by Bethany MacCallum, Emily Hollingshead, and Miriam Herbold
Blogs, or “online diaries,” are platforms which allow users to connect with a potentially broad audience through the World Wide Web (Baker, Psych, & Moore, 2011, p. 379). This form of communication has become popular among Young Adult (YA) authors in recent years. As Denise Johnson (2010) convincingly argued, “children’s and young adult authors are very aware of the emotional connections they create with their young readers through their books. Rather than remain at a distance, many of these authors desire to create a stronger connection with their readers, which blogging allows them to do” (p. 72). We decided to explore how YA authors sought to connect with their online audiences. We chose twelve blogs (see the list below) and read several samples from each, looking to answer these questions: What does the medium say about stories? What are the implied values and attitudes? How subversive is the content? How accessible is the medium to young adults? And finally, who exactly is the intended audience? Our overall impression was that Johnson is correct in saying that YA authors wish to connect in a meaningful way with their readers. However, the ways in which they seek to do so are varied and, sometimes, surprising.
Author blogs serve multiple purposes, but while promotion of the authors’ work is the most obvious, quite often it proves only one source of content. In most of the blogs that we studied, authors devoted a large portion of their online presence to showing readers where the stories come from–what personal experiences, opinions and passions characterize the people responsible for creating the novels that readers, more often than not, have already come to love. Part of that insight, of course, concerned the novels themselves. Authors talked about promotional tours, letters from fans, and the challenges and victories that they encountered in the process of writing books and working with illustrators and filmmakers with their own interpretations of the authors’ stories.
Besides offering insight into the professional life of a writer, however, most of the blogs that we considered also offered at least some access to each author’s personal views about what matters. Two messages in particular appeared repeatedly. The first was the value of engaging with life both passionately and critically. Though each blogger demonstrated different passions through his or her blog (for example, Kate Milford’s fascination with the sources and possibilities that surround her stories, or John Green’s effort to engage readers in the political process), we got a strong sense in almost every blog that these authors cared deeply about something, and that they wanted their readers to do the same.
The second message that we saw in many of the blogs was that stories, whether written or read, can and do play a significant role in shaping how readers engage with the world. Shannon Hale devoted one post to a letter which explained how a reader used the lessons in diplomacy found in one of Hale’s novels to renegotiate her mother’s unpopular decision. Patrick Ness, rather than encouraging comments in response to individual posts, had set aside a page where visitors could comment on what Ness’s novels had meant to them, and see how the novels had affected others. Recognizing the power of stories to influence people, several of the authors strove to communicate, too, the need to handle such power responsibly. From the writer’s side, Meg Rosoff (among others), argued that stories must come from a place of authority and passion–that is, really knowing and caring about the subject of one’s writing. From the reading side, authors such as Shannon Hale insisted against placing limits on who should read a book or what he or she should get out of it.
Intended Values and Subversion Levels
When we viewed each author blog with the intended values and level of subversion in mind, it was interesting to see that many of the blogs shared common characteristics regarding intended values, but the level of subversion in each author blog seemed to vary. With regards to intended values inherent in each blog, social awareness and critical thought seemed to be common themes found in many of the blog posts. For example, Meg Rosoff and Shannon Hale both took direct approaches to their blog writing, often encouraging critical thought and meaningful discussion (e.g. Rosoff’s recent criticism of the overemphasis on plying children with cultural “enrichment”). John Green’s blogs also offered a perfect example of social awareness. He was very involved in encouraging young adults to vote in the last American election, working with his brother and co-vlogger (video blogger) Hank on a “Don’t Forget to Vote, America” campaign. As well, for many authors, a strong emphasis on the value of reading and the value of their readers was a focal point of their blogs. Scott Westerfeld, for example, showed this emphasis on reading and his readers by using some of his posts to showcase fan art. These posts, known as Fan Art Fridays, displayed art that Westerfeld’s readers had created based on his novels. It was clear from these posts that Westerfeld valued his readers greatly.
