Lit Fest News and Updates
Pioneering author of novels for gay teens wins Tribune literary award
David Levithan, noted for expanding the role of gay characters in teen literature with influential novels such as "Boy Meets Boy," has won the 2017 Chicago Tribune Young Adult Literary Award.
Levithan champions diversity in children's literature as a senior editor at Scholastic books and has written or co-written 18 young adult books, seven featuring gay characters. His books include the best-sellers "Every Day," "Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist" (co-written with Rachel Cohn) and "Will Grayson, Will Grayson" (with John Green). His novel "Two Boys Kissing" was on the longlist for the 2013 National Book Award for Young People's Literature.
"He's had incredible resonance," said Elizabeth Taylor, Chicago Tribune literary editor at large. "These books have really changed the conversation about love and romance."
The award will be presented at the Tribune's Printers Row Lit Fest
Levithan answered questions from the Tribune via email during a recent trip to England. The following is an edited transcript.
Q: In 2003, "Boy Meets Boy," a positive, upbeat gay love story, was a real departure for teen novels. Did you set out to rock the Y A world?
A: Well, I (and a number of the other authors writing queer YA in 2002-03) definitely wanted to change the way LGBT stories were told in YA With some notable exceptions, the landscape was pretty bleak — and we wanted to unbleaken it, in order to make it better reflect real life. But, to be honest, changing the body of literature was only a small part of it; we knew the impact that YA could have on teenage lives, and we wanted the LGBT-positive impact to spread.
Q: Since then, there's been pretty seismic change in terms of LGBT stories in Y A. What, in your view, was a major turning point?
A: We changed the narrative. There are genuinely too many authors to name who populated their books with human, dimensional queer characters — whether it's the rainbow boys in Alex Sanchez's novels or the geography club rebels in Brent Hartinger's or the affectionate girls in Julie Anne Peters' or Sara Ryan's novels or the devastatingly real tortured souls in Ellen Hopkins' work or the more fantastical but still emotionally real souls in Cassandra Clare's novels. It wasn't just that we got a place at the table, but that we were given interesting things to do and say once we were sitting there.
Q: What were you like in high school?
A: A lot like I am now. Really bookish. Really into music. Really, really into my friends.
Q: Did you identify as gay in high school?
A: I wasn't out or in when it came to high school — I was just oblivious. It's easy — very easy — to see what my identity was going to be, in retrospect. But at the time — pre-internet, pre-"Ellen," pre-"Dawson's Creek" — I didn't have the cultural tip-off I needed to figure it out.
Q: You're known in part for high-profile collaborations. What in your experience is the hardest part of collaborating?
A: The hardest part should be giving up control over the story — but honestly that's one of the most fun parts too. So I'll say the hardest part is waiting for the next chapter — and I say this with the full knowledge that I am often the one making my collaborator wait. The best part is writing something you never would have written alone — and having a partner in crime when it comes to bringing it out into the world.
Q: As an editor, what do you consider your greatest accomplishment? And tell me about something you wish you'd done differently.
A: When I started the PUSH imprint, I thought my greatest accomplishment would have been discovering new writers. Little did I know that it would be immensely more satisfying to be working with the same authors 10 or even 20 years later and seeing them grow as authors. This fall I'm publishing my author (and best friend) Billy Merrell's first novel, "Vanilla," over a decade after I published his memoir, "Talking in the Dark." And it's even more of a wonder to me because of how we've both grown, as a writer and as an editor, respectively, in the interim.
As for something I wish I'd done differently, the seemingly ridiculous and utterly true answer is that I think even the mistakes are there for a reason, and when you botch one thing it helps you fix something else later on. Even the books I lost out on — the only ones that it bums me out to think about are the ones that didn't actually go on to be successes. The ones that did well — I'm glad they found the audience. "The Book Thief" is one of my favorite books, and I was the underbidder on it. But all of the things that went so right for it wouldn't have necessarily happened on my watch, so I'm glad it found the home it did. Truly.
Q: We're said — rightly, I think — to be living in a golden age of Y A literature. What, if anything, remains to be done?
There are so many more voices that need to be a part of our literature. We're getting there, one book at a time. I am profoundly happy to live in a time where "The Hate U Give" is the No. 1 YA book in America for over a month. (The book follows a 16-year-old African-American girl as she copes with the aftermath of witnessing a police officer shoot her unarmed friend.) I wish we were in a place where a book like "The Hate U Give" wasn't necessary — but as long as it is, give us the Angie Thomases to be our truth-tellers. We need as much truth-telling as we can get these days.