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Writing Your (Hidden) Self, a guest post by Jessica Pennington

I write romance. I write kissing books. I write love stories.

I don’t know how many times I gave those answers—at book launches and conventions, festivals, and family functions—before I realized it wasn’t the most accurate description of my work. Yes, my stories are full of sweet book boyfriends and swoony kisses. There are nights under the stars getting to know someone new, and long, painful discussions with former first-loves. And they are most definitely the type of books you see being read poolside or at the lake. But that’s not the only thing all of my books have in common.

As authors, many of us set out to write a book and have a map of where it will go. We have character sketches, plot points, beginnings and endings in mind. Some authors don’t, but for now let’s just say a lot of us do. Personally, I can’t even start a project until I have at least a general idea of where I’m headed. Of course, even for plotters, stories change along the way; characters reveal themselves to us, or a really great scene can steal the show and send us in an entirely different direction. Still, as the author, we have ultimate control of the story and the words we put on the page.

Despite that illusion of control, it took me two published books and five years to figure out what I was actually writing. My debut, Love Songs & Other Lies is about two teens who are unexpectedly trapped with their ex on a battle of the bands tour bus, but it’s also about a girl who doesn’t know how to share her feelings, even with those closest to her, except in the form of song lyrics. And it’s about caring for someone so much that you accept less than you deserve, just to preserve the relationship.

When Summer Ends is about two teens forced to work together when each of their summer plans fall apart, but it’s also about a girl who has planned her future so carefully, that she can’t see the problems—or fresh new potential—in her present.     

And by the time I wrote Meet Me At Midnight, I already knew it wasn’t just going to be about two teens forced to vacation together while torturing one another with yearly pranks, until they’re forced to call a truce and work together. It’s also about a girl who is emotionally guarded, and finds control in her life by meticulously organizing and planning things.

It may have taken me two-hundred-thousand written words to figure it out, but I finally did: I write stories about girls like me. Not thirty-seven-year-old me, of course (wow, what a disappointing YA novel that would be) or even the teen girl I saw myself as at the time, but the teen girl I didn’t realize I was until I started writing parts of myself into my stories.

As authors, we’re always hearing about how books affect readers, but one thing I’ve thought about a lot while stuck in my house for the last three months, is just how much writing my books has affected me. It’s funny how looking at your life from the outside can show you a new perspective, even fifteen years later.

I didn’t realize how dysfunctional one of my high school friendships was, until I tried putting it on the page in Love Songs & Other Lies. The friend I read in that first draft was not the one I remembered, but it was accurate. So I re-wrote that character into the friend I wish I’d had—the person that would have been what I actually needed in high school. Olivia in When Summer Ends is stripped of her carefully laid plans and shown that flipping a coin and living life by chance isn’t the great disaster she would have thought. I gave my social anxiety to Sidney in Meet Me At Midnight, and forced her not only to acknowledge it, but to find someone who held her hand and loved her through it.

Today, when I describe my books, I still say I write romance, but more importantly, I write books about girls like me: Type-A, focused, self-conscious, anxious, driven, emotionally guarded, a little too serious sometimes, and absolutely worthy of love. I write teen girls who need to make some mistakes to realize not all mistakes are bad. And I hope that readers will see my characters bruised-but-not-broken (and in love) and they’ll discover some things about themselves, too—hopefully twenty years earlier than I did.

Meet Jessica Pennington

Jessica Pennington is the author of contemporary romance novels for young adults (and the young at heart), including Meet Me At Midnight, When Summer Ends, and Love Songs & Other Lies. A self-proclaimed “professional romantic,” she has spent the last fifteen years immersed in love–first as a wedding planner and now a novelist. Jessica lives in a Michigan beach town suspiciously similar to the one in her novels, with her husband and son.

Find Jessica on IG @jessicapennington and Twitter @jessnpennington

Sign up for her monthly newsletter The EpistolarYAn here: http://itsjess.com/newsletter/

Website: www.itsjess.com

Jessica’s local indie bookstore is Forever Books.

About MEET ME AT MIDNIGHT

Meet Me at Midnight

They have a love-hate relationship with summer.

Sidney and Asher should have clicked. Two star swimmers forced to spend their summers on a lake together sounds like the perfect match. But it’s the same every year—in between cookouts and boat rides and family-imposed bonfires, Sidney and Asher spend the dog days of summer finding the ultimate ways to prank each other. And now, after their senior year, they’re determined to make it the most epic summer yet.

But their plans are thrown in sudden jeopardy when their feud causes their families to be kicked out of their beloved lake houses. Once in their new accommodations, Sidney expects the prank war to continue as usual. But then she gets a note—Meet me at midnight. And Asher has a proposition for her: join forces for one last summer of epic pranks, against a shared enemy—the woman who kicked them out.

Their truce should make things simpler, but six years of tormenting one another isn’t so easy to ignore. Kind of like the undeniable attraction growing between them.

ISBN-13: 9781250187666
Publisher: Tom Doherty Associates
Publication date: 04/07/2020
Age Range: 13 – 18 Years

Continuing Anti-Racist Work in Publishing in the Wake of the George Floyd Protests, a guest post by Roseanne A. Brown

Being a Black debut is weird right now.

Being Black right now is weird. And being a debut right now is weird. But being both? Being both is a whole new level of weirdness I did not know it was possible to achieve.

My debut novel A Song of Wraiths and Ruin came out on June 2nd, and like most writers with spring/summer releases this year, I spent the months before coming to terms with the reality that the launch I had dreamed of for years would not be possible in the wake of COVID-19. As disappointing as it was, the health and safety of my community mattered more.

But then June 2nd itself arrived. A Song of Wraiths and Ruin came out on a day when the world was gripped in the throes of some of the largest scale protests we’ve seen since MLK was assassinated. The unjust killing of George Floyd at the hands of the police marked a turning point in the conversation on racial injustice, and institutions around the globe are still reckoning with what it means to not only be non-racist, but anti-racist in the face of centuries of subjugation and oppression of Black people.

A Song of Wraiths and Ruin by Roseanne A. Brown

In the publishing world, this looked like a push to highlight books by Black authors that might have otherwise gotten lost in the chaos. The people of the publishing community, lead by amazing Black women writers, came together to create a Black Tuesday to ensure that my book, A Song Below Water by Bethany C. Morrow, You Should See Me In a Crown by Leah Johnson, and several other books by Black authors that released on June 2nd were not forgotten. Posts went up, the books went out of stock across multiple retailers, and everyone from authors to booksellers to publishers and beyond reaffirmed their commitments to amplifying Black voices in our industry.

I have zero complaints about the reception ASOWAR has gotten. Seeing readers connect with these characters I’ve loved for years has been a highlight of my career. But I am curious to see how the commitment to amplifying Black voices will continue now that Black Lives Matter is no longer trending and people’s feeds have gone back to normal.

The Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC) recently released the 2019 figures for the yearly report they compile on the state of diversity in children’s literature, and the numbers are simply appalling. Out of the 3,716 books that the CCBC received, there were more books about animals than there were books about children of color. Of the measly 11.9% of books that featured Black/African protagonists, less than half were actually written by Black/African authors.

We Need Diverse Books has been a fixture in the industry since 2014, and the movement for more inclusive children’s media has brought hundreds of wonderful books into the world that are going to change young reader’s lives for the better. But the numbers make it clear that the work is far from over, and now—when the world feels like it’s ending and the future is murkier than it has ever been—now is the time to ramp up our efforts instead of pulling back.

