by Kaila White)
Every big city has a literary community. Metro Phoenix is blessed in that regard, but only we have "the Book Babe."
As young-adult fiction rose in popularity nationally, the Book Babe was a driving force behind the YA scene in Phoenix, searching for new authors and pulling them into the spotlight.
She has helped launch the careers of two New York Times best-selling authors, as well as about a dozen others, all the while nurturing an enduring sense of community among them all.
In the words of Mesa author Lisa McMann, this group's exposition is a simple one:
"I blame Faith."
Meet the Book Babe
Faith Hochhalter, 37, is the children's book specialist at Changing Hands Bookstore in Tempe and the woman whom many young-adult authors consider the dynamo of the metro-Phoenix YA community.
She's usually spotted in the bookstore's section for kids and teens. She calls it her "heart job."
Recently, before a reading by middle-grade author Jonathan Stroud, Hochhalter set up a wall of books and toys related to her first love: anthropology. She spaced out a few books of dinosaur facts, mummy mazes and buried civilizations, and excitedly poked a toy egg that budding anthropologists can crack open to reveal a baby dinosaur.
Even when young readers tear through her displays, scattering the carefully chosen selections about, she's happy to clean up. After all, they're playing with books.
Hochhalter was into young-adult fiction, a powerhouse genre highlighted by "Twilight" and "The Hunger Games," before either series was written.
She grew up in South Dakota, reading from her parents' science-fiction collection, and went on to college in Wyoming to study anthropology. It was thereshe had her first encounter with children's literature through the suggestion of her best friend, who gave her the books "The Phantom Tollbooth" and "Bridge to Terabithia."
Her enchantment with children's and young-adult fiction blossomed while working at a Colorado bookstore after college, with her passion cemented by the time she joined Changing Hands in 2002. Since then, she guesses she's read about 100 middle-grade and YA books every year.
Her love of literature is pure. "I'm probably the only bookseller in the entire country that is not working on a novel," Hochhalter said, laughing.
But like any fan, she loves meeting authors. She met Stephenie Meyer, who lives in Cave Creek, in 2005 and was one of the first promoters of "Twilight."
The YA genre had exploded in popularity by 2007 — the same year the final installment of the "Harry Potter" series was released — and a growing number of Phoenix authors began getting published. Through her own interest, Hochhalter started organizing lunches and dinners in her free time with the handful of local YA authors she knew.
"My initial thought was, 'What a great idea if they all knew each other and communicated and became friends!' So I just started introducing them," Hochhalter said.
She also had a vision.
"I like the idea of them being able to collaborate with each other and promote each other's books," she said. "Ultimately, it makes it better on everybody. It makes it better on the entire YA- and children's-book community in Arizona if everyone is promoting each other and talking and hanging out."
Sometimes when she met a new YA author, she'd have lunch with him or her and Jim Blasingame, an associate professor at Arizona State University and a leading authority on young-adult literature, to help get their books on the radar.
"My idea is that I love this person so much that I want everybody else to love this person and to read their books," Hochhalter said, "and I feel like Jim is one of the best ways to do that, because he's got a classroom full of students who love this, too."
Hochhalter also set up dinners with the other local authors, taking groups of three to 20 authors and spouses to Mucho Gusto Mexican Bistro or Picazzo's Organic Italian Kitchen in Tempe — the former for its guacamole, the latter for its gluten-free pizza. She has done both for most new authors since, with the spontaneous outings becoming protocol about two years ago.
"We will sit at the table for four hours sometimes, just sitting and talking," said Aprilynne Pike of Glendale,author of the best-selling "Wings" series. "We all have so much in common simply because we're all writers, and writing takes over your life, and it's nice to find somebody else whose life is also writing."
It was in 2007 that Hochhalter earned the nickname "the Book Babe" from comic-book author and illustrator James Owen.
Also that year, she met McMann, who walked into Changing Hands with an advanced-reader copy of her first book, "Wake."
"I was so nervous, I thought I was probably going to have a heart attack," McMann recalled. "Faith greeted me with a huge smile as if we were already friends. ... I was elated."
