SALT LAKE CITY — Utah author Shannon Hale’s new young adult book is a bookstore’s shelving nightmare.
That’s because it’s a romantic comedy, musical, fantasy, contemporary with a graphic novel section.
“Kind of a Big Deal” (Macmillan, 400 pages, ages 12 and up) was released Aug. 25 and is Hale’s first young adult novel in five years. She debuted in young adult with “Goose Girl” in 2005. Now, her repertoire includes adult romantic comedies such as “Austenland” — which was made into a major motion picture in 2013 — middle grade novels including the Newbery Honor recipient “Princess Academy,” picture books, graphic novels and Marvel adaptations. Her range is tremendous, and she shows it off in this newest book.
“Kind of a Big Deal” stars Josie Pye, who was the queen of high school. But after dropping out to take on Broadway, she failed hard and ended up nannying a little girl in Montana, not knowing what her next move should be. When a spontaneous purchase from a bookstore ends up sucking her into the story (literally), she risks losing herself in the fantasy world of books instead of facing up to her life, her relationships and who she wants to become.
The first spark of inspiration for this story came many years ago when Hale’s now teenage son was a toddler and while on a walk he pulled her hand toward a weedy, abandoned lot.
“He did it with such determination, like he knew where he was going,” Hale told me in an interview. “Being a writer, I couldn’t help but immediately start making up a reason for this.”
She had a book in her purse, so she imagined when they got to their destination they would be magically transported into whatever book they had on them.
Hale didn’t sit down to write the story until she reached a point in her publishing journey where she needed a break, but found it impossible to stop writing entirely. Instead, she decided to write the story that became “Kind of a Big Deal” as a screenplay.
“I thought I would write something that could never sell so it would be low pressure,” she said. “So I thought, ‘I’ll write a screenplay,’ since those are impossible to sell.”
Once she’d written it, Hale decided she liked the story enough to turn it into an adult novel. But even with her successful track record at that point, she couldn’t get any agents to take the novel on in that iteration.
“Everybody wants a book that’s already been proven, that has a market premade for it,” she said. “When you look at adult books in the bookstore, they are classified down into micro categories. (Publishers) just didn’t know what to do with this book. It wasn’t clearly one thing. They want it to be a fantasy or a comedy or a romance.”
Hale eventually decided to change the book entirely to fit into the young adult category.
“It’s not as simple as changing the age and a few details,” she said. “It changed in every sense … (and it) resonated through the whole story.”
Hale said it’s harder to change a book this drastically rather than writing an entirely new one, in the same way it can cost more to renovate a house instead of knocking it down and starting over. But, she’s found that younger readers are more accepting of genre-bending.
“Younger readers will go with you anywhere,” she said. “But by the time we get to be adults we’ve lost our imaginations. Our brains harden and stiffen like pinatas. It’s very sad.”
She admits the genre-meshing in “Kind of a Big Deal” asks a lot of the reader to be able to let go of expectations and “go for a ride.”
The mixture of genres is part of what Hale has always liked most about this book, she said, and what kept her coming back to it over the course of more than a decade and many other writing projects.
“I don’t know what it is with me. If it’s not a challenge, then I feel like I’m cheating somehow,” she said. “Also I get bored easily, so I’ve written in over a dozen different genres. I like playing with, exploring and combining different genres and seeing what I can come up with. This book has so much of that.”
She also enjoyed being able to poke fun at the genre tropes of the books Josie falls into—from zombie apocalypse novels to romance to young adult.
“My goal with comedy is always to laugh at the thing while loving the thing,” Hale said.
She gave the example of “Austenland.” Hale said she loves Jane Austen books and movies, but also recognizes how ridiculous it is that Austen fans are so obsessed with fictional characters in a period of time that was not great for women and didn’t have indoor plumbing. She tried to capture that loving and mocking spirit in the genres she showcased in “Kind of a Big Deal.”
Hale also pulled from some of her life experiences in creating the character of Josie, especially related to her love of theater.
“I can say with much confidence that I was not a big deal in high school,” Hale said. “I am not a singer and nobody saw me on stage and went, ‘That girl’s going to be something,’ but I did grow up doing theater. … It was my happy space. It was where I made most of my really close friends, so I always wanted to write a book about a theater kid and really infuse my love of theater.”
Hale even met her husband doing theater in high school, similar to Josie and her high school boyfriend.
Another aspect of “Kind of a Big Deal” that breaks out of established categories in books is Josie’s stage of life. Generally, young adult books are about high schoolers and adult books are about adults past college age. This leaves the years immediately after high school pretty neglected in most popular literature.
“I think it is really a fascinating age,” Hale said. “Where suddenly you’re like, ‘ready, set, you’re an adult. What am I supposed to do now?’ I think it’s exciting and fun and it’s also scary and daunting. It’s great for storytelling because (young adults) are trying to get their feet under them and figure out who they are and where their place is in the larger world.”
Her goal was to show how there are a lot of possibilities at that time of life, and that young adults don’t have to decide everything right away.
As for what’s coming next, Hale and her husband, Dean, have the eighth “Princess in Black” book scheduled to release next fall. A few other projects have yet to be announced, especially with all the uncertainty coming from COVID-19.
“It’s hard to write in quarantine with four kids at home,” Hale admitted.
But pandemic or not, “Kind of a Big Deal” is finally out in the world after more than 10 years and more iterations than Hale has ever done on a book before, she said.
“It took many years of work,” she said. “But I finally have a book that I’m proud of.”