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UNC students, alumni contribute to young adult literature

Marianne Gingher author photo full.jpg

Photo courtesy of Marianne Gingher.

When UNC junior Victoria Wlosok published her debut novel in 2023, she joined a roster of UNC alumni who have found success in the young adult book market, from Sarah Dessen to Tracy Deonn to Jenny Han.

Several of these authors are graduates of the UNC English department, which currently has an intermediate level class called English 210: Writing Young Adult Literature that counts toward the creative writing fiction track.

Rio Janisch, a UNC junior who is majoring in English and Comparative Literature and is currently writing a young adult novel, said the amount of successful authors who are graduates of the school is encouraging. 

“Literally when I decided I was going to UNC, I picked up 'Legendborn' by Tracy Deonn and I read it,” Janisch said.  "It was kind of cool going ‘Wow, I’m going to be on campus in a little bit!"

UNC alumna and New York Times bestselling author Sarah Dessen said she began writing young adult before it became an established demographic.

“I think at the time that I was at UNC, a lot of the professors, they and I didn't even realize that I was writing young adult,” Dessen said. "I just thought I was writing stories about high school."

Dessen is a Chapel Hill native whose novels often feature a setting similar to where she lives, which she said is a result of her writing what she knows — and she has known Chapel Hill in various stages as both a student and a professor in the English department. 

She became a professor after now-retired English professor Marianne Gingher attended her book reading at the student bookstore — then called Bull's Head Bookshop. Gingher immediately went to the department head and insisted on hiring her. 

Gingher said she was originally against teaching anything other than literary fiction, but over time her opinion changed. She said she used to pass out questionnaires where students could tell her the authors they liked and disliked, and over the years found more and more students listing young adult, fantasy or science fiction writers.

“You know, Sarah Dessen’s name would pop up all the time, or Jenny Han’s name would pop up all the time,” Gingher said."And I do think students were attracted to come to Carolina because they knew that’s where some of the writers they admired lived."

Gingher said one of the biggest champions for young adult literature in the English department was reference librarian Ruth Moose, who also taught a children’s literature class.

Moose began teaching the class without knowing if people would be interested, she said, but it had a waitlist in the first semester.

She said that one of her most successful students was New York Times bestselling author Jenny Han, who not only took her class, but won the William H. Hooks Award for Children's Literature, a prize for student work in the department.

The story Han wrote in Moose's class eventually became her first published novel in 2006, "Shug." 

In the final book of Jenny Han’s popular trilogy, "To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before", she makes a nod to her alma mater when protagonist Lara Jean takes a last minute road trip to visit UNC-Chapel Hill and decides to attend after seeing the campus, a scene that high school readers could see themselves in.

Information and library science graduate student Lauren Crowe said that young adult literature allows teens to escape into stories that they enjoy and that represent their experiences, because young adult life can be difficult.

“Children’s literature, to me, is more important than Shakespeare,” Moose said.

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@dthlifestyle | lifestyle@dailytarheel.com

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