Jill Ratzan

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When Del’s longtime crush, Kiera, joins a teen group at their church and takes a purity pledge, Del joins too. It’ll be a great way for them to spend time together, right? So begins Lamar Giles’ Not So Pure and Simple, a nuanced, engaging and often hilarious exploration of gender politics in the 21st century, all rooted in Del’s authentic and earnest narrative perspective. We spoke to Giles, an award-winning writer best known for his mysteries, about making the leap to a contemporary realistic story, toxic masculinity, teen sex ed classes and his love for ’80s rock ballads. Plus, he reveals the existence of an Easter egg shared by all of his books so far—and it’s something none of his readers have ever noticed!

Conventional wisdom says that authors usually don’t have much say in the cover art of their books, but I loved your book jacket design. What did you think the first time you saw it?
I was blown away. The illustrator is Jor Ros, who’s an amazing artist. His artwork, combined with the efforts of the design team, became something that truly captures the vibe I was going for in Not So Pure and Simple. I’ve been very fortunate when it comes to covers, and this one just continued my lucky streak.   

Not So Pure and Simple is your first contemporary realistic novel after a number of critically acclaimed mysteries for both middle grade readers and teens. Can you talk a little bit about the choice to write outside the mystery genre? What was challenging about it? What was enjoyable? What have you learned from writing mysteries that you found applicable to a non-mystery narrative?
Well, the truth is the first iteration of this book started as a school project. I went back to school to get an MFA in creative writing in 2014. My first YA novel, Fake ID, had just been published, I’d mostly finished a second novel (Endangered), and I’d just been laid off from my day job. I wanted to pursue the degree to sharpen my writing skills since writing had become my primary source of income. But coming into a writing program as one of the students (if not the only student) with published work made me incredibly self-conscious. I felt a need to do something different than the work that was already in bookstores, so I angled toward contemporary. And yes, it was a challenge.

To be frank, when writing the mysteries/thrillers, if I ever felt like things were starting to slog, murder was always an option. Not so much—or at all—in a story like Not So Pure and Simple. That was distressing. Did I enjoy it? Not all the time—because I was still writing other books so I could pay bills and trying to complete school assignments that had nothing to do with the novel and still writing the piece of the novel that would fulfill my thesis requirement and trying to complete a separate version that would meet the requirements of my publisher (because what works for school isn’t necessarily going to work for the finished product). So did I learn anything from my mystery work that pertained to this project? Perhaps how villains are created, because I was not that pleasant to be around when all of that was going on. Now that I’m on the other side of it, I am happy with the result. 

Del, the main character of Not So Pure and Simple, takes a Purity Pledge—a promise to remain sexually abstinent until marriage—in an effort to get closer to his crush, Kiera. What inspiration or discovery prompted you to explore this cultural practice in your book?
There are probably six different things that inspired this exploration, but I’m going to go with the primary story and try to keep it short. Me and my wife attended a church service about 10 years ago where three boys sat behind us prior to the service starting. They were very plain-spoken about recent sexual exploits, and we couldn’t help but overhear. When the service started, someone in church leadership requested all the teens participating in the purity pledge gather in the foyer and go to wherever those lessons were taking place. All three boys got up to join the class. It’s something I never forgot; I’ve since spent a lot of time thinking about the spaces boys/men enter—or invade—and their justifications for such actions. Del Rainey was largely born from those thoughts. 

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our starred review of Not So Pure and Simple.

The relationship between First Missionary Church’s and Greek Creek High School’s perspectives on teen sexuality is complicated, to say the least. What kind of research did you to in order to represent these perspectives accurately and authentically? Did you learn anything in the course of that search that surprised you or challenged an assumption you had held?
This was a combination of research and memory. I was raised in Virginia by regular churchgoers and also had some form of sex ed in my high school. While the exact memories have gotten fuzzy over time, I clearly recall an awkwardness to all of it that I tried to bring across in the book. For the research part, there have been numerous articles about how much sex ed practices can vary, not only state to state but district to district within the same state. One thing that surprised me was a document I found on the Virginia Department of Education’s website detailing how a “family life” (sex ed) curriculum might be developed and approved. I’m providing a copy of the document with highlights so you know I’m not making this up, but it suggested that a clergyperson be appointed to the board that develops the curriculum, and there can be instances where classes are separated by gender to teach “sensitive” topics (all on page 8 of the document). What that means and looks like in actual practice, I don’t know, but it certainly got me thinking. Those thoughts account for the ways Del’s experiences are structured, which is to say, very awkwardly. 

I loved the character of Del’s English teacher and Healthy Living instructor, whom Del and the other students call MJ. Can you talk about the role he plays in their lives and in the story? Was his character inspired by a teacher from your own life?
It was important to me that there be a positive, progressive black male in the mix to offer a gentle guiding hand. There are a couple of reasons for my desire here, and I’ll get into those. But to answer the question about if the character was inspired by a teacher from my own life . . . not exactly. There were at least two great black male teachers in my high school whom I knew and spoke to in passing, but I was never in their classes. They also doubled as sports coaches, and since several of my friends were athletes (I wasn’t), I’d often hear them talk about how cool those teachers/coaches were and what good advice they gave. Because I never had that much direct contact with those two seemingly great role models, I created a fantasy of what someone like that might be like if they taught a subject I gravitated toward, like English. Thus MJ. 

Additionally, he’s there because when the #MeToo movement first came to my attention in 2017, I recalled conversations with women I was close to; a sentiment that came up often was that women have always known how horrible men can be, but because men have been generally resistant to women expressing such thoughts, male allies need to talk to other men about how to be better—in other words, men might listen to other men. I wanted MJ to be that male voice that could speak to those younger guys like, “Hey, I made the same poor decisions you’re making. I’ve been problematic, and I’ve been checked, called out, shamed—as I should have been. Trust me when I tell you almost everything you know is wrong. Let me help you not make the same poor decisions that may end up hurting a woman in some way or another.” 

Now, whether or not the young men listen is another story, but the voice of correction is there.  

