Author Ann Brashares became a young adult superstar more than a decade ago with the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, a feel-good series of books about the adventures of four best friends and a really great pair of jeans. It was eventually made into a couple of movies.
Brashares' new book, The Here and Now, ventures into unfamiliar territory for her: a dystopian future of "blood plagues" and time travel. Now, dystopian future tales aren't actually all that unfamiliar to YA readers, who've been gobbling down things like the Hunger Games and Divergent for years — but Brashares says she's not really following the trends: "I tend to be not all that tuned in," she says.
And she has done something a little different with the genre: The Here and Now takes a young girl from a terrible future and transplants her to present-day upstate New York, via time travel.
17-year-old Prenna James and her whole community have escaped a world that's been all but wiped out by "blood plagues," deadly mosquito-borne diseases. Now, they're hiding in plain sight, forbidden to mix too closely with the locals — and wrangling over whether they ought to try to change their terrible future, or just stay safely in the past. And Prenna's falling in love — forbidden love — with a present-day boy.
Such a complex storyline poses a problem for a writer who's never stepped into a time machine before. "You have to figure out your own rules, I guess, for time travel. You have to decide how you're going to handle the paradoxes, how you're going to handle the changes that people make, whether time will even allow it," she says. "And I spent a lot of time with this book with my head in my hands, sitting at my desk, trying to keep things straight."
But even as she was mapping out criss-crossing future timelines, Brashares was also drawing inspiration for her central romance from classic YA: Bette Green's 1973 novel Summer of My German Soldier, about a friendship between a young Jewish girl and an escaped German POW. "The premise of a person with an incredible history, with kind of a haunted memory, with stories to tell, with secrets to keep, and even a certain amount of shame, put in the life of a fairly ordinary suburban American teenager. I kind of liked that feeling."
Brashares got her start in YA as part of a relatively modern phenomenon — she was an editor at 17th Street Productions, a book packaging company.
Book packagers "work as a team to generate ideas for series that they think will be really appealing to teenagers," says librarian and children's literature lover Margaret Willison. She says today's book packagers are broadly similar to — for example — the syndicate that produced the Nancy Drew books, but their reach is much broader.
"The idea that these are going to be media franchises, they're gonna be books, they're gonna be television shows, they're gonna be movies, they're gonna be spinoffs is much more baked in, right from the outset than you've seen with earlier iterations of this model."
17th Street eventually became Alloy Entertainment, a packaging behemoth that's responsible for — among other things — the first few Sisterhood books, along with series like Gossip Girl, the Vampire Diaries and Pretty Little Liars that tend to get the side-eye from literary critics.
But Willison says it doesn't matter whether you're reading about magic pants or teenaged vampires. "What's important about that kind of reading is it's habit-forming."
When a kid picks up a YA novel and reads for fun, that's the beginning of a life-long habit of reading. And YA, in particular, can speak to kids in their own language. "It's about that time in life, through the eyes of people who are in that part of their life," Brashares says.
And what a fascinating time it is. "You're probably independent for the first time, you're making decisions, you're making mistakes, you're falling in love, there's such intensity there. And you're laying the blueprint for your life."
The modern American teenager, it seems, can be a powerful muse.