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The Author-Reader Relationship: Reaching Beyond Expectations, a guest post by Halli Gomez

When I first wrote my young adult novel, List of Ten, a story about a teen living with Tourette Syndrome (TS), obsessive-compulsive disorder, and anxiety, someone told me the only people who would read the book are those with TS. I argued against that statement, insisted it wasn’t true, and kept pursing the publishing dream.

When List of Ten sold and I began going through the publishing process, I thought more about that statement. I agonized over it. And I realize now, I may have had a Field of Dreams attitude: write it and they will read it.

And why wouldn’t they? People read books for a variety of reasons, not all of which involve a personal connection. We read about magical characters, but we are not magic. Mysteries, but we’re not detectives. Dragons, and we are definitely not fire-breathing fantastical creatures. Maybe that statement was true. This book is different. It focuses on a lesser-known disorder, mental health, and suicide. Would people read this book? And more importantly, why?

The first two manuscripts I wrote didn’t sell, and thinking back, I didn’t have much thought after getting the words on paper. Sure, I had dreams of seeing my book on store shelves, but I can see now that I was missing a crucial piece. The author-reader relationship.

I’ve given a lot of thought to that relationship over the past few years. Does an author have a responsibility to their readers? What is the overall purpose? A question as big as the universe, but appropriate since books have the power to change the world.

Any writer will tell you there’s a feeling to create, a desire to tell a story that’s deep inside and won’t let go. Despite the stress, time, and rejections, we keep writing, often laughing to ourselves as we do it.

So, we are going to write, but what is the purpose? As a reader myself, I thought about what I look for in books. Entertainment, sure. At times I want to escape my life, the struggles with neurodiversity, even the sky when there are too many rainy days in a row. But is that the extent of the author-reader relationship? To entertain and chase the blahs away? Being able to make someone happy with your art is a wonderful gift, but there is much more authors can do.

Think about the books that have impacted today’s generation. Harry Potter brought out the love of reading in many reluctant and non-readers. Hunger Games embodied female empowerment. Thirteen years after the book was published and nine years since the movie was made, I still hear the well-known phrase “I volunteer as tribute.” Most will admit the books are entertaining, but many readers will say they formed a deeper connection.

It’s time to look at my own reading journey. I read everything from picture books to adult fiction and non-fiction. Mysteries, historical fiction, contemporary, ghost stories and much more. I choose stories based on the authors (I frequently refer to John Green as a literary genius) others based on the plot, and many because I want to learn about new people and places.

Books in general, but List of Ten in particular, and others like it, for example All the Bright Places, Brave Enough, Challenger Deep, The Fault in Our Stars, Turtles All the Way Down are not to be taken lightly. They deal with very tough topics and may not be for everyone. I went back to that original statement again, this time keeping the author-reader relationship in mind. Who would read a book about Tourette Syndrome and suicide?

To be honest, the answer surprised me. I hoped people with similar issues would connect and feel seen. I hoped it would bring a greater understanding of misunderstood neurodivergent individuals. What I didn’t expect was an even greater audience. I’ve heard from people who see books like List of Ten as a way to connect with their own children and family members, and others who are sharing it to promote inclusion and respect, and even others who have found themselves questioning their own behavior toward neurodivergent individuals.

To forge that author-reader relationship, stories don’t have to be as blatant and serious as List of Ten. The story a writer wants to tell, the theme they want to impart on the reader can be wrapped up in anything. It can entertain and impact.

I hope to accomplish that with my work-in-progress, a young adult thriller filled with suspense, secrets, and a dead body. But running through it all is a girl who has been talked over and disregarded her entire life. More than solving the mystery, I’m writing this for readers who need to see what can be accomplished when they find their voice, and, just as important, for those readers who need to understand what happens when you don’t allow people to have a voice. And, of course, for those readers who will discover their own connection.

Meet the author

Halli Gomez teaches martial arts and writes for children and young adults. She has written several stories with neurodivergent characters including her young adult novel List of Ten (Sterling Teen) When no one is looking, she sock skates through the house and talks to dogs like they are human. When people are looking, she enjoys reading, outdoors, and breaking out of escape rooms with her family. Halli lives in North Carolina with her husband, two boys, and two dogs.

