Last Friday, May 29, senior BookExpo content coordinator Andrew Esposito hosted this year’s Young Adult Editors’ Buzz, uniting five editors and their respective debut authors in conversation. Due to the ongoing Covid-19 regulations, BookExpo 2020 relocated to the digital sphere from its customary home in New York City’s Javits Center. Hosted via Zoom, events were simulcast on Facebook Live; the YA Buzz panel directly succeeded the Adult Buzz and drew an audience of more than 300 virtual visitors.
Kicking off the YA-centered conversation was Calista Brill, editorial director of Macmillan’s First Second comics imprint. Brill welcomed author-illustrator Kiku Hughes to discuss her debut graphic novel, Displacement (August), in which a Japanese-American girl named Kiku travels back in time to share her ancestors’ experiences in the internment camps.
Brill said that the “memoir-inflected” speculative novel reached her in an unconventional way: Hughes cold-emailed the editorial director, an occurrence Brill recognizes happens more often in the graphic novels sphere than it does in the rest of children’s publishing. Brill, a longtime admirer of Hughes’s fan art, quickly responded with enthusiasm for the proposed project.
Calling the graphic novel “a little different than what [she] originally intended,” Seattle-based cartoonist Hughes explained that she had been wanting to discuss her family history vis-à-vis the incarceration camps for a long time, but “didn’t necessarily know what form that would take.”
Throwing herself into research, Hughes felt her family knowledge of the camps was reified after almost a year of study, which better prepared her to delve into the narrative’s creation. She mentioned a fact that spurred her forward: “Initially, cameras were not allowed in camps because they didn’t want anyone documenting what was happening. This means there’s a dearth of images of what the camps were actually like.”
Because of this dearth, Hughes drew inspiration from Nisei artist Miné Okubo and her illustrated memoir, Citizen 13660. Okubo created this visual diary during the time she was interned at the Tanforan Assembly Center in San Bruno, Calif., and the Topaz War Relocation Center in Utah, which incidentally were the same camps Hughes’s grandmother was detained in.
Brill speculated on the unique format of the comics medium and how it offers both a flexible and concrete visual experience. She then praised the book’s treatment of “a moment in time that has been deliberately visually excised,” asking how Hughes melded the time travel elements with the “intensely researched” historical content.
Hughes spoke on Octavia Butler’s overwhelming influence in her life, as Butler expanded “the boundaries of what sci-fi is as a concept.” She said she was particularly influenced by Butler’s novel Kindred, which utilizes “time travel elements to explore her family history with slavery.” In her own work, Hughes said the time travel elements were useful in conveying the fictionalized nature of her narrative, as the book leans on generational memory more than factual details.
Brill pointed out that even graphic novels designated nonfiction necessarily must have imagined and author-interpreted portions, such as the dialogue. On a related note, she asked Hughes what it was like to include and represent a cartoon teenage Kiku in the novel.
It was initially a “huge stumbling block,” Hughes admitted, but one aspect she was particularly interested in when portraying herself was the one-drop rule implemented by the U.S. government in sending citizens to the camps. “I thought it was interesting—and I really wanted to highlight—the contrast in how I’m perceived racially by Americans in general as white-passing, and still being in this situation because of the rules the government set up.” Hughes thus tried to accurately represent to how she’s perceived racially while “showing how the qualifiers of race can be defined in America.”
In closing, Hughes said that her next work is also sci-fi adjacent; another book that is “not hard sci-fi—but that instead focuses on the relationships.”
Senior editor Nick Thomas from Levine Querido next took the digital stage, introducing writer and scientist Dr. Darcie Little Badger (Lipan Apache) to talk about her YA novel, Elatsoe (Sept.), illustrated by Rovina Cai. Elatsoe features Lipan Apache teenager Ellie, who can raise the spirits of animals, as she investigates the murder of her cousin in a Texan town called Willowbee alongside her ghost dog Kirby, among other companions. DLB described the world as “mostly contemporary YA fantasy mystery,” but it also includes ghosts, monsters, vampires, and more.