Buying books by Black authors is a great start, but the work to elevate and amplify Black voices cannot end there. As a community, we need to be pushing Black voices front and center when there isn’t a national tragedy happening. We need to be listening to these voices even when the truths they are saying are uncomfortable to hear. We need to make sure that Black and other IPOC publishing professionals at all levels have the support and mentorship they need to continue putting out books of anti-racism and radical Black joy.

In the weeks since Black Tuesday, several organizations that committed to doing better by Black writers and employees have proved that their environments are still unsafe for the very people they claim to support. The same Black writers people were clamoring to support a few weeks ago have been silenced and harassed as they continue to speak up about racist practices in the industry.

Being anti-racist is going to take more than a few weeks of hyping certain books and creating aesthetic Instagram posts. It’s going to take a fundamental shifting in the way we all view and interact with the world. It’s going to take interrogating the way each and everyone of us has allowed the structures of this industry to function unjustly for so long.

The work does not and cannot end with buying a copy of a Black author’s book or even blacking out an entire bestseller list, though that is an excellent start. The work will end when Black and other marginalized voices are no longer working in this industry at a structural disadvantage. And it’s going to take every single one of us at every level of the publishing hierarchy to make sure this change stays for good.

We all need to keep showing up for Black voices and Black lives, even when it’s no longer on trend to do so.

Meet Roseanne A. Brown

Photo credit: Ashley Hirasuna

Rosanne A. Brown is an immigrant from the West African nation of Ghana and a graduate of the University of Maryland, where she completed the Jimenez-Porter Writers’ House program. Her work has been featured by Voice of America, among other outlets. A Song of Wraiths and Ruin is her debut novel.

You can visit her online at 

Website: roseanneabrown.com

Twitter: https://twitter.com/rosiesrambles

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/rosiesrambles/

Roseanne suggests getting her book from her local indie, Books With a Past.

About A Song of Wraiths and Ruin

A Song of Wraiths and Ruin by Roseanne A. Brown

The first in a gripping fantasy duology inspired by West African folklore in which a grieving crown princess and a desperate refugee find themselves on a collision course to murder each other despite their growing attraction—from debut author Roseanne A. Brown. This New York Times bestseller is perfect for fans of Tomi Adeyemi, Renée Ahdieh, and Sabaa Tahir.

For Malik, the Solstasia festival is a chance to escape his war-stricken home and start a new life with his sisters in the prosperous desert city of Ziran. But when a vengeful spirit abducts his younger sister, Nadia, as payment to enter the city, Malik strikes a fatal deal—kill Karina, Crown Princess of Ziran, for Nadia’s freedom.

But Karina has deadly aspirations of her own. Her mother, the Sultana, has been assassinated; her court threatens mutiny; and Solstasia looms like a knife over her neck. Grief-stricken, Karina decides to resurrect her mother through ancient magic . . . requiring the beating heart of a king. And she knows just how to obtain one: by offering her hand in marriage to the victor of the Solstasia competition.

When Malik rigs his way into the contest, they are set on a heart-pounding course to destroy each other. But as attraction flares between them and ancient evils stir, will they be able to see their tasks to the death?

ISBN-13: 9780062891495
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 06/02/2020
Age Range: 13 – 17 Years

Teen Friendship: It’s Complicated, a guest post by Kit Frick

Photo credit: Simon Maage on Unsplash

When I was a teen, I clung tight to my small, close-knit friend group. I liked to describe the sandstone walls that surrounded us as “Abercrombie and Fitch High School,” and by nature and by nurture, I did not fit in with the mainstream aesthetic. Social interactions with anyone outside of my little group of misfits made my anxiety spike big time. It didn’t matter how kind or thoughtful the other person was being; I was convinced that niceness was a trap. I lived with the pervasive fear that anyone and everyone was judging me. Sometimes, they probably were. Most of the time, I was my own harshest critic.

I was a few weeks into my life on a residential college campus in New York when a worldview-shattering realization hit: I had spent the last few weeks talking to strangers, sometimes strangers with backgrounds and experiences very different from my own, and the world had not ended. Quite the opposite—I was building an expansive, life-affirming network of new friends. I was newly nineteen, and for the first time, I wasn’t consumed by social anxiety.

I’m known for writing YA thrillers, but my books are also about complicated female friendships. I put my characters through a lot, but in a way, they’re lucky: they learn to foster important peer relationships outside of their comfort zones earlier than I did, and thank goodness for that, because these friendships are key to these teen girls’ ability to save themselves from the perilous situations I’ve written them into.

Amanda and Rosalie, the co-protagonists in All Eyes on Us, begin the novel at serious odds. These two girls from opposite sides of Logansville, West Virginia have pretty much nothing in common aside from the intense, harmful pressure they’re being subjected to by their families and communities. Pressure that has driven both of them into staying in unhealthy relationships with real estate heir and town golden boy, Carter Shaw.

When Rosalie and Amanda are targeted by an anonymous harasser out to get Carter and take the girls down with him, they come together to end their stalker’s reign of terror. I have to give it to Rosalie especially; Amanda hates her when the book begins, and Rosalie knows it. Amanda’s only seeing a small sliver of the truth, but Rosalie’s actions, while justified by the physical and emotional necessity to shield herself from the conversion “therapy” she’s already been subjected to as a younger teen, are nonetheless hurting Amanda. And if I were Rosalie as a teen, I don’t think I would have allowed myself to trust Amanda’s olive branch when it comes. I probably would have run for the hills, and without the uneasy alliance the girls form, who knows where they would have ended up. (Nowhere good!)

I Killed Zoe Spanos also explores an unlikely friendship between two teen girls—this time bonded by a search for truth and justice. When local teen Zoe Spanos goes missing, Anna Cicconi confesses to playing a role in her death and the concealment of her body, but her story is riddled with holes, and teen true crime podcaster Martina Green is determined to uncover the truth and get justice for Zoe’s family. Here’s the thing, though: Martina isn’t convinced of Anna’s innocence, just that Anna couldn’t have killed Zoe in the way she described to police. Either the wrong girl is in juvie awaiting trial, or what Anna did is a lot worse than the accident she confessed to. Throughout the course of the novel, Martina puts her friendship with Zoe’s younger sister Aster in jeopardy in her quest for the truth, and Anna allows herself to trust Martina, despite the reality that Martina’s not necessarily out to exonerate her. It’s a lot. Way more than I would have been capable of dealing with as a teen, where the most explosive fall-out in my friend group involved a punk rock hoodie. Don’t ask.

Photo credit: Simon Maage on Unsplash

As a writer of YA thrillers, it’s important to me to not just write girls into peril, but to also allow them to fight their way out of danger. Often that involves high-stakes relationship building, and I think that has a lot to do with my own adolescent experiences as a very timid relationship-builder. I would not have fared well in one of my own books, okay? Don’t drop Teen Kit in a thriller; it’s going to end badly. But fiction allows us to explore our shortcomings as well as our successes. And important teen topics shouldn’t be limited to realistic YA contemporary. Genre fiction allows us to write about issues important to real teens—such as complex female friendships—against the backdrop of thrills, chills, and twisty mysteries. Thrillers can be both an escape and a space for social engagement. This capacity to “walk and chew gum” is part of what makes engaging with the genre so exciting to me as a creator writing for a teen audience.