The majority of the author blogs viewed seemed to maintain a fairly high level of respect for societal conventions; some, however, did push the boundaries slightly. Stephenie Meyer’s blog fell into the first category, maintaining a more distant rapport with readers. Her infrequent posts tended to focus on her general activities and upcoming book and movie events, rather than on sharing personal opinions or questioning beliefs. Maureen Johnson also maintained more of a distance from her readers, focusing on the art and craft of writing and how one could hone and develop this craft. Both Meyer’s and Johnson’s blogs would be readily accepted by parents of young adults, and could be read in schools as they were relatively controversy-free. Westerfeld’s blog, in contrast, did include a few subversive posts. In one such post, Westerfeld specifically addressed an open letter to parents who did not want their children to read books with dark or controversial content. He contended that young adults should be dealing with these themes, as they were sure to run into them in adulthood, and he stressed that young adults were mature enough to handle this type of reading material; they should be pushed in their beliefs, not sheltered. Kate Milford’s blog focused primarily on her novels, but she was actively engaged in alternative publishing projects, and offered DRM-free e-editions of her works. Both of these authors wrote posts meant to push against the norm, and as such could be considered somewhat controversial and perhaps not entirely “respected” by adults. In sum, though many of the author blogs seemed to share the same sets of values, there was a slight divide between author blogs that could be considered wholly “respected,” and those that challenged norms.
Accessibility and Gender Differentiation
We also thought it was important to consider how accessible, in terms of both technical access and understanding, author blogs were for students and young adult readers. All of the blogs addressed were freely available online and easy to find (generally, a Google search for “__author name__ blog” brought up the link within the first few hits). However, we agreed that issues such as censorship in schools, as in the case with the banning of Meg Rosoff’s blog, and the digital divide were likely to place some limitations on accessibility for young adults and especially students.
We found that most of the blogs we looked at were written for a general audience, though John Green and Scott Westerfeld seemed to write with teens in mind. For example, Scott Westerfeld frequently posted content specifically for teens, such as news about teen writing workshops. The tone of his blog was very casual, often using teen slang (including the slang he invented for his books). John Green’s blogs also frequently focused on teen issues. Teens wrote or commented to ask him questions about things like the value of education or gender stereotypes, which he answered via his tumblr blog. Green also appeared to follow popular culture closely (e.g. memes).
The rest of the blogs did not appear to be written directly for teens and young adults, though the majority were written at a grade 7-8 reading level, making the writing accessible for a broad range of readers interested in the content. More interesting was the implication that these authors seemed to expect as much of their teen readers as of any adult readers in terms of their capacity for empathy, social awareness, and critical thinking.
When considering the apparent gender of the intended audience, we found that male authors tended to write about topics more likely to be of general interest, such as politics (Green) and diversity (Ness), while some of the female authors included topics, such as body image (Rosoff) and parenting (Hale), that might draw more interest from female readers (often the majority of the comments on these blogs were posted by female readers). Most of the posts by most of the authors, however, showed little evidence of gender differentiation in their intended (or real, for that matter) audiences.
Stories are dynamic. Our findings demonstrated that author blogs were one powerful way for both authors and their readers to explore some of the possibilities that take stories beyond the page, whether by imaginatively extending the story through fan art and souvenirs, or by applying the stories to real life situations. Further, as Johnson suggested, in addition to providing opportunities for individual readers to connect with their favourite authors, author blogs can be used in the classroom to provide insight into things like authors’ choices for their works (p. 176) and the editing process (p. 177). Ultimately, we concluded that YA authors were using their blogs to enhance the ability of their fiction both to challenge readers beyond the text and to encourage and enable deeper engagement with the text. To that end, we agreed that a resource, such as this blog, which connected educators and librarians with quality author blogs would be a valuable contribution to currently-available Reader’s Advisory tools. Watch the Lemon-Squash Book Club for weekly YA author blog reviews (see the archives here).
Ann Dee Ellis
John Green–Vlog and Tumblr blog
Squeetus (Shannon Hale)
The Clockwork Foundry (Kate Milford)
Baker, J. R., Psych, M., & Moore, S. M. (2011). An opportunistic validation of studies on the psychosocial benefits of blogging. CyberPsychology, Behaviour & Social Networking, 14(6), 387- 390.
Johnson, D. (2010). Teaching with author blogs: connections, collaboration, creativity. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 54(3), 172-80.