Posted in Shattering Stigmas

Q&A with Nicole Melleby, Author of “Hurricane Season” and “In the Role of Brie Hutchens…”

I’m so excited to welcome Nicole Melleby, one of my favorite middle grade authors, to my blog for Shattering Stigmas. I loved Nicole’s heartfelt debut HURRICANE SEASON and can’t wait for her next two books IN THE ROLE OF BRIE HUTCHENS… and HOW TO BECOME A PLANET. I’m so grateful for the multi-faceted and relatable girls that Nicole is bringing to kid lit and I always love to support a fellow Jersey Girl. You can can buy HURRICANE SEASON on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Book Depository and IndieBound. You can pre-order IN THE ROLE OF BRIE HUTCHENS… on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Book Depository and IndieBound. You can find Nicole on Twitter and her website.

Taylor Tracy: In Hurricane Season, there is the emotional arc of Fig’s Dad, who is struggling with mental illness, and then Fig, who is struggling with questioning her sexuality and the stress of managing her Dad’s mental illness to “protect” her family from CPS. Can you talk a bit about how you developed these two arcs and what you hoped to say with this story? 

Vincent van Gogh plays a major role in Hurricane Season. He serves as a lens through which Fig copes with her Dad’s illness and her role in relation to it. How did van Gogh and his life come to be a part of this story and did any research you did on his life surprise you?

Note: These were originally two separate questions that Nicole answered together. 🙂

Nicole Melleby: In spring 2017, my cousin Andrew was studying abroad in London. My aunt and uncle were planning a vacation for themselves and Andrew’s two younger sisters to go out for a week to see him. I pretty much decided I was going to crash the trip, and they, being the best, didn’t complain about it. 

At the time, I was coming out of a low period emotionally, and hadn’t really been writing anything much; it was too hard to be creative when I was feeling the way I was. But I was finally ready to try something new. I knew I wanted to explore the relationship between a father and daughter…but that was pretty much all I had. I didn’t really expect to work on the idea at all while on vacation, but I adjusted to the jet lag pretty quickly, while my family decidedly did not. So, I had my mornings to myself and I knew that the National Gallery in London was free—and I do love a free museum—so I decided to check it out.

When I got to the Van Gogh paintings, there was a tour guide talking about Van Gogh’s mental illness, and there was just…something so unbelievable relatable about what he was saying—particularly since, like I said, I was just coming out of my own depression—and I ended up going to the gift shop and buying a book of Van Gogh’s letters. At the time, the only thing I knew about Van Gogh was that he cut off his ear—so the surprising part was learning how much I felt connected to him and his thoughts and his mental illness the more I read about him, the more I wanted to understand him. 

I read all of his letters on the plane ride home, and I knew exactly what I wanted to write by the time we landed.

As far as Fig’s sexuality—I always knew I wanted to write queer stories, so I didn’t really give it much thought at first. I’m a queer woman, and I know how much these sort of coming of age stories would have meant to me when I was younger. 

The one thing I hope kids get out of this book, the one thing I wanted to accomplish, was that they know they aren’t alone, that they’re seen, that I see them.

Taylor: Hurricane Season and your upcoming 2020 middle grade, In the Role of Brie Hutchens…, deal with the emotional struggle of discovering one’s identity and beginning to share that with the people in one’s life. Can you discuss a bit about what brings you to write about the emotional journeys of queer girls in middle grade and how writing Brie’s story was different from writing Fig’s?

Nicole: Like I said, as a queer individual, it’s important for me to tell stories that I would have needed. That’s pretty much the question that every queer kidlit author is asked: Do you write the stories you needed? Of course I do! But also the answer is a little more complicated than that. The middle grade readers of now are different than when I was a middle grader—what they needed is different than what I needed, or wanted. So I try and think about what it would be like to be queer in today’s world, and mix that with the stories I wish I had when I was younger, and then just tell the most honest story I can about that journey. 

The biggest difference between writing Fig’s story and writing Brie’s, is that Brie’s sexuality plays a huge role in IN THE ROLE OF BRIE HUTCHENS…, it’s basically the leading storyline. Every obstacle that Brie faces stems from her awkward first crush on a girl, and her desperation to connect with her religious mom, in the face of her sexuality and what that means for her moving forward. Fig’s sexuality wasn’t what the story was shaped around, it was just a part of who Fig was. Both books also have coming out scenes—but Fig’s is short, and simple, and easy (which was something I wanted to write more than anything) and Brie’s is much more complicated, and happens over, and over, and over again. Fig’s dad accepts her (he’s even learning about his own sexuality in the meanwhile) while Brie’s family needs a little more work. 

It just goes to show that there’s no one way to come out, there’s no one story, that there are different ways to be accepted, different ways to understand who you are, different understandings of it in general. 

Taylor: I have to say, from someone who was a huge space nerd and Hayden Planetarium geek as a kid, I am SO excited for your 2021 release How to Become a Planet. Can you tell us anything about that book and what you’re trying to do with the mental health representation in it?

Nicole: I keep referring to this book as my inverse HURRICANE SEASON. The story starts off with an 11-year-old girl named Pluto having just gotten a depression and anxiety diagnosis. While HURRICANE SEASON dealt with Fig and her dad struggling with his undiagnosed bipolar disorder for most of the book, Pluto and her mom are struggling to understand and deal with Pluto’s diagnosis and what that means for Pluto moving forward. 

My friend Josh Levy (who wrote a wonderful sci-fi MG book called SEVENTH GRADE VS. THE GALAXY) actually told me that he called the Hayden Planetarium Question and Answer Hotline to ask them questions about traveling in space while writing his book, which takes place on a public school that is a spaceship. When he told me this, I had already written a first draft of Pluto’s story—and her mom’s love of outer space and how she gave that love to Pluto—and I knew immediately I wanted to write that into my story. So Pluto, while wondering why astronauts decided that Pluto (the dwarf planet) wasn’t a planet anymore, and wondering why she has depression and why her life is changing because of it, calls up the Hotline to ask all of the big questions that are on her mind. Even if they can’t exactly help her. 

Taylor: What are some of your recommendations for great mental health representation, whether it’s in books, movies, TV, etc.? 

Nicole: Here are some of my favorite Middle Grade books that feature characters with mental illness: 

Taylor: Are there any mental health issues you wish were more widely represented in middle grade and YA, or issues you hope to write about but haven’t had the chance yet?

Nicole: Just like I said about how there isn’t one story fits all for sexuality, the same goes for mental illness. I would love more of the issues already written about, I would love ones that haven’t been written yet. Just like in LGBTQ MG—there isn’t as many stories about POC with mental illness, so I’d like a wider variety of children’s stories being told, too. I’m hoping to be able to continue to explore different stories about middle grade characters with different sexualities and mental illnesses moving forward, too. 

Taylor: Do you have any self-care tips, tricks or secrets you’d like to share, especially for writers?

Nicole: You don’t have to write every day—I see so many writers wracked with guilt over how much or how little they write day-to-day, and it’s hard! Write how much you want to write, how much you need to write. You decide what those answers are. 

Find a group of writers who are in the same boat as you. If you’re looking for an agent? Find writers to commiserate with. If you’re on sub? Ditto. Find a debut group if you’re having a very first book coming out—because all of these stages are daunting and new and no one knows how to navigate them, but it helps not navigating them alone. 

Also: If you’re facing a rejection? I find it best to sing this ridiculous song, because it’s so ridiculous it makes me feel better every single time I have sung it to myself (which has been often, because rejection is part of being a writer!): Nobody loves me, everybody hates me, I should just go eat worms. Worms! Worms! Worms!

