The Future is Now and It’s Inclusive: Young People of Color in YA Books

This is a guest post from Camille A. Collins. Camille has an MFA in Creative Writing from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She has been the recipient of the Short Fiction Prize from the South Carolina Arts Commission, and her writing has appeared in The Twisted Vine, a literary journal of Western New Mexico University. Her novel THE EXENE CHRONICLES is out with Brain Mill Press. She likes writing about music, and has contributed features and reviews to Afropunk and BUST. She lives in New York City. You can find her on Twitter at @ponei_rosa9.


Few authors do a better job of passionately articulating the need for diverse characters in YA literature than Jason Reynolds, who once told The Washington Post, “I learned just how…necessary it is sometimes to humanize those who have been vilified.” It’s not that I don’t appreciate the need myself—my debut novel The Exene Chronicles centers on Lia, one of a very small handful of minority students at a high school in a suburb of San Diego, just as I was. But unlike Reynolds, as a kid I think I was pretty resigned to the fact that there weren’t going to be any YA books with characters that looked like me or felt and experienced the same things I did. Not only did I not expect it—I didn’t dare dream it possible. I simply did my best to find common ground in the humanity of characters in books I enjoyed like The Outsiders and Lord of the Flies, unable to imagine a book that might put a black girl at the center of the narrative.

What if there had been some fantastic lore of a band of renegade black girl detectives in motorcycle jackets or pink windbreakers a la The Pink Ladies, solving tricky neighborhood mysteries and taking down bullies on the block? What might it have meant for me as a kid to have such a book? Minority narratives are often expected to reflect pain and deprivation, material, social or otherwise—and they often do, because stuff still goes down. Maybe one day Sasha Obama or Blue Ivy will write a YA book about a kid so privileged they feel disconnected from their community—and just about everybody. At least it would be a fresh take.

I attended a screening of James Spooner’s 2003 film Afro Punk in the fall, for a first-time viewing. It’s from this film that the Afro Punk festival and social platform gets its name. In interview after interview, the black kids in the film say, “well, I was the only black kid in my school…” Time and again, this was the refrain. Who knew that punk, of all things, would offer such a sheltering umbrella for minority youth? With isolation and otherness eventually leading these kids to seek solace and common ground in the formidable battle cry of unadorned lyrics and chaotic beats. It was interesting to learn that as one of the few black kids in Coronado, California, by discovering punk in middle school, I was part of a trend of black misfits in suburban towns across America. Who knew the punk scene would become a de facto after school “chess club” for so many of us? Punk, typically associated with adolescent angst, the frustration of a sanitized suburban idle, a disciplining DIY credo, and temporal oases of rundown ballrooms to thrash out pent up rage, and fear—is usually associated with privilege, and typically that don’t mean black. I hope The Exene Chronicles is a first step towards that different kind of narrative—a new take on the “black experience,” just like the AfroPunk website says.

Thankfully, the future is now and it’s incredible. YA lovers can now choose from a variety of protagonists, from a diverse array of viewpoints and cultures, to both mirror and guide them through cultural and social landscapes familiar and new. The following are a few such books, literary companions—young people of color at the center of their very own narrative. These stories stayed with me, and may offer satisfying accompaniment to you as well.

I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican DaughterI Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika L. Sanchez

Julia Reyes is a Mexican American teen growing up in Chicago in this unique and addictive novel by Erika L. Sanchez. When her “perfect” older sister Olga suddenly dies, Julia adjusts to her new status of being her parent’s only—and possibly second best—preoccupation. Julia has always been in conflict with her parent’s cultural and social strictures, and in the wake of her sister’s death every argument and bad word she utters seems magnified. Along the way, Julia discovers that maybe Olga, a young adult who stayed on at home and clean houses with her mom, wasn’t so saintly after all. Rich with realistic dialogue and conflict, Sanchez crafts scenarios where the chafing of Mexican cultural tradition against the struggles of a first generation American daughter is nearly tactile. I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter brings a bird’s-eye view into the values and expectations of a working class Mexican American family. Julia is an unabashedly flawed, rebellious character with a heart more tender than she cares to let on—and despite some reviewers complaining that she is “unlikable,” I like her. I get her.

Crazy Horse’s Girlfriend by Erika T. Wurth

I can’t believe I’m only just discovering Erika T. Wurth. The journey of 16-year-old Margaritte as told in Crazy Horse’s Girlfriend is haunting and unforgettable. Wurth’s pull-no-punches writing style is a fitting accompaniment to the harsh realities that shape the environment and experiences of this mixed Apache, Chickasaw, Cherokee, and white teen. The numerous indignities Margaritte faces are enough to end anyone. Her home life is fraught with abuse, and the community lousy with drug dealers, users, and pregnant teens with little vision for their future. Intelligent and responsible, with a self-deprecating humor that is damn near heroic given the circumstances, Margaritte hopes to engage with the vices of her Colorado town just enough to beat the system. When she falls in too deep with the wrong guy and finds herself pregnant, her dreams hang in the balance. Wurth is a skilled author who fearlessly depicts an environment so grim it feels almost post-apocalyptic.

