New Releases – November 2015

See No Color by Shannon Gibney (Carolrhoda Lab)

“Biracial Alex, 16, high school baseball star and pride of her white, adoptive father and coach, sidesteps thinking about her parentage and racial identity, lying to finesse uncomfortable issues—but hiding her adoptive status from Reggie, an attractive, black player on an opposing team, troubles her. … Gibney, herself transracially adopted, honors the complexities of her diverse, appealing characters. Transracial adoption is never oversimplified, airbrushed, or sentimentalized, but instead, it’s portrayed with bracing honesty as the messy institution it is: rearranging families, blending cultural and biological DNA, loss and joy. An exceptionally accomplished debut.” — Kirkus, starred review

Traffick by Ellen Hopkins (Margaret K. McElderry Books)

“Five white teens move on with their lives after doing sex work in Las Vegas. At the end of Tricks (2009), three of the five protagonists saw glimmers of hope, one was stuck in a rut, and one had been shot. This sequel picks up with Cody in the hospital, awakening to learn that he’s paralyzed from the waist down. Whitney, who had overdosed, heads home to an emotionally distant family, facing PTSD and addictions to drugs and to her pimp. … Farm boy Seth is still being kept by a sugar daddy and tricking on the side. … Less startling than its predecessor; a hopeful aftermath tale for readers already attached to these characters.” — Kirkus

Everything but the Truth: An If Only novel by Mandy Hubbard (Bloomsbury USA)

Book Description: Holly Mathews’ mom is the new manager of a ritzy retirement home, and they just moved in, which means Holly’s neighbors are all super-rich retirees. Still, it’s not a total bust, because gorgeous, notorious Hollywood playboy Malik Buchannan is the grandson of one of the residents. Just one problem: when they meet, Malik assumes Holly’s there to visit her own rich relative. She doesn’t correct him, and it probably doesn’t matter, because their flirtation could never turn into more than a superficial fling … right? But the longer Holly lives in Malik’s privileged world, the deeper she falls for him and the more difficult it becomes to tell the truth … because coming clean might mean losing Malik forever.

Calvin by Martine Leavitt (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

“Calvin’s personality seems to have been destined: he was born on the day comic strip ‘Calvin and Hobbes’ ended, his grandfather gave the infant a Hobbes-like tiger toy that was his constant childhood companion, and his best (and only) friend was always Susie. But now…Susie has abandoned him for more popular kids, and suddenly Calvin is convinced that Hobbes is right there with him. It’s schizophrenia. Calvin is placed on a locked ward for treatment. He decides his last, best hope is to go on a dangerous pilgrimage. … Equal parts coming-of-age tale, survival adventure, and love story, this outstanding novel also sensitively deals with an uncommon but very real teen issue, making it far more than the sum of its parts.” — Kirkus, starred review

Darkness Hidden: The Name of the Blade, Book Two by Zoe Marriott (Candlewick)

“When readers first met Mio Yamato in The Name of the Blade (Candlewick, 2014), she was learning about her unique heritage, mastering the katana somehow bound to her (as well as Shinobu, the compelling boy who emerges from inside it), and protecting her friends from legions of monsters from Japanese myth. After that adventure, she has little time to catch her breath before this sequel begins. … Much like the previous volume, this entry is well paced and exciting and offers a look into Japanese mythology hard to find elsewhere. … this solid and gripping work will keep readers interested in what’s to come.” — School Library Journal

Rules for 50/50 Chances by Kate McGovern (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

“In a strong debut, McGovern investigates mortality, romance, family, race, and class. When Rose and Caleb meet at a “Walk for Rare Genes,” they appreciate not just each other’s company but also the chance to talk honestly about having a seriously ill family member. … Caleb, who has family with sickle-cell disease, and Rose, with a 50/50 chance of inheriting Huntington’s, hit it off, but nothing is simple. … Additionally, Caleb is black, and Rose is white, which makes her realize how much she’s never had to think about. As narrator, Rose is articulate and sympathetic, and though Caleb and his family are a bit too perfect, McGovern skillfully engages with questions of fate, choice, and truly terrible luck.” — Publishers Weekly

Soundless by Richelle Mead (Razorbill)

“Fei lives in a mountain village whose inhabitants have been deaf for generations, relying on artists like her for their daily news. Isolated by rockslides and unable to descend the mountain, the villagers depend on food supplied via a pulley system from the kingdom below. The price of survival is the mountain’s gold and silver, and the majority of the population works in the mines. But now Fei’s people, including her beloved sister, are starting to go blind, which will mean their extinction. After a vivid dream, Fei wakes with the gift of hearing and struggles to comprehend the new sensation of sound. She and her childhood friend Li Wei embark on a desperate effort to avert her people’s horrifying fate.” — Publishers Weekly

Winter by Marissa Meyer (Feiwel & Friends)

“At twice the length of Cinder, Meyer’s 800-page conclusion to her Lunar Chronicles is daunting both in its immensity and in its narrative breadth, shifting among every major character from the series and some new ones. But readers who have invested in Cinder and its sequels won’t be disappointed: this final installment abounds with nail-biting action, suspense, and romance. As Cinder plots a revolution against the exquisitely evil Lunar Queen Levana, readers meet Levana’s stepdaughter, Winter, whose debilitating visions are kept in check by Jacin, her beloved personal guard whom she is forbidden from marrying. …Meyer expertly ties up any and all loose ends, allowing readers to leave behind this saga with a contented sigh.” — Publishers Weekly

Note: According to this interview with the author, Winter is a woman of color.

This Way Home by Wes Moore with Shawn Goodman (Delacorte)

“Lifelong best friends and basketball teammates Elijah, Dylan, and Michael become reluctantly entangled with a Baltimore street gang. When Michael offers his friends each a pair of $400 Kobe 10 sneakers and won’t explain how he got them, Elijah knows he should say no. In the end, loyalty to his friends and the desire to get out of his own ratty shoes prevail. …The portrayal of the gang is pared-down, more symbolic than realistic, but the stakes are high, and the sense of impending doom is heavy throughout. A taut, haunting tragedy.” — Kirkus

Seeing Off the Johns by Rene S. Perez II (Cinco Puntos)

“In Greenton, TX, everything revolves around the Johns, the two star baseball and football players in the local high school. Everyone in town even wakes up before dawn to come out and send them off to college and wish them luck. When a tragic accident occurs, resulting in their untimely deaths, everything changes, especially for 16-year-old Chon Gonzales. Chon is a somewhat average teen working a dead-end job in a gas station and occasionally hooking up with an older female coworker. He’s looking to get out of his small town and win over Araceli, the girl of his dreams who used to date one of the Johns. … This authentic story of loss is powerful and one that many readers will not forget.” — School Library Journal

Dare to Disappoint: Growing Up in Turkey by Ozge Samanci (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

“Humor and youthful angst lighten this graphic memoir of life in a country pulled strongly in different directions by conflicts between Western and conservative Muslim values. Samanci looks back on her youth and schooling with a dual perspective: as a middle-class child caught up in relentless family pressure to excel academically as the only route to a secure future and, in a broader context, as a woman in a country that was forcibly Westernized years ago by the revered Atatürk but is currently experiencing a cultural backlash abetted by a repressive and corrupt government. … A bright, perceptive bildungsroman with a distinctive setting.” — Kirkus, starred review

Autumn’s Kiss by Bella Thorne (Delacorte)

Book Description: Everyone knows how crazy junior year is, but Autumn Falls never imagined it would be so flirty. The wish-granting diary her father left her stopped working, leaving Autumn to decode what’s going on with her and Sean on her own. He seems into her … and he also seems into Reenzie. And when JJ steps up and tells Autumn he’s the one she should be with if she wants someone who really cares about her and a pop star makes a major play for her, Autumn is totally confused. Her friends have Big Drama issues going on too, and Autumn wants to be there for them. Then something mind-blowing happens. She’s suddenly given an incredible crazy-fun opportunity: a map that takes her anyplace she wants to go. At first it seems like an amazing gift. But showing up IRL where you’re least expected has life-changing consequences. Is Autumn ready to handle the fallout?

