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May YA Debuts: Timing Is Everything

Our monthly Q&A with writers whose first YA books are out now, debuting in the time of coronavirus.

May has always been the month of celebrations, starting with Cinco de Mayo, rolling through graduations, honoring mothers, and winding up with the first three-day weekend of the summer. But this year is different. We checked in with several authors whose YA books debut this month to see how they are weathering the lockdown, coping with cancelled book events, and exploring a somewhat changed environment for the creative mind.

The Henna Wars and Adiba JaigirdarAdiba Jaigirdar, The Henna Wars (Page Street).

Let’s start with something upbeat! Do you have more time for your work and writing these days?
Not really! It’s not only mid-pandemic, but it’s Ramadan for me. So, I have less time to write, and unfortunately, I’m pretty drained mentally when I do have time to write.

Is there any conversation that is off-limits in YA literature?
I don’t think so. In the same way there aren’t any conversations off-limits to teens. Teens are experiencing the world in the same way as adults are. They’re seeing everything that’s happening, and that’s why it’s important that all topics are covered in YA literature. Teens need to be able to process everything that they’re seeing and experiencing. They need to be able to connect with everything that’s happening in the world, and they need to be able to connect with experiences that are not their own and will perhaps never be their own.

If you’re writing, is this a very fertile time for you?
It definitely isn’t. It’s a time of great anxiety, and writing requires so much of your mind that even if you have the time to write these days, you often don’t have the mental energy to do it. I’ve been keeping momentum by just trying to keep a sense of normalcy. Not checking the news obsessively, not worrying about things outside of my control, and just trying my best to focus on the thing I can control: writing.

Jamie Pacton and The Life and (Medieval) Times of Kit SweetlyJamie Pacton, The Life and (Medieval) Times of Kit Sweetly (Page Street).

Do you have more time for your work and writing these days?
Although I’m certainly not spending as much time browsing at Target or running errands these days, I actually worked from home and homeschooled my kids before the pandemic, so not much has changed in my daily life. In fact, since I have a high-support, non-verbal autistic son, I’ve been balancing writing, teaching, and parenting for many, many years now. What’s most different since all this started is the amount of bread I’m baking and the amount of ukulele I’m playing in between writing and teaching work.

Is there any conversation that is off-limits in YA literature?
I don't think there is, and that’s a good thing. Teens live all sorts of stories, and we need to reflect that varied experience in fiction. I also think it’s disingenuous to say that books for teens shouldn’t tackle formerly taboo topics (sex, abuse, etc.) or that they shouldn’t include elements like swearing (to name one of many reasons why a book might be censored) because these, too, are very real parts of many teenagers’ lives.

If you’re writing, is this a very fertile time for you?
This is a super busy time for me. I’ve got lots of book deadlines right now and I’m deep into several fun writing projects I’m hoping to get drafted in the next few months. That said, it’s been a huge challenge to focus (and stay off social media) with everything going on in the world. In terms of momentum: no matter what stage of a writing project I’m in—idea gathering, planning, drafting, revising—I work in several small segments of time throughout the day. I shoot for three or four half hour chunks of time each day, as that helps me stay focused, and it allows me to be creatively productive while also being present to the other responsibilities in my life.

Cynthia Salaysay, Private Lessons (Candlewick).

Do you have more time for your work and writing these days?
I do! As dark and uncertain as these days have been, there's been some light peeking through. I've been finding the time to dig into my "to-read" shelf and get out the notebook. Being locked down makes me want to stay light though—I haven't been willing to dig into any of the darker parts of my projects.

Is there any conversation that is off-limits in YA literature?
I can't think of one. Teens and young adults have such full, rich lives.They know things without knowing they know things—they don't always have the words to describe what they're living, but they're living it! I think it's important for young people to see themselves on the page and experience as widely as possible through story. I think we are doing a disservice to young people, who have so many questions about life, to not have stories that reflect the whole world.

Can you talk about how you maintain momentum despite the disruption of ordinary life?

I try to be gentle with myself. Some days, I don't feel like facing the unknown of a blank page—I'm overwhelmed and I don't want to cope with another unknown. Those days I cook and clean and watch the day go by and read or listen to audiobooks. Other days, I do feel excited to write. One of the ways I've found to maintain momentum is to tell myself, "Just do this for thirty minutes. See what happens."

Amanda Sellet and By The BookAmanda Sellet, By the Book (HMH).

Do you have more time for your work and writing these days?
There are trade-offs: not spending 45 minutes in the carpool line every afternoon vs. the number of times I have to nag my 13-year-old about doing her virtual schoolwork. And I’m not grocery shopping, but the intricacies of meal planning and online ordering and getting a delivery slot—not to mention the whole “do I have to sanitize this?” merry-go-round—are consuming in their own ways. I know a lot of people are feeling the freedom of not doing their hair and make-up every day, but as someone who was in WFH mode pre-pandemic, my standards in that department were already incredibly low. As in, if this were a game of limbo, you’d have to be lying on your back to get under that bar. Still, I must be logging more hours at my desk because when I finally get up, I feel as creaky as a haunted house. Malaise or a sedentary lifestyle? Hard to say!

