As part of the all-virtual 2021 Virginia Festival of the Book, novelists Mahogany L. Browne (Chlorine Sky), Robin Farmer (Malcolm and Me), and Ed Lin (David Tung Can’t Have A Girlfriend Until He Gets Into An Ivy League College) discussed their coming-of-age YA novels that grapple with race, social justice, family, friendship, and romance. Moderated by Amber Loyacano.
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Thanks to our bookseller for this event, Book No Further.
“[Chlorine Sky is] a coming-of-age novel for Black girls who have been told they’re too much and yet never enough.”—Kirkus Reviews
“David Tung Can’t Have A Girlfriend Until He Gets Into An Ivy League College is an exploration of much more than dating. Through humor, the book explores identity, traditions, social expectations, and stereotypes through the lens of a suburban New Jersey high school student.”—Teen Vogue
“Farmer brings emotional fidelity to Roberta’s struggles, making the girl’s growth feel well earned. A celebratory coming-of-age novel with a thoughtful, resilient heroine.”—Kirkus Reviews
SARAH LAWSON: Welcome to “Coming of Age in YA Fiction,” a program in the all-virtual 2021 Virginia Festival of the Book. I’m Sarah Lawson, associate director of the Virginia Center for the Book, a program of Virginia Humanities. Thanks for joining us today.
A couple notes before I hand the program over to our speakers: Please share your questions using the Q&A tab on Zoom. This event has optional closed captioning, which you can turn on and customize at any time during the event by using the Closed Captions tab at the bottom of your window. If you haven’t already read today’s books, we hope you will. For details about how to buy them from our bookseller for this event, Book No Further, visit VaBook.org, where you can also explore our full schedule and watch past events. While you’re there, please consider making a donation to support the Festival’s ongoing work at VaBook.org/Give.
Thanks to our community partners for this event: James River Writers and Jefferson-Madison Regional Library. We also greatly appreciate the support of all Festival sponsors, donors, and community partners.
Now, I’m pleased to introduce our moderator, who will introduce our featured authors. Amber Loyacano is in her fifteenth year as an English teacher in Waynesboro, Virginia. As an educator, she is passionate about sharing her love of reading and advocating for her students. Amber, welcome. Thanks for being here. Take it away.
AMBER LOYACANO: Hi, I’m Amber Loyacano. I’m so excited and honored to be moderating this panel about coming of age in YA fiction with the Virginia Festival of the Book. I’m going to introduce all three of our panelists, and then I’m going to give them time to read from their works because I think once you hear a portion of these, you’re going to find it really difficult not to go out and purchase a copy of your own.
Mahogany L. Browne is a writer, organizer, and educator, executive director of Bowery Poetry Club and artistic director of Urban Word NYC, and poetry coordinator at St. Francis College. Browne has received fellowships from Agnus Gund, AIR Serenbe, Cave Canem, Poets House, Mellon Research, and Rauschenberg. She’s the author of most recent works Chlorine Sky, Woke: A Young Poet’s Call to Justice, Woke Baby, and Black Girl Magic. She lives in Brooklyn, NY. The Kirkus review of her novel Chlorine Sky explains that through a process of self-discovery and by listening to the stories of girls around her, Skyy learns to stand in her truth and determine what she’s worth. Writing in free verse, Browne explores concepts that will resonate with readers navigating toxic relationships and friendships, budding new relationships, and growing into themselves. Welcome, Mahogany.
Robin Farmer is a national award-winning journalist in the 2019 She Writes Press and SparkPress Toward Equality in Publishing or STEP contest winner. At age eight, she told her mother she would write for a living, and she’s grateful that her younger self knew what she was talking about, which many young folks do. Her debut novel, Malcolm and Me, is about a young teen’s search for the elusive thing called truth at a time when the most important adults in her life have trouble telling it. Set during the 1973-74 school year, even the president has trouble telling the truth as Watergate unfolds. Her other interests include screenwriting—Malcolm and Me started as a script—and poetry. Robin earned her degree in journalism from Marquette University. The transplanted Philadelphian lives with her husband in a suburb of Richmond, Virginia. Welcome, Robin.
Ed Lin is the author of David Tung Can’t Have a Girlfriend Until He Gets Into an Ivy League College. He’s a native New Yorker of Taiwanese and Chinese descent. He is the first author to win three Asian-American literary awards. Teen Vogue states that Ed Lin’s new YA book is an exploration of much more than dating. Through humor, the book explores identity, traditions, social expectations, and stereotypes through the lens of a suburban New Jersey high school student. Welcome, Ed.