Website: https://halligomez.com

Twitter: https://twitter.com/Halli_Gomez

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

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

About List of Ten

A harrowing yet hopeful account of a teen living with Tourette Syndrome and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder . . .
and contemplating his own mortality.


Ten: three little letters, one ordinary number. No big deal, right? But for Troy Hayes, a 16-year-old suffering from Tourette Syndrome and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, the number ten dictates his life, forcing him to do everything by its exacting rhythm. Finally, fed up with the daily humiliation, loneliness, and physical pain he endures, Troy writes a list of ten things to do by the tenth anniversary of his diagnosis—culminating in suicide on the actual day. But the process of working his way through the list changes Troy’s life: he becomes friends with Khory, a smart, beautiful classmate who has her own troubled history. Khory unwittingly helps Troy cross off items on his list, moving him ever closer to his grand finale, even as she shows him that life may have more possibilities than he imagined. This is a dark, intense story, but it’s also realistic, hopeful, and deeply authentic.

ISBN-13: 9781454940142
Publisher: Sterling Teen
Publication date: 03/16/2021
Age Range: 14 – 18 Years

On Overcoming Fears and Becoming Superheroes, a guest post by Christina Li

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I was quite a shy and fearful child. Speaking up in class terrified me. I wanted to become an author, but I was scared I wouldn’t know how to write. As one of the few Asian kids in my Midwestern hometown, I was reluctant to embrace the culture of my Chinese-American immigrant family. Time and time again, I found myself hesitant to fully accept my identity, and to pursue the things I loved to do out of the fear that I wouldn’t be good enough.

At the same time, I was becoming an avid reader, and for me, books were life-changing. I read about main characters going on epic adventures across space and time, developing incredible superpowers, and facing off against lunchtime bullies and monsters alike. I read Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, a Chinese mythology-inspired fantasy with a resourceful and caring protagonist that helped me fall in love with my own Asian identity. As I read these books, I realized that these fictional kids I read about had lots of fears, just like I did. Over the course of their stories, they overcame these fears, little by little, to become bold, intrepid heroes. If they could do it, I could, too.

There are so many reasons why I wrote Clues to the Universe. I wanted to write about whimsical space comics. About dealing with loss. About families, born and found. But at the end of the day, I wanted to write about fearless characters and characters who overcome their fears to achieve extraordinary things. I wanted to write about a brilliant girl scientist, Ro, who is as proud of her Chinese-American identity as she is about her passion for rocket science, and who isn’t afraid to explore the unknowns of the world around her. I wanted to write about a shy artist, Benji, who admires comic book superheroes but isn’t sure of his own place in the world. Ultimately, I wanted to write about two kids who, in their budding friendship, learn to fight for the things they care about and for the people they love, to come into their own, and to become the superheroes of their own stories.

Meet Christina Li

Christina Li is a student studying economics at Stanford University. When she is not puzzling over her stats problem set, she is daydreaming about characters and drinking too much jasmine green tea. She grew up in the Midwest, but now calls California home. Clues to the Universe is her debut novel. Find her online at www.christinaliwrites.com.
Twitter: @CLiwrites Instagram: @christinaliwrites

About Clues to the Universe

Clues to the Universe

This #ownvoices debut about losing and finding family, forging unlikely friendships, and searching for answers to big questions will resonate with fans of Erin Entrada Kelly and Rebecca Stead.

The only thing Rosalind Ling Geraghty loves more than watching NASA launches with her dad is building rockets with him. When he dies unexpectedly, all Ro has left of him is an unfinished model rocket they had been working on together.

Benjamin Burns doesn’t like science, but he can’t get enough of Spacebound, a popular comic book series. When he finds a sketch that suggests that his dad created the comics, he’s thrilled. Too bad his dad walked out years ago, and Benji has no way to contact him.

Though Ro and Benji were only supposed to be science class partners, the pair become unlikely friends: Benji helps Ro finish her rocket, and Ro figures out a way to reunite Benji and his dad. But Benji hesitates, which infuriates Ro. Doesn’t he realize how much Ro wishes she could be in his place?

As the two face bullying, grief, and their own differences, Benji and Ro must try to piece together clues to some of the biggest questions in the universe.

