Ep 41: Choosing Great Teen Fiction Books

Episode Summary

Brandon Mull, author of 15 New York Times Bestsellers, discusses what makes good teen fiction books. He also shares what he’s learned about how to get teens reading for fun while giving thousands of free lectures in schools around the country.

Show NotesParenting ScriptsWorkbook ExercisesInterview TranscriptGuest Bio

Full Show Notes

Teen fiction books can change a kid’s life when they come at just the right time. Brandon Mull wasn’t much of a reader, he told me, until he read Narnia as a kid and was pulled in by the vast imagination of that story. That book was a turning point in his life that started him on the path of becoming a reader.

If you can get your teen reading the right kinds of teen fiction books it can inspire your teen or motivate them to start reading more and more. But if you buy your teen the wrong kinds of teen fiction books they could lose interest in reading altogether.

During our interview, we talked about how to pick the right kinds of fiction books for your teen.

Brandon spends four months out of every year traveling around the country doing free assemblies at schools about reading and literacy. Over the years he’s talked to thousands and thousands of kids. When it comes to teen fiction books, Brandon says that he’s found the fantasy genre has the broadest overall appeal for kids in this age group.

After writing an incredible 15 New York Times Bestsellers himself, Brandon knows what he’s talking about.

Fantasy is a broad genre of teen fiction books that could include werewolves, vampires, magic, dragons, elves, goblins, and fairies. But the reason these books appeal so well to kids is that they often feature a young protagonist who is able to outsmart the adults and overcome amazing obstacles. Teens love this because this is how all teenagers want to see themselves.

So if you have a teen who isn’t reading much and you want to get them reading more, try a fantasy book with a protagonist who is a similar age to your teen.

Teen Fiction Books Enhance the Imagination

Brandon encourages kids to think about teen fiction books as kind of like weight lifting for your imagination. When you read a book and have to picture the whole scene unfolding in your head, it’s like a work out for your creativity. Doing this every day will sculpt a more creative brain.

If your teen is on the fence about teen fiction books, Brandon recommends asking if they have ever read a book and then seen the movie and been disappointed because the book was better in their head while they were reading it. Nearly everyone has had this experience and it proves that your imagination can be better than a famous Hollywood director with a multi-million dollar budget.

Once your teen realizes this, they’ll see that it would be a crime not to use the theater of their own imagination more often by reading teen fiction books and other novels that stretch their creativity.

In this episode, Brandon covers all of these ideas and more in depth. He breaks down exactly what you can say to a teenager who isn’t reading very much and how you can promote the pleasures of reading for fun.

Parenting Scripts

Word-for-word examples of what to say to your teen

1.  When your teen is worried they aren’t creative:

“There’s sort of an American Idol syndrome. It’s like you can’t just sing for fun. You’ve got to be radio ready or else you shouldn’t sing. And I think that’s a disservice because it’s fun to just be goofy and sing even if you’re not the best. Just like it can be fun to draw or do art or express yourself creatively in ways that you may not be an expert at.”

-Brandon Mull

2.  Inspire teens to do more reading:

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3.  For teenagers who are doubting the capacity of their mind:

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4.  When your teen questions the importance of reading:

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Workbook Exercises

Step-by-step guides for applying the ideas from this interview

1.  Encourage Teens to Keep Being Creative:

As kids mature into teens, they often stop doing many of the creative hobbies they might have enjoyed as kids. Brandon told me that when he does workshops at schools he often asks the kids if they like to doodle. In elementary school the kids all raise their hands but by the time they get to high school, very few hands go up. Brandon says this is because high schoolers are more likely to judge themselves as not being “good” at something so they stop doing it. What are some activities your teen used to enjoy as a kid but doesn’t do much anymore? Write down as many as you can think of in 3 minutes. Choose one and encourage your teen to get back to it.

Complete Interview Transcript

Andy: I have read a copy of this book here, Wrath of the Dragon King.