Light of Day by Allison van Diepen (HarperTeen)

“Senior Gabby Perez is no naïve wallflower, but when a seedy club-goer sneaks roofies in her best friend’s drink, it takes a hot, blue-eyed, square-jawed stranger to warn her to get away. A young Miami radio personality, Gabby uses her weekly show, Light Up the Night, to discuss what (almost) happened and thank the handsome stranger who came to the rescue. The following week, the mystery guy, who goes by ”X,“ waits for her at the radio station and cautions her that she’s getting involved in a dangerous sex-trafficking situation. … Van Diepen returns to her On the Edge (2014) world—the tough streets of Miami—for another exciting story that delivers with a central relationship full of twists and surprising depth. Readers who like their romance on the gritty side will fall for van Diepen’s steamy thriller.” — Kirkus

Hollowgirl by Sean Williams (Balzer + Bray)

Book Description: Clair’s world has been destroyed—again. The only remaining hope of saving her friends is for her and Q to enter the Yard, the digital world of Ant Wallace’s creation. The rules there are the same as those of the real world: Water is real; fire is real; death is real. But in the Yard there are two Clair Hills, and their very existence causes cracks that steadily widen.

Getting inside is the easy part. Once there, she has to earn the trust of her friends, including the girl who started it all—her best friend, Libby. Together they must fight their way through the digital and political minefield in the hope of saving the world once and for all. And this time Clair has to get it right … or lose everything.

“Dare to Disappoint” and the Fear of Other

By Ozge Samanci

samanci-daretodisappointI grew up in Turkey, in the cities of Izmir and Istanbul. I share stories from my life during that time in my new graphic memoir, Dare to Disappoint. I found it was impossible to tell a story that takes place in Turkey without touching upon the clash of women and men, west and east, poor and rich, believer and non-believer, Turks and other ethnicities.

It is more challenging to live as a woman in undeveloped or developing countries and in lower socioeconomic classes. Turkey is a developing country. I was relatively lucky: until age fourteen I lived in Izmir, one of the most westernized cities of Turkey. Izmir benefited from the liberating effect of the Aegean Sea. Since it was a beach city, women were able to wear shorts, tank tops, and stay on the streets late at night. In my childhood, I spent entire summers in my swimming suit, climbed on mulberry trees, then jumped into the sea to wash the smashed mulberries from my face and hands. In terms of lifestyle, I had a lot more freedom than average women growing up in Turkey. That said, there were still challenges.

While walking down the streets, even today, we deal with the disturbing gaze of entitled men who unapologetically stare at women in Izmir, Istanbul, or any of Turkey’s big cities. Many men stalk women and verbally or physically harass them. I have memories of physically fighting with men or yelling at them on the streets. When I and other women would raise our voices at harassing men, most of the time none of the passersby wanted to get involved. Occasionally a few other women backed us up and we left the scene with a sense of having bonded. But the general understanding of harassment in Turkey has always been the same: if someone lusted over a woman then it was the woman’s fault. That woman did something alluring and deserved it.

We learned ways of being invisible to protect ourselves. We dressed very conservatively (no short skirts, high heels, make up, fancy hair etc.), did not walk alone, ignored the words of the harassing guys, and did not recognize them by answering. There is a cost to avoiding the problem: we transformed into what the system wants woman to be. Invisible.

In Dare to Disappoint, my initial intention was not to tell about these forms of oppression. But as I told anecdotes from my life, the oppression of women just naturally came into every part of my narration, from the streets to the education system.

In addition to gender, ethnicity and religion are also sources of discrimination and hatred in Turkey. Turkey evolved from Ottoman Empire. Historically, Muslims ruled Ottoman Empire but the population of Ottoman Empire was a mixture of Turks, Kurds, Armenians, Christian Greeks, Assyrians, and Jews. Unfortunately, today, many people show impatience or hatred towards non-Turkish ethnicities and religions other than Sunni-Islam. Since the collapse of Ottoman Empire, there has been an ongoing war between Turks and Kurds. The president of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, thinks being Armenian is shameful. He said, “Some called me a Georgian. Others called me even, excuse me, an Armenian in a shameful way. I am a Turk!”

If the president of Turkey thinks being Armenian is something to be ashamed of, it is not hard to imagine the violent mind of the ordinary citizen who defines him- or herself as a superior Turk. The entire religion system of Turkey serves the majority, Sunni-Islam. Alevi Muslim members of society are perceived as threats to the religion of Islam. They are accused of distorting the religion.

In Dare to Disappoint I tell stories about Turkish-Kurdish conflict, the planted hostility towards Greeks in school, and the polarization between Western and conservative Muslim values.

In Izmir, we can see the Greek islands with the naked eye. There are blue mountains on the horizon, and that is Greece. Even though we lived very close to Greece, I was in my late thirties before I had my first Greek friends. The two cultures did not mingle at all. When I visited Athens in 2013, I was blown away by its similarities to Izmir. The climate, food, architecture, life style, sense of humor, and people’s gestures in Athens were so much like of those in Izmir, yet Turks and Greeks perceived each other as enemies. When I went to the island of Mytilene in Greece, this time, there were the blue mountains of Izmir at the horizon. Turkey looked exactly like Greece from afar.

I believe, the fear of “other” is the fear of self. People who are unsure of themselves will always feel threatened when they interact with the “other.” The other has the power of reminding us of who we are and who we are not. One message in my book is this: whoever we are, if we are secure and content, getting to know the “other” will expand our horizons. We can then discover that there are blue mountains on both sides.


ozgesamanciOzge Samanci is an artist and an associate professor. She was born in Izmir, Turkey, and currently lives in Chicago, Illinois. Her most recent book is the graphic novel memoir Dare to Disappoint.

Dare to Disappoint is available for purchase.

Judging People by Their Covers

By Zoë Marriott

marriott-darknesshiddenThere’s a photograph and a biography at the end of this post. Check it out now if you want. What’s your first impression of the person represented there? A pale-skinned, bespectacled blonde. British. First published quite young. Likes animals. That’s usually enough to give people a strong idea that they know who I am. But it’s not all there is to know.

If there’s one thing fiction is brilliant at, it’s proving to readers that nothing is as it seems.

In 2014 my first urban fantasy and the opening novel of my trilogy came out in the US. The Name of the Blade presented readers with Mio Yamato, a British-born Japanese heroine who is good with swords and almost recklessly valiant, her supernatural and seemingly perfect boyfriend, and a smart-mouthed best friend, Jack. Mio’s parents are out of the country on holiday and it’s up to Mio and crew to save London before those pesky adults get back and ground Mio for unleashing the monsters of Japanese myth onto the streets. Cliché cliché cliché. Right?

Well, I hope that the first book proved the characters had inner life and unexpected depth, and their world was darker and more complex than that.

But in Darkness Hidden, the second book of the trilogy, it was really time to start ripping back the reader’s assumptions. Mio, still suffering from the events of the first book, becomes paralysed with fear of making the wrong decision again, and all her ass-kicking becomes a sort of avoidance technique to distract her from taking more meaningful action. The perfectly devoted supernatural boyfriend is revealed to be psychologically fragile, maybe even broken, a habitual liar who seeks to protect himself by keeping the full truth from Mio. Tough, protective, physically capable Jack is left vulnerable and hurt. And the parents I’d so conveniently dispensed with in the first book? Turn out to have a great deal more to offer the story than either readers or Mio expected in this one.

I’m committed to diversity in my writing. Out of seven published YA novels, six have a protagonist who is a woman of colour (it will surprise no one that the single book with a white heroine is the most successful in terms of sales). Many of my books deal with mental illness and disability, and portray a whole spectrum of different sexualities and gender presentations. Sometimes people ask me why I ‘bother’ to do this, clearly assuming that my default must be the same as theirs — straight, white, able-bodied and cis. Surely it must be a lot of effort to include all these, you know, minorities and whatever?

It never crosses their mind that I might be among the minorities.

I don’t think authors should have to play privilege points in order to justify their choices. If someone wants to write books that are diverse, those books should be judged based on how good they are and nothing else.

But things aren’t always what they seem. That’s a good lesson for real life as well as fiction.

I hope readers will be intrigued and entertained by what I’ve attempted to do in Darkness Hidden — the gradual breaking down of what seemed at first to be the over-used tropes of urban fantasy. I hope they’ll come to see that their first impressions of the characters weren’t necessarily wrong, but that, just like in real life, what we can observe about a character at a single glance does not define them.

In choosing to write this particular series, which is set in contemporary London, has an all PoC cast, and pansexual, genderfluid and lesbian characters, I’m doing something that is vitally, personally important to me. Subverting the unquestioned assumptions I see in far too many YA novels. Taking characters whom all too often are pushed to the margins of the narrative, or even erased altogether, and offering them a voice, a point of view, and a story of their own.

