Author Interview: Tanya Lee Stone on A Bad Boy Can Be Good For A Girl

A Bad Boy Can Be Good for a Girl by Tanya Lee Stone (Wendy Lamb/Random House, 2006) (PDF excerpt). Promo copy: “Josie, Nicolette, and Aviva all get mixed up with a senior boy–a cool, slick, sexy boy who can talk them into doing almost anything he wants. In a blur of high school hormones and personal doubt, each girl struggles with how much to give up and what ultimately to keep for herself. How do girls handle themselves? How much can a boy get away with? And in the end, who comes out on top? A bad boy may always be a bad boy. But this bad boy is about to meet three girls who won’t back down.” Cyn says: “It’s fantastic–hip, edgy, and addicting. Sometimes funny, sometimes heartbreaking, always real. Sure to be the new Forever.” Ages 14-up. HIGHEST RECOMMENDATION.

Tanya Lee Stone on Tanya Lee Stone: “In middle-school, I was big into creative writing and poetry, and worked on the school paper. Ditto, in high school. But my newspaper time was limited because I also went to a performing arts high school, so I traveled between the two schools. At performing arts, I studied music. After high school, I went to Oberlin College where I was an English Major, and continued studying voice at Oberlin Conservatory. I got my first editorial job fresh out of college, at Holt, Rinehart & Winston. I then had a few other editorial positions, including being Jean Reynold’s assistant at Grolier, before becoming the Managing Editor (of course, this was a few years later) at Blackbirch Press. I loved that job, but I had to leave it due to a move out-of-state. That was when I started writing books, which was about ten years ago.”

What was your initial inspiration for creating A Bad Boy Can Be Good for a Girl?

It all started with the title. Oh, the possibilities! As soon as I wrote it down, I was consumed.

What was the timeline from spark to publication and what were the major events along the way?

Spark: January 15, 2004, one of the special weekend sessions at Vermont College when they invite outside guests to attend. George Nicholson was giving a talk and mentioned Michael Cart’s Rush Hour journal, and that the next theme open for submissions was called “Bad Boys.” I took out my notebook and scrawled “a bad boy can be good for a girl.” Back home that same day, I started writing about this girl who was really confident but just starting high school and had met an older guy that was making her feel confused; excited, but definitely confused. I was off and running.

A few weeks later, Kindling Words convened. At the Saturday night Fireside Reading I read five minutes of what I had so far. I remember telling Karen Romano Young before I read that I was nervous, and she was surprised because it wasn’t really like me. I also remember, very clearly, trembling while I was reading, but also hearing those murmurs from the audience when they really connect with something you’re saying, which gives you a lot of confidence to keep going. When I sat back down next to Karen she squeezed my hand and said, “Now I understand why you were nervous; you really put yourself out there.” That night a couple of different people approached me about my reading. They challenged me to think beyond the short story format, which was what Bad Boy began as, and said to them it sounded like the beginning of a novel. Now there was a moment I’ll never forget. I had published plenty of nonfiction books, but I had never really considered writing a novel. I was charged up. I went to my room and wrote until I couldn’t stay awake any more. Then I jolted awake at about 4 am (probably only about two hours later) and wrote until breakfast. I couldn’t stop. The book was pouring out of me. Josie was pouring out of me. I may have written 40 or 50 pages that weekend, I can’t really remember, but it took me over for the next few months. I was on deadline for other things and had to do them, but the desire to get back to working on Bad Boy was palpable.

The next major event was a novel writing retreat that was an extension of New England SCBWI, in May. I workshopped the novel there, which was a completed first draft by then, and during that weekend realized that the fourth girl needed to be chopped out of the book and set aside for later. Her story was too complex and needed its own space. I’ll get back to her when I can, although her story is still fresh in my mind.

It was almost two years to the day from when I read it at Kindling Words until A Bad Boy Can Be Good for a Girl appeared on bookshelves. I’ll never forget the rush of that first partial reading. That feeling that you’re doing exactly what you’re supposed to be doing at that moment of your life.

What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, logistical) in bringing it to life? What were the hard questions you had to ask of yourself?

I guess the hardest question I asked myself was after it was finished—if I was really ready, as Karen had put it to me that first night—to put myself out there. I guess we know the answer, ‘cause I’m out there, baby!

What made you decide to tell Bad Boy as a novel in poems rather than prose?

It really was the different patterns of speech that led me to the verse approach. I liked being able to shape the way the three girls talked, physically shape it, on the page. It worked for me and felt very natural. I had read a lot of verse novels and knew how I felt about why some worked and some didn’t. In my opinion, I think the ones that work well are those in which each poem both stands alone as a good poem and also functions as a part to the whole; moving the story along effectively. In revision, I looked at those components and did cut a few that I might have liked the sound of, but that ultimately didn’t work for the plot or character development.

You’ve written a powerful essay, “Now and Forever: The Power of Sex in Young Adult Literature,” which was recently published in VOYA. What inspired you to go beyond writing your novel to also address the more global context around it?

