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The Healing Power of Fiction, a guest post by Nora Shalaway Carpenter

I am passionate and outspoken about authentic, non-stereotyped mental health representation in young adult literature. To explain why, let me tell you story.

When I was diagnosed with trauma-induced, severe obsessive compulsive disorder and PTSD, my husband and I confided in our immediate family. Here are some of their initial responses:

“Just think about happy things. You can do it!”

Blank stares and silence.

“You’re going to hurt the baby!” (I was carrying our first child at the time.)

“What you went through was for the best, in the long term. You’re lucky.” 

About a month later, a family member took me out to lunch. As I sat in the restaurant, barely holding myself together, she told me: “It’s time to stop this now. You have to snap of it.”

Let me translate that from the point of view of an individual suffering with mental health: You are behaving this way on purpose. You’re choosing to be miserable all the time. If you were stronger, you wouldn’t be like this.”

Although I still haven’t completely recovered from the emotional damage that statement caused, my relative is far from alone in that view. Her Appalachian culture (the culture I grew up in as well) instills a “yank yourself up by your own bootstraps” mentality almost from birth. Mental strength is a prized (and expected) attribute. If you’re not in tip top mental shape all the time, you bury that fact where it will never see the light of day because it’s a source of shame not only for you, but for your entire family.

Again, such mentality is not unique to Appalachian culture. Similar ideas cross myriad backgrounds, cultures, and socio-economic classes: that only “weak” or “insane” people suffer with mental health; that mental health struggles are imagined and not actually real; that medication to treat them is somehow shameful whereas medication for physical illnesses is a no-brainer.

After the disappointing reactions from my family, I tried one more lifeline: a close friend who was almost a second mom to me. And though she looked sad, she also looked bewildered, like I had spoken a different language. “Tell me what you need,” she said, trying to be helpful. And I know she was genuine, that she was asking because she truly didn’t know.

It turns out, people in crisis can rarely articulate what they need, but I didn’t know that at the time. Instead I felt stupid for not knowing and guilty for making her feel awkward. I left as soon as I could.   

Suffice it to say, I didn’t tell anyone else what was happening with me. If family members and a trusted confident couldn’t handle it, I reasoned my peers would probably ditch me immediately. Even with a diagnosis, it took a long time to get me on the correct treatment plan, so I spiraled into a very dark place. I couldn’t touch the dog I used to snuggle with every day because my brain told me he might carry germs that could hurt my unborn baby. I couldn’t use a public bathroom. I couldn’t handle raw meat anymore because what if I didn’t wash my hands well enough and I made someone sick? I checked and rechecked and checked again that the stove was off…and then I wasn’t sure if I’d checked. And once—one of my most vivid memories from that time—I literally couldn’t stop washing my hands and arms and had to call my husband downstairs to help me turn off the water.

I was terrified of getting out of bed each day because of all the triggers I’d endure while awake. I put all of my suffering focus into graduate school (it was low-residency, thank goodness, so mostly online) and I stopped hanging out with friends. 

One day, one of them asked me to grab tea with her, and because I hadn’t seen her in a while and was determined to overcome my horrible disease by sheer force of will, I agreed. As we sat sipping our drinks, she gently told me she knew something was wrong. That I could talk to her. I was mortified. I’d tried so hard to hide all my symptoms, to appear normal. But I couldn’t do it any longer. Everything spilled out—the trauma, the diagnosis, the way I couldn’t control the wild, spinning thoughts in my head that made me feel like I was slowly losing my mind.

As much as the “snap out of it” reaction is seared into my memory, so too is my friend’s response. She didn’t tell me I could fend off OCD with positive thoughts. She hugged me so that I felt in my bones she would never abandon me in this; she would never run away from this ugliness. She cried with me, right there in public. It was the first time someone (apart from my husband) didn’t imply that my OCD was in some shape or form my fault.

It is not an overstatement to say that proper treatment (for me, serotonin and cognitive behavioral therapy), both of which I never would have received or accepted without the support of important friends, saved my life.

I’m a writer, so as I began to heal, I knew that in order to process what I’d been through, I had to write about it—not the actual, real life details of my personal situation, but the feelings and emotions the experience brought out: the utter despair that I’d somehow brought this on myself and would never again be okay. That I wasn’t trying hard enough to get better. That despite having loving people around me like my husband, I was totally, horrifyingly alone.

I also wanted to explore the kind of friendship that could pull a person through such a hellish experience, and how such a friendship is established.

The Edge of Anything is the book I’d longed for during my own darkest days. It tells the dual narrative of two teenagers—one a shy photographer unknowingly suffering a mental health crisis, the other a popular volleyball star with her own devastating secret—and the unexpected friendship that saves them both. 

The book stars teenagers because I’m a young adult author, but also because teenagers are one of the most vulnerable populations when it comes to mental health. Sadly, according to recent statistics, one out of every five teenagers suffer from at least one mental health disorder per year[i], and the rate of depression in adolescents aged 12-17 has increased 63 percent since 2013[ii]. What’s more, seven-in-ten teens see anxiety and depression as “major problems among their peers.”[iii] When I think about how difficult it was for me, as an adult with health care and a supportive spouse, to figure out what was happening and find a health care specialist who understood what I was going through, the thought of undergoing a similar experience as a teen is devastating.

Today, I can tell people I have OCD. More than once someone has confided in me about their own struggles (or those of someone they care about) and I’ve been able to help them a tiny bit on their journey. Because communication matters. It can change and save lives.

It’s my hope that The Edge of Anything will function in a similar way for readers, both those all-too-familiar with mental health struggles and those with no personal experience. No one needs to be told life isn’t fair. But I think we do all need to hear that sometimes we are not okay, and that itself is okay and not something that should shame or devalue a person. We are all loveable and beautiful—just as we are, even if we are undergoing a serious, behavior-altering health condition. And we all need to hear that there’s hope.


[i] https://www.hhs.gov/ash/oah/adolescent-development/mental-health/adolescent-mental-health-basics/index.html

[ii] https://www.newportacademy.com/resources/mental-health/teen-depression-study/

[iii] https://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2019/02/20/most-u-s-teens-see-anxiety-and-depression-as-a-major-problem-among-their-peers/

Meet Nora Shalaway Carpenter

A graduate of Vermont College of Fine Arts’ MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults program, Nora Shalaway Carpenter is the author of THE EDGE OF ANYTHING, contributing editor of RURAL VOICES: 15 AUTHORS CHALLENGE ASSUMPTIONS ABOUT SMALL-TOWN AMERICA (Candlewick, Oct 13, 2020), and author of the picture book YOGA FROG (Running Press). Originally from rural West Virginia, she currently lives in Asheville, North Carolina with her husband, three young children, and the world’s most patient dog and cat. Learn more at noracarpenterwrites.com, @noracarpenterwrites on Instagram, and @norawritesbooks on Twitter.

Nora’s local indie is Malaprop’s Books in Asheville, NC. Order her book there!

About The Edge of Anything

A vibrant #ownvoices debut YA novel about grief, mental health, and the transformative power of friendship.

Len is a loner teen photographer haunted by a past that’s stagnated her work and left her terrified she’s losing her mind. Sage is a high school volleyball star desperate to find a way around her sudden medical disqualification. Both girls need college scholarships. After a chance encounter, the two develop an unlikely friendship that enables them to begin facing their inner demons.

But both Len and Sage are keeping secrets that, left hidden, could cost them everything, maybe even their lives.

Set in the North Carolina mountains, this dynamic #ownvoices novel explores grief, mental health, and the transformative power of friendship.