Meet Kit Frick

Photo credit: Carly Gaebe, Steadfast Studio

Kit Frick is a novelist, poet, and MacDowell Colony fellow from Pittsburgh, PA. She studied creative writing at Sarah Lawrence College and received her MFA from Syracuse University. When she isn’t putting complicated characters in impossible situations, Kit edits poetry and literary fiction for a small press and edits for private clients. She is the author of the young adult thrillers I Killed Zoe SpanosAll Eyes on Us, and See All the Stars, all from Simon & Schuster / Margaret K. McElderry Books, as well as the poetry collection A Small Rising Up in the Lungs from New American Press. Kit is working on her next novel.

BUY LINKS:

Signed pre-orders from Riverstone books: https://riverstonebookstore.indielite.org/pre-order-signed-copies-kit-fricks-new-book

Barnes & Noble: https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/i-killed-zoe-spanos-kit-frick/1134080087

Bookshop.org: https://bookshop.org/books/i-killed-zoe-spanos/9781534449701

IndieBound: https://www.indiebound.org/book/9781534449701

Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/dp/1534449701/

SOCIAL:

Website: https://kitfrick.com

Twitter: https://twitter.com/kitfrick

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/kitfrick/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/kitfrickauthor/

About I Killed Zoe Spanos

For fans of Sadie and Serial, this gripping thriller follows two teens whose lives become inextricably linked when one confesses to murder and the other becomes determined to uncover the real truth no matter the cost.

What happened to Zoe won’t stay buried…

When Anna Cicconi arrives to the small Hamptons village of Herron Mills for a summer nanny gig, she has high hopes for a fresh start. What she finds instead is a community on edge after the disappearance of Zoe Spanos, a local girl who has been missing since New Year’s Eve. Anna bears an eerie resemblance to Zoe, and her mere presence in town stirs up still-raw feelings about the unsolved case. As Anna delves deeper into the mystery, stepping further and further into Zoe’s life, she becomes increasingly convinced that she and Zoe are connected—and that she knows what happened to her.

Two months later, Zoe’s body is found in a nearby lake, and Anna is charged with manslaughter. But Anna’s confession is riddled with holes, and Martina Green, teen host of the Missing Zoe podcast, isn’t satisfied. Did Anna really kill Zoe? And if not, can Martina’s podcast uncover the truth?

Inspired by Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, Kit Frick weaves a thrilling story of psychological suspense that twists and turns until the final page.

ISBN-13: 9781534449701
Publisher: Margaret K. McElderry Books
Publication date: 06/30/2020
Age Range: 14 – 18 Years

So I Guess Now I’m Someone Who Talks About Boobs, a guest post by Laura Zimmermann

Somehow, as I was writing a book about a girl with uncomfortably large breasts, I didn’t anticipate how much people were going to want to talk to me about breasts. Strangers. Neighbors. Mammography techs. Usually their own. Occasionally someone else’s.

To be clear, there are other things to talk about in the book, too. Greer, the narrator of My Eyes Are Up Here, leads a full and complex life of ideas, relationships, responsibilities, and a range of human characteristics. She’s got an excellent best friend who thrives on confrontation. She’s super good at math and skeptical about the quality of the Spanish language instruction she’s getting at school. There’s a new boy who is relying on her to shortcut his acclimation to school. There’s some drama with the drama kids (as is often the case), who are performing an outdated and sexist musical (as is often the case). There’s quite a lot of volleyball. I could talk about volleyball all day.

Greer is confident in a lot of ways and painfully unsure of herself in other ways—like most of us are when we are on the way to adulthood. Like many of us are even now. And finding the way through is what this book is about.

….but there are also breasts. And, it turns out, a lot of people who want to talk about them.

Please indulge a sidebar here to note that once you start talking about breasts, you quickly run into a vocabulary problem. In most cases, I am a proponent of calling body parts by their proper (but non-Latin) names, with the exception of refusing to say “abdominal pain” when what I really mean is “tummy ache.” In the case of breasts, however, unless we are talking about surgery, feeding a baby, or self-exams, a lot of people don’t use the word. “Breasts” are what is still staggeringly susceptible to cancer, or the driest part of a chicken. It sounds clinical. (Or culinary.)

Most women I know say “boobs” instead. I try to be little careful, so as not to appear cavalier (especially in my new role as boob confidant), and because I don’t believe it feels right coming from, say, the guy who works at the animal hospital behind my house. There is a near endless list of other names ranging from cutesy to deeply misogynistic, and probably a dissertation in the works somewhere examining that list. In regard to My Eyes Are Up Here, you could go super clinical and say “macromastia,” but then only librarians, my editor, or other word-loving nerds would know what you were talking about. So please forgive boobs. (In the book, Greer often refers to hers as Maude and Mavis. This, unfortunately, is not a solution that scales to wider discussion.)

I wasn’t always someone who was comfortable talking about bodies—especially not mine. Like Greer, who spends each day under the cover of an extra-large sweatshirt, I spent my high school years doing anything to divert attention from my body: big, drapey clothes; the posture of a Disney crone; no swimming without a t-shirt. I went to chiropractors for my back, to orthopedic doctors for my neck, I took a lot of Tylenol for everything. I stretched and did physical therapy to strengthen my core, in case the real reason my shoulders hurt was because my abs were weak. I ran with two sports bras at once, which is the Spandex equivalent of a python. I didn’t own a tank top. When I got invited to a formal event, my mom sewed me a purple taffeta sleeping bag with a pretty lace collar. It was a weird thing for a 19-year-old person to wear to a fancy party, but it was very nice of her to sew it to my specifications. Even after I had breast reduction, I let all my coworkers believe I was having back surgery. (Most people come back from back surgery with all new shirts, right?)

Over a long time, I got more comfortable. I mean that both physically and not physically.

And then came this book. One of the first things people learn about Greer is what makes her so uncomfortable in her own skin (the cover and title help with that). Early on, I wondered if that it might make it uncomfortable to talk about—though to be honest, that’s also exactly why I wanted to write it in the first place. But a few things have surprised me. The first is the number of people who readily chime with their own experiences, as though they’ve been waiting to be asked. Sometimes it’s about breast surgery (way more common than you think), or a funny or painful story about their own Maudes and Mavises. (One friend described an embarrassing net fault playing volleyball. Her team essentially lost a point because she wasn’t a B-cup and got too close to the net on a block.)

Sometimes someone will tell me that she had “the opposite problem,” meaning that she felt self-conscious because she was flat-chested. But’s that’s not the opposite; it’s really kind of the same. I know this because it’s never really about boobs at all. It’s about being too big or too small or too slow or too hairy or simply too much in the eyes of somebody else. It’s about wishing your body or your face or your skin or your walk or your voice fit a mold. And then, hopefully, realizing that it doesn’t have to.

The second thing that’s surprised me is how much I love these connections, these tiny revelations from friends or strangers. When someone launches unbidden into a tale about underwires or nursing a baby or trying out those weird strapless adhesive things, I am all in. And I come back with perspective on built-in shelf bras or the magic of lanolin or a vow to never try those weird strapless adhesive things. I love how quickly we find solidarity in vulnerability, and how maybe solidarity can create invulnerability. It is not uncomfortable; it’s a relief.

There was a time I would have dropped to the floor and hidden under a rack of underwear rather than tell the lady at Nordstrom what size I was looking for. But now? I guess now I’m someone who talks about boobs.

