after the first World War. Meanwhile, favorite authors have suddenly produced books about ancient Greece and Rome, always delightful, but I can’t quite stretch my mind to encompass that while I am among Pilgrims, so I’m stockpiling instead. I will  soon be in Plymouth, Massachusetts, using their two fine libraries and touring the Mayflower II and the reproduction village, and although I think I bought every applicable book in the museum bookstore on my prior research trip, I remain hopeful that there will be more titles to purchase.

RS: You’re the keynote speaker at School Library Journal‘s SummerTeen virtual conference on August 9th. Will you be speaking from your house? In your pajamas?

CBC: They’re even giving me a training session! Which is good, because I struggle with computers. Lightning struck my house a few months ago, and destroyed my desk computer, so now I have a new one – a laptop. I can’t actually work on my lap because I don’t have good enough eyes and need to be under a very strong lamp – but I can move around the house. The very best light is at the kitchen island, where I sit on a high stool.  My main worry is not seeing the audience. I love an audience!  I love when they laugh or frown with me. I’m nervous right up until I see the audience, and then I always think – oh, they look fun! It’s unsettling to think of talking for 45 minutes and never seeing anybody. I’m going to practice my speech into a dead phone, looking at the kitchen counter!

Roger Sutton About Roger Sutton

Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.

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