Five authors of highly anticipated YA novels came together for a panel discussion at BookExpo on May 31, about their creative inspiration and the themes explored in their new books. The panelists were Brandy Colbert, author of The Revolution of Birdie Randolph (Little, Brown, Aug.); Julia Drake, debut author of The Last True Poets of the Sea (Disney-Hyperion, Oct.); Kim Liggett, author of The Grace Year (Macmillan/Wednesday, Sept.); Erin Stewart, author of Scars Like Wings (Delacorte, Oct.); and David Yoon, debut author of Frankly in Love (Putnam, Sept.). Sara Grochowski, children’s and YA specialist at McLean & Eakin in Petoskey, Mich., and a PW reviewer, moderated the event.
The authors began by introducing the plotlines and origins of their books. Colbert said of her 16-year-old heroine Birdie Randolph, “She’s always been the perfect daughter, but this summer, things start to turn upside down.” The arrival of Birdie’s aunt, who has been in and out of rehab, complicates the family dynamic and Birdie’s coming of age journey. “Addiction is one of the issues we don’t discuss enough,” Colbert said. “I wanted to delve into how that affects a family—the secrets and rifts it causes.”
The Grace Year was inspired by a scene Liggett witnessed at Penn Station in New York City. While waiting for the train to Washington, D.C., she noticed a family with a girl of 13 or 14. Liggett said she was shocked when a businessman walked by and “looked the girl stem to stern. She was fair game, whether she was ready or not.” A few moments later, a woman walked past and gave the girl a look, “maybe like she was competition, or reminded the woman of what she’d lost.” Liggett had the impression the family was sending the girl back to boarding school, “where they thought she’d be safe for one more year.” As soon as Liggett boarded the train, she opened up her laptop and began writing. Her speculative novel is set in a society where girls are banished to the forest on their 16th birthday in order to be purified for marriage.
Yoon, who was raised in a conservative Korean family, said that his debut novel emerged from his reflections on “parental expectations of whom you should or should not date.” He recalled having to hide his early relationships from his parents. But, Yoon said, Frankly in Love is more than a YA novel about dating secrets and the complications of interracial relationships. About a year ago, the author’s father was diagnosed with cancer. At the time, David’s wife, writer Nicola Yoon, was also caring for her sick father. David said he began thinking about his parents, and his relationship with them, in a new light. “Suddenly, you’re not just a point in time; you’re part of a long line of experience.” His novel goes on to explore what happens after a family discovers the son’s clandestine relationship and difficult questions surface, such as, “Are you ashamed of who you are?”
The idea for Stewart’s novel began to take shape 10 years ago, when the author met an eight-year-old boy who had immigrated to the U.S. from Romania after a fire killed both of his parents and left him with burns on 70% of his body. Stewart said, “I expected to meet a broken boy. Instead I found a boy who believed he was so much more than his scars.” In thinking about how he was able to survive and thrive, Stewart realized “he didn’t do it alone.” Her novel Scars Like Wings examines the question of “how you find hope on the other side of tragedy.” Stewart described the importance of friendship for her characters and for individuals who have experienced trauma. She added that her character Ava comes to see herself not as a victim, “someone who lost, who didn’t live,” but as a survivor. “Survival is a choice,” Stewart said. “Ava has to choose it every day.”
Drake’s debut novel The Last True Poets of the Sea is loosely based on Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. Since taking on the role of Viola in a high school production, Drake said she has been fascinated by the play’s themes of melancholy and resilience. In her book, teen Violet is sent to Maine to spend the summer with her uncle after her younger brother has attempted suicide. There, Violet embarks on a mission to find the long-lost shipwreck that figures in her family lore, and to learn more about where she comes from. Drake said she wasn’t conscious of the shipwreck’s resonance as “a metaphor for mental illness” until her editor, Laura Schreiber, pointed it out to her and the themes clicked. The author said that the novel is a reflection of “my ongoing experience with depression and anxiety. I wanted to write a book that touched on these topics in a real, true way.”
Grochowski wrapped things up by asking the authors to discuss what they hoped readers would take away from their books. Colbert said, “I want readers to think about when people make a mistake, how they shouldn’t be judged indefinitely. And I want them to think about the pressure we put on teens.” Colbert also strived to address issues of racism and discrimination in The Revolution of Birdie Randolph, as well as “the systems in place and how we’re complicit.”
Liggett said, “At first, I wrote this book for me, to deal with my anger and sadness about the world.” But she has been honored to hear readers tell her, “ ‘I feel like you wrote The Grace Year just for me.’ ” Realizing that the book touches on timely themes of sexism and sexuality, she said she hopes it conveys how “we’re stronger together.”
Yoon also said, “I wrote [Frankly in Love] for me first, and I hope people can connect to the truth in it. It’s not just a Korean-American story.” Through writing the novel, he said, he discovered valuable lessons about “how to accept and love your parents as they are. It’s one thing to forgive; it’s another to accept, warts and all.”
Stewart said of Wings Like Scars, “I think there’s a bigger message beyond the story of a burn survivor, about finding a new normal after a life-changing event. Everyone, every teen reader, is recovering from something.”
Picking up on the theme of resilience, Drake said, “I wanted to write something where survival was complicated. We don’t get to just choose to feel better, but we get to try.” She concluded, “If reading this book helps one person go and seek help, I’d be beside myself with joy.”