Five Debut YA Authors Make Readers Feel Something

Five debut authors tell SLJ about creating funny, joyful, and serious stories, and their hope that young people take pride in who they are.

From lighthearted rom-coms to serious coming-of-age stories, these layered #OwnVoices narratives will help readers feel seen. YA novelists Asha Bromfield, Tashie Bhuiyan, Daniel Aleman, Emery Lee, and Olivia Abtahi discuss breaking down barriers, telling authentic stories, and making readers feel something—especially pride in who they are. As Abtahi says, "Being loud and funny and weird is OK. Being yourself is OK. You’re perfect the way you are."


Asha Bromfield, Hurricane Summer (May 4) 
You are a successful and well-known actress. Why did you want to write a YA novel, and how did the writing process go for you?

I’ve always had a deep passion for storytelling, ever since I was a child, and I really pride myself on being a multifaceted artist. It’s important for me to break down those barriers and limitations we put upon ourselves. I believe a big part of my purpose is to show others they can do more than just one thing and that you don’t have to stay within the box that society creates for you. You are capable of anything you put your mind to, and you are worthy of stepping into any space.

Writing was always a deep love of mine, and I always considered my other artistic pursuits—whether it was acting or singing—as just another extension of that. So I would say that my desire to write came naturally. I started writing my first book at 12 years old, and to me, the idea was always interconnected to my art. I never bought into this idea that I could do only one thing, and I think that’s a big part of why I wanted to write this book. As an actress, I was constantly seeing these limited narratives for Black women in my audition process. I never felt I related to the one-dimensional archetypes and stories that I was auditioning for.

I wanted to expand the way that society tells stories about young Black women, and it was important to me to add a level of humanity that I felt was missing. I had never seen Tilla’s story on screen, and so I decided to write it. I became the change I wanted to see.

What was the most challenging part of writing this book?
The ending. When dealing with family trauma, you don’t always get a happy ending. Most people never experience their parents explaining to them why they did what they did, much less get an apology, and the truth is, a lot of our stories aren’t wrapped up with a perfect bow.

It took a while for me to find the most authentic way for Tyson to reveal his motivations to Tilla, because I didn’t know if it was a conversation they would actually have in real life. But it was important to me to redeem his character in the story, not only as a father but as a Black Caribbean man. It was important and necessary that Tilla understood him, so that she could forgive him. Because her forgiveness of him would free her. In my mind, I always knew why Tyson did the things he did, but it took some time to figure out how to authentically convey his pain and life decisions to Tilla.

Your book is set in Jamaica and that is also where your parents are from. What kind of research did you do to help you tell this story?
I spent every summer in Jamaica until I was 13. I was fortunate enough to spend two months there every year, to the point where I was almost enrolled in school! There was a point where my sister and I were getting school uniforms made, and our parents were entertaining the idea of us staying longer. Beyond actual summers on the island, I feel fortunate that my family identifies deeply with our Jamaican heritage. Even though we live in Canada, we celebrate our culture any chance we get, and it’s a huge part of who we are and how we move through the world. I’ve never felt like a Jamaican story wasn’t mine to tell because I consider myself a proud Jamaican girl. This is my culture and my people, and I wanted to share my unique perspective as a first-generation Jamaican. So, a lot of my research stems from my lived experiences.

What do you hope readers will take away from this book?
I want young women and girls to free themselves from the judgments and opinions of other people. Too often, young women are stunted by the toxic ideas people have about our sexualities. From a young age, we’re conditioned to believe our bodies aren’t our own, and we begin to identify with sexual shame. I want young women to reclaim themselves—every facet of who they are—and know that they deserve to celebrate their pleasure. They deserve to feel good in their bodies, and it’s OK to make mistakes along the way toward figuring it all out. They are still worthy. I hope this book allows society to take an honest reflection at the ways in which we value and condemn our young women and girls.

So much of this book is about Tilla discovering her own agency and freeing herself from the opinions and criticisms from other people—even the people she loves the most. I also hope that people take away the power of forgiveness. I believe it’s one of the most powerful gifts we can give ourselves.


Tashie Bhuiyan, Counting Down with You (May 4)
Your book addresses assimilation and identity. Why did you want to write this story now?

I'd never seen a story that truly reflected my experiences before. Growing up, there were no books with Bangladeshi American main characters, much less fun love stories like Counting Down with You. I wanted to write this story for the younger version of myself, as well as all the young brown girls who still need and want books like this. There's something so undeniably tender about feeling seen for the first time.

