Beyond Judy Blume: Q&A with YA Author Sara Ryan

Ashley McAllister
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Logo that says Beyond Judy Blume: Identity and Sexuality in Young Adult Literature across a red banner with white flowers below it

We're big fans of Sara Ryan, and super excited that she's going to be participating in our Beyond Judy Blume forum in Portland on November 8th. Sara Ryan is the author of YA faves Empress of the World and The Rules for Hearts, and is responsible for various comics and short stories. In addition to being an award-winning author, she's also the Teen Services Specialist at the Multnomah County Library. She has admited that it's challenging to be both a librarian and a writer: "I worry about conflict of interest, probably excessively, and I often don't get a lot of sleep." But she wears her many hats well, and even found time to talk to us about her work this week.

A headshot of Sara Ryan, a white woman with thick black framed glasses, a polkadot collared shirt, and blond hair.Can you tell us a bit about the work you do as the Teen Services Specialist for the Multnomah County Library? What's your favorite thing about your job?

It's my job to do everything possible to make sure that teens find the library welcoming, useful, and fun. That includes but is not limited to selecting materials that teens want to read, watch, and listen to, training staff about how to work effectively with teens, representing the library in groups of teen advocates in the community, and—my favorite part—working with actual teens. And I'm definitely not doing it alone! I'm fortunate to have many awesome colleagues who are also strong teen advocates.

You're also a writer. Empress of the World (2001) is a YA book narrated by a girl named Nic who falls for a girl named Battle at a summer camp for gifted youth. In The Rules for Hearts (2007), Battle is the narrator. Why did you decide it was important to tell a story from Battle's point of view?

After I wrote Empress, I knew that Battle needed her own voice. In Empress, we only see her though her girlfriend's eyes—beautiful, compelling, ultimately inexplicable. But of course, that's not how Battle sees herself.

I also knew that Battle's brother meant a lot to her. I wanted to see how he compared to the vision of him she built up in his absence from her life. And I was interested in telling a story that takes place in a between-time—between high school and college, between first love and whatever comes next, between late adolescence and early adulthood—when you're figuring out where to live, what to study, what job will keep the roof over your head, who you can trust. And at any time, your answers may change. Battle's answers do.

You've won several awards for your YA books that explore sexuality, love, and friendship with honesty and complexity. Have you had the chance to talk with a lot of teens who have read your books? How have they received your stories?

I've gotten many heartfelt emails from both teens and non-teens that I'm honored to have received; from readers in love, from readers struggling after a breakup, from readers who told me they understood themselves a little better after reading one of my books.

Cover of a book shows an up-close photograph of two people who are standing next to each other with their hands intertwined. Behind their hands is what looks to be a grassy field, although it's not in focus. Below their hands is the title of the book: Empress of the World by Sara RyanEmpress of the World was recently reissued with an introduction from David Levithan! That's pretty exciting. And I hear there were a few other fun additions to the book, correct?

Yes! There are THREE short stories featuring characters from the book:

• the Eisner-nominated "Me and Edith Head," with art by Steve Lieber, about Katrina Lansdale, which takes place before Empress happens
• "Click," with art by Dylan Meconis, about Battle Hall Davies, which takes place between the events of Empress and The Rules for Hearts
•and the brand-new, never-before-published "Comparative Anatomy," with art by Natalie Nourigat, about Nicola Lancaster, which takes place after the events of both novels

Plus a Q&A with me, a recommended booklist, an exercise in musical archaeology wherein I construct a playlist based on my vague memories of what the heck I was listening to when I was writing Empress, and a preview of the companion book, The Rules for Hearts.

What are a few of your favorite YA books that explore identity and sexuality?

I have a lot of favorites! And I always hate the thought of leaving books out. So in lieu of going on and on and on I'll mention just a few that I've recently enjoyed: The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily Danforth, Being Emily by Rachel Gold, and Putting Makeup on the Fat Boy by Bil Wright.

Thanks for talking with us, Sara!

Will you be in Portland on Thursday, November 8th? Sara Ryan will be joining us, along with a few other educators and authors, to discuss identity and sexuality in YA lit for our Beyond Judy Blume community forum. This community forum will be at Portland State University's Smith Memorial Student Union at 7pm. Find out more about this forum, including info on panelists and discussion topics, on our events page.

Oregon Humanities logoThis program was made possible in part by a grant from Oregon Humanities (OH), a statewide nonprofit organization and an independent affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities, which funds OH's grant program. Any views, findings, and conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of Oregon Humanities or the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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