ISBN-13: 9780063008885
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 01/12/2021
Age Range: 8 – 12 Years

Book Review: The Gravity of Us by Phil Stamper

Publisher’s description

I’m so starry-eyed for this wise, romantic gem of a book.” – Becky Albertalli, bestselling author of Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda

In this smart, heart-warming YA debut perfect for fans of Becky Albertalli and Adam Silvera, two teens find love when their lives are uprooted for their parents’ involvement in a NASA mission to Mars.

Cal wants to be a journalist, and he’s already well underway with almost half a million followers on his FlashFame app and an upcoming internship at Buzzfeed. But his plans are derailed when his pilot father is selected for a highly-publicized NASA mission to Mars. Within days, Cal and his parents leave Brooklyn for hot and humid Houston.

With the entire nation desperate for any new information about the astronauts, Cal finds himself thrust in the middle of a media circus. Suddenly his life is more like a reality TV show, with his constantly bickering parents struggling with their roles as the “perfect American family.”

And then Cal meets Leon, whose mother is another astronaut on the mission, and he finds himself falling head over heels—and fast. They become an oasis for each other amid the craziness of this whole experience. As their relationship grows, so does the frenzy surrounding the Mars mission, and when secrets are revealed about ulterior motives of the program, Cal must find a way to get to the truth without hurting the people who have become most important to him.

Amanda’s thoughts

“Between the boy in my bed and the peace in the house, maybe this astronaut thing was exactly what our family needed” (200).

Whenever I read, I like to look for the one line that will grab readers’ interest if you hold up the book and quote the line. The above line totally sums up the major plot points: love interest, family disharmony, and the “astronaut thing.” YEP.

Do you need to suspend your disbelief quite a bit to believe that the events of the book would actually play out how they do? Sure. But even realistic fiction is still fiction. Just go with it. So we’re supposed to believe that a mid-range teenage influencer can help snag his dad a job with NASA and possibly save the entire mission. Fine. I’ll buy it—because the rest of the story is fun, cute, charming, and all kinds of other seemingly empty descriptors that just add up to “GOOD.”

There’s a lot to like in this story. Leon, the love interest, and main character Cal’s mom deal with mental health issues (depression and anxiety, respectively). There’s repeated casual mention of this as well as how they cope with and treat it. The celeb news and gossip show that hounds the astronauts and their families and that Cal repeatedly goes up against is satisfyingly terrible and infuriating. They scheme, plot, manipulate, and use people all while accusing Cal of the same. Cal seemed to kind of understand the path his life was likely on—he knew what he wanted to do and where he wanted to do it. But moving to Texas for the space program changed all of that. Though Cal is relatively famous, he’s also just a regular kid making mistakes (he’s a self-centered and crappy friend at times), reevaluating his future, falling in love, screwing it up, and figuring it all out.

We can always use more ownvoices books featuring queer boys, so I’m glad this one exists. Readers looking for a BIG romance may be disappointed, but those looking for a unique story about the curveballs life can throw at you and the unexpected ways you may find love will enjoy this geeky story about dating, friendship, space, and politics.

Review copy courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9781547600144
Publisher: Bloomsbury USA
Publication date: 02/04/2020
Age Range: 13 – 17 Years

Book Review: Black Enough: Stories of Being Young and Black in America edited by Ibi Zoboi

Publisher’s description

black enoughEdited by National Book Award finalist Ibi Zoboi, and featuring some of the most acclaimed bestselling Black authors writing for teens today—Black Enough is an essential collection of captivating stories about what it’s like to be young and Black in America.

Black is…sisters navigating their relationship at summer camp in Portland, Oregon, as written by Renée Watson.

Black is…three friends walking back from the community pool talking about nothing and everything, in a story by Jason Reynolds.

Black is…Nic Stone’s high-class beauty dating a boy her momma would never approve of.

Black is…two girls kissing in Justina Ireland’s story set in Maryland.

Black is urban and rural, wealthy and poor, mixed race, immigrants, and more—because there are countless ways to be Black enough.

