As part of its programming for Virtual YA Out Loud this past Saturday, October 3, the Brooklyn Book Festival turned to Crowdcast for “DTR (Defining the Relationship)”, a panel moderated by Caleb Roehrig (The Fell of Dark, Feiwel and Friends) and featuring YA authors Becky Albertalli and Aisha Saeed (Yes No Maybe So, HarperCollins/Balzer + Bray), Leah Johnson (You Should See Me in a Crown, Scholastic Press), and Kacen Callender (Felix Ever After, HarperCollins/Balzer + Bray). Due to Covid-19 restrictions, the free literary festival ventured into the virtual space from September 28–October 5.

After author and book introductions, Roehrig asked about the panelists’ favorite fictional relationships.

“Zutara all the way,” Callender answered immediately, using the popular ship name of Zuko and Katara from Avatar: The Last Airbender. “Listen, I understand there’s a lot of discourse around Zuko being a part of the colonizers, but I also feel that there’s so much important conversation around healing and growth and accountability,” they explained. “I feel like he is the only example I can find in this redemption arc where it was so carefully and intentionally done, that it has to be Zutara. That’s how it was supposed to be.”

Johnson agreed that Zuko and Katara should have been the endgame couple of the show. She then selected Pacey and Joey from Dawson’s Creek, especially when Pacey bought Joey a wall for her to practice her art.

“Jim and Pam from The Office,” Albertalli replied, and Saeed agreed: “I pretty much have a Ph.D in Jim and Pam’s relationship at this point.”

“Do you think there is a secret to creating chemistry between two characters?” Roehrig asked next.

Saying that she doesn’t have a secret per se, Saeed called the process of writing Yes No Maybe So with Albertalli “so organic,” attributing the ease to their close friendship. Though Saeed has eschewed romance writing in favor of middle grade and picture books thus far, she said that when she does write romance, she attempts to consume a lot of the medium. “I do a lot of reading as my way of learning how to do that.”

Johnson said a romance writer friend recommended Romancing the Beat: Story Structure for Romance Novels, which advises that the main character and the love interest’s “end goals should be at odds with one another; that creates an inherent tension to the narrative and gives the book some forward momentum.” When writing romance, Johnson asks herself, “What is it that keeps these characters apart, that they have to be able to overcome to be together in the end?”

Callender admitted that they “really love a good trope—enemies to lovers will probably always be one of my top favorites, and a good friends to lovers is pretty great, too.” They also often find that one character needs to learn a lesson, and the love interest must represent the lesson the character needs to learn.

Albertalli revealed that she does not have any sort of formula; she takes a lot of time “sitting with the characters and getting to know them before [she] can make the romance work.”

Roehrig then asked about authorial responsibility regarding the portrayal of healthy vs. unhealthy relationships in books for young readers.

“I do feel a responsibility to an extent,” Callender responded, recognizing the significant responsibility “to speak directly to teenagers, and to know you can have a massive effect on their thoughts and their own journeys.” They continued, “I do want to be able to model unhealthy relationships but with purpose and intention, to explain why this is unhealthy and maybe red flags to look out for.” They also want to do so without condescension, as adults tend to make some of the same mistakes and get caught up in the same cycles, and Callender wants to represent relationships as they have experienced them.

“Part of what I feel about writing queer narratives—especially queer love stories—is it shows more than story for story’s sake. It shows story as blueprint for what is possible, especially for how young people can experience love,” Johnson said. “I want to give a window into a possible world, and the responsibility there is to be as honest as possible, and what is honest is that sometimes we wake up and things suck.” Discussing what it is like to hold multiple identities—trauma, race, queerness—and writing these into characters falling in love, Johnson concluded, “What does it mean to be all those things at once? Well, sometimes it’s hard.”

“So much of [non-toxic relationships with bad days versus toxic relationships] is unpacking those moments as they happen,” Albertalli said, asserting that she wouldn’t want to “overly sanitize” depictions of relationships. “I don’t think being a person who struggles with being in a relationship—whether that’s anxiety-driven or whatever else—makes you a person unworthy of being in one.”

Saeed spoke about the “extra burden” of writing marginalized characters with flaws or who are part of toxic relationships when you come from a marginalized community, particularly when you’re afraid that the audience might “generalize all about people who look like you.”

Johnson pronounced her strong agreement, saying that she made her protagonist Liz “without flaw” because she knew “how hard it was for people to identify with Black girls, but specifically queer Black girls.” She said her next novel features two girls who are “real messy” because it’s important to allow space for chaos as well.

Keeping the spotlight on Johnson’s debut novel, Roehrig emphasized Liz’s pivotal relationship with her brother, and asked the author what that sibling bond brought to her story.

“I think that showing platonic intimacy or familial intimacy is just as important to a love story as the actual romance,” Johnson shared. “Because the things that taught me how to love a partner, I learned from the people around me who could not offer me those things. Those relationships are what taught me how to be a better member of a romantic relationship.” She added, “I just thought it was super important to show the way family so often can drive the person you not only become, but also the things you value the most in your life.” Johnson herself has a strong relationship with her younger sister; their age gap is the same as the one between Liz and her brother.

Roehrig then turned to Callender, asking what they want readers to take away from the depiction of the complex relationship between Felix and his parents.

“I feel like there is a middle ground [between outright homophobia and wholehearted acceptance] that I haven’t seen as much,” Callender said about writing Felix’s father, who loves Felix and tries to understand but still makes a lot of mistakes. Mentioning their personal experiences with loved ones stumbling over, for example, their new pronouns when they first revealed them, Callender concluded, “You can have patience for people who make mistakes but are trying, though that doesn’t have to be everyone’s decision.”

As for Albertalli and Saeed, Roehrig asked how they approached writing teens who are invested in their community but still suffer prejudices, and what message they hoped to impart as authors.

Saeed began by stating that the book takes place in Atlanta, where she and Albertalli both live, “and that is my experience here.” Albertalli agreed, and Saeed went on: “We love Atlanta, but there are some times where I don’t feel very welcome here.” She continued that she wanted teens to realize that “yes, there can be things that are really hard, but it’s still worth it to fight for what we want.”

Albertalli said that every time Georgia or a neighboring state does “something ridiculous,” it’s “really interesting to see” her professional community’s willingness to write off whole swaths of the country when they don’t live there in the American South. Albertalli hopes readers will recognize that there are grassroots efforts happening even in places that they may dismiss, and there are good people in every part of the country.