Aminah Mae Safi first entered the children’s publishing scene as a winner of the 2016 We Need Diverse Books short story contest, with her work appearing in the 2018 YA anthology Fresh Ink (Crown). She is the author of the young adult novels Not the Girls You’re Looking For and Tell Me How You Really Feel (both Feiwel and Friends). Her new novel, This Is All Your Fault, follows three teen girls who are determined to save their local bookstore. April Poole has worked as an indie bookseller for nearly a decade (starting at age 14), and is a champion of YA, romance novels, and LGBTQ+ literature. When she isn’t handselling at Porter Square Books in Cambridge, Mass., Poole moonlights as a food editor for a cooking magazine. We asked Safi and Poole to interview each other about YA stories of female friendship and solidarity, and their love and support of independent bookstores, particularly during the era of Covid-19.
Aminah Mae Safi: Hi, April! How are you doing?
April Poole: I’m good! In that work-from-home grind (have been for almost three months now!) and feel like I’m getting into a rhythm even as things get weirder and scarier in the world around us. How are you?
Safi: Same. I know as humans, we have this amazing ability to adapt. And I feel so incredibly grateful to continue working from home amid all of this. But it’s still wild. And I still have some days where I’m just staring at a Word doc waiting for the words to form.
Poole: Yes, definitely! And I think a lot of people feel like they should be so productive and creative right now, but it’s so, so hard. Some days I chug through work and make dinner and do dishes, and some days I can’t even focus enough to read.
Safi: Totally! It’s very, “Wow, today I read through a hundred pages” and the next day, “Wow, I had cereal for three meals, maybe I should try showering.” I keep trying to find ways to connect with others, because for me that’s such a lifeline right now. Even just reading poetry in the morning and asking for requests via Instagram feels like human contact at this point. And it reminds me that we’re all doing this to help take care of each other.
Poole: I’ve definitely turned to social media way more than ever before because, even if it’s toxic sometimes, it is actually a valuable form of human connection right now. And I know that for the bookstore I work at, we’re pouring energy into social media because we miss connecting with our customers day-to-day (and they miss us!).
Safi: Oh, man. I have been doing this massive muting of anything that isn’t helping in my feed since I’ve been spending more time online. So I totally get that. Because those moments of connection feel so essential and sanity-preserving right now. How has that been—connecting with customers online vs. in store?
Poole: It’s definitely a different type of connection. I think that one of the most vital aspects of indie bookstores is that you get a human connection, a personal recommendation from a bookseller, a face and a name of someone from your own community who is selling you this book. That’s what I think is important about indie bookstores and it’s what I love about working at one, so it’s definitely hard to not have that. But, social media allows us to reach people all over the country and even around the world, and I’m happy that we’re still recommending books and sharing insights into our bookstore life, even as that bookstore life looks different than ever before.
Safi: I love seeing the book and sock care package bundles y’all are putting together on Instagram! And this might be super odd, but I actually love listening to booksellers in indie bookstores recommending books to other people. I must be the biggest snoop in the world, but I just love hearing that process of handselling. Because listening to someone talk about a story that was meaningful to them and why that story might be meaningful to the next person, I just find that really beautiful.
Poole: I totally understand that. I’ve always found handselling to be my favorite part of working in bookstores—indie bookstores are here to make people happy, to bring them stories that will bring meaning into their lives, and there’s no better feeling than handing someone a book that you know will bring something special into their life. And even as a bookseller, I also love listening to people handsell, and I can confirm that people do eavesdrop, because sometimes people nearby will come over and grab the book you were talking about, which is always so fun to me.
Safi: That’s me. I’m that lurker. LOL. But that was also why I wrote This Is All Your Fault, because independent bookstores were such a magical place to me growing up. We went every Sunday after lunch as a family and I have these vivid memories of getting lost as I wandered the shelves, even though back then neither the children’s nor the YA sections were even a quarter the size they are today. I feel like they foster so much community and interaction, and for me, a sense of independence.
Poole: Wow, I love that! And I will say, I was so impressed by the way that you captured the true essence of indie bookstores in This Is All Your Fault. There were so many moments where I thought, “Wow, she really gets it.” It really felt like an ode to indie bookstores in the most wonderful way.
