When Shannon Barron, the Children’s Section Manager of Carnegie Library’s main branch, introduced award-winning author Nicola Yoon, she said the greatest gift a librarian could be given was a room full a people excited about books. On Jan. 21, in the Carnegie Library Lecture Hall, there was a multi-generational room of readers excited about Yoon and the characters she has created. They were eager to hear about her writing process and ask questions about her celebrated novels, “Everything, Everything” and “The Sun is Also a Star.”
Starting from the beginning, math, led her astray, Yoon told the audience. Not because of its difficulty, but because in high school the author excelled at the subject. After her family immigrated from Jamaica to New York at the age of 11, her family was fairly poor. The experience left her yearning for security as a young adult and led her to obtain a degree in Electrical Engineering.
“One of the things about poverty is that it’s fairly destabilizing, so I graduated, all I wanted was a job where I could just pay my bills and have health care,” she said.
But Yoon had a saving grace at Cornell University, in the form of a graduation requirement.
“One of the great things about Cornell is your senior year you’re required to take an elective outside of your major,” she told the audience. “I decided to take creative writing because I thought it’d be easier than all the math classes.”
The class would be significant to Yoon for reasons beyond obtaining her degree.
“It turns out this class was really important to me. When I went into this class I was in love with this boy who didn’t love me back,” Yoon said. “Not even a little bit. It was completely unrequited love.”
Her then-unrequited love would lead her to write plays, poems, and short stories, most of which the writer laughingly said were not good. Yoon recalled the boy in question would never return her feelings, but by the end of her class, she was deeply in love with something else—writing.
“When I wrote I could not be shy. I could be anything I wanted. I could be anyone I wanted to be. I could remake the world to whatever I wanted it be and that’s a powerful thing,” she said.
However, she still felt that the life of a writer was too unpredictable, so Yoon went to work as a programmer. It paid well, but it made her miserable.
She continued writing and her love of words pulled at her. Enough to make her pursue a Master’s Degree in Creative Writing, but not enough for her to see writing as anything more than a hobby—until, Penny came along.
The image of Yoon’s now 5-year-old little girl’s dawning big smile filled the screen to a chorus of awes. Yoon had no problem saying in true mom fashion that she believed she had the “cutest child on the face of the earth.” Motherhood came with a great worry for Yoon, but it also came with an epiphany.
“She was 3 or 4 months old and I was holding her in my arms and I was thinking of all the things I was gonna tell her one day,” she recalled. “I was gonna tell her she could do anything she wanted. I’d tell her to be passionate and have dreams and follow them and I was not doing that.”
With that in mind, Yoon got to work, and after three years her debut novel “Everything, Everything” was born. The protagonist of the book Madeleine, Yoon said, is Black and Asian American because her own child shares the same descent. Yoon was a teenager before she saw herself in a book; she didn’t want that to be the case for Penny, who, the author happily reported, was thrilled when she met Amalda Stenberg, who portrayed Maddy in the recently-made film of the book. Penny said Maddy looked just like her.
Yoon shared her writing process, childhood anecdotes, and freely offered writing advice to any aspiring writers in the audience, encouraging them to fill up their blank pages imperfectly to let their “freak flags fly,” by embracing whatever made them different. After giving that advice, Yoon, a supporter of the organization We Need Diverse Books, discussed the importance of giving children diverse characters.
“If you never see a book where there’s someone who looks like you doing heroic things and having adventures, you start to think you can’t be that person. If you read books where everyone is always stereotyped you might think, ‘I’m supposed to be that stereotype,’” she said.
The author wants children to have mirrors to see themselves and windows to see those different from them in the books they read, because in her experience, books breed empathy.
“If you spend three or four-hundred pages in someone else’s life it’s hard for you to hate them,” Yoon observed. “You get to know someone else and you see their life and where they’re coming from. If we could get more of these books into the hands of people, we would be able to see the ways we are so much the same and it would bring us so much closer together.”
After the lecture Yoon answered questions from the audience about the characters she’s already written. The lecture seemed to be well-received by the Carnegie Lecture Hall audience, including mother-and-daughter Liz Arkush and Zora Burroughs.
“I thought it was really positive and I’d never thought of the books that way,” Burroughs, 11, said. “It was really nice. I feel like I understand her better and I know why she wrote the books and I feel more connected to them now.”
Friends Bonita Lee Penn and Cynthia Battle of the North Side attended the lecture as a birthday gift from Penn to Battle.
“I personally felt that what she talked about in terms of inclusion and seeing yourself in a book, came across in the book. She just wrote as if she had a story to tell,” Battle said. “After hearing her speak it just comes through that she’s one of these people who brings her experiences and imagination (into the story) and it’s not a stereotype.”
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