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Utah author Kiersten White joins 3 YA writers to show girls there is 'more than one way to be strong'

SALT LAKE CITY — For Utah native and best-selling young adult fantasy author Kiersten White, "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" was the first show she ever saw that took teenage girls seriously.

"It was about her being able to fight monsters and vampires," White said in a phone interview, "but it was also about her relationships with her friends and her mom and potential various love interests, and it very much leaned into the metaphor that high school is hell. I related so much to that and I think a lot of people really did. I think seeing this very small blonde teenager as a powerful figure was really impactful for so many people."

That's why White got excited when her editor invited her to write "Slayer" (Simon & Schuster, 416 page, ages 14 and up), the first book in a series that expands the "Buffyverse" beyond where the TV show ended 16 years ago.

White, who now resides in San Diego, will be returning to her home state in May for the King's English's Shelf Queens author event, featuring four authors whose books star fierce, strong young adult female protagonists: White, Jessica Brody, Nicki Pau Preto and Suzanne Young.

"One of the things I love about writing young adult is there is so much celebration of all the different ways to be strong," White said. "I think all of these books reflect that there's more than one way to be strong, but every girl can be strong."

"Slayer" is by Kiersten White.
"Slayer" is by Kiersten White.
Simon & Schuster

Kiersten White

White loves to joke that she's probably the only person in publishing who's gotten a book deal off a T-shirt. When she met her editor, Liesa Abrams, at Comic Con several years back, she was wearing a Sunnydale High School T-shirt, which was Buffy's high school. Abrams, a fan herself, recognized the reference and started talking to White about it, and that's how they got to know each other.

Years later, when Abrams got the rights to the "Buffy" project, White was the first person she thought of to write a young adult spinoff series.

"It pays to be open about what you love," White said.

White also published "Paranormalcy" back in 2010, a funny paranormal romance — "which there are not a lot of," White noted. She said the book is not Buffy fan fiction but is "definitely Buffy adjacent." So, "Slayer" was a return to writing playful, supernatural humor for White.

Though White first watched Joss Whedon's TV show "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" back in high school, she said she finds something new every time she revisits it. She particularly enjoys how Whedon's fresh, quirky writing still holds up today and said it has definitely influenced her as a storyteller.

With that background, she felt the pressure creating her own contribution to the Buffyverse.

"I knew there were so many people out there that already connected to these characters and the story and the world, and it already meant so much to them," she said. "I felt them looking over my shoulder as I was writing."

Though there are now graphic novels, comic books and a picture book out that reimagine Buffy for a new generation, White decided to keep her story within the established canon.

"Slayer" tells the story of Nina, living in the United Kingdom at a school for "watchers" — those who educate and train slayers. Since Buffy broke magic a few years back, the school has been pretty quiet. Nina, with little skill as a watcher, has been training in medicine instead while her twin sister, Artemis, has always been the favorite with her mom and their teachers.

Kiersten White is the author of "Slayer."
Kiersten White is the author of "Slayer."
Simon & Schuster

Then, an attack reveals that Nina is actually a slayer, but her mother has tried to keep it hidden from her all her life. As attacks increase around her home, Nina works to unravel the sinister plans that threaten those she cares about most and discover her true potential along the way.

White said it was fun to play with an already existing fantasy world that she didn't have to build from the ground up, but she also ran into issues developing a new story within it.

"It was definitely a challenge to find space to create something new in 20 years of storytelling," White said.

Between seven seasons of "Buffy," five seasons of the spinoff TV series "Angel" and numerous continuations in graphic novels produced and partially written by Whedon as well, White had to come up with a story none of these media had already covered — and not repeat any of the names used in them either. She took on the challenge by more fully exploring the world of the watchers and bringing in a new millennial slayer for 2019.

The second book in the "Slayer" series, "Chosen," will be released early next year, and White said she hopes it will help bring new fans to the Buffyverse.

Since White's generation has grown up and become parents, she has found that a lot of teenagers today are still familiar with "Buffy" — because their parents have indoctrinated them. Things like Netflix and Hulu make watching old shows possible, and White said there's even talk of a reboot.

"I want them to do it," she said. "I think it's the right time to tell another story about a teenage girl who's the most powerful force in the universe, because I feel like teenage girls are. So much media makes fun of teenage girls. I love media that celebrates them and says, 'You know what, you can do anything.'"

Jessica Brody

While sitting in a retelling workshop in 2014, young adult author Jessica Brody had the idea for a "Les Miserables" retelling set in space. But, it wasn't until two years later while having dinner with one of her best friends, writer Joanne Rendell, that she brought up actually writing the book. Rendell has a Ph.D. in literature and expressed that "Les Miserables" is one of her favorite novels.