ISBN-13: 9780762467587
Publisher: Running Press Book Publishers
Publication date: 03/24/2020
Age Range: 13 – 18 Years

The Bad Man With the Nice Smile, a guest post by Victoria Lee

Content warning: discussion of sexual assault, rape, child abuse, and gaslighting.

In September 2019, Netflix released a new miniseries, Unbelievable. The show followed the true story of a young girl who claimed a stranger broke into her house at night and raped her. But when she reports what happened to the police, parts of her story don’t seem to match up. As the series unfolds, we become aware of all the ways the system—but also the girl’s friends and family—have become biased against her. She’s a resident in a group home, a former delinquent, a foster child with a history of acting out, who had made accusations of abuse before. Everyone seems to assume that she is lying for attention.

As you might have predicted by now, she wasn’t lying. But by the time her attacker was caught and brought to justice, the damage was done; the girl had already been abandoned by everyone she should have been able to trust, just because she didn’t match the vision of what a “real” victim looked like in their heads.

The idea of real victims is a pervasive and pernicious one. Turn on the news and you’ll hear a litany of all the things that real victims do: they wear the right clothes, they don’t go out at night, they report the crime to the police and they don’t wait to do it, they have never made these kinds of allegations before. We are told these things even though victims cannot control the behavior of their aggressors, even though being in foster care or having mental illness or having been previously victimized all substantially increase your likelihood of experiencing future violence. Even though externalizing behaviors like drug use and acting out are often symptoms of having survived abuse.

As a child, I was sexually abused for four years, from ages twelve to sixteen. The perpetrator—although maybe I should say the molester or the rapist or the abuser, all of which are less sanitized and therefore strike me as more accurate—was a close friend of the family. He was my neighbor, my triathlon coach, a man so enmeshed in our lives that I described him to other people as my uncle because any lesser word seemed inadequate to describe the relationship he had with my family. He was in his early thirties and looked like Orlando Bloom and every single one of my friends who came over to the house commented on how ungodly hot he was.

When I was thirteen, I even wrote a character in one of my stories to look just like Brian. (We will call him Brian, because that is, in fact, his actual name. F you, Brian.) The character was the love interest, and was also the protagonist’s teacher. As you can see, already I knew that my job as victim was to romanticize such things. That was the only way to survive.

Brian was not a man in the bushes, was not unshaven in a stained wifebeater; he had no substance abuse problems that I was aware of; he was just a guy. A tall, athletic, well-educated, charismatic, attractive guy. Kids loved him, and he loved kids. Me, on the other hand…I couldn’t be a victim.

I was not what a victim looked like. I was a problem child. I spent too much time on the internet, and listened to angry music, and skipped class and stole my parents’ credit card and shoplifted and screamed at teachers and once threatened to kill a boy who touched me wrong. I was the girl that other girls weren’t allowed to be friends with. I was the girl they prayed for at night. I was the girl who wore boys’ clothes, all black, and kissed other girls and insisted it wasn’t a phase.

Therefore, I was not believed. Not by my family, not by my therapist. I was believed by the crisis team that was called in to evaluate me when the staff at the psychiatric hospital I was later admitted to following a suicide attempt suspected abuse. But at that point the damage was done—I swore to the crisis team that nothing had happened, their suspicions were unfounded, anything I had to say to keep the past buried. I couldn’t deal with being told, once again, that I wasn’t a victim.

Eventually, other girls came forward about my abuser, and he was charged by the state, and ultimately convicted. But this isn’t the kind of trauma you move past. Not just the trauma of the abuse, but the trauma of being told you’re too villainous to ever be victim.

This is why I wrote The Fever King and The Electric Heir. In the series, Dara and Noam both experience abuse in different ways. Dara was physically and sexually abused by a father figure, whereas Noam became enmeshed in an unhealthy, manipulative, exploitative relationship with a much older and much more powerful mentor figure. Both characters are, ultimately, abused by the same man, but their experiences of that abuse are different. The books follow how each character comes to terms with what happened to him, and begins the process of healing. Their abuser, like mine, was charismatic and respected and good-looking—he wasn’t the rapist hiding in the bushes or the drunk frat bro, he was a pillar of the community. When people look for the bad guy, they aren’t looking for Brian. They aren’t looking for Calix Lehrer.

That’s why it was so important to me to write about abusers who don’t fit our vivid stereotype of what an abuser ought to look like—that makes it more difficult to recognize abusers in the real world. And equally so, not all victim/survivors fit the same mold. Some survivors withdraw from the world and become quiet and nervous and fear sex. Other survivors lash out, angry, furious, willing to burn down anything that tries to hurt them again. And still others seem oddly unbothered by what happened to them, numb to the pain or burying it so deep they no longer feel it anymore.

All of these reactions—and others—are okay. The only “right” way to respond to trauma is the way that helps you survive.

I don’t think that good and varied representation of victim/survivors and abusers in literature is a panacea. Abusers are very skilled, after all, at gaslighting their victims (and everyone else). But wide representation of survivors and perpetrators is one step toward chipping away their power and undermining the stories they try to tell about villains and victims and heroes.

Meet Victoria Lee

Victoria Lee grew up in Durham, North Carolina, where she spent twelve ascetic years as a vegetarian before discovering that spicy chicken wings are, in fact, a delicacy. She’s been a state finalist competitive pianist, a hitchhiker, a pizza connoisseur, an EMT, an expat in China and Sweden, and a science doctoral student. She’s also a bit of a snob about fancy whiskey. Lee writes early in the morning and then spends the rest of the day trying to impress her border collie puppy and make her experiments work. She currently lives in Pennsylvania with her partner.

www.victorialeewrites.com Facebook: @victorialeewrites, @amazonpublishing Instagram: @sosaidvictoria, @amazonpublishing, Twitter: @sosaidvictoria, @amazonpub

About The Electric Heir by Victoria Lee

In the sequel to The Fever King, Noam Álvaro seeks to end tyranny before he becomes a tyrant himself.

Six months after Noam Álvaro helped overthrow the despotic government of Carolinia, the Atlantians have gained citizenship, and Lehrer is chancellor. But despite Lehrer’s image as a progressive humanitarian leader, Noam has finally remembered the truth that Lehrer forced him to forget—that Lehrer is responsible for the deadly magic infection that ravaged Carolinia.

Now that Noam remembers the full extent of Lehrer’s crimes, he’s determined to use his influence with Lehrer to bring him down for good. If Lehrer realizes Noam has evaded his control—and that Noam is plotting against him—Noam’s dead. So he must keep playing the role of Lehrer’s protégé until he can steal enough vaccine to stop the virus.

Meanwhile Dara Shirazi returns to Carolinia, his magic stripped by the same vaccine that saved his life. But Dara’s attempts to ally himself with Noam prove that their methods for defeating Lehrer are violently misaligned. Dara fears Noam has only gotten himself more deeply entangled in Lehrer’s web. Sooner or later, playing double agent might cost Noam his life.

ISBN-13: 9781542005074
Publisher: Amazon Publishing
Publication date: 03/17/2020
Series: Feverwake Series #2

Ages 14-17

How Running a Marathon Helped Me Write My Debut Novel, a guest post by Sarah Watson

Writing often feels like an impossible journey. I’ve heard people say it’s a lot like running a marathon. It’s not. A marathon is a lot easier. Like, a lot easier. Which is probably why I’ve run so many of them.

I signed up for my first marathon when I was twenty-five. I was trying to make it as a television writer and my dream was starting to feel impossible. I’d gotten rejection after rejection and hit wall after wall. I’m a type-A person, so it was incredibly humbling for me to set a goal, work harder than I ever had in my entire life, and still not be able to achieve it. I thought about giving up.

