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Book Review: "Lips Touch: Three Times" and interview with author Laini Taylor

By It's My Life on January 29, 2010 7:11 PM | No TrackBacks

When we read through the Advice questions you send in, we see certain words popping up again and CRUSH and LIKES ME and KISS. Especially that last one. It's a biggie.

That's why we were excited to read "Lips Touch: Three Times" by Laini Taylor (Arthur A. Levine Books/Scholastic). Duh! It's got LIPS and TOUCH in the title! Well, it was also a finalist for the 2009 National Book Award for young people's literature, and written by the author of the incredibly faerie-tastic "Dreamdark" books "Blackbringer" and "Silksinger." And it features gorgeous illustrations by Jim De Bartolo, who also happens to be Laini Taylor's husband. So there is all that, too.

lipstouch.jpg"Lips Touch: Three Times" is not your typical read. It's not a novel but rather, three stories that are unrelated except for sharing the theme of "a kiss with interesting consquences." In the first story, "Goblin Fruit," a lonely girl meets a boy who may or may not be a goblin out to steal her soul. "Spicy Little Curses" takes place in colonial India, where a young woman grows up believing she is cursed and that her voice can literally kill; when she falls in love, she's tempted to discover the truth. The third story, "Hatchling," tells the tale of Esme, who upon turning fourteen learns that she and her mother come from a very different, very strange, and slightly terrible world. If you enjoy fantasy books, these stories will amaze you with how beautifully written and vivid they are. And if you're not much into that "fantasy stuff," you may just fall for the romance of it all. We should mention that this material may not be right for younger tweens or anyone who is offended by stuff like the "underworld" and demons and the fate of souls. One teen character does get pregnant, although it's depicted tastefully.

IML was lucky enough to chat with author Laini Taylor about her book and about writing in general; we hope it's the first of many author interviews on this blog!

IML: Hi, Laini! Could you tell us a little bit about writing "Lips Touch" and collaborating with your husband?

Laini: The book was written sort of on a whim. I never planned it as a book, actually. I had sold my first novel, "Blackbringer," and was waiting to write the sequel, but I felt a little paralyzed until I knew what my editor wanted. I had been working on "Blackbringer" for a long time and wanted to do something different. I had also just started blogging. A friend of mine and I had the idea of starting a site called "Sunday Scribblings" which would put up a short writing prompt every week and anyone who wanted to write on the subject could, and it became a little writing community. All of the stories from "Lips Touch" came out of writing prompts on that blog. They were really just short pieces I was writing for fun. Over the course of a couple of months, I noticed that several of them had emerged around the theme of "a kiss with interesting consequences." Then we thought, maybe this could be a book. My husband and I had always wanted to do illustrated books together, ever since we met in art school, so that was how we presented it to publishers. And fortunately, they went for it!

IML: It seems like there aren't a lot of short story collections out there for young readers anymore.

Laini: I think they tend to not do very well, sales-wise, and there's a reluctance to publish them. "Lips Touch" is not really a traditional short story collection; it's more of a novella and two very long stories. I love writing novels, but I also love writing short pieces. There's so much freedom when writing a short piece to set out not really knowing where you're going and just let it happen. With a novel, I feel a little more afraid to do that because it's such a big journey...but with a short story, you can have a more playful attitude.

IML: When you have an idea and start noodling on it, at what point do you feel like it's a short story rather than a full novel?

lainitaylor.jpgLaini: The fact that I was able to write short stories at all sort of amazes me, because I have a way of making everything really complex! I was trying to write a short story recently for an anthology I was asked to contribute to. I was having lots of fun with it and then I realized, "Oh my goodness, this really wants to be a novel instead of a short story." Even with the novel I'm working on, it was going to be a short book and's a trilogy! When I start writing something, it has a way of really quickly developing into something complex. Writing from those really short prompts, and trying to write something with a beginning, middle, and end in two hours was a great exercise. When I set out to write something short and really stuck to that, I was able to do it.

IML: It's harder to write something shorter, right?

Laini: Absolutely!

IML: A lot of the tweens who post their writing on IML have very long books planned out.

Laini: Yes, I do a lot of elementary school visits and many of the kids I talk to are working on things that sound really complicated!

IML: There's something about creating a whole world of your own, and you're so good at it. I mean, in "Hatchling" you even made up a whole language. As a fantasy writer, do you take time while a story is developing in your head to create the rules of the world you're writing about?

Laini: I do a lot of brainstorming in advance. Part of the reason I do that is because it's easier than writing! When I was younger, like 12 years old, and had just started writing, I never actually wrote a novel. I just did all the world building. That was the fun part for me and it's still the fun part. For each book, I fill a notebook with ideas and collage the covers. I don't write the story in them, I just write down all my research and ideas for the world. Sometimes when I go back and look at it, the ideas are totally different from what they ended up being in the book, and there's a lot of stuff I ended up not using. Along the way, I do try to figure out the rules of the world and the fantasy element. There are a million different ways an idea can go...I work that out as I go. My "Dreamdark" novels are a five-book series and I'm trying to write things down more so I can refer to them in the novels to come.