Meet Laura Zimmermann

Photo by Jeff Wheeler

Laura is a writer, a storyteller, and a maker of cheesecakes. You might find her at a softball game, a jazz concert, or a nonprofit board meeting, but you’ll never find her on a ladder or entering a triathlon. She is a multi-time winner of Moth and WordSprout story slams, and has frequently shared stories on the Twin Cities Listen To Your Mother stage. Her debut YA novel, My Eyes Are Up Here, will be published by Dutton Books in June 2020. She lives in Minneapolis with her three favorite people, who show up in her stories whether they like it or not.

My website is laurazimmermannbooks.com

My Twitter is @laurazimbooks

Instagram is @laurazimbooks

Laura suggests purchasing her book from her favorite local indie, Red Balloon Books in St. Paul.

About My Eyes Are Up Here

“An original, feminist, and timely first choice title for all libraries serving teens,” School Library Journal starred review.

To see Amanda’s review, hop over here!

My Eyes Are Up Here is a razor-sharp debut about a girl struggling to rediscover her sense of self in the year after her body decided to change all the rules.

If Greer Walsh could only live inside her head, life would be easier. She’d be able to focus on excelling at math or negotiating peace talks between her best friend and . . . everyone else. She wouldn’t spend any time worrying about being the only Kennedy High student whose breasts are bigger than her head.

But you can’t play volleyball inside your head. Or go to the pool. Or have confusingly date-like encounters with the charming new boy. You need an actual body for all of those things. And Greer is entirely uncomfortable in hers.

Hilarious and heartbreakingly honest, My Eyes Are Up Here is a story of awkwardness and ferocity, of imaginary butterflies and rock-solid friends. It’s the story of a girl finding her way out of her oversized sweatshirt and back into the real world.

ISBN-13: 9781984815248
Publisher: Penguin Young Readers Group
Publication date: 06/23/2020
Age Range: 12 – 17 Years

The Messy, Complicated In-Between, a guest post by Katie Cotugno

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Twelve or thirteen years ago I heard a piece on NPR about an engaged couple who were members of a conservative religious group and weren’t allowed to have any physical contact at all until the day they were married. I’ll be honest: I was expecting a pretty bleak courtship story, bracing myself for some kind of patriarchal purity culture BS, but when I heard the host interview the husband-to-be, I have to admit the whole thing actually sounded the tiniest bit romantic. Here were two people who’d gotten to know each other intimately—who’d had deep conversations and shared secrets and legitimately fallen in love—without ever so much as holding hands.

“Right now,” the man said, “the basic complication is that we can’t touch each other.”

Oh, I thought, my ears perking up. I reached for a pen and scrawled the quote in my notebook, where I’d return to it again and again over the years as I tried to figure out what to do with it. That is a very good complication.

Amazon.com: You Say It First (9780062674128): Cotugno, Katie: Books

The two main characters in my new book, You Say It First, live eight hours apart—Meg in the suburbs of Philadelphia, Colby in rural Ohio—but they may as well have grown up in completely different dimensions. Meg’s headed for the Ivy League; Colby barely graduated high school. Meg’s laptop is covered with campaign stickers, while Colby is less than convinced by cheery idealism. They “meet” when she dials his parents’ landline from her job at a voter registration call center: they bicker, they banter, he bests her, she calls him back.  They fall in love—or something like it—over the course of long, meandering, sometimes tough conversations that challenge them both to rethink certain inalienable truths about themselves and what they believe. Their relationship thrives in that strange, liminal space, an invisible phone line tethering them together.

Grounding those feelings in the reality of their day-to-day lives—their families, their friends, their communities—proves to be a little bit trickier.

“I don’t know,” I said, when I first started toying with the idea of a project that touched, however lightly, on politics. “I’m not interested in writing a book about, like, two white people debating abortion. And I definitely don’t want to write about how we might believe different things, but deep down in our purest hearts we’re all really the same and all opinions are created equal.”

Because here’s the thing: I don’t think all opinions are created equal. I don’t even think all opinions are valid. And I certainly don’t believe in meeting in the middle for the sake of keeping an uneasy peace.

But I do think that part of being a human is navigating messy, complicated relationships with people whose experiences are different than yours are. And part of growing up is realizing you don’t know everything you thought you knew.

That was the problem with Meg, Colby laments at one point in the novel. He could never manage to feel just one thing about her at a time.

I think that’s a very good complication, too.

I’ve been thinking about Meg and Colby a lot lately, both as I try to figure out how to launch a book during a pandemic and as I’ve watched that first basic complication—we can’t touch each other—become literal in a way that never occurred to me as I was writing. The last few months have laid bare all the fissures in our society we try so hard to ignore, drawing a big fat circle around the ways in which the random luck of people’s circumstances dictates their privilege, their prospects, the sturdiness of their safety nets, their chances of survival.

I knew I was writing a book for an election year. I didn’t realize I was writing a book for a quarantine, too.

Here is what I know to be true: we’re not all the same deep down in our purest hearts, and we’re not all weathering this storm from the same boat. But as we say goodbye to our old world and wait for the new one to reveal itself, I wonder if there’s a way for us to reach out and connect with each other in this strange place in between.

Meet Katie Cotugno

Katie Cotugno is the New York Times bestselling author of Top Ten99 Days9 Days and 9 Nights, and How to Love. She is also the coauthor, with Candace Bushnell, of Rules for Being a Girl. Katie studied writing, literature, and publishing at Emerson College and received her MFA in fiction at Lesley University. She is a Pushcart Prize nominee whose work has appeared in Iowa ReviewMississippi Review, and Argestes, among others. She lives in Boston with her husband, Tom. You can visit Katie online at www.katiecotugno.com.

Find Katie’s book at Frugal Bookstore and wherever books are sold.

About You Say It First

You Say It First

An addictive, irresistible YA novel about two teens from different worlds who fall for each other after a voter registration call turns into a long-distance romance—from Katie Cotugno, the New York Times bestselling author of 99 Days. Perfect for fans of Mary H.K. Choi, Robin Benway, and Nicola Yoon.

One conversation can change everything.

Meg has her entire life set up perfectly: she and her best friend, Emily, plan to head to Cornell together in the fall, and she works at a voter registration call center in her Philadelphia suburb. But everything changes when one of those calls connects her to a stranger from small-town Ohio.

Colby is stuck in a rut, reeling from a family tragedy and working a dead-end job. The last thing he has time for is some privileged rich girl preaching the sanctity of the political process. So he says the worst thing he can think of and hangs up.

But things don’t end there.…

That night on the phone winds up being the first in a series of candid, sometimes heated, always surprising conversations that lead to a long-distance friendship and then—slowly—to something more. Across state lines and phone lines, Meg and Colby form a once-in-a-lifetime connection. But in the end, are they just too different to make it work?

You Say It First is a propulsive, layered novel about how sometimes the person who has the least in common with us can be the one who changes us most.

ISBN-13: 9780062674128
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 06/16/2020
Age Range: 13 – 17 Years

Me and My Abuela: The Stories that Made Me Want to Become a Storyteller, a guest post by Alex Aster

Storytelling is one of our most ancient and sacred abilities as humans. From cave drawings, to woven tapestries, to the bards in Ovid, to my abuela, whispering terrifying tales in the dark. I remember it all—me and my twin sister tugging at my grandmother’s soft, starfish-like hand, leading her to our room. As a child, my abuela, at four-foot-eight, was always more of a conspirator than an adult figure. She would sneak us apple juice at 9pm, way past our bedtime, which we would request through a matching pair of Barbie walkie-talkies. She was scared of the same things we were—I remember screaming at the sight of a giant spider in my room, and calling for her to help, only for my abuela to say tentatively in the hallway, in Spanish, “What is it? I might be scared too.”