Nicole Melleby is a born-and-bred Jersey girl with a passion for storytelling. She studied creative writing at Fairleigh Dickinson University and currently teaches creative writing and literature courses with a handful of local universities. Her debut novel, HURRICANE SEASON earned three starred reviews and was awarded the Skipping Stones Honor Award for exceptional contribution to multicultural and ecological awareness in children’s literature. Her second novel, IN THE ROLE OF BRIE HUTCHENS… will be released Spring 2020. When she’s not writing, Nicole can be found browsing the shelves at her local comic shop or watching soap operas with a cup of tea..

Posted in Shattering Stigmas

Q&A with Erin Hahn, Author of “You’d Be Mine” and “More Than Maybe”

I’m so excited to welcome author Erin Hahn to the blog today. I talked to Erin about her heartbreakingly beautiful debut You’d Be Mine and her highly anticipated sophomore novel More Than Maybe. You can buy You’d Be Mine on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Book Depository and IndieBound. You can pre-order More Than Maybe, out May 12, 2020, on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Book Depository and IndieBound. You can find Erin on her website, Twitter and Instagram. And if you love music and You’d Be Mine, check out Erin’s playlist here. Heck, listen to it while you read this interview…

Taylor Tracy: One of the goals of Shattering Stigmas is to dismantle the stigma against mental illness by creating a safe space for people to discuss and raise awareness about mental health via their favorite mental health reads and personal experiences. What does mental health awareness mean to you and how does it intersect with your creative process?

Erin Hahn: I love the term “safe space”, because I was a teen when the internet first went World Wide and changed the dynamic of sharing personal experiences. The anonymity of the internet (particularly before social media) felt like a safe space to be real. It seemed at the time that you could blog your journey and strangers could read it and there was no judgment. Except there absolutely was! And that same anonymity that the bloggers felt, protected the often cruel readers too. It was a painful realization that hurt so many young people and adults alike and scared many people back into their shame-filled shells.

Books are different. You can’t talk back to a book. You can certainly vet your feelings about something an author has written, but there is no onsite-comments section. At least for the duration of the readers time spent in the pages, they are safe to understand and read and feel whatever the author evokes in their writing. I love this. It impressed upon me that I have this small window of opportunity to reach a reader where they are at with a taste of where I’ve been and maybe show them they aren’t alone. That what they are feeling or experiencing isn’t specific to them. Or if it is, perhaps it takes the loneliness away. It can validate. Let me say that again… VALIDATE. To me, validation is everything. Social media is full of people telling others HOW TO FEEL or telling them WHAT THEY ARE FEELING IS WRONG or telling them TO STOP FEELING THAT WAY RIGHT NOW and thats bullshit (pardon). I wanted to write books, particularly for teens, that showed people saying THIS IS HOW I FEEL and THAT’S OKAY because I AM SURVIVING THE BEST WAY I KNOW HOW.

Sometimes survival is therapy, or treatment or screaming your feelings in a cemetery. Sometimes its medication or journaling or activism. Sometimes its distancing yourself from hurtful people. Its imperative that we are offering up solutions for young people and allowing them the space to see what works for them.

Taylor: Part of what I love about You’d Be Mine is that it’s a steamy romance about fame and music, but it’s also an incredibly poignant story about loss and emotionally struggling in unhealthy ways. How do you balance these two sides of the story when you’re writing?

Erin: Goodness this was a tough one for me. I’m glad you think it worked. 🙂 I was extremely mindful of the all-too common trope of “love fixing all”. More than anything, it was important to me that Clay (and to a lesser extent, Annie) healed first. Love doesn’t fix all and it’s dangerous to let young people believe it can. Everyone has their own battles to face, even in a contemporary romance. Maybe it’s not as heavy as addiction and grief and celebrity, since not everyone is as famous as Clay Coolidge, but that doesn’t mean its not real. When I set out to write a story, I’m actually writing two. I always write a dual point of view, complete with dual character arcs. Every person has a journey and just because falling in love is a apart of that, doesn’t mean its the end of it. It’s taken me a while to reconcile this process… I realize when people are picking up a YA romance, they are looking for butterflies and sweetness and sometimes my version is too messy and raw for that readership.

But that’s okay. My version of events helps me to sleep at night, knowing I’m telling it like it is. My characters will always find their happily ever after, they’ll just have to work a little harder for it.

Taylor: Some of the mental health issues you explore in You’d Be Mine include substance abuse, suicide, the pressures of fame and panic attacks. How did you choose to write about these issues in this book and what was the process of writing them like?

Erin: Wow, when you list it all out like that… *whew*. To be frank, I didn’t set out to write any of those things when I started. I don’t choose issues for my characters to face, just as real people don’t necessarily choose their struggles. I chose to write Clay and Annie’s stories and those were natural motivations and ramifications of their journey. Annie was a traumatized mess when she came to me and thats BECAUSE her parents died the way they did. Clay was a borderline alcoholic at 18, that doesn’t just happen because he liked the taste of beer. He was burying some real grief. I think it’s vital that we as authors are mindful of digging into the whys. It’s irresponsible to give a character mental health issues without exploring what brought those issues about in the first place. One of my favorite parts of that book is when Annie finished performing the song “You’d Be Mine” for the first time in the recording studio and she’s talking to her cousin, Kacey. Kacey kind of scoffs at Annie for saying she and Clay together were a volatile combination. She says, “You’re barely 18, Annie, what on earth do you know about being volatile?” Annie looks at her and says, “I was raised on volatile!” I love how Annie had the sense of self and maturity to realize her and Clay’s emotional baggage was too much even when their friends and family and managers and label execs didn’t.

Taylor: Your upcoming 2020 release More Than Maybe, also explores music, fame and teen love. Can you talk a little about what emotional and/or mental health issues you address in that book?

Erin: Sure! Luke and Vada aren’t famous in the same way Clay and Annie are. That said, Luke is the soft-spoken son of a famous former British Punk Rock icon. He has natural song-writing and singing abilities that drive his father bonkers because he’d love nothing more for Luke to follow in his footsteps and Luke would love nothing less. More Than Maybe discusses a lot of Parent-Child angst. Parents who fail to see who their kids really are and love them as is. Parents who aren’t really parents at all and break their kids hearts. Adults who aren’t biological parents, but end up filling in those parent-shaped holes in a teen’s life. These were all things that I personally related to and while they aren’t super high on the Epic Mental Health Issue roster, I think they are real. Growing up, your first interactions and experiences with mental health involve those closest to you… your families. For better or worse, they form who you become and how you deal moving forward as an adult. Luke and Vada have their work cut out for them and I think they do a wonderful job advocating for themselves as they dive into young adulthood.

Taylor: What are some of your recommendations for great mental health representation, whether it’s in books, movies, TV, etc.?

Erin: Hm. This is a hard one for me, BECAUSE mental health is so personal and I feel like me, listing out specific titles and encouraging people to go there, could lead to someone being disappointed or hurt? If that makes sense. Ironic, I know, as someone who writes the books I do. To be perfectly honest, for me, the most universal mental health representation happens in music. A well-written song can reach a person exactly where they are at and both validate and sooth at once. This past summer, something kind of horrifying and extremely painful was revealed to me, sending me spiraling, even at nearly 37 years of age. I immediately went to music and listened to the same four songs on repeat, every day, until my eyes dried up and my throat hurt from screaming. Were those songs written about me? Or the specific things that were breaking my heart? Nope. But they did a bang up job of piecing me back together regardless. Those lyrics and emotions healed me where I stood. That’s the power of music. I don’t know a book or movie or TV show that can do that so perfectly.

