2 authors to address the angst of teen life

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Is it possible to survive high school without major friend drama? High school friendships are intense; things run especially hot and cold with girls. It's somehow perfectly normal that girls can be best friends one day but, because of a boy or a fight, barely acknowledge each other the next.

Co-authors Siobhan Vivian and Jenny Han think a lot about the complexities of teen friendships. "Burn for Burn" and the just-published "Fire With Fire" are part of a young adult trilogy set on the fictional Jar Island. The books focus on Lillia, Kat and Mary, who come from different social circles but band together to get revenge against those who did them wrong.

Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures Kids and Teens

Where: Carnegie Library Lecture Hall, Oakland

When: 7 p.m. Friday.

Admission: Tickets are available online at pittsburghlectures.org, by phone at 412-622-8866 or at the door. Tickets are $10 each or 2/$15, with online promo code: JARISLAND.

The authors will speak Friday at the Carnegie Library in Oakland, and the duo spoke together on the phone about teen friendship, revenge and their collaborative writing.

"Girls face the challenge that their friendships are born of secrets; there's things they can't share with others. There's an intimacy about things that they can't be public about, the vulnerability they feel and the struggles they face," Ms. Vivian said from her Highland Park home. In addition to writing, she teaches a class in writing youth literature at the University of Pittsburgh.

Lillia is a cheerleader from an ultra-wealthy family, while Kat is a rocker whose family struggles with grief and economic hardships. Then there's Mary, a quiet girl who moves back to Jar Island and is obsessed with Reeve, the star football player with whom she had a strangely abusive relationship. The girls make soul-bearing confessions to each other; anger transforms into solidarity in this unlikely but satisfying friendship.

"Burn for Burn" bubbles over with secrets that come to light, some of which are unknown to the girls themselves. At first, revenge is a way for the girls to take back their dignity and power. A couple of angry girls at homecoming can do a lot of damage. Despite the mischievous pranks, it becomes clear that revenge neither makes the girls feel better nor solves their underlying issues, which are dead serious.

Ms. Han said that the idea for the trilogy came from conversations with friends in graduate school. "Everybody had a story to share about somebody who did something really devastating to you, and that made me think about revenge and what you would do differently if you were to go back. [We] were thinking about the idea of these girls asserting their own power and voice. We didn't want to make a judgment about whether [revenge] was right but to explore the aftermath of that," she said from her home in New York.

"Fire With Fire" contains unexpected plot twists, and there are a lot of complicated "aftermath" and a cliffhanger of an ending that will leave readers anxious for the third installment. The co-authors delve straight into issues such as rape, picking romance over friends, and bullying. They are unapologetic about the fact that their books don't offer easy representations of these experiences.

"These moments of darkness are really important for all three girls. We had many conversations about Lillia. How gray can we get with her experience [of possible rape]? The more complicated and gray it is, the more girls can find something in their own lives to relate to that. It's very rare it's so black and white like an afterschool special," Ms. Vivian said.

The co-authors became friends in a graduate-level literature class at the New School University in New York City. They began having regular writing dates, and things just evolved toward collaboration.

We started sharing our work together, and it felt natural to work together," Ms. Han said.

The two are established writers on their own; Ms. Han is author of the best-selling "The Summer I Turned Pretty" series, and Ms. Vivian's "Not That Kind of Girl" won a Young Adult Library Services Association award for Best Book for Young Adults.

Both Ms. Han and Ms. Vivian spoke about how their own high school experiences worked their way into the book.

Ms. Han admits to having a friend like Reeve -- a boy with whom she would have intimate conversations over the phone, but who would be mean to her in front of others.

"Although [the books] are packaged up as a sexy thing and have a commercial look, we're always trying to find the true heartbeat underneath it," Ms. Vivian said. "We go to real girls and unpack them. We have grown women sharing these experiences from high school. There's still a bruise from some of these things, and you carry them with you for a long time. We're always striving to get to that emotional truth."


Julie Hakim Azzam teaches literature at the University of Pittsburgh and blogs about children's literature and parenting at www.instantlyinterruptible.com. First Published October 8, 2013 8:00 PM


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