On the eve of this year’s YALLFest, we talked to three different visiting authors about their take on all things YA, book worm-y, and life. Here’s what they had to say.
Good can prevail
Author of Girls of Paper and Fire
In the world of Ikhara, there are three castes. The Paper caste is the lowest and fully human. The next, Steel, is halfway between human and demon. And the final and most powerful, Moon, is fully demon. Each year, eight girls from the powerless Paper caste are chosen to serve the Demon King as concubines. But one year, there’s an exception. A ninth girl, Lei, is also selected when her unique golden eyes catch the attention of the king.
Such is the setup of Natasha Ngan’s upcoming young adult fantasy novel Girls of Paper and Fire, which tackles trauma, bodily autonomy, freedom, and class hierarchy.
For Ngan, fantasy is the ideal genre to broach those subjects.
“Fantasy allows you to explore and reflect upon aspects of the real world through a magical lens,” she says. “It takes the edge off darker topics slightly without losing any of the weight.”
In many respects, Girls of Paper and Fire is a personal story for Ngan. As a girl growing up between Malaysia and the United Kingdom, Ngan had “a wealth of cultural influences that don’t specifically tie to one place,” and those experiences were essential to building the world of Ikhara.
“I love that Ikhara feels familiar to many different Asian and western readers but still has its own unique feeling,” says Ngan, who will be a keynote speaker at YALLFest with author James Patterson, participating in panels Trapped Girls and LGBTQIA+ Ask Anything.
The dynamics of royalty and class structure portrayed in Ikhara were also inspired by her time as a college student.
“I studied geography at university, so I’ve always had an interest in the whys and hows of social politics,” says Ngan. “But it’s more than a passion. It’s a part of the human condition, I think, to wonder about all the various ways cultures function, and why we can come together to do such brilliant things whilst at the same time being so terrible to each other.”
Although being selected as a Paper Girl is framed by those in power as a great honor, the Paper Girls are essentially sex slaves who have little control over their own bodies. It’s within that context that Girls of Paper and Fire addresses assault, power, and consent. Ngan, who is a sexual abuse survivor, says she strived to approach those subjects with both honesty and sensitivity.
“It was tricky to get the balance between showing the stark reality of such topics with not being too graphic or the book losing its sense of hope,” she says.
For Ngan, that resiliency displayed in the face of adversity throughout Girls of Paper and Fire is one reason why she was drawn to writing young adult literature.
“I love the hopeful feel of YA,” she says. “No matter how dark things get, there is almost always the sense that good can prevail over crueler forces, and especially in today’s current political climate, that’s something I find very inspirational and comforting.”
Building empathetic readers
Author of Spin
Lamar Giles had a simple answer when he was asked why he wanted to write young adult literature.
“I wanted to write the books I never saw growing up,” he says.
As a young African-American man, Giles loved genre fiction — thrillers, mystery, horror, and science fiction — but in those books, he never encountered characters who were like him.
“And if I did run into them, they often died,” he says. “So I became very frustrated as a teen.”
But upon discovering Tananarive Due’s My Soul to Keep, the first book in a series called African Immortals, Giles was inspired to write characters that were a reflection of himself and the people he knew.
“I thought if she could do it, maybe I could do it,” said Giles, who will be at YALLFest Nov. 9-10 and speak at two panels, For Art’s Sake: Writing Art & Music in Novels and Who Done It? Mysteries and More.
Giles has written four young adult thrillers, including his latest, Spin, which will be released in January.
“A DJ is murdered, and her online fandom forces two of her friends who don’t like each other to solve the murder. When they aren’t working fast enough, the fandom goes into action, and it isn’t pleasant at all,” Giles says of his forthcoming novel.
And how’d he get that idea?
“I’m from Virginia, and we have a really rich musical tradition: Timbaland, Missy Elliott, Pharrell. They’re all from Virginia and the same area of Virginia,” Giles says.
From there, he began thinking about the intensity of musical fandoms like Drake’s Team Drizzy and Taylor Swift’s Swifties. But what really caught his attention was Beyoncé’s fandom, known as the Beyhive. He saw a quote online that read, “If you don’t like Beyoncé’s new single, the Beyhive will annihilate you,” and it stuck with him.
“Fandoms are super powerful,” Giles says. “And if you don’t respect them, it can be scary.”
By featuring diverse characters in Spin and his other thrillers, Giles has used his platform as a published author to draw attention to the need for greater representation in young adult literature.
He is a founding member and advisory board member of We Need Diverse Books, a nonprofit that “advocates essential changes in the publishing industry to produce and promote literature that reflects and honors the lives of all young people.”
Giles has also been involved in projects that seek to center writers of color and their experiences. He edited Fresh Ink: An Anthology, a genre-bending collection of stories from 13 diverse young adult authors that addresses issues ranging from gentrification to coming out. He is also one of 17 contributing writers to a forthcoming compilation called Black Enough: Stories of Being Young & Black in America.
For Giles, representation can help build empathy and lead others to recognize similarities through differences. He rejects the notion that readers who already see themselves in books will not want to read or are unable to appreciate diverse works.
“When you talk about the marginalized children and readers, of which I was one, we’re very used to reading about people who are not like us,” Giles says. “The idea that readers can’t adjust to or adapt to these stories — I think that’s ridiculous. I see books today getting attention that they wouldn’t have 10 years ago. Readers are smart and can appreciate these kinds of stories.”
Equal and honest representation
Author of To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before
As a teenager, few things can feel more life-altering and catastrophic than embarrassing yourself in front of your crush. But in terms of worst-case scenarios, it would be hard to top what happens to Lara Jean Song Covey, the 16-year-old protagonist in Jenny Han’s young adult novel To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before.
Lara Jean writes love letters to the boys she’s had crushes on, but she never intends for them to be sent or for anyone to read them. It’s a cathartic exercise, a way for Lara Jean to take her bottled-up feelings and let them out before moving on. The letters, however, mysteriously get mailed, and two of them end up in the hands of Josh Sanderson, Lara Jean’s neighbor who had been dating her older sister, and popular jock Peter Kavinsky. (Spoiler alert: A love triangle ensues.)
The central plot point of the novel, published in 2014 and followed by sequels P.S. I Still Love You and Always and Forever, Lara Jean was inspired by Han’s own teenage experience.
“In high school, I wrote love letters to boys when I was trying to get over them and then I tucked them away in a hatbox,” she says. “I wondered what would have happened if they ever got sent out.”
It’s been a busy few months for Han, who will be a keynote speaker at this year’s YALLFest and join the festival’s Fans of Fandom panel. In August, the film adaptation of To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before was released on Netflix, and it became an overnight internet sensation thanks to its charming, feel-good story and breakout performances from actors Lana Condor (Lara Jean) and Noah Centineo (Peter).
“It’s a warm-hearted story about family and first love, and I think people can relate to that,” Han says regarding the film’s popularity.
To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before has also been praised for centering an Asian-American teenage girl, which is still a rarity across literature and film. According to Malinda Lo, an author who researches diversity in young adult literature, only six percent of titles named to the Young Adult Library Services Association’s Best Fiction for Young Adults list in 2014 featured Asian or mixed-race characters.
Han, who is Korean-American, understands the impact of diverse representation in mainstream pop culture and the positive ripple effect it can create.
“Growing up, I never saw an Asian-American girl be the lead of a movie,” she says. “I want that and more for the girls today. You can’t know how meaningful it is to see someone who looks like you be the hero of a story if you’ve never experienced that absence.”