What was the most challenging thing to write in this book?
The main character, Karina Ahmed, has on-page anxiety in the book, and it was very difficult to write. I had to continuously put myself in her headspace, and oftentimes, it gave me anxiety to write her anxiety. But it was important to me to make sure her anxiety came across in an authentic and honest way, because even though so many teenagers have anxiety, we don't see it nearly as often in media as we should, especially featuring BIPOC. So this was my chance to help improve the lack of representation. Despite it being challenging, it was worth it to me!

Karina is Bangladeshi American and faces a lot of pressure from her family to follow a certain path. What advice do you have for teens who are balancing family expectations and their own dreams?
Find allies and believe in yourself. Karina relies a lot on her grandmother, who is always in her corner, especially when things get rough. However, I know not everyone has that option, which is where it becomes important to believe in yourself and to remember that nothing is permanent. While a situation may not be ideal right now, if you stay strong, there is more hope for the future. Maybe it'll take weeks, maybe it'll take months, maybe it'll take years. But it does get better, and one day, this will all be behind you. Believe in that.

What do you hope readers will take away from this book?
If nothing else, I hope readers come out of this book with hope. Hope for themselves and hope for a happier future!


Daniel Aleman, Indivisible (May 4)  
Your book addresses the complexities of immigration and deportation. Why is it important for young people to read about these topics?

Especially in the last few years, we have seen how policy and rhetoric surrounding immigration affects people of all ages. I think it’s truly important for children and teenagers who have had close experiences with immigration hardships to access stories that help them feel seen. My hope is that young readers will be able to find pieces of themselves in this story, and that they will feel a little less alone after reading it. I also believe young people have enormous power to change the world. I hope this book will play at least a small role in helping readers shape their worldview, as well as determine the type of change they wish to create.

What kind of research did you do to help you tell this story?
There is a lot in this book that comes from my family’s own perspective. As immigrants from Mexico, we have faced challenges over the past decade, including legal hurdles and the anti-immigration sentiment that has gained strength during the last few years. Many of the emotions that the characters experience come from a very personal place.

I also read exhaustively about the topics of immigration and family separation. I resorted to books, legal texts, news articles, and research carried out by not-for-profit organizations, which helped me develop a deep understanding of the legal and political dimensions of these issues. I was able to connect with people who have experienced immigration and family separation in their own unique ways and who generously shared a piece of their own perspective with me. I also contacted immigration lawyers, who informed some of the scenes in the book.

My hope from the start was to write a story that felt human, sincere, and deeply personal, so my focus was to deconstruct all this research so I could dig deep into the real-life consequences that families experience as a result of deportation and family separation.

[Read: Mining the Personal: Three YA Authors Write Truth in Their Debut Novels]

There are many powerful moments in Indivisible. What was the most challenging thing to write in this book?
I find that deeply emotional scenes are always the most challenging to write, but they are also my absolute favorite to explore. In order to make a reader feel something, it’s important for me to channel those emotions as the author. Writing can be somewhat similar to method acting: I like to inhabit the minds of my characters and feel their emotions alongside them so that, hopefully, the audience will feel those same things through the page. With Indivisible, this was a cathartic process, mostly because I chose to write Mateo as a reflection of myself. He and I are similar in many ways, so seeing the world through his eyes allowed me to learn many things about myself, and to insert pieces of my own life into his story and his perspective.

What do you hope readers will take away from this story?
My biggest hope is that this book will help shift the way we think about immigration, in favor of a more human and empathetic lens. Many people are used to talking about immigration from a strictly legal and political standpoint, and I would love for this story to serve as a reminder that this is, at its core, a human issue. Beyond that, my hope is that readers will find themselves transformed in one way or another after reading this story. My favorite books are those that move me, inspire me, and leave me feeling a little less alone, so I would love for readers to experience those emotions through Indivisible.


Emery Lee, Meet Cute Diary (May 4)
Your book addresses some serious topics, but it has many funny moments and a lot of romantic humor. Why did you decide to tell the story this way?

There is a lot of expectation for marginalized authors to exploit our trauma to tell a good story, and I think that’s absolutely ridiculous. I touch base on some serious topics (and I do want to stress the touch base on here because I really don’t delve into them as staples of the story) because these things exist, and they coexist with the good. To pretend no bad or serious things ever happen ever leaves the good feeling a little bit hollow because the way we understand good and happy is directly related to the way we understand bad or sad.