I’m committed to diversity because I know how important it is to see your reflection in fiction growing up. I didn’t have that advantage, sadly.

What — not enough white-skinned blondes, you wonder? Oh yeah, plenty of those. But no one like me.

What my picture doesn’t show you, what my biography doesn’t reveal, is that I’m disabled, and have suffered with depression and anxiety all my life (I can quite clearly remember having my first suicidal thought when I was about eight). That my much-beloved family is mixed race. That I’m asexual, and after many years of work am now comfortable considering myself queer — although plenty of people (both gay and straight) like to tell me that I shouldn’t.

How many protagonists like me do you think I read about as a kid?

The best YA novels are not what they seem. They have unexpected depths and insights to offer that a reader will never discover unless they read on. And YA novelists — in fact, all people — are the same. Which means that, just as judging books by their cover is a bad idea, so is judging authors by their official biographies.


YA novelist Zoë Marriott lives on the bleak and windy East coast of Britain, in a house crowded with books, cats, and an eccentric sprocker named Finn (also known as the Devil Hound). Her folk and fairytale inspired fantasy novels are critically acclaimed and have been nominated for many awards, even winning a few, including a USBBY Outstanding International Book listing for The Swan Kingdom, and the prestigious Sasakawa Prize for Shadows on the Moon.

Darkness Hidden is available for purchase.

Breathing Room: The Space between Art and Activism

By Rene S. Perez II

perez-seeingoffthejohnsI guess I’ve always been a writer. Such labels become important when you’re an aspiring writer, then a writing student, then a published writer (in some literary magazine, let’s say, print or online—they put your words on their page!), or even an unpublished graduate of a writing program, then as an author when the book your words are in only has your name on it. These distinctions are important among writers, because we wait for so long to be able to call ourselves “author” or, hopefully, “award-winning author” or “best-selling author”. They’re important because, when we are out in the world, punching a clock or pulling down a salary (often correcting or re-writing the words of other people when we want to write our own), or raising a family, we have to be able to tell ourselves at the end of the day, when we know there’s a word document that’s been untouched for days or weeks because of our paying work’s exhausting toll, when we’ve sent out a story and not received word back regarding our submission well past the 8 weeks by which a publication’s submission guidelines say we’ll receive a joyous “yes” or a merciful “no”, when we feel the cold pangs in our core at the hint of the fact that maybe, just maybe, our dream won’t be realized, when we have these dark nights of the soul, we can always tell ourselves, we’re writers. We write. It’s what we do. If we can’t do it every day, if we don’t get paid for it, we write. We are writers.

I’ve been a writer since long before I was a published author—since before I even knew my writing could or would ever be published. I would write in notebooks. Notebook after notebook. Loose-leaf page after loose-leaf page—to be folded or stapled or transcribed into my notebooks. I wrote mostly poems, some stream of consciousness reportage on the things around me—the this-and-that of a life in my shoes. I wrote what I know now were character sketches, but which I called stories at the time. I wrote in middle school. I wrote in high school. I wrote in college. But I never thought to become a writer. This was mostly, I believe, because what I’d read to that point was inaccessible to me. It was all just a bunch of dead white guys, and what did I care about them outside of needing to take tests and write essays about what they’d written. Do I now see the beauty of a fiery passion that had to be repressed for so, so many pages only to ever be expressed in the touch of gloved hands and a beautiful night traipsing in the snow? Of course I do. Do I now see the poignancy in a farmhand pulling himself up by his bootstraps and a willingness to bootleg all so he could build this palace as a setting for a party where maybe, just maybe, the girl who personified all that he was not, all that he pretended to be, could see him? Sure. But Ethan Frome and James Gatz were aliens to me. They were from places and circumstances that, when I first encountered them, kept me from understanding them as characters in stories—art—that represented feelings and states of being that were and are universal. In these vaunted tomes of American letters, I was presented with cultural barriers to access—just like many students are presented with such barriers in trying to access education at large.

It wasn’t until I was at college, a pre-law student by default, as the path that had previously been laid out for me—I was going to be an engineer—had been blown apart by a calculus class in high school that made me think twice about pursuing a career with those math-minded types, that I found an appreciation for literature. Having tested out of 3 sections of English, I was allowed to take upper-division English classes. I enrolled in a Chicano Literature class, almost certainly because it’s what was left to register for when I finally did. I’ve already forgotten some of the books we read. I know that we did end up reading And the Earth Did Not Devour Him, Tunomás Honey, Pocho, The Road to Tamazunchale, and Woman Hollering Creek. I remember Anna Nogar teaching these texts with vigor and an urgency to have her students understand their (ambiguity intended) potential. I remember my classmates, all also Latino, mostly Chicano, seemed to be having similar experiences to the one I was having—a light bulb was turning on for us; the dark of our exclusion from the books we’d read and the classes we’d taken was illuminated by the light of our torch-bearing forebearers, by Rivera and by Sagel, by Villarreal and Arias, by, of course, Cisneros. We could see ourselves in literature.

I decided then that, while I always wrote, I would become a writer. I know now that I’d always been a writer, that I had hoped, then, to someday become an author like those who had shown me it was possible to become one.

That’s when, already back then, I had to define the space between the art I wanted to create and the activism I wanted that art to accomplish. How political were my stories going to be? How loudly was I going to shout to the masses that, “We are here! We’ve always been here! This land was ours before it was yours, and this country is just as much ours as it is yours even now that we’re relegated to underclass status!”? How much Spanish were my characters going to speak? Was I going to Italicize?

These questions all overwhelmed me. So I did the only thing I could: I wrote from as true and real a place as I could. I determined that, no matter what, I would not write anything phony. I made that decision when I wrote my first short story, “Last Trip North”, and wanted to set it in my father’s hometown. While I’d lived in that town myself for a short period of my young childhood and travelled there from Corpus Christi, where I was raised, I was not really from Hebbronville, TX. So I named the town Greenton. It’s the same town in which my newest novel, Seeing Off the Johns, takes place.

I made this choice with one thing in mind: the authenticity of my art. Back when I wrote that first story, I would not have even known to call this impulse that. I just knew that the truth would set me free in my writing. It would allow me to create fictions that could be believed and characters who my readers could live with, experience the plot points with. The truth gave me permission to create the lies.

In that moment of truth, when I decided to name my town Greenton, all of the other questions about my responsibility to the cultural aspect of my writing were answered. If I would create stories and let my characters, mostly all Chicano characters, live and be there as truly and realistically as possible, I would be creating impactful Chicano literature. There’s no checklist of what a story or book does or doesn’t have to have in order to be sufficiently Chicano. There’s only the authentic and the not. Hewn closely to my own experience of the culture—to what else can literature be hewn but a writer’s experience—I know that my writing might just resonate well enough with young readers to flip the “on” switch in their minds, to reflect, in my work, something close to their realities.

With Seeing Off the Johns, I never reached out at young readers with my writing. I never had those readers or that section of the bookstore in mind when I wrote my novel. I wrote the story to play out as truly as possible within the situation it created. Sure, my protagonist is a high school senior, but I didn’t write this for high schoolers. That said, I did write his thoughts and actions to be as close as possible to those someone his age, in his situation, would have. In aiming to maintain the integrity of the art, I created something that I am already seeing resonates with young readers.

I am a teacher. I teach in a school that is made up of mostly minority students, among that majority, most students are Latino. It has been my great pleasure to point students in the direction of texts that I know will resonate with them. I try, particularly with my reluctant readers, to chip away at those barriers to entry to literature. Sometimes those barriers are language (And the Earth Did Not Devour Him is in both English and Spanish); sometimes it’s length and lexile level of texts (David Rice’s Crazy Loco has worked wonders with students who are daunted by a book’s size); sometimes it’s that “books are for nerds” (seriously, put a copy of Junot Diaz’s Drown in the hands of one of these kids, preferably if they’re older, and watch them at least have to respect that that notion is wrong if not then fully dive into that book’s stories).

On the teaching end of my professional existence, I am an advocate, a cheerleader, and an activist for getting the right books into the hands of kids who might not otherwise connect to literature. As a writer, though, I have to remain true to my art. I have to, or I wouldn’t be able to make it. Just like I wasn’t able to stain that first blank page with my stories until I could do it from a truthful place, I still can’t. Regardless of who my audience might end up being, the art I’ll create if I create it just for the sake of its authenticity will resound with more readers if they can flip through a few pages, realize I’m not full of it, and hop on for the ride.

