Race, K-pop, and Magic: September's YA Debut Authors Tackle a Range of Topics

September debuts are here, with new YA authors taking on race relations among teenagers, the culture of K-pop, and the power of magic.

Race relations among teenagers, the culture of K-pop, and the power of magic are some of the topics addressed in books by debut YA authors coming out this month. Here, authors Kwame Ivery, Alexandra Leigh Young, and Ayana Gray share their inspirations and discuss the planning and research they did to help them tell their stories.

Kwame Ivery, The Problem with the Other Side (Sept. 7) 
Your book explores high school dating, race relations, and school integration, among other topics. Why did you want to write this book now and what do you hope readers will take away from this story? 

The 2016 presidential election played a big role in my decision to write this book. Trump's victory in that election showed me that this country was more broken than I'd thought, and, consequently, I wanted to examine what caused the break to in the first place. What/where was the fault line?

My book was my way of doing that examination. The ultimate takeaway that I hope my readers will get from my book is actually a simple one: at the end of the day, we're all more similar than dissimilar.

This story is written from alternating points of view. Why did you decide to tell it this way?
Several years ago, I wrote a novel (never published) that featured five different narrators, and it was one of the hardest things I'd ever written. What I'd initially thought was going to be a fun, pleasantly challenging experience turned out to be pretty close to nightmarish; at the beginning of each new chapter, I had unpleasant thoughts like this: "Okay Narrator A—how does she talk again? Narrator B—what's his favorite recurring phrase again? Narrator C—what linguistic rhythm did I give him again?" When the whole thing was over, I thought to myself, "If I'm truly lucky, if this universe truly likes me, I'll never, ever, ever have to write a novel with more than one narrator again." And I got my wish for a few years...and then came the idea for The Problem with the Other Side. I knew it was going to focus on an interracial romance, and I knew the POV was going to be first person (which I personally believe is the most effective POV for YA), but that's when I hit a snag, because I thought, "Okay, so then who's going to narrate—the Black guy or the white girl?" I knew that making one of them the sole narrator would make the story too one-sided, literally; so that's when I realized that the solution was to give narration duties to both of them. Of course, the part of me that still hadn't recovered from the multiple-POV misery of my earlier novel whined, "But you PROMISED you wouldn't do this again!!" I then reassured that part of myself, "Relax. This time it'll be easier—only two narrators instead of five. And who knows? Maybe it'll actually be fun this time." And, to my surprise, I was correct...mostly. I really enjoyed the head-hopping, constantly toggling between someone who looked like me and someone who looked nothing like me. It was more fun than easy; writing with more than one narrator will always be a more challenging journey than having a solo storyteller, but I'm still glad I took the trip.

You are also a high school English teacher. How did your work with young people inform your writing?
I'm sure this won't come as much of a surprise but being a high school teacher is probably the best job a YA author can have, because you're around your target audience almost all day, every day. You constantly hear their speech rhythms, their musings, their joys, their fears, their jokes, etc. And here's a bonus perk: whenever I need to know which singer/rapper/celebrity/slang is most popular at the moment and which one is last year's news, my answer is just a 25-minute-walk-to-work away.

As a new YA author, what’s one thing that surprised you about the publishing process?
I was unprepared for how extremely exciting and validating it can be to see, for the first time, your book's title on retail websites like Walmart, Target, Barnes & Noble, etc. I've also been pleasantly surprised to learn that the hardcover format is still a major player in the game: prior to being published, I had a longtime expectation that, if a book of mine ever saw the light of day, it would probably be released primarily as an e-book and maybe—if I was lucky—also as a trade paperback. It's been very reassuring to know that print books are far from landing on the extinct list anytime soon.


Alexandra Leigh Young, Idol Gossip  (Sept. 14) 
Your book takes readers through the world of K-pop. Why did you decide to focus on this music genre?

I've always loved pop music, so much so that I went on tour as a production assistant with bands like Third Eye Blind and New Kids on the Block when I graduated from college. K-pop feels different to me, though. Of course, the music hooked me, but it's the culture that's made me want to write about it. K-pop fans are so devoted to their idols, and idols to their fans. The relationship between the two makes fan culture incredibly rich and supportive, and surprisingly powerful.