PS The songs were “Waiting at the End” Linkin Park, “I’ll Find You” Lecrae and Tori Kelly, “Praying” Kesha and “Life on Earth” by Snow Patrol.

Taylor: Are there any mental health issues you wish were more widely represented in middle grade and YA, or issues you hope to write about but haven’t had the chance yet?

Erin: In my third book, I’m tackling religious trauma. There isn’t a day that goes by that there isn’t some story in the news about some scandal in the church, or about how many young people are distancing themselves from religion because of abuse, neglect, persecution or gaslighting. As someone who grew up in the church and has experienced some or all of these things, I want to write about them and shed light in a pretty lonely place.

Taylor: Do you have any self-care tips, tricks or secrets you’d like to share, especially for writers?

Erin: When I am writing heavy, I have to read light. Or watch TV, light, as the case may be. People assume that because my books are on the darker side, that’s where my interest lies. It might have been at one point, but in the process of writing deep, authentic, hurting characters, I have to also put myself in that place time and again and it’s a lot! I balance that with comedy and kissing books and cross stitch and watching musicals with my little girl. I take my dog for long walks and paint my nails. I have a playlist that is entitled “Just Erin, Not a Character” where its only music that belongs only to me. After finished a particularly rough draft or scene, I bury myself in that playlist and let it heal up the sharp aches. I enjoy coloring and Great British Bake Off. I’ll make confetti cake for my family.

I’ve learned that forcing myself to be social and generous with my time is self care, as contradictory as that may sounds. I’m such an introvert and I love spending time in my head with my characters, but for my sanity, I have to close the door on them and talk to real, live people, too. It’s always a battle, but once I’m there, I’m glad I’ve done it.

Thank you so much, Erin!
It’s been a pleasure to talk to you for Shattering Stigmas!

Erin Hahn spent the first half of her life daydreaming in a small town in northern Illinois. She fell in love with words in college when she wrote for the campus paper, covering everything from drag shows to ice fishing and took way too much liberty with a history essay on the bubonic plague.

She started writing her own books when her little sister gave her shade about a country music-themed Twilight fanfic. By day, Erin gets to share her favorite stories with her elementary students. By night, she writes swoons. She married her own YA love interest whom she met on her first day of college and has two kids who are much, much cooler than she ever was at their age. She lives in Michigan, aka the greenest place on earth and has a cat, Gus, who plays fetch and a dog, June, who doesn’t.She started writing her own books when her little sister gave her shade about a country music-themed Twilight fanfic. By day, Erin gets to share her favorite stories with her elementary students. By night, she writes swoons. She married her own YA love interest whom she met on her first day of college and has two kids who are much, much cooler than she ever was at their age. She lives in Michigan, aka the greenest place on earth and has a cat, Gus, who plays fetch and a dog, June, who doesn’t.

Posted in Blog Series

Q&A with Derek Milman, Author of “Scream All Night” and “Swipe Right for Murder”

Welcome back to 30 Days of Pride! Today I’m so happy to have had the chance to talk to Derek Milman, who I shook down these answers from during his BEA signing (JK JK JK). Derek is one of my favorite people in YA right now and I know y’all are going to love this conversation. He has also worked as a playwright and actor, and ran an underground humor magazine as a teen…which makes a lot of sense if you read his books. His next book, SWIPE RIGHT FOR MURDER, is out August 6, 2019 and his debut SCREAM ALL NIGHT is out right now. You can pre-order SWIPE RIGHT FOR MURDER, and you should (or else), from Amazon, Barnes & Noble and IndieBound. And you can find Derek on Twitter!

Taylor: SWIPE RIGHT FOR MURDER, which comes out August 9, is your second book. To start us off, could you begin by talking a bit about how writing your second book was different than writing your first book and what you brought into your sophomore book that you learned from writing your debut?

Derek Milman: I wrote SWIPE right on the heels of of SCREAM ALL NIGHT. Barely a pause at all, I was afraid to pause. It’s like I had the same engine and that thing was just whirring in high gear and I needed that horsepower. I feel like that engine has since been replaced with something more searching and deliberate (which is fine, just different) because my third book which I’m currently drafting is moving at a much more measured pace.

Once SAN got acquired, everyone asked what else I was working on. I really wanted to put a troubled gay kid at the center of an action-adventure story, and address that part of my identity in my own way. I said something to my agent about how I wanted to write a “dark, funny, gay Hitchcock” — something that felt very now but also had a subtle gloss of something classical to it, and she was like: please write this for me! The main thing that was different this time was that I didn’t have Moldavia. I wasn’t sheltered behind a fictional movie studio; this was happening more so in the real world (as we know it), so there was a different level of research needed. Not less, or more, just different. But I got to do some fun reconnaissance work. I went to the Mandarin Oriental Hotel (from the first scene in the book) and scoped it, had their tea service, took photos. I set a chunk of the book around where I live, so I went to those parts of Brooklyn and took photographs (of the tennis courts, for instance, where Aidan makes that climactic drop near the end) and of all the wild urban art in Bushwick, and the glowing re-purposed factory spaces, to see what it all looked like late at night. It has a fantastic Neo-noir glow to it all.

I’ve never been afraid of really “going there” in what I write. Life can be over-the-top and sometimes unbelievable. Look what’s going on right now, it’s like we’re living in a dystopian sci-fi story. But, that said, people might be surprised by how many aspects of SWIPE are real — Vegas Hotel death rays, co-living start-ups, the Merrick Gables, Samy Kamkar, the anonymous leaflet the Swans use as their manifesto — all are real or based on real things. And going off all that, the main thing I brought to SWIPE that I learned from my debut is probably a firmer sense of myself as an artist – -this is what I do, this is how I develop characters and tell stories, this is clearly my style, and having more of an awareness of that and embracing it, which allows for more risk-taking in my writing. And I believe in taking risks. I like when things are a little dirty, a little messy, so they pop.

Taylor: In SWIPE RIGHT FOR MURDER, Aidan is a gay teenager who is both experiencing things that are very normal or average for a gay teenager to experience and also dealing with the FBI, cults and terrorist organizations. Can you discuss a little bit about how you one, created Aidan as a character and two, crafted these very different feelings and situations that he experiences in the book.

Derek: Aidan is similar to me in that we both grew up in relatively sheltered suburbs. But people still go through shit growing up, and coming out, and we both had our hearts broken (albeit in different ways, but pain is pain). Writing books takes a huge toll on me I’ve learned, not just the emotional/psychological/mental, but also physical. For some reason the process of writing SAN led to these mysterious stomach issues; when a doctor did take an EKG and thought my heart might be enlarged (it’s not) I went through the same process as Aidan in the beginning of the book, having an echocardiogram done on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. I use everything that happens to me in life in my writing; I have a very slanted, sometimes wicked sense of humor, and if these wild things did occur, I’m pretty sure I would joke about them — in the way Aidan does — since humor is a healthy, necessary way of dealing with all the darkness and the horror of life (and coming of age, especially if you’re broken like Aidan is, and have added pressure on top of all that to figure out who you are, and who you’re going to be).

It’s really about forging a link from Aidan — his distinct voice — to the circumstances surrounding him, and keeping that link strong. They aren’t two diverging things per se, character and plot, it’s all happening through Aidan’s eyes, so he’s the reader’s way in, through his own observations, which are built out of his life experiences. Aidan came alive on the page as I went along. I just don’t see the gay people that I know, that I meet in life, reflected in movies and contemporary literature much. Gay dudes love rock n’ roll and EDM and art and have piercings and tattoos and complex family relationships, and they’re architects and cardiologists and museum curators and drink craft beer.

