Stephanie Appell

Sabaa Tahir’s Ember in the Ashes quartet is one of the most influential YA fantasy series of the past decade. In All My Rage, Tahir proves she’s just as skilled at contemporary realistic fiction.

All My Rage alternates between the perspectives of former best friends Salahudin and Noor. As the novel opens, both teens feel stuck in their small town of Juniper, which is surrounded by the Mojave Desert. Earlier in their senior year, Noor told Sal about the romantic feelings she’d been harboring for him, but Sal rejected her, and they haven’t spoken since.

Sal’s parents, Misbah and Toufiq, run a roadside motel that has seen better days. Misbah has been skipping treatments for her kidney disease, and Toufiq is drunk more than he’s sober. Noor’s uncle adopted her when she was 6, but he resents that raising her has meant deferring his own dream of becoming an engineer and wants her to take over running his liquor store when she graduates.

Noor’s been secretly applying to colleges and ignoring the texts from Sal’s mom asking when she’s going to visit so they can watch their favorite soap opera together again. Yet when Misbah’s health takes a turn for the worse, it’s Noor who’s in her hospital room to hear her last word: “Forgive.” Noor reconciles with Sal and the two grow closer while continuing to keep secrets from each other. As the truth comes to light, Sal and Noor must each decide what can—and should—be forgiven.

All My Rage takes the often cliched all-American trope of two young people who long to leave their small town behind and fills it with moral complexity and emotional heft. The book’s six sections each open with a stanza from “One Art,” Elizabeth Bishop’s villanelle about grief and “the art of losing,” which Noor struggles to write a paper about for English class. Sal and Noor experience numerous losses, and Tahir excels at conveying how trauma and tragedy ripple outward, shaping even the lives of those who seem untouched by darkness.

Tahir explores weighty questions, such as how we can forgive someone for hurting us when they should have been protecting us, but she includes frequent moments of wry levity and solace, especially the comfort Noor finds in music and the Muslim faith she shared with Sal’s mother. All My Rage will likely make you cry, but it will definitely make you smile, too.

“If we are lost, God is like water, finding the unknowable path when we cannot,” Misbah tells Noor. Tahir’s invitation to join Sal and Noor on their search for such a path feels like a gift every step of the way.

In All My Rage, a novel about two teens desperate to leave their small town, Sabaa Tahir proves she’s just as skilled at contemporary fiction as she is at epic fantasy.

The People Remember is an exquisite book that every member of the family will appreciate. In powerful, moving verse, National Book Award finalist Ibi Zoboi (American Street) weaves together the history of African Americans with the seven principles of Kwanzaa. The book is illustrated by acclaimed artist Loveis Wise, whose stunning, vibrant images perfectly complement Zoboi’s text. Zoboi and Wise discuss the creation of the book and how they each hope readers will connect with it.

Ibi, The People Remember is both a journey through the seven principles of Kwanzaa and a timeline of African American history. By braiding together the principles and history, did you come to see aspects of either in a new way?

Author Ibi Zoboi: Absolutely! There were specific moments in Black history that highlight each of the principles. It just so happens that I got to Ujamaa (cooperative economics) during Black Wall Street and the Harlem Renaissance. Kuumba (creativity) landed right in the middle of the hip-hop movement. There are highs and lows throughout Black history, and the Kwanzaa principles demonstrate how we’ve survived and thrived through it all.

The People Remember is your first picture book. What did you enjoy about this new form?

Zoboi: Since The People Remember is written in free verse, it is simply a very long poem. I’ve always written poetry, so it came naturally to me. I enjoyed the challenge of trying to get 400 years of Black history into 2,000 words or so. 

Loveis, you’re one of the first people in the world to have read Ibi’s words in this book. How did you feel after that very first read?

Illustrator Loveis Wise: I remember feeling excited, and I intuitively felt the importance and warmth of what this book would bring. At the time, I really wanted to create a body of work that focused on ancestral connections, and The People Remember was the perfect way for me to explore more.

What’s your favorite illustration from the book? 

Wise: My favorite is the spread focusing on Mami Wata and the children that she’s protecting underwater. This piece felt very kindred to me because of its stillness, but it also feels very powerfully divine.

Zoboi: My favorite illustration is the one where two ancestors are hugging one tree, but from opposite spaces in place and time. When I first saw it, it took my breath away. This spread perfectly captures what this book is all about.

Which principle of Kwanzaa do you feel an especially strong personal connection to?

Zoboi: Ujamaa, which means cooperative economics. I hope all Black people all over the world can get to a place where we are self-sufficient. 

Wise: Kuumba, because it highlights the creativity and the magic we create through transformation and resiliency!

What place do you hope this book finds in the homes and hearts of young readers and their families?

Wise: I hope this book inspires, answers questions and encourages readers to celebrate the beauty of Kwanzaa’s principles with their community.