Native Americans are no more a monolith than any other group. History was just made when Deb Haaland and Sharice Davids became the first Native American women elected to the U.S. Congress. Still, Margaritte embodies other similar experiences. Her harsh realities mirror that of the four non-Native, West Virginia youth who made national headlines when they became trapped in a mine the other day. They had taken the life-threatening risk while in search for copper wire to sell. Through Margaritte, Wurth draws a fierce, real, and memorable character who allows us to see the kind of town that altogether too many Americans are forced to survive. And although fictional, the novel stands as backstory to help highlight the hellish grid of abuse and codependency that poverty and racism have dealt far too many native youth, and their subsequent vulnerability to crimes such as human trafficking. I cannot shake this story—and I don’t want to.

the poet xThe Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo

The delicately crafted, emotive National Book Award–winning novel written in verse tells the story of 15-year-old Dominican Harlemite Xiomara. Xiomara’s blossoming is made indelible by Acevedo’s exquisite crafting of content and verse. Marked with the taint of sin for merely existing by her strictly religious Catholic mom, Xiomara is a smoldering volcano of angst and confusion, struggling to adapt to her body and burgeoning womanhood as she crosses the chasm of her mother’s exacting standards and the New York streets, where she’s objectified by catcalls, and falls for a boy named Aman. Xiomara has a twin brother, Xavier, whose obedience stands in contrast to her seemingly constant rebellion. She’s a girl who’s willing to challenge the local priest on sexist biblical narratives, after all. Having been raised in a very religious household myself, I can relate to Xiomara as she begins to take the essential steps needed to claim her identity and liberate herself from someone else’s voice and idea of who she should be. For her part Acevedo, a tricky spider—works stealthily to weave a narrative that closes the divide between poetry and prayer.

A Girl Like That by Tanaz Bhathena

Who doesn’t love the opportunity reading provides to “travel” and become immersed in unfamiliar worlds? A Girl Like That is a story about two deceased teenagers, told from beyond the grave from multiple perspectives, including that of Zarin and her young Romeo, Porus. In this book, author Tanaz Bhathena brings a deftly woven story that chronicles the life of a rebellious teen girl in modern day Saudi Arabia. The once orphaned Zarin is the subject of ridicule and gossip around her neighborhood and school for her devil-may-care dalliances with boys, and for her beliefs as a Zoroastrian—a religious minority group. Zarin and Porus are killed in a catastrophic car accident in Jeddah. Flashbacks highlight the challenges they endure, from disapproving elders to the scrutiny of the religious police. This is a book to stoke jocular book club discussions. A Girl Like That has received flak in some quarters for the dark characterizations of many of the male Muslim characters, and for the constant in-fighting among the women and girls. A group discussion of how the book may lapse into unfortunate stereotypes is a worthy conversation to have. Still, A Girl Like That offers an intriguing look into the social hierarchies determined by religion, culture (Zarin is of Indian, not Saudi, descent) and familial status in a major, modern Middle Eastern city, comprised of people from an array of regions and religions. Misunderstood Zarin, a social misfit who experiences more than her fair share of hardship in the years leading up to her untimely death, is a character worthy of exploration.

To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han

Often it is the harshest or most dramatic of minority experiences that satisfies the assumption that life for some communities is all tragedy most of the time. Jenny Han’s novel is a departure from this definition that lands like a breath of fresh air. Lara Jean Covey is one of three “Song girls.” Song is their late Korean mother’s maiden name. The half Asian trio are now on their own with their dad, and with the eldest heading for college, Lara Jean will soon have to assume more responsibilities at home. Perhaps her position as the somewhat sheltered middle daughter is the reason Lara Jean is given to such deeply emotional flights of fancy—her musings are innocently overdramatic when juxtaposed against her naivety. Much of Lara Jean’s love life is lived out through the farewell letters she writes boys when her affections for them have waned. When five such letters are mailed accidentally, the safe next door neighbor Josh and magnetic Peter among the recipients, Lara Jean is cast in an uncomfortable spotlight. Yet, the trouble also fortuitously leads to an alliance, something akin to a milk and cookies version of the pact in Dangerous Liaisons, that affords Lara Jean and Peter a chance to become better acquainted. To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before, since adapted into a Netflix movie, is light, romantic teen fare. And sometimes light is just right.

3 on a YA Theme: YA Shakespeare Retellings

This list of YA Shakespeare retellings is sponsored by Tor Teen.

A new YA standalone novel about dark faeries for fans of Laini Taylor and Sarah J. Maas. Prince and his faerie courtiers are staggeringly beautiful, unrelentingly cruel, and exhausted by the tedium of the centuries—until they meet foster-siblings Josh and Ksenia. Drawn in by their vivid emotions, undying love for each other, and passion for life, Prince will stop at nothing to possess them. First seduced and then entrapped by the faeries, Josh and Ksenia learn that the faeries’ otherworldly gifts come at a terrible price—and they must risk everything to reclaim their freedom.


April 23rd is William Shakespeare’s birthday, and whether you love or hate his work (or doubt that he is even the author of all of those plays and sonnets!), no one can deny the staggering impact Shakespeare has had on literature and the English language. Those effects are still evident today, with the many retellings, allusions, references, and homages paid to his work in contemporary YA fiction. To celebrate Shakespeare’s birthday, here are three YA novels inspired or influenced by his works!

Shame the StarsShame the Stars by Guadalupe García McCall

This is a Romeo and Juliet retelling, set against the backdrop of the Mexican revolution. Joaquín and Dulceña are in love, but when their families find themselves on opposite sides of the growing conflict involving Tejanos and Texas Rangers, they must keep their love and continued relationship a secret, or risk facing terrible consequences.

As I DescendedAs I Descended by Robin Talley

Talley retells Macbeth, casting two queer girls as the leads in this dark tale of rivalry and schemes. Maria and Lily are dating, and in order to ensure they land at the same college and can stay together, they plan to usurp the most popular girl in school, which will pave the way to Maria winning a life-changing scholarship. But in doing so, they unleash dark spirits at their school, with destructive powers the couple can’t control.

A Steep and Thorny WayA Steep and Thorny Way by Cat Winters

Rural 1920s Oregon is the setting for this dramatic retelling of Hamlet. The protagonist is Hanalee, a biracial girl who doesn’t quite fit in anywhere. After her father dies in a car accident, the man responsible for his death claims that it wasn’t an accident, and that her father was murdered—by Hanalee’s new stepfather. This is a spooky murder mystery/retelling that sheds a light on racial tensions in the Pacific Northwest in the early 20th century.