Not So Pure and Simple presents a nuanced exploration of the idea of toxic masculinity. I especially appreciated the moment in which Del’s father admitted he still had a lot to learn about it. Tell us about your motivation for wanting to explore this theme—particularly in a YA book. Did your own perspective change at all over the course of writing the book?
One motivator around the toxic masculinity theme is timeliness . . . or, rather, lateness. These are conversations that need to be had because we’ve spent so long not having them. Let’s do the thing.

Also, a good writer friend of mine once said he’d given up on the adults, and young people are the ones who’ll make the world better. I won’t go as far as to say I’ve given up on all people my age, but I’d be lying if I told you it hasn’t been tough trying to express these ideas to some of the grown men I know. I’ve run into a lot of “times are different now” and “people are softer now,” which is super insulting and deflects a simple truth: Being a toxic male was never okay. Men just wielded most of the power and controlled large-scale narratives so when women or less powerful men objected, hardly anyone heard or took action. I’m hoping this book starts some conversations earlier, with younger people, before harmful mindsets cement. As far as my own perspective, I’m very much Del’s dad in that the more I learn, the more I realize I have a lot to learn. I don’t ever want to come off like “I’m so woke” (a term I hate, by the way). I’ve realized some stuff that I’m trying to pass on, and I’m open to continued improvement. I’m hoping to find some readers who feel the same. 

“I’d be lying if I told you it hasn’t been tough trying to express these ideas to some of the grown men I know. I’ve run into a lot of ‘times are different now’ and ‘people are softer now,’ which is super insulting and deflects a simple truth: Being a toxic male was never okay.”

Youtube, Instagram, Snapchat . . . social media is instrumental in the way that Del and his friends share news and gossip. How do you think social media has changed conversations about and among teens? Are we in a brave new world, or are the conversations the same and only the mediums have changed?
The mediums have definitely changed from when I was a teen (I remember getting a landline IN MY ROOM and having three-way phone calls for hours; also I had a beeper . . . lol). I think some conversations are the same in that teens still have crushes, they still claim their music and artists of the time, stuff like that. But I think conversations that have changed a bit from my youth center around acceptance of identity (there’s so much support online for those struggling with sexuality, anxiety, depression, gender conformity and so on—if they’re not getting support at home and have access to the web, that is). Conversely, and sadly, the negative voices also use the same resources to seek like-minded people and amplify harmful messages. The positive stuff (a YouTuber saying what you’re feeling and what your body is going through is normal) would’ve been appreciated in my youth; an eternal digital record of every public misstep I made, not so much. Social media is a blessing and a curse in that regard. 

I loved the small details of Del’s part-time job at a fish-themed fast food restaurant. Some of the menu item names (“Fun Flounder meals,” “Whale-Sized” drinks) really cracked me up. What kinds of jobs have you had on your way to being an author? Did you learn anything at them that you were able to apply to writing or working as an author?
I’ve had all sorts of jobs on the way to being an author, from being a janitor at Disney World to a college academic coach. But in high school, I worked fast food, first at a Subway sandwich shop, then as a McDonald’s employee. So, yes, Del’s time behind the counter at Monte FISHtos is heavily inspired by my time at those five-star eateries, particularly those slow shifts when you’re tasked with all kinds of weird busywork. I recall once having to climb a step ladder and scrub grease off the ceiling tiles.

But there’s another function to Monte FISHtos that I don’t think any of my readers have picked up on yet. I’ve written mysteries/thrillers, middle grade fantasy and now with Not So Pure and Simple, contemporary. Let’s say those are three separate universes, okay? There’s one thing that connects them all: the Monte FISHtos franchise. (Don’t believe me? Go back and read closely.) So, you heard it here first. Stephen King has the Dark Tower, and I’ve got a spot where you can get a Cra-Burger, Fillet Fries and a whale-sized drink for $6.98.  

“Stephen King has the Dark Tower, and I’ve got a spot where you can get a Cra-Burger, Fillet Fries and a whale-sized drink for $6.98.”

Although readers will be reading your answers to these questions after Not So Pure and Simple has been published, you’re answering them before its publication. How do you feel? A year from now, what kinds of thoughts and conversations among readers do you hope the book generates?
Honestly, I feel rather anxious. This book is, by far, my most personal. I mean, I’ve never had to really solve a murder (thank goodness), I’ve never frozen time and fought supernatural villains (thank goodness), but I have felt and thought the things Del feels and thinks. I’ve experienced his awkwardness. I’ve made some of the bad decisions he makes. Not in the exact configuration you’re reading—but none of it amounts to shining moments you necessarily want to the world to see. Which is kind of why the world needs to see it.

I don’t recall a single influential male admitting to me that they didn’t have everything figured out or that they’d made horribly embarrassing mistakes, which is part of the problem. So a year from now, I hope there are more conversations, particularly among men young and old, expressing how a long time ago manhood was presented as this absolute thing—this bravado, this confident, error-free movement through the world—by men we trusted, but now we realize they were wrong about a lot of it. It’s okay to not have the answers, so long as your ignorance doesn’t lead to you disrespecting the people around you—especially women. Let’s discuss and learn how to be better together. 

OK, enough serious talk. Please tell us about your love of eighties rock ballads. (Maybe your top five favorites?)
LOL! Okay, I set myself up for this, didn’t I? Fine, the genie’s out of the bottle. Top five ’80s ballads. (I’m sure that in whatever you heard me say to inspire this question, I said “rock,” but I’m not sure all of these meet the rock standard . . . they’re just my favorites from that decade.)