So I’m going to turn the floor over to these wonderful authors and their absolutely gorgeous books. Mahogany, if you could read for us first, I would love to do that. An intro and a read.
MAHOGANY L. BROWNE: Thank you so much, Amber. It would be my pleasure. I’m reading from Chlorine Sky and to show you what it looks like coming of age… I don’t know. Someone trying to figure out who they are despite the fractured friendship. So here’s a little moment. Lay Li is the best friend, and our protagonist, she goes by Lil—nicknamed Lil—or her name is Skyy:
LAY LI SAYS GOOGLE MAKES
Look it up:
How do you fix a run in your stocking?
How do you make a boy fall in deep like?
Focus on your lip gloss
Always apply a second coat
Touch his arm whenever you can
Don’t let him grab you up
How to kiss?
Find a mirror
Purse your lips together
Kiss the glass
Make sure it isn’t wet when you pull back
& stare at the impression of your breath
Do it again
How to fight the sadness?
Dance to your favorite song loud loud
Call your friends & talk them into walking the mall with you
Call someone that likes you more than you like them
& let their adoration fill you up
Put on your favorite pair of leggings
& strut to the corner store slow
Buy something small:
a pack of gum, a candy bar, or a bag of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos
Laugh loud in front of your enemies
Don’t write about it Don’t write about it?
Nah, don’t leave evidence of the sads.
& never ever let it take you somewhere you can’t come back from.
THERE IS A RUMOR GOING AROUND
& I know it got my name on it.
That’s how Tre got shot
That’s how Teneisha got got
Rumors be the worst thing since government cheese.
Grandma Maxi say:
“Hands crisscrossed across the chest
mean you got something to hide.”
She also say “make a cheese sandwich for after-school snack”
No matter the stomachache that come for me.
Let Teneisha tell it
Keeping to yourself won’t save you
She was just at the bus stop
& the girls jumped her for wearing blue
& the girls jumped her for talking to their boyfriends at the Mack Road mall
& the girls jumped her because she think she cute
& I don’t want my name attached to a beatdown
Or a rumor
But laws of the school say I got at least one (if not both)
coming to me.
I FIGURE IT’S THE RUMOR
Cause it gets too quiet
When I walk into a room
Like even my breath is being judged
& my whole stomach turns on itself
tight & rock hard
like I just ate one of them cheese sandwiches
I wish I could ask Lay Li what happened.
Why is everyone staring at me?
But I got too many questions
& not one person to depend on for answers.
WHEN A RUMOR HIT THE WIND
The room is a graveyard of friends
These the same girls that laugh when I laugh
But now they laugh without including me
Now they take pictures with each other
& I ain’t nowhere in the frame.
HAVE YOU EVER STARTED A RUMOR?
Like not on purpose
Maybe you shared a secret
& the secret got wings
& then someone shared that
Same secret with wings except
They gave it a candle
Cause it was too dark or something
Maybe they needed some light
& maybe the wings took flight
With the light & maybe they
Shared that same candle winged thing
With someone that don’t know or don’t care
& in the wind that flame goes
Lighting up all the dead
Do you know
how it can start
slow like a burn
or a tickle
until it’s not funny anymore?
it feels like a needle
before the nurse gives the vaccination shot
it feels like a joke
that everyone is laughing at
except the person
they’re joking about
instead of laughing
that warm glow that grows
inside your chest & hands
& crawls across your cheeks
like some uncontrollable kind of happy
it feels more like
closing your eyes
the air can’t get in
& the water can’t get out
can you feel the sting?
that’s how it feels
like a forever
AMBER LOYACANO: Thank you so much, Mahogany. I feel like I need to say that you’re also the narrator of the audiobook version. And I feel like that is very evident from that. Absolutely beautiful. Robin, can you introduce us to Roberta?
ROBIN FARMER: Yes. Malcolm and Me, my book baby, is about a lot of different topics. But the overarching theme is adult hypocrisy, which like corn syrup, is in everything, right? And that’s why I can talk about so many different topics in the book, from racism to social justice activism on the part of young people to fractured families and faith-wrangling. I’m going to read the first chapter. It’s only five pages. Bear with me:
“The penguin is in a wicked mood today,” Geoffrey whispers, as he passes my desk in eighth-grade history class on the way to the pencil sharpener.
I sit in the back because it’s mission impossible to see that blackboard from behind my hair, which has been inspired by social justice activist Angela Davis, my idol.
I’m in the last seat in the last row next to a bank of windows overlooking the schoolyard. Far from Sister Elizabeth’s desk, it is the best seat in class. Big hair has its perks.
