Monthly Archives: August 2015

Words That Wake Us

By Ashley Hope Pérez

perez-outofdarknessMy third novel Out of Darkness takes the 1937 New London, Texas, school explosion as the backdrop for a secret romance between an African American boy and a Mexican American girl. It’s a book about segregation, love, family, and the forces that destroy people.

When I began Out of Darkness, my goal was to write a historical novel that would capture the imagination of even my toughest, most reluctant readers and expose them to experiences largely excluded from the sanitized historical accounts in Texas history books. I wanted to approach the past in a way that would also prompt my readers to engage in a fuller consideration of the present and the shape of the world around us.

Growing up one county over from New London, I heard powerful stories of loss and of survival related to the explosion, and I felt that a school disaster offered considerable dramatic possibilities for a YA novel. But the most important reason for choosing this particular period, community, and event was what I didn’t know, the stories I didn’t find collected in the archival materials on the disaster. Because New London school was intended to serve white children, historical accounts of the explosion focused on the tragedy as the white community experienced it; no one had recorded how people of color in the area had responded or how they viewed the disaster.

New London School after the explosion
New London School after the explosion

Still, I wondered, for example, what the event meant for African American teens who were spared from the explosion precisely because they’d been denied access to the better-funded white school in the first place. Because I wanted to explore this question, I knew from the start that there would be an important African American character in my novel. Then, early in my research for the novel, while reading through a list of the children who had died in the explosion, I came across a name that surprised me: Juanita Herron. I found a photograph of Juanita and studied it. I imagined her name as it would have been written in Spanish: Juanita Herrón. I wondered, could a Mexican American child have attended the school?

It was possible, at least. Larger cities in Texas with established Latino populations had three-fold segregation: white schools for white children, “colored” schools for black children, and “Mexican” schools for Mexican Americans and other Latinos. In New London, however, there were only white and “colored” schools. This made it more plausible that light skinned Mexican American families—likely new arrivals attracted by jobs related to the oil boom—could have enrolled their children in the New London school. And it would have been an attractive option, especially in comparison to the grossly underfunded and overcrowded “Mexican” schools in other parts of Texas. From there, I began to imagine what it would be like for a Mexican American teenager to enter the black-and-white community of New London.

The gaps in the historical record on the New London school explosion catalyzed my imaginings of the two characters whose fictional story is at the center of Out of Darkness: Washington Fuller and Naomi Vargas. Having always lived in East Texas, seventeen-year-old Wash prides himself on knowing his way around both the woods and the prettiest girls from Egypt Town, where most of the black community lives. Wash’s days as a womanizer come to an end when he meets Naomi Vargas, a beautiful and painfully shy high school senior who has just moved to New London with her younger twin half-siblings, Beto and Cari (short for Roberto and Caridad). Until the opening of the novel, the three of them have lived in San Antonio, but Naomi’s white stepfather convinces the children’s grandparents to send them to live with him in East Texas so that the gifted twins can attend the New London School. The light-skinned twins quickly settle into their new life in New London, but Naomi encounters hostility because of her darker skin and struggles with the demands of living with a stepfather whose own needs trump any concern for his children. Time spent with the twins and Wash is a welcome relief, and Naomi and Wash fall in love through secret meetings in the East Texas woods. They know that they can’t hide forever. What they don’t know, though, is that the worst school disaster in U.S. history awaits, threatening to shatter the school, the community, and their hopes for a future where they can be together.

Given that Out of Darkness is set in the South during the 1930s, it will come as little surprise that racism shapes the direction of the story. In San Antonio, for example, Naomi and the twins are forced to attend “Mexican” schools with overcrowded classrooms and low-quality teachers. Almost invariably white (as college education was very difficult for Mexican Americans to access), many of these teachers found theirs an “undesirable” placement and were quick to underestimate the abilities of their students. Naomi may be able to attend a better school in East Texas, but in the absence of stores that cater to Mexican Americans, she faces blatant hostility when she tries to buy groceries at the one New London general store. Wash attends a “colored” school with a shorter school day and year, not to mention the absence of critical materials and resources.