Safi: Ah, that’s so wonderful to hear. That’s what I was trying for. I just wanted to capture the spirit of an indie bookstore so much. Because I felt so odd and out of place as a child and whenever I went into my local indie in Houston, it felt like home. Or like that quote from You’ve Got Mail, where she says, “When you read a book as a child, it becomes a part of your identity in a way that no other reading in your whole life does.” I kept trying to come back to that feeling, that sense that reading helps you feel not alone and that independent bookstores are places where everyone who feels at least a little bit like they don’t belong, or like they’re searching for something, can go and find space. And stories.
Poole: I love that, and I really do feel that way as well. And I also think that (from the side of someone who’s worked in indies for a decade), people who work in them are often those people too. (Also, I love You’ve Got Mail and it definitely came to mind when reading your book.) One thing I loved about This Is All Your Fault is the way in which each character (the employees, the customers) all felt at home at the store and that it meant something special to each of them. And the realization over the course of the story that even people who seem like they have it all together can be searching for that feeling of home and connection—and that they find it at Wild Nights.
Safi: I re-watch You’ve Got Mail every fall and think of bouquets of sharpened pencils in between watches. I think indie bookstores always felt like a home away from home for me. And I think we often find home in unexpected places and with unexpected people, if we’re willing to look below the appearance of things. What do you think people can do to help indie bookstores during this truly wild time?
Poole: There are a lot of ways people can help indies right now! And even indies that seem so successful need help right now—we don’t go into the bookstore business to get rich, we do it to make people happy. Some ways to help indies right now include: ordering online, preordering books for the future, buying gift cards, supporting different special ventures stores are doing—I ordered the most wonderful care package from The Ripped Bodice, and my store did curated Mother’s Day bundles, for example. If you listen to audiobooks, check out Libro.fm, which is a service similar to Audible but that allows you to choose an indie bookstore to get the profit from your purchase. You can also check out bookshop.org which is a newer website that allows you to order books online to benefit indie bookstores rather than that company that starts with an “A”—ask your local bookstore if they prefer sales through their website or if they have a page on Bookshop! A lot of authors are even doing lists of recommendations on there, and you can buy straight through their links! Oh, and one other thing—a completely free way to support bookstores is to follow them on social media and sign up for their newsletters!
Safi: I love all of these suggestions! And, I also love actionable items and newsletters, like a real nerd. I’ve got a list up on Bookshop because I wanted to highlight some March and April releases that I didn’t want to sail under anyone’s radar right now, given how much news so many of us are consuming. And, honestly, sending others book care packages has felt so good. There’s something about mail—I think it’s the human connection thing again— that feels really healing and soothing. I’ve seen so many people step up in my own community and my own social feed, but I do know a lot of booklovers. Have you found that people have rallied around independent bookstores? Or that people who you didn’t realize saw themselves as part of your bookstore community were reaching out?
Poole: It’s actually been pretty incredible. The last weekend that I physically worked in the store was St. Patrick’s Day weekend, and even then, right as this was all getting started, we had more online sales in a single day than we’d ever had before. People really are rallying around us in an unprecedented way. If all of the new customers we’ve gotten online since Covid-19 started stayed customers after all of this is over, we’d probably have to hire two or three more booksellers. And that’s so inspiring to see. And the orders we’re getting are coming from all over the country! Family members of mine who have never bought from my indie are suddenly doing it; friends are asking for recommendations.
Safi: Wow, I’m honestly crying. And granted, I’m on a little bit of a crying hair trigger right now, but that’s really, really beautiful. Keep supporting indies after we can all go outside again! It’s even more fun in person, I promise!
Poole: Yes, agreed!!
Safi: So this is near the end of the interview, but I just realized we never talked about how we met. And what I remember is, you sent my editor a very lovely email saying that you had loved my second book, Tell Me How You Really Feel. And I just wanted to thank you for that, because it made my day. And it reminded me all over again why I love independent bookstores, because the connection to books always feels so personal and so human and so real.
Poole: Yes, you remember 100% correctly. To this day, I love talking about Tell Me How You Really Feel. As a young(ish) queer woman, it meant so much to me to read a fun, queer YA rom-com. It was a book I would have loved to have as a teenager and it brought me so much joy when I read it. I always want to say to people, “C’mon, it’s a queer, enemies-to-lovers YA book! With two strong-willed, incredible young women in it! Please read!” And now I’m so pleased, because I get to say a lot of those same things when This Is All Your Fault comes out in October.
Safi: Well, I am crying again. And those are the best things to hear, because that was why I wrote Tell Me How You Really Feel. Everyone deserves a joyful, fun rom-com. And writing a love letter to independent bookstores and strong-willed young women as they form a girl gang was the beating heart of This Is All Your Fault.