“Mr. Mulligan, share with the class what you just told Roberta!” Sister Elizabeth says, rising from her huge wooden desk at the head of the classroom.
Tall and ruler straight, she has unfriendly blue eyes under her horn-rimmed glasses—and zero patience. As with all nuns, her age is a mystery. We can’t tell if her hair is gray or if she’s going bald under her habit. Unlike most nuns, she still wears the corny old-fashioned kind of habit even though it’s 1973.
On the flipside of being scary, she loves to sing and has a butter-smooth voice and a laugh I rarely hear, but dig because it’s so free and loose. So unlike her.
“Nothing, Sister. I just asked her to move her foot so I wouldn’t trip,” he says, the red splotches on his pale cheeks deepening. He shuffles to his seat up front by her.
“Unlike you, I am not uneducable. I told you earlier to keep your trap shut. I am in no mood for shenanigans today.” Sister’s voice sounds scratchy, like she’s fighting a cold. She makes her what-smells-bad expression, snatches up an eraser, and wipes the board clean. “Let’s return our attention to Chapter 6 in your history books. Review the five rights proposed in the Declaration of Independence, and then we’ll have a discussion.”
Scanning the room, her disapproving eyes linger on my gigantic halo of hair, which she called “distracting.” My afro is even bigger and bolder than it was when she made me move my desk out of alphabetical order and plunk it behind Mary Zito. Guess that’s punishment for both my fast-growing hair and increasing Black pride.
Sister Elizabeth nods at my closed textbook, shorthand to start reading. Now. I had already jumped ahead and completed the review assignment yesterday, but I chill out. No need to wind her up. Two more classes, and I’m heading home, where special birthday gifts await the new teen me.
Opening my textbook, I watch to see if she’ll doze off like she’s been doing lately during reading assignments. We wait for her habit to droop and jerk up before turning our attention to each other. After about ten nods, I receive a handful of birthday cards from around the room, along with a pack of apple Now and Later candies, my absolute favorite sugar rush.
The candy is a gift from Donna Rapinesi, a Cher wannabe and eye-shadow junkie who flirts with dimple-faced Gary as Sister Elizabeth cat naps. Her pearly teeth and green eyes framed by lush lashes make every girl in eighth grade, Black and white, agree that Gary is so fine.
Mouth watering, I scratch off the wrapper glued to the candy and gaze out the window just as a streak of lightning, odd for this time of the year, zigzags across the sky. I wait for a thunderclap that never comes. Rain falls in thick sheets from a sky covered by a gray veil, but not even this bizarre storm can spoil my birthday.
Besides, my English teacher Mr. Harvey has an announcement this afternoon about the annual writing contest. I’ve come close to winning it the two years prior. I softly tap my knuckles on my desk for luck that he’ll say the contest will be another essay competition. I’d consider that news another birthday gift.
After a few minutes, our big mouths wake up Sister Elizabeth. She goes to the middle of the blackboard and writes with perfect penmanship: “Among its list of self-evident truths, the Declaration asserts that ‘all men are created equal.’”
I perk up. History is one of my favorite subjects, so I slip the neon green candy into my pocket.
Sleepy-eyed Sister Elizabeth turns from the blackboard and addresses us. “Who can tell me why Thomas Jefferson signed the Declaration of Independence when, at the time, he owned slaves?” She sits.
Geoffrey’s hand shoots in the air. Sister ignores him and calls on her pet, Eileen, a wavy-haired brainiac with crooked eyeglasses whose dull essays somehow beat mine every year.
“He probably didn’t have a chance to free them yet.”
I mentally groan. For starters, that’s incorrect, and two, Sister doesn’t correct her. Sister looks around the room and rests her eyes on me. “What do you think, Roberta?”
“Because he was a hypocrite.”
Sister Elizabeth stiffens and blinks until her eyes become blue blazes. “What did you say?” Glaring, she rises from her seat, breathing as if she had just run up the three flights to our class. She peers out the window at the wind-whipped Old Glory on the flagpole in the middle of the schoolyard. Then she eyeballs me, fury curling her lips.
I swallow hard.
Without warning, she snatches her beloved yardstick and slams it against her desk with such power that it snaps. That seems to enrage her more. She pounds her desk with her fist and points to the closed classroom door.
“Who do you think you are, Roberta Forest? Get out! Get out of my classroom!” she thunders, rocking in her stumpy black heels. “How dare you speak poorly about one of our forefathers who built this great nation.” Eyes and mouth tight with rage, she wags her finger at me. “Get back in the boat. Go back to Africa. We never needed you people in the first place.”
My mouth drops open. All eyes shift from Sister to me. I glance at Stephanie, the only other Black student.
