What would happen if the Happiest Place on Earth went on strike?
In "Dream Factory" (Dutton, $16.99), a few dozen high school seniors on summer break sign on as replacement characters at Disney World while the professional Goofys, Aladdins and Snow Whites picket the Magic Kingdom for a new contract.
Co-writers Brad Barkley ("Alison's Automotive Repair Manual"), who teaches in Frostburg, Md., and creative writing teacher Heather Hepler, who lives in Tyler, Texas, met when Barkley taught a writing workshop at the University of Southern Maine, where Hepler taught. As in their 2006 young adult (YA) debut, "Scrambled Eggs at Midnight," they again use a split narrative to explore the rocky road to teen love.
Every afternoon at three, Ella, who fell into the coveted role of Cinderella by virtue of her dress size, has to marry Mark, her handsome, doting Prince Charming. Which wouldn't be bad, except that Ella is secretly attracted to Luke, a lowly fur character (he's Dale of Chip and Dale). Which wouldn't be a problem either, except that Luke's domineering chipmunk partner Cassie has already claimed him.
Things heat up hotter than a fur character's costume as the novice actors make their appointed rounds by day and struggle to sort out their futures under the bright Orlando moon.
Hepler admits she's right at home writing as the teenage Ella.
"I've always joked that I'm a teenager in a grown-up body," she says. "What's so interesting to me about teenagers is the depth of their emotions. They're not guarded. As adults, we tend to hide things and tamp down our emotions. Teenagers don't do that; everything is so raw and right there. That's attractive to me."
Barkley finds writing Luke, and YA in general, as fulfilling as his adult fiction.
"Some of the books that were most important to me, and it's probably true for everybody, are books you read when you're that age," he says. "At that age, books can literally change your life, and I think that's less true of adult reading. I loved reading at that age so much that the idea of writing of that age was very appealing."
Hepler came up with the concept for "Dream Factory" after her sister's dream Disney World vacation was aborted due to a sick child. Hepler's only previous visit to the Magic Kingdom was at age 5; Barkley has never been.
"We read a few blogs of people who had worked there to get the inside view, and we both had a map of the park so we could move characters around, but that was the extent of the research," Barkley says.
Hepler adds that they apparently avoided any gaffs: "I got an email recently from a woman who had been one of the characters at Disney World. She said she went into the book thinking she was going to just rip this up, that we wouldn't know what it's like, but she said it was spot-on."
Barkley says alternating chapters between Ella and Luke keeps the book fun, both for the writers and the reader.
"At least in the first eight chapters, it's just a free-for-all; I don't know what I'm getting in the next chapter and Heather doesn't know what she's getting. Part of the fun is surprising each other with where we take the story."
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