In August, J.K. Rowling tweeted to her 12.1 million followers about her craft (“Yes, I do write by hand a lot, especially first drafts and plotting”) and her word count (“Why did I check, when I was happy?”). She also linked to a Vice News documentary that showed torch-carrying white supremacists in Charlottesville—and shared a cartoon of Donald Trump, facing the corner of a room with a cell phone in his hand and a white dunce cap on his head, a nod to the KKK hood.
Like Rowling, whose Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix contained 257,045 words, a growing number of YA authors are using just 140 characters or less to share their political thoughts with their Twitter followers. Their subjects: healthcare, immigration, transgender military service, climate change, and yes, President Donald Trump.
The power of the pen? Try the power of the post. Today writers like Cory Doctorow, Ellen Hopkins, Rainbow Rowell, Brent Hartinger, Jenny Han, Daniel José Older, and Saundra Mitchell, among many others, frequently tweet about political issues. Why? “It’s a potentially civilization-ending moment that we’re living through,” says Doctorow. That’s a common sentiment among YA authors. “It feels like we are fighting for the very soul of America and the existence of American democracy,” says Hartinger. “I feel like if there was ever a time to speak out, this is it.”
Of course, voicing opinions on current events is risky because it’s stepping over the traditional bounds of being a writer tweeting about books to fans. Even authors who are active political tweeters seem reluctant to draw attention to it: several politely declined, through their publicists, to talk to PW for this story.
Though many YA authors’ thumbs are typing faster during the Trump administration, some writers were tackling contemporary politics earlier—on #BlackLivesMatter, which began trending in 2013 after George Zimmerman’s acquittal in the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin, and about the We Need Diverse Books movement, which began in 2014 after Prophecy author Ellen Oh and Ash author Malinda Lo tweeted their frustration with the publishing industry. But political posts by YA authors, most prominently Rowling, appeared more frequently as Trump gained momentum on the campaign trail. In December 2015, Rowling linked to a BBC story, which had the headline of “This is why people are calling American businessman Donald Trump Voldemort” Then she tweeted, “How horrible. Voldemort was nowhere near as bad.”
Like Harry Potter’s creator, many YA authors are reserving their biggest barbs for the U.S. president, particularly after his own controversial tweets—such as saying in July that trans people in the military cause “disruption.” “It was breathtaking to me that the president of the United States was attacking transgender people in the most craven way possible,” says Hartinger. “I don’t care what the consequences are.” (He retweeted The Mindy Project actor Ike Barinholtz’s line, “Every single trans person is braver than Donald Trump.”)
Some authors let their voices be heard more quietly and less frequently. “Since the last election, I’m occasionally so outraged that I’ll post something on Twitter,” says two-time Newbery Medalist Lois Lowry. “[But] I don’t want to fall into the pit of argument and invective.” On June 14, after a shooter injured House majority whip Steve Scalise at a baseball practice, she tweeted, “Could we now have a serious conversation about gun control in this country?”
Though Lowry takes a cautious approach to political tweeting, fewer authors seem to care these days about potential blowback to opinionated posts. Mitchell previously ran what she termed “the most neutral, boring Twitter in the entire universe,” she says. The election of Trump was what “really what tipped it” for her. “We knew that he was a sexual predator, we knew that he was racist. We knew that he was interested in lining the pockets of his friends. We knew that the Russians were interfering during the election. How do you not speak against somebody that egregious? It felt like there was also a sea change in Twitter.” Mitchell is non-binary and her wife is transgender. They are parents of a 15-year-old daughter. “At this point, if you’re silent, you’re complicit,” she says. “I’m sure there are some editors who will not work with me. I’m sure there are some schools that will not invite me. [But] if you don’t like what I say on my Twitter, you’re probably also not going to like my books.”
Rainbow Rowell agrees that authors can’t worry too much about turning off readers. As she puts it, “When Nazis are marching down the street with semi-automatic weapons, that’s not the time to think, ‘Well, I’d hate to alienate anyone with my opinions. What if they’re pro-Nazi?’ ” More conservative YA authors seem to tweet about controversial topics less often, but even when they do, they, too, seem to get little, if any pushback. For example, no one commented on January 28, when Robert Treskillard, author of Zondervan’s The Merlin Spiral, posted a link to a Facebook clip of conservative columnist Dennis Prager saying most abortions “just aren’t moral” and wrote, “On this anniversary of Roe v. Wade I felt that this short video needed sharing...”
Being outspoken may even help authors attract new readers. “The standard advice to writers has always been to keep your ideas to yourself—don’t talk about politics, don’t talk about religion,” Older said. “That’s a really bad idea on every level. It’s just not how social media works. No one wants to interact with a robot. People want to interact with people.”
“I have actually gained readers on Twitter,” says Hopkins. “I might have lost a few up front. There are people who have seen my posts and like what I have to say. Then they go to see who I am.” As for Rowling, she keeps posting despite people who tweet, “Why are you so evil and why do you care about USA and our president? Keep your honker out of our business.”