Want more Shakespeare and YA mash ups? Check out Kelly’s previous 3 on a YA Theme column on retellings, and my must-read Much Ado About Nothing Adaptations list!

Want more “3 On A YA Theme” posts? Gotcha covered.

LOVE FROM A TO Z: S.K. Ali is the Role Model Muslim Women Need

Love From A to Z by S.K. Ali drops April 30, 2019, and deserves to be at the top of everyone’s spring reading list. In the book, Hijabi heroine Zayneb is an empowered Muslim female, and in real life, Ali inspires Muslim women!

Love from A to Z book cover

In her highly anticipated second YA novel, Ali tackles Islamophobia towards young adults, and wraps it around an innocent love story. Eighteen- year-olds Zayneb and Adam’s ways of life are both compromised: Zayneb is harassed by her Islamophobic high school teacher, and Adam’s mobility and independence are dwindling because of his recent MS diagnosis. They share something else special: they each own a “Marvels and Oddities” journal, in which they introspectively note their daily wonderful and weird observances. They write about first impressions, the “friends you’re dealt with,” and of course, each other.

Love from A to Z immediately drew me in with its lovable, complex characters. Although tall, patient Adam and fiery Zayneb feel chemistry immediately, it’s unsure whether their relationship will beat the odds: Adam’s health issues, the long distance, and even religious guidelines on male-female interactions.

Whereas in her debut novel Saints and Misfits, Ali focused on internal issues like spiritual abuse, in Love from A to Z she confronts the global epidemic of Muslims getting harassed simply for practicing their religion. Reading this book personally allowed me to heal my buried experience of Islamophobia during my freshman year in college. I still remember my Creative Literature professor criticizing Islam in front of the whole lecture hall, and ignoring me when I went up to ask a question. I always regret not speaking up and defending my religion, even though the words were on the tip of my tongue. Reading how Zayneb seeks justice against her racist teacher makes me feel validated, as though I had actually stood up for myself back then. We all want peace like Adam, but as Zayneb rightly points out, “there couldn’t be peace without…justice.” I’m glad in the real world, we have authors like S.K. Ali, who is continuously fighting for our justice with her pen and tweets.

Ali’s writing career has not always been smooth sailing, which she transparently shares on Twitter (@SajidahWrites). In October 2018, the Ontario Library Association overlooked Ali’s Saints and Misfits for an award, and instead awarded a book about a hijabi written by a non-Muslim, non-hijabi. As an advocate for “Muslim representation,” Ali explained that there is no excuse not to “promote books written in our own voices.” Ali then encouraged fellow authors to “tell our own stories” and share our diverse publications on her thread. Her eloquent portrayal of her #ownvoices struggle allowed me to contextualize moments that I have allowed non-POC’s to tell my story. I put my feelings into words in another article for Muslim Girl, stating the need for more creative spaces for Muslim women’s voices.

Another delightful gem in Love from A to Z is the diversity and inclusivity among the characters and settings. Both Adam and Zayneb are mixed-ethnicity, or ‘halfies’: Adam is half-Chinese and white, while Zayneb is half-Guyenese and Pakistani. In fact, Adam is a convert Muslim; he converted to Islam like his dad. As a halfie myself (I’m half-Mexican and Pakistani) and the daughter of a convert, I reveled in the fact that Ali features unconventional and ethnically marginalized Muslims, who are typically unknown or overlooked in mainstream society and even among Muslims. The book starts off in middle America, and then takes us across the world to explore Doha.

Like all writers, my query emails and tweets are often ignored. That is why I am so happy when S.K. Ali replies to my DMs. Despite her (well-deserved) success and busy schedule, Ali continues to offer me writing and publishing advice, and even met with me in person. When reading Ali’s tweets and messages, I feel a gentle nudge forward to write my truth. She has helped me find my voice both as a writer and as a Muslim women. Further, I’ve opened myself up to mentor emerging Muslim women writers.

Especially in the aftermath of the nightmarish New Zealand masjid attack on March 15, 2019, we need an unapologetic she-ro like Zayneb.

Hard-Hitting Young Adult Novels to Pick Up

Young Adult novels can be a form of escapism to dive into fantastical worlds full of dragons, magic, or battles in space. Or, they can shed light on important topics that can both inform readers or validate those going through similar situations. For fans of Young Adult fiction who are looking for some hard-hitting books to read, here’s a list of books that highlight important issues and topics.

Something In Between by Melissa de la CruzSomething in Between by Melissa de la Cruz

Melissa de la Cruz’s, Something in Between, is a powerful and moving novel about the struggles that immigrants in America face when they are undocumented. Jasmine de los Santos, a Filipino high school student is offered the scholarship of a lifetime. Her path towards success is set until her parents tell her that they are living in America as undocumented citizens.

Something in Between is a timely novel that highlighting what it’s like to live in a country you love while being undocumented.

Little & Lion by Brandy Colbert

Little & Lion is a novel following two siblings who are both fighting their own battles under one household. Suzette recently moves back home from her boarding school while her brother, Lionel, is diagnosed with bipolar disorder. As these two siblings learn how to live under the same roof again, they both fall for the same girl in town. Little & Lion is a breathtaking novel centered around a family adjusting to Lionel’s recent diagnosis as Suzette explores and embraces her sexuality.

all the rage cover imageAll the Rage by Courtney Summers

Set in a small town where everyone knows one another, All the Rage is a story about Romy Grey after she is raped by the local sheriff’s son who everyone in town thinks can do no harm. This haunting story explores what it’s like to survive sexual assault, be silenced and victim blamed, and how to continue living after such a brutal time in one’s life.