I cannot believe my ears or eyes. I know in my gut that something bad is about to happen. She is out of control. Maybe I am, too. I am so mad everything turns gray like TV static. My body feels rubbed raw. Gripping the edges of my desk, I am way more angry than afraid.
“I don’t have forefathers. I have just one,” I say, rising out of my seat. “I wasn’t born in Africa, but my ancestors were, before they were enslaved by your people.”
She’s quicker than the Flying Nun. Sister Elizabeth’s habit flows out like a cape, and her rosary beads clack as she rushes down the aisle. She towers above me.
“You get out of my room now!” she hollers, her warm spittle flying all around me.
Scowling, I wipe my face. I turn to leave when she swings her hefty arm with Muhammad Ali force and delivers a mind-blowing slap that rocks my cheekbones. I didn’t see it coming and instinctively, I throw up my hands to protect myself. Pushing outward, I accidentally strike the top of her armpit. The chain of her glistening crucifix scratches the knuckles of my retreating fist.
“Ooh, she just punched Sister,” Eileen whisper-shouts. Gasps echo around in the room.
I want to apologize, but Sister’s second slap, stronger than the first, snaps my head sideways. And then, like The Twilight Zone, the unthinkable happens. Before I can catch myself, my hand deliberate curls up and blindly slams into a pillowy softness that makes me want to throw up.
Jesus, I just hit Sister in her titty. My stomach ping-pongs with shame.
My wide-eyed classmates watch in shocked silence as Sister saves her best shot for last, a fury-fueled pop that makes my ears hum. Cradling my lava-hot cheek, I jump back out of hitting range, even though I want to bend her fingers back until they break. But she’s a Sister. I can’t.
Where is God? I wonder. Because he’s not here with me or in Sister Elizabeth’s heart. I glance at the crucifix on the wall above the blackboard. He wasn’t there either, because this madness should force his son off that cross and between me and this monster wearing God’s gold wedding ring. But it doesn’t.
Tears nearly blinding me, I flee the classroom. Sister follows, tossing my book bag out behind me. Backtracking, I scoop it up as her screechy voice echoes in the hallway and draws curious teachers out of their classrooms.
“Go to Mother Superior and tell her you just struck me twice, you unbelievable miscreant! I never want to see the likes of you in my classroom again.”
I brace myself, expecting a lightning bolt to zap my back as I wobble through the hallway and head down three of the longest flights of stairs in my life to report to the main office. I shiver right down to my bones with every step, knowing electrocution is better than expulsion.
AMBER LOYACANO: Thank you, Robin. That was intense. And I will say that the intensity of the questioning in this book does not dissipate. Like it starts with chapter one and continues throughout for the reader, and I thank you for that. It’s beautiful. Ed, would you introduce us to David?
ED LIN: Certainly. I’m still shuddering from that encounter. I’m going to read from a part in the book where David plans on going to a dance with a girl. He’s already been told he can’t date. But his plans hit a brick wall because he has to get a tux. And it’s something that he can’t pick up by himself. I think you only need to know that Harmony Health is a hospital that he’s applied for an internship with. Okay, here we go.
My heart was pounding in fear when my mother picked me up as usual at the bus stop. I was full-on terrified to lay out all my plans in full, which I needed to do even to have a shot at her giving me the tux money.
“How was school?” she asked.
“Fine,” I said. I saw her mouth twitch. She was suspicious when she didn’t hear grades.
“No tests or quizzes?”
“No, nothing today.”
“What about Harmony Health?”
I couldn’t muster the courage to bring up the dance.
Once we got to the restaurant, I went into work mode. Every time I thought I was going to get a break for a few minutes, another task presented itself.
Soon, the night was almost over. We were cleaning up. It was now or never. I’d already decided that there was no way I was going to tell my mother about the dance once we got home. She’d said numerous times that when she gets home, she just wants to sleep. Plus, here at the restaurant, there’s always the chance I could rally up some backup support Auntie Zhang or my dad. At the very least, my mother would think twice before really lashing into me if it came to that.
My newly found level of social acceptance—and the potential for a real-life girlfriend—was riding on being able to go to the dance. I could be as cool at Shark Beach High as I was at the Chinese school in Chinatown! But in order for that to happen, I needed to go to Nordstrom. This week. There was no way to put it off for any longer.
“Mom!” I said hoarsely. She was stapling receipts near the cash register.
“Can you help me rent a tuxedo?”
“Tuxedo? What for?”
“I want to go to a school dance.”
She put down the stapler and curled her hands into fists. “You want to go to a dance.”
My shoulders shrugged out of fear. “A girl asked me to go, and I said yes.”