Someone told me early on, “you’re going to be asked some tough questions; have your answers ready.” That got me thinking about what the questions were surrounding this topic, and how I might explain, if someone did ask me, the importance of dealing with this theme in YA lit. So I went ahead and asked myself! The climate seemed right to address the issue in general and have an opportunity to point out many books that handle these themes well.

Your comments include the observation that books are possibly the safest place for teens to learn about sex–not just as a physical act but also the surrounding emotions. This seemed so smart and true to me, but obviously there are censors who disagree. How do we–a community of readers and writers–respond to their arguments? What would you say if standing before a public school board that was deciding whether to pull your book from the library?

I think most of these arguments come from fear; from not wanting to see that our kids are learning or hearing about things that maybe we’re not ready for them to experience. Censors are generally adults, and that’s not who I write for. I write for kids; in this case, young adults. I trust them to self-censor. We’ve all watched plenty of kids in bookstores and libraries—they pick up a book, flip through it, and put it back if it doesn’t speak to them; if they’re not ready for it. I always think of that scene in “Field of Dreams,” when Kevin Costner’s wife stands up and struts and screams in defense of not banning books. I love that scene! I’d like to think that if I had to stand before a school board I would urge them not to take away the important role YA fiction can play in offering readers a safe place to explore, to put themselves in other people’s shoes, and imagine different perspectives without necessarily having to experience everything first-hand.

I’d like to touch on some of your work for younger readers. I was delighted to read on your site that Abraham Lincoln (DK, 2005) has sold more than 50,000 copies. Congratulations! What do you think makes this book stand out over others about Lincoln? What advice do you have for writers working on biographies?

Thanks! I read this book aloud to a class of 4th and 5th graders, over the course of a couple of weeks. It really worked as a read-aloud, which to me meant that I succeeded in writing his life as a story. My advice is to make your nonfiction subject come to life for yourself as much as possible; make interesting connections, highlight unusual things kids may not know about a topic, and always keep in mind what is important to you, the writer, about your topic while you’re writing. If you’re passionate about the subject, I think that comes through in the writing.

I also was pleased to see that you have a forthcoming picture book biography, Elizabeth Leads the Way: Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the Right to Vote, illustrated by Rebecca Gibbon (Henry Holt, 2007). It seems that power and women may be an emerging theme in your work. Is that the case? Could you give readers a hint of what’s to come in this forthcoming title?

Yes, I do believe you’re right! 😉 Strong girls and women are definitely a pervasive theme in my writing. Elizabeth Leads the Way is the story of how Elizabeth Cady Stanton was inspired by her upbringing and her own internal fire to get the women’s suffrage movement started. Now that you mention it, my next YA novel, as well as the next few nonfiction books I have coming out, all focus on the strength of female characters in one way or another.

You were a children’s book editor for 13 years. Did this inspire you to become a writer? What insights does a background in editing offer a writer?

Ever since I was a girl, I’ve been writing. I think I lost a little of my confidence in my writing abilities during college, of all places. My advisers were tough on me, as they should have been. But I lost some steam. After I was editing for a time, though, it came back to me. I began writing again, for fun, and really enjoyed it. My editorial background has definitely been an advantage in terms of craft. I edited hundreds and hundreds of books before I wrote my first one for publication.

How about your experiences as a reader? What were your favorite two or three children’s and YA books of all time? What made each resonate with you?

My favorite all-time picture book is Harold and the Purple Crayon (HarperCollins, 1955). The idea that life can be anything you create it to be is simple and powerful, just like the book. That book made me feel good the first time I read it as a little kid, and the feeling comes back each and every time I open it again.

My favorite books as a kid were Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth (Random House, 1961), Madeline L’Engle‘s A Wrinkle in Time (Bantam Doubleday, 1962), and Julie Edwards’s The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles (Harper & Row, 1974). I immersed myself in the worlds those authors created and was carried away by their imaginations—which nurtured my own. I just noticed that those are all fantasies, which is not my favorite genre as an adult. I tend to like contemporary realistic fiction or historical fiction.

Is it true that you own a purple leopard coat?

It’s the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but! I LOVE that coat—it’s purple, warm, cozy, cat-like, and did I say, purple?

Is there anything you’d like to add?

I think what has surprised me most about this process is the things that evolve from writing a particular book. For my launch party, I scripted a stage version of Bad Boy that gave the boy an introductory monologue and introduced the three girls to the audience. I found that I really enjoyed playing with a different form, and that it led me to think of other ways to reach readers. I’m now looking forward to having the opportunity to work with school groups with a visual forum that lends itself to discussion.

I’d also like to add a big thank you for interviewing me so Cynsationally!

Cynsational Notes

School Library Journal gave A Bad Boy Can Be Good for a Girl a starred review, and chose it for Book of the Week. The novel also has received great reviews from the Horn Book, Booklist, and been featured in Ellegirl (along with Prom by Laurie Halse Anderson (Viking, 2005)).