Five Debut YA Authors On Their Challenges, Surprises, and Advice for Teens

As they look forward to publishing their first YA titles, these authors discuss writing about pain and joy, the long process of publishing, and advice for activists and college-bound teens.

As they look forward to publishing their first YA titles this month, these authors discuss writing about pain and joy, the long waits of the publishing process, and advice for activists and college-bound teens.

Mike Curato, Flamer (Sept. Flamer cover and Mike Curato1)

How did it feel to write for a much different audience than your “Little Elliot” books?
It felt really liberating writing for an older crowd. In most of my picture books, I think I talk about broader themes, but in Flamer, I really got to dig deep into some specific issues. I'm also excited because when I was a teen, I didn't know anyone who was going through some of the things I was dealing with, so I am excited to connect with youth who can appreciate that rocky, lonely journey.

What was the most challenging thing to write in this book?
There is an element of suicide ideation, which brought up a lot of painful memories. Though the book is fiction, it is mostly based on my experiences as a teen. There were some days I just couldn't work on the rough parts, so I'd switch to a scene with more levity. Glad I have funny memories too!

What’s one thing that surprised you about the publishing process?
Well, this will be the sixth book I've written and the tenth book I've illustrated, but I've never done anything like this before. Making a graphic novel is a completely different experience. Leaving room for type has never been an issue for me in picture books, but I could not wrap my head around how much space I needed for speech bubbles in a paneled format. I had to add 30 pages to fit the whole script! But it ended up being a blessing in disguise.


Walk Toward the Rising Sun cover and Ger DuanyGer Duany, Walk Toward the Rising Sun (Sept. 22)

What was the most challenging thing to write in this book?
The most challenging thing for me is writing about losing my little sister as I was trying to save her. That tragic outcome continues to haunt me today. But reliving those horrible events helps me cope. Plus, it only makes me a better human.

What’s one thing that surprised you about the publishing process?
The thing that surprised me most, out of many things, was that I have the right people in the right place that makes the publishing process more fun. I am definitely winning with my publisher.

Young people are becoming more and more politically active, demanding justice in their world and their everyday lives. What advice do you have for young activists today?
If you’ve chosen to participate in activism, know that you are here to help revive humanity through social and economic change. I believe we are all creatures that can survive no matter what, and also take responsibility as decent people. My advice to young activists who've devoted time and energy to a cause is to continue to pay close attention to policies and always update your worldview by listening to other people's stories.


[4 YA Authors Discuss Their #OwnVoices Debuts]


Candice Iloh, Every Body Looking (Sept. 22)Every Body Looking cover and Candice Iloh

What was the most challenging thing to write in this book?
I don’t think I found anything inside this story challenging to write, honestly, though I did have to call my dad a few times to get some Igbo vocabulary correct. The themes themselves didn’t take a toll on me because they’re topics I don’t shy away from in my day to day life. What I actually think was most challenging when writing this story was putting the novel together in a way that will make sense to the readers. This story wasn’t written linear like a lot of novels are. It jumps back and forth in time, holding your hand as it walks through similar doors at different stages in the protagonist’s life. The story didn’t come to me with a straightforward beginning, middle, and end. It came to me in moments, waves of emotion, and different developmental points of view. The hardest part of writing this story was making sure all those fragments in my head came full circle in a way that satisfied me as the writer and what will hopefully satisfy the reader’s curiosity.

What’s one thing that surprised you about the publishing process?
How LONG everything takes! Sheesh. I wouldn’t say that I’m an impatient person but I do move with urgency once I get clear about an idea I have. Once I can fully see it in my head, I want to get it written and once it’s written, I’m ready for it to be on shelves. Needless to say, the publishing gods have laughed in my face several times in the past five years. I value the magnitude of getting to the finish line much more now knowing how much happens throughout the process of bringing a new story into the world this way.

The book follows Ada during her first year at an HBCU. What advice do you have for teens who are embarking on college now?
The way college is perceived versus the actual impact it has on people is something I hope all young people get the chance to think about and explore. There are so many ways to be successful in this world. So many ways to grow into who you really are. For me, college was my first real opportunity to sit with my true feelings, meet people from other parts of the world, and make some of my first big decisions on my own. For me, college was where I got to experience, explore, and be exposed to other ways of life. It’s really hard to give advice to teens embarking on college in 2020 because I wasn’t facing a global pandemic when I graduated high school. It’s hard to make suggestions when so many of the things we thought about our society are crumbling right in front of us. But still I would say, if you are young right now and headed to college in the middle of all this, do not underestimate your intuition when deciding what is next for you. Listen to the voice inside you no matter what. This is still a time that is about you working through your own stuff. Take your time.