But I decided to sign up for a marathon instead.  

Even at the time, I think part of me probably knew that I was only doing it because I was so desperate to succeed at something. Anything. I just needed to set a goal and meet it. But the training turned out to be more brutal than I expected. I hit walls. I cried. Everything hurt. I thought about giving up. I really believe I would have, except that I was running with a group of girlfriends, and they wouldn’t let me. Most of them had run marathons before and they knew what the journey was like. They also knew what victory felt like on the other side. So they guided me, coached me, pushed me (sometimes literally), and refused to listen when I said I needed to stop. They shouted encouraging things at me, sometimes rather forcefully, and told me I could do it. It turned out they were right. I crossed the finish line that year. I’d never felt prouder in my entire life.

I also never doubted my journey as a writer again.

Running has been a constant metaphor in my (now successful, well, mostly successful) television career. It’s also been an incredible escape and a wonderful chance to stay connected to my girlfriends. So I suppose it makes sense that the idea for my debut novel, Most Likely, came from running.  

I hadn’t run a marathon in years and wasn’t even running regularly anymore when my friend told me that it was time to sign up for our last marathon. Apparently during one of our first races together she’d said something about how she wanted to run her final marathon when she turned forty. She claims I enthusiastically told her I would do it with her. I have no recollection of this. (Though frankly I would argue that anything said during a 26.2-mile run is not legally binding anyway.) But that’s the thing about friends, when they tell you that you’re going to do something, you do it.

We persuaded another friend to join us and we started training. We always talk while we run. About our relationships, our careers, our struggles. During the really long runs we sort through our problems. We find solutions for some of them; other problems don’t have solutions. For those we simply listen. We laugh. We cry. Then we laugh some more.

I loved running with my friends again. But my body was starting to hurt. Running a marathon at forty is nothing like running a marathon at twenty-five. As our mileage climbed higher and higher, my doubts got bigger and bigger. The week before our eighteen-mile training run I was scared—really scared—that I wouldn’t be able to do it. My friends told me the same thing they always did; that I could.

That eighteen-miler turned out to be one of the best runs of my entire life. As we ran those miles and talked and talked, an idea popped into my head about a group of friends who push each other to go farther, to dream bigger, and to be the best possible versions of themselves. That idea turned into my book.

Most Likely follows the high school days of a future female president. But really, it’s a simple story about female friendship. It all goes back to what I realized on that eighteen-mile day. Running is great and crossing the finish line really is an incredible feeling. But the reason I love running—truly love it—is because of the women running on either side of me.

Meet Sarah Watson

Sarah Watson is the creator of the hit TV series The Bold Type, which the New York Times described as “Sex and the Single Girl for millennials.” Previously she was a writer and executive producer of the critically acclaimed NBC drama Parenthood. She lives in Santa Monica, California. Most Likely is her debut novel.

About Most Likely

From the creator of the hit TV series The Bold Type comes an empowering and heartfelt novel about a future female president’s senior year of high school.

Ava, CJ, Jordan, and Martha (listed in alphabetical order out of fairness) have been friends since kindergarten. Now they’re in their senior year, facing their biggest fears about growing up and growing apart. But there’s more than just college on the horizon. One of these girls is destined to become the president of the United States. The mystery, of course, is which girl gets the gig.

Is it Ava, the picture-perfect artist who’s secretly struggling to figure out where she belongs? Or could it be CJ, the one who’s got everything figured out…except how to fix her terrible SAT scores? Maybe it’s Jordan, the group’s resident journalist, who knows she’s ready for more than their small Ohio suburb can offer. And don’t overlook Martha, who will have to overcome all the obstacles that stand in the way of her dreams.

This is the story of four best friends who have one another’s backs through every new love, breakup, stumble, and success—proving that great friendships can help young women achieve anything…even a seat in the Oval Office.

ISBN-13: 9780316454834
Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Publication date: 03/10/2020
Age Range: 13 – 17 Years

Books and Libraries Can Strengthen the Superpowers of Teens With ADHD, a guest post by Kirsten Lambert

What would you do if your child’s ADHD and dyslexia meant he hated reading and writing so much that he would try every diversion possible to avoid it: sharpening pencils ten times, hiding under a table, and even crying? If you’re author Rick Riordan, you write stories in which the main character has those very same conditions — but also make that character a demigod.

The stories, with their mythical tapestry — which Riordan wove when he ran out of bedtime stories for his son, Haley — became the best-selling Percy Jackson series. Although the protagonist Percy calls himself “hyperactive,” he soon discovers that he is descended from a Greek god and must save the world. The series puts a spotlight on a few of the abilities that people with ADHD often possess: creativity, spontaneity, a sense of humor.

Of course, most children with ADHD don’t have parents who write bestsellers. According to a 2016 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study, more 6 million American children, ages 2–17, have an ADHD diagnosis; more than 3 million of them are adolescents. And unfortunately popular culture often perpetuates negative stereotypes, painting kids with ADHD as loud, unable to sit still, and even academically challenged. Not everyone fits that picture, though, and some teen and YA fiction portrays the condition with authenticity. Beyond that, many teens with ADHD gravitate toward libraries — not just because they love to read, but because the atmosphere often serves as the ideal place for them to shine.

One novel that rings true is Focused by Alyson Gerber, which tells the story of Clea, a seventh-grader who struggles to pay attention and discovers she has ADHD. She gets distracted when she should be doing homework, she can’t seem to stay organized, she blurts out comments without thinking. She also loves playing chess. The book’s author draws on her own experience to allow readers a glimpse inside the mind of a teen who is gifted but finds school and friendships challenging. 

The YA novel Playing Tyler by T.L. Costa is the story of 17-year-old Tyler, a boy who has ADHD. His condition forms an integral part of the novel, and his character’s narration reflects his state of mind. When he’s not medicated, Tyler speaks in run-on sentences without punctuation — a convention that some readers find compelling and some find jarring. But rather than dwelling on only the challenges of living with ADHD, the book shows how teens can succeed when they hone in on pursuits that can sustain their interest, such as video games.

Kat and Meg Conquer the World by Anna Priemaza introduces readers to two tenth-grade girls: Kat, who has anxiety, and Meg, who has ADHD. The story allows readers inside the characters’ heads, and the details resonate with readers who have ADHD or anxiety, which often coexist. The story also delves into the social challenges that ADHD can present while showing how empowering friendships can be. 

Unlike today’s teen and YA fiction, which puts ADHD front and center, classic novels often feature characters who have ADHD-like traits but don’t spell it out.

Consider Anne Shirley (in the Anne of Green Gables series by Lucy Maud Montgomery). She’s impetuous and dramatic, with an intense curiosity and a tendency to blurt out things before thinking. While she’s impulsive and talkative, Anne is also charismatic and resourceful.

Or take Roald Dahl’s Willy Wonka, the eccentric recluse with a solitary nature. He’s clearly a visionary thinker with a taste for adventure — plus he loves candy, perhaps a nod to the fact that people with ADHD often enjoy the rush of a sugar high (maybe to compensate for the shortage of the “feel good” neurotransmitters of dopamine and serotonin in their brains).

The Calvin character in Bill Watterson’s much-loved Calvin and Hobbes comic strip shows the razor-sharp wit that can come with ADHD. Sure, Calvin has some fantastical daydreams and draws plenty of ire from his teachers. But he’s clearly intelligent, with a dazzling imagination that helps him get through the hum-drum days of school and home.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes epitomizes the brilliant yet absentminded professor: His apartment is full of unfinished projects; he has trouble remembering appointments. Yet he solves crimes by noticing details that neurotypical people — those without ADHD — miss.

