Severna Park author Chase-Hyman set out to make black teens normal

She'll speak Saturday at Annapolis Book Festival

  • Paula Chase-Hyman, who lives in Severna Park and will be part of the Young Adult Fiction roundtable at the Annapolis Book Festival on Saturday, is the author of a series of books for teens called the Del Rio Bay novels.
Paula Chase-Hyman, who lives in Severna Park and will be part… (Jed Kirschbaum, Baltimore…)
April 11, 2010|By Jonathan Pitts

Unlike a few of the authors who will be her fellow panelists at the Annapolis Book Festival, Paula Chase-Hyman hasn't made her writing fortune. Not yet.

But like any serious writer, she has her finger on an important human pulse. The energies there have fueled some critically acclaimed books, with more in the offing.

Just last year, Chase-Hyman, a novelist for young adults who lives in Severna Park, finished "Flipping the Script," the last in a five-book series fans know as the Del Rio Bay novels.

Set in a seaside town based largely on Chase-Hyman's native Annapolis, the books' teen heroine, Mina Mooney, is a rare creation in popular teen fiction.

She's an ordinary adolescent, dealing with cliques, boys, broken friendships, and tryouts for the cheerleading squad in a suburban neighborhood.

And she happens to be black.

"When my [first two] books came out in 2007, I was one of the few African-American authors writing contemporary popular fiction [for teens] with black characters as the lead," she says. "I still am. It's a really small field that a few of us are fighting to grow, and it's happening slowly, if surely."

The same might be said for her writing career. Chase-Hyman, 40, one of six guest authors slated to appear at the festival who live in the Baltimore area, got her start almost accidentally seven years ago, when she was laid off from her job as a public relations officer for an Owings Mills wireless company.

Armed with two months' severance pay, she resolved to spend a year pursuing her dream of writing teen fiction.

The writing part came easily, at least at first. Freed of her job and stressful commute, she heard her three main characters - Mina and her two "guy friends," Michael and JZ - all but talking to her. Dramatic conflicts emerged, she used note cards to plot her story lines, and within 60 days, she had her first two novels: "So Not the Drama" and "Don't Get It Twisted."

"I'll probably never have that kind of groove again," she says, laughing.

The business side was different. Manuscripts in hand, she set out looking for that indispensable aid in the literary field: an agent. She found one in the pages of a writer's guide, but he lost interest after helping her shape the books for a year.

Writers today, though, have a resource their predecessors didn't as recently as 10 years ago: the Internet. "By then," she says, "I was tied into a writer's community online. I came across a list of a whole lot more agents." She secured one in 2005, and he eventually got her contracts with Kensington Books for all five novels. (She now runs a Web site for African-American children's writers, TheBrownBookshelf.com, and will appear next weekend in the roundtable on young-adult fiction.)

Reviews of her books have been strong. "With humor and a clear eye, Maryland author Paula Chase sees straight to the heart of today's teen culture," a Washington Parent critic wrote in 2008.

Her greatest achievement so far? Probably creating Mina, a character the author calls a "loyal person who lives and breathes for her friendships."

If that sounds somewhat run-of-the-mill, that's exactly the point. Chase-Hyman says one of her great career challenges is that many editors - falsely fearing, she guesses, that too few African-American teens are devoted readers - resist having black lead characters on their covers and mainly seek characters who are urban stereotypes.

Chase-Hyman, on the other hand, set Mina's life in a suburb, gave her a racially diverse circle of friends and used the character to probe not urban problems but the universals of teen life, from lost friendships to romantic triangles.

"That was an active goal on my part. Young black readers don't see themselves in regular 'having-friendship' dramas. I wanted an atmosphere that wasn't too heavy, but was heavy to them, with all the typical crises of the teen years," she says.

The formula has worked. Though the series hasn't allowed Chase-Hyman to write for a living, even after "finishing with Mina," she has big literary plans.

A minor character from the Del Rio Bay books, 12-year-old Jacinta, is at the heart of the new novel she has just started. Things are going well.

"Jacinta is talking to me," she says.

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