July's Debut YA Authors Explore the Hidden Truths, Tropes, and Tragedies Behind Stories

July's debut YA authors discuss the images that gave way to their first novels, exploring their characters' backgrounds, and carefree childhood summers.

A '67 Mustang. A mango tree. A sandal carried by a bird. Neon yellow tanks. July's debut YA authors discuss the images that gave way to their first novels, exploring their characters' backgrounds, and carefree childhood summers.


Cinderella Is Dead cover and Kalynn BayronKalynn Bayron, Cinderella Is Dead (July 7)

What was the first thing you wrote in this book? A line that came to you, a character who wouldn’t leave you alone, a scene that gave way to the story…?
The first ideas for this book centered on the Cinderella story itself. It’s so well-known and it has been done so many times, I asked myself—what if the story of Cinderella was real? What effect would that story have on people if they thought it was based on actual events? And then, what would happen if they found it was hiding a terrifying truth? I love stories about hidden histories and the idea that a fairytale as recognizable as “Cinderella” might contain some secret knowledge was fascinating and fun and that’s where it started. From there, the other aspects of the story came in a flood and it became much more than just a fun story. I realized I could use this framework to explore hidden legacies of resistance, queer Black girls getting their shine, complicated families, first loves that aren’t always last loves, and to create a clear understanding that we honor those who have come before us by telling the whole truth.

Tell us about your research.
Cinderella is one of Disney’s most popular fairytales but there are versions of this story that date back hundreds, even thousands, of years. I read the version recorded by the Brothers Grimm in 1812, the Charles Perrault version from 1607, and the Chinese story of Ye Xian from around 860 AD. They all share similar themes but are told in completely different ways. I had thought the earliest version was from around the first century AD. It’s the story of Rhodopis, a Greek woman living in Egypt whose sandal is carried off by a bird and dropped in the lap of the Pharaoh who then sets out to find the owner of the shoe. However, I found that a very similar story was told five centuries before by Herodotus in his Histories, and that it may have been based, at least partly, in truth.

In addition to researching the Cinderella story itself, I also looked at other fairytales to see how they’ve changed over time, how world events and changes in societal norms shaped the evolution of those stories.

I think for a lot of people, there was one summer as a kid or teen that stands out as the best. What’s yours and why?
I babysat my neighbors’ kids from the time I was about 11 until I was 15­­ when I got my first real job at the mall, so my summers were usually booked and busy. I do remember one summer when I was about seven, being in Alabama with my dad and all my cousins. We stayed up way too late, wearing my grandma’s ugly nightgowns, doing each other’s hair, them trying to convince me the house was haunted—which I 100 percent believed. Being able to not worry about anything other than having fun was the best feeling. I think the world we live in requires some of us to shoulder very adult burdens when we’re kids, so everyday things like being with your friends, cooking out with your family, having all your cousins sleep over—those are the moments that made my summers special.


Shielded cover and KayLynn FlandersKayLynn Flanders, Shielded (July 21)

How did Shielded first come to you? A line? A character who wouldn’t leave you alone? A scene that gave way to the story . . . ?
Shielded started with a single scene. I had a dream of three girls in extreme danger, and I woke up right before something bad happened. In that moment, between dream and awake, while my heart pounded and those characters were still real, I needed a solution to save them. Some way for them to escape what was chasing them. The only answer I could think of was magic.

The dream was very different from what the book turned into—there were neon yellow tanks in the dream that obviously didn’t make it into the book. But the emotions of the dream stayed with me. The characters stayed with me. I let that initial idea, with its danger and magic, grow over a few months. I asked questions about who the characters were, why they were in danger, and how they got out of danger. Eventually, after about 20 major revisions, it all became Shielded. And the one line that stayed the same from the dream to the final draft was, “I am here. I won’t leave you.”

Tell us about your research.
My biggest source of research was life. And while that sounds odd, the books I’ve read over the years, the places I’ve been, and the emotions I’ve experienced are what I poured into this book.

The kingdoms in the book’s world are based heavily on Icelandic, Scandinavian, and Etruscan/Italian history, with a tiny bit of influence from the Baltic region as well. I studied medieval fighting and weaponry, and tried to put my own spin on every detail I added. The geography and physical landscapes are reflections of places I’ve been, from the tall pine forests of the Pacific Northwest to the rolling hills of Tuscany. I tried to take places that evoked a strong sense of wonder in me and infuse them with a life of their own.

For a lot of people, there is one summer in their life that stands out as the best. What’s yours, and why?
My answer depends a little on your definition of best. Growing up, my summers had moments of fun and wonder, peace and excitement. Road trips and cherry orchards and coastlines stretching as far as I could see. But when I think of my “best” summer, I think of the one before my senior year of high school. I went to the local park almost every night with friends and played basketball, volleyball, steal the flag, touch football, and anything else we could think of. Not to win, just to play. I pushed myself outside my very small comfort zone. I had my first full-blown panic attack. But it was also that summer that I finally started to feel comfortable in my skin, though I still had a long way to go. It was the very edge of childhood, the summer that tipped me into “adulthood” (which I leave in quotes because, does one ever truly reach adulthood?). But I remember it, and I love it, because while it was hard, I also came to know myself better by pushing my limits. It was the best summer because I learned that I was strong and that I could do difficult things.