Besides offering vivid portrayals of people with ADHD, books like these have a fascinating effect on teens who may find it challenging to sit still in class: they can focus for hours. What’s more, a library can actually serve as the perfect environment for teens with ADHD.

Jennifer Kelly Geddes outlines some tips for accommodating students with ADHD in a School Library Journal article titled “How Librarians Help Kids With ADHD Thrive.” Here are a few more ideas especially for teens.

Offer a variety of seating options. Some teens with ADHD have sensory issues, too (for example, they might not like tags on clothes or may complain that some socks are itchy). So if you can, include nontraditional seating options like recliners, swivel chairs, or standing desks. You may even want to consider offering sensory cushions.

Minimize clutter. Teens with ADHD have a hard time ignoring sensory input, including visual stimuli. So although reading and study spaces don’t need to have colorless blank walls, try to avoid having multiple things compete for a student’s attention. These updated versions of the study carrel offer privacy as well as enough space for, say, a laptop. 

Limit noise. Teens with ADHD don’t necessarily need complete silence to focus; some of them actually find that listening to music can help them study. But they may be easily distracted in an environment with lots of talking (or other background noise). Consider creating a designated “quiet zone” in your library.

Allow them to move. Teens with ADHD need movement breaks sometimes. (Don’t we all?) Having students help with physical tasks like shelving books or unpacking boxes can help them burn off some of their restless energy until they’re ready to sit down again.

Consider allowing gum and/or candy, Yes, they can be sticky, but mints and gum can help people with ADHD focus. (Just be sure to set some ground rules and have wastebaskets nearby.)

Offer different types of materials. Your library undoubtedly already includes e-books, audiobooks, and video, in addition to traditional printed materials. To engage students with ADHD, you may want to add an area that allows teens with ADHD to use their hands while on a “brain break”: jigsaw puzzles, Legos — even a maker lab, if you have the space and funds.

Making your library a welcoming space for students with ADHD — especially if they’re able to see accurate, positive, and even entertaining portrayals of characters like themselves — will not only help them become better readers. It may just bring out their superpowers.

To discover more characters with ADHD (or with ADHD-like characteristics), check out this list on the SMARTS Online Executive Function Curriculum page.

For more seating ideas (and other tips), check out “17 Ways to Help Students With ADHD Concentrate.”

Meet Kirsten Lambert

Photo credit: Doug Human

Kirsten Lambert is a Chicago-based writer who tackles topics such as health care, technology, music, and parenting. She’s a regular contributor to the Chicago Reader newspaper, and her essay “Signs in Bloom” appears in the 2019 Chicago Neighborhood Guidebook, which offers snapshots of 45 Chicago neighborhoods as told by the residents of those neighborhoods. To see more of her work, check out her website (watermarkcommunications.com), connect with her on LinkedIn (https://www.linkedin.com/in/kirstenslambert) or follow her on Twitter: @KirstenSLambert.

Writing Whiteness, a guest post by Kate Hattemer

In a racial justice training I did at the school where I teach, the facilitator asked us to cast our minds back to our early understandings of race. It made me think. I’m a white woman, and despite attending an elementary school that was majority Black, I grew up barely cognizant of my whiteness. I remember being reprimanded for announcing, “I’m not wearing no coat” — that was not how we spoke — and I remember noticing that my honors classes in high school were almost all white, counter to the demographics of the school. That’s about it.

Small Kate in soccer uniform; photo credit Charlie Hattemer

Yet from an early age, I was aware I was a girl and I would be treated differently because I was a girl. I remember a kindergarten classmate shoving me up against a door to kiss me. I remember noticing that the lists of presidents and astronauts and scientists in my children’s encyclopedia were all men. In high school, when I fell deep into the world of competitive trivia games, I remember my teachers and coaches casually posing theories as to why girls weren’t fast on the buzzer. (I was fast on the buzzer.)

I have a lot of childhood memories of being oppressed. I don’t remember so well the experience of being on top.

This is common, I think, and understandable. In a weird way, it can be a whole lot more comfortable to examine ways you’ve been hurt by oppressive systems than to reckon with the ways you’ve been complicit, and perhaps still are complicit, with systems that hurt others. My whiteness informed every day of my childhood — the way I was treated by teachers and shopkeepers and passersby, the places we lived, the jobs my parents had, and on, and on, and on, in many ways I’m sure I don’t know — yet I barely knew I was white. I was just, you know. The default. Not black, not brown. I knew I was Swiss. Did that count?

Unsurprisingly, this discomfort is mirrored in children’s literature. In the past few years, as white authors have felt the need (from both the industry and our own consciences) to diversify our books, I’ve seen — and, yes, I’ve written — a familiar pattern. There’s a white protagonist (WP) who has at least one friend of color (FOC). Maybe WP visits the FOC’s house and eats some authentic kimchi or tacos, or maybe WP notes that FOC has a different hair-care routine. Or maybe WP witnesses a microaggression visited upon the FOC; the WP doesn’t understand at first, but the FOC explains, and the WP comes to a greater understanding of what it’s like for the FOC to move through the world.

I’m not saying this is a problem. It’s certainly better than all-white casts, and it’s better than the colorblind casts of math textbooks, where Latosha has to calculate the chances that the six marbles Xiyuan drew from José’s bag would all be green. But I worry it’s skipping a step. It’s eliding over the fact that white characters, too, have a race. When race is only an issue for our characters of color, the story reinforces the idea that race is not a problem for white people. Yes, white characters should see the way their friends of color deal with race, but they too need to reflect upon and reckon with their whiteness, by the way that their worldview has been unknowingly shaped by their powerful position in the structures of white supremacy.

Poster at protest; credit/caption “Our Feminism Must Be Intersectional Rally/March Pittsburgh” by feral godmother is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 

Jemima Kincaid, the white, straight, and wealthy protagonist of my new novel, is a committed feminist. She believes in justice and equity. She deeply wants to change the problematic traditions and toxic masculinity that drive the culture of her private school. But Jemima has huge blind spots. Throughout the book, she works to scrape off that cruddy crust of white feminism and internalized misogyny, but it’s there, and it’s sticky. She learns some things. She remains totally clueless about others. She is eighteen years old.

I’ve learned some things too, and I know I remain totally clueless about others. So I’ll keep reading and listening. I’ll keep thinking about how my whiteness shapes my experience of the world, and I’ll keep thinking about my white characters. Do they grow? Do they learn? Do they change? I don’t believe they have to. Literature doesn’t need a moral. But I do believe that literature should be considered, every aspect of it. If we’re going to keep writing white protagonists, we need white protagonists to reckon with race — not as something they aren’t, but as something they are.

Meet Kate Hattemer

Photo credit: Emma Hattemer

Kate Hattemer is a native of Cincinnati, but now writes, reads, runs, and teaches high school in the DC metro area. She is the author of The Vigilante Poets of Selwyn Academy, which received five starred reviews, The Land of 10,000 Madonnas, and Here Comes Trouble. Find her online at her website, www.katehattemer.com/, on Instagram @katehattemer, or on Twitter @katehattemer.

About THE FEMINIST AGENDA OF JEMIMA KINCAID

A novel about friendship, feminism, and the knotty complications of tradition and privilege, perfect for fans of Becky Albertalli and Stephanie Perkins.

Jemima Kincaid is a feminist, and she thinks you should be one, too. Her private school is laden with problematic traditions, but the worst of all is prom. The guys have all the agency; the girls have to wait around for “promposals” (she’s speaking heteronormatively because only the hetero kids even go). In Jemima’s (very opinionated) opinion, it’s positively medieval.