“A girl!” said my mother, like a TV detective announcing she’d found the murder weapon. I heard my father moving somewhere behind me, possibly taking shelter. “Who’s this girl?”
“Christina Tau.” My mother flared her nostrils.
“Is she your secret girlfriend, David?”
“No,” I said. “I don’t have a girlfriend, much less a secret girlfriend.”
“Tau,” she said venomously. “Sounds like a Cantonese name.” My mother sometimes expressed distaste for Cantonese people for no explicable reasons. “How many times have I told you? You’re not allowed to have a girlfriend until college! And you better get into an Ivy League school!” It was the end of yet another long day of work, but my mother didn’t seem tired at all. She was as mad as I’d ever seen her.
“I know, I know,” I said. I looked around for some silent show of support. Auntie Zhang’s English wasn’t great, but she could probably understand what was happening. Yet she was diligently wiping down a tabletop, her head bent. My father suddenly found that something in the kitchen required him.
After a brief pause, my mother was on me again.
“You’re not even number one, are you?” She pointed at my nose. “All the way down at number eight! You spend too much time thinking about girls!”
That was a complete lie. It angered me into a fatal mistake: talking back to my mother while she was still fired up.
“I spend too much time working at this restaurant!” I protested.
“Do you know how long I work here? How long your father works here? You want to run around with girls while we’re spending day and night here making money so we can live?”
Oh, no! Don’t let her start talking about money when she’s this angry.
“Okay, look,” I said, attempting to calm her down, “It’s just one dance. It’s not a big deal. Christina’s parents are Chinese, too, and they think it’s OK.”
But there was no calm eye to this storm.
“They’re not your parents! And that’s not my child!”
“Why can’t you understand?”
“No! You don’t understand!”
“A lot of kids are going.”
“Not you, David!” my mother thundered. “You tell this girl you don’t want a girlfriend! And you don’t want to talk to her anymore!”
“I already told her I would go,” I said.
“Tell her you can’t! You’re in school, and school is for learning, not for girls!” She closed her lips and wiped her front teeth with her tongue, considering something.
“Give me your phone, David!”
“Give me your phone! I don’t want you talking and sexting with this girl!”
“I’m not sexting with her, Mom!”
“Who knows what you’re doing!” I handed over my phone and half a second later it was zipped up in her purse. Nothing ever escaped from there, not even light.
AMBER LOYACANO: Excellent. Your ability to use comedy to create this family dynamic throughout is amazing. One of the reasons I wanted you all to read from your works is because I think YA still has this interesting connotation for older readers or even younger readers. And so I wanted to ask you, as YA-published authors, what role you think it has in the publishing community. So what does young adult mean to the audience?
ROBIN FARMER: I think YA is important because it primes young people to a love of reading, right? And makes them future customers for the industry. I think it also creates future writing talents by inspiring young people to want to write. But I also think it provides a window into the mind of young people who see the world a little simpler and often have a moral and emotional clarity that can exclude older people.
I think, for older people, it gives them a chance to remember who they used to be and some of the challenges and opportunities they had that shape them. But I think it also helps them remember and appreciate the passion and energy and commitment of young people who are making that transition.
And finally, I think it offers a magnifying glass to character growth. I think the innocence of young protagonists is the perfect canvas for a not-so-innocent world.
MAHOGANY L. BROWNE: I love that. I believe that young writers and young readers are looking at the YA industry with a scrutiny that we deserve. Because they’re so used to niceties and lies and a filtration process that doesn’t allow both good and evil. It’s just either/or. There’s no in-between. So I think it’s important for the YA industry to exist because we are asking not just our younger selves and the younger generation but our present adult selves to be mindful that there is so much variety and variation in a lifespan and that there isn’t in any one way to be. And to be a young person and not have the articulation but to know that to be true, these books offer a blueprint for that kind of understanding.
ED LIN: I feel like it’s so confusing being a young person growing up, and you have so many questions that you can’t even articulate. And books definitely for me were a way of kind of looking at the world. And when I think about our young people of color, especially, in times like these, they are looking for answers. They want to find characters who are asking the same questions in the same situations. And even if there’s not like a positive way out or a positive conclusion, they can at least not feel alone in the struggle that they’re feeling.
AMBER LOYACANO: I think that really plays into the different time periods and different age groups of these three works as well. Because the seventies to middle-grade to getting into college, they’re all dealing with these same issues. So with these stories that you are telling, why did you choose to write this story for a young adult audience instead of the same story for an adult audience?
