By Katherine Parker
The Norman Transcript
NORMAN — From digging up secrets from the past to making up secrets of their own, each award-winning young adult author described their creative processes and how it felt to tell stories that had been forgotten.
In cooperation with Random House, Brown Brothers Books, Penguin Publishers and Perma-Bound Books, authors Sonia Gensler, Gennifer Choldenko, Ruta Sepetys and Wendelin Van Draanen inspired students from Norman Public Schools and Moore Public Schools to take on the creative writing process during a fundraising event Monday night.
Each of the four guest authors are nationally acclaimed and celebrated by middle school and high school students for their young adult novels.
Gensler, who grew up in Tennessee, now lives in Norman and is the author of two suspense novels, “The Revenant” and “The Dark Between.” Gensler has won the Oklahoma Book Award and the Parent’s Choice Award. Gensler said when creating the main character of “The Revenant,” she wanted someone who had gumption and was unlike herself.
“I imagined the things I wished I had the courage to do at 17,” Gensler said.
Choldenko, of California, said her novels evolved from researching details and discovering secrets about Alcatraz. She said a lot of her characters came from stories she was told from prisoners who were incarcerated at Alcatraz or children who lived on Alcatraz Island.
Choldenko is the author of the trilogy “Al Capone Does My Shirts,” “Al Capone Shines My Shoes” and “Al Capone Does My Homework.”
“Al Capone Does My Shirts” has sold more than a million copies worldwide. Choldenko said the title and the book aren’t as far-fetched as they might seem and that Al Capone had worked in the laundry room while incarcerated at Alcatraz.
“I (chose) Al because he was the most well-known prisoner and the most colorful,” Choldenko said. “Bits and pieces of people’s stories help build my work.”
Sepetys said her family’s history in Lithuania inspired her novel “Between Shades of Gray.” Sepetys’ first novel has been published in more than 43 countries and 26 languages and is a New York Times bestseller.
“Between Shades of Gray” is a historical novel set during Joseph Stalin’s reign when about 20 million people were killed.
Sepetys said digging into secrets of the past was an emotional process. When asked if she ever wanted to give up while writing, Sepetys said yes.
“I wanted to give up several times, but I didn’t because of two reasons. I wanted to tell the story that all the Lithuanians I spoke with thought had been forgotten, and I knew the freedoms I enjoy as an American citizen were at the expense of my family,” Sepetys said.
Van Draanen said she never imagined that she would grow up to be an author, but life happened and fiction helped her move on from the trauma she experienced when her parents’ business was destroyed.
Van Draanen’s first book was published in 1997. Some of her most popular series are the Sammy Keyes Mysteries series and the Shedderman series.
Additionally, several of her books have been turned into TV shows and movies, including “Shedderman” and “Flipped.”
“I kept writing and getting rejected,” Van Draanen said. “But 10 years after rejection, I had success. So dream big, work hard and never give up.”
Although each author said they drew inspirations from various places, they agreed that students should put pen to paper and write.
“Don’t second-guess yourself. It’ll never be perfect. It’s better to get the emotion out to jumpstart your engine,” Van Draaneen said.
At the end of the lecture, students from Highland East Junior High, which was severely damaged in the May tornadoes, presented the authors with a token of appreciation.
Proceeds of books sold at the event will go to the Moore Public Schools’ tornado recovery efforts.