 

The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon

Nicola Yoon’s The Sun is Also a Star is a summery, contemporary novel following Natasha who finds out that her family is getting deported back to Jamaica the following day because they are undocumented immigrants. During her last day in New York City as she attempts to keep her family from being sent back to Jamaica, Natasha runs into a Korean-American boy named Daniel who has his own issues with his family.

Together, Natasha and Daniel explore what the city has to offer while learning more about each other’s cultures, what it’s like to be the children of hard-working immigrant parents and to not have preconceived notions about others. While this book does have it’s cute contemporary moments, it has important underlying messages that are relevant to our time. This is a young adult novel that every reader should get their hands on.

Between Shades of Grey by Ruta Sepetys

While other novels on this list are contemporaries, this historical fiction novel is set during WWII. Lina is a Lithuanian girl whose life gets turned upside down the moment Soviet officers invade her home. They separate her from her father, and take her, her brother, and her mother to northern Siberia where they struggle to survive in the coldest of weathers.

Not only is this a harrowing tale set during World War II, but it also highlights an atrocity, at the hands of Stalin, that was brushed under the rug of history. For those looking for historical fiction novels that follow a piece of history that isn’t as well-known, Between Shades of Gray is a must read and will stay in your heart long after you’ve finished the story.

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give is a young adult novel inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement. This thought-provoking story will leave readers breathless from the moment they open this novel. Starr is torn between her life in the inner-city and the suburbanite private school she attends. But, her world is shattered when her best friend Khalil is shot and killed by a police officer when Khalil was unarmed.

The Hate U Give‘s commentary about police brutality is raw and moving in a way that you can only understand once you read this story. It discusses the mistreatment that black communities face from officers while also exploring how Starr grieves the death of her friend. I highly suggest that every reader picks up this story that talks about prevalent issues that must be addressed, and this book comments on it perfectly.

Tyler Johnson Was Here by Jay Coles

Another novel that explores police brutality is Jay Cole’s, Tyler Johnson Was Here. After a party that gets shut down by a police raid, Marvin can’t seem to find his twin brother, Tyler, anywhere. He seems to have disappeared without a trace. That is until, one day, he is found dead, and a video is leaked showing a cop shooting Tyler while he is unarmed. As Marvin learns to live life without his twin by his side, he’s also grappling with the small amount of justice he’s hoping to get for Tyler.

This novel explores grief from both a twin and a mother’s perspective, police brutality, the pressures of applying to colleges, and what it means to be free in America. This is one story that I implore everyone to read. The audiobook is fantastic, raw, and emotional and definitely needs to be heard.

Two Upcoming May Releases for YA Foodies

On Instagram, I mainly follow two types of accounts: authors and foodies. I love devouring both well crafted words and well presented plates and—luckily for me—sometimes these two passions combine. Next month, Somewhere Only We Know by Maurene Goo and With the Fire on High by Elizabeth Acevedo will join the bookshelves. While I cannot wait for other readers to meet Lucky, Jack, and Emoni, I’m also impatient for my taste buds to meet all the outrageously delicious dishes.

Somewhere Only We Know by Maurene Goo

As all good stories do, Somewhere Only We Know begins with food: Lucky, an exhausted K-pop star, sneaks out of her hotel room and is on the hunt for a hamburger. She meets Jack, a tabloid photographer who doesn’t immediately recognize her. They embark on a spontaneous twenty-four hour tour of Hong Kong. The two find themselves sharing spicy food and sweet moments as they question what they owe to themselves and to the world. 

Between ice cream sundaes, steaming bowls of congee, and crisp shawarma, it becomes apparent Jack is kind, sensitive, and very, very conflicted (as he should be). Lucky is bold, confident, and hilarious. She’s unabashedly herself, especially while eating all things every chance she gets.

via GIPHY

Goo writes about food with such color and vibrance I was ready to start eating the pages. In Somewhere Only We Know, she does not simply focus on the aesthetics of the dish; instead, she focuses on each complicated layer. (And I think she owes us all some bao after putting us through such emotional turmoil, gasping laughter, and irrepressible food cravings.)

With the Fire on High by Elizabeth Acevedo book coverWith the Fire on High by Elizabeth Acevedo

Have you ever entered someone’s house while they’re cooking and suddenly wanted to bottle the scent? I guarantee that’s what I’d do if I ever visited Emoni from With the Fire on HighEmoni has been a single mom since early on in high school. She loves nothing more than her daughter, but she has always been drawn towards cooking. When Emoni has the opportunity to travel to Spain as part of the cooking course at her high school, she has to figure out how to balance being a mother and a chef.

Every time Emoni makes a dish, the food is infused with both flavor and emotion. From sweet potato with red pepper aioli, to pork shoulder in a sour orange marinade, she crafts delectable dishes throughout the book. At the end of each section, recipes are included with notes to warm hearts. Acevedo starts off the book with a recipe for Lemon Verbena Tembleque, writing, “Serves: Your heart when you are missing someone you love.”

via GIPHY

With the Fire on High is deliciously crafted not only because of the food content, but also because of Emoni’s relationship with her daughter Emma. Even in moments of tension or stress, Emoni puts Emma first. Acevedo leaves the reader with not only inspiration to get cooking, but also the hope that there is always a path to pursue our passions.

Maurene Goo and Elizabeth Acevedo’s upcoming releases are everything hungry readers are looking to taste and I don’t think the release dates can come fast enough. Too impatient to wait for these foodie reads to come out? Check out these five YA books to devour with your favorite snack. Interested in reading more about Lucky and Jack? Read an excerpt from Somewhere Only We Know here.