  1. Waiting for a Girl Like You” by Foreigner
  2. Don’t Dream It’s Over” by Crowded House
  3. Purple Rain” by Prince
  4. When I See You Smile” by Bad English
  5. Holding Back the Years” by Simply Red
When Del’s longtime crush, Kiera, joins a teen group at their church and takes a purity pledge, Del joins too. It’ll be a great way for them to spend time together, right? So begins Lamar Giles’ Not So Pure and Simple, a nuanced, engaging and often hilarious exploration of gender politics in the 21st century, […]
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A recently orphaned young woman newly hired as a personal assistant. Her charge, a feisty, elderly German woman. A Scottish Traveler concealing her heritage behind her respectable job as a military driver. A pilot from a privileged family just hoping his men survive their next mission. Printz Honor author Elizabeth Wein’s latest World War II thriller, The Enigma Game, follows four protagonists whose lives intersect when they discover an Enigma machine left behind in a Scottish pub by a rogue German pilot. Wein spoke with BookPage about the very personal inspiration behind one of her book’s characters, her surprising literary superpower and her aviation bucket list.

In your author’s note (which I love that you’ve titled “Author’s Declaration of Accountability”), you sketch out some of the origins of this story—movingly, that you began by wanting to write a story about a mysterious old woman having a bond with a young person because of your experience of losing your grandmother, Betty Flocken. I’d like to ask you two questions inspired by this note. First, when and how did the Enigma machine enter the story you were devising? And second, will you tell us more about your grandmother? 

I confess that the Enigma machine was my husband’s suggestion. I was already working out the plot, and I had the idea of a German pilot defecting to Britain. I wanted him to bring some game-changing information or technology with him. I asked my husband to help me brainstorm ideas, and he instantly suggested an Enigma machine.

As for my grandmother, you will have to stop me once I get started! She is my mother’s mother and my namesake and my soulmate. My mother died when I was 14 and my grandmother raised me after that—she lived to be 98. She was my biggest fan and supporter as a writer. She visited me in Scotland every year until she was 95, so my own children knew and loved her too, and we spent every single summer with her in Pennsylvania while they were growing up. It was always a wrench to have to say goodbye at the end of the summer. One of my favorite images of her is from the year the manuscript for Code Name Verity was being shopped around to publishers: standing on the porch of her woodland cottage, fist-pumping as we drove away to go back to Scotland, yelling after us, “GO VERITY! GO CODE NAME VERITY!”

Born in 1916, she had a master’s degree in social work from the University of Pennsylvania, which she got in the 1930s, and she worked with children and foster families all her life. The children that she placed kept in touch with her even after they were grown up and had children of their own. She had a way of making every single person who met her feel like the most special person in the world.

Like Jane Warner in The Enigma Game, my grandmother stayed youthful because she stayed interested and engaged in the world. She absolutely lit up whenever anyone started talking politics. Another of my wonderful images of her is sitting on the railway platform at the train station in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, thrilled to be the oldest audience member on that leg of Barack Obama’s whistle-stop tour in 2008. She told me once: “I’m not afraid of dying—I just don’t want to miss anything.” 

The Enigma Game alternates between three distinct narrative voices. How did you arrive at this structure? Was one voice more challenging or more enjoyable to write than the others? 

My original draft of The Enigma Game was all voiced by the same character, and it really limited the viewpoint. Adding in the other two narrators, particularly Jamie, the pilot, gave me much more of an opportunity to give a firsthand account of some of the most exciting action in the book.

I never really stop thinking about the characters I fall in love with.

An unexpected advantage to having three narrators was that when two or more of them were involved in the action, I found that I could use rapid-fire shifts in the narration to simulate three people trying urgently to tell a story together. It was a new narrative effect for me, almost like writing a play, which I found challenging and exciting.

Ellen’s voice—the young Royal Air Force driver and a native Scot—was definitely the hardest for me to write. I didn’t want her to sound like she was talking in dialect, but I wanted her to sound colloquial. Also, of the three characters, Ellen is the one who doesn’t come from a literary background, and I always have to rein myself in a bit when I’m writing a character who hasn’t read the same things I’ve read! 

Several of The Enigma Game’s characters are people of color or from marginalized backgrounds. For some of them, blending into the majority-white British society is easy; for others, it's an ongoing struggle. What kind of research and work did you do to be able to represent their experiences with authenticity? Did you learn anything that surprised you or that you found particularly striking or memorable?

I mostly read and listened to memoirs and interviews. Because I was learning about an Indigenous nomadic population in Scotland and imprisoned Germans on the Isle of Man and Caribbean men and women who lived and served in World War II in the United Kingdom (not to mention the background for the Royal Air Force squadron I was setting up), my subject matter felt really scattered and not as comprehensive as I would have liked. Among other things, I found out about Caribbean soldiers in Scottish logging units, and the horrific voyage of a group of British residents who happened to be German as they were deported to Australia, and a government report on a Black population in Wales in the 1940s. I also read contemporary wartime fiction by Nevil Shute, and a book of Una Marson’s poems (she was a Black Jamaican who produced a wartime radio program for the BBC, “Calling the West Indies,” later called “Caribbean Voices”)—and none of these things actually made it into the book! But details from these many different lives leaped out at me, and it is in combining and weaving them together that I have tried to give authenticity to my imaginary characters.

I should add that my young narrator Louisa’s experience of leaving behind a childhood in Jamaica to come of age in a colder climate, and of losing both her parents at a young age, are based on my own experiences. Like Jane Warner and Louisa, I, too, am an immigrant to the United Kingdom.

The one thing in all this background research that really sticks out in my mind in its shocking ignorance and unfairness—truly, above everything else—is how Lilian Bader, a Black British woman serving in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force during the war, found herself being taunted as a Nazi by a group of evacuee children who had never seen a Nazi or a Black woman.

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our starred review of The Enigma Game.

Though The Enigma Game stands perfectly on its own, fans of your previous books Code Name Verity and The Pearl Thief will notice familiar characters appearing here, including one character whose previously vague backstory is explored in much greater detail. What is it like for you to revisit familiar characters in new circumstances like this? Can readers hope that this isn’t our last experience with them?

I never really stop thinking about the characters I fall in love with. Their backstories keep spinning in my head—how they grew up and what they’ll do next, and in some cases, how they’ll die—and although I encourage readers to bring their own interpretations and ideas to my texts, I do tend to have a “canon” idea of what happens to everybody. So the chance to explore these characters in new circumstances is never anything short of a pleasure for me. Although I feel the need to make up new worlds, I am sure I will revisit some of these characters in years to come. 

