SALT LAKE CITY — As an emerging YA author and founder of a local teen writing conference, one might think that Jo Shaffer has always been into books for young people. But Schaffer isn't one to give into assumptions.
“My mom raised me on pretty hardcore literature, so I didn't read a lot of kids books until later in my life because I’d been reading classics,” Schaffer said in a recent interview.
In fact, although she has long had a love of books and storytelling — she was one of those kids who often made up stories and kept a notebook of her tales — she didn't start writing in earnest until she was an adult, but even then, she wasn't sure what to do with it.
"I started writing a little more seriously (as an adult), but I wasn't really ready to share it with anybody because I wasn't sure if it was good," she said.
After founding a nationwide writing conference, Teen Author Boot Camp, with her writing group, Schaffer’s thoughts about getting published turned around.
“I started mixing in the industry with people who were actually doing it and I saw that they weren't so much better than me or so different than me,” Schaffer said. “It became more and more attainable all the time.”
Schaffer’s first series, “Stanley & Hazel,” tells the story of two teens in separate social classes who meet in 1930s St. Louis. After stumbling across a dead body, the pair make the decision to solve the mystery together and, gradually, they uncover the truth about eugenics and classism in America. Schaffer released the second book in the series, "Stanley & Hazel: The Winnowing: Book 2," in February.
“The 'Stanley & Hazel' series came from my love of old movies, at first,” Schaffer said. “I was raised on a lot of old classic black-and-white films from the 1930s. And I love the snappy dialogue, I love the fashion, … but I realized it was a Hollywood representation. … As I got older, I started looking into that era and what a crazy time it was for America. Over in Germany, Hitler was rising to power and there were actually a lot of sympathizers here in America that were kind of sucked in by some of his ideologies — the elite especially.”
The sequel’s title — "The Winnowing” — describes the process of eliminating or preventing the reproduction of those in “inferior” gene pools, an actual phenomenon which Schaffer learned was alive in America in the 1930s and continued on in varying forms throughout the 20th century.
“I became really fascinated with eugenics because of the fact that it was happening in America,” Schaffer said. “You can still look up online pamphlets and handouts that just blatantly talked about unwanted gene pools — the kind of people that should not be breeding, or (that) somebody with a handicap … shouldn't be born because it ruins the gene pool."
For Schaffer, the problem of “better genes” is more than hypothetical. Her inspiration for the thematic tilt of the book, she said, came largely from her personal experience raising a son with Kabuki syndrome.
"I submit that those kinds of people do bring something to … society that wouldn't be there otherwise," Shaffer said. "They help us to understand; they help us be compassionate. … There's so many beautiful things about people who are different. And he's exactly the type of child that they would have just probably aborted or killed after birth because of his issues. But when you met him, you'd realize he's the coolest guy ever."
While Schaffer wrote her books for entertainment, she hopes that readers think about the issues they raise, perhaps leading them to ask: “How do I view other groups that I don't understand? Do I immediately find a reason to label them either good or bad?” she said.
And beyond writing these books to explore her own passions and interests, Schaffer is equally committed to helping others develop a literary voice.
“I think one of the big things … that helped me catch the vision of, ‘Oh I can actually really do this,’ is when me and my writing group started Teen Author Boot Camp, which is a nonprofit writers conference where we mentor young writers,” Schafer said.
The conference, held on March 23 at the Utah Valley Convention Center, will include discussion panels and workshops guided by best-selling and experienced authors.
According to teenauthorbootcamp.com, past keynote speakers include Brandon Sanderson, Shannon Hale, Brandon Mull, Jay Asher, Marie Lu, James Dashner, Margaret Peterson Haddix, Jessica Day George, Ally Condie, Kiersten White and Dan Wells.
This year’s keynote speakers, New York Times best-seller Ally Carter ("I’d Tell You I Love You, But Then I’d Have To Kill You") and local — and national — favorite Mull ("Fablehaven," "Dragonwatch") will be joined by “about 25 other amazing authors who are coming in and donating their time,” Schaffer said.
This years theme — “find your clan,” as Schaffer put it — suggests that the conference will also help young writers connect with like-minded people who can support them.1 comment on this story
“We just have such a passion for the written word and the importance of it and how it empowers kids to have a voice,” she said. “(Then the kids) feel like, ‘Hey, I can write something down in an articulate way and communicate my thoughts and ideas.' That became an important part of my journey.”
If you go …
What: Jo Schaffer book signing
When: March 5, 7 p.m.
Where: Provo Library at Academy Square, 500 N. University Avenue, Provo
How much: Free
Note: Places in the signing line are reserved for those who purchase a copy of _"_Stanley & Hazel: The Winnowing: Book 2" from The King's English.
What: Teen Author Boot Camp
When: March 23
Where: Utah Valley Convention Center, 220 W. Center, Provo
How much: $99