I don’t know how it started, but somehow, every night, my abuela would end up at the end of the bed my sister and I shared, swaddled in endless blankets like a giant child. My sister and I would shout requests, and then she would start, in a voice completely different than the high-pitched laugh that always echoed through our house. Everything about her would change—her voice became serious. Her spine straightened. And now, thinking back on it, maybe she wrapped herself in so many blankets because she was afraid for any of her skin to be exposed to the darkness. Because she understood something I do now. Words have power. Scary stories can make the room change—make the shadows on the wall longer, make the darkness hungrier.

Though my grandmother has been on a desperate, long journey to learn English since my sister and I were born, she never mastered it. So these stories were told the same way her mother had told them to her—in Spanish. And language, in storytelling, makes a difference. There are words I can’t begin to translate, not because I don’t know what the English equivalent is, but because the available words are unworthy. They don’t capture either the tenderness, or wickedness, or humor. They don’t sound the same. And, since these stories were always told orally, sound also makes a difference.

My grandmother knows dozens of stories that she can recite word for word—and they’ve never been written down. These tales have been passed along the same way they were passed to me. In dark rooms, on stormy nights, as cautionary tales to curious children. They contained warnings that used to shape my nightmares—don’t wear a ponytail to bed, or it’ll fall off. Don’t sleep backwards on the bed, or your life source will be flipped as well, and the devil will think you’re old instead of young, then collect you for death. Follow the rules, or you might just end up with horns on your forehead.

These Colombian legends shaped my creative brain, during a time when it was still growing, when critical connections were being made. And they continue to influence me now. One story in particular, La niña con la estrella en la frente, inspired the world of my debut book, Emblem Island: Curse of the Night Witch. In the story, a girl earns a star on her forehead for following the rules, and her sister is given horns on her face for breaking them. That tale inspired me to create a world where markings on one’s skin could be earned, and could come with great power—or could end up being a curse. And, as a tribute to all of those cuentos my abuela told me before bedtime, I created a Book of Cuentos for my debut, an ancient book of legends on Emblem Island that the main characters must use to track down the only person that can break their deadly curse—the Night Witch. Some of these cuentos are based on Latinx monsters, like “La patasola,” “La ciguapa,” and “La llorona.” Some I wrote from scratch. We included these stories in between each chapter, creating a book within a book. Nothing can quite capture the magic of my grandmother telling stories herself, or my sister and I on the edge of our seats (only for my abuela to start snoring before we lightly kicked her awake again). But, hopefully, my book will introduce children who have never heard of these Latinx monsters to our beautiful, rich culture.

I’m lucky to still have my grandmother in my life. She’s still four-foot-eight, still laughs more than she talks, and still can’t quite speak English the way she wants to. But, now that I’m twenty-four, I haven’t heard her storytelling in years. I asked her recently, if she told these stories to my cousins, who are four and eight. I believe she’s tried. Perhaps I’ll ask her to tell them to me again sometime. I owe everything to her, and to our family’s traditions. Because my abuela’s stories made me want to become a storyteller too.

Meet Alex Aster

About — Alex Aster
Photo credit: Kathryn Wirsing

Alex Aster recently graduated summa cum laude from the University of Pennsylvania, where she studied English with a Concentration in Creative Writing. Emblem Island: Curse of the Night Witch is her debut novel, inspired by Latinx myths her Colombian grandmother told her before bedtime. She is currently working on the second book in the Emblem Island series. Explore the world of Emblem Island at asterverse.com.

About Curse of the Night Witch

A fast-paced series starter, perfect for fans of Aru Shah and the End of Time and filled with adventure, mythology, and an unforgettable trio of friends.

On Emblem Island all are born knowing their fate. Their lifelines show the course of their life and an emblem dictates how they will spend it.

Twelve-year-old Tor Luna was born with a leadership emblem, just like his mother. But he hates his mark and is determined to choose a different path for himself. So, on the annual New Year’s Eve celebration, where Emblemites throw their wishes into a bonfire in the hopes of having them granted, Tor wishes for a different power.

The next morning Tor wakes up to discover a new marking on his skin…the symbol of a curse that has shortened his lifeline, giving him only a week before an untimely death. There is only one way to break the curse, and it requires a trip to the notorious Night Witch.

With only his village’s terrifying, ancient stories as a guide, and his two friends Engle and Melda by his side, Tor must travel across unpredictable Emblem Island, filled with wicked creatures he only knows through myths, in a race against his dwindling lifeline.

ISBN-13: 9781492697206
Publisher: Sourcebooks
Publication date: 06/09/2020
Series: Emblem Island Series #1
Age Range: 8 – 12 Years

Questions, a guest post by Supriya Kelkar

Like many people over thirty, after a month of sheltering in place, I finally took the leap and joined TikTok to make videos for AMERICAN AS PANEER PIE. I am lucky to be safe and healthy and have a place to shelter in. But after feeling consumed by stress and worry and sadness with some family members and friends either immunocompromised or sick, and several more employed as healthcare workers risking exposure to care for patients in the hospitals, I needed to take a minute to regroup, and this app was the place for me. Somehow minutes turned to hours, as I found myself laughing louder than I had in weeks at the most ridiculous fifteen-second antics courtesy of other TikTok users.

There were heroic healthcare workers doing the most hilarious dances in between shifts to get a break from their stress, hysterical challenges at home that irritated pets were just not into, and spouses dressing in their Halloween-best to make their significant other laugh during their work calls. It was the perfect distraction.

But within a couple days, TikTok figured out I was Indian-American, and I suddenly found my homepage full of videos from other South-Asian Americans. Many were really funny, full of Bollywood references and entertaining songs and dances, but there were also several TikToks by high schoolers or undergrads that were like short films exploring hyphenated identities, belonging, and microaggressions, and several of them actually listed the hurtful questions the kids and young adults heard all the time.

Surpiya’s book with some yummy paratha

I was intrigued because in my book, AMERICAN AS PANEER PIE, (Aladdin/Simon and Schuster), the main character Lekha, the only Indian-American middle-schooler in a small town in Michigan that doesn’t value diversity, also lists the questions she hears every day. Questions like “where’s your dot? Where are you from? Where are you really from?” and many more. Questions that aren’t coming from a good place. Questions that are meant to make the recipient feel less-than.

I had based these questions on the questions I had heard all the time growing up as one of the few South Asian-Americans in a small town in Michigan that didn’t value diversity. And now, decades after I’d last been in middle school or high school, desis on TikTok were grappling with those same questions, just like other kids across the country have been, like nothing had changed since I was their age.

I was dismayed that things really hadn’t improved much in all those years but I wasn’t surprised. I had written AMERICAN AS PANEER PIE in 2017, when the hate I knew had never gone away was suddenly emboldened and encouraged by people in positions of power. I was full of fear and worry that in a few years, my young children would be facing the same things I did; they would be forced to answer othering or racist questions every day, as if their existence needed an explanation to be permitted.

I was hopeful maybe things would be better when they got older but the TikTok videos were proving that might not be the case. I started to feel down, remembering how years of those questions had rendered me silent. Remembering how, unlike Lekha, who finds her voice over the course of the story in AMERICAN AS PANEER PIE, I didn’t find my voice until years later, in college.