Brandon: Oh, yeah. The newest one.

Andy: Yeah, yeah. So that was fun. Then I’ve also been told that you’re a big advocate into literacy.

Brandon: For sure, yes. It’s the doing-some-good part of my job.

Andy: Okay. All right. So can we talk a little bit just about this? This is the Fablehaven series, but you’ve been doing this for a while. How does this fit into the course of your writing career here?

Brandon: Well, my writing career started with Fablehaven. Fablehaven is a five book series about a brother and sister who discovered their grandparents are the caretakers of the secret wildlife park for magical creatures.

Andy: Right.

Brandon: I wrote that from 2006 to 2010. It was a five book series, I was writing a book a year. After I finished it, some years later, I saw an opportunity to return to that same story world and those same main characters, and create a whole new adventure for them, which will be the five Dragonwatch books.

Andy: Okay. I got you.

Brandon: As I toured the country sharing my books with people, one of the main things I try to do is get kids reading and creating. The primary way I do that is through assemblies. I visited over 2,000 schools around the country and sometimes around the world.

Andy: Wow, that is cool.

Brandon: I kind of work like a cheerleader for reading and literacy, and stuff.

Andy: Okay. Are we talking about elementary schools, public schools, or how do you set all this up?

Brandon: Upper grade elementary is the most frequent.

Andy: Yeah, okay.

Brandon: Next would be middle school, and next would be high school. I had to visit all those schools. Probably 95% of the visits I do, are at no cost. Occasionally a big private school, or a public school with some great funding, or an international school, will book me to come for an extended period of time and teach workshops. That’s usually when I’m getting paid. But otherwise it’s tends to be when I’m out on a book tour and those visits are all free. I’ve been touring for my books for the past 13 years or so. Probably averaging about four months a year on tour, which is-

Andy: Wow.

Brandon: … way more than most authors. It’s an uncommon amount of school visits I’ve done.

Andy: That’s really cool though. I would be interested in a few things, like what you’ve noticed the differences are. You must change your presentation when you go to high schools, versus going to middle schools, versus going to elementary schools? I wonder what you focus on and what have you found are things that resonate with teenagers about literacy?

Brandon: That’s a great question. I talk about the same principles, no matter where I go, but it’s all about how I talk about those principles that changes. When I’m talking to an older audience or a younger audience. High school, I try to do a feel that’s more almost like career day. Like a window into what it’s like being a writer. That’s more interesting, I think, to them than me just saying, “Reading’s fun” or whatever.

Andy: Yeah. Yeah. It’s something like aspirational. We just had David Allen on the show recently, who’s this big productivity guy. He started this thing called Getting Things Done. That’s all about creating these lists and getting things out of your head and onto paper. But one thing he said that I thought was really cool, was that, “Hey, these lists are like buffets, it’s like the more stuff you can get written down, then the more options you have.” Just how important it is at this age to have more options. That’s kind of cool, to go in and show them what you do, and this option.

Brandon: For sure I think the older high school kids, they want anecdotes and stories. They want you to be very real and very human with them. As you do that, that tends to make them open up and listen a little more. Then I still talk about, some of the core principles I talk about is that, as we read for fun, that inherently makes our imaginations more powerful. That process of visualizing a story and engaging with the story in that way. I talk about that from elementary to middle to high school, but the way I talk about it varies. In high school I talk about how life gets really busy. You stop reading for fun, because you’ve got so many activities. Or you stop maybe doing your creative hobbies. Creative hobbies that you might’ve loved as an elementary school kid, or a middle school kid. It starts to start to fade often in high school.

Brandon: One simple experiment that’s amazing is, I’ll often ask the kids about what they do for fun. When I say, “Who likes to draw or doodle?” in upper grade elementary. It’s like 80% of their hands go up.

Andy: Ah, yeah.

Brandon: If you take that to middle school, it’s like 40% of their hands. If you take it to high school, it’s like 10% of their hands. One of my theories is that by the time you get to high school, people realize if they have a real talent there or not, and so they don’t want to say it unless they feel they have a real talent there.