There’s a whole spectrum of humanity out there, and I wanted to explore that. I wanted to create a very different kind of hero for all the gay kids out there who may not feel like they belong where they are, or see themselves reflected in contemporary media. Aidan’s had some real tragedy in his young life, and out of that, he’s made some questionable decisions as a way of dealing with pain, and guilt, and out of that came more questionable decisions, so creating his psychological profile was like going from point A to point B, understanding all his flaws and where they stem from. It all makes a kind of sense when you think about what he’s been through, what he’s running from. And then this spring break happens to him! In Hollywood parlance, I wanted an out gay teen to be the one “holding the gun” in an action-adventure caper — I wanted him to be Carey Grant. At the end of the day, Aidan just wants to be loved, like any of us do. That’s all he truly wants.

Taylor: In SWIPE RIGHT FOR MURDER, you include a terrorist organization that specifically targets homophobes, which is such an interesting and tantalizing concept. Can you discuss what led you to include this organization in your thriller and what you hope it adds to the conversation around queerness and identity in your book?

Derek: I will never suggest we all become the Swans and kill right-wing homophobes or harm anyone, I’ll never be for violence and destruction, but we can’t let complacency swallow us up either. This is going to shock you — but when I first started drafting this book, approximately three years ago, Trump wasn’t even in office yet! It wasn’t as bad as it is now, and I do think our rights are perpetually being endangered. It just takes one bakery in the middle of nowhere that is allowed to deny service to gay people, and from there, it’s a domino effect. It starts very small, people don’t realize that. Sometimes it just starts with a cake.

I cannot tell you how many gay men told me, around 2016, that “Hillary wasn’t an option for them” and they probably just weren’t going to vote because no one “spoke to them.” SIDE RANT: People have to understand the stakes are even higher for 2020. We may not get the exact candidate that we want; we may not get our first choice, but we have to come together and vote for the right side anyway. The damage being done now by the Republicans is already incalculable; it will reverberate for generations. It is very hard undoing an autocracy. Everyone must vote for the sake of our lives.

This does come up in the book a bit, but there is less of a culture these days, I think, tying LGBTQ people together. We’re all isolated, sprayed out into the digital universe, streaming our own TV shows, having anything we want be delivered via app, any piece of information can be googled, anything can be downloaded, and I think this leads to a removal of reality, of any actual danger, thinking we’re just on the periphery, and it’s other people’s rights who will be taken away. During the AIDS crisis, members of ACT UP chained themselves to the New York Stock Exchange to protest the soaring price of AIDS drugs, they stood in front of the FDA and shut it down! They went to jail. Can you imagine that happening today? Everyone should look to the Women’s March, which is amazing and vital, even though protests need to be constant and organized, and all marginalized communities need to have them CONSTANTLY to protest any infringement on their rights — quickly, constantly, with much fury! Plus, Gay History, the struggle for LGBTQ equality, is not taught in schools, and that needs to change.

The Swans were born out of a simple conversation I had with a gay friend many years ago, who’s a writer and performance artist. We were talking about how it was still just sort of culturally and politically OK in many sectors to marginalize members of the LGBTQ community by hiding behind these loose ideas of “religious freedom” — this was before Mike Pence was our VP. I said, “well, what do we do? How can we mobilize?” He gave me a dark look. He said: “You’re not going to like what I have to say.” I said: “what, tell me?”  He said: “we need to start blowing stuff up.” I have never forgotten that conversation.

Taylor: Your writing is so notable for its wit and humor. Can you discuss a bit why it’s important for you to include humor in your books, especially thrillers?

Derek: Thank you, that’s kind of you to say, it’s nice to be considered “notable” for something, haha. I have a humorous brain. I think comically, always have. This keeps me up at night thinking about the absurdity of situations. I think life is absurd; I’ve found escape through humor, through comedy, and as a writer I think it’s important to take the side of your reader, and sort of chaperone them, to an extent, onto the battlefield that is your own book. It can’t just be about you, the writer. Humor is a great way to keep a story tonally balanced; if there’s horror, pain, darkness, you can’t hammer your reader over the head with just the heavy stuff, you have to give them a palate cleanser, a little cup of grapefruit sorbet to keep them going. I always want to write things that will make people feel things, but I never want to leave a reader feeling destroyed, exhausted, and hopeless. 

Taylor: What are some queer identities, stories, themes, etc. you want to see in YA that you haven’t seen yet?

Derek: Holy cow, where do I start? OK, this isn’t strictly YA, but I want to read about a gay marriage. Maybe even divorce. I want the whole thing. There is virtually nothing written about long-term gay couples and how they survive and stay together in today’s world. I have been with my partner for almost 19 years. We met when we were very young; I guess I don’t talk about this much for the sake of our privacy, and my partner’s privacy, but young gay men, and perhaps society at large, should know this is possible. Gay people can find lasting love.

More ideas: how gay couples manage their money! Haha, I know that sounds so mundane, but I feel like a whole book could be written about that topic. In more YA, I’d love to see a gay superhero, a gay assassin, a gay warrior, chef, whatever, where the character’s identity isn’t the plot, but just a given about who they are. Spider Man, but instead of Mary Jane Watson he has a boyfriend, who happens to be a journalist. Wonder Woman, but she has a girlfriend who’s also pilots a fighter jet. Why not? I’d love to read more stories about gender fluidity like Jeff Garvin’s amazing Symptoms of Being Human, queer retellings and pansexuality, especially in high concept, like Once & Future by Amy Rose Capetta and Cori Mccarthy, and f/f romance in beautifully-written fantasy like Girls of Paper and Fire.

Video games are now really upping the level of storytelling, and they have touched on this briefly, but I’d be interested in seeing a gay hero of a video game. I don’t care about the specific genre.

I used to teach at a film school, and I was surprised by how many boys — not just gay ones, but straight ones — were completely obsessed with Kieran Culkin’s character from Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. He was low-key, chill about his identity, unapologetically sexual, very confident, he was who he was. That character was quietly groundbreaking, I think.

Taylor: What are some of your favorite queer YA recommendations right now?

Derek: Lie With Me is a beautiful, heartbreaking novel about gay love, essentially YA, similar to Call Me By Your Name, except there’s no age difference, there’s a class difference; they’re both high school boys, in rural France, way too aware that they both have two very different futures ahead of them that will ultimately splinter them apart. Two LGBT graphic novels really gripped me recently: Home After Dark, and Bloom. There are a lot of great authors writing YA with LGBTQ characters and themes these days; people seem to celebrate the same three or four, but make sure you check out books by David Levithan, Caleb Roehrig, Cale Dietrich, Shaun David Hutchinson, Jandy Nelson, Michael Barakiva, and Bill Konigsberg.

Taylor: What other pieces of media (so books, movies, TV, theater, music, etc.) have been fundamental to your experience as a queer person or are your favorite examples of queer representation? 

Derek: Andrew Smith with his Winger books has written some of the funniest, truest YA incorporating young gay characters that I can think of. I came of age during the peak of what’s now regarded as New Queer Cinema and early films by Todd Haynes, Gus Van Sant, and Gregg Araki were formative for me. Oscar Wilde’s life story (and his work) is such a massive influence on queer culture, but too many queer icons and artists are being forgotten and need to be re-discovered: Gertrude Stein, Quentin Crisp, Arthur Rimbaud, Derek Jarman, Jobriath, James Baldwin, Charles Ludlam, Thomas Eakins, E.M. Forster, to name a few.