Although forced segregation of schools may be a thing of the past, the effects—and reality—of segregation linger on. Unfortunately, racism is not just an unfortunate artifact from our past. The deaths of Trayvon Martin and Renisha McBride—to cite just two examples—make plain the continued relationship between racism and violence in America. In both cases, attackers claimed to feel threatened by unarmed teens. The rationale for that “threat” seems to hinge on the notion that black bodies should not be in (what the killers consider) white spaces. Those who defend the aggressors in these situations tend to focus on the shortcomings of the victims, as if to suggest that their poor decisions were responsible for putting them “in the wrong place at the wrong time” (note the scare quotes).

Readers of Out of Darkness will recognize that the same logic behind the actions of angry white men who feel threatened by Wash’s very presence at the site of the New London explosion. He’s there because the superintendent has hired him to do an afternoon’s work on the grounds, and he rushes into the school, saving several children from being crushed when the building collapses. Instead of being met with gratitude, though, he encounters the suspicion of those who think he has no business being near the white school—or their children.

Rescue workers at the site of the New London School explosion
Rescue workers at the site of the New London School explosion

Factual details influenced how I imagined the fictional events in Out of Darkness, especially Wash’s experiences after the explosion. For example, during my research I learned that an angry mob converged on the school superintendent’s house, hungry for someone to blame for the deaths of their children. In real life, they were turned away by mounted Texas Rangers charged with protecting the school board members from vigilante violence. The crowd dissipated, and no one was harmed. In the fictional world of Out of Darkness, however, this is the point when the mob turns its energies against a scapegoat not granted such protection.

As a black American, Wash experiences the heightened vulnerability that still characterizes the lives of many today. This vulnerability and its terrible consequences have deep roots in our history. Upwards of four thousand people were lynched between 1882 and 1968, and of that number, 3,445 were black. In contrast to the long-overdue mainstream media attention to killings of unarmed African Americans in recent years, news coverage of lynchings—as well as other discrimination endured by African Americans—was either altogether absent or sensationalized and justified the violence against black community members. According to Dr. Richard Perloff, prior to the Civil Rights Movement, news accounts of violence against black Americans generally assumed without question that the victim was guilty of a crime. Newspaper stories often used dehumanizing terms like “wretch,” “fiend,” and “desperado” to refer to the victims.

This historical pattern informs how Wash Fuller’s mistreatment is portrayed in newspaper stories within the world of Out of Darkness. But if I’ve done my job as a writer in Out of Darkness, the whole of the novel refutes the racist narratives perpetuated in the white press, both in how it details Wash’s encounter with those who seek to harm him and in how it portrays his beautifully imperfect and perfectly valuable life.

James Baldwin once noted that, in the U.S., “words are mostly used to cover the sleeper, not wake him up.” Reading fiction is no substitute for engagement with the world around us. I hope, nevertheless, that Out of Darkness confronts readers with words that wake them to the need for change. Perhaps knowing Wash—knowing his brilliance, his sense of humor, his human character, and the tremendous love he has for the people in his life—will lead readers to consider more deeply the human cost of violence against African Americans.

ashleyhopeperezIn addition to Out of Darkness (September 2015), Ashley Hope Pérez is the author of two other YA novels: What Can’t Wait and The Knife and the Butterfly. Out of Darkness has earned starred reviews from Kirkus and School Library Journal, and both What Can’t Wait and The Knife and the Butterfly appear on YALSA reading lists. She has a PhD in comparative literature and is currently a visiting assistant professor of comparative studies at The Ohio State University. She teaches topics that range from global youth narratives to Latin American and Latina/o fiction. She lives in Ohio with her husband, Arnulfo, and their sons, Liam Miguel and Ethan Andrés. Visit her online at or find her on Twitter at @ashleyhopeperez.

Out of Darkness is now available.

New Releases – August 2015

The Girl at the Center of the World by Austin Aslan (Wendy Lamb Books)

“Leilani’s epilepsy gave her the ability to communicate with the entity protecting the Earth in The Islands at the End of the World (Random, 2014); now she must face the consequences of her decision to keep it here. Humanity may be safe from its own folly, but it continues to struggle without its conveniences, especially in isolated places like Hawai’i. To survive, Lei’s community returns to the old ways as opposed to the selfishness and turf wars of others. They are far from safe though. … Lei is a remarkable character who carries the weight of the world on her shoulders, but she hardly does it alone. VERDICT An engaging and poignant follow-up with weighty and powerful themes of survival, cooperation, and human nature.” — School Library Journal