Andy: Yeah, it’s like that they’re not good at it or something. So we start to judge ourselves that, “Oh, I shouldn’t really be making a big deal about that thing, because I’m not really that good at it.”

Brandon: Yeah, sort of like an American idol syndrome.

Andy: Yeah.

Brandon: As if you can’t just sing for fun. You got to be like radio ready or you shouldn’t sing. I think that’s a disservice of course, to everybody, because it’s just fun to sing. Just to be goofy and sing, even if you’re not the best. Just like it can be fun to draw, or to do art, or to express yourself creatively in ways that you may not be an expert at.

Andy: How do we raise kids that are a little more fearless? Because it’s hard, right? We don’t want them doing fearless in reckless ways. But creatively, we do want them to take risks.

Brandon: Yes.

Andy: How do we encourage them to take the right kind of risks?

Brandon: I think it’s a great thought. I’m trying to keep reading-for-fun alive.

Andy: Yeah.

Brandon: So one of the things I’ll do is just try to make a logical case for it, kind of. One of the things I’ll say is, “Have you ever read a story, and seen that story like a movie in your head?” Then gone to the movie theater to see the movie someone made of that story, and been disappointed. They will say, almost everybody by the time they’re in high school, is “Yeah, that’s happened to me.”

Andy: Yeah, totally. You’re right.

Brandon: As long as they are literate-

Andy: As long as they’ve read at least 10 books. I seen a few-

Brandon: Yeah, as long as they’ve read something, right? Or can read. Most people have had that experience. Then you take that experience and take it one more step and explain that once you can recognize that sometimes the story is better in your own head, you’re having the empowering realization that your own imagination can create a better story sometimes, than a famous Hollywood director with an enormous budget.

Andy: Right, than a $200 million movie.

Brandon: As you make that realization, hopefully the connection that follows is, “Oh yeah, I should be reading for fun, or I’m missing out on using the theater of my mind, to make cooler stuff than directors are trying to throw at me.”

Andy: Mm-hmm (affirmative)

Brandon: I try to teach or suggest that reading rewards you for being smart. Rewards you for being creative, as you visualize the story in your own way. Some of those ideas can be empowering and I think have helped flip some reluctant readers into readers.

Andy: Do you think that it’s a more of an uphill battle today getting kids to read? I mean, because you’re competing with the cell phones and the Internet and the social media. It was hard for me to find time to read when I was a kid. I didn’t have all that to compete with.

Brandon: Right.

Andy: I wonder how kids today are going to find time to take even a half hour a day or whatever. Just put everything on mute and sit there with a book.

Brandon: I’ve been doing this 13 years professionally and all of that is post-Harry Potter. Right?

Andy: Ah.

Brandon: I fit in that category. I fit very comfortably in the Harry Potter category, probably more comfortably than most other authors. My stories feature young main characters, but they’re smart and twisty at kind of an adult level. The world building is at an adult level.

Andy: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Brandon: Though the young main characters keep it accessible for kids. I’m not going out of my way to use difficult language, but I still use pretty rich language.

Andy: Sure. Yeah.

Brandon: Which is all defining that Harry Potter category. And because it fits in that category, I’ve always had a fairly easy time getting people to pick up my books. It’s why my publisher tours me so much. I mean, they pay for that touring, right?

Andy: Yeah, right.

Brandon: They’re touring me four months out of the year, because I’m successful at getting the people I talk to, to pick up the book. One of the most frequent things I hear, and it’s one of the most special things I hear, is I’ll have adults come up to me now, because I’ve been doing this for 13 years, and they’ll say, “Your books were the books that turned me into a reader. Your book was that gateway book for me.”

Andy: Ah.

Brandon: Right? When I was in fifth grade or sixth grade or seventh grade.

Andy: Yeah.

