Interview: Kelly Jensen
Current Mood: grateful
Current Song: Leverage score music
Today, I'm celebrating the publication of It Happens: A Guide to Contemporary Realistic Fiction for the YA Reader by Kelly Jensen, a fellow blogger and book reviewer. We share an appreciation for literature and libraries, and I've been following her blog for a long while. It was fun to conduct this interview and learn more about her academic background and literary inspirations.
How old were you when you started reading teen fiction?
I was a teenager when I was reading teen fiction. Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson and The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky came out in 1999. I was in 8th/9th grade then, and I remember picking both up somewhere around my sophomore or junior year of high school. I read what was out there then, and I carried on reading teen fiction through college and grad school. It wasn't always the first thing I picked up -- I read a lot of adult fiction and non-fiction -- but it was always there.
What was the first YA book (or series) that you read over and over? Have you re-read it as an adult? If so, did your opinion of it change?
I don't really reread. It's not because I'm opposed to it. It's just that there's so much out there I want to read, so it's not the first thing I think to do.
That said, I've really been wanting to reread Megan McCafferty's Jessica Darling series, especially with the release of the middle grade novels in the series. I read those books starting in high school and I looked forward to picking up each one as they published. Jessica and I went through the same life stages at the same time, and even though we didn't have any actual life similarities, I always related to and "got" her.
Congratulations on the release of IT HAPPENS! How did you land that book deal?
I approached my editor about doing an article on contemporary realistic YA for VOYA, and then on a whim, I asked if she thought maybe it was something she'd be interested in seeing as a full manuscript. It happened really fast. I was asked to put together a proposal and outline, which took me about a week. I sent those to her on a Thursday and had a contract on Saturday (I woke up to it on a vacation at a friend's house at 5 am and it was hard not to wake everyone up and share).
Had you always wanted to write a book guide?
It wasn't always a plan, but it made sense. What I'd envisioned for an article was something much bigger and after I did the research of what was out there, I saw there was a gaping hole in solid resources for contemporary realistic YA fiction.
Did anything get cut from the book?
I'd included book talks with a number of my book annotations, but I ended up cutting them all. I didn't keep them since many felt like they were just variations on the annotations themselves.
Should readers keep their eyes peeled for outtakes/bonus content at your blog?
There likely won't be outtakes or bonus content but that doesn't mean there won't be updates to some of the things I talked about in the book that show up on Stacked.
Any other books up your sleeve?
Last month, I turned in an essay that will be part of Amber Keyser's The V-Word, out with Beyond Words/Simon & Schuster in spring 2016. I'm also putting together a Q&A for the same book that looks at the representations of virginity and female sexuality in teen media.
I'm working on a chapter for another library reader's advisory resource with Liz Burns about "New Adult" fiction, being edited by Jessica Moyer. There's also a possibility of another chapter on a topic I'm supremely passionate about from a professional-development standpoint, but that's a project that's not completely set in stone yet.
There is a novel in me. I've been picking at it bit by bit. I'm really not good at committing to long-term fiction projects, but it's something I really want to do, and I think this story might be the one that gets me to follow through.
How did your college education/college experience prepare you for the jobs you've had?
I can't cite specific examples of how my education prepared me for my jobs, but I can say the experiences I had outside the classroom were what helped shape my career. I went to a non-traditional undergraduate college, which trained me how to think differently about time management and project management. I spent 4 years working on the school's newspaper -- first as a writer, then 2 years as an Arts and Entertainment editor, then finally as a Co-Editor-in-Chief. I spent three years working on the school's literary magazine, too, as both a reader and an editor. Those experiences taught me a lot about working with other people and rallying for things I care deeply about (the newspaper faced budget cuts during my last year, but my co-editor and I went to student senate budget meetings and fought hard to keep our money -- and we did).
While in undergrad, I worked at the library and I did an internship at my college library. The college library doubled as the town's public library, so I got to see both sides of the picture and knew working with the public -- and teens, especially -- was something I wanted to do.
What classes would you recommend for those who plan on becoming librarians?
