Complex Stories and Worlds in June YA Debuts

Four new YA authors tell SLJ about the works that influenced them and how they are celebrating their first publications.

These four YA debut authors deftly weave social commentary into their stories with characters and narratives that address issues such as bullying, institutionalized racism, gender identity, and sexual awakening. H.E. Edgmon, Faridah Àbíké-Íyímídé, Jason June, and Caroline O'Donoghue talk here about the genesis of their books, reveal some of the writers and films that influenced them, and share how they plan to celebrate now that their stories are finally out in the world. As Edgmon says, "There is something very powerful about building a world that can be whatever you need it to be when our own world isn’t cutting it."


FaridahFaridah Àbíké-Íyímídé, Ace of Spades, (June 1)
This is a fast-paced story that weaves in a lot of social commentary. How did you come up with the idea for this book?

I moved from my very diverse town in London to a small town in Scotland for university and started to experience a lot of microaggressions I hadn’t experienced before. I felt so out of place, and for the first time would go days without seeing another person of color. I experienced a lot of weird things like walking around campus and everyone stopping to stare at me, people refusing to sit next to me on public transport, and being asked invasive questions about my hair and features. Because of this, I felt very isolated and didn’t really have any friends, and so I would watch Gossip Girl to pass the time. I loved Gossip Girl so much but wished that there was more diversity and also that it was a lot more sinister (I love dark stories). In that year, Get Out had also been released and I thought it was so clever. One night I randomly got an idea to somehow blend elements of the two narratives together, and from there Ace of Spades was born.

Did you always know you wanted to write a suspense story? Why did you choose to write this book in this genre?
I’ve always loved dark stories filled with suspense. Ever since I decided I wanted to be a writer; my stories have always had an element of suspense to them.

Who are some of your favorite suspense writers and what are some of your favorite suspense books? 
I love Holly Jackson’s “A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder” series, I think it is brilliant and extremely clever. I recently read I’m Thinking of Ending Things by Iain Reid and I think it is the creepiest book I have ever read, but I really loved the writing and the themes.

Now that people have started (slowly) gathering again, how do you plan to celebrate the publication of your first book?
I think I am going to celebrate by attempting to visit as many bookshops as I can in England!


CarolineCaroline O'Donoghue, All Our Hidden Gifts (June 8)
Your book begins with the main character finding a pack of tarot cards which then leads to a series of other events. How did you come up with the idea for this story?

The idea of the housekeeper card—a revenge spirit that lives inside a pack of tarot cards—has actually been with me since about 2015. I was in a band called Greyhounds Greyhounds Greyhounds, and my friend Harry and I used to meet up once a week to write songs together. The two words came to me while I was waiting for a train—just the term “housekeeper card”—and I wrote them in my notes app. That week, when we were looking for song ideas, I came across the note and just said: “I have this thing called the housekeeper card. I don’t know what it is.” Together we made up the lore and the original song lyrics appear in the book. Maeve and the story of All Our Hidden Gifts came much later. I was in my hometown for a few weeks in 2019, and found myself having very deep flashbacks to my own teens in Cork [Ireland], which was a really vibrant and musical place to grow up. I wanted to recapture my teens, and out came Maeve and the housekeeper.

Did you always know you wanted to write fantasy? Why did you choose to write this book in this genre?
It was always my plan to eventually write YA. When I first met my agent, I had two things in my drafts folder: One was an adult novel about an agony aunt [an advice columnist], and the other was a YA story my friend and I were writing about a kind of magical Tudor court. My agent said that YA was a tough market to break into, and that historical YA in particular was a risky venture. So I worked on the adult novel and carved out a career for myself there. Years later, she said, “I think it’s time for you to revisit YA—I think you have what it takes to be a big voice in that arena.” I didn’t need much encouragement after that. I had 20,000 words of All Our Hidden Gifts to her a month later.

Who are some of your favorite fantasy authors and what are some of your favorite fantasy books?
The Changeover: A Supernatural Romance by Margaret Mahy, Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones, The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle.

Now that people have started (slowly) gathering again, how do you plan to celebrate the publication of your first book?
I plan to make it last as long as possible! The week of my launch I have a fancy dinner planned with someone almost every night—it’s going to be a proper Mardi Gras for me!


[Read: Five Debut YA Authors Make Readers Feel Something]


H.E. Edgmon, The Witch King (June 1) HE Edgmon
This is a complex story that weaves in a lot of social commentary. How did you come up with the idea for this book?

Actually, the idea first started from seeing some truly, mind-blowingly beautiful fanart for another fae book and thinking “I want this vibe… but make it trans.” That seed sat in my head for a good long while, until one day I thought, “I want the arranged marriage trope… but make it trans.” I smashed them together, and that’s how I started building The Witch King. As for the social commentary, it was not necessarily intentional so much as it was reflective of what I was feeling at the time. I wrote TWK while watching TERFs [trans-exclusionary radical feminists] get rich on book deals while my trans friends and I struggled to survive, much less make art. White supremacist rallies were popping up all over the country. Sexual predators were being famously placed in positions of power. And I revised TWK during the height of the Black Lives Matter protests. I was living in Tallahassee, where Tony McDade was murdered. Oh, and a pandemic was ravaging the country. I was angry. I’m still angry. And so my words are, too.