MAHOGANY L. BROWNE: I personally chose the YA genre because I wanted to not only center that young voice—the original basis of this book was written as a poem responding to a picture—a snapshot—of when I was fourteen, fifteen. And all of the things that happen in the book, even the understanding that I have now as an adult, I’m able to let that live in the adult figures or the older cousin. But I wanted to show that growth process. So not only will young people feel like, “Oh I’ve seen this. It now has a name.” But also, adults can look at it and say, “I do remember that feeling.”
But I didn’t want to make it a perfect bow. Everything cannot be resolved or has been resolved. So what does it look like? Really having some kind of investigation of how we got here and how can we still be joyous while we’re healing.
ROBIN FARMER: Yeah, I can’t say that any better. I think I’ve always identified with young adults. I think the transition from youth to adulthood is the most dynamic time of our life. I’m a former education reporter, and so I witnessed young people searching to achieve their potential. And it’s fascinating because you’re trying to become this person who you want to be at the same time you’re dealing with influences and challenges that may keep you from reaching that goal. It’s just such a fascinating time period. And much of literature revolves around people trying to realize their potential. I just think young adult work is ripe with opportunities to stir minds and feelings, and that’s what literature does.
ED LIN: My book is like just a particular segment of the Asian community. It’s the segment of fairly well-off Asians who came to America, and they had a plan. And the plan was like we’re going to do this, and our kid is going to be a doctor or a lawyer, and it’s going to be awesome. And we’re going to all live in this five-level mansion, and we just have to follow this seventy-point plan and not deviate from it. And you have to get into an Ivy League college. All this is riding on you.
And I kind of had that pressure as a kid, and I hadn’t really seen it in any of the literature right now. And as I said, that is like one aspect of the Asian community. And what happens in my book and also in my real life is there are certain disagreements that happen. And so by circumstances, David has to go to Chinese school in Manhattan in a working-class area. And so he gets this kind of broader perspective of what it means to be Asian in America, instead of this really rarefied air kind of thing. And I felt like it was important for me not only to reach out to kids now but also to the kid that I was. Because I could’ve used any help.
AMBER LOYACANO: There is this sense of dynamic growth happening with your characters but with kids and, really, adults right now in the world. There’s this need for a change and adapting. Your novels deal with very big issues. I think adults look at YA as being a little bit fluffy. Being for kids. But what you all talk about in your books, even sometimes underneath the comedy, underneath something silly, there’s a big idea. So why do you think our young people are craving these deep, deep issues? And how do you think that’s affecting the publishing industry?
ROBIN FARMER: I think we underestimate young people. I think young people—their minds are swirling with many topics. My novel tackles big issues because big issues will be their issues one day, sooner or later. And it’s best to kind of learn before you’re neck deep in those waters, I think. And like I said, when I was—and what happened in that first chapter really did happen to me, only I was eleven at the time. I was eleven years old reading an autobiography of Malcolm X. What? But I was, right? Thinking about things. And it’s possible I didn’t understand everything, but I wanted to learn. And I think we live in a time where there’s so much access to information. These kids can get anything. And I think sometimes they need to understand the nuance. You need a little bit of guidance. That’s why I do it.
MAHOGANY L. BROWNE: I’m in that clubhouse. Absolutely. Young people are not blind. They see more than we do because we put on so many masks to deal with the issues. Sometimes we walk away; we don’t even know what we actually said or agreed to or believe in any more. And the young people see, as Robin was talking about, the hypocrisy. It’s like you say one thing, but then you’re doing another. And how do I grapple with the person you’re raising me to become if these are these two things that I can visually compare and not necessarily agree with?
So while the things are heavy lifting, it’s because the young people are part of that world too.
And the best way that we assure that our young people will thrive is if we give them the toolkit. They’ll have the toolkit to deal with this stuff, even if it’s just too heavy. At least we now know that we have more conversations about mental health rather than just pretending that’s not an issue. We can talk about what racism does and how it’s perpetuated inside of our schools instead of just pretending that, if you do better, you know, pull yourself up by your bootstraps, everything will be okay. That’s not always the case. So how do we prepare them? What tools are we giving them to assure that they can dismantle this house properly? Because they’re the ones that have to live in it.
ED LIN: Is YA publishing as big as it’s ever been? Is it like the only part of the publishing empire that’s like growing? It’s been my impression that it’s getting bigger and bigger every year. And actually at festivals like this, it seems to be given more and more events and more authors. And to the people who disparage YA, I say you’re disparaging our youth. And our kids are incredible. They are thinking about things in a way that adults are not.
My kid is eight years old, and the other day he asked my wife, “So when you and dad die, do I get new parents, or do I live here by myself?”