The coded messages that Louisa deciphers from the Enigma machine are often ambiguous, which gives readers a chance to figure out their meanings along with the characters. How did you design messages that struck the right balance between clarity and ambiguity?

I think that designing literary coded messages might be one of my superpowers! (It’s certainly a wonderful way to pretend that you are “working” when you are actually fooling around with puzzles.) I really enjoy doing it. In my book, The Empty Kingdom, I wrote a sonnet constructed entirely of lines from The Odyssey which was also a secret message from one character to another!

The hard part about the messages included in The Enigma Game was trying to avoid making assumptions about language. Here in the U.K., the Big Dipper is called the Plough. But what is it called in German? Trying to hit that balance between clarity and ambiguity is an art—but not really any different than a mystery writer leaving a trail of clues for the reader. I suppose you could think of them as clues! 

Classical music plays a significant role in the way characters communicate in The Enigma Game, including everything from social bonding to secret communication. Was music ever actually used in this way during the war? What are some musical pieces would you want to hear if you travel back in time and space to a World War II-era pub like the Limehouse?

I haven’t come across a specific story of music being used to hide code during the war (though poems were used), but music was certainly a powerful weapon. The example that leaps to mind is Dmitri Shostakovich’s 7th Symphony, the “Leningrad” Symphony, which he wrote and performed during the siege of Leningrad as an open statement of defiance, and which was distributed and performed throughout the world in solidarity against the Nazis. Think also of the scene in Casablanca where everybody starts to sing the French national anthem!

Jazz was so hated by the Nazi propaganda machine, and so loved by the general population who listened to it, that the Third Reich had to come up with an allowed and watered-down version to stop people using it as a political weapon. It turned political anyway, and hundreds of German young people—the “Swing Youth”—were imprisoned and killed just for listening to music.

The appeal of writing about the past for me is very simple: I just want to create a history for the abandoned and disused things around me.

The classic wartime example of Morse code as a musical message is Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, whose dramatic opening beats spell out the Morse letter “V” (dit-dit-dit-DAH, short-short-short-long), which was the Allied victory symbol. The symphony was used as a symbol of resistance throughout the war, and with French words added to it, it was broadcast on the BBC’s secret radio station just before the invasion of Normandy. German classical music was also often embraced as a wartime symbol of defiance; the story of an English violinist refusing to take shelter in an air raid during a concert, her Bach concerto soaring above the noise of the bombs, really sticks with me.

My idea of the off-duty airmen's informal music sessions in The Enigma Game was inspired by the author Lucy Boston’s wartime concerts for a local flight squadron between missions. Living alone and approaching middle age, Boston wanted to do something for the war effort, so she opened her home to the young soldiers stationed nearby to give them a brief respite of comfort and culture when they weren’t risking their lives in combat.

What would my own wartime concert include? I would have to struggle to narrow it down. Beethoven’s 5th Symphony and “Ode to Joy” from his 9th, Mendelssohn’s “Hebrides Overture,” “The Last Time I Saw Paris,” “White Cliffs of Dover,” “In the Mood”—honestly I’d just listen to whatever they were playing! 

You’ve become renowned for your World War II thrillers and iconic female protagonists. Could you talk a little bit about the appeal of writing about the past, particularly about World War II? What keeps you returning to this moment in history?
The appeal of writing about the past for me is very simple: I just want to create a history for the abandoned and disused things around me. Living in Europe, we are absolutely surrounded by the detritus of World War II. Every North Sea beach in England and Scotland is littered with anti-aircraft bunkers and miles and miles of concrete defensive tank traps. Unexploded bombs turn up on a regular basis in farmers’ fields and building sites. Civil defense warnings are still visible in faded paint on city walls; the iron railings of my own front garden were chopped down as wartime surplus and the stumps still remain.

The war always fascinated me. My high school French teacher, Annette Berman, was a courier and translator in the French Resistance when she was a teenager. For three years in her French class, she told us breathtaking stories of her wartime heartbreak and triumph. My husband’s parents were both teenagers in England during the Blitz, and their stories, too, feel immediate. Yes, I am writing about the past, but I feel that I have a living connection to it. Given Madame Berman’s wartime experience, it seems perfectly natural to me to write about heroic young women!

What makes me keep returning is that I keep finding out more, and it’s all so interesting. The research for Code Name Verity led me to the women’s concentration camp at Ravensbrück, which led me to write Rose Under Fire; the research for Rose Under Fire led me to a British interception of a Luftwaffe bomber, which led me to write The Enigma Game; the research for The Enigma Game led me to that horrific British prison ship bound for Australia, full of German civilians. What about the teens on that ship? THAT would make a story. There is always more!

Your love of aviation and especially for the aircraft of World War II is evident in many of your books, including in The Enigma Game, and you hold a private pilot's license. Do you have a bucket list either of planes you’d love to fly or of places or routes you’d love to fly?
You’d be surprised at how doggedly I have gone about checking items off this bucket list!

I have actually managed to get flights in an Avro Lancaster bomber and a Westland Lysander (the star aircraft of Code Name Verity), though not at the controls! And I have my name on a notification list for flights in the world’s only airworthy Bristol Blenheim, the star aircraft of The Enigma Game, when they allow passengers. In fact, I’d paid for a flight in a Dragon Rapide (a 1930s-era passenger plane) alongside that Blenheim, which was supposed to take place in May 2020. Not surprisingly, that flight has been indefinitely postponed.

I have a separate bank account that I’ve been saving in for a Spitfire flight—the iconic British fighter plane from the Battle of Britain in 1940. You can get a flight in a specially made “two-seater” training Spitfire over the cliffs of Dover, where much of that battle was fought, and you CAN take the controls. So watch this space.

I’ve also kind of doggedly set about flying the routes that my characters take. I have flown on several occasions along the east coast of Scotland and the North Sea there, the airborne setting for The Enigma Game. I have flown over Holy Island and Bamburgh Castle, as Maddie does in Code Name Verity at the beginning of the war.

