January’s YA Debut Authors Share Their Hopes for 2021

Four first-time YA authors tell SLJ about the inspirations behind their novels, their paths to publication, and their hopes for young people in 2021.

We have finally made it to 2021, and these four first-time YA authors are starting the year by sharing their new books with the world. Mahogany L. Browne, Desmond Hall, Pamela N. Harris, and Alessandra Narváez Varela tell SLJ about the inspirations behind their books, their paths to publication, and their hopes for young people in 2021.


Mahogany Browne / Chlorine SkyMahogany L. Browne, Chlorine Sky (Jan. 12)

What was the inspiration for Chlorine Sky?
My inspiration for Chlorine Sky came as a surprise. I was looking through old pictures, and one picture in particular struck a chord in me. Memories flooded back, and I challenged myself to write about the moment where I learned to “unlove” myself. The moment seemed so small, looking back at the picture as an adult and a mother. But when I looked into the eyes of the girl in that photograph, I could see the pain of feeling unworthy. And I wanted to write a story for her.

You have written picture books and poetry. How did it feel to write a YA novel? Why did you decide to write Chlorine Sky in verse?
I decided to write in verse because it feels like my first line of defense. I love poetry—I found my way and my voice because of it, so it really is my first language. But writing a YA novel was scary! I didn’t want to just placate the young people, which is why I think writing in verse made it less frightening and gave me more exciting possibilities.

Do you have any New Year’s resolutions? What are some of your hopes for 2021?
I don’t have any resolutions. Simply surviving through this time has made everything so much more overwhelming, and I recognize that. Being out of control is not my strong suit! But I do hope to write more YA stories to share with people who inspire me. I hope to begin a screenwriting project. I hope there is healing that lights the way.


Desmond Hall, Your Corner Dark (Jan. 19)Desmond Hall / My Corner Dark

What was the inspiration for Your Corner Dark?
When I was a boy in Jamaica, my parents and a lot of my relatives went to bed with the doors open to catch the night breeze. Now, Jamaica is a country with 389 criminal gangs, 250 of which are thought to be active, and everywhere you go you see steel grills in front of windows and doors. This transformation is heartbreaking, and I just had to write about it. Additionally, one of my uncles was murdered in a gang-related incident. His death caused a lot of trauma in my family, especially between my mother and I, and unfortunately, we didn’t settle our differences before she passed away. So, writing Your Corner Dark is very important to me, and I hope it will help some young people think twice before making tough choices.

You have done a lot of work with young people as a teacher and counselor. What was the experience like writing a book for this age group?
Funnily enough, I didn’t start out writing Your Corner Dark for young people. It was my terrific agent, Faye Bender, and fantastic editor, Caitlyn Dlouhy who guided me and the manuscript into the YA space. The rewriting process was intense, and Caitlyn taught me so much about writing for YA. Though it wasn’t my original intention I’m so glad to be working in this space. It’s given me a chance to get back in the game, so to speak. I can give back to the community again by talking with young people in person (I mean via Zoom), and through my writing. I feel very lucky that way!

Do you have any New Year’s resolutions? What are some of your hopes for 2021?
I’ve gotten a head start on my resolutions. I just volunteered to work with young writers at 826 Boston. Hopes? How many lines do I have to write this answer? Young people are standing at such a difficult historical moment, with an extremely precarious future, and a bag of debt. My hopes are for them.


[Read: Three Debut YA Authors Explore Identity and Connection]


Pamela Harris / When You Look Like UsPamela N. Harris, When You Look Like Us (Jan. 5)

What was the inspiration for When You Look Like Us? How did you come up with the idea for this story and why did you want to write it?
The wonderful Viana Siniscalchi from Alloy Entertainment actually approached my former agent with this idea and asked if she had a writer who might be interested. Enter me! When my agent told me the idea, I knew that I had to be the one to write it. I’ve long been a fan of mysteries like Veronica Mars and the movie Brick—but I’ve always wanted to see a Black person as the protagonist. Plus, I had been reading a lot about missing Black girls and the lack of attention these cases received, so I felt compelled to tell this story. When I came on board, the editors gave me free rein to form this story around my childhood neighborhood—allowing me to paint characters and experiences that were quite familiar to me. I also knew that it was important to acknowledge that a Black kid from public housing like my main character, Jay, would go through different obstacles than the standard character we typically see solving mysteries. Balancing both the mystery and real-life impact of systemic racism was necessary, and I felt honored that I was able to bring this story to light.

How did your work as a counselor help you as you went through the process of writing and publishing this book?
I would say that being a counselor—especially being a counselor that works with children and teenagers—really helps me hone in on voice. It’s easy for me to “hear” what my characters sound like because I’ve been in that world for over a decade. I also understand how a lot of teens express their feelings, whether it’s shutting down or lashing out at the wrong person. That made it easier to write the rollercoaster of emotions Jay experiences. Just as important, though, was my emphasis on self-care. I practice it a lot as a counselor, so I won’t carry my clients and students’ stories home with me. Both the writing and the publication of this book got pretty intense sometimes, so I had to remember to intentionally take moments for myself—whether it was going on a walk, playing with my kids, or watching 90 Day Fiancé!