That’s really deep. It’s like, “Uh, I don’t know. Here, read this book.”
MAHOGANY L. BROWNE: Right? What a question. Oh my goodness. And also, the honest answer is most of these things are happening, and the adults—we didn’t have the tools to understand how to deal with the now, you know? Like I definitely am writing for the younger version of me who was wishing that these conversations were happening. I was blessed to find The Bluest Eye well after I had witness colorism, and I had remember not wanting to look like who I was. And I didn’t know how to talk about the harm that I saw happening in these peripheral communities because I was young. And I was told be seen and not heard. So now I write with the intention of be heard. Speak up, and be heard.
ED LIN: I’m totally writing to my younger self.
MAHOGANY L. BROWNE: Say that again, Ed?
ED LIN: I’m totally writing to my younger self.
MAHOGANY L. BROWNE: Yep. Giving them permission. Come back, come back. It’s okay.
ROBIN FARMER: I’m writing for my younger self and for younger readers, but I’m also writing for older people because, no matter what your age, you’ve been thirteen. And you know what it’s like to feel powerless and vulnerable. And also joy, right? So I’m finding a lot of adults are reading it and saying, “Thank you for reminding me and letting me look at my grandchild or my niece or my nephew and sort of relate to what they’re dealing with.”
AMBER LOYACANO: So I feel like we’re transitioning into one of my questions really well because the panel is called “Coming of Age in YA Lit.” And even when I was going through school—I know I look like a child, but it was a while ago—Catcher in the Rye was like a coming-of-age story. And it’s really transitioning with society—at least we hope. So what does that mean to you? What does coming of age mean to you? And do you feel like that’s changed since you were the ages of your characters?
MAHOGANY L. BROWNE: Coming-of-age stories definitely changed for me. I remember being so surprised to read I think it was Go Ask Alice. I was like, “Oh, they are talking about—” You know, and I mean like really. It’s the most extreme. But for a young person who had no idea that there was this kind of language, that this kind of story existed. I knew of the world happening, but there was no one talking to us kids about it.
So coming of age, to me it’s really about becoming. It’s about taking up space. It’s about being regarded. It’s about being seen. It’s about being represented. And there are so many of those stories before even this last decade that did not center the variety of cultures. There’s a myriad of us here, and there was this homogenized formula that everybody just went through. This is your life. If you lived here, it’s like this. And if you live in this urban planning zone, then it’s like this. And there’s really no—there was no real diversity. It was all assumption.
And now the stereotypes have not only been removed and burned and goodbye—like those are gone, and we’re calling you on it. We’re asking you to be more mindful in what authenticity looks like. But we are allowing the world to see that becoming can happen in so many different ways.
ROBIN FARMER: I agree with Mahogany. I can’t say it better. The only thing I can add is I think with coming of age today there might be a heightened sense of urgency. I think certainly when I was a teen and the issues that I dealt with—racism and stuff—yeah, it’s still here. It still resonates. But what’s different is that things have been ratcheted up. For example, climate change is literally a threat, right? Technology is different. Cyber warfare can influence elections and take down information and corrupt information and power grids. Racism, white supremacy I argue is at an all-time threat to democracy, and I can’t say that was the case in the seventies. Now maybe I have rose-colored glasses on. I don’t know. But I feel like it’s a little bit different. I feel like capitalism has run amok. Some people will say, “Well, Robin, it’s always been like that.” I don’t know. I feel like it’s a little bit different. I feel like we worship at the church of the ATM. It feels different. I think it’s different because young people are going to be handed the keys to a broken nation. I just worked myself up.
ED LIN: I don’t know what else I can add. Coming of age has become like a marketing meme. I just have to say that, when I was young, it was like music was just as influential or maybe even more so than anything in school or writing. You try to puzzle things out by like reading the lyrics of the songs and trying to figure it out. Because these people singing—they know something I don’t. They have the key. They have an album out, so they must know more than me.
AMBER LOYACANO: There are a couple people asking for what you all read when you were younger. Mahogany mentioned a few texts. What else were you reading that were influences when you were young?
ROBIN FARMER: Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. Nancy Drew. I know every Nancy Drew book that there is. To Kill a Mockingbird. I know it’s controversial, but to me it was showing me this world where this white lawyer wanted to fight for Black people. What? I read a lot of poetry. I love Langston Hughes. I read all his simple short stories. Those were some of the things.
MAHOGANY L. BROWNE: Definitely Are You There God? I loved that one. Goodness. We should have a book club meet-up.
AMBER LOYACANO: What about you, Ed?