Zoboi: The People Remember belongs in every home with every type of family. There are lots of opinions out there about Kwanzaa, but I wanted to contextualize why it’s a much-needed cultural celebration. I want educators and caretakers to ask young readers what they would do if they forgot how to play a favorite game or words to a favorite song. They would make up new ones, right? This is exactly how Kwanzaa came to be, and why it is still celebrated decades after its inception. It is a testament to how not all is ever lost. We always remember.

This beautiful picture book casts the principles of Kwanzaa in a new light and can be enjoyed by the whole family.

Educator Tiffany Jewell’s book for teen readers, This Book Is Anti-Racist, became a #1 New York Times and indie bestseller in 2020. In her next book, The Antiracist Kid, Jewell brings her expertise as an antiracism and anti-bias facilitator to middle grade readers eager to discover how they can learn about and take action against racism. The book also includes illustrations by Eisner Award-nominated artist Nicole Miles.

Here’s the official description from Versify, Jewell’s publisher:

What is racism? What is antiracism? Why are both important to learn about? In this book, systemic racism and the antiracist tools to fight it are easily accessible to the youngest readers.

In three sections, this must-have guide explains:

  • Identity: What it is and how it applies to you
  • Justice: What it is, what racism has to do with it and how to address injustice
  • Activism: A how-to with resources to be the best antiracist kid you can be

This book teaches younger children the words, language and methods to recognize racism and injustice—and what to do when they encounter it at home, at school and in the media they watch, play and read. 

The Antiracist Kid hits shelves at libraries and bookstores everywhere on August 16, 2022, and BookPage is thrilled to reveal its amazing cover below! The cover was illustrated by Nicole Miles and designed by Samira Iravani. Be sure to check out our Q&A with Jewell after the reveal. Just scroll down!

How did you feel the first time you saw the finished cover for The Antiracist Kid?
I was totally excited to see this beautiful and fun cover! I immediately showed my children, who were equally as excited. Nicole Miles is brilliant and I’m so excited she’s illustrating the book! I can’t wait for everyone to see it!

After the success of This Book Is Anti-Racist, what drew you to create a book for younger readers? What excited you about the idea and was rewarding as you worked on it?
I’ve been wanting to write a book for younger readers since I first started working on This Book Is Anti-Racist! I love working with young learners and honestly, it’s the group I feel most comfortable teaching, working and collaborating with.

One of the things I love most about this new book is that it’s a series of questions that kids have asked me, their caregivers, teachers, librarians, other adults in their lives and each other. Questions like: Why do people have different skin colors? Where did race come from? Is it OK to talk about differences? Why do some people have more power than others? And so, so, so many more! This book is like a conversation between me and the reader where we get to do some big work around understanding what racism is and how to actively work toward a just community and world! I’m so excited there will be a book like this for younger kids, because you are never too young to learn about racism and to start the lifelong work of antiracism!

One of the things you bring to both of these books is years of experience in the classroom, working with young people. Can you talk a little bit about that experience and how it shaped The Antiracist Kid?
The Antiracist Kid grew out of the work I’ve done with kids for over almost two decades. Young children are curious. They want to know who they are, who the people around them are, what is happening in their lives (and beyond) and why things happen the way they do. They are so creative and such amazing problem solvers. They’re great observers, but they don’t always have the vocabulary and language to fully understand what it is they are witnessing and experiencing. 

In my classroom, we spent our time learning about our own identities and those of our classmates and peers, and building community. We did this alongside learning how to read and write, building our mathematics skills, exploring science and diving into history, and it was so exciting and purposeful and necessary! My students always shared with me what they wanted to know and it is because of them—and ALL the young people with big questions—that I continue to do this work. All of my years of teaching and working with children and their families have led me to the work I am doing now, and I’m so grateful I get to do this. 

Can you talk a little bit about your hopes for this book? How do you hope a young reader who reads it feels when they turn that last page and finish reading it? What do you hope they do next?
I hope this book becomes a go-to book for all young readers and their caregivers! I hope they’ll see themselves in this book and know that they are not too young to talk about, learn about, understand and stand up against racism. I hope The Antiracist Kid becomes a well-loved book and is in every home and classroom and library around the country. I hope all readers will pick it up without fear. I hope this book will inspire everyone who reads it to share it, to work collectively and to work together to eradicate systemic racism and injustice!

The Antiracist Kid will be published in August 2023. That's a long time from now! Can you recommend some books for kids to read in the meantime?
Yes! There are so many amazing books! I’ll share some of our family favorites and the ones students I’ve been working with are enjoying right now too!