Originally, I got my pilot’s license because I wanted to fly across North America. Nothing to do with the war! That hasn’t happened yet, but maybe it’s on the list for a retirement project.

Author photo by David Ho.

Printz Honor author Elizabeth Wein spoke with BookPage about the very personal inspiration behind one of the characters in The Enigma Game, her surprising literary superpower and her aviation bucket list.
Interview by

Kelly Loy Gilbert is the author of two acclaimed YA novels, including Conviction, a finalist for the William C. Morris Award, which honors the first book written by an author for teen readers. When We Were Infinite is the story of a close group of friends, including protagonist Beth and her crush, Jason, whose plans for the future are radically changed when they discover that Jason has been keeping a terrible secret.

Your acknowledgements mention that you’ve been working on When We Were Infinite since 2006. You’ve published two other novels in that time, beginning with your debut in 2015, Conviction. How do you feel now that When We Were Infinite is going to be published?
It’s absolutely surreal to be finally seeing this book enter the world. It has seen me through literally all the major transitions in my life, and I like to think that it’s richer for all the new layers of myself that I’ve woven into it through the years. In retrospect, I’m grateful it got all those extra years to percolate.

This was the book I first signed with my agent many, many years ago, but the timing was just never right. I think one of the biggest stories behind why it’s coming out now is that so many in the book world have laid the groundwork that made it possible for me to publish a story about a group of Asian American friends. When I first started querying this story in 2007, the publishing landscape was just entirely different.

The book’s protagonist, Beth, is a high-achieving high school senior, a talented musician who is deeply invested in her incredibly close group of friends. What did you find most compelling about writing Beth’s character, and what was most challenging? Are there any pieces of yourself inside her?
At an event at Parnassus Books a few years ago, a bookseller asked something that’s stayed with me since: What’s the question at the core of everything you write? For me, it’s always going to be about what we owe one another and how you give it without losing yourself. When I was Beth’s age, that was the driving question of my life. The ways Beth grapples with that question are both deeply compelling and also deeply challenging to me. I remember what it felt like to want to totally lose yourself in another person, but I also know enough to recognize the way that spirals.

Something I think people forget or underestimate about high school life is how incredibly little agency you have over your world, and that’s one of the challenges of writing about it: Whatever happens, chemistry is still third period.

At her core there’s an aloneness to Beth that I haven’t personally faced, but so much of what we write is driven by our deep fears, and I think Beth might be someone I could’ve been if I hadn’t been protected from that loneliness. As I wrote Beth’s story, I always wanted better for her than what she was able to want for herself.

There are occasional hints that Beth’s narration comes from some point in the future. Where did this lens come from, and why did you choose it?
One thing I remember about being in high school was a sense that the world was dismissive of whatever relationships we were forming with each other at the time—like, oh, these are just teenage friendships, this isn’t real life. But I think there’s something shatteringly meaningful about the kind of friends who’ve known you over a long span of time, so it was important to me to validate that and give a sense of that truth in Beth’s future. It was also important to me to give Beth a chance to be more tender toward her younger self and to hold all those mistakes she made and those ways she was broken.

Beth is a classical musician, and music plays a huge role in her life. How much of what Beth knows, thinks and feels about music did you know before you started writing? Do you play an instrument? What kind of work did you do to be able to capture this part of Beth’s life?
I used to play the flute–not particularly well!–so I have, like, a high school band-level musical background. But prestigious orchestras were really big where I grew up, and they were always a source of fascination to me. I immersed myself in classical music on and off as I wrote, especially violin. I watched online performances and read music theory for hours.

Beth has a complicated relationship to music; it alternately haunts and frustrates, fulfills and consumes her. And I would say that’s because in everything I’ve ever written about craft, whether it’s baseball or art or music, the deeper truth is that I’m always writing about writing.

When you’re a teenager, how you spend your time—and with whom you spend it—is determined by classes, schoolwork, teachers and extracurriculars. As we see through Beth’s story, these demands also construct and articulate a person’s identity. What was challenging about capturing this aspect of teenage life? Why was including it important to you?
Something I think people forget or underestimate about high school life is how incredibly little agency you have over your world, and that’s one of the challenges of writing about it: Whatever happens, chemistry is still third period. So much is preordained for you. That’s one reason why I always give my characters a world within a world (like sports or music), because it’s a place they can exert some control.

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our starred review of When We Were Infinite.

A lot of my work is about resisting the notion that schools are somehow separate from our wider cultural moment rather than a reflection of it, the pervasive sense that anything happening against a backdrop of recess or gym class or TikTok doesn’t matter all that much. The pressures Beth and her friends face are their inheritance from us—the trickling down of adult pressures and pathologies. That’s one reason I think adults should read YA: It reflects our world back at us from a different dimension.

The final chapter of the novel continues Beth’s story after high school. Do you see this chapter as stretching the concept of what a YA novel can contain, or as stepping outside of that boundary to transform the novel into something else entirely?
I love writing YA, and it feels like a calling in a way that my adult projects never do, but the one constraint I kind of chafe against is the span of time you’re given. For the most part, a story has to wrap up by graduation, but so much of this story is about how what happens to Beth and her friends when they’re 17 reverberates through the rest of their lives. I think ultimately what distinguishes YA, though, is that it contains a sense of firsts, and so to me it still feels like there’s a fidelity to the YA designation there.

What kinds of teenagers do you hope find their way to this book? What kinds of thoughts or questions are inside them?
Teens who feel things deeply and who long for connection. Teens who find this yearning of Beth’s resonating with them: “And I hoped too that you could build something vital and lasting even if all you’d had to offer was the damaged parts of yourself, even if you weren’t yet whole.”

What’s something you’re proud of in this book?
I grew up in a very Asian American community in the San Francisco Bay area, and back then pretty much all the Asian American representation in books was either fish-out-of-water stories, in which it was a single Asian American family in a predominantly white town, or it was about another generation, like The Joy Luck Club—all of which are vital and necessary, but I was always so hungry to read and write stories that felt like they could’ve been about people I knew. I thought our experiences were worthy of literature, too. So I’m really proud of having written a story I needed when I was young. This one is for all the Asian American Bay Area teens who’ve told me they feel seen by my stories.