Brandon: There’s nothing more special I could hear. For me that gateway book was Narnia. The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, was my gateway literacy. Until I read that book, I didn’t get what the fuss was about. After I read it, the big imagination of that story converted me into a reader. I’ve talked to a lot of kids, who are now adults, as well, who say my books did that for them. I think a big part of why, is the presentation that I bring, where I make the case for reading. I make enough of a case that they didn’t do a reading experiment with my book, because I was the guy that made the case.

Andy: Yeah, sure, okay, I get-

Brandon: Consequently, my book ends up being the one that flips it, because I talked to a reluctant reader into picking it up.

Andy: Yeah, right.

Brandon: Does that make sense? I’m not kidding that I hear it a lot, and I’m not kidding that it matters to me every time. It makes me really, really happy. It feels like something useful has been accomplished.

Andy: Something about a series is good for that too, because you can really get into it and read one, and then the next, and the next, and then the next, and then by the time you get through with that series, you’re like, “Well, I have been reading now for the past three months, and every day.” It kind of sneaks up on you a little bit if it’s really compelling.

Brandon: Yeah. What you’re saying there, it ties into another principle, which is that we’re trying to match up the kid with something they actually want to read. Something that they would deliberately read for fun. Something that they would read without a grade attached, without an assignment attached. That’s not the easiest thing in the world, but thanks to things like The Lord of the Rings movies and the Harry Potter books, fantasy has a fairly broad reach. There’s a lot of kids where fantasy will reach them. It’s not just a certain kind of nerdy crowd or something, like it might’ve been 30 years ago. It’s fairly mainstream and you’ll get jocks and you’ll get band kids and you just get the whole spectrum of kids. That doesn’t mean everybody will read fantasy, but it’s a nice wide one. It’s got a story that’s grand enough that can compete with a good TV show or a movie. Especially when you’re a younger kid, it’s got a story where a young main character is doing amazing things that are outsmarting adults and stuff.

Andy: Right, right.

Brandon: That’s how every sixth grader wants to see themselves. Then there’s some kids that the key will be maybe a book about sports. Or there’s some kids where the key will be a romance. It’s not that fantasy is a cure-all. But fantasy does reach broad. I make a living at this because it reaches broad.

Andy: Yeah. It’s kind of perfect for young readers, because like you say, you can have the hero who is younger, but is equally as powerful because of some sort of magical abilities that they have. They often are using their ingenuity, or their smarts, to kind of get through situations with much larger creatures than them. So yeah, it kind of has all of that David and Goliath stuff going on. You said Narnia was the series that got you into reading. Is that what made you want to start doing this and writing? Did you read Narnia and say, “Oh, this is what I want to do, is write this kind of stuff.” Or was that more of a slow process for you?

Brandon: It was a little bit of a slower process. My journey looked like this. As a little guy, I loved to live in my head. I loved to make up stories. My parents would peek into my bedroom and they’d catch me walking around the room and throwing punches in the air and just having battles. Five years old, six years old. When they would catch me doing that, I would just be so embarrassed. I would just, “Oh no, go away, go away.” I’d say, “I’m playing my games. Go away.” I knew it looked dumb, but in my head it was super fun.

Andy: I was just in the middle of an epic thing and then-

Brandon: Yeah, but I can’t have you looking at me because I know it looks foolish. If you leave me be, I’m having a great time. I don’t really know [crosstalk 00:14:07] knows. That wasn’t the only thing I did, but I did do it pretty frequently. I had this pretty rich inner life. In some ways I think at school it even made me kind of a weird kid, because I had a lot going on in my head.

Andy: Oh yeah, totally.

Brandon: You’ve got your parents trying to get you to read. For a while they had a hard time with that, and I wasn’t the best student. But when I read Narnia, the big imagination of that story dovetailed with the way my brain liked to make up stories and daydream anyway. That just upped the amount of daydreaming I did and it directed it toward fantasy. So I became a fantasy daydreamer after reading Narnia, but I still didn’t know I was going to write books. I was just doing this because it was fun in my head.

