YA Open Mic is a monthly series in which YA authors share personal stories on topics of their choice. The aim of the series is to peel away the formality of bios and offer authors a platform to talk about something readers won’t necessarily find on their websites.
This month, six authors discuss everything from family complications to epic love stories. All have YA books that either release this month or released in recent months. Check out previous YA Open Mic posts here.
Kheryn Callender, author of This Is Kind of an Epic Love Story
I’ve never been in love.
I’ve had crushes on people from afar and daydreamed that they felt the same, but as far as I know, no one ever has. I’ve never been in a relationship. I’ve never celebrated Valentine’s Day with someone special. I wrote a teen rom-com about an epic love story, but I’ve never had an epic love story of my own.
I feel like a fraud. How can I write about happily ever after’s if I’ve never had one myself?
Growing up, though I lived on a predominantly black island, I went to a private school that was filled with white students. I won’t go into the racist bullying I endured on a daily basis. I didn’t know I was queer or trans yet, but I often berated others for saying homophobic things. This didn’t help the bullying.
The books and movies I found solace in from my isolation did their own damage: the only people who fell in love and had happy endings were white, straight, cisgendered. The books with queer people and/or people of color were filled with pain, heartache, and death. It was easy to start thinking that love and happy endings aren’t meant for someone like me.
I started writing This Is Kind of an Epic Love Story as a mission to create more visibility and diversity in YA. By the time I finished writing, the book became a love letter to queer people of color, and myself: a reminder that we are beautiful and magical and worthy of happiness and love. I’ve never had an epic love story—never been in love, or been in a relationship—but after writing This Is Kind of an Epic Love Story, for the first time, I believe that I can. I know that I will.
Tochi Onyebuchi, author of Crown of Thunder
My favorite movie is a 1984 British historical drama about two athletes preparing to compete in the 1924 Olympics. Chariots of Fire might seem out of place when paired with other entries in my personal canon: The Lion King, Sister Act 2, The Master. But in that movie about an English Jew running to overcome prejudice and a Scottish missionary running to glorify God, I’ve found perhaps the perfect expression of how I feel when I write.
Talk to any writer and, more often than not, you will hear about how difficult writing is. The slowness of the words on a particular day, the way the story in one’s head resists molding so that it passes through imperfect fingers to appear on one’s screen as a homunculus of one’s hopes. The agony that attends peeling back the wound of personal trauma to create something that might resonate with the tuning fork in someone else.
But there’s another part. There’s the ecstasy of it.
At one point in the film, Eric Liddell, the missionary character, finds himself in the throes of training for the qualifying rounds. And his sister worries, anxious that he has spent too much time preparing for sport and not enough preparing to take over the family mission in China. He tells her, by way of reassurance, that “God made me for a purpose. But He also made me fast. And when I run, I feel His presence.”
When I’m in the throes of the story, I fall into a blessed ego-death. I vanish to myself and can spend an entire afternoon, night, day, in the overwhelming joy of the craft’s embrace. I know God made me for a purpose. But He also gave me a love of writing. And when I write, I feel His presence.
Nic Stone, author of Odd One Out
In first grade, I had a crush on a girl (that’s me on the left and her on the right). She was my best friend, and I did everything in my power to be as close to her as possible for the longest possible time. And while there are people who would roll their eyes and say “All kids are like that with their best friends,” this was different. I know it was. I felt it.
No one expects a kid with a heterosexual crush to explain or quali/quantify or theorize Freudianly about what/why/how they know they like somebody as more than a friend, but we do it to kids who have same-sex crushes all the time.
This is homophobia.
My point here is I knew I was at least partially gay when I was six. And it had nothing to do with sex. I didn’t even know what sex was. I just knew the very sight of my friend set off fireworks in my chest and made my grubby little fingertips tingle.
I worshipped her.
As time rolled and experiences occurred, partially gay rolled toward half gay, then gained momentum and pushed into mostly gay. Then last weekend I had an identity crisis as I realized I’m (probably) totally gay.
THIS is baffling because I married a really hot dude almost nine years ago and am more into him now than ever (is that because our souls are basically intertwined now? Maybe.). In general, I’m not into guys at all and never really have been, though I def tried to be for a while.
The more I think about it, though, it’s really only baffling because, IMHO, we rely entirely too much on labels to shape our understanding of other people. You just can’t shove a whole ass human being into a single word.
Especially when it comes to This. In my experience, there are like, multiple pieces to This particular rainbow puzzle. There’s “orientation” or which gender(s) you’re attracted to in the myriad ways one can experience attraction—sexual, romantic, emotional (I can’t actually explain the nebulous and abstract concept of *attraction* but I know the orientation answer is 99.9ish% gay for me), then there’s behavior/what you do/who you datemarrymakebabies with (my behavior is hella hetero), and THEN there’s identification or what you tell other people you are (I generally say bi because it’s the easiest way for people to understand why a woman who isn’t really even into men is married to one. #theonlyexception).
And we haven’t even gotten into the role of het-privilege and oppressive social structures and implicit orientation bias.
None of this actually matters.
Love whoever the hell you want to.