Lair of Dreams by Libba Bray (Little, Brown)

“Bray illuminates the dark side of the American Dream in her long-awaited sequel to The Diviners (2012), weaving xenophobia, industrial progress, Jazz Age debauchery, government secrets, religious fervor, and supernatural horror into a sprawling and always entertaining narrative. … Bray is equally at home constructing gruesome deaths at the hands of bloodthirsty ghosts and deploying incisive commentary on the march of progress, both of which inflict their share of damage.” — Publishers Weekly, starred review

Most Likely to Succeed by Jennifer Echols (Simon Pulse)

“Kaye is senior in a town on the gulf coast of Florida. Everything in Kaye’s life seems to be perfect. She’s vice president of student council; dates the president, Aidan; is captain of the cheerleading squad; and plans on going to Columbia University with her boyfriend. Aidan is voted Most Likely to Succeed but Kaye is voted half of the high school’s Perfect Couple—with Sawyer, the school mascot and resident bad boy. … Echols seamlessly tells this story of how two people come to fall in love, while including themes of bullying, interracial relationships, class, and family strife. The overall pace, plotting, and character development are even, and the narrative frankly touches upon sex and consent.” — School Library Journal

Code of Honor by Alan Gratz (Scholastic)

“An Iranian-American teen’s faith in his beloved brother is pushed to the limit when it appears that he may be involved in a terrorist attack on the U.S. Embassy in Turkey. High school senior Kamran and his parents are stunned when his brother, Darius, a U.S. Army Ranger, appears in a video following the embassy bombing, disheveled and rambling, claiming responsibility for the attack. The family’s descent into a constantly monitored nightmare of confusion is believably horrific. … Kamran is a smart and sympathetic narrator, and readers will be happy to spend time with him in this action-packed thriller.” — Kirkus

Court of Fives by Kate Elliott (Little, Brown)

“After the death of the highly placed aristocrat whose patronage ensured their safety, Jessamy’s mixed-race family is targeted by political enemies; spared thanks to her skill at the game of Fives, she must find a way to save them. … Jes finds an outlet from suffocating social strictures by secretly training for the Fives, a complex, mysterious competition popular with both castes. … This series opener, the auspicious teen debut of a seasoned author of adult fantasy and World Fantasy Award finalist, features a gripping, original plot; vivid, complicated characters; and layered, convincingly detailed worldbuilding. A compelling look at racial and social identity wrapped in a page-turning adventure.” — Kirkus

Enchanted Air: Two Cultures, Two Wings: A Memoir by Margarita Engle (Atheneum)

“Reflecting on her childhood in Los Angeles and her Cuban heritage, Engle’s memoir in verse is, indeed, nothing short of enchanting. Descriptions of Cuba as a tropical paradise and the home of her beloved abuelita come alive in the spare free-verse poems. She evocatively addresses weighty issues, such as her mother’s homesickness, being bicultural, the challenge of moving homes and schools, the Cuban Revolution, and negotiating an identity that is being torn apart by politics and social attitudes at complete odds with her feelings and experiences.” — Booklist, starred review

Of Dreams and Rust by Sarah Fine (Margaret K. McElderry Books)

“A solid continuation of Fine’s Of Metal and Wishes (S. & S., 2014), a unique retelling of Gaston Leroux’s Phantom of the Opera. In the year after the slaughterhouse where she worked collapsed, Wen tries desperately to be content in the healing clinic with her father and taking care of the ”Ghost“ that formerly haunted the factory. However, after overhearing a secret plan, the teen must decide if she will risk everything to try to save those she believes are innocent or watch helplessly as war consumes all of her dreams. Fine excels at creating the frenzied chaotic landscape of a racially driven war-ravaged world. … Set in a dystopian landscape with a variety of diverse characters, this romantic steampunk novel will have readers often on the edge of their seats as they try to keep up with the heroine’s adventures.” — School Library Journal

Another Day by David Levithan (Knopf Books for Young Readers)

“Waking up in a new body each day ain’t easy—neither is trying to keep track of the person who does. Readers first met A in Levithan’s ethereal 2013 novel, Every Day (2013). A is a being neither male nor female who wakes up inhabiting a different teenage body every morning. There’s no rhyme or reason for the bodies that A inhabits; they come in all sorts and sizes of teens—large, slight, Caucasian, Asian, athletic, popular, clinically depressed. All are of a similar age, and all tend to be within a certain geographical radius. Where the first novel was told from A’s perspective, this companion novel serves as the former’s mirror image, following the heroine of the first book, 16-year-old Rhiannon … A fast-paced, absorbing companion.” — Kirkus