Fantasy is Female: The Importance of Feminism in YA Fantasy

There have always been women in fantasy. They’ve come a long way from their origins as the bikini-clad damsel clutching the leg of the hero, the sacred prostitute sold into the life by her desperate parents, the cold assassin with a singular talent raised among men, or the powerful sorceress who must decide between her power and the love of a good man.

Our progress has been slow and is more evident in some sub-genres than others; because urban fantasy and many paranormal romances are set in worlds similar to our own, it’s a simpler, though never easy, task to modernize our fictional sisters. Voices like those of Nnedi Okorafor have brought us Akata Witches and Zoraida Córdova Brooklyn Brujas.

But high fantasy. Oh, high fantasy.

Yes. There are some high fantasy stories with well-developed female characters who have complete story arcs and independent vectors and don’t ultimately trade everything they’ve fought for and built for the heart of a knight or a rogue or a djinn or…you get the idea.

While at Emerald City Comic Con, I had the opportunity to speak with Alexandra Christo (To Kill a Kingdom) and Tricia Levenseller (Warrior of the Wild, Daughter of the Pirate King) about their particular mission to inject feminism into their female-led YA fantasy and why they think it’s so important to do so.

S.W. Sondheimer: Both of you have major plot points that revolve around conflict between the female protagonist and her mother. They resolve in very different ways. Why was it important to include that conflict in each story?

Alexandra Christo: This is where my mother, who is the most lovely person in the world, always tells me, “You know, people always ask me if the sea queen is based off me…” I think in a lot of books, the villain is quite far removed from the protagonist and so there’s that sort of line between them. I feel it’s really interesting to explore that sort of villainous relationship between two characters that are supposed to traditionally love and care for each other, and show that’s not what all families follow…that’s not the way it always goes. You don’t have to love someone just because they’re your family. You’re not required to put up with a bunch of monsters just because you’re related to someone. It’s interesting to explore those families and see where that antagonistic relationship comes from. It’s also the idea of Lira…she begins the book ruthless, willing to do whatever it takes to get her kingdom, and once she becomes human, she starts to explore whether she was always that monster or whether that was drilled into her and she can change who she is, and I think that’s an interesting thing to explore.

Tricia Levenseller: I think that in YA novels, it’s so hard to get the parents out of the novel, how do you get the parents out of the way? And I think one way to do that is to make the parents the villains. I grew up with fabulous parents who I love and adore, but I have a friend who had horrible parents and it wasn’t their experience. I wanted to have my fantasy novel reflect real life events and how some relationships look. Obviously (in real life) her mother did not lie and send her out to a monster-filled wilderness like happens in Warrior, but there are these interesting parallels to these relationships that exist in the real world and I like to reflect those and the complexities of them in fantasy worlds. It gives us a fresh way to look at them.

AC: And it shows us that even if you have bad relationships in your families, you can still come out the other side. It doesn’t make you a lesser person.

SWS: Why is showing the process of character development so important, especially in YA? Lira and Rosmera change because they want to. In many fantasy novels, the woman changes for love. In To Kill and Kingdom and in Warrior of the Wild, Lira and Rosmera change because they want to, and love comes later and separately. Why is that important for girls especially, but boys as well, to see?

TL: I think it’s incredibly important for feminist fantasy that girls are reading about girls who are doing things because they want to and not for a man. We live in modern times and this is something we need to be talking about, especially to our teen readers who are growing up and learning from the books they read…

AC: I think Lira’s character actually came about because, in fantasy, in usual fairytales, women didn’t have agency; they just waited around to be rescued. It was their story but they didn’t do anything in their own story. They relied on other people. In the Little Mermaid (which inspired To Kill a Kingdom), in the end, she sacrifices herself completely for this guy who doesn’t even love her. I wanted to show a women who went out for what she wanted, who was ambitious, and who didn’t apologize for it. So often strong women in fantasy are seen as bossy or bitchy. Her character arc isn’t forgetting her goal…it’s about finding a new way…learning and adapting…not being stagnant. She doesn’t have to fit into a mold, she can do things her own way. It goes back to getting the parents out of the book. Once she’s away from that abusive and destructive relationship, she begins to discover who she actually is…you don’t need to be who people are telling you to be or who people expect you to be. You can be who you want to be and forge your own way. Fantasy is a really unique way of getting that message across without it being a flashing neon sign.

SWS: I don’t want to give away the ending, but it wasn’t what I expected…I was thrilled.

AC: I didn’t want it to be a traditional “they get married and walk into the sunset.” I wanted it to be “Lira and Elian still have their own plans for the future. They can still have those plans and do those plans. They don’t have to choose between X and Y, they can have both. Women can have everything.”

SWS: And Elian didn’t have to give up his plans either.

AC: Exactly! He didn’t have to fit into “what it means to be a man,” as well. He could choose his own family.

TL: I get told a lot that my women are “too confident,” and that makes them “unlikable.”

AC: Only women are “unlikable.” Men are “flawed.” Women have to be perfect and fit into the mold.

TL: Now I’m almost taking it as a compliment because if it were a man, they wouldn’t have a problem with it. Now, I’m like, good. If she’s unlikable at the beginning and I can make you like her, my job is done. She’s a full character. I just hope we get past that point.

SWS: In both books, the young women are a force for change. Talk to us about including that and why it’s important for young women to be seeing that, especially right now?

