September 2, 2014
If you think you’ve seen the last of post-apocalyptic worlds and teenage heroines in best-selling young adult literature, think again. Fans of the genre know that Suzanne Collins’ “The Hunger Games” novels started it all, followed by the “Divergent” series by Chicago’s Veronica Roth. Now, another Chicago author, Joelle Charbonneau, jumps on the dystopian bandwagon with “The Testing” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $17.99), the first book in a trilogy that will roll out over the next year.
Charbonneau’s story is rich with detail and the conflicts and romance that will grab the attention of young readers. The heroine is 16-year-old Malencia Vale (Cia to her friends), who is chosen for The Testing, a United Commonwealth college-entrance program. It selects the best and brightest high school graduates to become possible leaders of a civilization slowly coming back to life after a massive war that involved biological and chemical weapons.
This is no ordinary entrance exam. What Cia encounters have been called “the SATs from hell.” The inspiration for “The Testing” came out of Charbonneau’s other job as a private vocal music instructor. Every year, she would witness her students going through the college admission process, which in addition to the usual tests also included an audition. When a student said she worried that it would get even harder in the future, Charbonneau couldn’t image how that could be possible, and an idea was born.
At first, Charbonneau had plans to set the book’s action in today’s world. “Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a way to justify the kind of testing I wanted to create,” she says. “So I had to look forward to a time and circumstance where our society could not afford to pick the wrong leaders.”
Charbonneau, 38, who grew up in Bensonville and now lives in Palatine with her musician husband and their 5-year-old son, came to young-adult literature in a roundabout way. A musical-theater actress, she has appeared on many local stages, and it was while performing in a show at Drury Lane Oakbrook that the opening line of a book popped into her head, and she decided to use her down time to try her hand at writing. There were several failures (women’s fiction, a thriller, a romance) before she hit with two niche mystery series — one featuring roller-skating detective Rebecca Robbins (the fourth in the series, “Skating Under the Wire,” is due out in the fall), and the other featuring high school glee club director Paige Marshall (the third book, “A Chorus Lineup,” hits shelves in January).
“I was just curious to see if I could get to the end of a story,” Charbonneau recalls. “I never dreamed I’d get published. Up until that point I was someone who studied how to best tell someone else’s story through music and acting onstage.”
The transition from writing niche mysteries to YA was not difficult, just different, Charbonneau says. An added challenge was that she doesn’t work from an outline: “The mechanics of writing were the same but the stories are very different in scope. I now know that the threads I didn’t tie up in books one and two have to eventually tie up and make sense in book three.”
Charbonneau has been a longtime fan of fantasy, science fiction and dystopian novels. Lois Lowry’s “The Giver” is a favorite, and she has read the “Hunger Games” series as well as Koushun Takami’s “Battle Royale,” Richard Bachman’s (aka Stephen King) “The Running Man” and a host of others. Comparisons are bound to be made, especially to “The Hunger Games.”
“It is incredibly flattering to be compared to a book that has been so embraced and loved by readers,” Charbonneau says. “I read all these books, so it’s hard to say which books inspired me the most. I think all of them have elements that prompted me to ask questions that I needed to create my own world to answer.”
The day before the June release date of “The Testing,” Paramount Pictures optioned its film rights. The remainder of Charbonneau’s trilogy will be released in six-month intervals — “Independent Study” in January and “Graduation Day” in June 2014.
Charbonneau’s inexperience in the YA publishing world was in evidence when she agreed to the close-together release dates during a time when she also had to finish writing the two mystery novels.
“I didn’t realize until last February that I was the first author that took them up on this,” Charbonneau says with a laugh. “I thought this was something they had done before, and I didn’t know I could say no. But once I said yes, I was determined to make it happen.”
Mary Houlihan is a locally based free-lance writer.