The Temple of Doubt by Anne Boles Levy (Sky Pony Press)

“Living in Port Sapphire, on the island of New Meridian in the world of Kuldor, almost–16-year-old Hadara chafes under the tenets of a religion headed by the god Nihil that teaches that magic is superior to anything in nature. … When an object falls from the sky into the marsh, Azwans (mages of Nihil) and their oversized Feroxi guards arrive to investigate, complicating things for Hadara and her family, not least because Hadara begins to have feelings for one of the guards. … Levy shines brightest in her potent descriptions of settings and her imaginative scenes.” — Kirkus

Becoming Maria: Love and Chaos in the South Bronx by Sonia Manzano (Scholastic Press)

“Actress Manzano, best known as Maria from Sesame Street, provides a lyrical and unflinching account of her tough Nuyorican upbringing in the South Bronx. Split into three parts, this touching memoir is a chronological series of vignettes in the author’s life. … Life is full of tragedies and triumphs alike, and Manzano shows how both helped her become the actress that generations of children grew up seeing on Sesame Street. In stark and heartbreaking contrast to her Sesame Street character, Manzano paints a poignant, startlingly honest picture of her youth.” — Kirkus, starred review

Sneak peek at Jen Wang’s 2017 graphic novel, “The Prince and the Dressmaker”

We’re very excited to share with you some sneak peek art from Jen Wang’s new graphic novel, The Prince and the Dressmaker, out with First Second Books in 2017!

The Prince and the Dressmaker is about a young 19th Century prince named Sebastian who secretly loves to wear dresses. He hires an ambitious young seamstress named Frances to make dresses for him and as their collaboration grows, so do their feelings for one another. Sebastian and Frances must find a way to balance their inner desires with the strict expectations of the royal family – or risk exposing Sebastian’s secret to the world.

“This book is really special to me because I basically wrote it for my teenage self, which is something I haven’t done before. I wanted a story that explored questions about gender and self-identity in a way that was also really colorful and fun and positive. The personal themes are there, but also lots of dresses and princesses. The idea was to create my ideal Disney movie, and writing this has genuinely been one of the most fun, liberating, experiences I’ve had making comics. My awkward confused fourteen year-old self would’ve really connected with this book and I hope it does the same for other young readers,” says Jen Wang.

Jen Wang is a cartoonist, writer and illustrator living in Los Angeles. Her young adult graphic novels Koko Be Good and In Real Life (co-written by Cory Doctorow) are published by First Second Books. She recently wrote the mini-series Adventure Time: Fionna and Cake Card Wars for BOOM Comics, illustrated by Britt Wilson.  Her upcoming graphic novel The Prince and the Dressmaker will be published by First Second Books in 2017.

Correction: An earlier version of this post included an incorrect publication date for The Prince and the Dressmaker; it will be published in 2017, not 2016.

Mental Illness, Stigma, and Dystopian YA

By A.J. Steiger

steiger-mindwalkerIn my young adult dystopian novel, Mindwalker, people live under the watchful eye of the Institute for Ethics in Neurotechnology—a government organization which sorts citizens into categories according to their perceived psychological stability. Those deemed mentally unstable are treated as ticking time bombs and constantly tracked. Suicide is now legal, to allow potential threats and “unfixable” people to remove themselves from society. A mandatory treatment called Conditioning keeps everyone else in line. The Institute decides who is sane and who is insane, who has rights and who doesn’t.

At first glance, this might seem like a farfetched vision of the future. It’s unlikely, after all, that the government would go to the trouble to create psychological profiles on every citizen. Or is it?

In the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting, NRA vice president Wayne LaPierre famously blamed the government’s “refusal to create an active national database of the mentally ill.” A lot of time has passed since then, but this statement still gives me the creeps. Whenever I hear it referenced, a wave of nervousness sweeps over me. Yes, LaPierre is just one loud-mouthed pundit, and he’s already been widely criticized for his remark. But his views, and the prejudices behind them, aren’t uncommon.