When asked why it was important to set her book in modern times, DLB elucidated, “There is not a lot of Apache rep in general, but when I did find Apache characters, they tended to be in westerns or genre fiction that was set in the 1800s and the past. I wanted to write a book that represented the experiences of Native youth in the 21st century.”
Thomas then asked about the debut novelist’s earliest experiences with storytelling. DLB revealed that oral storytelling played a large role in her upbringing, as her mother told her stories that aren’t necessarily found in storybooks. As a tribute, she included the Native trickster character Coyote, but embellished the idea: while Coyote makes an appearance, “his daughter makes an even bigger appearance!”
Noting how the book destabilizes a lot of expectations, Thomas questioned whether these subversions were conscious or emerged naturally. DLB replied that these subversions were “not necessarily something conscious,” but admitted that she gets bored when she sees certain elements done too often. Regarding the lack of romance in the novel, she shared that the main character is asexual and aromantic; since she herself is asexual, she “thought it’d be cool to include a character who’s like me.”
Thomas then indicated the significant difference in the book between ancestral knowledge and magic, asking if DLB could speak on the divide. “I wanted to make a very clear distinction between magic and Indigenous knowledge,” DLB explained, elaborating on how there’s a common misconception where non-Natives see Native people and their ceremonies as magical instead of human. “Our creation stories are often put in bookstores’ fiction and fantasy sections, whereas other religious beliefs are not. Not everything we do and not everything we know is derived from a belief in magic.”
Asked how her science background and comics writing inform her prose, DLB contended that it shows up in various ways. The writer, who holds degrees in geoscience and oceanography, emphasized how her time studying invasive plant species, which are dangerous to endemic species, translated to her invention of similarly invasive monsters.
As for what’s next, DLB has another young adult novel on the horizon, sharing that this one is also “a lot of fun,” as it takes place in contemporary times but weaves in spirits and monsters. “I’m basing a lot of it on our traditional structure of storytelling. And the main character is a cottonmouth snake.”
The author closed by musing over what a book like Elatsoe would have meant to her at age 12. “I think that growing up, it was a bit discouraging—I was an avid reader like many writers are—but I never saw any Lipan people like me, so I think that would be important. I hope I would’ve enjoyed it.”
Next, Tor Teen and Starscape senior editor Susan Chang welcomed Sarah Goodman, author of the debut YA novel Eventide (Oct.). While Chang was not the original acquiring editor (editor Melissa Frain recently left the company due to Covid-19 related layoffs), she was happy to take Goodman’s novel on, which Goodman had pitched to her agent as “Southern Gothic Anne of Green Gables with a little bit of magic.”
Invited to discuss her original inspiration, Goodman revealed it was an old bumper sticker that said “I rode an orphan train,” which prompted her to research and eventually incorporate that into her characters’ journey. Goodman said she likely subconsciously drew on her relationship with her sister Eva, who is 17 years older, to portray the close but semi-parental bond between the two sisters in the book.
Chang then asked about Goodman’s small-town upbringing, referenced in her biography. Goodman admitted that the cute farm boy in her book was inspired more by The Princess Bride than boys in her town of 280 people, but added, “I really loved growing up in a small town—there’s kind of a sense of family that grows up, and you pretty much get to know everyone over the course of your life.” Though Goodman’s book is set in Arkansas in 1907, “the element of community is still there.”
On the topic of magic in her novel, Goodman said she “wanted to portray a really Southern type of magic,” disclosing her Appalachian and Ozark folkloric inspiration. “My daughter was adopted from Ukraine,” she continued, “and while we were waiting to bring her home, I read a lot of Slavic folklore.”
Next up for Goodman is another historical YA fantasy, a 1920s Prohibition “murder mystery-ghost story set in a tuberculosis sanitarium.”
“The first book that I can remember that stunned me was A Wrinkle in Time,” said Goodman in closing, on her formative inspirations. It dawned on her that the book’s speculative elements do not detract from its deeper meanings. Goodman explained that she likes books where you know something impossible is going to happen—“that’s what I like as a reader, and that’s what I like to write.”