AC: It’s especially important for young people in America and across the world, with all the protests…it’s important to show young people that their voices can change the world, that their actions can make a difference, that they can have a voice and they should use it and they can use it, and they should not be afraid because they’re not alone. I think that’s really important because there’s always the person who starts the protest or starts the act for a specific thing, and if that one person doesn’t come forward, maybe no one else might. If you feel passionately about something and you want to change it and you can change it, it doesn’t matter if adults and men and X person tell you you can’t; you can and you shouldn’t feel confined by society telling you no. Because society gets it wrong a lot. Sometimes, society is fucking stupid and we shouldn’t say, “Oh, my little voice won’t make a difference,” because if we all said that, nothing would get done. I remember—I’m going to get this so wrong—I remember back in the UK when we had our elections, there’s the conservative government and the labour government…and lots of people were saying, “my vote doesn’t matter, why bother voting?” and in Kensington, which is always the most conservative borough of London, Labour actually won by like, two votes, two people. So if everyone said, “Oh, my voice doesn’t matter,” we would have lost that borough to the conservatives. So it’s important to show that every voice matters. If every single person says, “I’m going to stand up,” then you have an army behind you and then you have real change.

TL: I also really wanted to write a male-dominated society, because we are living in one.

AC: You mean the real world.

TL: (laughs) Yes, the real world. And then show how a girl can still make big changes in that kind of society. I would really, really like to see more women getting involved in politics and the sciences and all these fields. I want so many more voices in this male-dominated society, and it was so important to me Warrior have this girl who wasn’t a traditional beauty, who could step up into this traditional male role and embrace her feminine side but be part of a warrior society. Even when she failed, she didn’t give up. Even when she was cast out, she kept at it. I think it’s so important to show there are going to be bumpy roads, you’re not always going to win but if you keep at it, you will make a difference and things will change for the better. Even if it’s not in your lifetime, it will be down the road.

AC: Rosmera goes on to lead that society. Women become the leaders and change those societies.

TL: Also, it wasn’t Rosmera’s typical masculine qualities that came through for her in the end. I think it was her feminine qualities. Her intuitiveness, her ability to feel for the boys that were stuck out in the wilderness with her, to rally them, to inspire them. I feel those are feminine qualities, though my goal is to smash the barrier and let everything just be people qualities in the future—but if we’re talking about them in these terms, I think it’s important to note it’s not always physical brute strength that gets you where you need to be in the end, it’s your wits, you intuitiveness, your compassion.

AC: There are a lot of times in fantasy women are strong because they can murder people with a flick of their wrist, killer assassins. That was one of the reasons in To Kill a Kingdom, I started with Lira so (physically) powerful and then I stripped it all away, so she had to find the mental strength, the emotional strength, the strength of self, and learn from that…to show there are different ways of being strong and none are lesser than the other. They’re all equal.

SWS: What are you reading right now?

AC: I just finished reading WarriorThe Last Magician is the one I’m reading now and also Maggie Stiefvater put one on her IG lately…Something Wicked This Way Comes

TL: I just finished A Curse So Dark and Lonely. It was so good. I still have a book hangover from it. But I can’t say anything about it.

AC: I loved that one! I blurbed it. It’s my favorite ever Beauty and the Beast retelling.

SWS: What’s next for each of you?

AC: I have a new duology launching in October: Into the Crooked Place. It’s about four crooks who deal in magic and they’re murderers. Not very nice people. They discover their criminal leader has a really dangerous and dark plan that crosses the line for them, so these four crooked killers team up to save the world and destroy the leader.

TL: My book that comes out next year is also about murderers. They’re great people to write about.


I mean, I can’t do much better than that as a closing line, so: “murderers. They’re great people to write about.”

 

10 New And Upcoming Political YA Books To Add to Your TBR

Though we know every book is political, there are some that take on politics and social issues harder than most. While challenging harmful governments is nothing new in YA (Hunger Games, anyone?), after the 2016 presidential election we’ve seen a spike in YA books more ready and less apologetic about taking down the patriarchy, destroying white supremacy, raising our voices, and drawing clear lines in the sand. We’ve already created a list of ten, but we all need more. Here are ten more new political YA books to read that have recently come out or are coming out soon.

Internment by Samira Ahmed

Though it began with a curfew and her boyfriend’s family prohibiting him from seeing her, it ends with Layla and her family in an internment camp for Muslim Americans. Along with other captives, her boyfriend on the outside, and an alliance with one of the guards, Layla leads a revolt against the camp’s director in a fight for their freedom.

Girls on the Verge by Sharon Biggs Waller

On the very night Camille learns she’s gotten into a prestigious theater program, she also learns she’s pregnant. Unable to tell her parents, and with her best friend Bea not agreeing with her choice to have an abortion, Camille attempts to solve her problem alone.  But in 2014 Texas, a year after Governor Rick Perry called a special session to vote on a bill that would close most of Texas’s abortion clinics, a desperate Camille  turns to theater acquaintance Annabelle, who offers to drive Camille wherever she needs to go to have the abortion; as the girls set off on their road trip, Bea decides she’d like to come too.

White Rose by Kip Wilson

Inspired by the true story of Sophie Scholl, this novel-in-verse tells the story of the White Rose, a non-violent resistance group led by Sophie and her brother Hans. Disillusioned by the Nazi propaganda overtaking Germany, college student Sophie joins her brother and his fellow soldiers in challenging the Nazi regime. Writing and distributing pamphlets to the public, they become the White Rose, their small network publicly criticizing the Nazis and calling upon German citizens to take action. Until the White Rose, and Sophie and her brother, are discovered by the Gestapo.

We Set the Dark on Fire  by Tehlor Kay Mejia

Daniella Vargas is a student of the Medio School for Girls, where distinguished young women are trained to perform one of two roles in the households of their husbands. A Primera will run the house and act as her husband’s right hand, and a Segunda will be the nurturer and have children. At Dani’s graduation, she’s placed with an important politico husband, and her future seems secured, despite his Segunda being her school rival Carmen. But Dani’s pedigree is built on forged documents and could fall apart in a moment if she’s exposed, as a rebel group threatens to do unless she spies on her new husband for them.