Minority writers, particularly YA writers, often feel pressure to carry on the tradition of those who came before them and inspired them to create. I am a Chicano writer. I know that the word Chicano has historical and political underpinnings. I know that by simply being who I am, from where I’m from, there are expectations placed on me and what I write. Some of these expectations, sure, are ignorant and dismissive. Many others, however, are well-meaning. Outlets urging writers to write work to reflect the history and dignity of a whole community do so in order that such work can be available, so that it can be held up as exemplary both to youth within the community and to outsiders looking in from the dominant culture.

We are expected to be cheerleaders and role models, flag-bearers for movements gone by and struggles still being fought. We are the voices of diversity, so we had better be saying the big things, the important things. We better be writing positive characters. We better be showing that young Chican@s can be cool and smart and interesting. It’s all too much.

All we owe readers is our writing. If we make it as good and real as it can be, nothing else needs to be considered. Art without an agenda outside aesthetic and truth is more impactful than any propaganda or motivational speechwriting. If we forget, or at least ignore, the pushes from without and from within toward creating the “right kind” of diverse YA, if we aim only to make it as impactful and engaging as possible, the work we end up doing will serve to continue the revelation to young people of color that they have a place in literature, that their stories and their lives matter just as much any Frome or Gatsby or Caulfield, any Wharton or Fitzgerald or Salinger to come before them.

renespereziiRene S. Perez II was born in Kingsville, Texas, and raised in Corpus Christi. He received a BA from the University of Texas and an MFA from Texas State University. He is the winner of the Alfredo Cisneros del Moral Foundation Award and the 2013 NACCS Tejas Award for Fiction for his 2012 short story collection, Along These Highways. His latest book, Seeing Off the Johns, was named BookPage’s Top Teen Pick for July. He currently teaches high school in Austin.

Seeing Off the Johns is available for purchase.

On the Freedom of the Borderlands

By Shannon Gibney

gibney-seenocolorOne humid August afternoon many years ago, a 12-year-old girl huddled in the corner of a staircase, weeping. She was waiting for her parents to come home and comfort her, although she didn’t know if they could do it. A voracious reader, the girl had just found a copy of a book on transracial adoption — that is, a book about children of color adopted into white families — on the top shelf of her parents’ bookcase. Excited to finally find a book that spoke directly to her experience, the girl settled onto the family couch and dug into the worn paperback, devouring narrative after narrative on adult adoptees. After awhile, she began to notice her body heating up, as she read stories of black adults who had been raised in white environments. These grown adoptees stated that they would never fit in with white culture because they were not white, nor black culture, because they could not perform blackness. This is what will happen to me, the girl thought, and an alarm sounded in her brain. This is what has happened to me already. There is nothing I can do.

Of course, that girl was me, crouched, alone, and desperate for hope and some sort of recognition, on that step in my house as a teenager. Although it took me years to do it, I wrote See No Color for her. This coming-of-age young adult novel is for that scared 12-year-old mixed black girl, and all the other transracial adoptees out there, growing up alone without community, feeling like they will never really fit in anywhere and be “normal.” More universally, it is for anyone who has ever been outside the mainstream, and anyone who yearns to find a tribe where they can be truly accepted. It is for all those who have looked for themselves in the books and stories around them, and instead have only found a blank space, or something that scared them.

In telling the story of Alexandra Kirtridge, a mixed black girl adopted into a loving if somewhat misguided family, I wanted to offer that girl I was something else to pick up off that bookshelf. I wanted her to know that there are also stories of healing through the complexity of negotiating a multifaceted identity, not just stories of breaking under the weight of it. I wanted that girl to see herself years from then, as part of both black and white communities as well as others, standing right in the middle of that messiness and feeling all of it: the belonging, the not belonging, the shame, the joy, the endless questioning.

Now an adult with my own family, to me, this is the beauty of what Chicana feminist Gloria Anzaldua has termed the borderlands/la frontera: It is a place where one’s shifting identity and multicultural fluencies and deficiencies are assets — simply because one does not demand that the world make them feel safe or legible. There is a freedom to being misread, or not read at all. There is also a freedom in not being at the center all the time. I hope this is one message that See No Color conveys.

Shannon Gibney is a writer, educator, activist, and the author of See No Color, a young adult novel. Her writing has appeared in Al Jazeera America Magazine, The Crisis, Gawker, and other venues. A Bush Artist and McKnight Writing Fellow, she lives with her husband and children in Minneapolis.

See No Color is available for purchase.

New Releases – October 2015

Weird Girl and What’s His Name by Meagan Brothers (Three Rooms Press)

“In a small town in North Carolina, a close friendship between two eccentric high schoolers breaks apart, leaving a rift.Lula and Rory have always had two things in common: their outcast status and their love of the 1990s paranormal TV series The X-Files. Rory is generally overlooked by his classmates. Lula’s ”weird girl“ moniker comes from her being both bookish and outspoken and taking after her equally headstrong grandfather. Rory, who is out to Lula as gay, nevertheless keeps secret his illicit relationship with his middle-aged boss, Andy … Rory narrates the first half of the book and Lula, the second, and both voices are crisply and intimately drawn. … Carefully and subtly imagined.” — Kirkus

Illuminate by Tracy Clark (Entangled Teen)

Book Description: Can one girl be the light in a world spiraling toward darkness?

Haunted by the loss of her loved ones, Cora Sandoval, one of the remaining few of an extraordinary race known as Scintilla, holds the key to disentangling the biggest conspiracy in human history…and its link to the fate of the human race. As Cora follows a trail of centuries-old clues and secrets, she collides with a truth not only shocking, but dangerous.

With enemies both known and unknown hot on her trail, Cora must locate each of the ancient clues hidden in the art, religions, and mythologies of humankind. And through it all, she must keep her heart from being torn apart by the two boys she loves most. One is Scintilla, one is Arazzi.

Save herself. Save the Scintilla. Save the world. Or die trying…

Waterfire Saga, Book Three: Dark Tide by Jennifer Donnelly (Disney-Hyperion)

Book Description: Once a lost and confused princess, Serafina is now a confident leader of the Black Fin Resistance (BFR). While she works on sabotaging her enemy and enlisting allies for battle, her friends face challenges of their own. Ling is in the hold of Rafe Mfeme’s giant trawler, on her way to a prison camp. Becca meets up with Astrid and learns why the Ondalinian mermaid is always so angry: she is hiding a shameful secret. Ava can’t return home, because death riders await her arrival. And it is getting more and more difficult for Mahdi, Serafina’s betrothed, to keep up the ruse that he is in love with Lucia Volerno. If Lucia’s parents become suspicious, his life–and all of Sera’s hopes–will be extinguished. Political intrigue, dangerous liaisons, and spine-tingling suspense swirl like a maelstrom in this penultimate book in the WaterFire saga.

Willful Machines by Tim Floreen (Simon Pulse)

“In the not-so-distant future, robotics enthusiast Lee Fisher is the closeted son of the ultra-conservative U.S. president. With only one kiss under his belt, Lee has earned his nickname, Walk-In (as in closet). His father has a strict moral agenda to steer the country back to ancient ideals, proselytizing the dangers of technology; indeed, Lee’s mother was murdered by an ”artificially conscious“ robot named Charlotte who is now plotting a terrorist attack. Lee, tailed by the Secret Service and scrutinized by the media, wants to keep a low profile. When svelte, charismatic, Chilean Nico Medina arrives at Lee’s stuffy prep school, the stakes change. … Gothic, gadget-y, gay: a socially conscious sci-fi thriller to shelve between The Terminator and Romeo and Juliet.” — Kirkus, starred review

Signs Point to Yes by Sandy Hall (Swoon Reads)

“To save herself from her mom’s meddling, Jane Connelly accepts a job as a nanny to three little girls. It brings her back into contact with Teo, a childhood friend. Teo Garcia barely knows Jane anymore. But the more Jane and Teo interact, the friendlier they become. Teo is hiding a secret: He is searching for his birth father. All he knows is his name. … Teo feels like he is losing his connection to his mom and his heritage, which pushes him forward in his search for his father. It is a summer of changes for both of them, and this bonds them together. … Fun and original, Hall’s sophomore novel has an authentic teen voice with plenty of charm.” — School Library Journal

A Thousand Nights by E. K. Johnston (Disney-Hyperion)

“A loose retelling of The Arabian Nights frame story from Morris Award- and Kirkus Prize-finalist Johnston takes ideas of power and gender, belief and love, and upends them. Somewhere in the pre-Islamic Middle East, an unnamed girl narrates how, with the intent of saving her beloved sister, she sets herself against a king who has already wed and killed 300 wives before the story begins. … Detailed and quiet, beautifully written with a literary rhythm that evokes a sense of oral tale-telling, this unexpected fantasy should not be missed.” — Kirkus, starred review

Being Me by Pete Kalu (Hope Road)

The teenage years! A time when you didn’t have all these responsibilities, when your future shone brightly before you, the world full of opportunity!

