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Originally published Friday, April 30, 2010 at 7:03 PM

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Kids' books: 'Will Grayson, Will Grayson' packs 1-2 punch for teens

Authors John Gree and David Levithan team up to write a novel about two teens navigating life and love during one crucial high-school year.

Scripps Howard News Service

When author/editor David Levithan read "Looking For Alaska," a first novel by John Green, he was so entranced that he fired off an immediate e-mail to Green.

Receiving the e-mail, Green couldn't believe his luck, as Levithan was one of his favorite writers.

The two eventually met, and thus was born a great friendship between two of today's top authors for teens. Now, five years after they first met, that friendship has produced a brilliant new teen novel, "Will Grayson, Will Grayson" (Dutton, $17.99, ages 14 up).

Featuring alternating chapters written by Green and Levithan, the book follows two main characters — each named Will Grayson and living in the Chicago area — as they try to navigate life and love during one crucial high-school year. Green's Will Grayson is straight, and Levithan's is gay, but the characters' sexuality is only one of many aspects explored in this entertaining, profane and incredibly thought-provoking novel.

In deciding to collaborate on the book, Green and Levithan agreed on a few basic ideas. First, there was the characters' name: Levithan chose the first name, Green chose the second. Then there was the idea that the characters would meet at some point in the story, providing a key plot twist and a connection that would ultimately change the lives of both Will Graysons.

Green and Levithan each wrote three chapters separately about their own Will Grayson before meeting to read each other's work. Because Green's wife, Sarah, was present when they handed over the chapters, they decided instead to read them out loud to each other so Sarah could enjoy them as well.

"When we heard each other's first chapters, we knew we were building in the same direction,"Green said in a recent telephone interview from his Indianapolis home.

Interviewed by telephone from his New York City home, Levithan agreed that "we knew immediately it was going to work."

Levithan, who works by day as executive editorial director at the Scholastic publishing house, had collaborated with other authors on teen novels, most notably with Rachel Cohn on "Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist." He has also written frequently about gay teen characters.

"I loved collaborating and wanted to do more of it," Levithan said.

Although Green hasn't written a novel with another person, he and his brother have worked together on a video blog project called "Brotherhood 2.0."

"So I was used to the give-and-take of collaboration," he said.

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While their stories meshed well to create the novel, Green's and Levithan's distinctly different styles come through in their Will Graysons. Green's Will Grayson just tries to keep himself together and out of emotional trouble by following two rules: "1. Don't care too much. 2. Shut up."

Levithan's Will Grayson, meanwhile, is a hugely angry teen whose low self-esteem is reflected in the fact that Levithan uses only lower-case letters in his chapters.

While they may not understand it, both Will Graysons are desperate for love and acceptance even as they struggle to figure out who they are. For example, Levithan's Will Grayson strikes up an online relationship that becomes the most vital part of his life for a time, but, as Levithan says: "That virtual relationship is a paper-thin cover for the longing and desire for a real relationship."

But romantic love isn't the only important relationship in "Will Grayson, Will Grayson,"Green notes. Friendship also plays a fundamental part.

"Romantic love has become so worshipped in our culture, with the idea that you can't be happy or complete without it. That's such a terrible lie," Green said. The importance of love between friends, for example, is highlighted by the relationship between Green's Will Grayson and best friend Tiny Cooper, a relationship that also ends up having a major effect on Levithan's Will Grayson.

In fact, Tiny Cooper's presence is so overwhelming that he threatens sometimes to steal the show from the two Wills. Here's how Green introduces him:

"Tiny Cooper is not the world's gayest person, and he is not the world's largest person, but I believe he may be the world's largest person who is really, really gay, and also the world's gayest person who is really, really large."

Green says that he's "grateful for the gift of Tiny Cooper. ... Tiny's my character, but I thought that David handled him brilliantly."

For his part, Levithan notes that Tiny "ironically gets to be the straight guy, in the Burns and Allen comedy sense. He's got it, while the two Wills are flailing wildly about."

Both Green and Levithan now are working on other projects, although they don't discount a future collaboration. But both emphasize that they're committed to continuing to write for teens.

"It's such a wonderful time of transition," Green said.

Karen MacPherson, the children's/teen librarian at the Takoma Park, Md., Library, can be reached at Kam.Macpherson@gmail.com.

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