On The Come Up by Angie Thomas

Bri wants to be the greatest rapper of all time, but it’s hard to get there when trouble at school leads to her being labeled a hoodlum. Frustrated and angry, Bri channels her emotions into her first real song, and it goes viral, but for all the wrong reasons. Now the public’s made up its mind about Bri, casting her as a threat, but with her mom out of a job and bills piling up, it’s more important than ever that Bri find a way to make it. And if making it means becoming what the world wants her to be, Bri might be willing to do it.

A Very Large Expanse of Sea cover imageA Very Large Expanse of Sea by Tahereh Mafi

Taking place soon after 9/11, this semi-autobiographical novel follows Shirin, a 16-year-old Muslim girl who wears a hijab. After enduring degrading comments, stares, and physical violence due to her race and religion—not to mention the constant moving—Shirin withdraws from the world, instead finding solace in music and breakdancing. Then she meets Ocean James, a white boy who seems to really want to get to know her, chipping away at Shirin’s shell.

The Fever King CoverThe Fever King by Victoria Lee

After a magical virus kills his family and nearly kills him, Noam Alvaro awakens a technopath. His new ability gains the attention of the minister of defense, who offers to educate Noam about his magic. As the child of undocumented immigrants, Noam spent most of his life seeking a way to make change, and now Noam sees an opportunity to turn his magic against Carolinia’s government, ruthlessly turning away refugees at the border. But after meeting the minister’s cruel but beautiful son, Noam must decide how far he’s willing to go for the greater good.

Watch Us Rise by Renee Watson and Ellen Hagan

Tired of the way girls are treated at their progressive NYC high school, Jasmine and Chelsea start a Women’s Rights Club. Posting everything online—from Jasmine’s responses to racial microaggressions and Chelsea’s poetry—the two go viral. And then come the trolls. When the principal shuts down their club, Jasmine and Chelsea are forced to take a stand and make sure their voices—as well as those of the other girls—are heard.

The Exact Opposite of Okay by Laura Steven

Aspiring comedian Izzie O’Neil has always been able to laugh her way out of any situation, but the laughs are harder to come by when photos of her having sex with a politician’s son are put online, making her the center of high school gossip and then a national scandal.

The Grace Year by Kim Liggett (September 17, Wednesday Books)

Each year, the 16-year-old girls in Tierney’s village are banished into the woods for their grace year. Told they have the power to lure men to damnation and their communities to ruin, the girls are sent to the wilderness to purge their magic so they can return home pure, harmless, and marriageable. But not all the girls come home. Tierney, practical and trained in nature by her father, might have a better chance of survival than most, but once her grace year begins she realizes that it’s neither the poachers hunting them nor the elements that are the greatest danger, but the girls themselves.

3 on a YA Theme: Best Friends Falling in Love

This list of YA books about best friends in love is sponsored by The Fall of Crazy House.

Escape is just the beginning. Twin sisters Becca and Cassie barely got out of the Crazy House alive. Now they’re trained, skilled fighters who fear nothing–not even the all-powerful United regime. Together, the sisters hold the key to defeating the despotic government and freeing the people of the former United States. But to win this war, will the girls have to become the very thing they hate? In this gripping follow-up to James Patterson’s YA blockbuster Crazy House, the world is about to get even crazier.


One of my favorite tropes in books is when love interests are friends before falling in love. While instant attraction and heart pounding crushes are exhilarating, there’s something really satisfying about seeing the friendship foundation put down before moving into romantic territory. Here are three of my favorite books that feature this kind of relationship!

The Astonishing Color Of After Emily X. R. Pan coverThe Astonishing Color of After by Emily X.R. Pan

In Pan’s amazing debut, Leigh comes home one day to find that her mother has died by suicide. She’s wracked with grief and guilt over the fact that as her mother was dying, she was kissing her best friend, Axel. The novel goes back and forth between the present, as Leigh distances herself from Axel and visits Taiwan to try and feel closer to her mother, and the past, as Leigh and Axel move from best friends into something more. Axel and Leigh’s relationship is very important to Leigh’s journey, even when he’s thousands of miles away, and their connection is explored beautifully as Leigh processes her grief.

Love and Other Foreign WordsLove and Other Foreign Words by Erin McCahan

Josie doesn’t get love. The romantic kind. She doesn’t understand why feelings for someone else would drive you to do wild things. But she does love her family, which is why when her older sister gets engaged to absolutely the wrong guy, she becomes determined to break them up before it’s too late. But over the course of one tumultuous school year, and a few surprising romantic twists of her own, she finds that love is unexpected—but sometimes in the best way possible. Josie’s best friend Stu is a steadfast presence for Josie throughout the book, and their friendship-to-romance is so sweet to watch.

The Accident SeasonThe Accident Season by Moira Fowley-Doyle

Every October, Cara’s family is plagued by accidents. They start small, but some years they escalate into deadly. This year, Cara and her best friend and ex-stepbrother Sam are determined to discover the impetus behind the accident season, but as they probe into their family’s past—and spark unexpected feelings for each other—they find that they may be ill-equipped to handle the truth. I loved how Cara and Sam’s relationship unfolded—tentative, yet utterly inevitable, providing a wonderful romantic contrast to the eeriness of the plot.

What are some of your favorite YA reads featuring best friends falling in love?

Want more “3 On A YA Theme” posts? Gotcha covered.

5 YA Poetry Audiobooks Read By the Author

Poetry is meant to be read aloud. The words and rhythms come alive when they’re spoken, which is why we are so fortunate to be living in a time where audiobooks—and narrated by the author, no less!—are readily available. To celebrate National Poetry Month, we recommend these five YA poetry audiobooks—two novels-in-verse, one memoir, one collection of poetry, and one short story in verse—all read by the authors.