Did you always know you wanted to write fantasy? Why did you choose to write this book in this genre?
Look, there are some truly exceptional contemporary stories out there. I recently read Ray Stoeve’s Between Perfect and Real and am still screaming about it. I will not know peace until I get my hands on Jonny Garza Villa’s Fifteen Hundred Miles from the Sun which comes out this month. But my heart has always been with fantasy. Some of my most formative early memories involve watching adults play Dungeons and Dragons, too young to play myself but completely enthralled. I spent my childhood getting lost in the woods, wielding sticks that were swords or staffs or wands, and pretending to discover doors to new worlds in the brambles. And sure, there is probably something to be said about children who grow up with trauma using fantasy as a means to escape. But since we don’t have time to unpack all of that, I’ll just say this: There is something very powerful about building a world that can be whatever you need it to be when our own world isn’t cutting it.

Who are some of your favorite fantasy authors and what are some of your favorite fantasy books and series?
I grew up on the “Dragonlace Chronicles” series by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman, and spent my late teens obsessed with Maggie Stiefvater’s series “The Raven Chronicles” and Kresley Cole’s series “Arcana Chronicles.” Right now, anything that Kacen Callender writes is an auto-buy for me. I’ve also had the pleasure of reading a lot of early copies and works-in-progress from authors still trying to claw their way to publication. There is some incredible talent out there just waiting for its moment. On that note, I want to say that while I’ve always loved fantasy, it was next to impossible as a kid to find books with the stories I wanted and the characters I needed. Until recently, queer characters, especially trans characters, were so often relegated to contemporary “issue” books in traditional publishing. The first time I read trade-pubbed fantasy with a trans main character, I was in my mid-twenties. Growing up, finding these stories was only possible in fanfiction. Through the lens of fandom, familiar worlds and characters were allowed to reflect my lived experiences in a way that canon never actually did. I’ve talked about this before, but it’s important for me to highlight that a big driving force behind The Witch King was wanting to give kids a canon that explicitly centered queerness. They deserve fantasies about people like them without having to write them on AO3 [an open source fanfiction site] themselves. But, to your question—some of my favorite fantasy writers are fanfic authors. They gave me what I needed when the mainstream wouldn’t.

Now that people have started (slowly) gathering again, how do you plan to celebrate the publication of your first book?
Even though I’m lucky enough to be fully vaccinated now, I do have a toddler at home who isn’t, so the idea of going out to celebrate still seems a long way off for me. I’m planning a quiet celebration. A picnic in the park with my little family, Facetime dates with beloved friends, and homemade French macarons—assuming we don’t mess them up in a comedy of errors.  


Jason June, Jay’s Gay Agenda (June 1) Jason June
Your book addresses some serious topics and also has a lot of romantic humor. How did you come up with the idea for this story?

When I was the only out queer student at my rural high school, I felt like I was on such a lonely island. I didn't have any other boy-who-likes-boys who could help me live out my first date, first kiss, first time having sex fantasies that all my straight classmates were having, so I ended up feeling like this sexless tween a lot. But when I finally moved to Seattle and got to meet other queer people, it was such a time of fun and discovery and loving every last second of it. So when I sat down to write Jay's Gay Agenda, I wanted to mash up those two feelings: the loneliness and becoming a sort of “token gay,” but also the party and humor of life that happened when that loneliness was finally over, all shown through the lens of a very Type-A, very horny list-maker. Because horniness and hormones, especially for queer teens, is something I don't think gets enough of the spotlight. It's something that's crucial we talk about so that LGBTQIA+ young adults know they aren't alone and that their physical desires are just as beautiful and should be just as celebrated as their heterosexual peers'.

The main character is openly gay in a very small rural town. Why did you decide to use this setting? How important is the setting in the narrative?
I went with that setting of small, rural America because that's where I grew up, and even in 2021 there are still so many queer teens out there who are the only out person in their student body. This can surprise people sometimes, thinking that since same-sex marriage is legal it's easy breezy for every LGBTQIA+ teen everywhere. But in small-town settings, we can still be the students that feel like they stand out like a rainbow-colored sore thumb, and there is a certain way of thinking about ourselves and romance in general that can happen when you grow up being the only person of your sexuality or gender in your hometown. For Jay, he feels like he's miles behind everyone else since he's a senior in high school and has never been kissed. So, in terms of his journey to discovering that there is no "right" timeframe for coming into your own as a romantic and sexual being, growing up in a small rural town was pretty pivotal.

What are some of your favorite rom-com movies and/or YA romances?
Ohmigawd rom-com movies and YAs with romance are my absolute favorite genres. In terms of YA romances that I whooped for, I totally love Becky Albertalli's Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda, Elise Bryant's Happily Ever Afters, Leah Johnson's You Should See Me in a Crown, Phil Stamper's The Gravity of Us, Aiden Thomas's Cemetery Boys, and Julian Winters's Running with Lions. As for movies,13 Going on 30, The Beautician and the Beast, Crazy Rich Asians, Just My Luck, Last Holiday, and Monster-in-Law are just a few of the rom-coms/rom-com adjacent movies I've watched over and over. Oh, and the gay Lifetime holiday movie, The Christmas Setup. I am obsessed with made-for-TV holiday movies (which, of course, all include a romance).

Now that people have started (slowly) gathering again, how do you plan to celebrate the publication of your first book?
With publication on June 1st, all my celebrations still plan on being virtual as more and more people get vaccinated. But I definitely plan on popping into some local bookstores and seeing this novel baby on the shelves IRL. And going out to dinner with my hubby and a small group of friends and cheersing and probably telling anybody who'll listen that I have a book out and they can get it now wherever books are sold. But let me tell you, I can NOT wait until I get to go to my first librarian or bookseller conference and gab all things books with real, living book-lovers again.

Melanie Kletter is a teacher and freelance writer in New York City.

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