I remember the 2013 raids in California, during which police confiscated thousands of guns from law-abiding citizens who had been flagged for mental health reasons. In one case, the authorities visited the house of a woman named Lynette Phillips and seized her husband’s rifles and ammunition because she had been admitted to a hospital for anxiety. In the eyes of the law, anyone who has been involuntarily hospitalized for psychiatric reasons at any point is a potential threat, regardless of whether they’ve ever done anything violent.

Set aside, for the moment, your feelings on gun control—whatever they are—because that’s not really what I’m talking about. I’m talking about how society views people with mental illness.

For many individuals struggling with these conditions, social stigma is already a huge barrier. Imagine if LaPierre’s suggestion were actually implemented. What would be the effects? Would everyone with a diagnosis suddenly face obstacles to getting hired or finding housing? Would they be barred from certain types of work? Prevented from running for political office? In such a world, would anyone want to seek help? Or would we all be justifiably afraid to tell anyone about our problems, lest we end up on “the list?”

This is exactly the world I portray in Mindwalker. It’s a world that’s not too far removed from our own.

Whenever media figures blame a psychiatric condition for the latest shooting or bombing, they’re further stigmatizing an already vulnerable group of people. Already, there are voices within our culture urging legislators to make it easier for sick people to be hospitalized and medicated against their will—which, as the California gun legislation demonstrates, can have a very real impact on individuals’ legal rights.

Some of these voices are well-meaning. No doubt it is frustrating and painful to watch a loved one refuse treatment when they’re clearly suffering. But stripping away the hard-won civil liberties of patients is not the answer.

To understand the risks, all you have to do is look at the shocking abuses that occurred before the rise of deinstitutionalization and patients’ rights in the 1970s. While writing my novel, I researched some of those abuses, and what I read gave me nightmares. History is littered with damaging treatments such as the trans-orbital lobotomy, which involved hammering a metal spike through the eye-socket and into the frontal lobe. Often, this procedure was inflicted on an involuntarily committed patient such as Howard Dully. He received his lobotomy when he was twelve, after a mistaken diagnosis of childhood schizophrenia.

It is hard for me to imagine a violation more invasive, more personal, than the coercive manipulation of someone’s mind.

It is important to state, of course, that psychiatry can also be a force for good—that it can save lives and ease suffering. Making medication and therapy easily accessible to those who want it is important, and desperately needed. But involuntary treatment is an assault on individual rights and basic human dignity. And as a measure for preventing crime, it’s simply ineffective. Statistically, the vast majority of people with mental illness are no more violent than anyone else. The causes of tragedies like the one at Sandy Hook are numerous and varied. They are political, social and economic as well as psychological. It’s natural to look for answers, but we don’t do ourselves any favors by oversimplifying a complex problem.

The boundary between sanity and insanity is a social construct. It is fuzzy, highly permeable, and subject to the biases of the time. This is most obvious when we look at historical diagnoses such as drapetomania, the “medical condition” that allegedly caused slaves to attempt escape—or female hysteria, which in extreme cases was treated with removal of the uterus. Until uncomfortably recently—1973, to be exact—homosexuality was still classified as a mental disorder, and doctors were still using methods such as electrical brain stimulation in an attempt to “cure” it.

To the modern, enlightened observer, these are obvious examples of bigoted pseudoscience. But hindsight, as they say, is twenty-twenty. Do we imagine that our contemporary medical system has transcended such biases? A look at the past can make us wonder—which modern psychiatric practices will appear barbaric and inhumane to future generations? We can’t really know, and so it’s best for lawmakers and mental health professionals to exercise caution and restraint. So should we all. The greatest delusion of all is to believe that you are totally objective.

In recent years, society has made great strides toward understanding the human mind and what causes mental pain. But the stigma remains. “Nutjob” and “whacko” are common insults. Most people who use this language do so without realizing that they are implicitly buying into a worldview which conflates being neuro-atypical with being a bad person. And even when we are aware of the connection, it’s easy to slip up, because the prejudice is so ingrained and pervasive. There is a tendency to see the mentally ill as having less free will than everyone else—as if the illness were a demon inhabiting and controlling the person’s body. This attitude may seem compassionate, in that it mitigates blame somewhat, but it’s ultimately patronizing and dehumanizing, reducing the individual to little more than a broken machine.