Then Jemima is named to Senior Triumvirate, alongside superstar athlete Andy and popular, manicured Gennifer, and the three must organize prom. Inspired by her feminist ideals and her desire to make a mark on the school, Jemima proposes a new structure. They’ll do a Last Chance Dance: every student privately submits a list of crushes to a website that pairs them with any mutual matches.

Meanwhile, Jemima finds herself embroiled in a secret romance that she craves and hates all at once. Her best friend, Jiyoon, has found romance of her own, but Jemima starts to suspect something else has caused the sudden rift between them. And is the new prom system really enough to extinguish the school’s raging dumpster fire of toxic masculinity?

Filled with Kate Hattemer’s signature banter, this is a fast-paced and thoughtful tale about the nostalgia of senior year, the muddle of modern relationships, and how to fight the patriarchy when you just might be part of the patriarchy yourself.

ISBN-13: 9781984849120
Publisher: Random House Children’s Books
Publication date: 02/18/2020
Age Range: 14 – 17 Years

When Fairy Tales Meet Filipino Legends: The Stories That Shaped My Childhood, a guest post by Rin Chupeco

When I was a kid, I was convinced that fairy tales were an actual part of world history.

I wasn’t all that bright as a child.

It might surprise a lot of people who aren’t familiar with the Philippines or Filipino culture, but many of us grew up knowing Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, and Red Riding Hood before we learned about most Filipino myths and folklore. A lot of Filipinos understand and speak English, and the biggest bookstore chains back then carried English books front and center. It didn’t help that American movies were also popular here, and so Disney’s versions of classic fairytales were huge influences in our lives as well.

I didn’t learn about Maria Makiling until I was in middle grade as part of our school curriculum. It was her story that fascinated me the most among the other legends we were taught. Most stories surrounding her were not only always vague, but the telling varied from region to region. In all of them she was a mountain goddess who frequently takes the form of a beautiful young woman, who was kind and brought good harvest to the villages near her mountain. According to the myth – and here is where it starts changing – she fell in love with a handsome Filipino youth who either was eventually betrayed and killed by her American and Spanish suitors, or who had betrayed her himself, or who had unintentionally broke her trust due to some unfortunate miscommunication. The results were always the same; she would wreak her vengeance on the foreigners before vanishing back into her mountains, bringing with her the mountain harvest and luck that she had once bestowed on the villagers, never to be seen again.

We still consider Mt. Makiling a bespelled, enchanted place. Travelers who get lost there are said to have been bewitched by the goddess, and must go through certain rituals to ask her forgiveness, so the fog can lift and they can find their way home.

Journey to the West

It had always felt strange growing up with an assortment of fairytales with me never noticing the distinctions between tales until I was older. I’d assumed, in my naivete, that since it was easy enough for Western stories to reach the Philippines, that the reverse was the same. But soon enough, I was invested in other tales as well: Chinese wuxia legends, like The Romance of the Three Kingdoms or The Investiture of the Gods or The Journey to the West. Along with Japanese ghost stories and powerful Meiji swords forged by Muramasa and Masamune, as well as the strange European tales of sentient armor and strange curses surrounding the border at the end of the world.

Legendary Japanese swordsmiths Masamune and Muramasa

There was also the fact that I was in many ways often treated like an outsider, which I suppose is the curse of all those with biracial identities. I was too Filipino to be Chinese, too Chinese to be Filipino, and still too foreign for everyone else. I think that was the reason why I took very quickly to fairytales; most carried with them a strong sense of culture, of knowing where they came from. And that was something I wished I had.

That was the mindset I was on when I first started writing Wicked As You Wish. I wanted to take all the fairytales that I loved and make them a unifying factor in the story. And while my Filipina teen, Tala, and her Filipino family and culture drives the book, I made the conscious decision not to make it the only fairytale in the book, because it wouldn’t be my personal, authentic experience otherwise. I wanted to celebrate the outsiders, the people who grew up with varying cultures and influences and who sometimes felt like there wasn’t any place they completely belong. And I wanted to create a world in my book that reflected that wild mishmash and weird whimsies, where it feels like anything was possible.

Meet Rin Chupeco

Photo Credit: Eugene Siytiu

Despite uncanny resemblances to Japanese revenants, Rin Chupeco has always maintained her sense of humor. Raised in Manila, Philippines, she keeps four pets: a dog, two birds, and a husband. She’s been a technical writer and a travel blogger but now makes things up for a living. She is the author of The Girl from the WellThe Suffering, The Bone Witch trilogy, and the A Hundred Named for Magic trilogy. Connect with Rin at rinchupeco.com.

Links:

Author website – https://www.rinchupeco.com/

Author twitter – https://twitter.com/RinChupeco

Author Instagram – https://www.instagram.com/rinchupeco/

Sourcebooks Fire Instagram – https://www.instagram.com/sourcebooksfire/

Wicked As You Wish Preorder – https://books.sourcebooks.com/wickedasyouwish-preorder/

About WICKED AS YOU WISH

An unforgettable alternative history fairytale series from the author of The Bone Witch trilogy about found family, modern day magic, and finding the place you belong.

Many years ago, the magical Kingdom of Avalon was left desolate and encased in ice when the evil Snow Queen waged war on the powerful country. Its former citizens are now refugees in a world mostly devoid of magic. Which is why the crown prince and his protectors are stuck in…Arizona.

Prince Alexei, the sole survivor of the Avalon royal family, is in hiding in a town so boring, magic doesn’t even work there. Few know his secret identity, but his friend Tala is one of them. Tala doesn’t mind—she has secrets of her own. Namely, that she’s a spellbreaker, someone who negates magic.

Then hope for their abandoned homeland reignites when a famous creature of legend, and Avalon’s most powerful weapon, the Firebird, appears for the first time in decades. Alex and Tala unite with a ragtag group of new friends to journey back to Avalon for a showdown that will change the world as they know it.

ISBN-13: 9781492672661
Publisher: Sourcebooks
Publication date: 03/03/2020
Series: A Hundred Names for Magic Series #1
Age Range: 14 – 18 Years

My Agenda for Middle Grade Books, a guest post by Greg Howard

“Never before have I thrown a book away, yours is the first.”

That’s how the email began.

It was last summer, about eight months after the release of my debut middle grade novel, The Whispers. I’d been riding pretty high on positive reviews from the likes of The New York Times Book Review, The Guardian, The Washington Post, Entertainment Weekly, and others. I’d received a number of emails from kids and parents the world over telling me how much they loved the book and how the story touched them deeply. But all that was momentarily overshadowed by this new website contact submission form in my inbox.

If you haven’t read The Whispers, trust me, it’s a sweet and pretty innocuous story. Riley, the eleven-year-old protagonist, is struggling to come to terms with the fact that he likes boys instead of girls (there is a crush on an older boy and chaste – even comical – kiss between two boys). But that’s not the main story, not even close. It just happens to be who Riley is and what he’s going through at that moment in his life.

I was Riley—a lonely kid growing up in the deep South knowing that I wasn’t like the other boys around me. I never saw myself represented in the books I read, or on the TV shows I watched and that made me feel like I was the only boy in the whole world who was desperately attracted to other boys. The glaring lack of representation in books, television, and movies only compounded my sense of isolation and loneliness, making me feel even more like a freak than I already did. I can’t imagine the anguish I would have been saved if I’d had access to even one book at that age in which I saw another boy like me. It would have given me something I severely lacked at that point in my life—hope.

The email I received last summer was from a father whose son was reading The Whispers. Apparently when he asked his son to talk about was going on in the book, the boy’s response sparked his curiosity, so he read “a chapter or two” only to find, in his words, “references that project your own sexuality onto the lives of others,” and “you couldn’t resist having this projected onto my boy.”