Who are we trying to kid? Being a teen is hard. Even when you’re a star on your school’s soccer team, are a good student, and have a boyfriend, there are plenty of ways that being a teen—to speak bluntly—sucks. That’s the world—of angst and emotion, fractured families and fractious frenemies—that Pete Kalu conjures up in Being Me. The story of Adele, a girl with a rotten family, an aching heart, and a questionable best friend, it’s a witty, lively novel of growing up female, black, and middle class in contemporary London. As Adele navigates an everyday gauntlet of soccer matches, fights with her best friend, texts and furtive kisses with her boyfriend (her first!), and the travails of her screwed up family, Kalu takes us back to those tough teen years, of learning to hold things together in the midst of chaos—and sorting things out by figuring out just who you are, and who you want to be.

Wishing for You by Elizabeth Langston (FictionETC Press)

Book Description: She’s a girl who can’t remember. He’s the guy she can’t forget…

It’s her final semester of high school, and Kimberley Rey is curious about what will come next. She needs to pick a college, but her memory disability complicates the choice. Will her struggles to remember make it impossible to leave home?

Help arrives through an unexpected and supernatural gift. Grant is a “genie” with rules. He can give her thirty wishes (one per day for a month) as long as the tasks are humanly possible. Kimberley knows just what to ask for–lessons in how to live on her own.

But her wishes change when a friend receives a devastating diagnosis. As she joins forces with Grant to help her friend, Kimberley learns that the ability to live in the moment–to forget–may be more valuable than she ever knew.

The Rose Society by Marie Lu (G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers)

“A heroine’s tragic tumble dominates the second volume of this trilogy. After Adelina’s expulsion by the Daggers for the dreadful events at the conclusion of The Young Elites (2014), she and her sister flee abroad seeking allies for their vendetta. The sisters are malfettos, survivors of the blood fever, marked with physical changes that leave them hated and feared in their native Kenettra. … The direction of this trilogy’s conclusion is left refreshingly difficult to predict. Original and sobering, Adelina is an antihero of nigh-unremitting darkness: an unusual young woman in the mold of such archetypes as Lucifer, Macbeth, and Darth Vader.” — Kirkus

Gathering Deep by Lisa Maxwell (Flux)

“Magical mother-daughter bonds prove tough to sever in this sequel to the Southern gothic Sweet Unrest (2014). Recently possessed Chloe Sabourin is reeling from her unwitting role in the recent murders and dark magic that rocked New Orleans and devastated by the discovery that her mother, Mina, is the witch Thisbe. … Chloe learns about Thisbe—a former 19th-century slave longing for her lost love, Augustine, and locked in an eternal battle with psychotic slave owner Roman Dutilette … Maxwell’s mixture of past and present, dreams and reality, speech and telepathy is immersive and delirious. Mommy dearest’s deal with the devil offers psychological melodrama and ghoulish thrills.” — Kirkus

A Step Toward Falling by Cammie McGovern (HarperTeen)

“Emily knew when she saw Belinda, a classmate with developmental disabilities, being assaulted under the bleachers she needed to intervene, but she froze, and now she’s doing community service and trying to figure out how to live with herself. Belinda is attempting to determine how to go forward after rescuing herself. Told in alternating sections of Emily’s and Belinda’s voices, this book explores how even good people can fail morally. … Belinda is written thoughtfully and respectfully. She has a distinct voice that reflects her cognitive disabilities but without condescension.” — School Library Journal, starred review

Juba!: A Novel by Walter Dean Myers (Amistad)

“Juba, a freeborn young black man, dreams of making it big as a dancer in antebellum New York City. The late, acclaimed Myers chose the real-life story of William Henry Lane, arguably the most celebrated black performer of the prewar era, as the basis for this historical exploration. Combining extensive research and deft storytelling, Myers chronicles Juba’s struggle to perform with superb skill and dignity instead of the degrading ”cooning“ and blackface that minstrel shows demanded. … Poignant, revealing period fiction about race and art in pre-Civil War America.” — Kirkus

Monster: A Graphic Novel by Walter Dean Myers, adapted by Guy A. Sims, illustrated by Dawud Anyabwile (Amistad)

“A faithfully adapted graphic-novel retelling of the first Printz Award winner. … Sims and Anyabwile are smart enough not to mess with a good thing, and they stick closely to the original to tell the story of New York teenager Steve Harmon’s trial for felony murder. … Anyabwile’s black-and-white illustrations do more than simply interpret the original’s camera directions and descriptions. They also add subtle layers to the courtroom accounts and journal entries, all while maintaining the narrative suspense and ambiguity that’s made this story linger with a generation of readers.” — Kirkus

The Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness (HarperTeen)

“It’s not easy being normal when the Chosen One goes to your high school. High school senior Mikey Mitchell knows that he’s not one of the ”indie kids“ in his small Washington town. While they ”end up being the Chosen One when the vampires come calling or when the Alien Queen needs the Source of All Light or something,“ Mikey simply wants to graduate, enjoy his friendships, and maybe, just maybe, kiss his longtime crush. … The diverse cast of characters is multidimensional and memorable, and the depiction of teen sexuality is refreshingly matter-of-fact. Magical pillars of light and zombie deer may occasionally drive the action here, but ultimately this novel celebrates the everyday heroism of teens doing the hard work of growing up. Fresh, funny, and full of heart: not to be missed.” — Kirkus, starred review

Banished Sons Of Poseidon by Andrew J. Peters (Bold Strokes Books)

Book Description: After escaping from a flood that buried the aboveground in seawater, a fractured group of boys from Atlantis squabble over the way ahead and their trust of an underground race of men who give them shelter. For sixteen-year-old Dam, whose world was toppling before the tragedy, it’s a strange, new second chance. There are wonders in the underworld and a foreign warrior Hanhau who is eager for friendship despite Dam’s dishonorable past.

But a rift among his countrymen threatens to send their settlement into chaos. Peace between the evacuees and Hanhau’s tribe depends on the sharing of a precious relic that glows with arcane energy. When danger emerges from the shadowed backcountry, Dam must undertake a desperate mission. It’s the only hope for the Atlanteans to make it home to the surface. It’s the only way to save Hanhau and his people.

If You’re Lucky by Yvonne Prinz (Algonquin Young Readers)

“Seventeen-year-old Georgia’s schizophrenic mind sees a suspicious link between the accidental sudden death of her beloved older brother Lucky in a surfing accident and his attractive friend Fin’s charming way of inserting himself into Lucky’s former life. Her paranoia increases as she goes off her medication, bringing readers along for her fevered observations, raw feelings, and strange hallucinations in tandem with the ongoing action. Georgia is convinced that Fin killed Lucky and she is the only one who recognizes the danger. … The protagonist ranks among the best of unreliable narrators in YA literature, leaving readers uncertain, confused, and utterly absorbed.” — School Library Journal

An Infinite Number Of Parallel Universes by Randy Ribay (Merit Press)

Book Description: Four friends from wildly different backgrounds have bonded over Dungeons & Dragons since the sixth grade. Now they’re facing senior year and a major shift in their own universes. Math whiz Archie is struggling with his parents’ divorce after his dad comes out as gay. Mari is terrified of her adoptive mother’s life-altering news. Dante is carrying around a huge secret that is proving impossible to keep hidden. And when Sam gets dumped by the love of his life, everyone is ready to join him on a cross-country quest to win her back. The four quickly discover that the road is not forgiving, and that real life is no game. They must face a test of friendship where the stakes are more than just a roll of the dice—they are life and death.

Carry On by Rainbow Rowell (St. Martin’s Griffin)

Book Description: Simon Snow is the worst Chosen One who’s ever been chosen.

That’s what his roommate, Baz, says. And Baz might be evil and a vampire and a complete git, but he’s probably right.

Half the time, Simon can’t even make his wand work, and the other half, he starts something on fire. His mentor’s avoiding him, his girlfriend broke up with him, and there’s a magic-eating monster running around, wearing Simon’s face. Baz would be having a field day with all this, if he were here — it’s their last year at the Watford School of Magicks, and Simon’s infuriating nemesis didn’t even bother to show up.