Trung Le Nguyen and their graphic novel The Magic Fish (Oct.) were up next, joined by Whitney Leopard, senior editor at Random House Graphic. Nguyen’s debut graphic novel features a Vietnamese immigrant family trying to support one another while running into language barriers; to overcome these, they turn to fairy tales.
“The impetus for this story is stepping back from the idea that anyone living at the margins needs to edify our audience,” Nguyen explained. Instead, they set out to “tell a story that centers the perspectives and priorities of the people who are really close to the issues we politicize.”
“I wanted to carve out a space, to give myself permission to not tell a story that was necessarily capital-I Important,” Nguyen continued, “but just a story that was about encouraging people to empathize with the minute problems they might not necessarily identify with.”
Asked to share about the fairy tale framework of the novel, Nguyen said they didn’t go in with overly specific intentions or goals, as they have “sort of accepted the reader will have a different relationship with the story than I do.” However, the decision to employ fairy tales holds personal significance: fairy tales exist in different cultures wearing “different clothes as they travel across different places all over the world,” Nguyen said. “A fairy tale as a jumping off point for someone to connect with someone else has always been something I feel strongly about.”
Despite the fantastical framing device, Nguyen called the research “really intense,” as the book includes the past and present, and it required extensive interviews with their parents. Careful not to invoke diasporic trauma in their parents by forcing the recall of specific details, Nguyen clarified with them that the book would be fiction and asked for photos, which required subsequent archive searches and librarian support.
On their decision to make the project a graphic novel, Nguyen admitted, “I actually feel most comfortable when I’m writing prose, but I also happen to have these skills with drawing, and I’m really passionate about visual media as an accessible form of literature.”
As a cartoonist, Nguyen said they’re often asked about the relationship between the words and the pictures. This graphic novel allowed a lot of control over how the story was told.
“I tend to consider that a graphic novel or a comic book or a cartoon is a text in and of itself,” Nguyen stated. “And [each of those textual mediums is] accessible because it is iconography, but the pictures are a part of the orthography, the grammar, the rules, and the storytelling touchstones of the reader’s experience.”
Nguyen brought personal experiences to the graphic novel, such as reading with their parents at the library and elements of their coming out story, as well as architectural influences from their recent travels to Italy with their partner and grandmother. They hope that readers will gain something from the book that they didn’t necessarily put in.
As for their favorite local bookstore, Nguyen replied, “Moon Palace Books in Minneapolis—right now they’re situated in the epicenter of the protests and the riots, and they have done a really brilliant job of supporting the community.”
Wrapping up the YA Buzz presentations was journalist and debut novelist Hayley Krischer in conversation with Razorbill senior editor Julie Rosenberg. The duo discussed Krischer’s forthcoming novel, Something Happened to Ali Greenleaf (Oct.). The contemporary YA follows the eponymous high school junior, who has just been sexually assaulted by her crush, and one of the assaulter’s best friends, high school senior Blythe, who tries to stop Ali from turning the assaulter in. The novel ultimately relays the complex relationship that develops between the two girls.
Krischer started writing the story back in college, not quite relating to a lot of it, until she realized she was taking in so many events that had happened to her, her friends, and on the news that she was “digesting rape culture without even knowing its name.” Revising up to 2016 and the Brett Kavanaugh hearings, Krischer recognized the possibility for the book’s sexual assaulter to grow up to be exactly like Kavanaugh.
Krischer then wondered why Rosenberg preempted her novel, considering the editor’s usual aversion to dark books. Agreeing that she tends to work on lighter narratives, Rosenberg praised the hope and nuance in Krischer’s work.
Originally, Blythe didn’t have a perspective, until Krischer read R.J. Palacio’s “Julian Chapter” from her Wonder series literary universe, which portrays the perspective of the protagonist’s bully for a middle grade audience. Krischer also revealed that the 1989 Glen Ridge rape case and Chanel Miller were influential in her portrayals of Blythe and Ali.
“My best friends in high school saved me from myself,” Krischer said, explaining that she wanted to write a novel that has female friendship at its core because she always sees through that lens. Her experiences also included toxic female friendships and friend breakups that were more painful than romantic breakups, which compelled her to write a novel that contends with the roles and expectations society places on girls.