But then, somewhere in between watching the TikTok videos of South Asian-Americans defiantly answering the questions if they wanted to, or literally brushing them aside, swiping the text off-screen, not giving the ignorance their time if that’s what they chose to do, I realized that things had changed. Because unlike the way I dealt with the questions as a kid, shutting down, getting embarrassed or humiliated, these kids and young adults were calling out hypocrisy and appropriation and othering and microaggressions, while speaking up for themselves and speaking out against hate for the whole world to see.

It’s my hope that readers of AMERICAN AS PANEER PIE, who haven’t yet found their way to deal with these questions, are inspired by Lekha’s story to speak out against hate as defiantly as that. I hope it empowers readers everywhere to be proud of who they are and to not let the questions get them down. I hope they are no longer made to feel like they owe anyone answers for who they are. And I hope the pages of this book help them find the answers they are looking for, silence the questions, and stir readers to proudly speak up for themselves and others, be it through art, writing, music, song, dance, poetry, their words, and yes, even through TikTok.

Meet Supriya Kelkar

Photo credit: S. Malde

Supriya grew up in the Midwest, where she learned Hindi as a child by watching three Hindi movies a week. Winner of the New Visions Award for her middle grade novel AHIMSA, (Tu Books, 2017), Supriya is a screenwriter who has worked on the writing teams for several Hindi films and one Hollywood feature. Supriya’s books include AMERICAN AS PANEER PIE (Aladdin/Simon & Schuster, June 9, 2020) STRONG AS FIRE, FIERCE AS FLAME (Tu Books, 2020), and THAT THING ABOUT BOLLYWOOD (Aladdin/Simon and Schuster, 2021).  Learn more at www.supriyakelkar.com

Follow Supriya on Twitter @supriyakelkar_ and on Instagram @supriya.kelkar

Supriya’s local indies are:

Nicola’s Books in Ann Arbor, MI. https://www.nicolasbooks.com/

Bookbug in Kalamazoo, MI. https://www.bookbugkalamazoo.com/

The Book Beat in Oak Park, MI. https://www.thebookbeat.com/backroom/

Literati in Ann Arbor, MI. https://www.literatibookstore.com/

About American as Paneer Pie

An Indian American girl navigates prejudice in her small town and learns the power of her own voice in this brilliant gem of a middle grade novel full of humor and heart, perfect for fans of Front Desk and Amina’s Voice.

As the only Indian American kid in her small town, Lekha Divekar feels like she has two versions of herself: Home Lekha, who loves watching Bollywood movies and eating Indian food, and School Lekha, who pins her hair over her bindi birthmark and avoids confrontation at all costs, especially when someone teases her for being Indian.

When a girl Lekha’s age moves in across the street, Lekha is excited to hear that her name is Avantika and she’s Desi, too! Finally, there will be someone else around who gets it. But as soon as Avantika speaks, Lekha realizes she has an accent. She’s new to this country, and not at all like Lekha.

To Lekha’s surprise, Avantika does not feel the same way as Lekha about having two separate lives or about the bullying at school. Avantika doesn’t take the bullying quietly. And she proudly displays her culture no matter where she is: at home or at school.

When a racist incident rocks Lekha’s community, Lekha realizes she must make a choice: continue to remain silent or find her voice before it’s too late.

ISBN-13: 9781534439382
Publisher: Aladdin
Publication date: 06/09/2020
Age Range: 8 – 12 Years

A Second Self for Self-Acceptance, a guest post by Lillian Clark

Thank you so much to Teen Librarian Toolbox for hosting this post! My name is Lillian Clark, and I’m the author of Immoral Code and the newly released Half Life, which follows Lucille Harper, an “over-achiever” who signs up to a beta tester for a secretive company finalizing plans to manufacture made-to-order human clones.

Lucille is ambitious. And hard-working. And determined. The problem is that she’s all of those things but…for what? Ever since the first time she went a little above and beyond, she’s been labeled an “overachiever,” a term she takes fundamental issue with. And one she’s not really sure she lives up to. The truth is, she’s been chasing external expectations for so long that she’s not really sure who she actually is, what she actually wants, or why she’s trying so hard.

As she grows farther apart from her childhood best friend, goes continually unnoticed by her crush, and learns that her seemingly perfect, seemingly happy parents are getting a divorce, she’s approached by Life2, a biotech company offering her the “opportunity of a lifetime.”

Do more. Be more, says their slogan, and Lucille feels it resonate inside her heart.

Because while Lucille turns to near-future science-fiction to “solve” her problems (which, of course, only makes them worse), her worries are ones I think many readers will identify with. They’re certainly ones I identify with. Which is why I wrote Lucille, Lucy, and their plight at all.

At the center of Half Life are a few big questions. Ones like, what does it mean that truth and memory are subjective? And, what constitutes individuality anyway? Plus, how do you accept yourself when you feel like you’re never quite measuring up?

This last one is the driving force behind most of Lucille’s decisions. She feels like no matter how hard she tries, she’s always falling short. While this is personal for Lucille, it’s also something I’ve struggled with myself. And something that, I believe, goes beyond our private expectations for ourselves to those of society.

This is true, likely, for all people, but I think it’s especially so for teen girls. And, unfortunately, ridiculously, those expectations are frequently oxymoronic. As Lucille discusses in the book:

When I think of myself, it’s with a prevailing sense of fear. Fear of inadequacy, of looking foolish, of being too much or too little. Fear of not doing something, anything, everything right.

 I resent it. That omnipresent sense of judgment. Feeling like I could do it all “right” yet still be wrong. Be ambitious, but don’t try too hard. Be capable, but not intimidating. Be attentive, but not clingy. Be aloof, but not unattainable. Be feminine, but not too girly. Be “one of the boys,” but not better. Fast, but not faster. Smart, but not smarter. Funny, but not funniest. Be cute. Be sexy. Be fun. Be likeable.

 As Lucille and Lucy learn, the moral of the story is that those expectations are, so often, a farce. A trap. A box to keep us stuck inside. Lucille has spent her life pushing herself to achieve an idea of perfection that’s inherently false. She’s defined her sense of success by a finish line that is continuously shifting and is, therefore, impossible to reach. Lucy faces something similar though more distilled. As a clone, what does it mean to exceed expectations? Especially when doing so makes you a threat to the people who created you?

Rooted in the action and drama of a story about cloning is a question about individuality and inherent worth, the fact that your circumstances and achievements and context don’t determine your value because, as I say in Half Life’s dedication: “You’re already worth it. You’re already enough.”

Meet Lillian Clark

Photo credit: Rebecca Vanderhorst

Lillian Clark, a graduate of the University of Wyoming, grew up riding horses, climbing trees, hiking, and going on grand imaginary adventures in the small-town West. She’s worked as a lifeguard, a camp counselor, and a Zamboni driver, but found her eternal love working as a bookseller at an independent bookstore in historic downtown Laramie, WY. Now living with her husband, son, and two giant dogs in the Teton Valley of Idaho, she spends her snowy winters and sunny summers reading almost anything and writing books for teens.

Twitter: @lillianjclark

Instagram: @lillianclarkauthor

About Half Life

An overachiever enrolls in an experimental clone study to prove that two (of her own) heads are better than one in this fast-paced, near-future adventure that’s Black Mirror meets Becky Albertalli.

