February 24, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Nicola Yoon and Julie Buxbaum Talk Up YA Lit, National Book Awards, and More

Nicola Yoon

Nicola Yoon

Julie Buxbaum

Julie Buxbaum

New York Times–best-selling author Julie Buxbaum made her YA debut with Tell Me Three Things earlier this year, and Nicola Yoon’s sophomore outing, The Sun Is Also a Star, has been named a 2016 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature Finalist. Yoon and Buxbaum interviewed each other about their latest works, upcoming projects, and love for teen lit—especially romances.

Julie Buxbaum: Congrats on making the National Book Award short list. How did you feel when you got the news?

Nicola Yoon: Thank you so much. I was asleep when I first heard because it was 5:00 am my time, and Adam Silvera, the fabulous YA author, texted me. And my first thought was, “Oh my God, Adam forgot about the time difference between New York and LA.” And then my second thought was, “He’s kidding. Why would you kid about this?”

I just fell out of bed, basically. I could not believe it. And then I went to see my husband, who was up and writing, and he thought that someone had died from the look on my face. And then there might have been some tears of joy. But yeah, it was a pretty amazing, incredible moment.

JB: The Sun Is Also a Star feels very autobiographical and personal. Did you find that it was difficult to tap into your own personal love story to write this romance?

NY: In one way, it was easy because—I don’t know if you know this about me, Julie, but I am a total romantic goober, and I am mad, mad, mad about my husband. So in some ways, it’s really easy to write about romance, and being in love, and falling in love because I am truly sort of crazy about him.

I didn’t meet him over the course of 12 hours in New York City. We actually met in grad school writing classes. But [the story] is personal. He’s Korean, and I’m Jamaican, and we had some trouble with our romance because of our respective families, so some parts are very personal. But the falling in love, being in love—that part was easy to write.

NY: I have some questions for you. How did you feel when you found out you hit the New York Times bestseller list?

JB: I was on tour at the time, so I was alone in a hotel room, and I started screaming at the top of my lungs, and I’m surprised they didn’t call security and kick me out. Then I called my husband screaming, and he got scared that something terrible had happened because I burst into tears. It was a little embarrassing, but it was very exciting.

tell-me-threeNY: That’s awesome. So our common ground here is that we scared our husbands to death with good news. Your bio says that you once received an anonymous email, which inspired Tell Me Three Things. Can you tell us a little bit more about that?

JB: About 15 years ago, I was working as a lawyer in a law firm, and I was miserable, and it was sort of a low point in my life. I was feeling terrible about myself. And out of nowhere, I got an anonymous email from a secret admirer, and it fundamentally changed how I thought about myself in the world. It came at the exact perfect time when I needed it—almost too perfect. It was so strange. And what’s even more lovely, the person wasn’t even asking for anything from me. It was just sort of them putting out something nice into the universe, and it was magical.

NY: Did you write back? Did you meet?

JB: No, [we] never met. Never want[ed] to. There’s no way the [secret admirer] could live up to my expectations. But when something that magical happens to you, and you’re a writer, you have no choice but to incorporate it into your work. So for 15 years, I’ve been trying to think of the story to make that come alive.

NY: That’s amazing. That’s good restraint on your part. There’s such a balance of grief, loss, and coming-of-age themes, such as bullying and new beginnings, in Tell Me Three Things. What motivated you to include all of these elements in the book?

JB: I didn’t really set out to write an issues book. I set out to tell Jessie’s story, which is about a girl who recently lost her mother and moved to a new school after her dad quickly remarries a woman he met on the Internet. And I really wanted to write about loss, and always in the wake of loss, there’s a new beginning. I wanted to show real life, and I think in real life, lots of teens experience bullying or having to blend into a new stepfamily. So all those issues sort of naturally and organically came along with the story.

sun-is-also-a-starJB: You use such an interesting format in The Sun Is Also a Star. Not only do you alternate between Daniel and Natasha’s perspective, but readers also get insight into some of the characters they encounter randomly. We even get a dictionarylike aside about physics and the history of African American culture. Was this format always intentional?

NY: Yes, from the very beginning. Have you ever heard of Big History education? There’s an Australian professor, David Christian, who advocates for a holistic, interdisciplinary approach to education. So, if you’re learning some historical facts, he wants you to know what was going on in mathematics at the time and what was going on in all of the other disciplines because he feels like they’re not separable. So religion is necessarily intertwined with discoveries about space and mathematics. Those things—you just can’t pull them apart. And then Bill Gates got involved with this. He has a foundation that’s pursuing this as an educational model.

I love Carl Sagan. And I’ve always been obsessed with that quote, “If you wish to create an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.” And those two things sort of just came together in my head—that if you are going to tell a story about two people, it’s really never just about the two people. It’s about all the stuff around them that gets them to a place in time where they meet. And so I had this idea: I’m going to tell all these surrounding stories and see how they intersect to make a boy named Daniel and a girl named Natasha, and what makes them meet and like each other. Because it’s never just about the people themselves.