Cynthia Leitich Smith, author of Hearts Unbroken
“You’re Indian. Be proud of it, but don’t tell anybody because they won’t like you.”
I remember my mom saying that when I was a little girl, probably before kindergarten or first grade. To protect me.
We made our home in suburban Kansas City. Most Native teens today live in cities. Like me, a lot of them are flying under the radar, assumed to be white or black or Latino. Many of us are bicultural and/or biracial.
I understood why my mom said what she did. The only popular mainstream images of Native people were sports mascots, the Lone Ranger’s “faithful Indian companion” Tonto, and the cringe-worthy characters in Disney’s Peter Pan. (That situation hasn’t improved much.)
Then, as a teen, I dated a boy who fascinated me. Unlike our more affluent classmates, we both had jobs–me as a cashier at the local movie theater, him as a salesperson at a camera shop. We both drove classic 1960s Ford Mustangs. Most of all, we were both storytellers, though I used words and he used images. I was the editor of my high school newspaper, and he was the photo editor of his. We went to separate schools in the same district and had met en route to a state journalism competition.
He was Arab American (Lebanese) on his dad’s side, white on his mom’s, and the way I figured it, he probably had to navigate his own share of nonsense and misconceptions. I was hopeful that he wouldn’t judge me for being Native, and I wanted him to know who I really was.
Long story short, I blew it. I got nervous, started babbling about his heritage and failed to even mention mine. I said the wrong thing, he was offended, and I felt awful for a good, long time. Decades. Not that my regret mattered more than the hurt I caused.
My new novel, Hearts Unbroken, sprang from that experience. It began as a long overdue apology to that boyfriend—with his blessing and support. My hope is that the story, loosely inspired by ours, opens minds and makes it safer and easier for teens to share who they are.
Ashley Saunders and Leslie Saunders, authors of The Rule Of One
When we were around sixteen years old, the feeling that we were living under a time clock first took hold of us.
We wrote out strict goals, lofty for most, but we were studious and driven, with a bit of a Hermione complex. We formulated a timeline when all were to be achieved. This worked well for us up to college, but when we became full-fledged adults living in the “real world”, it felt like we went from skipping joyously across a field of daises only to crash face first into an invisible wall marked “NOPE!” that we didn’t see coming.
By twenty-two we were going to write, direct, and produce our first indie feature film. By twenty-five were we going to get into a major film festival and be living in Los Angeles. By twenty-six we were going to be published authors. We could go on.
Well, you guessed it, none of the above happened. At least, not on the stringent it-has-to-be-on-schedule-or-we-are-failures timeline.
We were warned. After graduating, we set up meetings with mentors, asking for advice on how best to go after our dreams. Four out of four of them told us “settle in, it’s a long ride.” We looked at each other with a “yep, well, that’s not us” and thanked them for their time.
We got our first book deal at twenty-nine. We still haven’t written or directed our first film, but we’re working on it. We made it to Los Angeles, the city of dreams, where we continue to dream big, but we are easier on ourselves and celebrate even the smallest accomplishments with champagne, because hey, life is hard.
During all those years of “failure,” we traveled, accomplished other goals like summiting mountains and exploring over twenty national parks. We made lifelong friends and spent quality time with our family. While we were busy “failing” we learned the valuable lesson that life doesn’t happen on a time clock, and the biggest failure of all is to not enjoy every second of it.
Sometimes clichés say it best: the journey is the best part.
Candice Montgomery, author of Home and Away
I was a really shy kid.
Like, super shy. As shy as it gets. I didn’t talk much and I certainly didn’t dance candidly in front of family members.
The family I grew up in has always been very critical. It comes from a place of love, but if you’ve got buttons to press, they’re going to press them.
Is it a thing that needs to be addressed? Yes. Absolutely. I hate to admit it but part of the reason I suffered from (and still do suffer from) disordered eating is because my extended family was so critical of everything I put in my mouth. Even for me as an eight- or nine-year-old. When, how much, “is this your second helping already?” etc.
And, like, realistically, who even has time to monitor what other people are putting in their pie holes like that, b?
So, like I said, I was shy. And much like my main character, Taze, in Home and Away, familial expectation freezes her up a lot.
But for me, at the tender age of eleven, I discovered Long Island iced tea.
I was at a family party. The infamous Black family cookout. Half my relatives were drunk and the other half was buzzing hard, well on their way.
My auntie Sandra (aka the original TeeTee) makes this homemade Long Island iced tea and now as an adult I can tell you it’s delicious. As a kid, though—I was just thirsty. So I asked my TeeTee if I could “have some of that juice” she made.
Busy two-stepping her ass off in the patio with the rest of the family, she gave the “Yeah, go head, baby”!
And so young Cam had her first sip of alcohol. And then another. And then a full cup to carry her down to the patio where she tootsie rolled and butterflied and did the bounce.
It was the first time my family had seen me dance along with them.
I mean, I was feeling gross and sleepy about thirty minutes later. But!
The point is—that was the point where I forgot about familial judgment. And expectations. And it felt good. And I never stopped myself from dancing in public again. Even without the liquid courage.