I went to grad school immediately after undergrad and took many classes across the board in librarianship. If I'm being honest, though, few of the public library/teen services classes did a lot for me preparation wise. My YA fiction course was bad -- I knew more from my own reading and research than I got out of the class. But the one good thing that came of it was meeting my co-blogger Kimberly...and here we are, still blogging about YA at Stacked. Hopefully we're helping people learn about YA in a way we didn't get to.
But if I were to offer suggestions for those who want to go into libraries, it's this: work in libraries. Figure out where you want to work. Figure out how you work. Then read, read, read. And if you feel inclined, write. Blogging can give you a leg up if for no other reason than you have a record you can point to showing that you're willing to learn, explore, and create.
I'm not working in libraries now, since I took on a job at Book Riot as an editor/community manager. But my experiences in libraries, in a variety of good and less-than-good work environments, helped prep me for it, too. The best preparation for any job is working the job and understanding how you work, not what you'll get out of the classroom or your homework.
You've spoken about contemporary literature at a variety of conferences. Have you always felt comfortable with public speaking? Any advice for folks reading this interview who need a confidence booster before their next professional event or school presentation?
I still get nervous all the time about speaking. But I like pushing myself out of my comfort zone, and this works for me.
The reason it works for me doubles as my advice/confidence booster: you aren't invited to speak unless you know your stuff. So when you're at the front of the room, you are the expert. There's something in that knowledge that helps me feel better -- people are listening to me because they believe I can teach them something or I can make them rethink how they look at an idea.
In undergrad, I once spoke at a college-sponsored feminist symposium. I had written a paper in my Harlem Renaissance Lit class about the main character in Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God and how her name changes and shifts throughout the story and what that meant about her power in those situations. Little did I know that a renowned Hurston scholar was on campus during the symposium but I was alerted to it when I was presenting, since she was in the room listening to me.
I never felt more nervous as I did then. She asked me some tough questions during the Q&A portion, and I thought I was going to die right there. But after, she came up to me and said she came because she was curious to hear my take on this and she asked me those questions because she knew I could think about them and articulate a response. That may have been the presentation that sort of turned things around for me, knowing that even if someone in the room is smarter than me on a topic, they don't have the same take on it that I do, and they're there because they're interested, not because they want to bring me down.
You've been blogging at stackedbooks.org for five years now. What do you enjoy writing and sharing the most -- a book review, a list of books with similar themes, general book news, or a completely unplanned but suddenly inspired post?
If it's a book I love and want people to read immediately, then it's a book review. I love writing fun booklists. But the most fun are those unplanned and inspired posts, for sure.
Kimberly and I believe we'll do this as long as it's still fun. When it stops being fun, we stop. And at this point? It's still a lot of fun. If I don't like what I'm writing, I just stop and do something else.
How did you become a contributor for Book Riot?
Rebecca asked me! She and I have been following each other on Twitter for years, and so we've always sort of known what's going on with each other in the book world. Last June she approached me and said if I ever wanted to be a contributor, then I should apply. I did and the rest is history.
When you read a book summary, what are the magic words? What immediately makes you think, "I've got to read this book!"?
Dark, gritty, and edgy are three words I love. They don't have to be in relation to realistic fiction. I'll read most genres, especially when those words are involved.
Other things that grab me: dancing, a midwest setting outside of Chicago, anything feminist or that sounds like it's going to focus on navigating girlhood.
The words "magical realism" can catch my eye, but I approach those a little more cautiously/critically.
What are your top ten favorite books?
This is the worst question. The WORST. And the reason this is the worst question is because my favorite books are all favorites for different reasons -- it can be about the story or about the writing as much as it can be about the sensory experience of where I was or what that particular book brought to my life.
I'm not going to give you ten. Instead, here are three of my favorite books, off the top of my head, as I am writing this answer: The Magician's Assistant by Ann Patchett, The Girl in the Flammable Skirt by Aimee Bender, and All the Rage by Courtney Summers.
Little Willow adds: I also love books by Courtney Summers + Check out my interview with Courtney Summers!
Visit Kelly at kellybjensen.com and stackedbooks.org and get IT HAPPENS from your retailer of choice today.