Whether human beings are causal agents or products of their brains and environments is a complex subject, and one which philosophers will probably be arguing about for centuries to come. The thing is, we all have brains and are all affected by our environments. Those with atypical neurology have as much or as little free will as anyone else, and they deserve to have their choices respected.

I went through a period of serious depression when I was younger. I suffered from social anxiety—and still do, though not as severely. To most people I interact with, I probably appear pretty normal. But nonetheless, I am aware that if a serious witch hunt swept the country, I could easily become a target. So could many of my loved ones.

And that’s a big part of why I wrote Mindwalker. Because I don’t want to see that world become real. Because I wanted to create a reminder that we’re all flawed, we’re all broken, and that’s nothing to be ashamed of. It doesn’t make us dangerous. It makes us human.

ajsteigerA. J. Steiger graduated from Columbia College in Chicago, where she majored in fiction writing. She has lived her whole life in the Chicago suburbs, though she enjoys regular visits to other galaxies and dimensions in her mind. She’s a freelance writer and transcriptionist with an enthusiasm for anime and pancake houses. Follow her on Twitter @AJ_Steiger.

Mindwalker is now available.

Not Her Kind

By Valerie Tejeda

tejeda-hollywoodI remember it like it was yesterday- the huge blue sky, the sun beating on my skin, and trees as far as the eye can see. I was on a family vacation in one of the most beautiful cities in the midwest. At only ten-years-old, I hadn’t traveled much outside of California so I was overly excited about driving from city to city in an RV with my family and some family friends.

After over a day of driving, we finally arrived at one of our destinations and I couldn’t have been more eager to explore the stunning grounds. We came across a small ice cream shop and all the parents agreed it was the perfect place to stop for a snack.

I was obsessed with mint chocolate chip at the moment, so naturally, I didn’t protest.

The shop was adorable with white windows and a light blue trim. With my friend right behind me, I opened the door to the shop and suddenly, the store went quiet. I’m talking, quiet to the point where you could literally hear a pin drop. To my surprise, everyone in the shop was staring at me and I remember quickly looking down.

I made my way up to the counter where there was a tall, blonde woman standing behind it, who looked to be in her forties. Her face was cold as stone, and she looked rather unhappy for a woman who was working in a ice cream shop.

“What are you going to get?” I whispered to my friend.

“Rocky road,” she quickly said, which wasn’t surprising because this was always her flavor of choice.

I nodded and inched closer to the counter, figuring I would take the initiative and order first. “Could I please have two scoops of mint chocolate chip in a cone?“ I said. I was always taught to say please and thank you to everyone, so ordering ice cream was no exception.

The woman immediately turned away, as though I was not even speaking to her. I tried again. “Excuse me miss? Could I please get two scoops of the mint chip ice cream in a cone?” Again nothing.

I looked around the store and everyone had their faces down. No one would look at me.

As my confusion began to grow, the ice cream clerk brushed over me and looked at my friend (who also had blonde hair and blue eyes) and asked her what kind of ice cream she wanted. My friend was quiet and before she could say a word, her mother walked through the door.

“Girls, have you ordered?” my friend’s mom asked.

“Um. I did, but I don’t think she heard me,” I reasoned before trying again. “May I have two scoops of mint chocolate chip please?” Again, no response from the woman who still wouldn’t look at me.

“Ma’am,” my friend’s mom said. “Can you please get her some mint chocolate chip?” Now, the woman ignored her.

“Excuse me, why won’t you get her ice cream?”

The ice cream clerk huffed. “Look. We don’t serve her kind here,” she snapped.

My friend’s mom literally took a step back. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Latinos or Indians.”

What she said hit me like a ton of bricks. Growing up in a family with mixed ethnicities was just a normal part of life living in Southern California. I’m half Latina, and also North African and Jewish and luckily, living in Los Angeles I never really experienced much racism because the city was so diverse.

But this incident in the midwest stuck with me, and I remember getting home from that vacation and wanting to lose myself in books, TV, and movies, desperately looking for characters like me. But the thing was, I couldn’t find any, and after being treated poorly on vacation, this lack of representation made me feel like something was wrong with me.

Everything sort of spiraled downhill from there. I remember many nights crying to my mom, asking her, “Why don’t I have blonde hair and blue eyes?” She would always tell me that my dark hair and dark eyes made me beautiful, but I didn’t believe her.