Do you have any New Year's resolutions? What are some of your hopes for 2021?
I’ve said this to a few people so hopefully they’ll hold me accountable, but my word for 2021 is: balance. I want to make sure I make just as much time for myself, my family, and my creativity as I do for my career. Sometimes I get so bogged down with making a conference proposal or research article just right that by the time I sit down to write or read a story to my kids, I’m exhausted. I need to prioritize better. Ultimately, though, I’d love for When You Look Like Us to get into the hands of readers who need it most.


Alessandra Narváez Varela, Thirty Talks Weird Love (Jan. 19)Alessandra Narvaez Varela / Thirty Talks Weird Love

What was the inspiration for Thirty Talks Weird Love? How did you come up with the idea and why did you want to write this story?
When I was 17, I attempted suicide. Yet I never took time to take stock of my mental health, which wasn’t widely discussed in early 2000s Ciudad Juárez, México, where I was born and raised before moving to El Paso, TX, in 2007 at the age of 21. There was also my natural predisposition, which, like Anamaria (my 13-year-old protagonist), meant I thought about school and good grades obsessively since childhood, so talking about my suicide attempt felt like a waste of time. A blip in the grand scheme of things: I was going to become a doctor. This meant studying nonstop and being tough. And I did, but I’m not a doctor. I’m a writer and teacher. But between these two different paths there were several events in my life that got me here: a year of medical school in Galveston, two serious depressive episodes, a one-year leave of absence, taking care of my then-baby niece (which saved my life), and most importantly, the decision to leave medicine for good in August 2013 after a second try. This was a major moment in my life because, after a lifetime of putting academic achievement before my health, family, and friends, I protected myself. This is why I wrote Thirty Talks Weird Love—not talking to someone when I was 17 is a mistake that I used to wish I could go back in time to correct. But time-traveling is impossible. Hence, the book’s premise.

Besides my experiences, there was a major, gradual force that, unbeknownst to me, planted the seed for the book as well. When I returned to El Paso from Galveston, I worked as an English and Science high school tutor while I worked on my master’s degree in creative writing. I worked there for five years, and, though I was a part-time employee, I was very much involved with the students whom I worked with. This meant hearing their stories and realizing that I had denied myself a teenagehood, so, in a way, I was given a second go at it. I guess some kind of time travel is possible! Students shared their own struggles with mental health, and I hurt because they thought—like I did back then—that it’s better, easier, to keep quiet. To not make anyone uncomfortable. That’s why I felt honored they’d trust me. So, there’s my story, yes, but without my students, I am certain this book wouldn’t exist, and by extension, the opportunity to encourage readers—from teenagers to adults—to talk openly about mental health.

What was the process like for you to publish the novel? Was there anything that surprised you about the process?
The process started in January 2019 when I woke up after a restless night and decided to write in my composition book—which I used now and then to write thoughts and snippets of poems—instead of reading articles on my phone. That’s how I wrote ten pages of what would later become Thirty Talks Weird Love, which I had initially named “13 and 30” (this didn’t work, of course, due to the movie!). Once the spring semester started at the University of Texas at El Paso (where I completed my master’s and where I still work as an adjunct lecturer) I managed to keep writing while teaching so that by May 2019, I had a completed manuscript. It was a whopping 210 pages. When Lee Byrd from Cinco Puntos Press emailed me in August 2019 to say they wanted to publish it—this after mailing them an initial 10-page draft followed by the complete manuscript—I was floored. This would be my first book, my first “baby.” Since then, the manuscript underwent several revisions, which I expected, having read about other writers’ processes and having taught my college students about the importance of revision. Also, I had revised several of my poems, but it should’ve been obvious to me that it would take a different kind of energy to revise the 144 poems that finally made it into the book. As a result, Thirty Talks Weird Love is, if you only count the narrative, now 186 pages. And it really took a “village” to raise this literary infant and get it to reach its best, truest shape. That was something very surprising to me, as obvious as it might feel now: how many people are involved, besides the writer, from the point a book is accepted for publication to the day it reaches readers.

Do you have any New Year's resolutions? What are some of your hopes for 2021?
I abide by the Latin American tradition of gulping twelve grapes while trying to think about resolutions after the clock strikes midnight, and I really try to keep that list present throughout the rest of the year. However, 2020 has really taught me about the uncertainty of everything. For example, my parents’ health. I don’t take it for granted anymore. They’ve owned and run a small restaurant for 20 years and I can count on my hand the number of days they’ve been able to take off from work outside of weekends. Nowadays, they’re still at it: masked, gloved, in their 60s, but with a truly uncanny and perpetual source of energy. I am grateful beyond words that they’ve been able to stave off infection, and stayed relatively afloat during the pandemic, but I worry daily about them beyond the imminent COVID-19 threat: how long will they be able to keep this pace? How long until they’re able to retire and enjoy financial peace? I don’t have the answers, and I realize that many families have been far less fortunate than my own, as Latinx and Black communities have disproportionately suffered irreversible damage and tragic losses since March. So, if I have a resolution for 2021, it is to keep questioning and fighting racism in the ways I can: in the classroom and on the page. In my life, I resolve to cherish and honor my parents like never before. It’s because of their sacrifice and hard work that I became a writer and that is ultimately “the root of the root” of Thirty Talks Weird Love.

Melanie Kletter is a teacher and freelance writer in NYC.

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