Taylor: If you could give advice or a message to the LGBTQPIA+ identifying folks who maybe don’t have a sense of community, feel alone, aren’t out, etc. this month, what would you say?

Derek: I wasn’t always OK as a young gay man. Oftentimes, I felt alone, confused, broken, and worthless. I really struggled with my self-worth and identity. I fell prey to a string of unhealthy relationships, because that’s what I felt I deserved. I had no idea where or whom to turn to at times. There was just nothing back then, a dark empty field. I wound up seeing a therapist when I was around 20 who really helped me come to terms with a lot of things.  It’s the tangential people sometimes, those in the blurry margins of the painting of your life, who make the most difference, and wake you up. Every human being on this planet has worth, and no one should ever dare tell you otherwise. Thankfully, there are more resources now than ever, and no one should ever feel ashamed about reaching out, and getting help. Being a person is hard. This planet is rough and cruel. As bad as things can get, they will, and they do, get better. Please know that above all. No one is ever alone.

Posted in Shattering Stigmas

A Q&A with Jenn Bennett, Author of ALEX, APPROXIMATELY, STARRY EYES and SERIOUS MOONLIGHT

jenn.jpgI am so, so, so pleased to welcome Jenn Bennett, one of my favorite YA contemporary romance writers, to the blog today to talk about writing mental health into swoony rom-coms, self care and more. If you haven’t read Jenn’s books yet, I can bet you’ll want to by the end of this post and if you love Jenn’s books as much as I do, you’ll definitely want to read on. You can also find Jenn on Twitter or at her website.  

Tay: I’m interested how the pieces of a plot come together for you. A Jenn Bennett book seems to be one part complicated family relationships, two parts swoonworthy sex positive relationships, one part quirky work setting and one part poignant heart and representation of issues. What generally comes first for you, plot, setting or character? And at what point do you start weaving in mental health and illness representation?

Jenn: Every book is different. Usually, though, some kind of a plot comes first, and that’s only because I’m beholden to my publisher. I can’t pitch characters to my editor: “I have this great idea for a girl with urticaria who likes astronomy.” That doesn’t cut it. Publishers want a plot-based hook: “I have this great idea for a romance between two teens who get stuck in the wilderness together after a camping trip goes wrong.” So that’s generally what I start with, to generalize things. However, the mental health aspects…those usually pop up when I start writing and getting to know my characters.

Tay: Several of your books that feature mental health representation—ALEX, APPROXIMATELY, STARRY EYES and your upcoming 2019 release SERIOUS MOONLIGHT are contemporary romances and yet you strike a perfect balance between lightness and seriousness. As a writer, how do you balance these tougher, more serious issues in a genre known for its lightness and fun?

Jenn: I suppose I’m trying to do two things: (1) portray mental health issues in a non-glamorized or fetishized way, and (2) show my characters coping/dealing/facing their issues and living happy lives. Hope is everything to me. It’s my lens. No matter what genre I write, my books are always going to be full of banter, laughter, quirky characters, love, and hope. That’s just who I am as both a person and a writer. Don’t get me wrong: I think there’s great value in books that choose to focus on the grim realities of mental health issues. But stories that focus on a light at the end of the tunnel are equally important. That’s what I try to show. If you’re a character in one of my books, yes, you may struggle with depression or grief or PTSD…but you will still find love. You still have a sense of humor. You still have ambitions. You still get your happy ending. It doesn’t make you less worthy, and it doesn’t define you.

Tay: In several of your books, you work depression, PTSD and suicidal ideation/attempts into the worlds of your characters? Why are these important issues to include in your writing and what draws you to return to them again and again?

Jenn: I never set out to include them, not intentionally, but I suppose there’s some truth in writing what you know. I’ve struggled with anxiety and been on anti-anxiety medications and antidepressants. My husband struggles with depression and adult attention-deficit disorder. Writing, in a way, is digging into your own emotions and memories, so I sometimes feel as if every book I write is an extended counseling session with my ego, super-ego, and Id.

Tay: Building off my last question, in your next book, SERIOUS MOONLIGHT, you have an MC that deals very much with the psychological impacts of grief and you also have a plot thread in which suicide and comforting people we know who have struggled with suicidal ideation and attempts. What inspired you to write about these issues in a more foregrounded way than you have in past works?

Jenn: It’s strange how the title of this book was prophetic. It’s taken from a David Bowie lyric, but in a way, it influenced the tone of the story. Yes, this book is still frothy, funny, and romantic, but the mental health issues are more prominent than they were past books. If I had to guess why, I suppose it’s partly because it was written after the 2016 U.S. presidential elections. Americans are living in a time of turmoil and divisiveness, and as an author, it’s pretty much my job to be sensitive, reflective, and observant of both myself and the world around me. When you’ve got your sensitive-artist antennae out, it’s hard to stop all that darkness from infecting you and leaching into your work. In addition to that, around the time I was writing this book, someone I grew up with as a teenager committed suicide, and I think perhaps his presence was a bit of a ghost inside my brain when I was writing this book.

Tay: A big part of the push behind putting on Shattering Stigmas this year was to continue the conversations we’ve started in the bookish community around mental illness. Why do you find it important to continue fighting the stigma against mental illness?

Jenn: Because I believe we’re all better off if we’re talking honestly and openly about mental illness—not ignoring or isolating it. We’re all in this together, learning to be better. I’m still learning healthier ways to think and write about mental issues. And probably still making mistakes! But I truly believe that stigmatizing mental illness makes all of us sicker.

Tay: What types of mental health issues would you like to see more widely represented in YA?

Jenn: No matter the issue, I’d like to see it being represented with more love and humanity, and less as a plot point that titillates or as a prop to make the protagonist more sympathetic.

Tay: Finally, do you have any self care tips, tricks or secrets?

Jenn: We’re all addicted to social media, and there are plenty of positive things to reap from it. But when your timeline is filled with triggers, anger, and stressors, it’s time to take a break. Even for a day—even for a few hours. Turn off your notifications, for the love of Pete! Did that? Okay, now watch a movie without checking your phone. Go for a walk. Play with your pets. Cook a meal that gives you pleasure. Read a book. Talk to your neighbor. BREATHE. Whatever you choose to do, I promise, all that breaking news and drama will still be there when you’re ready to come back. Take care of yourself first.

Thank you so much, Jenn! I’m so grateful for your time talking about mental illness!

Super interested in Jenn’s YA books now, if you weren’t already? Happy to send you down the Goodreads rabbit hole:

The Anatomical Shape of a Heart
Alex, Approximately
Starry Eyes
Serious Moonlight 
(out 4/16/19)

Enter our *international* giveaway for a mental health read of your choice!

Interested in more Shattering Stigmas posts? Check out this post that Ben, one of our amazing co-hosts, put together listing every single Shattering Stigmas guest post and giveaway so you don’t miss a thing!

Posted in Shattering Stigmas

An Anxious Reader’s Guide to YA Contemporary by Jill @ A Book Nerd Reads

Hello! I’m Jill from booknerd_reads on Instagram and my blog abooknerdreads.wordpress.com. I’m so honored to be appearing on Taylor’s special two-week blogging event for Mental Health Awareness Week, Shattering Stigmas. It’s incredible she’s gathering so many bloggers for this event! This week is special to me in particular because discussing mental health on my social media and blog is an important part of my platform and I’m so glad to be discussing it all with you here.

What’s even more special to me is combining mental health and my love for reading. There is no feeling better than seeing yourself represented in books, so when I find a book that perfectly describes the anxiety I’ve felt all my life, I get this overwhelming sense of joy.

And I want the rest of you to feel that same way.