Hochhalter remembered the meeting this way: "She was like every new author I have ever met — equal parts nervous, terrified and excited. It was adorable."
"Wake" became a New York Times best-seller and won numerous awards, among them being named a 2009 Teens Top Ten from the Young Adult Library Services Association, part of the American Library Association. The book launched a trilogy and has been optioned by Paramount Pictures and MTV Films as a potential movie.
"Now I watch her and she's got all these books under her and she's all pro and confident, and I'm like, 'Yes! That's my Lisa!' " Hochhalter said.
Hochhalter left Changing Hands in 2008 but continued hosting the author get-togethers along with her successor at the bookstore, Brandi Stewart, "because at this point, we've all become friends," Hochhalter said.
Those friends came together for her when, in 2009, she was diagnosed with breast cancer.
More than 40 local and national authors rallied to create Project Book Babe, a fundraiser to help with her medical bills. In April 2009, they hosted an event with such big-name YA authors as Meyer, J.S. Lewis, P.J. Haarasma, Chris Gall, Shannon Hale, Dean Lorey, Brandon Mull, Janette Rallison and Laini Taylor.
Hundreds of people attended the event at Marcos de Niza High School in Tempe, where an auction raised thousands of dollars for a lunch with Meyer and the red dress Meyer wore to a "New Moon" prom event. Although Hochhalter won't say the figure, she said her bills were more than taken care of.
"Sometimes I can't believe it happened. It was very humbling for me," she said. "The fact that it was a result of what I had done to bring the YA community together was just amazing.
"Still, when I think about it, I get choked up."
Hochhalter was declared cancer-free in 2010. This May she'll celebrate five years since her diagnosis, a milestone that means the chances of her cancer coming back have dropped steeply, she said.
"There were a lot of times I didn't think I was going to get here," she said.
Although Project Book Babe arose from a scary circumstance, it cemented a community of authors around her. Many of them will be joining her for a five-years-free celebratory dinner during Phoenix Comicon in June.
"I'd say if there is a glue that holds the group together, it's not one of the authors, but Faith," McMann said.
Thanks to Hochhalter's introductions and a national rise in YA popularity, McMann said, the author community in metro Phoenix "just sort of exploded" in 2010.
"All of a sudden, there were lots of us."
Passing the torch
With the group's heroine intact, Stewart hosted the first YAllapalooza, a celebration of the genre at Changing Hands, featuring about a dozen local and national young-adult authors. More than 100 teenage and adult fans turned out to chat with the authors, pick their brains and challenge them in games.
Just after YAllapalooza, McMann was in Austin on a book-tour stop when a group of young-adult authors she had never met came to her signing.
"I was a stranger to them, but they came as this contingent, like, 'Let's go support another YA author,' and I thought that was the coolest thing ever," McMann recalled.
"That may have been what sparked me to invite everyone over here for that first Christmas party, because I liked that feeling. As much of an introvert as I am and want to stay in my hole — my 'cave,' as I call it — I liked that cool sense of community."
In December 2010, McMann and her husband, Matt, hosted the first official house party for Phoenix's YA circle. Hochhalter, Meyer and about 20 other authors and spouses came to McMann's Mesa home.
McMann set up games around the house as conversation-starters, "since writers tend to be introverts," and the Magnetic Poetry contests and trivia did the trick.
"That first party is one of my favorite memories," Pike said. "Writing is such a solitary thing; it's just you and your computer, and it really is difficult sometimes to pull us away from work and remind us we have a real life."
The party set a tradition. In 2011, it expanded to a celebration of teachers, librarians and booksellers. About 150 of them came to chat, eat and pluck free books from the table-tennis table in McMann's home that was covered with hundreds of novels donated by the authors' publishers.
Suddenly, the YA community wasn't just authors and a few enthusiasts at Changing Hands; teachers and librarians from across the Valley got to meet the people writing books for the kids they saw every day. It's why Elsa Black, collection-development librarian for children and teens at the Phoenix Public Library, calls McMann "the den mother of the group."