Andy: I see. Okay.

Brandon: As I matured, the stories in my head got cooler and it reached a point where I was like, “Wait a minute. This stuff in my head is better than some of the movies I see. And better than some of the books I read. So I want to share this with people.”

Brandon: So I started trying to write it down and then that was so frustrating, because it was really cool in my head and just terrible when I wrote it down. Everything I wrote down, just looked embarrassing.

Andy: It’s a lot harder than it looks, huh?

Brandon: So I learned, okay, there’s a craft to this. There’s-

Andy: Exactly.

Brandon: I need to learn how to take what I see in my mind, and share it with other people. One author gave me a beautiful metaphor that I’ll be forever grateful for, when he said, “When the stories in your head, it’s like this beautiful flock of butterflies. And then when you write it down, it’s sort of like, you have to kill that butterfly and pin it and preserve it, so that you can share it.”

Brandon: We you write the story down, you make it much more finite, much more concrete.

Andy: Yeah, you limited it, right.

Brandon: You reduce it to specific words.

Andy: Totally, yeah.

Brandon: But if you can reduce it into the right words and encode it correctly, it can then come to life in someone else’s head. They can decode it and the butterflies are flying again. Does that make sense?

Andy: Yeah, right.

Brandon: I mean, that’s getting like metaphorical about it, but it’s a fairly good way to say it. What I learned through my teenage years, my young adulthood was, okay, if I want to really succeed at this, I need to learn how the best people encode their stories. I need to learn how to use details and scene building, to communicate a story in a way a reader can appreciate, with verbal impressionism, paint on somebody’s mind.

Brandon: So I paid attention to how my favorite authors built their scenes. I practiced writing my own scenes and I gradually got better at it. By the time I was through college, I was determined in my heart to try to succeed at writing, even though I had I’d majored in public relations with an English minor.

Andy: Well, hey, now you are doing four months a year of public relations for your books.

Brandon: Yeah, it’s funny. For sure with a writing gig, with a writing job, you wear a marketing hat sometimes. I worked in entertainment marketing for about five years after college, to pay my bills, and wrote my books on the side. Around age 30, I was able to turn writing into my day job.

Andy: That is really cool.

Andy: If people, they listened to this podcast and they’re like, “Hey, wow, this guy sounds great. But man, 15 New York Times bestsellers, where do I even get started?” Where should they go to find out more about you and what you do?

Brandon: If you haven’t tried my books before, good places to start are Fablehaven Book One. I have a series called Five Kingdoms. Book One of that’s a good one. Or you could start with Dragonwatch Book One. If you’re looking for a teen who’s really into fantasy, that wants a meatier, more epic fantasy, my Beyonders series would be the right one for that teen. If you want a little younger and lighter, it would be my Candy Shop War book, or my Spirit Animals book I did with Scholastic. You can find information about all those books at brandonmull.com.

Andy: Awesome.

About Brandon Mull

A 15x New York Times bestselling author, Brandon Mull is best known for his fantasy series Fablehaven, about siblings Seth and Kendra Sorenson who find out their grandfather and grandmother run Fablehaven, one of the last places mythical creatures can live in peace. His Beyonders trilogy is about a teenage boy named Jason who gets summoned as the last chance to save Lyrian, a doomed realm ruled by the wizard Maldor. His Five Kingdoms series is about an 11-year-old boy named Cole who was about to get enslaved by slave traders but at the last moment, he hides while his friends are being sucked away to another world called the Outskirts. The Candy Shop War is a single book about Nate, a kid in a strange town full of magical candies and crazy arcades.

When he’s not writing more bestselling books, Brandon tours the country speaking at schools about literacy and the power of reading. His goal is to turn kids into lifelong readers and to encourage kids to stretch their imagination to it’s fullest.

Want More Brandon Mull?

You can find Brandon on FacebookTwitter, or on his website.