So I’m going to be sharing a few of my favorite YA novels that feature main characters and or plots that feature anxiety. Some of these books explicitly state the character has anxiety, or is implied through context of the story. If there are any other MI identities featured in the novel, I’ll include that as well as possible trigger warnings if there are listed.

I really hope you like my recommendations! Enjoy!

Eliza and Her Monsters by Francesca Zappia

I read Eliza and Her Monsters back in April, and I absolutely adored it! Eliza has the same as Cath from Fangirl with similar themes of fan culture, but features a main character (Eliza) who is officially diagnosed with anxiety. I really enjoyed the slow burn friends to lover romance (one of my favorite YA tropes!) and the warm feeling of being a part of an online community. If any of that appeals to you, then I definitely recommend Eliza and Her Monsters. Trigger warnings include anxiety, depression, self-harm, and suicidal thoughts.

Under Rose-Tainted Skies by Louise Gornall

Isn’t that cover gorgeous? The main character, Norah, suffers from OCD, anxiety, and agoraphobia. The plot of Under Rose-Tainted Skies surrounds Norah’s mental health—particularly her growing attachment to her next door neighbor, Luke, who feels worlds away from her. I enjoyed the emphasis on relationships within this novel; Norah and her therapist, Norah and her mother, Norah and Luke. . .I recommend Under Rose-Tainted Skies if you’re interested in mental health-based plots. Trigger warnings include OCD, panic attacks, agoraphobia, and self-harm.

Queens of Geek by Jen Wilde

Just like Eliza and Her Monsters, Queens of Geek features themes of fan culture as it’s set at a a convention called SupaCon (think San Diego Comic Con!) The story surrounds Charlie, Taylor, and Jamie are visiting from Australia to attend the convention. Taylor is on the autistic spectrum and has anxiety. While it is not the main point of the story, she spends the novel dealing with her anxiety and growing closer romantically with Jamie. If you like modern pop culture, intersectional identities, and friends to lovers romance, Queens of Geek is perfect for you! Trigger warnings include biphobia, ableism, anxiety, panic attacks, sexism, and bullying.

Finding Audrey by Sophie Kinsella

Finding Audrey is actually the exception here since it is technically middle grade rather than YA, but I’m including it because the themes might resonate with an older audience. This novel features main character, Audrey, who suffers from intense social anxiety and the obstacles surrounding her recovery process. While there is a romantic subplot, the novel is focused on family dynamics (which I really enjoyed!) Content warnings include anxiety and panic attacks.

Turtles All the Way Down by John Green

The main character of Turtles All the Way Down, Aza, suffers from anxiety and OCD. While I personally think the plot and romance aren’t its strongest points, the authenticity behind Aza’s mental illness makes it my favorite novel from John Green (and the most unique!) I love the symbolism of the spiral. I love the deep philosophical themes we know and expect from John, while maintaining a more down-to-earth theme of mental health and identity. Content warnings include OCD, anxiety, self-harm, depersonalization, and panic attacks.

Once again, I really hope you liked my recommendations! Even though I have anxiety myself, my opinion on the representation in these books might differ from someone else because they are just one perspective among many. (That’s just one thing to take into account when reading on heavier subjects like mental health. Luckily, we have cute contemporary themes to balance it out!)

While it’s great to highlight the importance of mental health this week, it’s even more important to keep that support going all year round! Check in on your friends, whether they’re doing great or not-so-great. Drink water, take your medications, get help if you have access, or just talk to someone willing to listen.

Whatever you do, taking care of your mental health is just as important as maintaining your physical health. I want you to be the best you, and you don’t have to do that alone.

Thanks for reading! Here’s to a happy Mental Health Awareness week, month, and year.

Enter our *international* giveaway for a mental health read of your choice!

Interested in more Shattering Stigmas posts? Check out this post that Ben, another of our amazing co-hosts, put together listing every single Shattering Stigmas guest post and giveaway so you don’t miss a thing!

Posted in Blog Tour

Blog Tour: I Do Not Trust You by Laura J. Burns and Melinda Metz (Review and Q&A)

I am so thrilled and grateful to be a part of the blog tour for I Do Not Trust You, the latest thrilling and adventurous YA book from duo Laura J. Burns and Melinda Metz.

You can find the book on Goodreads, Amazon, Barnes & Noble & IndieBound.

Check out the summary here:

37638243Memphis “M” Engle is stubborn to a fault, graced with an almost absurd knowledge of long lost languages and cultures, and a heck of an opponent in a fight. In short: she’s awesome.

Ashwin Sood is a little too posh for her tastes, a member of an ancient cult (which she’s pretty sure counts for more than one strike against him), and has just informed Memphis that her father who she thought was dead isn’t and needs her help.

From the catacombs of Paris to lost temples in the sacred forests, together they crisscross the globe, searching for the pieces of the one thing that might save her father. But the closer they come to saving him—and the more they fall for one another—the closer they get to destroying the world.

I got the chance to ask Laura and Melinda some of my burning questions about the world-building and writing process for I Do Not Trust You:

Tay: In I DO NOT TRUST YOU, M and Ash visit a variety of significant cultural locations around the globe, bringing them to almost every continent on a high-stakes hunt for pieces of a mysterious ancient statue. What was the research process like for choosing these sites? Did you work together? Were there any big surprises or Aha! moments?

Laura and Melinda: We did try to hit most of the continents! Antarctica and Australia didn’t make the cut, unfortunately. We knew the basic requirements for the locations we needed–they had to have been built a certain number of years ago, they had to be religious sites–and that helped narrow down our research. We initially made a long list of possible locations, and then narrowed them down in such a way that we’d have a variety of mythologies and cultures.

The best Aha! moment came at the very beginning, when we were plotting out the story in broad strokes. We knew we wanted an adventurous search for something, but we didn’t know what. We thought of an Egyptian artifact right away because we love Ancient Egypt, but we weren’t sure what it should be. One of our favorite Egyptian myths is the story of Osiris and Isis, which also involves Set, who is a dark god. Set kills Osiris and chops his body into pieces, which he scatters throughout Egypt. Isis, Osiris’s wife, searches for all the pieces and reunites them, reincarnating Osiris. And as we discussed this myth, we thought (Aha!) Isis searched for scattered pieces, and that’s what our heroine is doing as well. So we could use that myth as the basis for our (fictional) Egyptian artifact–it’s chopped into pieces and scattered around the world. It worked perfectly.

 

Tay: Along the same lines of my previous question, were there any sites or locations that you wanted to include, but ended up not fitting into the story?

Laura and Melinda: It was hard to pick only one spot in Egypt. We had a list of several, as you can imagine given our obsession with it! But it wouldn’t have worked for the plot to spend too much time there, so we had to choose the one that fit our story best. We also have an intense attraction to Druids, and we really wanted to use a location that might’ve been sacred to the Druids. Alas, we couldn’t quite find a way to work that in either.

 

Tay: A big part of what I love about I DO NOT TRUST YOU is that it offers a nuanced discussion of religion and what is sacred. Is that something that you two initially set out to write or did it develop over time? How did the weaving of different belief systems from Egyptian cult beliefs to Catholicism to local indigenous pagan beliefs develop as you wrote and then revised the book?

Laura and Melinda: We love anything involving complex mythology or the occult, and we love to create our own mythologies. The different belief systems are fascinating to us, and it’s impossible to separate those systems from the cultures that gave rise to them. One thing that we think gets forgotten when learning about the gods of ancient cultures is that, while we view the myths as merely stories, the people who lived then viewed them as a religion. It’s a mistake to assume that priests in Ancient Egypt weren’t just as devout as priests in our current religions, for instance. One of the best ways to learn about a modern culture is to study the religious beliefs of its people, and that’s true of ancient cultures as well. We like to think about what the lives of those believers were like, rather than only thinking about the gods and what they might symbolize.

