Julie Halpern is not just a school librarian. And she’s not just a critically claimed young adult author. She’s also the sponsor of a thriving D&D club at her school. The D&D club must be doing something right, because the game has helped inspire Julie’s latest book, Into the Wild Nerd Yonder, which tells the tale of sophomore Jessie who—like most high-schoolers—finds herself conflicted on where she fits in on the social food chain. Fortunately, she discovers Dungeons & Dragons and… well, I don’t want to ruin the ending for you. You’ll just have to read it yourself.
Into the Wild Nerd Yonder
debuted to critical acclaim with a starred review from Publisher’s Weekly (that’s really, really good if you didn’t know), an official Indiebound Winter selection (that’s also really good) and a plethora of great reviews from such biggies as School Library Journal and Kirkus.
And yet, Julie’s still was willing to take time out of her day to have a little chat with yours truly.
Shelly: Julie, thanks so much for taking the time to talk to me! I know you’re busy collecting readers and critical acclaim for your new novel, Into the Wild Nerd Yonder. Congratulations! I say it’s much deserved. Can you tell us all about the book in two sentences or less?
Julie: Thanks! Into the Wild Nerd Yonder is a book about a teenager named Jessie who is all sorts of confused about her old, not so great friends, and whether or not she’s conformable exploring newer, nerdier friend options. The book has, but is not limited to, humor, betrayal, audiobooks, and Dungeons & Dragons.
Shelly: Normally books about high school make me shudder! I wasn’t the biggest fan of that era in my life. But Into the Wild Nerd Yonder made me giggle, cheer, and randomly yell things like “OMG, me too!” while reading it in public. Strangers just love sitting next to me in a coffee shop. Anyway, what was your inspiration for writing this book?
Julie: Thank you for all of the niceties. I started writing Nerd with the first line, "Being the sidekick sucks." That’s really where I came from in high school. Most of my friends were the ones who were so visually and verbally out there, and I never felt like I could be that way. Like, if I tried to dye my hair or liked too many bands that other people liked, I’d be a poseur. It never occurred to me that everyone’s a poseur in some way. Or that it doesn’t really matter how you look if it feels like "you." The book morphed from the sidekick thing to more of a search for identity. And I always knew I wanted to include D&D in a book. This seemed like the perfect place to fit it in.
Shelly: What was high school like for you? Did you identify with a particular clique?
Julie: I was more on the fringe of the group. My close friends since childhood were the punks or “alternative” (as we were called in those days) kids, and I was “alternative”—in art classes, watching 120 Minutes, wearing Chucks before they were sold everywhere in every color. But that was the extent of my alternativeness. I was always super into music, but I was never comfortable being part of the scene, hanging out at Denny’s, smoking clove cigarettes, etc. I grew apart from those high profile friends and hung with a tight group of funny, odd people. We watched a lot of horror movies and dabbled in witchcraft and stuff. But mostly we just loved being together.
Shelly: As a school librarian, you would know firsthand—what is school like these days for kids? Is gaming popular?
Julie: Gaming is popular with a specific group of kids. I run the Dungeons & Dragons Club, and we have a nice group of kids every year. They’re usually outsiders, those who don’t always fit in with the rest of the kids in their classes but somehow create this amazing group in D&D. The most beautiful thing is that this is my fifth year running the club, and I still see kids from past years. Not only do they visit me, but they have solidified friendships with each other well into high school that may not have existed without the D&D Club.
Shelly: Do you have a gaming background? What are some of your favorite games?
Julie: I don’t know if I do. I have always loved board games (still do), and I loved pretending way past when it was acceptable. (My sister is six years younger than me, and I played Barbies with her even as a teen.) I started playing D&D a little in high school, when I was hanging around with a couple metalheads, listening to Rush. (Why is it that Rush goes hand in hand with D&D? Do you guys have some sort of deal with them? Can you get me in on that?) I played more in college, and now I play with my club kids. In terms of other games, I only play Sims, Tycoon, and Harry Potter computer games. But now with a one year-old, I don’t really do any of that anymore. I can’t wait until she’s old enough to play D&D! I’m going to force my husband to get into it for Family Game Night.
Shelly: D&D has long been known as a “boys game.” Why don’t more girls play D&D? What other stereotypes do you agree/disagree with?
Julie: I wonder if some girls are put off because of fighting being stereotypically male? I think, at least in middle school, the girls are maturing faster and are feeling so much more awkward about being “different,” whereas the boys aren’t aware of that or don’t care as much. The character of Dottie in Into the Wild Nerd Yonder is based on a real person, so my perception of D&D has always been with both males and females playing. I think males in general are less inhibited, which you have to be to roleplay. It’s an interesting question, for which I don’t have a very good answer.
Shelly: What advice do you have for anyone wanting to start a group with kids? Or kids wanting to start their own group?
Julie: Make funny signs. D&D people are clever and will get it. And if they don’t, then they don’t want to play D&D anyway. For kids wanting to play, I’d suggest asking their librarians if they could sponsor their group. Libraries are great spaces to play D&D. Or look into a group already formed at a local gaming shop. You could meet some like-minded people, and support a local business.
Shelly: Did you let members of your D&D library group read the book in its early stages? Did they have any advice or input?
Julie: I did! One of my girls made me a nice, long list of all of the changes I should make. It was pretty funny. The boys I let read it liked it but had very little to say about it. Maybe they were embarrassed by all of the girly, issues bits.
Shelly: What are your top 5 favorite D&D related books? Or rather top 4 because I’m going to automatically insert Confessions of a Part-Time Sorceress into this one.
Julie: I would have put yours anyway! It’s awesome. Um, I love the Practical Guides because they’re so clever and funny and beautifully illustrated. I am just a big sucker for all of the Player’s Guides and any Handbook. They are so detailed and intricate and daunting, yet exciting. And Grimtooth’s Traps books are great. Not that I’ve really read them, but my students love them and like to talk about them.
To find out more about Julie, visit her website at juliehalpern.com.
Into the Wild Nerd Yonder Contest
All this talk about high school can be depressing, we know, so let’s lighten the mood with a contest. Tell us what you would title your high school autobiography and write the first paragraph. The top three entries will receive a prize pack that includes a copy of Into the Wild Nerd Yonder by Julie Halpern (autographed!), Sucks to Be Me: The All-True Confessions of Mina Hamilton, Teen Vampire (Maybe) by Kimberly Pauley, and The Stowaway, The Stone of Tymora, Book I by R.A. and Geno Salvatore. Just in time for the holidays!
Use the official entry form and submit your entry via email to firstname.lastname@example.org with Wild Nerd Yonder in the subject line or mail a physical copy of the entry form to: Wizards of the Coast LLC, ATTN: Into the Wild Nerd Yonder and Back to High School Contest, P.O. Box 707, Renton, WA 98057.
And for a little inspiration, here are a few from Wizards of the Coast staffers. It’s actually quite therapeutic. You should try it!
- "The Boy Who Tried to Hard" by Marty Durham, host of The Book Nook
- "How High Can You Go? One Girl’s Quest for Totally Awesome Bangs" by Shelly Mazzanoble, Player-in-Chief
- "Pimple: One Boy's Epic Struggle Against His Glandular System" by Bart Carroll, Editor-in-Chief
- "Vagabond Gypsy: On the Run From the Law" by Randall Crews, Data Monkey
- "Asymmetric-Haircut-Girl-with-a-Penchant-for-P.I.L-and-Bauhaus" by Cassie Pemberton, Monkey Scribe
- "Girl Undecided: Goth or Jock?" by Laura Tommervick, Player-in-Chief’s Boss
Please read the official rules here (or in PDF form here).