But the vast majority of the story focuses on simple struggles, funny moments, and love, because it’s a rom-com, and that’s what rom-coms do. They provide happy, humorous escape and hope for a corny love story, and I wrote this book because I think that trans people, and trans people of color in particular, deserve to exist in rom-coms, too, not just in stories that rehash our trauma. I want to be able to talk to trans readers who say, “I want to see more trans books” and give them a book that isn’t going to make them relive their darkest moments or feed that voice in the back of their head saying that most cis people hate them and doubt their gender.

So in a lot of ways for me, this was just the natural way to tell a trans rom-com, to acknowledge that life isn’t totally perfect, but that doesn’t mean that bigotry and self-doubt have to be at the center of every trans story, and we can have these moments of true self-acceptance, love, and joy.

What are some of your favorite rom-com movies and/or YA romances?
In movies, I always return to Clueless, "To All the Boys," and Always Be My Maybe as comfort rom-coms. In books, I Wanna Be Where You Are by Kristina Forest, Don’t Date Rosa Santos by Nina Moreno, and What if It’s Us by Becky Albertalli and Adam Silvera are some of my favorite more realistic romances and of course, if you like paranormal romances, Cemetery Boys by Aiden Thomas is a huge favorite of mine!

What was the most challenging thing to write in this book?
I think one of the hardest parts was just getting the pacing right. The story takes place over the course of a summer, so trying to make sure the characters were navigating all the necessary relationship beats, in a short amount of time but also on a very set time line, was really difficult. I don’t want to give any spoilers, but especially around the midpoint as things start to shift directions a bit, it was really hard to make sure everything lined up in a timely way!

What do you hope readers will take away from this story?
To be honest, when I first wrote this book, my only thought was about what readers would experience while reading, but I’ve gotten messages from readers saying what the book meant to them, so that’s kind of changed my perspective a bit. I guess now I’m hoping that readers take away that transness is something you can live joyously, that there’s pride and happiness in exploring and discovering your identity, that you can change your mind as many times as you need to. And I think I really want readers to take away that trans joy is not only a thing that exists, but it’s a thing that should be celebrated and shared more, and it’s definitely something that people love to read about, so we should have more stories exploring the topic!


Olivia Abtahi, Perfectly Parvin (May 18) 
Your book addresses issues of assimilation and identity. Why did you want to write this story now?

It’s a strange time to be Iranian American, especially after these last four years. Parvin goes through her life not completely understanding why people treat her the way they do, and as an unreliable narrator, she isn’t truly processing the racism and microaggressions thrown at her.

The idea for the book first came to me when the Muslim ban went into effect in 2017. I’d been protesting the ban at Denver International Airport when we learned that an Iranian family was being unlawfully detained there. A call went out for Persian interpreters to help the family and assist CBP and USCIS in translation, but I knew my Persian wasn’t good enough. I felt pretty gutted that I couldn’t help my own community, especially when there weren’t a lot of Iranian Americans there in the first place. Driving home, I began interrogating the insecurities I felt over my own culture. I wanted to explore that tension through Parvin and her experiences.

What was the most challenging thing to write in this book?
There’s a scene where Parvin dissects her feelings about an Iranian American character named Amir. She wonders why she doesn’t like him as much as she should; he’s cute and smart and they get along really well.“Why doesn’t she like him back?” my editor kept asking me. “They have great chemistry!” As I was revising, I really struggled with how to verbalize the reason. It took me a while to figure out that Parvin doesn’t like him because he represents all the issues Parvin has with her own body. Like Parvin, Amir has a big nose, unruly hair, and body hair, and because none of those features are perceived as attractive in this country, it’s tough for Parvin to allow herself to like him and, in turn, find herself beautiful. That scene pretty much broke me. My characters knew more than I did, and they helped me face my own issues while writing them. Finishing that scene felt like a huge release.

Even though your book has serious topics, there is also a lot of humor. Why did you decide to tell the story this way?
I think people use humor to deflect trauma often, and pretty much every uncomfortable thought Parvin has in this book is followed with an internal “lol.” Parvin processes a lot of tough issues through a funny lens because without the humor, she probably couldn’t handle it at all. Instead of facing these issues head-on, she uses humor to get through them. That said, I really struggled with finding my writing voice. I thought I had to write flowery, beautiful prose that would make readers weep with awe. It wasn’t until I let go of that unrealistic burden that I finally found my style. Writing humorous characters in plain speak made it easier for me to tell Parvin’s story, since I wanted this book to be both a joy to write and read.

What do you hope readers will take away from this book?
Throughout the book, Parvin goes on a journey of self-acceptance, and that’s something I hope readers experience, too. Being loud and funny and weird is OK. Being yourself is OK. You’re perfect the way you are.

Melanie Kletter is a teacher and freelance writer in New York City.

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