Contributors:
Justina Ireland
Varian Johnson
Rita Williams-Garcia
Dhonielle Clayton
Kekla Magoon
Leah Henderson
Tochi Onyebuchi
Jason Reynolds
Nic Stone
Liara Tamani
Renée Watson
Tracey Baptiste
Coe Booth
Brandy Colbert
Jay Coles
Ibi Zoboi
Lamar Giles

Amanda’s thoughts

This is a truly excellent collection of contemporary short stories. There wasn’t a dud in this anthology, which is pretty impressive, because I usually feel like collections  are often so uneven, that they have a few strong stories and just as many forgettable, undeveloped stories. These stories all focus on being young and black in America. They look at identity, tradition, ideas of blackness, relationships, and experiences in various urban and rural areas across the country.

In Renée Watson’s piece, 17-year-old Raven, a counselor at a camp for young girls from the Portland, Oregon area, is surprised to find one of her campers is her father’s daughter from the family he had after he left when Raven was seven. Varian Johnson’s story is set in South Carolina and follows Cam, who is visiting his grandma, as he deals with code switching, being called an Oreo, and thinking he’s not black enough for the girl he likes. Leah Henderson sets her story at a prep school where art, futures, and authentic selves are all in question. Lamar Giles’s “Black. Nerd. Problems” entertainingly focuses on a group of mall employees at an after-hours mall party.

Kekela Magoon’s main character mourns the loss of a school friend who was maybe the only person to see her real self. Jason Reynolds shows us a group of boys walking home from the pool through Bed-Stuy dreaming of the perfect sandwich. Brandy Colbert’s “Oreo” deals with a potentially Spelman-bound senior, her parents’ complicated feelings about HBCUs, and how her cousin from Missouri thinks she “acts white.” Tochi Onyebuchi shows readers a Nigerian American debate superstar who unexpectedly finds a passion for metal music. Liara Tamani’s story is set at a church camp where there’s pressure to send naked selfies. Jay Coles brings readers to the tiny town of North Salem where two boys from feuding families reveal their feelings toward each other while getting ready to compete in the big horse race.

Rita Williams-Garcia’s story is the only one to veer into fantasy, with a gay male model encountering an 1840s slave (either in a wash basin or in a dream) who can’t understand his modern life and freedoms. Tracey Baptiste’s “Gravity” takes place in a brief time span on a dance floor when a Trinidadian girl is sexually assaulted by her dance partner. A real standout story is Dhonielle Clayton’s “The Trouble with Drowning,” in which twin sisters from a wealthy area of Washington, DC experience a growing distance and a family unwilling to address mental health issues.

Justina Ireland’s main character, Devon, is in “the backwoods of Maryland” for the summer while her mother gets help for her depression and begins dating a local girl, trying to learn to live in the moment even though their relationship seems sure to end when they both leave for college. Coe Booth’s is set at college, where computer science student Garry hopes to be reunited with Inaaya, a girl he knew (and fell for) from past summer hackathons. Nic Stone’s main characters come from very different upbringings, but learn to see each other beyond their stereotypes and bond over their love of Percy Jackson books. And finally, Ibi Zoboi looks at the one night of freedom of Nigeria (Geri), the daughter of Black nationalist revolutionary freedom fighter caught for tax evasion who can’t wait to be eighteen and leave the confines of the movement.

The stories, settings, and writing styles are varied. While readers will never know what to expect when they flip to the next story, they will not be disappointed. Each story is thoughtful and engaging, with tones varying from serious to more lighthearted. One of the best things about anthologies is the potential to introduce readers to writers they are unfamiliar with. This collection features so many wonderful authors and I hope that, if readers don’t already know their work, these stories will encourage them to seek out their books. Teachers and librarians, put this book up on a display featuring books by the authors included here. A great exploration of identity and cultures—a necessary addition to all collections. 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9780062698728
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 01/08/2019

#SJYALit: Time For Confrontation: Moving Forward in the Diversity Conversation, a guest post by S. K. Ali

sjyalitThe first time I saw myself, I got scared. I was twelve and I’d brought my plate of lentils and rice into the living room in order to sit beside my dad as he watched the news. And there she was: a girl like me. On television.

The girl had on a blue hijab exactly like the one I wore to school. But this girl wasn’t going to school. She was getting bombed — by “our” side.

I remember the scene vividly; remember how my chewing slowed and how my father shook his head and how I felt a profound sense of disruption, of dissonance.

I mean I’d never seen people who looked like me on TV before. And this first time wasn’t fun TV like my favorite show, The Facts of Life.

