In the new novel Aspen by Rebekah Crane, the teenage title character is an awkward, artsy kid who gets into a car accident that kills the most popular girl at school. The book traces the bizarre fallout in her Boulder, Colorado, community, as well as Aspen's relationship with her stoner mom. But unlike the typical after school-special YA fare, the drug part of the tale isn't entirely cautionary.
"The mom is a flawed character—she had Aspen under a tree at a Widespread Panic concert at 16," says Carey Albertine, cofounder of the book's Denver-based publisher In This Together Media. "There's a parade of men through the house, and she smokes pot, which is not great—Aspen will mention that her mom hasn't gotten off the couch for a while. But their relationship is also funny and warm, and for all her flaws you also see how loving and nurturing she is to Aspen."
The book fits with In This Together's mission of offering more diverse, realistic, unwhitewashed representations of kids, especially girls, in YA and middle-grade literature. Albertine, who has an MBA with a background in TV news, investment banking, and standup comedy, founded the company with UVA classmate and former lawyer and novelist Saira Rao in 2012 after both had kids and shared a belief that the characters in children's media were seriously lacking. The two self-funded the company with a Kickstarter last year, and have published six books so far, with three more out this month and a few on deck for 2015. Creative Artists Agency (CAA) is now repping Aspen for film rights, and the three-book Personal Statement YA series by Jason Odell Williams has already been optioned for film.
"Where we start is ultimately with the reader, and this idea around who's being underserved, what stories aren't we seeing," says Albertine of their approach to finding and developing stories. "I think that's a slightly different approach (from) where's there a big hit and everybody wants that. What's important to us is that the female characters are complex and nuanced. They don't need to be superchicks or princesses, they don't necessarily need to be strong, just complex and real."
"And the boy characters need to be the same way," adds Rao.
"The relationships between characters also need to be authentic," says Albertine. "We're wary of mean girls, catfighting. We're looking at female friendship, and male-female friendship that is more authentic to our own experience. We also are increasingly focused on racial diversity. Those are the mission-based things, but we also like a particular aesthetic. We like things that make us laugh."
With a few exceptions, including Rebekah Crane's first book Playing Nice and the middle grade Soccer Sisters series by Andrea Montalbano, Rao and Albertine develop story ideas and then search out the right authors. For example, for the middle grade series Carly Keene: Literary Detective, the author needed to be able to write a period story, because the title character travels back in time and meets the Bronte sisters. Through an editor they'd been working with, In This Together found Katherine Rue, who had a degree in medieval literature.
While the middle grade books tend to be "pretty earnest, smart books that aren't babyish but don't propel kids into their teens too early," according to Albertine, the YA books take more risks. "The first sentence in Personal Statement is 'I fucking hate Emily Kim,'" says Albertine. "'Fuck' is in the first sentence."
The book is a satire starring a black gay boy, an Indian American girl, and a Korean girl, all of whom travel to volunteer at the site of a recent hurricane for the sole purpose of beefing up the personal statements in their Harvard applications. For that series, which has two more books in the pipeline, Rao and Albertine reached out to Williams, a friend from college who was a playwright with a biting sense of humor. He is also working on the screenplay.
"People our age will read the book and say, 'Girls don't act like that,' because the girls curse, aren't trying to get a guy, and will do anything to get into Harvard," says Rao. "They'll say, 'This is not how an Asian girl would act,' and I'm like 'Hello, I'm an Asian girl.' And feedback from kids who read the book is like, 'hallelujah.'"
In This Together has partnerships with a number of organizations including Teach for America Colorado and the Denver charter schools, which have embraced the books and hosted authors in classrooms. "We believe a big piece of this experience should be access to authors," says Albertine. "Authors visit or Skype into classrooms that have ordered a certain number of books. When kids can interact with the authors, their interest skyrockets. Fourth graders in Colorado couldn't believe they were actually talking to an author and their teacher said their interest in reading after that was incredible." They also get into schools by using print-on-demand and e-book technology. "We have a real school-based strategy," says Albertine. "We're always looking for innovative distribution models in addition to the traditional ones."
The company is also working with Camp Reel Stories, a camp in Oakland, California, for girls to get their feet wet in the world of TV and film. This fall, the girls will take In This Together's middle grade Kat McGee series and adapt it for television as a project. Author Kristin Riddick will visit the camp and give a workshop.
Along with the film rights already being marketed, the camp partnership is part of In This Together Media's larger vision of moving beyond books into other storytelling media.
"What we'd like to do ultimately is to be designing story worlds that can live across multiple platforms," says Albertine. "On the book front, we'll expand out our existing series, blowing them out, and add a few new titles in 2015. Then we're experimenting later this year with innovative transmedia storytelling. We have a vision of partnering with gamers and TV people."
[Image: Flickr user Mückenschwein Verlag Stralsund]