K-Pop Confidential cover and Stephan LeeStephan Lee, K-Pop Confidential (Sept. 15)

How has working as a book critic influenced your writing?
I think it’s influenced my reading more than anything else. As the lead book correspondent at Entertainment Weekly, I probably reviewed two books and conducted three author interviews each week for four years, and I didn’t always get to choose the genre. That opened me up to all different kinds of voices and subject matter, and I hope that’s made me a more curious, well-rounded writer.

As a journalist, you traveled to Seoul to write about K-pop. Did that experience inspire the book?
Absolutely! EW sent me to Seoul for three weeks in 2014 to cover the rise of Korean entertainment. My mom, who lives in South Korea and is an English professor there, posed as my translator and came with me to interview some amazing people, including K-pop idols, K-drama stars, and Bong Joon-Ho, the Oscar-winning director of Parasite.

The article never got published because when I got back to the States, there’d been a change in editor-in-chief (anyone who’s worked at a magazine has gone through this!), but I still kept all my interviews and notes. My biggest takeaway was how much pride Koreans take in their culture, and how much they want to share it. Every sector of the Korean entertainment industry I explored seemed to be connected by a collective desire to show the world the Korean spirit, which I think is uniquely resilient, innovative, and soulful. I think that’s the heart of K-pop’s global success.

In K-Pop Confidential, Candace is at first really taken aback by the insanely hard work that goes into training to become a K-pop idol. Even though she pushes back against the rules, and she learns to use her visibility for positive change, she also discovers a deep appreciation in Korean culture as a Korean-American. I felt that same transformation during my trip as well.

What was the most challenging thing to write in this book?
The most challenging thing was deciding what not to write! I love K-pop so much that I wanted to write about every fun fact, describe all the fascinating nuances of K-pop culture and K-pop trainee life, but at the end of the day, K-Pop Confidential is a coming-of-age story, and I needed to focus on the parts of the K-pop world that move Candace’s journey forward.

The other hardest part was striking a tricky balance: When you’re writing about any entertainment industry, including K-pop, you can’t shy away from the dark sides, such as the immense pressure the industry puts on young people, the unrealistic body standards, and always evolving issues of inclusion and representation. I wanted to explore the difficulties of K-pop while ultimately celebrating the incredible young artists and all the creativity that makes up this world. If this book can turn one general interest reader into a K-pop stan, I’ll be happy!


Aiden Thomas, Cemetery Boys (Sept. 1)Cemetery Boys cover and Aiden Thomas

Fantastical stories are often used to shed light on our real world. Can you talk about how you used otherworldly characters to highlight real-life issues such as racism and LGBTQ acceptance?
Fantasy is such a great genre because you can use it to examine and unpack real-world issues. For Cemetery Boys, there was a lot I wanted to tackle! Throughout the book, there’s commentary on misogyny, ableism, toxic masculinity, racism, and transphobia. The biggest thing that the fantasy helped me facilitate was Yadriel’s gender and identity. I wanted to create a magic system that’s been forced into a binary by the way it’s practiced by brujx. They believe the men do one thing, women do the other, those labels are decided by your sex assigned at birth, and there’s no gray area. But, early on in the book, we see that the magic is actually gender-affirming, which is shown by Lady Death blessing Yadriel with the powers of the brujos! I wanted to show readers that society doesn’t get to decide who you are—who you are and who you know yourself to be is the truth, regardless of what anyone else says. You know, and the magic knows it, too.

What was the most challenging thing to write in this book?
I think it was worrying myself sick over getting the representation right! Being one of very few books containing a trans main character (not to mention queer and Latinx) meant Cemetery Boys could be one of the first books someone has ever read with that representation. I didn’t want to mess it up! There was a lot of second-guessing myself and I did my best to make sure I gave readers a variety of different experiences within the various characters’ identities you meet throughout the book. I’m very aware that I’m in a special position to even be able to tell this story, and I really took that as a serious responsibility.

What’s one thing that surprised you about the publishing process?
Probably how long every step of the process takes! Before I really started, I’d see authors say how publishing takes forever and that it’s always “hurry up and wait,” but I don’t think I really understood how true that was until I was thrown into it. It’s funny because you put so much time into writing the book and making it the best it can possibly be, and all you want to do is talk about it, but it takes years for a book to come out! It still feels unreal that Cemetery Boys is coming out on 9/1. I’m SO excited for it to finally happen!

Author Image
Katy Hershberger
Katy Hershberger ( is the senior editor for YA at School Library Journal.

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