Poole: I’m tearing up now too! And speaking of girl gangs, I fell in love as soon as I saw the cover—it just screams powerful young women banding together in a truly wonderful way.
Safi: Thank you! Liz Dresner, the cover designer who has worked on all of my books, really knocked it out of the park. I screamed when I saw it because it was so pastel and so aggressive and it felt like a paperback crush ’90s book from my childhood, but while Kate Nash’s “Girl Gang” was playing on full blast in the background.
Poole: That is exactly the vibe it has—and exactly the vibe the story inside has!
Safi: Ahh, yesss, I love to hear it. My friends from my teen years were unexpected in so many ways, but they’re like sisters to me and we’ve known each other for (wow, when I did this math) 20 years now. I feel like we don’t get enough of that positive side of girl gangs. The ambition and the aggression and the strong-willed drive that goes hand in hand with the kind of tenacious and ferocious love of that kind of sisterhood bond. I wanted to write about that (and also, I’m reading Siobhan Vivian’s We Are The Wildcats, which also has that tenacity and that spirit, so I’m glad we’re getting more and more of this on the YA shelves, now).
Poole: Yes, I love that about This Is All Your Fault—as you read it, you feel like you’re a part of this sisterhood bond that’s forming between Rinn, Daniella, and Imogen and seeing it develop throughout the story was so wonderful.
Safi: I love that moment that a girl gang forms. My best friend and I bonded in an honors bio class, when she walked into the room and we locked eyes as we were picking seats/lab partners. And we didn’t say anything, but we had this nonverbal moment of like, “If you’re on my team, I’m on yours.” And I now am there with her two-year-old every week hanging out, as she’s a new mom herself. It’s just so funny to look back on that moment, because it was electric and decisive and here we still are, friends and sisters who look out for each other. More girl gangs forever, please and thank you.
Poole: Yes, I second that so much!! And I think your book does something great which is that it felt like the female relationships were front and center and while there was romance, the friendship bond felt so vital and central to the story. That’s something I really want more of in YA. Female friendships always!!
Safi: Look, I love kissing books a whole lot. I remember being a teenager and the most vital relationships I had at that age were with my friends. The romance was there and was interesting to me, but my friendships were what dominated my decisions and my thoughts. In a way, I think I’m always trying to translate that on the page, because at the time it felt like I was alone in that. But the older I get, the more I realize all the other women in my life felt the same. We just didn’t get to experience that in the media or the books or the stories we encountered as we grew up.
Poole: I remember that one of the foundational aspects of the formation of my “girl gang” of friends was reading all of the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants books together—books that have a lot of romance and kissing (not a bad thing) but that are all about sisterhood! And I feel like now, we’re in a place where YA is starting to get more of that, plus more fierceness and power (and queerness and POC representation!).
Safi: It’s a good moment for girl gangs, for sure. And I also love Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. I love the way all the points of view in that book tell a story about the way we see ourselves, the way we see the people we love, and the ways we can all interpret the same thing through so many different lenses.
Poole: I hope teen girls are still reading them! Because they really are so wonderful.
Safi: Agreed. Those and The Babysitters Club books.
Poole: Yes!! I got my nieces hooked on the graphic novel adaptations by Raina Telgemeier (and now Gale Galligan) because I really wanted them to be able to love and appreciate the essence of those books, which are probably still foundational to who I am as a person, a reader, and a friend even as an adult.
Safi: OMG, I love that so much! I feel like those are really my parting words here: order books about girl gangs from independent bookstores, if you’re able. Books don’t wilt, and the stories stick with you forever! Do you have any closing thoughts?
Poole: I agree with you! Buy books about girl gangs from your indies now, and when this is all over and we’re back to business as usual. Go online and see what your indie is up to and how you can support them. And just read and enjoy books right now in a time when so many things are uncertain. And yes—as we’ve been saying at our store, books are shelf stable! They’re here for you now and they’ll be here for you tomorrow, no matter what tomorrow brings. Please help your local indie be here for you tomorrow, too.
Safi: That is really beautiful. Thank you for chatting, April, it’s been a delight.
Poole: And thank you, it’s been so wonderful chatting with you!
This Is All Your Fault by Aminah Mae Safi. Feiwel and Friends, $17.99 Oct. 13 ISBN 978-1-250-24234-1