Jessica Brody is the co-author of "Sky Without Stars."
Jessica Brody is the co-author of "Sky Without Stars."
Simon & Schuster

"A second later, without warning, out of my mouth flew the words, 'Do you want to write a retelling of it with me set in space?'" Brody wrote in an email. "And a second after that, without warning, out of her mouth flew the words, 'I would love to!'"

Thus was born "Sky Without Stars" (Simon & Schuster, 592 page, ages 12 and up). Brody and Rendell decided to focus their retelling from the young adult characters' points of view, namely Cosette, Marius and Eponine, retold as Alouette, Marcellus and Chatine. The three live on the planet Laterre 500 years after it was first colonized, and revolution is brewing among the starving lower class. Though strangers at first, the guardian, officer and thief will come together to shape the future of their planet.

"With Joanne's knowledge of classic literature and my background in writing young adult, it was a perfect pairing," Brody wrote. "And we had such a blast writing it together."

Brody said despite living 3,000 miles apart on different ends of the country, between Skype and Slack she and Rendell were able to work together through every snag in the writing process.

"Jo and I joke that writing this series is like being paid to play dolls," Brody wrote. "Plus, there's always someone to celebrate the victories with and lament about the struggles with."

Rendell will not be at the Shelf Queens event with Brody, but the sequel to "Sky Without Stars" is scheduled to release in the spring of 2020.

Nicki Pau Preto

Nicki Pau Preto is the author of "Crown of Feathers."
Nicki Pau Preto is the author of "Crown of Feathers."
Simon & Schuster

After 10 years of work, Nicki Pau Preto finally saw her debut novel "Crown of Feathers" (Simon & Schuster, 496 pages, ages 12 and up) hit shelves this February. Her journey was a long one, she said, encompassing three novels and two agents before she finally landed a book deal.

"It helped me realize how much I wanted to be a writer, since I was willing to go through it," Pau Preto wrote in an email.

Her idea for "Crown of Feathers" was a convergence of her favorite "girl dressed as a boy" trope and the upswing in dragon popularity with "Game of Thrones," which soon morphed into phoenixes in Pau Preto's imagination.

The book tells the story of Veronyka, a war orphan who is betrayed by her sister and runs off to disguise herself as a boy and join the legendary Phoenix Riders. But her sister returns to destroy everything Veronyka has worked for and soon their empire is out to destroy the Riders once and for all.

Pau Preto said the main theme of "Crown of Feathers" is family legacy. Veronkya is trying to live up to hers, discovering how to do it in her own way and find a feeling of belonging in the world.

With a background in art history and visual storytelling, Pau Preto brought these cultural aspects to world building in her fantasy novel.

"I love inventing places, cultures and the corresponding media that goes with it — architecture, stories and myths and religions, plus statues and paintings and other cultural relics that we use in our world to better understand the past," she wrote.

Suzanne Young

At first, Suzanne Young's newest book "Girls With Sharp Sticks" (Simon and Schuster, 400 pages, ages 14 and up) was going to be about a boarding school with a dark secret. Then, as news stories continued to break about abusive men in the public sphere, Young realized she needed to portray in her novel the destruction of the systems that support abusive men.

"Crown of Feathers" is by Nicki Pau Preto.
"Crown of Feathers" is by Nicki Pau Preto.
Simon & Schuster

Her goal is for the young adult girls who read "Girls With Sharp Sticks" to come away seeing how powerful girls can be together. It tells the story of Innovations Academy, a school where beautiful, well-behaved girls are watched over by their Guardian. But the main character Mena and her friends soon discover there are dark secrets behind the academy. As they uncover who they really are, they will learn to fight back.

"I want girls especially to feel that power and use it to change society, making it more equal and fair for everyone," Young wrote in an email. "No more being told to smile or behave or be best. I want them to fight to make a difference."

She said she was particularly inspired by the girls of the USA Olympic gymnastics team who spoke out about team doctor Larry Nassar, who was convicted in 2018 of sexually abusing female athletes throughout his career.

"They faced down their abuser in court and fought back against an entire system that failed them," Young wrote. "Together, those girls became a force. I wanted to show in my book that the girls of Innovations Academy could band together and take on anything. Together, they'll be unstoppable."

If you go …

What: Shelf Queens author panel

When: Thursday, May 2, 7 p.m.

Where: The King's English, 1511 S. 1500 East


Note: Places in the signing line are reserved for those who purchase a copy of any of the featured books from The King's English.