Author photo courtesy of Dayna Falls.

When We Were Infinite is the story of a close group of friends, including protagonist Beth and her crush, Jason, whose plans for the future are radically changed when they discover that Jason has been keeping a terrible secret.

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Lesa Cline-Ransome is an acclaimed children’s author whose first middle grade novel, Finding Langston, received a Coretta Scott King Award Honor. Being Clem completes a loose trilogy that began with Finding Langston and continued in Leaving Lymon. It’s a poignant story of a young boy in 1940s Chicago who must deal with the tragic loss of his father while navigating challenges at school, complicated friendships and swimming lessons.

How would you describe Being Clem to someone who hasn’t read the previous two books in the trilogy? What was different for you about creating this story compared to the earlier two?
Clem is smart, outgoing and funny. He is the cherished youngest child and only boy, with two bossy older sisters and an overprotective mother who are all striving to protect him, but it’s not protecting Clem wants. He wants to be independent, brave and strong, like his father. His struggle to discover who he is as a young man finds him caught between a bully and a friend and never quite feeling that he can be honest about his fears without the risk of disappointing those around him.

Unlike the first two books, this story uses humor as a way of tackling many of the difficult issues Clem is facing. Being Clem also finalizes some of the loose ends of the friendship of Clem, Langston, Errol and Lymon, and readers will see how their stories ultimately play out.

Were these books always going to be a trilogy? What was it like to revisit familiar characters in Being Clem?
Interestingly, Finding Langston began as a too-long picture book that my editor suggested I attempt to expand into a middle grade novel. I never intended the book to evolve into a trilogy, but my editor and I found that readers wanted to know more about the cast of characters introduced in Finding Langston.

The problem for me was that I had only a limited scope for the secondary characters I created, so for Lymon’s and Clem’s stories, I began by looking at the culminating events in their lives that I alluded to in the first book—Lymon’s struggle with reading and the loss of Clem’s father in the Port Chicago Disaster—and worked my way into their backstories until I fully understood their uniquely individual stories.

Clem has internalized gender stereotypes, including ideas that boys can't be librarians or talk to other boys about their inner thoughts. What drew you to exploring these stereotypes? How did you balance representing them while also challenging them?
I am a mother of three daughters and one son, and I have always encouraged my son to be open with his feelings and emotions. His sisters were so verbal and emotive, and I’ve always encouraged my son to be the same, but outside of our home, the messages he received were very different. I often worried about my son and wondered if there was a space for boys who are sensitive or cry easily. It made me wonder about how often boys are asked to hide their emotions—how emotions are often feminized. To this day, I feel so proud of my son who, I feel, is so emotionally evolved in his ability to be honest about his feelings, to gauge and adapt to others’ emotions. I do believe that is because he had the space to freely express emotion as a child without being ridiculed. So it is my son I thought of when writing the characters of Langston, Lymon and Clem, who are all in their own ways sweet, sensitive, intuitive souls.

There were so many pieces of history that were presented inaccurately or incompletely when I was a student in school, so writing for me is often a way of relearning the truth of history, in particular the ways in which practices and systems directly impacted people of color.

In the book, Clem is given so many rigid messages about gender roles and what it means to be a man, but none of those definitions seem to apply to him. He begins to wonder, Can I ever be a man if I am afraid or not a fighter or smart or athletic? No one has told him that there are other ways to be a man. I think these are issues that so many young men are grappling with today.

Fear is another emotion that comes up repeatedly in the book. Expressing fear, Clem eventually discovers, is part of the journey toward conquering it. What do you hope young readers realize about fear through Clem’s story?
In a world where Black boys are often painted as hardened, violent and to be feared, I know the opposite to be true. In fact, because of that perception, Black boys are often the target of daily slights and injustice and violence. I wanted readers to see that fear and courage are not mutually exclusive. You can experience and embrace fear while forging ahead. It doesn’t have to immobilize you.

Many children’s books that involve bullying focus on either the person being bullied or the bully themselves. Clem, however, finds himself caught between the two. How did you decide this would be his role?
There is always the temptation to paint the antagonist as all bad and the protagonist as all good, but the truth of it is, people are never all one. There’s a little bit of both in all of us, so it is important to show readers that even good people can make bad choices on occasion and hurt others, which is what Clem does when he goes along with the bullying. Ultimately, when he is able to reflect on his own moral compass and inner strength, Clem is able to make better choices, but sometimes people can take longer to get to that place of awareness. I think these types of difficult choices that are nuanced and complex are the choices that kids are making every day, none of them simple. 

I want to ask specifically about Clem’s mother, who struggles between her desires to both empower her children to succeed and protect them from adult responsibilities. I think she will be understood very differently by young readers versus adult readers. Can you talk a bit about creating her character and what you wanted to explore or represent through her?
As a writer, there was a part of me that wanted the opportunity to create a different mother than was presented in the previous two books in the trilogy. In the first novel, there was Langston’s loving but deceased mother. In the second, Lymon was estranged from his difficult mother, and when they reunited, he discovered that she was far from maternal.

Clem’s mother is loving and maternal, but she is also grieving and depressed, and her mental state shapes the ways Clem and his sisters interact with her. Even while she feels she is being protective of them as a mother, her fragility means that her children are forced to mother and protect her.

I don’t think we talk enough about the challenges of motherhood and parenting through pain, depression, grief and loss, the lack of support available to mothers and what the reality looks like of having to provide ongoing daily care for children through it all. 

Your writing oeuvre includes middle grade historical fiction, picture book biographies and even a quilt-based abecedary, all united by your goal to “explore periods from America's past that were never discussed in the classrooms of [your] youth.” Being Clem in particular focuses on the Port Chicago Disaster and is set against the background of the Great Migration. Do you usually begin writing with a story or a character and then choose a historical setting, or vice versa—or are the two inextricably linked?
Generally speaking, I discover a period or an event from history I am looking to explore and then I envision it through the lens of a child. There were so many pieces of history that were presented inaccurately or incompletely when I was a student in school, so writing for me is often a way of relearning the truth of history, in particular the ways in which practices and systems directly impacted people of color.

