Tales for the young at heart

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Fifteen years ago Susan Katz sat down with HarperCollins' editor-in-chief to discuss the future of their young adult category. They considered whether they should stop publishing young adult books altogether.

Now, young adult book sales make up about 25 percent of the company's revenues - and they're growing.

"We just laugh our heads off about it now," said Katz, president and publisher of HarperCollins Children's Books.

Even as the publishing industry struggles with a challenging business environment, the young adult category remains healthy. HarperCollins' young adult title count is up 14 percent over last year's, Katz said.

You can see a number of young adult authors at the 27th Annual Chicago Tribune Printers Row Lit Fest June 4-5. Here are a few of them, all based in the Chicago area.

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Daniel Kraus

Daniel Kraus has a Google alert set up for the phrase "grave robbing." "You would not believe how many articles I get," he said.

No, Kraus isn't planning on robbing graves anytime soon. The 35-year-old author wrote "Rotters," a young adult book about people who specialize in that macabre pursuit.

The book, released in early April, tells a classic coming-of-age tale. The story follows Joey Crouch, a 16-year-old Chicagoan living a normal life until his mother dies and he is sent to rural Iowa to live with a father he barely knows. Joey has to make peace with his father - and then learn the family vocation, which is, well, you can guess.

Kraus, who lives in Rogers Park, thinks of his work as a meld of horror and literary fiction. He also is a filmmaker and sees his cinematic and bookish works intersecting.

"I really like big gothic scenes, and what I try to do is to write literary fiction and also have the big scene with the lightning in the sky," he said. "When I pull off both of those things, I feel like I have succeeded."

Julie Halpern

What would you do if a friend faked his or her own kidnapping?

If you turn that person in, you risk losing a friendship. If you don't, you would inevitably be lying to the police or your friend's family - which just as inevitably would get you in trouble.

This is the dilemma faced by Lillian, the main character of Julie Halpern's newest book, "Don't Stop Now." And it is a problem that Halpern herself has faced.

"When I was in college, a friend of mine faked her own kidnapping," Halpern said. "It was this big dramatic thing in my dorm, and police were coming into my room, and I was lying to them, and then I was lying to the FBI. Eventually I turned her in, but I never really found out why she did that. I always held that story in my head."

Veronica Roth

The story that would become "Divergent" sat on Veronica Roth's hard drive for four years.

"After I wrote part of the story, I put it away, and every year I would open it up again and think there is something here and then put it away again," she said. "I couldn't think of a way to take it seriously."

Around Thanksgiving of 2009, Roth came back to the piece, finished a first draft in about 40 days and got an agent who sold the manuscript. After seven or eight months of revisions, "Divergent" was released in May and is No. 6 on The New York Times list of best-selling children's chapter books.

"Divergent" takes place in a dystopian Chicago that is divided into five factions, each of which values and teaches a virtue: dauntless (bravery), candor (honesty), abnegation (selflessness), erudite (intelligence) and amity (peacefulness). At 16, teenagers choose which faction they would like to be a part of — a choice that could change their whole life.

In March, Roth, 22, who graduated from Northwestern University a year ago, sold the film rights to Summit Entertainment, the same studio that released the "Twilight" films.

James Klise

Living through high school once can be hard, but as a librarian at Chicago International Charter School Northtown Academy, James Klise has been living through it - again - for the last eight years.

For him, it has been a place of inspiration. Working at the school helped spur the idea for his first young adult novel, "Love Drugged," which was released in September.

"I am the GSA (Gay-Straight Alliance) adviser at my school," he said. "And working with young people who are LGBTQ made me remember all that fear and confusion I had when I was a gay teen. I wanted to write something about that."

"Love Drugged" tells the story of Jamie, a high school freshman who doesn't want his classmates to discover he is gay. He begins to date a girl named Celia. Celia's father is a doctor and is working on behavior-modification drugs, including one that will "cure" homosexuality. Jamie begins to steal and take the drugs in hopes that they will change him - and things don't work out as he anticipated.

Readers have been very responsive, Klise said. "Kids from all over the world send me emails saying that they read the book and it reminds them of a friend or of themselves and their quest to fit in."

To find out where and when you can see the above authors, visit chicagotribune.com/printersrowlitfest.

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