We asked editors and agents to take the pulse of some of the latest trends in teen fiction and nonfiction.
A funny thing happened after the 2016 publication of Diane Guerrero’s memoir, In the Country We Love (Holt), written for adults. The actress, who stars on both Orange Is the New Black and Jane the Virgin, started getting a lot of fan mail—from kids.
“Letters, tweets, Instagram and Facebook messages—so many middle and high school students started reading it,” Guerrero says. “Teachers were using it for book reports and as part of an entire segment on immigration.” Guerrero began her story in 1999, when she arrived home from school one day to an empty house. Her Colombian-born parents had been taken in by U.S. immigration officials. After exhausting the appeal process, they were deported along with Guerrero’s older brother. Diane, the only member of her immediate family born in the U.S., was allowed to stay. She was 14 years old.
Because demand for the book has been so strong among teen readers—and because immigration issues have become a mainstay in the news—Holt Books for Young Readers will release a YA edition of Guerrero’s memoir, retitled My Family Divided: One Girl’s Story of Home, Loss, and Hope, in July.
“What a majority of the American public thinks of when they hear ‘illegal immigrants’ is that image of people who look very foreign running across the border,” Guerrero says. “That’s not correct. It’s literally your next-door neighbor. Your classmate. The grocer. It’s my family.”
Guerrero finished high school in Boston living with friends, but she became extremely depressed as the result of her separation from her family. Her story reflects an extreme example of the immigrant experience in the United States, but another equally harrowing tale, this one told in novel form, is last year’s American Street by Ibi Zoboi (HarperCollins/Balzer + Bray), a National Book Award finalist. The main character, Fabiola Toussaint, and her mother are trying to move from Haiti to Michigan when her mother is detained and Fabiola is sent on by herself. The story was based on the author’s own experiences as a young Haitian immigrant to the U.S.
Even if their parents are around, undocumented kids and teens live with the constant fear that might change. Julissa Arce talks about growing up as an illegal immigrant in Texas and how masking one’s citizenship status required constant vigilance in Someone Like Me: How One Undocumented Girl Fought for Her American Dream (Little, Brown, Sept.). Sara Saedi, a daughter of undocumented Iranian immigrants, has a similar story to tell in her memoir, Americanized: Rebel Without a Green Card (Knopf), but she presents the tale with a particular teenage sensibility, illustrating how getting a date to the prom can feel just as important as getting a green card from an adolescent’s point of view.
“Owing in large part to long-overdue attention being paid to more diverse voices, YA lit is in a better place to respond to what’s actually happening in the world,” says Tina Dubois, a literary agent with ICM, who sold Arvin Ahmadi’s debut novel, Down and Across, to Viking in a preempt. “And considering the anti-immigration stance of the current political administration, we need more books about this experience.”
Ahmadi’s hero, Saaket “Scott” Ferdowsi, is the son of Iranian immigrants with a problem that will resonate with many first-generation children: he has a foot in two worlds and an uneasy grasp on either. With college applications looming, he heads out on an impromptu road trip to seek advice from a famous professor who specializes in “grit,” which Saaket is sure he lacks. Similarly, the main character in Adib Khorram’s Darius the Great Is Not Okay (Dial, Aug.) feels like a misfit in high school but finds he is just as out of place in his parents’ birthplace, Iran, where he travels for the first time when the family learns his grandfather is seriously ill. In America, Darius’s classmates treat him as “other” because of his heritage, but in Iran, his relatives consider him American.
Sexuality is a recurrent thread in first-generation stories, as it clashes with the often more conservative thinking of immigrant parents. One of the narrators in Gayle Forman’s I Have Lost My Way (Viking) is Harun, a first-generation son of Pakistani immigrants, whose struggle to reconcile his family’s intolerance toward homosexuality with his own identity has put him at an emotional crossroads. The biggest obstacle faced by the main character in Angelo Surmelis’s The Dangerous Art of Blending In (HarperCollins/Balzer + Bray) is not ICE but his mother, who will not accept that her son is gay.
American-born Maya Aziz, the 17-year-old at the heart of Samira Ahmed’s Love, Hate, and Other Filters (Soho Teen), also has nothing to fear from ICE but must deal with Islamophobia at school and a culture divide at home with her parents, Indian immigrants who expect her to follow a certain path.
“I do think the election has been a wake-up call to many in the industry, particularly in children’s books,” says Michael Bourret, partner and agent with Dystel, Goderich & Bourret, who sold Emily X.R. Pan’s The Astonishing Color of After, about a girl’s search for answers after her Taiwanese mother’s suicide, to Little, Brown. He first encountered the work in the submission pile while serving on a We Need Diverse Books committee judging grant awards. “I’m always looking for authors of diverse backgrounds telling stories that reflect the world we live in, and who use their personal experiences to inform their writing,” he says. “And this book, which draws both on Emily’s contemporary experiences as well as experiences throughout her family’s history, certainly fit that bill.”
The American Dream
Of course, there are also immigrant success stories, even if the success was achieved after considerable struggle. Ibtihaj Muhammad tells her story of Olympic glory in Proud: Living My American Dream (Little, Brown, July; simultaneous publication with adult memoir). Those who followed the 2016 Summer Olympics will remember Muhammad as the first American to compete wearing hijab and the first Muslim-American woman to win an Olympic medal.
Perhaps inspired by Muhammad’s story, Sadia by Colleen Nelson (Dundurn) is a novel about a Muslim teenager who must decide how far she is willing to go to defend her beliefs when playing for her school basketball team requires she remove her hijab. Unsinkable by Jessica Long (HMH, June) is another inspirational sports story with several twists: born in Siberia with fibular hemimelia, Long was adopted by an American family when she was 13 months old and grew up to become the second most decorated U.S. Paralympic athlete of all time.
Guerrero’s story, too, winds up with a happy ending of incredible achievement, her success as an actress being just one facet of that prosperity.
“I wrote the book because I felt so alone when I was without my family, and to hear high school– and college-age kids now say the book helped them in the same situation or that now they want to be involved in social justice or to become immigration lawyers—wow,” she says. “I never dreamed of that.”
Find additional YA titles on the theme of immigration here.
For more of the latest developments in the YA category, see our 2018 Spotlight on YA.