With our main male character, Ash, we tried to figure out how it would feel to believe so completely in your religion that it crowds out all other considerations. And with our protagonist, M, we went the other way–she knows so much about so many different belief systems that she doesn’t have one particular belief of her own. Eventually, the theme that we settled on was one of respect for all the different faiths. If an act is done in service of the greater good, then it is sacred. That was something both of our characters could agree on.

Thank you so much Laura and Melinda for answering my questions!

Interested in learning more about I Do Not Trust You and my thoughts on this lovely imaginative book? Keep reading for my review!

Continue reading “Blog Tour: I Do Not Trust You by Laura J. Burns and Melinda Metz (Review and Q&A)”

Posted in #SBPT

Sweet Stories and Bookish Cupcakes

Happy Sunday, Y’all! For today’s #SBPT post, Brooke and I have made y’all something extra sweet! We decided to make cupcakes based off of some of our favorite reads!

Tay’s Treats:

I had so much fun whipping up these bookish bakes. Thanks for everyone who helped me decide which books to serve as my inspiration. I definitely want to bake bookish cupcakes again soon, and play more with flavors and different frostings!

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Starfish by Akemi Dawn Bowman

For this poignant contemporary novel about art and family, I baked a fluffy vanilla cupcake dyed two shades of purple and topped with vanilla buttercream and purple and blue sugar crystal sprinkles!

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The Strange Fascinations of Noah Hypnotik by David Arnold

For this twisty, surreal novel about a boy looking for an alternate trajectory in life, I baked a vibrant and fun vanilla cupcake dyed pink, yellow, green, bright blue and purple, topped with vanilla buttercream frosting and a neon rainbow of sugar crystal sprinkles!

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Sawkill Girls by Claire Legrand

For this feminist, twisty thriller, I baked a rich chocolate cupcake with a hidden surprise of a layer of blood red vanilla cake on the bottom topped with vanilla buttercream frosting and green and yellow sugar crystal sprinkles!

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Grim Lovelies by Megan Shepherd

For this funky Parisian fantasy book filled with witches, goblins and more I baked a chocolate cupcake with a pop of white vanilla cake on the bottom, topped with vanilla buttercream and red sugar crystals!

Brooke’s Bakes:

My cupcakes definitely didn’t picture as well as I would’ve liked but hey! They were both still delicious and I think they captured the essence of both books.  

Anna Dressed in Blood by Kendare Blake

For my Anna Dressed in Blood cupcake, I made a black velvet batter with a cherry pie center, and buttercream frosting splattered with “blood”(cherry pie filling!) on top!

Click HERE to see my review on why I loved Anna so much! Click HERE to find out why Lies You Never Told Me turned into an insta fave!

Lies You Never Told Me by Jennifer Donaldson

For my Lies You Never Told Me cupcake I used the same black velvet batter, but this time I made a “fiery” cinnamon cream cheese frosting!

What books would you like to see transformed into cupcakes?

Posted in Cover Reveal

Check Out the Cover for Antipodes by Michele Bacon!

Today Michele Bacon and Rockstar Book Tours are revealing the cover and an exclusive excerpt for ANTIPODES, which releases April 3, 2018! I am so thrilled to be a part of this reveal because this book looks phenomenal and the cover is GOALS.

Check out the gorgeous cover and enter to win an ARC!

On to the reveal! 

But first, why don’t you check out the premise for ANTIPODES?

When Erin Cerise steps off her plane in Christchurch, New Zealand, she is focused intently on her mission: do something unique that will erase the mess she made of her life days before her 17th birthday. She’s already lost her swim team captainship, her boyfriend Ben, and her reputation. Her mother is certain studying abroad will regain Erin’s chances of a good future. Once Erin sees her uninspiring host family and city, though, Erin’s not so sure.
Before Christchurch, Erin wasn’t always intense and focused. A mission used to sound like a fun adventure, and the only ivy she cared about was the stuff growing around her grandparents’ back porch at their peaceful Upper Peninsula home. When had her priorities gone upside down?
Now Erin balks at NZ’s scratchy school uniforms, cold houses, and her hosts’ utter inability to pronounce her name correctly. Christchurch does boast amazing rock climbing, gorgeous scenery, and at least one guy who could make her forget Ben if she lets him. With months ahead of her, Erin slowly begins to draw on the years behind her, one step back into her memories and then another, as she rebuilds her life from the other side of the world to find that when life turns your world upside down and you’re farthest from home, every way you move takes you closer to where you came from.
DOESN’T THAT SOUND AMAZING?

Now why don’t you check out an excerpt of the gorgeous writing?

Alone at lunch, Erin cracked her Italian book and read ahead. The clouds had burned off during her art experiments, but everything was still damp. She juggled her Italian book and lunch until Jade called her name.

“In here!” Jade pulled Erin into a gymnasium.

They sat on the floor, and Jade said, “How are you finding New Zealand?”

“Still jet lagged,” Erin said.

“True kiwi lunch here, want some?” Jade held out a plastic container of brown and grey food.

“Every time someone mentions kiwi, I picture fuzzy green fruit,” Erin said.

“Aye, we’ve got kiwi fruit, too. This is bangers and mash.”

“Funny, isn’t it? Last night, Felicity asked whether I liked—whether I fancied—kumara. An orange vegetable. Not a carrot. Soft in the middle when cooked, but not a squash. Then she served it and it was a sweet potato.”

“Kumara are my favorite in winter.”

“Yeah. My grampa used to make them with brown sugar and cinnamon. I love them, so you see how off-kilter I feel. Same cars, but yours are smaller. And slower. Everything is a little slower. We speak the same language, to an extent. But sometimes? I have no idea what people are saying. And sometimes, words have entirely different meanings. At home, biscuits are small, fluffy, buttery breakfast breads. What you call biscuits, we call cookies.”

“Sounds delicious, either way,” Jade said.

Outside, a circle of guys bunched up over the rugby ball, pushing hard but not moving in any particular direction. “Aren’t words funny?” she said. “I once met a girl at a resort in North Carolina—that’s actually in the southern part of America—and she and I realized when a Chicago native says she skis, she means skiing in snow. But we also go water skiing.

“In the south, though, where it’s warm, skiing means water. And they call the other kind snow skiing.”

“Here, of course, the North Island is the warm part, and we get the cold down here,” Jade said. “One of us is upside down.”

“Yeah. It’s definitely me.”