"I think that might actually be my favorite thing that's come out of all of this," Hochhalter, who returned to Changing Hands in 2012, said of the appreciation parties.
The parties and YAllapalooza have continued annually, both attracting hundreds of people.
"The YA community in general, globally, is super-friendly, but ... the Arizona YA community is unique specifically because we are a big community," Hochhalter said. "I talk to other authors from other states and there's not quite a sense of, I guess, belonging. ... There doesn't seem to be a lot of other cities where the community is really driven to be part of each other."
It was at the first YAllapalooza that Tom Leveen of Scottsdale realized what he had found.
"I was invited into 'the club,' and it was fantastic," he said, laughing. "In Arizona, this is a family you're inheriting."
His first title, "Party," hadn't even come out yet, but Hochhalter invited him to lunch with Blasingame and Pike.
"First of all," Leveen said, "I'm grateful more than anything that I have them and that we have each other; we get to hang out as friends. I didn't know how much more there was to the job of being specifically a YA author until I met these other authors who've been around the block a few times."
McMann has become one of his closest friends, a straight-shooter who gives him "the kind of response you would hope a really good friend would give you when you're about to do something stupid."
The group is varied, including seasoned pros and newbies with their first book deal, making it perfect for sharing advice — and airing grievances.
McMann once arrived at a school on a book tour to find that it was scheduled to have to a lockdown drill that day, right in the middle of her presentation. She knew just the people to e-mail afterward.
"It's not only commiseration but reminding each other that this is normal," Pike said. "The ups and down of publishing feel very personal, like maybe you're the only one this is happening to, but it's not; they're really quite normal."
For example, McMann said, it can take months to see a contract after being offered a book deal. Many authors struggle to come up with a book title even days before it's due, so the group meets to brainstorm. And when popular authors are too busy, they refer author-appearance requests to the newer writers.
"We live in this interesting profession where, whenever some YA book rockets to the top of charts and becomes known, that's good news for all of us," Leveen said, "because more people are reading YA and discovering authors they haven't heard of."
That's why the community has started rallying around out-of-town authors, with Hochhalter organizing a dinner before or after a book signing.
"They all embrace each other," Hochhalter said. "They really are friends, which is so fantastic. They're friends in addition to being business colleagues."
It's not just about career help, Pike said. It's knowing that someone understands you and has your back.
"Most of us are former nerds who got picked on, and it's like this big 'Nerds unite' thing," she said. "When we're all together, we're all cool; we're all accepted."
Hochhalter said she may have been the catalyst, but the openness of the authors is the key to the community's success.
"If they weren't such amazing, giving, wonderful people, this wouldn't have gotten as far as it did," she said.
"I feel like I sort of started them down this path and they've just made it a marathon."
Brandi Stewart at Changing Hands is the keeper of the list of published YA authors in metro Phoenix. Here's who's on her radar.
Laurie Brooks; Jillian Cantor; Shelley Coriell; Amy Fellner Dominy; Laura Ellen; Liz Fichera; Bill Konigsberg; Erin Jade Lange; Tom Leveen; Jon S. Lewis; Lisa McMann; Angela Morrison; Amy Nichols; Aprilynne Pike; Janette Rallison (aka CJ Hill); Shonna Slayton; Suzanne Young.
Others outside Phoenix: Austin Aslan; Robin Brande; Nancy Farmer; James A. Owen; Adam Rex; Janni Lee Simner.
Upcoming events featuring local YA authors at Changing Hands
7 p.m. Friday, April 18: Guys YA Tour with John Corey Whaley, Tom Leveen and Bill Konigsberg.
5 p.m. Saturday, May 3: Aprilynne Pike for "Sleep No More" and Suzanne Young for "The Treatment."
7 p.m. Wednesday, May 14: First Loves Tour with Jillian Cantor, Lindsey Leavitt and Emery Lord.
Details: All events at Changing Hands Bookstore, 6428 S. McClintock Drive, Tempe. Free. 480-730-0205, changinghands.com.
Reach the reporter at email@example.com or 602-444-4307.