Tag Archives: contemporary fiction

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published writer (in some literary magazine, let’s say, print or online—they put your words on their page!), or even an unpublished graduate of a writing program, then as an author when the book your words are in only has your name on it.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.

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 www.robintalley.com 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.

Ordinary Diversity in Fiction

By Nicola Yoon

yoon-everythingeverythingMany discussions on diversity in books center on so-called issue stories vs. non-issue ones. Issue books, like you’d expect, focus on a particular social issue: a gay protagonist, for example, comes to terms with his sexuality or struggles with the aftereffects of coming out; an interracial romance where the major roadblock is the interracial-ness of the romance; a poor, inner-city black girl struggles to escape the awful social history that sees her born into a troubled family in a crime-ridden neighborhood.

Issue books are important. I’ll say that again for emphasis. Issue books, especially the ones written for marginalized young adults struggling to come of age in a world that too often tells them they are deviant in some way, are crucial. It is important for a young gay boy to be able to locate himself in a book, to see that there are others like him, to know in his bones that he is normal, his feelings are valid, his sexuality is good and true. If a book can do that for him then it’s worth its weight in gold. Similarly, it’s important for that little black girl to know that life can be better, that you can find your own place in the world on your own terms.

But there’s another kind of book too: the non-issue book. This is the book where the gay protagonist isn’t struggling at all. He’s already come out. The people that matter have accepted him, everyone else be damned. Maybe he has a boyfriend, or a long time crush. Maybe he’s also about to discover that he’s a wizard, and that’s what the book is about: an adventure story about love, friendship and believing in yourself. This imagined book, this non-issue book, is not firstly about being gay. It’s about magic.

When I started writing Everything, Everything, the protagonist was always going to be of mixed race — not because there was a particular racial issue I wanted to address, but because that is simply who she is. We live in a world where diversity is a fact of life. Diversity is the natural state of things. There are about 20,000 species of butterflies on our planet. 23,000 different kinds of trees. The idea of a single homogeneous anything, let alone “race,” is a construct of culture that goes against everything in nature, and our books should reflect that. We breathe oxygen. The sun rises and also sets. We are diverse.

Issue books are important. And non-issue books are just as important. I don’t spend the majority of my days thinking about race and where the color of my skin locates me in the world. I spend my days as most people do: I work, I laugh, I worry, I dream, I strive to be happy. I believe in love. And magic. I hope that my mixed race daughter will be able to spend less time than I do thinking about race. I hope she will read stories about people that are just like her and stories about people who are not. I hope that she’ll read scary stories, issue stories, funny stories, romantic stories and fantastical stories with dragons and beasts that need slaying.

And I hope that the heroine of some of these stories will look just like her.


nicolayoonNicola Yoon grew up in Jamaica (the island) and Brooklyn (part of Long Island). She currently resides in Los Angeles, CA with her husband and daughter, both of whom she loves beyond all reason.

Everything, Everything is available for purchase here.