When I first began the Finding Langston trilogy, it was because I had just read Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, which explores the stories of the 6 million Black people who left the South and travelled north in the 1900s. Reading that book led me to examine so many other historic events and touchstones that appear in the trilogy, including the Parchman Farm penitentiary, sundown towns, segregation and the Chicago Defender.

My own parents were part of the Great Migration and my father left Shelby, North Carolina, when he was 12 years old and moved to Providence, Rhode Island. I began wondering how, as a child, it would have felt as a child to leave behind everything and everyone you know and travel to a region so different in every way from your own. And by asking that question, I developed a character named Langston who finds he doesn’t quite fit into the city of Chicago, is teased and called “country boy,” but who eventually finds solace in the poetry of Langston Hughes and the Chicago Public Library. In that book, Clem from Being Clem becomes Langston's first friend in Chicago, in part because, like Langston, he has also lost a parent, a father in the Port Chicago Disaster.

Clem interacts with real events, objects and places, including the Bud Billiken parade, the Chicago Defender newspaper and his local high school's champion swim team. Can you tell us more about the process of researching these real-world elements?
Honestly, many of the real-world elements that I’ve included happened coincidentally and often took on a life of their own. For example, as I began researching segregated swimming pools in Chicago in the 1940s while trying to uncover where Clem might have been able to take lessons, I stumbled across one article about the undefeated DuSable High School swim team, whose members were all Black students, so I did some more digging until I had enough information to include it in the book and make it a central part of Clem’s story. What began as a small portion of Clem’s story revolving around his struggle to learn to swim ultimately evolved into a much larger social statement involving historic references to segregation, mentorship, newspaper delivery boys and the Chicago Defender.

Clem's friend Langston loves the poetry of Langston Hughes, and Clem is intrigued by him as well. How did you decide to highlight Hughes’ work in the novel?
Hughes’ work wasn’t even included in the initial drafts until I discovered a lecture series featuring Black writers who would share their work at the George Cleveland Hall branch of the Chicago Public Library, which was the library Langston visited. As I looked up the writers, I began reading the works of Gwendolyn Brooks, Arna Bontemps, Countee Cullen and Margaret Walker, but when I read the work of Langston Hughes, I discovered many of his pieces had references to the South, specifically to red clay roads and coming north and missing his mother. That’s when a light went on for me, and I decided to connect his work to my character Langston and his leaving Alabama.

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of Being Clem.

What do you enjoy about writing longer narrative forms like middle grade novels versus shorter forms like picture books?
I do enjoy both, but the beauty of writing in a longer form is that I have the opportunity to get to know my characters so deeply that they begin to feel like family. I am with them as they travel to school, spend time with their families or are in bed at night, so the way in which I inhabit their consciousness is very different from the way in which I write about a picture book subject.

Some writers love researching, some the initial draft and some revising. Do you enjoy one of these processes more than others? What do you enjoy about it?
I can tell you which one I enjoy the least: revision! Each provides its own rewards, but I have to say, there is no other feeling like when I begin getting that first draft down and the story begins to reveal itself to me. I know that I am going to have to change much of it, remove portions, rework entire sections, but it is so wonderful to meet the characters and find the settings and see where they will take me. 

We understand you’ve recently gotten a dog. Will you tell us about him?
Ah, Miles. Miles began as a foster dog from our local shelter. My plan was to keep him for just a few months until he was adopted. My family thought this was a terrible idea because they said I would become too attached and want to adopt Miles for myself.

Miles is an 8-year-old pitbull who has spent much of his life in shelters. There is nothing he loves more than a good couch and company, so he immediately set up camp in my office and happily stretched out, softly snoring behind me all day long as I worked or did my virtual school visits. We’d go for long walks, and at night he loved to watch movies as he stretched out on the couch next to me.

Miles is not easy. He cries too much, has arthritis and separation anxiety, is so terrified of rain that I have to coax him outside and cover him with an umbrella in order to get him to leave the house on rainy days, and you can never leave food on his level or he’ll steal it. But just as my family predicted, we fell in love and now he’s mine. I signed adoption papers two weeks ago.

Author photo of Lesa Cline-Ransome courtesy of John Halpern. Photo of Miles Cline-Ransome courtesy of the author.

Lesa Cline-Ransome is an acclaimed children’s author whose first middle grade novel, Finding Langston, received a Coretta Scott King Award Honor. Being Clem completes a loose trilogy that began with Finding Langston and continued in Leaving Lymon.

Interview by

It’s difficult to think of a bigger children’s literature success story from the past decade than R.J. Palacio’s Wonder. The emotional tale about the importance of kindness has sold more than 12 million copies since it was published in 2012 and still regularly earns a spot on bestseller lists. In Pony, Palacio creates a very different tale: a slim, taut odyssey set in the American Midwest in 1860, anchored by a young boy named Silas, whom readers will find as irresistible as Auggie. BookPage chatted with Palacio about why she had to throw her new novel away (literally) in order to unlock the key to writing it.

Could you start by introducing us to Silas and Pa?
Silas is a 12-year-old boy growing up in an isolated house on the American frontier. He’s being lovingly raised by his widowed father, Martin, who’s an inventor and something of a genius, with only 16-year-old Mittenwool, whom no one else can see or hear, for a companion. Silas, it turns out, can see ghosts.

The story opens when three horsemen storm their little house in the middle of the night and take Pa away. Silas is left alone and quite shaken, so when the white-faced pony that one of the men had been leading shows up on his doorstep the next day, Silas takes it as a sign from the universe that he has to ride the pony in search of his father. Mittenwool, who is very protective of Silas, tries to talk him out of it, but Silas is determined to go.