IML: You said you started writing when you were a tween. What was the first thing that you actually wrote beyond the brainstorming phase?

Laini: I wrote some short stories in high school. I always loved fantasy when I was younger and got away from it in high school. I felt like I wasn't supposed to write fantasy so I was only writing "literary" stuff, and wasn't loving my writing so much. Then I went to art school and was developing my illustrations, thinking I wanted to do picture books. Along the way, fantasy sort of became more popular with things like "Harry Potter" and "The Golden Compass" and I rediscovered the books I loved as a kid. I've always wanted to be a writer my whole life and it took me until my early 30's when I finally realized that you actually have to finish things to be a writer!

IML: What is your writing process like? Do you write every day with a schedule?

Laini: In general, I have the most creative energy in the morning and it works really well for me to wake up early, about 5am or 6am, and write until lunchtime. When I was finishing "Silksinger" I was really regimented and writing every day. Writing short stories was more like running a series of short races than running a marathon. The most important thing to me is just to get my butt in the chair and write! You have to find time and just do it.

IML: What were your favorite books when you were younger, and your favorite books now?

Laini: I think my favorites growing up were Madeleine L'Engle and the "Wrinkle In Time" books. These days, I love "The Hunger Games" books. I also love "A Drowned Maiden's Hair" by Laura Amy Schlitz, and "Flash Burnout" by L.K. Madigan -- a writer who lives in my town.

IML: Kissing is a big deal with IML'ers. What is it about kissing that is so fun to write and read and think about?

Laini: I'm not really sure! It's just one of those things, right? At one point when I finally admitted to myself that I loved fantasy, I also admitted that I loved romance too. It can make any book better! Even if it's just an innocent romantic subplot. In my "Dreamdark" books, there are characters who are early soulmates and you know someday they're going to fall in love. Having that connection is so much fun to write and to read. I love introducing a character and having a reader know they're moving in the direction of their soulmate. And then kissing is such a beautiful thing, but it can also be fraught with trouble. That moment for can go so many ways.

IML: "Lips Touch" is unique because of the illustrations. You don't see a lot of books for tweens and teens with illustrations anymore, unless it's a graphic novel or something.

Laini: Yes, there's a real conception out there that illustrations in books are just for kids. We had a lot of discussions with the publishers about the illustrations in "Lips Touch" and not having them make the book too "young." I studied illustration and I'm married to an illustrator, so I'm a little biased, but I just think that anyone can love art. Illustrations can be so beautiful. At first we thought of making the illustrations purely for decoration, to give the book something special. But as we were working on it, eventually we had the art take over part of the storytelling. The illustrations are telling a story that's not actually told in the story. So Jim got to do real storytelling rather than just "decoration".

I remember books I loved as a kid where you could go back to illustrations and find new things in them. In "Lips Touch," you see the pictures first but don't really understand them yet, then as you get into the story, you go back and get more out of them. I'd love to see more illustrated young adult novels. There's another book called "Leviathan" by Scott Westerfeld that also has wonderful illustrations. Also, you see so many photo covers out there; a lot of times I see one that would be much better served by an illustration. Like, something will be a period piece and they're using costumes that look like they came out of a high school drama department! But an illustrator could make something really beautiful. They say young readers are more drawn to photo covers, but I'd just like to see more illustrated covers in the future.

IML: You do a lot of school visits so we're sure you're asked this question a lot: What's your advice for young writers?

Laini: First, the most important thing is just to write, write, write and develop your craft. Develop your own voice, which is a hard thing to do when you're young. When I was young, I did a lot of -- shall we say -- "paying tribute" to my favorite writers. I think young writers tend to try to write like their favorite writers and that's fine early on. But the more you write, the more you develop your own voice and your own ideas. Then, the best advice I can give writers as they get a little older and start finishing work that may be publishable is to go to writers conferences. There's a great organization called the Society for Children's Books Writers and Illustrators, and they hold a lot of those. At conferences you can meet with editors and publishers and agents, and that makes the path to becoming a writer seem like a real normal job, with actual steps you can follow. When I was young, writers were like mysterious people I never saw and didn't even seem like real people, but now with the Internet you can have so much access to real writers. For instance, I've developed a relationship with several young readers who are amazing young writers, and contacted me through my website. We've hung out and write to each other a little bit. And there are so many outlets to get your writing seen and connect with other writers. I really wish there had been blogs when I was in school!

To find out more about Laini and her work, you can visit her website at

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