NY:  You also have interesting formatting elements, especially the emails from Somebody/Nobody. Why do you think today’s readers are drawn to works that aren’t the usual straight-laced prose?

JB: I think we all communicate differently now. Even my closest friends—I no longer call them on the phone. We text or we email. With people who are more distantly related to me, it’s 100 percent social media. I think in any story set in a modern-day, YA world, you have to have some texts, emails, or social media. Unfortunately, I think it makes some plots a little bit more complicated. But instead of fighting against what exists, I figured it was easier just to incorporate it. It felt natural to incorporate it.

JB: The Sun Is Also a Star explores immigration, racism, physics, and many more weighty subjects. At the same time, it’s a romance at its heart. Do you think we’re at a place in which YA romance is finally getting its due?

NY: I feel that all my favorite YA books are romances:  [Jandy Nelson’s] I’ll Give You the Sun, [John Green’s] The Fault in Our Stars, and [Adam Silvera’s] More Happy Than Not. I think that all stories are about love, even if it’s not about romance, necessarily. Everything is built on that. There’s nothing to say if you’re not talking about love and human relationships. So I feel like they’re already a part of the canon that we’ve been talking about, but maybe they’re enjoying a resurgence.

JB: You are a romantic goober. So speaking of love letters, I feel like your book is very much a love letter to New York City. It almost felt like a character in itself. Can you tell us a bit about your research process and how you went about creating this “character”?

NY: My family moved to Brooklyn from Jamaica, so I lived there for a long time, and then I definitely went back to do research for the book. But I’ll tell you the best part: Google Maps. Google Street View is just the most awesome thing in the world. I love and sort of hate New York, but I wanted to write something [set there] because it’s such a dynamic city, and I do feel like you could fall in love in a day there.

JB: So how do you feel about the fact that Everything, Everything is being made into a film?

NY: It’s crazy. I’m actually going to visit the set, and my husband and daughter are coming. And it’s going to be my birthday that day, so that’s a pretty good present. I’m out-of-my-mind excited about it. Everyone that’s in the movie has been incredible, and I have a Vulcan mind meld with the director. She’s wonderful, and I’m just thrilled.

NY: Tell Me Three Things was your YA debut, but you’ve also written New York Times–best-selling books for adults. What inspired you to write for teens?

JB: Most of my adult life, I feel like I’ve been pretending to be an adult. I sort of didn’t really believe in my heart or my soul that I was actually a grown-up. But a few years ago, I moved to LA. I had my second child. I had a mortgage, a husband, and a full-time writing career. And I looked around, and I was like, “Oh, the jig is up. I am officially a grown-up.” I’m part of the PTA. It doesn’t really get more grown-up than that.

I really miss that time in my life when all of my life’s questions weren’t yet answered. I decided to write about the teen years when the whole wide world was wide open and when I didn’t yet have to live with the consequences of all my choices. I sort of miss that time, and I figured the best way to revisit it was in my imagination.

NY: What are you working on next?

JB: My next novel is a stand-alone YA contemporary called What To Say Next, and it comes out in July. It’s the story of two lonely but very different teenagers who surprise themselves by making an unexpected connection. How about you?

NY: It’s about unexpected connection. Is that really vague? I keep it very vague on purpose because it’s like giving birth. I’m not ready for it to be out in the world yet, so I always keep the description ridiculously vague.

Shelley Diaz: I have one question for both of you. I was wondering if you’ve received any teen reactions from your books so far and what the feedback has been?

JB: Yeah, I’ve heard from lots of teens, and one of the really cool things about writing for [them] is that they’re so responsive. I get a ton of emails, or tweets, or notes on Instagram. It’s so much fun to hear people’s reactions. Some really respond to the romance of it, and [others] really respond to the first-loss element of it. Some people respond to both. But it’s really, really fun having readers reach out. It’s what may be one of my favorite parts about writing for young adults.

NY: And I definitely agree with Julie on that—just how amazing it is to know the impact that your work is having. And teenagers are awesome because they are so passionate, and they love to tell you about it, and they’ll tell you about it a lot. But my favorite, favorite email about Everything, Everything was from a girl, who wrote, “You know, when I first read your book, I really, really hated it.” And I was reading this email, going, “God, why am I reading this? I so don’t need to hear this right now.” But then she said, “But then I gave your book to my mom, and my mom read it, and she loved it. And then we talked about it, and now, I really like your book.” And I was really happy with that because part of my reason for writing the book was to maybe, hopefully spark a conversation between moms and daughters about the different kinds of love there are, and just maybe people would understand each other a little bit more.

JB: I think also a lot of YA writers write the book they needed when they were teenagers, and that’s definitely true for me. I wish this book had existed when I was 16 and had recently lost my mom and was completely lost.  And so it’s so gratifying and makes it all worthwhile when the book finds the right reader when they need it.




Shelley Diaz About Shelley Diaz

Shelley M. Diaz (sdiaz@mediasourceinc.com) is School Library Journal's Reviews Team Manager and SLJTeen newsletter editor. She has her MLIS in Public Librarianship with a Certificate in Children’s & YA Services from Queens College, and can be found on Twitter @sdiaz101.

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