The man went on to say, “…the moment you cross into my world and suggest to my kids your sexuality – you are pushing your own homosexual agenda. Your story didn’t need this. Your story didn’t need to mention that the character was straight, or gay. Just tell your story and have kids enjoy it.”

To emphasize his disgust, he was also kind enough to send me a picture of my book in the trash.

A picture containing indoor, bed, white, sitting

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The first thing I thought when I saw this picture was, if this man’s son is gay, he just saw his father reject him and throw him in the trash, and the mere possibility of that breaks my heart.

But what this father was clearly saying in his email was that the mere suggestion of my existence, and the existence of kids like Riley, was and affront to him, his family, and his beliefs. And that in simply living my truth and even “mentioning” that Riley was attracted to other boys, I was pushing my “homosexual agenda.” I suppose all those books I read as a kid in which the boys were attracted only to girls and girls were attracted only to boys were pushing a heterosexual agenda on me. No one asked me how I felt about that, or if I was offended to have to read about such things, but I digress.

After the initial shock and deflation from reading the man’s email, I became more motivated than ever to write stories for and about queer kids. I was in the process of writing my new book when I received the email. Middle School’s a Drag: You Better Werk! is a contemporary story set in Charleston, South Carolina, in which twelve-year-old Mikey—gay but not out publicly yet—starts a junior talent agency and signs a thirteen-year-old drag queen, Coco Caliente, Mistress of Madness and Mayhem, as his first client. (Drag kids exist, too! Google it.) The man’s email also motivated me to make Mikey’s parents overwhelmingly accepting and supportive—sometimes annoyingly so, in Mikey’s opinion. Mikey has a crush on another boy at school, but as in The Whispers, that’s not what the story is about it. It’s just a part of who Mikey is. Queer kids exist and (News Alert!) they have crushes just like straight, or cishet, kids do.

Other than a handful of homophobic bully characters in Middle School’s a Drag: You Better Werk! Mikey’s world is somewhat of a middle school gaytopia. I wrote it that way on purpose. Because even if that’s not the norm in some parts of the South or in other parts of the country, don’t queer kids deserve that kind of hope too? The hope that one day they can be themselves openly and without fear of backlash for simply existing. The hope that they won’t be marginalized and othered in their daily lives. And the hope that they’ll have access to a plethora of books in which they see themselves represented, accepted, and celebrated.

Having been gay for some time now (read: always), I have yet to discover this elusive and seemingly subversive “homosexual agenda” that I’ve heard so much about over the years and have been accused of “pushing” onto kids in my books. But this man’s email inspired me to create my own, simple as it is. So, I thank him for that.

GREG HOWARD’S HOMOSEXUAL AGENDA FOR MIDDLE GRADE NOVELS

Write good books in which queer kids feel seen and represented.

Give queer kids their happily ever afters.

And most importantly, give them hope.

That’s it.

Meet Greg Howard

Photo credit: Jamie Wright Images

Born and raised in the South Carolina Lowcountry, Greg Howard’s love of words and story blossomed at a young age. Originally set on becoming a famous songwriter and following that dream to the bright lights of Nashville, Tennessee, Greg spent years producing the music of others before eventually returning to his childhood passion of writing stories. Greg writes young adult and middle grade novels focusing on LGBTQ characters and issues. He has an unhealthy obsession with Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups and currently resides in Nashville with his three rescued fur babies–Molly, Toby, and Riley. Connect with Greg at www.greghowardbooks.com or on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter: @greghowardbooks

About Middle School’s a Drag, You Better Werk!

In this heartfelt and hilarious new novel from Greg Howard, an enterprising boy starts his own junior talent agency and signs a thirteen-year-old aspiring drag queen as his first client.

Twelve-year-old Mikey Pruitt—president, founder, and CEO of Anything, Inc.—has always been an entrepreneur at heart. Inspired by his grandfather Pap Pruitt, who successfully ran all sorts of businesses from a car wash to a roadside peanut stand, Mikey is still looking for his million-dollar idea. Unfortunately, most of his ideas so far have failed. A baby tornado ran off with his general store, and the kids in his neighborhood never did come back for their second croquet lesson. But Mikey is determined to keep at it.

It isn’t until kid drag queen Coco Caliente, Mistress of Madness and Mayhem (aka eighth grader Julian Vasquez) walks into his office (aka his family’s storage/laundry room) looking for an agent that Mikey thinks he’s finally found his million-dollar idea, and the Anything Talent and Pizzazz Agency is born!

Soon, Mikey has a whole roster of kid clients looking to hit it big or at least win the middle school talent show’s hundred-dollar prize. As newly out Mikey prepares Julian for the gig of a lifetime, he realizes there’s no rulebook for being gay—and if Julian can be openly gay at school, maybe Mikey can, too, and tell his crush, dreamy Colton Sanford, how he feels.

Full of laughs, sass, and hijinks, this hilarious, heartfelt story shows that with a little effort and a lot of love, anything is possible.

ISBN-13: 9780525517528
Publisher: Penguin Young Readers Group
Publication date: 02/11/2020
Age Range: 10 – 12 Years

Homeless: Seeing Past the Label to the Person, a guest post by Catherine Linka

A few months ago, I was upset when a writer friend was interviewed on local TV news about her picture book, and the banner across the screen read “Homeless Woman Writes Children’s Book.” 

My friend wrote from her experience as a teen living in a shelter, but in the ten years since she acquired a master’s from a major university, a significant position with a non-profit, a nice apartment and a long-term romantic relationship. I realize that headlines are designed to telegraph what’s newsworthy about a story, but by labeling her a “homeless woman” the editor negated what is true about her and her life now.

I thought a lot about labels while working on my new YA novel, because a central theme of What I Want You to See is perception, meaning how we want others to see us and how our assumptions and emotions blind us to seeing people and situations clearly. 

My protagonist, Sabine Reyes is a first year at an art institute in Los Angeles. The recipient of a prestigious scholarship that affords her a cozy rented room, Sabine is careful not to let anyone know she spent the spring and summer living in her car. Sabine’s certain that if she does, she’ll be labeled “that homeless girl” instead of being seen as a highly talented artist with an unlimited future.

Labels like “homeless” reduce a person to a stereotype and weigh them down with assumptions that don’t allow for their individuality and run counter to their self-identity.

Kara Yorio addressed this last year in her School Library Journal feature  “In Plain Sight, Supporting Teens Who Are Homeless.” She noted that educators often assume that teens experiencing homelessness are damaged, traumatized, or emotionally unstable, but the teens they’re trying to help want to seen and treated as normal kids in challenging situations. 

It’s not surprising that educators might assume the worse, since the population of people experiencing homelessness who are most visible in our communities and the media are those living on the street and struggling with mental or physical illness, drug, or alcohol addiction.

But in California, a lack of affordable housing has pushed tens of thousands of two-earner families and retirees out of their homes, and prevents college students and part-time workers from finding places to rent. Like my protagonist, many of these individuals and families hide their homelessness as they go to work or attend classes, embarrassed by what people might think about them and their families.

Even though their circumstances are unstable, we shouldn’t assume that a teen or family is unstable. When my friend lost her home, her dad provided the strength and love she needed to feel safe. One line from my book which she felt expressed this well is: “People think home is where you live, but it’s not. It’s where you’re loved.” 

As the affordable housing crisis continues, we need to reconsider how we think and speak about students and families who lack permanent housing. Many of these families will find stable housing and their homelessness will be temporary. If we label them as “homeless” we focus on one period in their lives, possibly the worst, and we fail to allow for how teens, young adults, and people of all ages may continue to grow and change. 