[Read: 9 Adult Books with Teen Appeal | Great Books]


This Is My America cover and Kim JohnsonKim Johnson, This is My America (July 28)

What was the first thing you wrote in this book? A line that came to you, a character who wouldn’t leave you alone, a scene that gave way to the story…?
Imagery is often an anchor for my stories. The first was of a tarp covering an old Buick during a dust storm. I held on to the memory of my dad’s precious ’67 Mustang and how that artifact would be a daily reminder of his absence if he was wrongfully incarcerated. Another scene that stayed with me was that of a mother blocking officers from charging her home to question her son, while the main character, Tracy, prayed her brother fled so history wouldn’t repeat itself.

Tell us about your research.
My graduate studies focused on college student and racial identity development, and my undergraduate degree was in ethnic studies with an emphasis in African American history and literature. This background folds in well with what I bring to young adult literature. Because of the complex issues in the novel, it was critical to develop a deeper understanding of the history of our criminal justice system. My research was extensive, with well over a hundred sources, from nonfiction books, memoirs, crime podcasts, articles, documentaries, recorded interviews of the wrongfully incarcerated, and interviewing defense attorneys and former law associates from the Equal Justice Initiative.

I think for a lot of people, there was one summer as a kid or teen that stands out as the best. What’s yours, and why?
The best summer of my life was in high school because of my involvement in the NAACP’s Afro-Academic, Cultural, Technological and Scientific Olympics (ACT-SO). ACT-SO is a yearlong achievement program to encourage high academic and cultural achievement among Black students. My community was not diverse, so it allowed me to connect with Black students across the city. I competed for three years, winning placement to the national competitions in Pittsburgh, Charlotte, and Atlanta (without my parents!). It was incredible to meet other young people who were exceptionally talented in STEM, humanities, business, and performing and visual arts. I was probably the least talented person there, but each year I competed anyway because I couldn’t miss the experience. The NAACP National Convention followed the conference, and my activism was developed in those critical years, along with my drive to challenge myself. Those days I was living my best life—free and uplifted by ambitious teens who dreamed big. I credit my ability to learn to write novels late in life from the unlimited possibilities in those summers.


Running cover and Natalia SylvesterNatalia Sylvester, Running (July 14)

What was the first thing you wrote in this book? 
I was half asleep on a Thursday morning in July 2016, kind of dreaming but also thinking of this story, and what came to me was my main character Mari's voice and how she's feeling about all the everyday, simple things in her life suddenly happening against this larger-than-life backdrop of her father running for president. The first thing I wrote ended up being the first line in the book: "Gloria collects the mangoes from the tree in our backyard once they've fallen but before the birds or bugs can get to them." It gave way to Running because what starts as a sweet, private domestic moment ends with Mari feeling the eyes of the world on her, even in her own home, and all she wants is to run away from it all. It felt like the start of something.

Tell us about your research.
I started writing this book during the 2016 elections and once I did, even watching the coverage became research, except now I was more interested in the lives of the children and spouses, often in the background of the candidates’ speeches, and how they seemed to look and feel in the moment. I ended up reading a lot of politicians' memoirs, as well as memoirs of politicians’ children. I watched campaign speeches throughout history, read the text of them, and learned about different candidates’ political histories, their voting records, the policies they’d backed and supported—and the ways they do (or don’t) hold themselves accountable for those policies. I brought my own insights and experiences of being in activist groups to the writing, but also followed the news and actions of student activist groups. And then of course, I researched environmental policies that'd been put into place in Florida, and how they affected their communities. Though Running is fiction, it was really important that it be rooted in real life actions and consequences.

One of the more surprising sources of research I did was my own journals! I still have all my diaries from age five through adulthood; flipping through my teen years I found an entry from one of the first times I ever strongly disagreed with my parents' personal and political views. It had to do with gender roles and ended with the delightful phrase, "I mean come on, it's the ’90s!" But it brought me back to that place of becoming, of stepping into your own sense of self and finding power there.

I think for a lot of people, there was one summer as a kid or teen that stands out as the best. What’s yours and why?
Hands down, the summer I got my driver's license. It was the summer before junior year and I was volunteering at a local botanical garden for my school community service project. Even though 16-year-old me had the most fun driving to the beach and the mall with friends, what I remember most are my daily drives to the garden down Old Cutler Road, a beautiful, two-way street in Miami canopied by giant banyan trees. I was in charge of cleaning and disinfecting the plant pots, so by the end of the day my hands were full of dirt and smelled like bleach, and I'd get into father's old blue two-door Chevy and play whatever music I wanted and drive home knowing I could also drive anywhere. It was just really liberating and peaceful. Those moments inspired so much of Mari's character; she has a deep love for South Florida's unique flora and it's always provided a sense of sanctuary for her. But that same liberating, peaceful feeling I had in those gardens doesn't last for her because she realizes how much of a threat her father's been to the environment. I wanted that same journey for her that I took the summer I learned to drive: the empowerment that comes with realizing you're the one who gets to decide where you go next.

Author Image
Katy Hershberger
Katy Hershberger (khershberger@mediasource.com) is the senior editor for YA at School Library Journal.

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