I remember spending many of my early teen years trying to get my hair lighter by spraying on lemon juice and laying out in the sun. My hair ended up turning a dreadful color of orange but as long as it wasn’t dark brown I was happy. I also made sure to put on the highest SPF when I did spend time in the sun, to make sure my skin did not become any darker. I even started to tell people I was “Italian, not Latina,” whenever anyone would ask me.

But after all those years of not being able to accept who I was, something truly amazing happened – Jennifer Lopez, Salma Hayek, Eva Longoria, and Shakira all started to make waves in entertainment. Believe it or not, seeing these Latinas killing it in the entertainment industry helped me to become more confident in who I was. Looking back, I can’t help but wonder, if I would’ve seen diverse characters in books after the incident on vacation, would it have affected me as much?

When I started to write my debut novel Hollywood With Hunter it was a no-brainer to have diverse characters from all walks of life and to have my main character Latina. This was non-negotiable for me.

The whole reason I stuck to my guns and fought so hard for diversity is because I wrote the character that I believe I needed as a child and teenager, especially after getting treated like a nobody on vacation.

The need for diverse books is vital, and this is why I will always keep writing them.

Valerie Tejeda
Valerie Tejeda

Valerie Tejeda is an entertainment journalist and author who spends her days reporting on books, television, and all things pertaining to pop culture, and spends her nights writing novels for teens. Her stories have appeared on a variety of different publications, including: Vanity Fair, MTV, The Huffington Post, Teen Vogue, Latina, Yahoo! Shine, Cosmopolitan, and more. Hollywood Witch Hunter is her YA debut.

Hollywood Witch Hunter is available for purchase.

With No Map and a Flimsy Parachute

By Sarah Fine

fine-ofdreamsOf Dreams and Rust is a sequel (and the conclusion of a duology), but I will tell you right now that it was a little tougher for me than the other sequels I’ve written. See, Of Metal and Wishes is a retelling—The Phantom of the Opera, set in a meat factory—and with retellings, you already have a bit of a road map when you sit down to write. But … there really is no official part deux to The Phantom of the Opera (yeah, I know there’s a sequel to the musical, but have you seen it? I haven’t.) So, after lovingly crafting that first book with parallels to the original, writing this sequel was kinda like launching the story into open air.

As it turns out, that’s exactly what I did to Wen, the protagonist of this series. While the first book takes place in a slaughterhouse that acts as a crucible for class and ethnic inequality and tension, this second book offers up the entire society and a formidable landscape (one that’s inspired by the Xinjiang region). Lots of ground to cover and no road map. Lots of cliffs and crevasses, both literal and emotional. Lots of ambiguity and no easy choices.

In Of Metal and Wishes, Wen sees herself nestled warm in the belly of a beast she never truly recognized until she rubbed up against people she’d only known as vague stereotypes, and she realized that if you are close to someone, it’s hard to see them as anything but a fellow human being—but if you aren’t, it’s often too easy to view them with far less complexity (and then dismiss or persecute them). In Of Dreams and Rust, Wen’s in the arena with this beast, trying to avoid its stomping feet. She’s driven by her love for Melik, a boy from a different ethnic group with a long history of oppression at the hands of Wen’s, but as she’s reunited with him, a completely different realization dawns—that even when you experience someone’s humanity with great intimacy, you can still make mistaken assumptions based on deeply ingrained lessons about the value of one belief over another, one characteristic or quality over another. Wen doesn’t know where she’s going to land. Until I’d written the last page of the book, I wasn’t sure, either.

As a member of a multicultural family and someone who has been in a cross-cultural relationship for seventeen years, I’ve inadvertently initiated and witnessed some of those misunderstandings and stumbles. I studied cultural differences in emotion expression and socialization in my early professional life, and in my personal life I’ve had to negotiate them moment by moment. One is a lot more visceral than the other. One provided at least the illusion of an organized path—and the other is like jumping into open air.

Once I’d written Of Dreams and Rust and the freefall was over, I hoped the story had captured some of that heart-level striving and bumbling and pushing onward. And with the book’s release on August 4th, I feel like I’m launching it back into the wide open air once again—but this time my readers get to decide where it lands.