Maybe we can begin by retiring “homeless” as an adjective to describe someone. Homeless isn’t who a person is. It’s not an identity, it’s a circumstance. Since I began writing this novel, I’ve made a conscious effort to change how I speak and to replace phrases like ‘homeless students’ with ones that reflect these students’ circumstances better such as ‘students experiencing homelessness.’ 

My friend would add that we should reconsider using “the” before “homeless.” Even when we mean well, such as when we implore others to “Help Feed the Homeless,” we lump people together in a group, erasing their individual identity. Perhaps, we could try dropping “homeless” as a noun altogether.

People, young people especially, want to be seen the way they identify. If we look beyond the label to the individual, engage them by asking about their interests, hobbies, friends, and dreams, we can show them that we see them as a whole person. We can chip away at the stigma of homelessness one person at a time.

Meet Catherine Linka

Photo credit: Nicola Borland Photography

Catherine Linka has been immersed in books her whole life, most recently as a writer and bookseller. She’s the author of the young adult novel WHAT I WANT YOU TO SEE as well as the dystopian duology A GIRL CALLED FEARLESS and A GIRL UNDONE. Catherine lives in Southern California and watches hawks and hummingbirds when she should be writing. 

Website: www.catherinelinka.com

Facebook: @catherinelinkaauthor

Twitter: @cblinka

Instagram: catherine_linka

About What I Want You to See by Catherine Linka

Winning a scholarship to California’s most prestigious art school seems like a fairy tale ending to Sabine Reye’s awful senior year. After losing both her mother and her home, Sabine longs for a place where she belongs.

But the cutthroat world of visual arts is nothing like what Sabine had imagined. Colin Krell, the renowned faculty member whom she had hoped would mentor her, seems to take merciless delight in tearing down her best work-and warns her that she’ll lose the merit-based award if she doesn’t improve.

Desperate and humiliated, Sabine doesn’t know where to turn. Then she meets Adam, a grad student who understands better than anyone the pressures of art school. He even helps Sabine get insight on Krell by showing her the modern master’s work in progress, a portrait that’s sold for a million dollars sight unseen.

Sabine is enthralled by the portrait; within those swirling, colorful layers of paint is the key to winning her inscrutable teacher’s approval. Krell did advise her to improve her craft by copying a painting she connects with . . . but what would he think of Sabine secretly painting her own version of his masterpiece? And what should she do when she accidentally becomes party to a crime so well -plotted that no one knows about it but her?

Complex and utterly original, What I Want You to See is a gripping tale of deception, attraction, and moral ambiguity.

ISBN-13: 9781368027557
Publisher: Freeform
Publication date: 02/04/2020

Four Little Words – Changing the Narrative, a guest post by Abigail Hing Wen

As a student rising through elementary and middle school in Ohio, I’d always wanted to join one of the amazing productions put on every year by the high school theater group. A part of me worried that my Asian Americanness would get in the way. After all, there were no Asian Americans in Oklahoma! or Guys and Dolls. Would casting me detract from authenticity? Could the directors overlook my Asian Americanness so that in spite of my face, I could join the chorus?

Abigail in dance squad.

My freshman year, I auditioned for the fall play. When the cast list posted, I wasn’t on it. But freshman were rarely cast for any roles but the chorus, and with the winter came a special class of one-act plays, directed by seniors. They were smaller and less prestigious; an opportunity for freshman, though still difficult to land.

During auditions, the seniors sat in the front row of the auditorium while we hopefuls huddled on the floor before them. They challenged us: how far would you go? would you run naked across the stage?

I can’t remember my answer, but I remember the attitude that dominated that room: whatever they threw at us—a crazy dance routine, a passionate stage kiss—we were game.

I auditioned along with dozens of other hopefuls.

When the cast list posted, I pressed forward with the mob, anxiously scanned the list, read deeper and deeper—and there I was!

In a one-act play called “Four Little Words,” I had been cast as the Sixth Actress of seven actresses.

When I arrived for rehearsal, I could scarcely contain my excitement. Two senior guys were directing. There were about a dozen of us actors—I had joined an exclusive little club.

Eagerly, I flipped through the thin blue booklet we were given, searching for my role. It was a story of a director trying to cast for the role of a maid who only had four words in the whole play: “Your taxicab is waiting.”

He proceeded to audition one egotistical actress after another. Each prima donna embellished on the four little words, refusing to stay in character, while he grew more and more despairing, exhausted by these women who wouldn’t shut up.

Meanwhile, the sixth actress—me—sat at the end of the line without speaking. The seventh actress burst onto the scene, large than life.

And then when the director was about to tear out his hair, my character finally spoke.

“Vosh naya. Skoogoo. Urr-urr. Saltzey. Kcki-icki skaya. Woozey.”[1]

The office boy turned to the director and said, “Gee, boss! She can’t talk English!”

The poor exhausted director came to life.

“She’s hired!” he cried. “I never want to hear English again!”

I was suddenly, intensely aware I was the only minority in that auditorium. The words weren’t even a real foreign language. They were a made up language, the kind of talk random people occasionally babbled at me when they passed me on the street.

I had been cast not despite my Asian Americanness, not even for it, but because of the perception of it.

Abigail in show choir.

In the weeks that followed, I never breathed a word about the play’s contents to my parents or my friends. I told my parents they didn’t need to attend, though, since I missed the bus for practices, my mom dutifully picked me up late after school every day.

We actresses sat in a row each rehearsal. I sat in silence, my head bowed, as my role called for, until the cue for my four little words. Each time I spoke those lines, I died a little with the shame of it. But I’d been cast. I got a role when so many others didn’t. I’d agreed with all the other hopefuls that I was game for anything. How could I rock the boat now and appear ungrateful?

“Is that Chinese?” the fifth actress asked me one afternoon.

I was born in the United States. English was the only language I spoke at home. I had studied French for two years and that was my second language. When people complemented me on my excellent English skills, it had been a point of soreness, but also irrational pride.

I don’t remember what I answered. But I remember the feeling.

I started leaving rehearsals early. One time, I skipped, making some excuse. The next day, after I recited my lines, the fifth actress said to me, “You know, Bob (not his real name, but the one-act’s real-life director) played your role yesterday and he was hilarious. Why don’t you ham it up more?”

Until I wrote this piece and my critique partner pointed it out, I didn’t recognize that the hamming up of the role was probably a racist caricature, as much as the role itself was. Instead, I felt like a failure. Of course Bob was hilarious. And I couldn’t be. For so many reasons I couldn’t in that role.

A good friend, one of three other Chinese Americans in the grades above me, came to the one-acts. I didn’t know he was in the audience until he came up afterwards and congratulated me with a huge grin.

Not until three years later, when he and I were both students at Harvard, that I confessed how ashamed I’d felt to play it.

“I was actually really mad when I saw the show,” he admitted.

Why had we never talked about it? Why didn’t I have more self-confidence to refuse the role? I doubt it even went on my college application. It was something I endured and buried away. I simply didn’t know better. Those student directors and the supervising theater directors and faculty may not have realized what they were doing, although I think they did in hindsight—I walked in on an argument in which the director was trying to convince the play’s leading man to take his bow with me on his arms and he was refusing. Not wanting to be the cause of a fuss, I quickly offered to take my bow with the other actresses.

As I’ve explored film options for Loveboat, Taipei, I’ve had the opportunity to meet Asian American producers who have struggled to get their work made in the United States or to gain traction in Hollywood. They have been told there are not enough qualified Asian American actors.

“That’s because they don’t have a chance to practice,” one discouraged director told me. “They’re not cast as leads in high school plays or musicals.” And in an already fiercely competitive market, with so few roles for Asian Americans, what actor could go into it with any real hope?