The book is called Pony, so I have to ask: Do you ride? Do you like horses?
I love horses! When Iw as little, I used to draw them all the time. I would doodle them in my notebooks. I was obsessed—so much so that my parents got me horseback riding lessons when I was about 8 years old. Imagine two Colombian immigrants shelling out money they didn’t have so they could give their daughter weekly riding lessons in Flushing, New York. It was kind of crazy, but they did it. I only took lessons for a few years, and no, I don’t have a horse now or ride. I can still draw horses, though!

Family history, revealed in pieces over time, is such an important motif in Pony. Did any of your family’s stories inspire parts of Silas’ story?
The whole story of Pony was sparked by a scary dream my older son had when he was young. The events of the dream are different, but the imagery was taken right out of his head.

“We hold the people we love close to us, no matter where they are.”

I had my father in my mind when describing Martin. My dad was easily the most brilliant person I’ve ever known, an encyclopedia of knowledge. He could build anything, make anything, remember everything. He was the kind of father who would wake me up in the middle of the night so we could go up to the roof of our building to watch a meteor shower.

And of course, my mother is someone I speak with every day, even though she’s been gone for almost 20 years. We hold the people we love close to us, no matter where they are. I think of this book as a love letter to my mom and dad.

How did you develop the rules for the novel’s ghosts?
Silas sees and experiences the ghosts in Pony as they see and experience themselves. If they wear the wounds of their deaths, that’s how he sees them. If they don’t know they’re dead, Silas also doesn’t know they’re dead.

As to why some people stay behind and some don’t, Silas doesn’t know, and neither do they. He guesses that some people are more ready to go than others. Some people may have things they still want to see through. But in time, when they’re ready, they pass on. Everyone does eventually. Which is what I wanted to say: People leave us, but not forever.

Do you believe in ghosts? Have you ever had an encounter with something you couldn’t explain?
I’ve never seen a ghost, but I’ve experienced a sense of connection with loved ones who are no longer here. Whether that’s internal or external, whether there’s a science to it or it’s just wishful thinking, I can’t tell you. I don’t know. That’s part of the mystery of life, which is what this book is about. Silas learns to embrace the mysteries.

Pony features incredible old photographs throughout the book. You discuss these in your author’s note, but can you tell us a little bit about them here?
This book takes place during the dawn of early photography. New processes were being invented all over the world. People were experimenting with the incredible notion of being able to use sunlight and a mix of chemicals to freeze an image onto glass or paper. It’s pretty extraordinary! Silas’ father is one of those early tinkerers and invents a new form of photography.

“If you answer every question, you ruin the mystery for the reader. We can’t see everything in the dark. We see only what we shine a light on.”

I’ve had a daguerreotype collection for years, long before I wrote this book. I’ve always been drawn to old cameras and photographs in flea markets and antiques shops. As I was writing, faces from my collection would come to me. They helped form the characters in my mind. Ultimately, as I designed the book, I decided to use the images that literally inspired the characters as chapter openers.

In addition to your passion for old photographs, do you enjoy photography yourself?
I was a photographer for my school yearbook in middle school, which is when I got my first Pentax K1000 camera, and I’ve been hooked ever since. I love taking photographs on film, but I shoot digitally now, though I do miss the feeling of processing a latent image in a darkroom.

Your author’s note begins, “I spent many years researching this book, and I hope none of it shows.” Authors are often asked to discuss their research process, but instead, I want to ask you: Can you tell us about the work you did to hide all that research?
I was 400 pages into the first draft of Pony, which represented about two years of work, when I realized it wasn’t the book I wanted to write. I had so many notes, so much information. I knew how many miles and hours an Arabian horse could ride in a day. I knew their provenance, the name of the Bedouin tribe that Pony had come from. I knew the different photographic processes, what kind of lanterns were used, the names of real counterfeiters, the types of horse carts that were driven. I had topographic maps of the woods and the ravines and, well, so much!

I had a vision in my mind about the kind of novel I wanted Pony to be: a “quick epic.” That first draft, had I continued it, would have turned into a James Michener novel! So I literally threw it away. And I do mean that literally. But the story stayed with me, even as I worked on other projects. I knew I’d figure out a way to write it with the minimalism I had in my head for it.

“It was really challenging to tell a story with as few words as you can.”

After years had passed, I suddenly had a vision for how to approach it. I realized that I’d remembered all the essential parts of the research I’d done and forgotten what wasn’t important. The research had settled into the recesses of my mind, and that’s what made its way into the book. The woods became the Woods. The ravine was the Ravine. The only map of the world I needed was the one in Silas’ mind. That’s not to say the world wasn’t built, because it was—utterly and completely—but it didn’t need to be fully described.

The world is full of mysterious pockets and unexplainable and unfathomable crevices. That’s the kind of world I wanted to build. If you answer every question, you ruin the mystery for the reader. We can’t see everything in the dark. We see only what we shine a light on. That’s what I was trying to do here.

I kept saying I wanted to write Pony almost like it was a radio play, just voices in the dark, and then during lockdown, it started flowing out of me one day. It was a remarkable writing experience.

Your note also says, “Historical novels can be seen as road maps through history, but this book is more like a river running through it.” I love this metaphor. What were the challenges of telling a story with such a tight focus? What was rewarding about it?
It was really challenging to tell a story with as few words as you can. I kept trying to strip every sentence of words. Paragraphs. Pages. I wanted to get everything down to the bare minimum: enough to deliver an idea of the world, describe a linear sequence of events, and let the story almost tell itself. In that way, the narrative felt more like a river. It’s just barreling through. Going in one direction. And that’s all the reader gets.

Now, as the river passes through, we get the idea that it’s passing through other stories. We know there’s a lot going on with the other characters. The picaresque adventures of Chalfont and Beautyman, two characters Silas meets along his journey, could fill their own novel! But, see, that would have been part of that original epic that I had started to write. It’s not the epic I wanted to write, though.

The final version of Pony really is the closest I could get to the image in my head of what I wanted to do. Good or bad, right or wrong: It’s faithful to the image.

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Click here to read our starred review of Pony.

The bestselling author of Wonder reveals why she had to throw her new novel away (literally) in order to unlock the key to writing it.

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