by Rachel Hamby
One of the first SCBWI events I attended was led by Amber at a library in Beaverton, Oregon. It was a few years back and I was just testing the kidlit waters, but Amber’s workshop made a lasting impression. At our upcoming conference in Spokane on September 16th, Amber will lead 2 small group sessions in addition to giving the keynote address. Amber’s Table Talks on edgy YA and writing for a diverse audience might set you on a brand new course.
Hi Amber, thanks for answering a few questions on our blog! As you know, our theme for the conference is all about the journey. How did you get started on your journey as a writer for kids and young adults?
I probably have one of the weirder origin stories.
My first children’s book, Paddle My Own Canoe, began as a eulogy. I wrote the text to honor my grandmother, Esther Keyser, who was a huge inspiration in my life. During the 1930s, she was a wilderness canoe guide in Algonquin Provincial Park in Canada. The rustic cabin that she built there as the base for her guiding business is the one I still return to every summer. I named my first child after her, and her wisdom is in every single page of my novel The Way Back from Broken.
When she passed away, I wrote a poem that was intended to transport listeners into the backcountry alongside my grandmother. I read it at her memorial service, and as it happened, the publisher of my grandmother's memoir Paddling My Own Canoe was in the audience. She approached me about pairing my poem with illustrations and making it into a children’s book. So that is what we did!
I’m proud to say that both my grandmother’s book and my book are still in print. All proceeds from both books go to benefit Algonquin Provincial Park. At last tally, they’d raised over $100,000 to preserve my favorite place in the whole world. Paddle My Own Canoe is definitely my most successful title.
It sounds like kismet! A unique way to begin a publishing journey, but we can see your poem came from the heart and that’s always a great place to start. It's inspiring to see your success in different genres. Do you have any advice for writers published in one area that want to explore something new?
I write in lots of different genres because I get curious about lots of different things. I like it because I can alternate between the emotional heavy-lifting of my YA fiction and the in-depth research of nonfiction. There’s also a lot of wonderful synergy across projects. For example, there are many crossovers between my nonfiction anthology The V-Word and my novel Pointe, Claw. Another advantage is that I can sell more books in a single year because my nonfiction and my fiction fall into different markets.
But it’s worth noting that there are some downsides to writing in many genres. It’s harder to present a coherent image of yourself online and thus harder to publicize your work. Writing in different markets also means twice the work on the marketing side because you have to build an audience in both places. It’s also worth remembering that not all agents are willing to represent across genres. Some really encourage their clients to specialize because it makes them easier to sell.
Those are good things to consider, thanks Amber. In your novels, you aren't afraid to tackle subjects and issues that other writers may shy away from for a variety of reasons. You'll be delving into this more during your Table Talks, but maybe you can tell us what your readers say about books that shine a light on difficult subjects and social issues?
My books seem to evoke a lot of strong responses. You know how brilliant librarians are at finding the right book for the right reader? My books are like that. A reader either connects or really doesn’t connect.
When someone who is grieving stumbles about The Way Back from Broken, they respond pretty deeply. They tell me that appreciate the harsh honesty of the book. On the other hand, I’ve been criticized (mostly by adults) for putting too much heavy reality on the shoulders of young people.
The V-Word has also riled up lots of adults. There have been library and school challenges across the country. But many other adults tell me that they wish they had had The V-Word when they were younger. Teens themselves don’t say much about The V-Word directly, but librarians report whispered discussions about the book and parents tell me it keeps disappearing from their shelves.
Thanks for sharing, and cheers to librarians for helping kids find the books they need. In 2018 you have 2 YA nonfiction books coming out from Twenty-First Century Books, TYING THE KNOT: A WORLD HISTORY OF MARRIAGE and UNDERNEATH IT ALL: A HISTORY OF WOMEN’S UNDERWEAR. Could you share something surprising that you learned during your research?
Just one? Both books were fascinating to research~
I guess the most shocking thing I learned is that forced child marriage is a huge problem worldwide. It occurs in many countries, including the US and Canada, and in all religious traditions. Over 14 million girls under the age of 18 are forced into marriage every year.
Child marriage is legal in all US states. More than half the states do not have a minimum age of consent. That means twelve-year-olds could be married, and there has been intense resistance to changing these laws in the US.
Just this year, seventeen-year-old Girl Scout Cassandra Levesque campaigned in New Hampshire to raise the minimum age of consent from 13 to 18. Republican David Bates refused to sponsor the bill, saying that the law as written seems to work fine.
It makes me furious, and I expect that you’ll see child marriage turn up in one of my next novels.
Hopefully more young women and men will be inspired to join Cassandra’s campaign after reading your book. You're coming to Spokane from Bend, Oregon. I know you enjoy spending time in a canoe. Do you have a favorite paddling spot? We hope you can return to the Inland Northwest sometime to enjoy our lakes and rivers.
Canoes, rafts, kayaks, paddleboards — I love it all! Obviously Algonquin Park is my favorite place to canoe, but I grew up whitewater rafting on the Deschutes River in Oregon, and now I escape to the high mountain lakes in Bend for paddle boarding with my dog whenever I can!
I was lucky enough to spend some time in Spokane in June. (Thanks, Mary!) I love your town and would be delighted to go paddling! Maybe we could hold my workshops on the water????
I can’t wait to see everyone! Thanks for having me!
A workshop on the water, definitely something to consider! Thanks for giving our members an introduction to you and your books. We’re looking forward to learning from your publishing journey in person on September 16th.
Amber J. Keyser is a former ballerina and evolutionary biologist who writes both fiction and nonfiction for tweens and teens. Her young adult novels include POINTE, CLAW (Carolrhoda Lab, 2017), an explosive story about two girls claiming the territory of their own bodies, and THE WAY BACK FROM BROKEN (Carolrhoda Lab, 2015), a heart-wrenching novel of loss and survival (and a finalist for the Oregon Book Award). She is the co-author with Kiersi Burkhart of the middle grade series QUARTZ CREEK RANCH (Darby Creek, 2017).
Her nonfiction titles include THE V-WORD (Beyond Words/SimonTeen, 2016), an anthology of personal essays by women about first-time sexual experiences (Rainbow List, Amelia Bloomer list, New York Public Library Best Book for Teens and Chicago Public Library Best Nonfiction for Teens) and SNEAKER CENTURY: A HISTORY OF ATHLETIC SHOES (Twenty-First Century Books, 2015), among numerous other titles.
Her forthcoming books include TYING THE KNOT: A WORLD HISTORY OF MARRIAGE (Twenty-First Century Books, 2018) and UNDERNEATH IT ALL: A HISTORY OF WOMEN’S UNDERWEAR (Twenty-First Century Books, 2018).