But I am also told there is incredible talent out there. I’m running into it. My hope for a Loveboat, Taipei film someday is that its cast of over 30 Asian American characters will open up opportunities for this talent to come forward and shine on the screen. I want to see new stars discovered, and to see them move into other lead roles in Hollywood in which race doesn’t matter.

With Crazy Rich Asians, Always Be My Maybe, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, The Farewell and Ghost Bride, we are starting to see changes. We still have a ways to go, but I am honored and grateful to be playing a part in this new world.

Meet Abigail Hing Wen

Photo credit: Olga Pichkova

Abigail Hing Wen holds a BA from Harvard and a JD from Columbia. She also earned her Master of Fine Arts in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Like Ever, she is obsessed with musicals. When she’s not writing stories or listening to her favorite score, she is busy working in venture capital and artificial intelligence in Silicon Valley, where she lives with her husband and two sons. Loveboat, Taipei is her first novel. Visit AbigailHingWen.com.

About Loveboat, Taipei

Perfect for fans of Jenny Han and Sarah Dessen, and praised as “an intense rush of rebellion and romance” by #1 New York Times bestselling author Stephanie Garber, this romantic and layered Own Voices debut from Abigail Hing Wen is a dazzling, fun-filled romp.

“Our cousins have done this program,” Sophie whispers. “Best kept secret. Zerosupervision.

And just like that, Ever Wong’s summer takes an unexpected turnGone is Chien Tan, the strict educational program in Taiwan that Ever was expecting. In its place, she finds Loveboat: a summer-long free-for-all where hookups abound, adults turn a blind eye, snake-blood sake flows abundantly, and the nightlife runs nonstop.

But not every student is quite what they seem:

Ever is working toward becoming a doctor but nurses a secret passion for dance.

Rick Woo is the Yale-bound child prodigy bane of Ever’s existence whose perfection hides a secret.

Boy-crazy, fashion-obsessed Sophie Ha turns out to have more to her than meets the eye.

And under sexy Xavier Yeh’s shell is buried a shameful truth he’ll never admit.

When these students’ lives collide, it’s guaranteed to be a summer Ever will never forget.

ISBN-13: 9780062957276
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 01/07/2020


Escaping from Reality Shows Us How to Change It, a guest post by Ryan La Sala

REVERIE takes place in our world. Connecticut, to be specific. It’s a version of Connecticut you’d recognize, even if you’ve only seen postcards. We have old mills and slow rivers and vibrant autumns. The usual stuff. There is, however, one major difference. 

In REVERIE’s imagining, Connecticut is slowly being warped by a strange magic that mines the secret, subconscious worlds people build within themselves, and manifests those worlds in our reality. The characters refer to these phenomena as reveries, because that’s what they are: fantasies that superimpose themselves over our reality. Fantasies that entrap, and refuse to dislodge themselves from reality until they are appeased. 

I developed the concept of the reverie around the idea of inverting escapism. Dreams are common territory in fiction, but usually as an act of solitary, inward exploration (or prophecy, if we’re being uncanny). I love those stories but my goal with REVERIE wasn’t to dig into fantasies that one could simply wake up from. I wanted fantasies that were aggressive, and moody, and dead-set on surviving once they’d been manifested. So I created a magic that gives material form to belief, and I created a magic system that gives power to those typically rendered powerless by reality. 

Why?

By explanation, let me start with Kane, the unlikable hero of REVERIE. Kane uses escapism as a form of self-preservation. He is lonely and disenchanted with a reality that has been unkind to him, as reality often is to young queer. Kane withdraws into books, movies, and anything that provides a realm other than our own. And he’s content with this, until the sudden inheritance of power—and the ensuing responsibility—reveals to him how ill-equipped he is to navigate relationships, leadership, community, and other hallmarks of a hero. 

With Kane, I wanted to show how a person can become so insulated by daydreams that they forget how to manage the world around them. When we withdraw, the world only notes our absence for so long. It then continues on without us, and often the things that forced us to withdraw get the luxury of continuing unchecked, as we drift further into ourselves. 

Do I fault Kane for using escapism as self-preservation? Absolutely not. Fantasy’s function as refuge is very important to me. His reaction to reality is not his fault. But his inaction eventually is his fault, especially as he learns about his own ability to affect the reality around him. Eventually, running away means abandoning people he could otherwise help. Eventually, running away is not an option. 

I like this journey for Kane. His path out of himself contrasts well with his adventures into the interior worlds of other people. I think his point of view enables him to be an effective narrator to drive home an important lesson. 

Escapism isn’t always bad. Reality is a harsh place, and no one should be faulted for wanting a break. But there are people among the escaping ranks with power. People like Kane, who has the advantage of privilege, and stability, and—sure—magical reality bending magic. Maybe you don’t have Kane’s magic, but you do have his imagination. Lots of writers and bookish people share that. They spend hours in other worlds, analyzing system of magic, fantastical machinations, and mind-boggling world building. They — really we— are practically trained on both imagining a more fantastic world, but also manifesting it through bravery, heroics, honesty, and determination. 

So escapism has its educative uses, doesn’t it? From the negative of the world, it creates a technicolor solution to the reality that necessitates it. My argument, if I have one, is that escapism can be a harbinger for change. As a reaction to reality, escapism can be the exercise of deconstructing our reality’s faults, experimenting with their improvement, and ultimately devising actionable ways to create that change in our material world. The last part, the action part, is what Kane needs to learn. As a person with power, it’s up to him to find a way to bring his reality and his dreams together; to bring his dreams home, because ultimately it is reality where he must live.

A reverie is a fantasy imposed upon reality, borne from a person’s interior world. Often that interior world is much more hospitable than the world that inspires it. Reverie’s make me think of safe spaces, of shelters, of refuge. They make me think of gay bars full of pride, and libraries full of wonder. Places where the fantasy of what the world could be like kiss against the partition of what it is.

So I don’t discourage dreaming. Ever. I support escapism with my whole heart. Whether for indulgence, or comfort, or thrill, I see escapism as not just necessary, but deeply practical. Because it’s escapes that help us feel safe, and coax us towards dreaming.

And, ultimately, it’s escapes that show us the work that needs doing once we’re ready to wake up.

Meet Ryan La Sala

Photo credit: Lauren Takakjian

RYAN LA SALA grew up in Connecticut, but only physically. Mentally, he spent most of his childhood in the worlds of Sailor Moon and Xena: Warrior Princess, which perhaps explains all the twirling. He studied Anthropology and Neuroscience at Northeastern University before becoming a project manager specialized in digital tools. He technically lives in New York City, but has actually transcended material reality and only takes up a human shell for special occasions, like brunch, and to watch anime (which is banned on the astral plane). Reverie is Ryan’s debut novel. You can visit him at ryanlasala.com or follow him on Twitter @Ryality.

About REVERIE

Inception meets The Magicians in this wildly imaginative story about what happens when the secret worlds people hide within themselves come to light.

All Kane Montgomery knows for certain is that the police found him half-dead in the river. He can’t remember anything since an accident robbed him of his memories a few weeks ago. And the world feels different—reality itself seems different.

So when three of his classmates claim to be his friends and the only people who can tell him what’s truly going on, he doesn’t know what to believe or who he can trust. But as he and the others are dragged into unimaginable worlds that materialize out of nowhere—the gym warps into a subterranean temple, a historical home nearby blooms into a Victorian romance rife with scandal and sorcery—Kane realizes that nothing in his life is an accident, and only he can stop their world from unraveling.

ISBN-13: 9781492682660
Publisher: Sourcebooks
Publication date: 12/03/2019