Even before Older became a published author, he was “loud,” he says. “It inspires people to see you can be loud and still have a career. They see I’m outspoken and say, ‘I didn’t know you could get away with that and still be someone in publishing.’ ” Today agents and publishers are supporting rather than shushing authors. Author Gwenda Bond says, “I feel like most of my editors are going to the same marches in different places than I am. I do think people used to have more of a barrier. It just feels so important to be engaged. Some of those old rules have kind of gone by the wayside, which is good.” Rowell, too, doesn’t feel constrained by editors or publicists. “I’m sure they’d be there for me if I wanted guidance,” she says. “But I’m an adult, and my social media life is my own.”
Jenny Han can’t recall any guidance, past or present, from her publisher or agent about tackling current events on Twitter. “I try to be measured and thoughtful about what I put out there,” she says, “because I know a lot of young people follow me on Twitter, and I take that seriously—which is why I don’t exclusively tweet about cookies and Game of Thrones and YA. I learn so much on Twitter all the time, and it would be a shame not to share that with my readers.”
Besides, agents and editors are increasingly tweeting their political thoughts, too, essentially giving an unofficial go-ahead. “That’s had a really big effect,” says Mitchell, who was “super careful” when she first started tweeting. “I wanted to make sure I was starting out the right way. It was very timid and book centered.” That was then. Mitchell recently got 35,000 retweets and 61,000 likes for her July 26 tweet about her dismissal from the military in 1993. She gets some negative comments, including one man’s suggestion that she “go lynch yourself.” “I got him banned from Twitter,” she says. Still, she sees the humor in it. “You’re too lazy to come gather up a posse and lynch me yourself,” she says, reflecting on the exchange. “You want me to do all the work. Really.” She notes that the threat would be far worse for an African-American author. “For me, there’s no historical horror for someone saying, ‘Go lynch yourself.’”
For many authors, less is more. “Don’t overdo it,” Hartinger advises. “If you see a car that has 50 bumper stickers on the fender, the impact of every bumper sticker is diluted.” He also takes the high road on physical appearance comments. “I really don’t like it when people criticize the way people look,” says Hartinger. “When [the public] called Donald Trump an orange menace, when they made fun of Kellyanne Conway’s looks, I can’t go there. The problem is not Kellyanne Conway’s looks. I don’t want the fight to descend into mudslinging.”
Hartinger also likes sharing articulate posts by others. “If I find someone who said it better than I could, I’ll retweet them,” he says. “It allows you to amplify other people’s voices.” Older, too, often shares posts by peers, such as TV writer Jess Dweck’s recent “Get out of this country if you can’t speak the language” tweet above a quote from Trump saying Hurricane Irma “looks like it could be something that will not be good.”
Most authors do some soul searching before posting. “I ask myself, ‘Is it kind? Is it true? Is it necessary?’ ” says Scholastic v-p and editor-at-large Andrea Davis Pinkney, author of The Red Pencil and A Poem for Peter. “I do pause for a moment. Once it’s out there, even when you take it down, you can’t take it back. Someone’s seen it.” Though it may sound “corny,” she says, “I’m here to bring a drop of love.”
For Doctorow, it boils down to, “Is it newsworthy? Can I make a difference? Does this delight or interest me? Does it seem like a fragment of something that’s a bigger story that I will be able to bring into focus?” He often directs Twitter followers to his popular Boing Boing blog, where he explores these stories in more depth.
Han asks herself, “How would I feel if this tweet got picked up in an article?” In her opinion, “A tweet in an article can feel more permanent and louder than a tweet on Twitter.” And she gets “pretty much all positive” feedback from her readers, librarians, and booksellers. “No one has ever said to me, ‘Stick to the books,’ ” she says. “I’m passionate and interested in all [forms of discussion], but you have to prioritize day by day, even hour by hour, because a million things are happening in the world all at once.”
Mitchell feels most comfortable tweeting about topics she knows about firsthand—being poor and being queer in the military. (Back in 1993, she trained for 13 weeks before being discharged over her sexuality.) Bond, too, most frequently posts about the Affordable Care Act—a topic she knows well from her longtime job as a health and human services spokeswoman for the state of Kentucky. This past Monday, before the Graham-Cassidy bill failed, she tweeted, “Guys, if you do nothing else today, I beg you to call your reps on healthcare + blue state folks who want to do more.” She says, “It was really becoming a full-time writer that finally freed me up to talk about politics.”
For some authors, it’s all about the reader. “As a general rule, people don’t follow me for political news,” says Hartinger. “They follow me because they’re fans of my books. I want to honor that. My default mode is still to talk about my books, my career, the art of writing, the young adult industry. [Tweeting] should be the result of a thought process. It should not just be a passionate, off-the-cuff response to whatever articles you just read.”
But some authors do think of tweeting as chatting. “I’m more likely to avoid tweeting about books,” says Rowell. “Twitter is like a break room or a cocktail party. It’s a big conversation. You wouldn’t walk into a room where people have just found out about a terrorist attack and shout, ‘Buy my book. It’s great!’”
How will these posts play in Paris, not just Peoria? Many authors consider how their international fans will react to frequent tweets about U.S. politics. “They’re not interested in the minutia of the Senate’s goings-on about healthcare,” says Hartinger. At the same time, he says, he also thinks about his teen readers who are Trump supporters from conservative states and tries not to “completely alienate” them.