There aren’t enough hours in the day for Lucille—perfectionist, overachiever—to do everything she has to do, and there certainly aren’t enough hours to hang out with friends, fall in love, get in trouble—all the teenage things she knows she should want to be doing instead of preparing for a flawless future. So when she sees an ad for Life2: Do more. Be more, she’s intrigued.

The company is looking for beta testers to enroll in an experimental clone program, and in the aftermath of a series of disappointments, Lucille is feeling reckless enough to jump in. At first, it’s perfect: her clone, Lucy, is exactly what she needed to make her life manageable and have time for a social life. But it doesn’t take long for Lucy to become more Lucy and less Lucille, and Lucille is forced to stop looking at Lucy as a reflection and start seeing her as a window—a glimpse at someone else living her own life, but better. Lucy does what she really wants to, not what she thinks she should want to, and Lucille is left wondering how much she was even a part of the perfect life she’d constructed for herself. Lucille wanted Lucy to help her relationships with everyone else, but how can she do that without first rectifying her relationship with herself?

ISBN-13: 9780525580508
Publisher: Random House Children’s Books
Publication date: 06/09/2020
Age Range: 12 – 17 Years

On Death, Dying, and Faith in YA Fiction, a guest post by Tara K. Ross

When I was in high school, I wanted to be a doctor. It was an obsession. I voluntarily chose to study over going to parties, ditched shopping with friends to save for tuition and even broke off more than a few relationships. It became an all-encompassing mission. 

Surprise, surprise, the doctor thing never happened. It wasn’t until I sat down to answer the essay questions on the med school application forms that I realized my desire for the Dr. title was only a small part benevolent and a rather large part selfish and fearful.

I thought if I could learn everything there was to know about death and dying, I could live longer, cheat death…at least for a little while, and pretend to be a tiny bit like God. I was petrified of dying and was willing to do anything to keep it from happening. But, those motivations were not going to make me a very good doctor. I needed a different way to tame my fears.  

We’re only here on earth for a flash of time. No one truly knows what happens after the lights go out or the bright light appears. And that’s freaky! It’s a coming of age question that most of us brush against – whether it’s a loved one dying, a global tragedy, or reaching a place in our own life where death seems more appealing than living. When this happens, we begin to ask more questions. When will it happen? Will I still exist somehow? Will the afterlife be better than this? Does any of this matter if we will all be forgotten?

For me, those questions began haunting me in high school. While many teens grappled with bullying, self-esteem, racism, abuse, or betrayal, I only really had to mull over death. My teen years were, from the outside, rather ideal. But somehow, I still managed to create a fear monster out of nothing. That monster became an all-encompassing ticking time bomb that halted my ability to make every day decisions. I never shared my internal woes with anyone. What did I have to feel scared about? Wasn’t my life perfect? No one would care.

Here is the part that really sucked about being in this existential crisis as a teen: no one talked about it. Myself included. Everyone presented their best selfie side, and distracted themselves with their choice of self-medication: sports, academics, social media, video games, binge eating or puking, substance use, addiction, self-harm. Some took the high road and got professional help, but they never shared about it publicly. Only as slightly-more-adjusted adults have we managed to open up about how overwhelmed and afraid we were and honestly, continue to be.

As teens and young adults, we didn’t know what a messed up mental state could look like. We didn’t know that it could lead to generalized anxiety, panic attacks, depression or even suicidal thoughts. It wasn’t part of our health units or a frequent feature in magazines (yup, this was before blog culture or YouTube channels).      

So, I handled it the best way I could through my aforementioned obsession with academic perfection. As a break from cram sessions, also came a passion for escaping into books. When I found stories that tackled the same questions I couldn’t silence, I found company in the confusion.

I read widely. From nonfiction philosophers, like Robert Fulgum and The Tao of Pooh by Benjamin Hoff, to The Diary of Ann Frank and C.S. Lewis’ The Problem of Pain. Knowing that literary greats struggled with these same questions was comforting, but in many ways, it made me feel even more pathetic. These were people who had lived through extreme hardship. They had a right to question life and death. I was just an average suburbanite teen from a nuclear family, who shouldn’t need to waste her life in worry. 

I kept searching. I wanted to read about someone living through these questions who was like me. Average.

This is when I turned to fiction and young adult stories. Stories written for me and my qualms. I didn’t understand completely in the moment, but it really was like hitting a psychological jackpot—ordinary people asking extraordinary questions within their ordinary lives.  It was me on the page. In a way, I found my own personalized self-help group. But each teen’s self-help group will look different  from my own.

The questions we ask will vary and the answers we seek will require diverse literary experiences. Some readers resonate with characters who share their culture or race, for others it’s the journey toward identity and acceptance. Sometimes, it’s a personal hardship or diagnosis they connect with, or a quest for purpose and meaning beyond themselves. For me, I went searching for stories of death, dying and faith in the great unknown. I know, a little depressing. But the outcome was life-changing. I found that I wasn’t alone. The books themselves, helped me to live beyond the stories on the page. I began to feel less afraid.

I continued to read and my search for stories changed from “what if” questions to “now what?” This second set of questions made me look beyond the physical and psychological and consider my spiritual health and beliefs as well. I went looking for stories of faith and hope and belonging. Surprisingly, they were more challenging to find.  

In recent years, YA fiction has trended toward tackling more diverse and riskier topics. It provides a voice about racism, sexual orientation, gender, abuse, sexism, death, and dying. But less often about the great spiritual unknowns. Why not? Are we afraid to explore these questions of faith?  Are we worried we will share too strong an opinion or come across as preachy? Perhaps, but are the readers not worth that risk? Are they not searching for purpose beyond our flash of time on earth?

I think they are. I know first-hand from working in public schools and youth centers for over ten year that teens are searching for purpose. They want to matter beyond their flash of time on earth and they are desperate for narratives to ground themselves within. If we don’t give them characters in fiction, they will look for it elsewhere.   

My dream would be for writers of all faiths to be welcomed and encouraged to include their spiritual beliefs within their stories. We know that greater than half of all Canadians and Americans consider faith to be an important part of their identity (PEW Research Center, 2019). So why do we shy away from offering this aspect of diversity in our libraries and general book store shelves?

In my debut novel, I tried to share one of these viewpoints, one that impacted my own coming of age journey. Interestingly, the story was too Christian for the general market, but not Christian enough for some faith-based presses. I was fortunate to find people who believed in the story and worked in love to bring it to where it is today. But there are many other writers, who don’t fit into a publishing bubble and even more readers who are searching for characters like them, who have not yet made of their mind on what they believe.  

This is what makes fiction so powerful. Stories give us an opportunity to journey with someone through life, to ask the tough questions. To challenge us beyond “what if’s” and present stories that tackle the “now what’s”. They change who we are, and how we see the world. Whether we choose to take our own life in the same direction as those characters is up to us. But at the very least, let’s give teens diverse stories so they will not feel alone in those choices.

(For more posts about faith and spirituality in YA, check out TLT’s Faith and Spirituality in YA Literature index here.)

Meet Tara K. Ross

Tara K. Ross lives with her husband, two daughters and rescued fur-baby in a field of cookie-cutter homes near Toronto, Canada. She works as a school speech-language pathologist and mentors with local youth programs. When Tara is not writing or reading all things young adult fiction, you can find her rock climbing the Ontario escarpment, planning her family’s next jungle trek or podcasting/blogging at www.tarakross.com.