What kind of research did you do to help you tell this story?
I first discovered K-pop when I moved to South Korea for an artist residency in 2014. I spent that year researching the industry, and doing interviews with fans, the paparazzi, and attending live music shows. When I returned to NYC, I continued to report on the industry while producing a podcast episode for Radiolab called "K-Paparazzi." During those two years of reporting, I interviewed idols as well as dozens of K-pop columnists and culture experts. Because I wrote Idol Gossip from my home in Brooklyn, and I couldn't travel to South Korea again, I worked with Haeryun Kang, a stringer in Seoul who helped me round out some details and language. Not to mention the hours and hours of K-drama, South Korean music programs, and K-pop music videos I've consumed over the years!

You have been working as a journalist at The New York Times. Did you always want to write a fiction book and how did this writing experience go for you?
It actually never occurred to me to write fiction until my editor, Susan Van Metre from Candlewick, suggested it. Of course, she was right—my Radiolab episode was ripe for a YA novel, and so I took a leap. In my line of work, if I want to figure out what happened next in a chronology, I just pick up the phone and call a reporter or a source and they'll tell me. With fiction, no one can answer that question except me, and that has been both terrifying and liberating. It's terrifying because I can't phone a friend if I get stuck and liberating because if the structure or dialogue isn't working, I can do the one thing you can't do in nonfiction writing—just make something up!

What do you hope readers will take away from this story?
Tough question—there are so many things! Although Idol Gossip is set in the world of K-pop, I hope readers come away with more universal insights. Alice learns that your dreams can't happen in a vacuum; you have put your ego aside and learn to work with others, even if it means going outside your comfort zone. I hope Alice's journey encourages young readers to push themselves to achieve their ambitions.

As a new YA author, what’s one thing that surprised you about the publishing process?
It shouldn't have been such a surprise, but I learned that it takes a village to bring a book into the world. I almost couldn't believe it when I began writing my acknowledgements, and my list of people to thank kept growing and growing. It's extremely humbling when dozens of people decide your writing is something worth supporting.


Ayana Gray, Beasts of Prey (Sept. 28) 
Your book is set in a richly detailed environment. Can you talk about how you constructed the world of Beasts of Prey?

Beasts of Prey took nearly five years to write from inception to completion, which meant I had a lot of time to build the world in which the story takes place. I really enjoyed creating something of a "story bible," an internal document in which I detailed as much as I could about the story's setting. I recorded things about the world's cuisine, attire, economics, anything I could think of. Not every detail found its way into the story, but it helped me feel grounded as its creator, and having those details on hand certainly made the world feel realer and more grounded as I wrote it.

What was your inspiration for this story?
I would love to point to a particular moment in time, a "spark" I can identify as the moment the idea for Beasts of Prey came into my head—I always enjoy those stories. In truth, though, inspiration for Beasts of Prey came like a slow-building fire, something small that needed kindling to grow. That said, two of my earliest inspirations came during my junior year of college. In Fall 2013, I was selected for a special honors colloquium on political violence that really challenged my ideas of good and evil. Just a few months later, as part of my second degree, I traveled to Ghana to study decolonization, Pan-Africanism, and the transatlantic slave trade. The country of Ghana was visually breathtaking and its history was so complex and fascinating; I left it wanting to write a story in a world that felt just as magical.

Your book is told from three different points of view. Why did you decide to tell the story this way?
I suppose I did it because, growing up, some of my favorite stories were in dual or multi-POV, and as creators I think we subconsciously emulate that which we admire. In particular, the historical fiction novel Mistress of Rome by Kate Quinn and the young adult fantasy novel An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir left significant impressions on me. I knew very early on that I wanted Koffi and Ekon to both have their own POVs, and thought it'd be really neat to have two "entry points" into their world. Adiah's POV came as a total surprise at the very end of my editorial journey and was one of my favorites to write. I like to think each point of view adds new perspective.

What do you hope readers will take away from this book?
At its heart, Beasts of Prey is a story of two kids learning to face their fears. I hope that readers of this story will be inspired to face their own fears and find the strength to be brave and lean on their friends when times get hard.

As a first time author, what's one thing that surprised you about the publishing process?
I have marveled at how many people have played a hand in my and Beasts of Prey's journey. From my fantastic editor, to my dynamic literary agent, to my fairy godmother publicist, to the booksellers and influencers, and the many incredible teams within my publishing house, it's been incredible to watch so many people touch this story and bring it to life. I am humbled and immensely grateful that my very first book is in such good hands.

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