Here at the Center, we've all been passing around The Leaving by Tara Altebrando and raving about how creative and haunting it is. The Leaving is the perfect book to get readers engrossed in a book and desperate to turn the next page. The book tells the story of six kindergarteners who go missing without a trace, only to return years later. Only five of the now sixteen-year olds return and they have no knowledge of where they have been or what has happened to the remaining victim.
Tara Altebrando is the author of several YA and middle grades novels and The Leaving is her latest release. CCYAL graduate student, Sara Walters interviewed Tara about her writing style and methods and how she feels about YA's accesibility for readers of all ages.
Sara Walters: You've mentioned that the initial idea for THE LEAVING came from your daughter. How did it evolve from there? Did you have a clear idea of how the mystery would unfold before you wrote it, or did it unravel organically as you wrote?
Tara Altebrando: Yes, my daughter told me she was "going on a trip to the leaving" one night when she was five. And that "the man at the playground" had told her so. It was such a terrifying thing to hear, even though it was just her imagination hard at work. So I became obsessed with this question of "the leaving." What was it? How long would my daughter be gone? Why was she told ahead of time? The creative wheels started spinning.
I knew pretty early on that I wanted a group of kids to be taken together—the phrase "the leaving" sort of implied that to me—and then because I mostly think in terms of the YA world, I wanted them to come back as teens. But I honestly had no idea where they'd been. So I spent years brainstorming, even asking friends and family for ideas, before I decided which way I wanted to take it . Even then, it was a bit of a leap that it would come together. I've realized that this sort of leap is pretty much part of my process though in case of The Leaving there were definitely some unanswered questions that lingered longer than I wanted them to.
SW: While the story in THE LEAVING is engaging and rich all on its own, you took things to another level with your beautiful and innovative prose. Tell us a little bit about the creative choices you made in this book--from playing with formatting and incorporating images, to using intricately crafted language and imagery.
TA: I think it's important in novels for the style to match or, ideally, elevate the story in some significant way. In this case, I wanted the reader to experience the disconnect of these returned teens who can't remember where they've been for eleven years. I set out to mimic how they're struggling to process everything around them, and how memories come at them in flashes. My editor encouraged me to push the envelope on that once I told her what I was thinking, so we set out to have the chapters from each of the three narrators feel really different and even LOOK different. That's how we ended up with black blocks of text for one narrator and words that fall of the page or circle in on themselves for another.
SW: I can't lie--I Googled "David Orlean" because I so desperately wanted that "The Leaving" to exist! Other notable YA authors, like John Green, have also created fictional books to use as devices in their narratives, and fans often wish for more material from these books. Have you ever thought about writing more about Orlean's THE LEAVING? Do you, personally, know any more details about that book that didn't make it into your story?
TA: I'm a huge fan of the book within the book trope! David Orlean's The Leaving was very much inspired by the books I remember happening upon in my house or at my grandparents' home when I was young—weird books like Lost Horizon and The Motel of Mysteries and Chariots of the Gods—all of which blurred the line between fact and fiction, or at least that's how I perceived them as a child. I don't have plans to do any more work on the Orlean book but you never know! I had, at one point, thought it would be neat to have the cover art of The Leaving (mine) be the cover art of the other Leaving, but then we went another way.
SW: You seem to be a big supporter of the value YA lit has for readers of any age. That's something we value here at the Center for Children's and Young Adult Literature, as well! Some of our doctoral students are even centering their research work around adults who read YA, and what compels them to do so. What do you think it is about YA that makes it so universally engaging and accessible? What draws you, personally, to write literature for young people?
TA: We were all teenagers once. We all (mostly) went to high school and we all experienced first crushes and heartbreaks and losses and the uncertainty of learning how to process the world around us as we enter adulthood. For most people, it's a hugely important time in terms of defining who you are. So I think the main reason YA is so engaging to adults is because--ha ha, the joke's on us--we're all still doing that. We're all still figuring out who we are. What kind of parent or spouse or friend or person are you going to be? It's all still in flux.
I'm drawn to writing YA because the genre allows you to explore pretty much every aspect of life through this endlessly interesting teen lens. The Leaving was actually inspired, in large part, but a sort of midlife crisis I had when both of my children reached school age and I felt like their childhood was just going to be one long slog that I wished we could somehow skip. (Just don't tell any of my teen readers that!) The point is, adult readers of YA don't always have the same takeaway as a teen reader and it's really interesting to me to try to write stories that are going to be about young adults, of course, but also about their families, their communities and, well, the human condition. I wrote two "adult" novels before turning to YA and each of those novels had teens at its center anyway. So for me, I think it was simply meant to be.
The Center for Children's and Young Adult Literature would like to thank Tara Altebrando for taking the time to interview with Sara and for sharing her insight and ideas!