And now, the moment you have been waiting for (unless you just scrolled down, which okay, valid)…
Drumroll please…
*more drumroll*
And here it is, the cover for ANTIPODES by Michele Bacon!
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Title: ANTIPODES

Author: Michele Bacon

Pub. Date: April 3, 2018

Publisher: Sky Pony Press

Formats: Hardcover, eBook

Pages: 400

Find it: AmazonB&NTBDGoodreads

 
About Michele: 
I was born in Trumbull County, the only
square county in Ohio, where books were my favorite means of escaping an
unhappy childhood. Writing was my transparent attempt to create the things I
craved: big happy families, international adventures and unconditional
friendship. From a young age, I was drawn to people’s stories, and I still want
to know how you met your best friend or fell in love with your partner.
In high school, I embraced my inner geek
and wrote my first novel. In college, there were short stories and still more
novels. I graduated from The Ohio State University with a B.A. in English, with
concentrations in critical theory and creative writing.
Full-time work sapped my creative brain
for several years, but my professional life was one of reinvention. In state
government, business management consulting, and nonprofit fundraising, I
adapted easily and absorbed the languages of different professions. My last
paying job was as an independent fundraising consultant for nonprofit
organizations. That was seven years ago.
Since then, I have been writing and
traveling (and, let’s be honest, chasing down small people who don’t like to
wear clothes). I’ve traveled to all 50 states and dozens of other countries,
always collecting pieces of characters and ideas for stories. I recently spent
a year on sabbatical in Christchurch, New Zealand, where I may have left my
heart at Ilam School. Now that we’ve settled back in the States, I’m writing
for adults and young adults, exploring the Pacific Northwest, and baking like a
fiend. (You’d thinking baking would be the same everywhere, but it’s not.
Something is different about kiwi butter.)
When an idea strikes, I scrawl sweeping
plot outlines, character idiosyncrasies, and ideas for scenes on the nearest
blank spot of paper. My current manuscript was born of those torn slips of
paper, used envelopes, lollipop wrappers, fuel receipts and–once–that little
paper bit that keeps a nursing pad sticky until it’s time to use it. My
manuscripts are better than the quality of papers where they began. Promise.
Outside of writing, I am a tabletop game
enthusiast, passionate skier, and lover of prime numbers. I also am a mentor at
the Moving Words Writing Clinic, and a freelance copyeditor.
I live in Seattle with my husband and
three growing children.
SO DO YOU WANT AN ARC OF THIS FANTASTIC-SOUNDING BOOK? I KNOW I DO! 

3 winners will receive an ARC of ANTIPODES
(when they are available in January 2018), US Only.

Enter Here!

Posted in Book Review

Review: Sparrow by Sarah Moon

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Sparrow by Sarah Moon, Arthur A. Levine Books, 272 pp.

Rating: ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ 1/2

Content Warnings: Depression and suicidal ideation

I love to read books about mental health. When they’re done right, they feel like talking to a friend. They give me hope. They help me process my own experiences. These books build community. So I’m so excited to talk to y’all tonight about one of my favorite, favorite, favorite mental health reads of 2017: Sparrow by Sarah Moon.

When I got this book a few months ago, the first thing I noticed was the cover, which is gorgeous. They say, “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” But I do. I so do. I love the pastel blue and coral color scheme that sets up the mood of the novel. The mix of birds and music notes. The silhouette of the girl. And the Brooklyn apartment cityscape with the MC, a WOC, in the window. I don’t usually spend so much of a review talking about the cover, but this one is so on point that I have to give a shout out to the artist Cannaday Chapman. This is cover art at its BEST.

On to the actual book now. Sparrow was found on the roof of her school and now everyone thinks she was trying to kill herself. She has to see a therapist, Dr. Katz, and starts to fall behind in school. Her mom and her have a strained relationship. She spends all her free time imagining turning into a bird and flying above the chaotic streets of New York City where she lives. However, when Dr. Katz starts to break through to Sparrow with music, she starts to find the strength that might help her soar for real.

I loved Sparrow as a character because I connected with her in so many ways. I connected to her fear of people and inability to really talk to people even when I really wanted to connect to them. I connected to her strength and resilience, her wanting to get better even when it felt like an insurmountable obstacle. Her voice was so strong from the very beginning that I felt like I could hear her in my head. She’s also a WOC, although I won’t comment extensively on that aspect of the rep because it’s not in my lane. It felt well done, though, and reflected the challenges of being black and mentally ill that I’ve heard from my friends’ experiences.

I thought the representation of mental illness was spot on, from the way that her mom reacted to it to her navigating the stigma of it at school to the way that encouragement from a teacher or a therapist could be really beneficial. The writing also really helps with the representation because the style is so honest and raw. The dialogue was crisp and felt real. I flew through this book (pun fully intended) and loved every minute of it.

At the risk of spoilers, I just want to talk vaguely about some things that happen later in the book so please excuse my general-ness. There’s one moment that really makes me cry towards the end of the book when a group of girls come together who are all facing challenges come together to make the day of their friend. It was so pure and so well done and it made me want a whole book just in that setting with those characters. In case you can’t tell I’m squeeing.

So if you want a therapy-positive book about mental illness that leaves you humming a good song by the end because it wasn’t dreary and dark but also doesn’t tie up everything in a neat little bow. If you want a nuanced description of how depression can affect a girl’s life, about the challenge of finding your own voice, read this book. And then come find me so we can squeal about it together.

Sparrow is out October 10. Please buy a copy as soon as it comes out from your local indie or you can preorder it on Amazon, Barnes & Noble or whatever other site you use.

Posted in Book Review

Review: Radio Silence by Alice Oseman

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Radio Silence by Alice Oseman, HarperTeen, 496 pp.

Rating: ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥

Content Warnings: Emotional abuse, child abuse, depression, performance anxiety, death of a dog

If you enjoy books that have queer protagonists, a whole lot of wit, even more heart, media elements and capture the essence of being a nerdy, overachieving teen…well, you’re going to love this book. Alice Oseman’s newest YA novel Radio Silence is the quirky, poignant and unforgettable story of two British teens, Frances Janvier and Alex Last, who make a podcast together. This is one of those books that I’ve read and its characters and messages have stayed with me. There’s mystery. There’s a touch of romance. There’s a lot of anxiety and angst. Overall, this is a book that brims over with hope. Also, it’s a boy-girl friendship book where there’s no romance. Huzzah!

Let’s start off with the representation in this book. There is bisexual and demisexual (on the page!! My only complaint is that it didn’t appear sooner in the story, especially since I picked up on what was going on pretty early in) representation. I really like the way that the characters discuss their sexuality and that they are given the agency to describe how they identify and what that means to them in the story.  Francis is also a WoC. Finally there is representation of depressive symptoms in the book that felt quite strong, especially since they are related to the anxiety and difficulty of transitioning to college, which is a topic I wish was more present in YA.

Central to the plot of Radio Silence is the podcast Universe City, in which an androgynous protagonist is searching for meanping in an unforgiving world. I loved the parts of the book that showed the characters filming the podcast, how they discussed and developed the storyline of the show, the representation of the online fandom of the podcast and discovering what the podcast meant to the character who created it.  I’m being intentionally vague in discussing the details so as to be as spoiler-free as possible. I want y’all to enjoy every twist and turn like I did.

Another aspect of this book that I really liked was the setting. The book is set in a small Wnglish town but the characters travel to numerous larger towns and cities, including London. I really enjoyed getting to read a book set somewhere else in the world.  I was a little confused by how their school system worked because I’m not familiar with the British educational system, but it was easy to catch on.

I also really loved the quirkiness and preoccupation of the two main characters with grades and school work. This was the first time I saw the part of my teenage self that would stress herself out over studying to the point of literal insanity in a book and it was great. Francis and Alex are also super nerdy and I loved the descriptions of how they became friends through their shared neediness. Its part of what made these characters so unforgettable. There’s also a message about how multiple paths can lead to success in this book, which I think is important for teens who live in a world where getting good grades and then going to and succeeding in a specific type of college in a specific type of program is presented as the best possible option and they are somehow lesser than if they don’t achieve that, which is absolute fucking bullshit.

My biggest issue with this book was its length. Its long for a contemporary and I’m a fan of boos that are pretty quickly paced. This book seemed to drag on for me and it felt like it took me forever to finish it, which ultimately took away some of the joy I had from the story. Still, its a solid read and I really enjoyed the fun, twisty, heartbreaking story. It is definitely a book that I am going to be recommending for a while.