ED LIN: About ten years ago, I had this dream, and I remembered this book that I read in like grade school. And I just woke up, and I yelled, “Grinny!” Grinny is this science-fiction book where these aliens take over the planet, and they take over people’s minds too. And the only people these aliens can’t fool are the kids. Like all the adults are brainwashed. They’re just like, “Oh, it’s Cousin Charles over here.” And this is like some obvious robot to the kids. And their struggle was to kind of defeat the aliens, and they did it by—the aliens had been trained into social norms of humans. So they would talk to the aliens while looking elsewhere, and that would mess up their circuitry. And so eventually, the kids won. And it’s not like a laughy, jokey kind of book at all. It’s like really scary. I know this because I re-read it. I found it online, and I found these reviews. This guy is writing like, “I’m a forty-year-old lawyer, but I still shudder when I recall this book.” So that was definitely a formative book for me.
I also remember being at my grandfather’s house in Taiwan and not really being accustomed to any of the language and the culture around me. I kind of stayed in the house. But I found this book called My Thirty-Year War, and it was written by this holdout Japanese soldier. You know, Japan surrendered in 1945, but this guy—he kept living in the jungle for like another twenty-five years because he refused to believe the war was over. And this is like his diary. He’s living by the tree, collecting rainwater to drink from, like avoiding people, still waiting for more supplies to come back, trying to send clandestine messages. And this guy didn’t give up until his old commanding officer was flown in and got on a megaphone to tell him that the war was over and to come out and to be decommissioned and everything. And he marched out, and he like surrendered his sword. And I was like, man. But my experience in real life wasn’t as harsh, but it was kind of similar in that I was kind of isolated in this house.
MAHOGANY L. BROWNE: Harlequin romance novels, surprisingly, were how I thought I was protesting when I wasn’t allowed to go out and play with the boys at the park. We were playing basketball. And only my boy cousins could go, and my grandmother had plenty. She had a credenza full of them. She had the subscription. And I read that, and I was like, “I’m going to show her. She’s going to let me go outside.” And I think she just forgot that I was there because I was so engrossed. And I was like, “Oh my god, this is why she reads so much.” But of course, some of it was just like—I didn’t get it. It was like, okay. But now I want to read more. Like I have to find everything. And after that, The Baby-Sitters Club—I tore it up. Christopher Pike. I was just looking at the old covers of those like R. L. Stines, Christopher Pikes, the thrillers. They were all children. Agatha Christies but for like a younger reader. And of course, The Bluest Eye changed everything for me.
AMBER LOYACANO: I feel like it doesn’t matter how much we read as adults. Those books we read in our youth, when we’re going through all of it, are what really stick with us for the longest period of time.
So I’m really interested in what’s next for you all. These books were so beautiful. What are you working on now? What can we get excited about?
MAHOGANY L. BROWNE: I’ll go. I just turned in my final draft of a book called Rhino Moon. It is not a novel in verse; it’s a hybrid. It includes prose and text as poem and of course some novel in verse-aesthetic—some poems. And I have also just started to finish the first draft of—it’s like a fantasy. I don’t know how to talk about it yet. It’s finding me, actually, so I’ll let you know when we come together. But the Rhino Moon, that’ll be out in January. Rhino Moon.
ROBIN FARMER: So folks want to know what happens when Roberta gets to high school, so I think I might write that book. But it’ll be book three because book two that I’m working on—it’s very, very different. It’s magical realism. It deals with climate change, which is why I get so passionate about the topic. And it’s really different. That’s all I can say about it.
ED LIN: I actually have another book out now. It’s only out in Singapore. It’s got a vulgar title, and it’s very rude overall, but it’s kind of funny. And it really shouldn’t be read by young people. Of course, by saying that, that makes them want to read it. But I will not say the title on this. There’s probably kids on here.
But I also write a crime series set in Taipei that Soho Press does. There’s three books out already, and the next one should be out at some point next year. The whole coronavirus thing has compressed stuff. But that’s what’s coming down the pike.
AMBER LOYACANO: I like the warning, but I feel like part of this conversation was that these books—they’re for everyone. You’re probably right. But it seems like teens are reading more adult, and adults are reading more teen, and I think that is such a neat takeaway.
I want to thank you all so much for being so open in discussion about your connection to your topics and to the world of YA. I appreciate you so much, but it’s time to wrap things up. Thanks to our speakers today and to everyone who’s watching. Please consider buying these featured books from your local, independent bookseller or using the link provided in the chat. You can also check out other events in an all-virtual 2021 Virginia Festival of the Book at VaBook.org. Thank you, everybody. Amazing.
ED LIN: Book No Further. I love that.
MAHOGANY L. BROWNE: That is really good.