​FADE TO WHITE is her debut novel.

About Fade to White by Tara K. Ross

Thea Fenton’s life looks picture-perfect, but inside, she is falling apart. Wracked by anxiety no one seems to understand or care about, she resorts to self-harm to deflect the pain inside.

When a local teen commits suicide, Thea’s anxiety skyrockets. Unexplainable things happen, leaving her feeling trapped within her own chaotic mind. The lines between reality and another world start to blur, and her previously mundane issues seem more daunting and insurmountable than ever.

Then she meets Khi, a mysterious new boy from the coffee shop who seems to know her better than she knows herself-and doesn’t think she’s crazy. His quiet confidence and unfounded familiarity draw her into an unconventional friendship.

Khi journeys with her through grief, fear, and confusion to arrive at compassion for the one person Thea never thought she could love.

A deeply transformational novel from an authentic new voice in Christian young adult fiction.

ISBN-13: 9781645262633
Publisher: Lighthouse Publishing of the Carolinas
Publication date: 05/30/2020
Age Range: 13 – 18 Years

Past as Present, Present as Past, a guest post by J. Anderson Coats

When I was fifteen, I got busted sneaking into a university library.

The security gate slowed me down, but I looked enough like a college student with my backpack and ratty jeans that I breezed right through—past the information desk, up the stairs, and deep into the stacks.

Ten minutes later, a librarian found me sitting on a stepstool in the medieval history section with a book open on my knees. She asked to see my student ID, and when I told her I’d left it at home, she said I’d have to leave.

“But I’m researching my novel,” I protested, “and you have books here that I can’t get anywhere else.”

She raised one eyebrow in a pointed oh really sort of way.

“No, see, I’ll show you.” I reached into my backpack, pulled out a folder, and fanned out my notes, along with a half-finished chart detailing the particulars of medieval criminal law for a scene in my sprawling, extensively researched but somehow still deeply inaccurate historical novel set in the thirteenth century about a Scottish girl who found herself in Wales and had to figure out her place in the community. A girl who’d had bad things happen to her, but was slowly—slowly—finding her way forward.

“I’m not here to make trouble,” I insisted. “I just need these books.”

The librarian was quiet for a long moment. Then she said, “Today only. It can’t happen again. That’s what interlibrary loan is for. Got it?”

I stayed till the building closed.

By seventeen I’d filled five binders with collected research that fueled six complete novels, including the one about the Scottish girl that ended up at an opulent 400K words. My research into the middle ages had long since expanded beyond any particular novel, though. I wanted to know just for the knowing.

Each binder was rigorously subdivided, organized, tabbed, and coded— region, topic, subtopic, chronological date. I collected maps, drawings, family trees, and accounts, and I made hundreds of charts, graphs, lists, and sketches. No one taught me to do this. Hardly anyone knew about it. But I could and did spend hours paging through what I’d made. Adding. Updating. Minutely rearranging.

I liked worlds I could control.

My interest in the past made me incomprehensible to most kids my age. I liked how they kept a cautious distance, not quite sure how to make fun of me if I already knew I was a freak. I liked how knowing uncommon, arcane things gave me power over almost any interaction I was likely to have. My charts and lists made me feel unusual, mysterious, and untouchable.

Becoming anything is hard. Rebuilding when the pieces are shattered so small is a whole different way of becoming.

I am thirteen. It’s my first week of middle school, and the boy I’m made to sit next to in art class is explaining in vivid detail how he’s going to trap me in the bathroom and feel me up. His language is emotionless and precise. He makes eye contact in the kind of intense, disturbing way that makes me certain he means it.

“I may not stop there,” he says. “I haven’t decided yet.”

The art teacher doesn’t look up from his newspaper. He refuses to let me change seats. He tells me to sit down and do my assignment and stop trying to get attention.

“You won’t know exactly when it’ll happen,” the boy goes on. “It’ll be the best thing that ever happens to a pig like you, though.”

I am thirteen, and I have no idea how to make him leave me alone. The guidance counselor gives me a secret, girls-only smile and says, “It’s probably because he likes you.” My mom reminds me that bullies will find another target if you ignore them.

I am thirteen, and I have no idea how to make them listen. How to make them understand what it costs me to walk into that classroom. Sit in that seat. Let it all happen.

Things just get worse.

Four of my binders have survived. They have endured two transcontinental moves and countless hours of flipping. They have almost—but not quite—been entirely supplanted by the internet.

The best part of the binders now is turning the pages one by one, remembering how each new entry, each photocopied map or genealogy table laboriously typed into some early version of Word is one more step I took out of the darkness.  

It was stories that finally coaxed me to breathe and look up, and because the present was so bleak, I looked to the past, because the past is nothing but stories we tell ourselves to make sense of things that happened.

The binders were a way to step into that past and make it my own. They were a way to imagine a future with something like potential, then construct one through fiction. To that end, I collected everything for my binders, even things I didn’t need at the moment. My research books came from libraries across the country through the magic of interlibrary loan, and I knew I might never have access to them again, so nothing was beneath my notice.

The whispers of Spindle and Dagger are here. Another story about a girl who’d had bad things happen to her, who could slowly—slowly—find her way forward. Tucked away amid the maps and charts, waiting till I was ready to come full circle.

Meet J. Anderson Coats

J. Anderson Coats has received two Junior Library Guild awards, two Washington State Book Awards, and earned starred reviews from Kirkus, School Library Journal, the Horn Book Review, and Shelf Awareness. Her newest books are Spindle and Dagger, a YA set in medieval Wales that deals with power dynamics and complicated relationships, and The Green Children of Woolpit, a creepy middle-grade fantasy inspired by real historical events. She is also the author of R is for Rebel, The Many Reflections of Miss Jane Deming, The Wicked and the Just, and the forthcoming middle-grade fantasy, The Night Ride (2021).

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Buy Links

https://bookshop.org/books/spindle-and-dagger/9781536207774

https://www.mercerislandbooks.com/book/9781536207774

https://www.eagleharborbooks.com/book/9781536207774

https://www.elliottbaybook.com/book/9781536207774

https://www.secretgardenbooks.com/book/9781536207774

About Spindle and Dagger

This rich literary novel follows Elen, who must live a precarious lie in order to survive among the medieval Welsh warband that killed her family.

Wales, 1109. Three years ago, a warband raided Elen’s home. Her baby sister could not escape the flames. Her older sister fought back and almost killed the warband’s leader, Owain ap Cadwgan, before being killed herself. Despite Elen’s own sexual assault at the hands of the raiders, she saw a chance to live and took it. She healed Owain’s wound and spun a lie: Owain ap Cadwgan, son of the king of Powys, cannot be killed, not by blade nor blow nor poison. Owain ap Cadwgan has the protection of Saint Elen, as long as he keeps her namesake safe from harm and near him always.

For three years, Elen has had plenty of food, clothes to wear, and a bed to sleep in that she shares with the man who brought that warband to her door. Then Owain abducts Nest, the wife of a Norman lord, and her three children, triggering full-out war. As war rages, and her careful lies threaten to unravel, Elen begins to look to Nest and see a different life — if she can decide, once and for all, where her loyalties lie. J. Anderson Coats’s evocative prose immerses the reader in a dark but ultimately affirming tale of power and survival.

ISBN-13: 9781536207774
Publisher: Candlewick Press
Publication date: 03/10/2020
Age Range: 16 – 17 Years