This was my earliest memory — a searing one — of seeing myself represented, or rather, myself presented to me. I wish I could say that things got better but of course they didn’t. Due to the subsequent Gulf Wars and the North American media coverage of them, as well as books and films set abroad featuring the Sad Plight of Muslim Girls, I only saw Muslim women who were either to be hated or pitied.

Growing up, looking in the mirror meant seeing the negativity surrounding my Muslim identity reflected back, almost web-like over my real self.

Viewing yourself as others have misconstrued you either silences you or enrages you. Both these outcomes are detrimental — at the individual as well as societal level.

And here, I pause to present my privilege. I hope when you’re reading it, you think of those without this privilege and the depth of internalized pain carried around as a result.

When I think of the girl sitting beside her father, eating lentils and rice, watching the news, I also see the bookshelves lining the walls behind her.

I was fortunate to live in a home housing knowledge that challenged this negative view of myself — my father’s library had hundreds of books on Islam and Muslims that told another story — and so I was able to see through the web disfiguring me.

Yet still, the knowledge of self that I gleaned from my family, our home library, the mosque, and Muslim events stayed on a parallel course, a far one, from the “knowledge” about Muslims served daily on the news and at school by teachers who talked about “them” while one of “them” was sitting right there in her hijab.

The two streams of knowledge never met because to merge them would mean confrontation and I hated confrontation.

But then one more frustrating, negative news story about people like me led me to a decision at seventeen: I would tear at the web strands that disguised who I truly was. If it meant challenging things publicly – in classrooms, on the streets, writing to newspapers, so be it. If it meant confrontation, so be it.

Much of my University years were spent fighting Islamophobia, including undertaking a yearlong research paper surveying the depiction of Muslim women in popular culture.

This thesis, written over twenty years ago, documented the negativity surrounding Muslim identity, in particular female Muslim identity. It pains me to say that so very little has changed.

With one exciting exception.

The exception is a result of an intersection of sorts, a confrontational intersection.

The point at which real, dynamic change occurs. Where real stories, real characters, real art emerges.

The intersection happens when the authentic knowledge we hold about ourselves as we truly are, as members of marginalized communities, confronts the knowledge about us that has been in circulation for years, or, in many cases, centuries.

To have these streams of knowledge run parallel to each other, never meeting, has proven to be dangerous. The increase in hate crimes and policies affecting certain communities disproportionally provides that proof.

Old, untrue narratives hurt, internally and externally. They’re also same-old, same-old boring.

But now, we’re seeing an increase in stories arising that challenge the old. The exciting exception.

Ali - Saints and MisfitsOver the past few years, the invaluable work of diversity advocates like WNDB brought the important task of changing the publishing landscape to the fore. The #ownvoices movement sharpened the focus and asked us to consider the important question: who gets to tell “diverse” stories?

Earlier this year, #MuslimShelfSpace asked readers to reflect on whether they were making space for Muslim-authored content in the face of increased Islamophobia.

Who gets to tell stories featuring Muslims? I say it’s the children who grew up — who are growing up still — unable to see themselves clearly when they look in the mirror.

They’re the ones with the stories you’ve probably never heard. They’re the ones who’ll confront the same-old.

They’re the ones with Art to share.

Meet S.K. Ali

SKAliPicPrintS.K. Ali is the author of Saints and Misfits. She has written on Muslim culture and life for various media.

 

 

 

About SAINTS AND MISFITS by S.K. Ali

Saints and Misfits is an unforgettable debut novel that feels like a modern day My So-Called Life…starring a Muslim teen.

There are three kinds of people in my world:

1. Saints, those special people moving the world forward. Sometimes you glaze over them. Or, at least, I do. They’re in your face so much, you can’t see them, like how you can’t see your nose.

2. Misfits, people who don’t belong. Like me—the way I don’t fit into Dad’s brand-new family or in the leftover one composed of Mom and my older brother, Mama’s-Boy-Muhammad.

Also, there’s Jeremy and me. Misfits. Because although, alliteratively speaking, Janna and Jeremy sound good together, we don’t go together. Same planet, different worlds.

But sometimes worlds collide and beautiful things happen, right?

3. Monsters. Well, monsters wearing saint masks, like in Flannery O’Connor’s stories.

Like the monster at my mosque.

People think he’s holy, untouchable, but nobody has seen under the mask.

Except me.