Sarah Fine is the author of several books for young adults, including the Guards of the Shadowlands series (Skyscape), Scan and Burn (with co-author Walter Jury; Putnam), Of Metal and Wishes and its sequel, Of Dreams and Rust (McElderry), and the upcoming YA fantasy, The Impostor Queen (January 2016; McElderry). She is also the author of the adult urban fantasy series Servants of Fate (47North). When she’s not writing, she’s working as a psychologist, but she promises she isn’t psychoanalyzing you right now.

Of Dreams and Rust is available for purchase.

Writing Responsibly

By Jennie Wood

Over the last five years my two major YA projects have been Flutter, a graphic novel series, and my novel, A Boy Like Me.


The two have a lot in common: both are set in conservative small towns, both feature teenage protagonists, and both explore gender. In order to write them, I had to become aware of and get beyond my own inhibitions, which got me thinking about our responsibility as writers. Whether the characters we tackle are similar to or different from ourselves, we must write with an awareness of how our own issues and limitations affect our work.

Readers will surely identify some of the issues that can preoccupy us. For example, when I travel to comic conventions to exhibit Flutter, my graphic novel series about 15-year-old Lily who shape-shifts into a boy to get her dream girl, I’m often asked, “Why does she have to be a guy to get the girl, to find love?” My response: “She doesn’t. That’s part of Lily’s journey.”

Lily’s journey was similar to my own, minus the sci-fi shape-shifting element. I grew up in a small, conservative town, watching my guy friends and male cousins bring their girlfriends on dates to the movies. I worked at the movie theater on nights and weekends after high school making popcorn, while they were in the theater making out.

At that point, I wasn’t out to myself much less anyone else. Even if I had been out, a girl bringing a girl to the movies on a date wasn’t an option. I spent those nights and weekends imagining that my life would be better if I were a guy because then I could bring a girl on a date to the movies.

That’s the root of Flutter. Of course Lily realizes, as did I, that guys have problems, too.

wood-aboylikemeWhile Flutter is similar to my teenage experience, A Boy Like Me, my YA novel, is a completely different journey. The book is from the first person point of view of Peyton, a southern teenage transgender boy. Peyton is also growing up in a small, conservative town, but he’s not going around imagining that his life would be better as a boy. He is a boy assigned the wrong gender at birth. He must deal with the fact that almost everyone in his hometown assumes he’s a butch lesbian.

I worked on A Boy Like Me at the same time as Flutter. I wrote it because I wanted to explore a story that was different from my own.

For Peyton, there is no question that he’s a boy. He struggles with language, with being able to communicate his thoughts and feelings. This makes Peyton very much like the male cousins, uncles, and father who raised me, the men whose lenses I grew up seeing the world through.

In fact, it is the male gaze that enabled me to find and write Peyton’s voice. Not just the lens of the men around me personally, but the male point of view present in all the movies and television shows I watched as a kid. The films and shows that were almost always written and directed by men and featured male protagonists.

That male gaze is in how Peyton views Tara, the girl he loves. It’s in the kind of cars he desires. It’s in his love of Led Zeppelin.

I chose to write him that way, because that’s who he is, how he sees the world. In the same way I grew up and realized that boys have difficulties, too, I had to see past the male gaze in order to own it. Being able to access and control that male lens allowed me to utilize it in a positive way by developing Peyton’s voice, his inner narrative, and tell his story.

All writers are works in progress. If we waited until we became fully evolved humans before putting our work out there, we’d never publish. What we can do is write responsibly, write with an awareness of our inhibitions and issues while we work through them. In fact, it might be the dialogue we have with our characters, fellow writers, and readers that pushes us through to the other side of our limitations, making us better writers and better people in the process.

JennieNYC1Jennie Wood is the creator of Flutter, a graphic novel series published by 215 Ink. The Advocate calls Flutter one of the best LGBT graphic novels of 2013. Bleeding Cool lists Flutter as one of the 15 best indie comics of 2014. Jennie is also the author of the YA novel, A Boy Like Me, which is a Next Generation Indie Book Awards finalist, an INDIEFAB Book of the Year finalist, and one of Foreword Reviews’ 10 Best Indie YA novels for 2014. Jennie is an ongoing contributor to the award-winning, New York Times best-selling FUBAR
comic anthologies. She writes non-fiction features for and teaches at Grub Street, Boston’s independent writing center. For more:

Jennie Wood’s books and comics are available for purchase here.