Is there any conversation that is off-limits in YA literature?
I don’t know about taboo topics, but I’m certain there are voices still struggling to be heard, and stories that have yet to break through the systemic barriers that perpetuate the status quo. I’d like to see more consideration of economic and educational inequality alongside other societal issues, including regional disparities in opportunity for young people. We tend not to talk about “class” (for lack of a better term) as much in this country, but I think that’s a crucial thing to explore as we look at questions of privilege and power and who gets a seat at the table.

Can you talk about how you maintain momentum despite the disruption of ordinary life?
It took me a few weeks to figure out that my best “idea” time was first thing in the morning, before my husband and daughter were awake. If I roughed in a scene or two while the house was quiet, I could go back later in the day when my concentration wasn’t quite as pristine and smooth those words into finished form. It was an act of faith at first, suppressing the urge to panic, or beat myself up for lack of progress. I felt like Aesop's crow, dropping pebbles into a jar until slowly, slowly the water rises high enough to drink. Writing something new, even in tiny increments, while keeping up with the debut experience feels like a win right now!

Maggie Tokuda-Hall and The Mermaid, The Witch, and the SeaMaggie Tokuda-Hall, The Mermaid, the Witch, and the Sea (Candlewick).

Do you have more time for your work and writing these days?
I just had a baby—he's two months old now—so I'm not finding a lot of extra time for my writing. Or the energy for it. But I have been reading a lot, and that's like filling the tank up for writing later, so that feels good. I recently read Vicious by V.E. Schwab, and it absolutely got some plot gears turning for me. Ditto Kate Elizabeth Russell's brilliant My Dark Vanessa. I tend to have boom and bust periods of productivity, so I don't mind that I haven't put pen to paper for a moment.

Is there any conversation that is off-limits in YA literature?
I think any topic that's handled with good craft will be considered widely admissible by the community. I think things get wonky is when the writer is lazy—not researching, or writing off assumptions, or common tropes. Or even just inexpert—I worry about that all the time. But there's a whole community of sensitivity readers in the world, and while no amount of vetting can inoculate you against any kind of controversy or bad reviews, it's not as if an author needs to enter the fray with their hands tied behind their back. There's a wealth of resources to be found, if you're willing to do the work (and listen).

Can you talk about how you maintain momentum despite the disruption of ordinary life?
Right now I have the good fortune to be gearing up for the release of my book. So what little time I do have, time that's not elbow deep in babytown, I spend trying to promote that. I'm also one of the people working behind the scenes on welovebookstores.org, and so I spend a LOT of time planning and putting together those fundraisers for independent bookstores, which I have to say I find super invigorating. It's nice to know and be reminded of what a generous and kind community books can be. I was an indie bookseller for years, and even though I'm a fulltime writer now, that still feels like my job. A lot of my friends who are writers are beating themselves up for not being more productive right now, and I don't know. It seems like we should all just be trying to get through this, however we need to. I'm not a doctor, though, so who knows? 

Date Me, Bryson Keller and Kevin van WhyeKevin van Whye, Date Me, Bryson Keller (Random).

Do you have more time for your work and writing these days?
Yes, the lockdown has given me more time on my hands to write but it’s also given me more time not to write also. So, it’s a constant battle against distractions if I want to write. (Looking at you, Netflix!)

Is there any conversation that is off-limits in YA literature?
I don’t think there’s any conversation that is off limits. But I do think that particularly when writing YA we need to always be aware of who our intended audience is. When writing for teens, we should always do our due diligence with regard to research, representation, etc. I'm glad that YA is hosting these conversations and even more thrilled that there are so many wonderful and powerful books by diverse creators coming out—whether or not they touch on any issues, our stories are important.

If you’re writing, is this a very fertile time for you? If not, can you talk about how you maintain momentum despite the disruption of ordinary life?
I am hard at work on my second book, Nate Plus One, which is coming out in Spring 2022. But I did struggle to get productive during this disruption. What I find that is helping me is not being too hard on myself. I set a small word count goal to write every day, and once I’ve reached it, I stop and do something else. For me it’s important not to force myself to write because that just kills my creativity. So, I’m taking baby steps to get this draft done. Bit by bit. So please know, that you do not have to write every day. Write when you can. And if you can’t write now, that’s okay. These are very strange and trying times, so be kind to yourself.

Kimberly Olson Fakih
Kimberly Olson Fakih

Kimberly Olson Fakih (kfakih@mediasourceinc.com) is Senior Editor, Picture Books, at School Library Journal. She previously was the children's book review editor at Kirkus Reviews.

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