Carry On – The Rise and Fall of Simon Snow is a ghost story, a love story and a mystery. It has just as much kissing and talking as you’d expect from a Rainbow Rowell story — but far, far more monsters.

What We Left Behind by Robin Talley (Harlequin Teen)

Book Description: Toni and Gretchen are the couple everyone envied in high school. They’ve been together forever. They never fight. They’re deeply, hopelessly in love. When they separate for their first year at college—Toni to Harvard and Gretchen to NYU—they’re sure they’ll be fine. Where other long-distance relationships have fallen apart, theirs is bound to stay rock-solid.

The reality of being apart, though, is very different than they expected. Toni, who identifies as genderqueer, meets a group of transgender upperclassmen and immediately finds a sense of belonging that has always been missing, but Gretchen struggles to remember who she is outside their relationship.

While Toni worries that Gretchen won’t understand Toni’s new world, Gretchen begins to wonder where she fits in this puzzle. As distance and Toni’s shifting gender identity begin to wear on their relationship, the couple must decide—have they grown apart for good, or is love enough to keep them together?

Why I Only Write About LGBTQIA+ Characters (for now)

By Robin Talley

talley-whatweleftbehindRecently, a reader asked me if I’d intentionally set out for my new book, What We Left Behind, to have an almost entirely LGBTQ cast. The answer to that question is no, not really ― it wasn’t until I was on the seventh or so revision that I realized how few straight, cisgender characters have actual speaking roles in WWLB ― but his question really got me thinking.

What We Left Behind is very different from my first book, Lies We Tell Ourselves. Lies was set in 1959 Virginia. Both of its main characters, Sarah and Linda, are on the queer spectrum (in my mind, they’re both bisexual, but being that the only sex ed they’ve ever received is the 1950s public-school edition, these characters don’t have terminology for their identities beyond “That one girl makes me feel kind of funny”). They have no awareness of any other LGBTQIA+ people existing in their world. They assume that by default, everyone they know is straight and cis. (Again, in my head, there’s one other gay character in the book ― their choir teacher ― but Sarah and Linda aren’t aware of that, so it isn’t on the page.)

But What We Left Behind is set in the present day. It starts out in the Washington, D.C. suburbs, where the lead characters are from. Then the setting moves back and forth between the two college campuses where they’re starting their respective freshman years ― Harvard, and NYU.

All three of those settings are considered hotbeds of liberalism by the Fox News types. And, well, they’re not entirely wrong. Toni and Gretchen, the two 18-year-old protagonists of What We Left Behind, have been out to various degrees about their queer identities for years. When they arrive at their new schools, they both find communities of classmates who are on the LGBTQ spectrum, too. And for Toni, who identifies as genderqueer at the start of the book, becoming part of a group of trans* friends opens up a whole new world that just might change everything.

Writing a book with an almost entirely queer-identified cast was so much fun I don’t even have the words for it. Now that we’re safely living in the 21st century, for some LGBTQIA+ people ― and yes, I was one of them ― college is the first place where you can really be part of a community of friends who get what it’s like to be you.

I get to keep indulging in queer communities after this book, too. The book I’m working on next, As I Descended ― which is also set in the here and now, though it’s more on the SF/F side of things (it’s a retelling of Macbeth set at a haunted Virginia boarding school) ― also has a lead cast made up entirely of gay and bi folks.

It’s awesome to get to write about more-or-less out-and-proud teenagers after spending years dwelling on the repressive world that was 1950s America. But more than that, there’s something unique and exciting in writing about queer communities, specifically. That’s also something that I feel has been lacking in YA. Sure, YA has been short on LGBTQIA+ representation (and marginalized community representation across the board) since its inception, and the numbers show that we’re nowhere close to rectifying that today. But even in many YA books with LGBTQIA+ protagonists, it’s still pretty common for just that one character, plus maybe a BFF and/or love interest, to be the only non-straight, non-cis people around.

And that’s certainly a common experience for a lot of teens on the LGBTQIA+ spectrum. That’s basically what it was like for me in high school in the 1990s. But it’s not the only reality, especially in today’s social-media-connected world. And for me, writing ― and reading ― about queer teens who are plugged into that bigger world is both fun and fascinating.

But even when they’re living in relative isolation, like in my first book, I’m still more interested in writing about LGBTQIA+ characters than straight, cisgender folks, at least when it comes to protagonists. It’s partly that I relate to the sexuality aspect of their identities, being queer myself. But I think it’s also because, to some degree or other, these characters are operating outside cultural expectations. It may not be the 1950s anymore, but we still very much live in a world where straight and cisgender are the default. And for now at least, I’m most interested in writing about characters who don’t conform to that assumption.

Never say never, of course. Someday a straight, cis character might pop into my head whose story I simply can’t wait to tell.

But for now… I’m sticking with lesbian Macbeth.

robintalleyRobin Talley, author of Lies We Tell Ourselves (September 2014) and What We Left Behind (October 2015), grew up in Roanoke, Virginia. A Lambda Literary Fellow, Robin now lives in Washington, D.C., with her wife, plus an antisocial cat and a goofy hound dog. When Robin’s not writing, she’s often planning communication strategies at organizations fighting for equal rights and social justice. You can find her on the web at or on Twitter at @robin_talley.

What We Left Behind is available for purchase.

“Being Me” and the Complexity of Black Identity

By Pete Kalu

kalu-beingmeI began my literary life as a storyteller visiting classrooms across the UK. I found in the major cities — London, Birmingham, Leeds and Manchester, pupils in one class might collectively know up to fifteen languages. In these same classrooms there would be children of amazingly mixed backgrounds — Turkish-Pakistani, Nigerian-Polish, third generation hyphenated Jamaican-Ghanaian-English-Irish children.

This hybridity is not an exclusively UK phenomenon. In Hong Kong I met third generation Indian-Chinese; in Lebanon I’ve met Nigerian bartenders who spoke fluent English having picked it up from American movies but who also spoke fluent Arabic and were engaged to Lebanese women. I’ve met Kashmiri villagers in Pakistan who spoke Scottish-English on account of Britain’s colonial ventures there hundreds of years ago!

Black identity is endlessly complex once you start to look up close. And to compound that complexity, culture (which forms a significant part of identity) is never static — it’s always on the move: absorbing new influences, throwing off the old. This is nothing new. I once traced a story that originated with the Mende people of Sudan and moved down into West Africa in different versions and which has now spread across to the Caribbean. In each location the story adapted itself, absorbing local influences. Hybridity is as old as the African hills.

Overlaying this aspect of hybridity and the resulting diversity of identity is the negative phenomenon of racism. Racism’s effect tends to be a flattening of the uniqueness of individuals and of the shifting variegation of cultures and their replacement with a monotone stereotype. Racism takes away individuation; it impresses its own images on individuals and communities. So Being Me tries to push back by exploring and celebrating the many complexities and ambiguities that black identity possesses.

In Being Me, Adele has an Ethiopian grandmother, a father who identifies as Italian and a white Liverpudlian mother. Adele considers herself black on account of her grandmother, but her father, who has a fine line in racism (see my first YA novel, The Silent Striker) considers her English-Italian. Adele occasionally speaks a form of urban slang which she attributes to her black grandmother. It is her confused way of boosting her ‘blackness’, as a means of pushing back against her father. Her frenemy Mikaela meanwhile has darker skin and two dark skinned parents. When annoyed, Mikaela rejects Adele’s attempt to identify as black and ridicules her for it. But if we hold the mirror up to Mikalea, Mikaela’s black identity is not ‘normal’ either. Mikaela’s parents are rich lawyers. Mikaela would prefer them to be poor in keeping with the stereotype of urban black families that she considers would make her look cool at school. To make things even more complicated, Mikaela’s parents were once Black Power militants and still champion the radical voices involved in anti-racism and pro-refugee campaigns such as Black Lives Matter and #refugeeswelcome. The whole bag of assumptions and expectations get thrown in the air in Being Me when Adele’s historically racist father inexplicably starts an affair with Mikaela’s mum.

To return to the source, as a storyteller, I would go into classrooms, tell a story or two from my life, then ask: what is blackness? Is it the way someone speaks? The way they walk? Is it where they are born? Their family? One story I would tell them   from my own adolescence was of how a white skinned Jamaican man arrived in Manchester, UK and set up a kung fu class popular with second generation Jamaican children. We were astonished when this white man opened his mouth and spoke more fluent Jamaican nation-language (patois) than any second generation UK born Jamaican kid. It had us all re-examining our understanding of Jamaican-ness, which at the time, was the coolest kind of blackness.