Some YA writers frequently prune their Twitter feed as events unfold. “I take down tweets all the time!” says Rowell. “Sometimes because they feel too personal, sometimes because I think I’ve worded them badly, sometimes because I’ve decided that a joke wasn’t funny. And I regularly clear my Twitter feed completely. It feels like too much, having all my stray thoughts and small talk trailing behind me.”
Doctorow, too, makes changes. “Sometimes I get stuff really wrong, and I take it down,” he says. “Usually I try to correct it.” Occasionally problems arise from prescheduled tweets. Doctorow scheduled two about cool cars from the 1950s fishtailing around a little loop track. “They went live just as the news about the vehicular terrorist attack in Charlottesville was breaking,” he says. He deleted the posts.
Pinkney, who avoids negativity, can’t remember ever taking anything down. When she meets people at conferences, book signings, and panels, she says, “They’ll say, ‘I like your tweets, I like your posts. They’re very positive. You keep the high road.’ ” She would like to keep it that way. “As a creator of content for young people, I want to be a role model for when they do get on social media. Don’t post anything that you wouldn’t say to a person.”
Mitchell also can’t recall taking down any political tweets. “I said it. There should be a record of it,” she says. “I will print retractions. I will apologize.” For example, she didn’t know that in 2013, the military allowed people discharged under “don’t ask, don’t tell” to upgrade their discharge to honorable. “I had no idea,” she says. “Every time I say I spend too much time on Twitter, I feel like there’s so much I learn from there. This is a really solitary job, and this is my opportunity to talk to my colleagues. A social place is also a place where you have to be political sometimes.”
Hartinger, whose books deal with LGBTQ issues, is more likely to tweet about those than about the Russia investigation, he says. “I do think [for] a young person who admires an author, having the author validate what they’re feeling, even if what they’re feeling is fear, can be a good thing. It used to be [that LGBTQ young people] were very isolated. Now they’re less isolated. Now they can contact their favorite author on social media.” He aims to speak about issues in such a way to be respectful of LGBTQ readers who are Trump supporters. “More than I would have thought are from small, southern towns and are Christian,” he says. Why alienate them unnecessarily? Hartinger advises writers to “fight the impulse” to be too “outrageous” or “extreme” on Twitter. “I don’t think it accurately describes the world, which is complicated and nuanced,” he says.
Sometimes authors decide to leave the political tweeting to those who feel most comfortable with it. Lowry, for example, “follows” and reads posts by Chris Crutcher, who frequently criticizes the U.S. president: “For those of you looking for Trump’s ‘strategy’: There. Isn’t. One.” “He is an outspoken anti-Trump Democrat, which I am in the privacy of my own dining room,” says Lowry. She also “follows” and “likes” posts by her Maine neighbor Stephen King, who writes for adults but is read by many teens–who tweets lines like “Kim and Don, schoolyard bullies bumping shoulders.”
Many YA authors see themselves as more than just writers. Hopkins’s Twitter bio reads, “I’m a poet, YA and adult fiction author. Outspoken feminist, activist, and supporter of the equal rights guaranteed all Americans under our Constitution.” Going into the 2016 election, she decided to use her platform to be an “outspoken advocate for liberal, progressive causes,” Hopkins says. “My platform isn’t as big as Stephen King’s, but I do have a platform. Because I’m a YA author, my audience is listening and does need to understand what the stakes are for them.” As a former journalist, she worries about an authoritarian government. Her tweets are about 80 percent politics at this point, she says. Her agent and publisher don’t voice concerns. “First Amendment stuff is at stake here. We’re all concerned about being shut up here, not by the publisher but by the government,” she says.
Hopkins hasn’t experienced much “blowback,” even from people on the other side of the political spectrum, but she isn’t sure if that’s because her followers typically think the same way she does. She recently completed People Kill People, a novel, set to release in September 2018,that addresses gun violence. And in Sanctuary Highway, the novel she is currently writing that is due out in 2019, she explores how far friends go to help each other escape being arrested in immigration raids. “What happens if they’re just rounding up anyone who is brown?” she says. “It’s not even apocalyptic.”
Twitter gives many more people, like Mitchell, a way to protest in a safe place—from the comfort of their own homes rather than out in public. “People of color have the opportunity to speak out en masse without fear of being beaten or disappearing into the prison system,” says Mitchell. And people with disabilities “can participate in conversations that used to take place in places they couldn’t get to,” she says.
So how do authors reconcile their professional roles with their personal Twitter feeds? At least among those willing to speak with PW, they seem to feel the two are intertwined. “I think that if a writer doesn’t use her voice, be it in her writing, or online, or in real life, then what is the point of having one?” says Han.
The bottom line: in contemporary life and in fiction, the personal is the political. “I don’t make a special effort to be political in my books—but my characters live in a world where poverty, racism, sexism, and war exist,” Rowell says. “It’s a fallacy to think you can live apart from politics. Even if you stay out of politics, politics don’t stay out of you.”