A Q&A With Joelle Charbonneau, Author of The Testing, the #1 Summer Kids’ Indie Next List Pick

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Independent booksellers’ number one pick for the Summer ’13 Kids’ Indie Next List is Joelle Charbonneau’s The Testing, a dystopian thriller that explores the ramifications of some truly high-stakes tests in a post-apocalyptic world.

After the ravages of the Seven Years War, the United Commonwealth tries to rebuild with the help of its best and brightest, and 16-year-old Malencia Vale is anxious to join the throngs of hopefuls. Although it is an honor to be chosen for The Testing — a process that ends in university education for those who are successful — Malencia soon finds that it is more than she bargained for.

The Testing is a planned trilogy — the third book is already written! — so booksellers can look forward to recommending this series to young readers in the future.

Charbonneau, an accomplished mystery writer for adult readers, recently spoke to Bookselling This Week about how it felt to write her first dystopian novel for young adults.

BTW: I can already hear booksellers saying to teen customers, “If you liked The Hunger Games, you should definitely try The Testing!” Both dystopian thrillers, these books share some similarities that lend to the comparison. However, what would you say are some differences between the two stories?

Joelle Charbonneau: I can’t tell you how flattered I am by that comparison. I hope readers of The Hunger Games will embrace The Testing. One of the biggest differences between the two books is the reasoning behind the country’s creation of The Testing. The United Commonwealth is trying to recover from the terrible effects of chemical and biological warfare, which means the leaders of the country need to be well versed in science in order to understand the revitalization techniques being utilized. Participation in The Testing is not a punishment for wrongdoings. It’s an honor and those who pass The Testing will have the weight of the country’s future on their shoulders. Cia Vale comes from a small but thriving community. Her close-knit family and the values they have taught her are a large part of how she thinks about the world and the choices she makes. Cia’s told not to trust anyone, but her upbringing makes her want to believe the best about the people around her even as her intellect makes her question their every decision.

BTW: You have mentioned that the genesis of The Testing grew out of your examination of the high-stakes testing that students go through in high school. What made you decide to take the stress of testing to a whole different — and potentially fatal — level in your novel?

JC: For years, I’ve worked closely with my private voice students as they navigate the testing, application, and audition process required to be accepted into college. The pressure on our high school students is greater than ever before. Higher scores are required, as are higher grade point averages. More application essays need to be written. The need to be better and brighter than the other applicants has never been more keenly felt. Students are hyper aware that every answer they give could impact the quality of their future. Some handle the pressure well. Others falter. The teacher and parent in me is worried that the benchmark of success has risen too high and that soon it will be more than our youth can handle. The writer couldn’t help but wonder how much worse the process could become and what tests a future world might want to institute in order to select the next generation of leaders.

BTW: How do you think your experience as a mystery writer influenced the plot and character development in The Testing?

JC: I can honestly say that I don’t think I would have tried my hand at writing a story as complex as The Testing if I hadn’t already had some success at writing mysteries. Mysteries need to be fast paced and, since I write series mysteries, readers have to connect on a personal level with the characters in order to want to visit them in future installments. In Cia, I wanted to create a girl that people could identify with — one who had a strong moral foundation and wanted the best for not only herself and her family, but for the world as a whole. It’s my hope that readers connect with her on a very personal level and are invested enough to follow her throughout her entire journey.

BTW: The Testing is full of suspense, and it is hard to put it down! What is your method for creating prose that begs to be devoured in one sitting?

JC: You have just given me the best compliment any author can ever receive. Thank you. And I’m not sure anyone can intend to create a book that can’t be put down until the finish. What one reader finds compelling another will think is uninteresting. However, I did consciously try to make each chapter end with a hook that would make the reader want to turn the page and discover what happens next. Fingers crossed that I succeeded.

BTW: Your adult novels are considerably more light-hearted in nature than The Testing. Was it ever difficult to spend your time writing and thinking about a dark, dystopian world? How did you find this process?

JC: My adult novels are very different in tone. You won’t find an ex-circus camel that wears hats in The Testing. When I had the idea for The Testing, I was intrigued at the prospect of writing a darker story with deeper themes. In a way, it was refreshing to set aside the laughter and delve into a dystopian world that I had to build from the ground up. And to be honest, I think that the fact the two tones are so wildly different makes every day in front of the keyboard feel like an adventure. With my mysteries, there is pressure to be funny. With The Testing trilogy, there’s the need to keep the tension high on every page. Both are challenges I’m excited about and I think I’m incredibly lucky to have this opportunity to explore the different styles.

BTW: The Testing was chosen as the #1 Kids’ Indie Next List Pick for summer and has earned much praise from independent booksellers across the country. What does the support of indies mean to you?

JC: I am stunned, thrilled, and amazed at the support The Testing is receiving from booksellers. To me, indie booksellers are the heartbeat of publishing. Their passion for books and connecting readers to stories they love is something that no amount of technology can replace. Having such a passionate group of people believe so strongly in The Testing is an amazing honor. I cannot thank indie booksellers enough for taking the time out of their busy schedules to read and embrace The Testing.

BTW: It’s no secret that The Testing is the first book in a trilogy. Did you plan to tell this story as a trilogy, and do you already know how the final book will end?

JC: Yes! The story was originally conceived as a trilogy and will be told in three books. And though I still have revisions to work on, the third book in the series is already written. So, I can honestly say that I know what happens on the final page. I hope readers will love the series enough to want to follow Cia’s journey to that final moment.