The school students loved debating this stuff and teachers said it was the first time they had had an opportunity within school to talk like this, there were no YA novels that gave UK black identity anything more than a token examination.

Coming back to Being Me, in the background of the novel, the questions I am considering (we novelists never have any answers — only questions!) relate to the nature of black consciousness as a lived experience. Does a black kid think any differently to a white kid? If so, when? All the time? If not all the time, then in what circumstances?

Take a math problem as an example. You might think on the surface everyone looks at a math question in the same way. Yet a black kid might go into class with reservations. One of racism’s early messages was that African people are not adept at scientific thinking. This translates down as black people cannot do math. When entering the math classroom, what examples of black scientific successes has the black kid seen, what role models of people good at math has she or he picked up, how does their black peer group see the idea of being good at math and what cultural influences have affected that wider peer group?

Add all this up and a black kid by the age of 14 may have been delivered a sufficiently negative message about their math ability as to be much more hesitant going into a math class.

So a simple task — the square root of nine — may be contemplated with completely different attitudes by a black kid and a white kid. That’s without any reference to the actual mathematical processing brain work that the task requires. The reverse might happen at Physical Education. Black people are expected to be good at that. How does it feel if you’re black and actually rubbish at sports or dancing or any of the other stereotypical things we are meant to be good at?

So much for being black in school. How about daily life? The UK born black journalist Gary Younge stayed for 12 years in the USA writing news reports for major UK newspapers, including the Guardian. He wrote recently about his decision to return from the USA, describing how his very young son did not want to walk down a certain street because he felt threatened. His son, even at that early age, was already adjusting his thinking and his behaviour to the fact of his blackness. Do all black kids come to learn which streets it is not safe to walk down, both literally and metaphorically?

Some might say, what about our common humanity? Surely we have more in common than that which separates us? Extending this reasoning, some writers consider that black consciousness (if I can use that phrase in a narrow sense of being aware of being black in society) is not central to the black child’s personality or experience of life: black awareness is an intermittent experience. It’s an argument that may hold some truth.

Such writers could therefore presumably write black characters as white and merely swap the name John for Kwame and, with a few extra touches here and there, arrive at a convincing black YA character.

To take the other extreme, if blackness or racism determined every aspect of a character’s life, what room would there be for individualisation, for showing the deeply felt unique emotions and distinctive intellectual life which we each have as individuals — is all that flattened out by racism? Does racism make us all the same?

The Holy Grail for a writer concerned with black identity is to create a black character who has a deeply felt emotional life, a highly individualized experience of the world and a fully active intellectual life, while not ignoring the societal structures which impinge on their world. Ultimately, I guess the emphases you choose as a writer when depicting black characters depends on your own experiences, observations and judgements.

With my own two YA novels I’ve plunged in and given two different takes on black identity. In The Silent Striker Marcus has a vociferous white mum who is a trainee magician and a proudly Nigerian postal worker dad who wants to be pop singer only he has a voice like a cat with its tail caught in a door. Marcus suffers racial bullying by a teacher and some of his classmates. In his own, Marcus looks set to go under. But his true friends rally round (including Adele, his sort of girlfriend) and in a ‘Spartacus’ moment help him oppose his scapegoating, lift his chin and get his dreams back on track.

In Being Me, Adele and Mikaela are best friends and worst enemies. Mikaela calls out Adele’s ‘skin privilege’ — the way Adele’s life is easier as she is lighter-skinned than Mikaela. Adele herself longs to be what she considers more authentically black but has wrong-headed ideas about what being black means. Teen life is a time of working out who you are. For Adele and Mikaela, bumping up against assumptions, trying out stereotypes and challenging expectations is part of their growing up. It is their enduring friendship that pulls them through it all.

Those are my two tales. Two approaches. There is room for a whole range of other takes on black identity. Currently there are very few YA novels with contemporary black characters published by mainstream publishers whether in the US or the UK.

As evidence of that I recently visited a Manchester branch of Britain’s leading bookshop chain. I randomly chose some YA stories that looked as if they were set in the UK in the 21st century and wrote down the first girl’s name I came across.   Here’s the list.

Rose. Minny. Penny. Eden. Zahra. Poppy. Mary Harriet. Anna. Georgia. Emmy. Evie. Lily.

A very white list. To find a black character anywhere on those YA shelves I had to leave contemporary YA fiction and look among books set either in a distant time, a distant land or in a fantasy universe. It’s time for YA fiction to fearlessly place black characters in the now. We are part of this world. We belong.

petekaluPeter Kalu is well known as a poet, novelist, playwright and script writer. He started writing as a member of the Moss Side Write black writers workshop and has had five novels, two film scripts and three theatre plays produced to date. In 2002 he won the Kodak/Liverpool Film Festival Award for his script, No Trace. In March 2003 he won the BBC/Contact Theatre’s Dangeorus Comedy Script Award for his play, Pants. He has lived in Hulme/ Moss Side/ Didsbury, Manchester; Edinburgh, Scotland; Leeds, Yorkshire; Lagos and Abia State (briefly), Nigeria; and San Francisco, USA. He has a degree in Law and further qualifications in software programming, Internet coding and Marketing. He runs a Hulme based Carnival Band called Moko Jumbi (Ghosts of the Gods) which takes to the streets at Manchester Carnival every year in July on three feet high stilts! He is learning to tightrope walk.

Being Me is now available.

Writing Around the Rules of YA

By Elizabeth Langston

perf5.000x8.000.inddWhen I first created Kimberley Rey, the heroine of Wishing for You, I knew she was struggling with her college decision and that her friend Sean had a terminal illness. What I didn’t know yet was that Kimberley had a disability.

It wasn’t until I was plotting her relationship with Sean that I could see it. He wanted to keep his cancer a secret as long as possible, and Kimberley was the only friend he’d told. When I thought about why that was true, I realized that it was partly because she’d had cancer too. And I knew exactly which kind.

Many years ago, I met a little girl on a bone marrow transplant unit, in the room next door to my nephew’s. Dana was happy, healthy, and cured of leukemia. However, the chemotherapy had damaged her short-term memory. Over time, we learned that the memory loss was permanent. She would fight a life-long battle to remember details, stay organized, and make decisions. Dana became the inspiration for Kimberley.

The realities of a memory disability sent the book down new paths.

Kimberley’s college choice changed from tough to intensely difficult — even terrifying. For many teens, cost is a constraining factor in their college search. But once they know their budget, they get to consider academic programs, social life, sports, and how far away they want to go. People who are neuro-atypical have other priorities. They have to think about accommodations, access to health care, safety, and how close they are to home.

I know how it feels to be an anxious parent and watch my kids wrestle with this decision. My older daughter has several chronic health issues, including depression. Her younger sister has a developmental disability. I’ve come to understand how important it is to find the right college — and what can happen when you get it wrong.

Kimberley’s disability also meant that she was completely unprepared for moving away to college. She’d been sheltered, with justification, by her overprotective parents. Her character arc had to include lessons in independence, like cooking without causing a fire or crossing a street without stepping into oncoming traffic. Her goals were small, tame, and absolutely necessary for her.

But too many scenes with mundane achievements would make for a boring book. So I experimented with the story structure, lightening up on the action plot and focusing instead on the more emotional subplots. She’s still the protagonist, the force driving the action forward, yet always with someone from her “supporting cast” nearby. It doesn’t take long for her friendship with Sean to become the heart of the story. While he encourages Kimberley along her journey of discovery, she helps him to laugh and forget.

“Strange how knowing our story had no happy ending had freed us to live in the moment. We weren’t guy and girl. We weren’t damaged and terminal. We were just now.”

Writing this book gave me unexpected insight into the rules of YA fiction. To get Kimberley right, I had to play around with genre conventions, tropes, and what’s expected of a good protagonist. I couldn’t send this heroine on a quest because she’d get lost. Involved parents were critical to her survival. And the consistent presence of friends provided the security she needed to grow. By the time I’d finished her story, I’d learned how to write around any rules that got in Kimberley’s way. It makes me wonder how much the rules have become a barrier to creating characters with disabilities.