The Poet XThe Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo

The Poet X has collected multiple accolades—the Printz Award, the National Book Award, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, to name a few—and for good reason. It’s the powerful story of teenage Xiomara, who dreams of partaking in slam poetry and is struggling to find her voice. The audiobook is a powerful performance by the author, who has a background in slam poetry as well.

Long Way DownLong Way Down by Jason Reynolds

It’s hard to say which is the best way to experience Long Way Down—print or audio. It’s such a short book, I recommend both. The performance Jason Reynolds puts in is heartrending, really capturing the emotion of Will, whose brother has just been murdered and now must decide if he’ll choose revenge or forge a different path.

ShoutShout by Laurie Halse Anderson

Twenty years after her groundbreaking novel Speak, Laurie Halse Anderson has given us her own memoir of sexual assault and survivorship. Half her own story of being a young person and half a story of reclaiming and finding your voice, Laurie’s story is searing and her voice commands your attention.

the princess saves herself in this one book coverThe Princess Saves Herself in This One by Amanda Lovelace

Amanda Lovelace’s first book of poetry became wildly popular due to the way she explores the realities of trauma and abuse through fairytale imagery, turning the classic stories into something empowering. The poet’s voice both lulls and unsettles the listener, making this book one that you’ll want to listen to multiple times.

Love at First BookLove at First Book by Sarah Tregay

This short story in verse is a romantic, uplifting read about finding love and hope after loss, without being too heavy. If you like books, cute coffee shops, and meet cutes, this story is for you. Sarah Tregay is one of the best author-narrators I’ve ever come across, and I could have listened to her read to me for hours on end.

What are some of your favorite YA poetry audiobooks?

YA Earworms That’ll Get Stuck In Your Head

Earworms are the best/worst thing. For those who aren’t familiar with the term, earworms are those songs that get stuck in your head for whatever reason. It could be that you heard it in a commercial or on your streaming music service of choice. It could be that you woke up with the lyrics to “Frosty The Snowman” in your head in the middle of March for no reason. It could also be that you’ve read book titles that call to mind the name of a song and then suddenly, you’ve got yourself a bookish earworm.

Let’s take a look at some of the recent YA earworms you have recently or may soon encounter. These book titles have gotten a song stuck in my head and continue to do so every time I run into it.

Don’t blame me when you’re singing these songs to yourself.

 

Freshmen by Tom Ellen and Lucy Ivison

This YA title came out last summer, and it follows a girl named Phoebe who is super excited about going to college—the same college her long-time crush Luke is going to. When Luke breaks up with his girlfriend, it feels like the opportunity of a lifetime for Phoebe, especially as the two of them become closer.

But when there’s a scandal related to Luke’s soccer team and a series of texts of photos of girls in compromising positions, both Luke and Phoebe need to come to a reckoning about “the college life.”

Naturally, the book’s title does this for me.

 

Hold My Hand by Michael Barakiva (May 21)

If you’re looking for a love story about two boys, then this is one you’ll want to make sure to pick up. It follows Alek, an Armenian American guy, who has a life before Ethan and one after Ethan—and it’s the after Ethan where he’s come out of his shell and found the confidence he never knew he had. When their six-month anniversary comes around, they’re going to do something really special to commemorate it.

But then Alek discovers something about Ethan that changes the entire course of their relationship. This is a funny book, featuring the ups and the downs of a teen relationship.

Was there any question of this earworm?

 

 

If It Makes You Happy by Claire Kann (June 4)

Amazing cover, right? In addition to the cover selling the heck out of this book in and of itself, the description makes this book a must-read. Winnie is finally out of high school and ready to start her college adventure. But first, she’ll be spending the summer working at her grandma’s diner in a small town, where she begins falling for a guy she wishes she wasn’t feeling big feelings for. Gossip travels fast in town, and with Winnie hoping to inherit the diner in the future, her reputation is coming before her—as is the unsolicited advice of neighbors for how she can lose weight and make herself more attractive.

With the diner in trouble financially and her dreams at stake, Winnie decides it’s time to do something. So, she’s entering a television cooking contest and hoping to cash in big.

Hello, Sheryl Crow!

 

The Pursuit of Miss Heartbreak Hotel by Moe Bonneau (May 21)

This is the third book on this little list about life in that final moment of high school and about what happens after. But this one is about friendship: what happens when two former best friends reunite when one experiences a pregnancy scare?

 

 

 

It’s not a stretch, y’all, that this immediately got some Elvis in my head.

 

Rebel Girls by Elizabeth Keenan (September 10)

I’m obsessed with the book’s jacket as much as I continue to have mad grabby hands for the book itself. The story follows a girl named Athena living in a small, conservative Louisiana Catholic school in 1992, when her beliefs about feminism are radical, essentially making her an outcast. Then a rumor begins: Athena’s pro-life sister had an abortion over the summer. Now the two of them not only have to quash the rumor, but the opportunities presents itself to educate everyone about what it really means to be pro-life (and pro-choice).

 

Bikini Kill is more than appropriate for the book, too.

 

SHOUT by Laurie Halse Anderson

Queen of YA Laurie Halse Anderson’s memoir in verse follows her own personal experiences as a victim—survivor—of sexual assault. It’s a moving and harrowing story, with a through thread about the power of words, of story telling, and defending freedom of speech that empowers young readers and those who serve them. It’s a heavily decorated memoir and for good reason.

 

Even though it’s more joyful from beginning to end, I do think that the book’s song doppelgänger is appropriate:

 

Somewhere Only We Know by Maurene Goo (May 7)

Maurene Goo is the queen of romantic comedies and, more specifically, queen of rom coms which are named after songs. This book follows a K-pop star while she’s in a hotel preparing for her American debut and a tabloid journalist who sneaks into the same hotel she’s at and the two run into one another. Hilarity…and love…ensue.

 

 

Want more YA earworms? I’ve got you covered, of course.