As I wrote Wishing for You, I worried if I’d done enough research, kept Kimberley realistic, or strayed too far from the rules. But I never doubted the idea of telling her story, because I believe that YA readers are open to embracing all kinds of heroes.

elizabethlangstonElizabeth Langston lives in North Carolina, halfway between the beaches and the mountains. She has two twenty-something daughters and one old, geeky husband. When she’s not writing software or stories, Elizabeth loves to travel with her family, watch dance reality shows on TV, and dream about which restaurant ought to get her business that night. Wishing for You is the second book in her I Wish series.

Wishing for You is now available.

Don’t Be Cool

In Weird Girl and What’s His Name by Meagan Brothers, Rory and Lula are definitely not the cool kids, but they don’t care. They’re best friends who share everything from their “messed-up parent situation” to their obsessive love of The X-Files. But when Lula finds out that Rory, who’s gay, has been secretly dating his middle-aged boss, their friendship comes apart. In the aftermath, both of them will discover what it means to be friends, to be family, to be in love, and to be themselves.

By Meagan Brothers

brothers-weirdgirlI don’t know why I even went into Target in the first place, but it was too late to turn back now.  I was frozen in the aisle next to the Home Electronics section, beside a pop-up kiosk full of DVDs.  I was trying to talk myself out of the inevitable.  Nope.  No way.  I’m not going back to all that.  I’m a perfectly normal person now.  No way is that DVD going into this shopping cart.  No way – no – I said no – what are you doing?  Put that down!  I’m not kidding! 

But it was too late.  The damage was done.  A quick trip through the express line and I was the proud owner of a two-DVD set called The X-Files: Revelations, the “Essential Guide to The X-Files Movie,” featuring “8 Critical Episodes Handpicked by the Series Creator.”  Critical Episodes!  So what if I had no money to spare and I’d already seen almost every episode of The X-Files at least twice?  This was critical.

Actually, the only thing that was truly critical was this new story I was writing.  It was growing every day at an alarming (dare I say supernatural) rate.  It had started a couple of weeks before, in June of 2008, when I’d gone to see the new X-Files movie on opening night.  The last time I’d spent a Friday night alone with Mulder and Scully, I was 19.  Despite the fact that this new X-Files movie wasn’t the franchise’s greatest cinematic achievement, its effect on my psyche was downright Proustian.  A few days after the premiere, this story about two friends obsessed with the show started coming to me, and I started writing it down as quickly as I could.

But if we’re being completely accurate, this obsession – and this story – really started back in the early spring of 1995, during my junior year of high school.  My friend Liz, who shared her classic Twilight Zone episodes on VHS with me and knew my penchant for quirky TV like Twin Peaks and Northern Exposure, casually mentioned that I should check out this show on Friday nights called The X-Files.  I was immediately hooked.  From the first episode, this dark, obsessive little show caused me to vibrate on heretofore unknown frequencies.  For a 17-year-old who spent much of her spare time down in the basement, pecking out bad poetry and odd little vampire stories on the family computer, The X-Files was everything.  Our hero, Fox Mulder, was literally and figuratively alienated, a brilliant agent exiled to the basement of the FBI because of his all-consuming quest to find his sister, who he swore was abducted by UFOs.  His partner, Dana Scully, was sent to spy on him and discredit him, but became his biggest ally.  Together, they investigated the strange, the disturbing, and the inexplicable, traipsing about in misty nighttime forests against the backdrop of an atmospheric synth score.  Here was a show about loneliness, about devotion, about friendship and faith.  Here was a show aimed directly at the heart of a moody little weirdo like me.

I became, in the parlance of the fandom, an X-Phile.

I spent the next few years taping every episode I could.  I bought any magazine that promised even the tiniest hint of an X-Files article.  When we went off to college, Liz bought me an “I Want To Believe” poster for my dorm room wall.  I remained a die-hard fan for the next few years, until graduation gave way to a more time-consuming life in the “real world” and the show, in its final seasons, became a bit mired in retcon and muddled mythology.  Unexpectedly, I found myself in Phile Apostasy, even giving away my treasured box of taped-from-TV VHS episodes to a guy named Moon Pie who worked with my mom.  He was a down on his luck sort who drove an ancient Chevrolet Celebrity wagon with a sheet of plastic covering the perpetually busted-out back window.  My mom somehow found out that he didn’t have cable or a TV antenna at home, just a TV set with a VCR, and he spent his weekends trolling the flea markets and thrift stores for budget entertainment.  Already a veteran thrifter myself, I felt for the guy, so I gave him my X-Files collection, which was just sitting around gathering dust.   A year or two later, Moon Pie won $100,000 in the lottery.  He ditched the Chevy, but I hope that he still kept my “X-Files Miscellaneous” VHS with the Simpsons crossover episode and David Duchovny hosting Saturday Night Live.  Because, as I now know, that’s the sort of thing that no amount of money can replace.

Which brings us back to Target, and the summer of 2008.  I was in the feverish throes of this story, but I knew that, to tell the story of these two best friends whose love for each other was matched only by their love of The X-Files, I would have to get back into the show.  This show had already taken over my life once, when I was a teenager whose main worry was that I was failing algebra.  Now I was an adult with a relationship, a job, and a burgeoning writing career.  No time for TV love, Dr. Jones.  And, beyond that, this weird thing had happened and I was actually sort of cool now.  I’d been in a band.  People in town who knew me knew me as “the guitar player from that band.”  I’d been introduced to other actually cool people in actual cool bands as “the guitar player from that band.”  I’d been on tour in a van.  I’d worked as a record store clerk and on indie movie sets.  I’d written a YA novel that got some nice notices and I was finishing another one.  I was a cool person doing cool things.  Why would I need to devote myself to sitting around, obsessively watching some TV show?  What could be more uncool?

Well, that’s one angle to the story.  But, brace yourself for the big confession: I was never actually cool!  Not even for a minute!  That person in the cheap sunglasses throwing the guitar around and trying to be a badass was never separate from the insecure kid with the terrible math grades and the I Want to Believe poster.  (I know.  It was a shock to me, too.)

So I’d bought my little 8-episode set, and I wrote my little story.  Which actually wasn’t very little at all – it ended up being almost fifty manuscript pages.  Way too long for any magazine or anthology that published short stories.  What the heck was I supposed to do with fifty pages of X-Files nerd lore?  Leave it to gather dust in a desk drawer, that’s what.  Oh well.  That was fun.  I guess.

I ignored the story for a year while I finished rewrites on my second novel and tried to dive into a third, a Big Serious Adult Novel.  But something about that too-long short story wouldn’t leave me alone.  So I dove back into this little saga of these two friends, Rory and Lula, joined by their impossible love of a television show.  I started watching the show again myself.  Somewhere along the way, I stopped caring whether people would think I was cool or not.  I’d already written one book that was inspired by my own Debbie Harry fandom – if I could weather the slings and arrows of my serious music snob friends and their eye-rolling disdain for Blondie, a mere pop band, then I could deal with people thinking I was a nerd for loving The X-Files.  I stopped caring whether people thought I was serious enough, or literary enough.  I was doing something I loved.

I loved writing this story.  It was a story about loving something that I actually loved.  And when you love a thing, or a person, or a song, or a TV show, then it doesn’t matter what other people think.  You just love that thing to death and worry about the rest later.  It took almost five years for this book to get published.  But that’s okay.  Not everybody is going to love what you love in the way that you love it.  It takes patience.  People might try to think up all kinds of ways to try and make you feel bad for loving what you love.  Don’t listen to them.  Just don’t.  Love is a truth that vibrates in every fiber of your being, and that is not a hyperbole.  It is truer than whatever name-calling or petty ugliness can be conjured up by people outside of your love.  Your love may not make you any money, or get you any awards, but who cares?  Those things all fall away in time, anyway.  What’s going to matter is that point at the end where you are tired and jaded and old and you look back on your love and you vibrate and light up and it feels like something supernatural is happening to you but in fact all it is is recognition.  That’s all love is.  It isn’t badass.  It isn’t cool.  It’s human beings, isolated and lonesome, waving to each other from across some nameless void, saying hello, I see you!  And you see me!  Thank God, you see me!  Hello!  I see you!  I love you!  Hello!

meaganbrothersMeagan Brothers is the author of two previous novels for young adults, Debbie Harry Sings in French and Supergirl Mixtapes. She has also been, variously, a musician, a performing poet, a record store clerk, and an adjunct professor of creative writing at Manhattanville College in Purchase, NY. A native Carolinian, she currently lives and works in New York City.

Weird Girl and What’s His Name is now available.