  • Eyes That Kiss in the Corners by Joanna Ho, illustrated by Dung Ho
  • Stamped (for Kids) by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi, adapted by Sonja Cherry-Paul, illustrated by Rachelle Baker
  • Jo Jo Makoons by Dawn Quigley, illustrated by Tara Audibert
  • You Matter by Christian Robinson
  • I Am Every Good Thing by Derrick Barnes, illustrated by Gordon C. James
  • Where Are You From? by Yamile Saied Méndez, illustrated by Jamie Kim
  • What Will You Be? by Yamile Saied Méndez, illustrated by Kate Alizadeh
  • We Are Water Protectors by Carole Lindstrom, illustrated by Michaela Goade
  • Not My Idea by Anastasia Higginbotham
  • You Hold Me Up by Monique Gray Smith, illustrated by Danielle Daniel
  • Dreamers by Yuyi Morales
  • Black Boy Joy edited by Kwame Mbalia
  • The Day You Begin by Jacqueline Woodson, illustrated by Rafael López
  • My Two Border Towns by David Bowles, illustrated by Erika Meza
  • Change Sings by Amanda Gorman, illustrated by Loren Long

Photo of Tiffany Jewell © James Azar Salem.

Photo of Nicole Miles © Danielle Hamilton.

Educator Tiffany Jewell’s book for teen readers, This Book Is Anti-Racist, became a #1 New York Times and indie bestseller in 2020. In her next book, The Antiracist Kid, Jewell brings her expertise as an antiracism and anti-bias facilitator to middle grade readers eager to discover how they can learn about and take action against […]

Deborah Wiles proved herself a master of historical fiction with her Sixties trilogy. Now she turns her formidable gaze toward the horrific events at Kent State University when, 50 years ago, the National Guard killed four students protesting the Vietnam War. Kent State is ambitious, elegiac, powerful—and urgently contemporary.

Kent State has a very distinct style. How did you arrive at this form?
I call this form “lineated prose.” It’s a conversation among six voices. In trying to find a way to tell this story, I worked closely with my editor, David Levithan. We had some conversations about “ways of telling,” and a book we’d both loved, George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo, came to both of us as a way to use disembodied voices to tell the story from afar. David then had the idea to use “collective memory” to tell the story of an event that has so many different angles of truth and myth that it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what happened and be totally factual.

May 4, 1970, was three days before your 16th birthday. What do you remember of your experience in that moment?
What I remember is kids whispering on the school bus on the way home from school and not knowing what they were talking about but understanding that it was ominous. Then, on the nightly news, there it was, the killing of four Kent State students and the wounding of nine more by the Ohio National Guard. I still remember the hair on the back of my neck standing on end, my throat closing, the skitter across my shoulders, thinking, “How can this happen in America?” and the talk at school for days and days after, trying to process it. We were all just stunned, and so was the country. It changed everything for me in how I looked at the war—and I was an Air Force kid, with a dad who was flying missions to Vietnam, taking supplies over and bringing bodies back. I wanted the war to end as much as those kids at Kent State did.

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our starred review of Kent State.

In your author’s note, you write that any storyteller worth her salt tries to “go there,” if possible. Did you go to Kent State before you decided to write this book, or after? What was it like? How did “going there” inform what you could bring to the page?
This is such a good question. I’d decided to write the book before I went to Kent State. I traveled there three times, and each time was different. The first time I went with my husband, and we met our helpers at the May 4 Visitors Center so they could guide us through the landscape and general history. We participated in the all-night silent vigil on May 3 and the yearly remembrance/observance on May 4. Anyone can go and take part in the vigil and observance each year. There is nothing like being there to give you a sense of the gravity of what happened there, and to know that the country is still grieving, still trying to come to terms with this slaughter. It’s a powerful experience, and it doesn’t leave you. 

On subsequent trips, I interviewed survivors and worked in the Special Collections archive at Kent State’s library, which was a rich mother lode of meaningful information for the book, and where I discovered the BUS—Black United Students—and their story, which became an essential part of the book.

Can you discuss your decision to include what you call “faulty memory” in the book? 
I grew up living with people who couldn’t or wouldn’t hear me when I tried to reason with them, so I know how helpless that feels and how powerless that renders the person who becomes invisible to others. People get desperate when they feel they have no voice. In this country, we’re in a time where people seem so divided in their worldviews that it’s hard to hear one another. The Kent State story is one where people couldn’t communicate, and where viewpoints about what led to the shootings and why they happened are so diverse and divided and so passionately held that I felt they deserved to be heard. From “They should have killed more of you” from the townies, to “We were just kids” from the students, to “You see a white man holding a gun and you don’t think it’s loaded?” from the Black United Students, to “We didn’t want to be there” from the National Guard. It was mayhem, and yet, taken all together, we have a story of a time and a place, and everyone is heard. They don’t have to agree. They need to be heard.

What gives you hope?
I hope it’s not too corny to say that the American people, as fractured as we appear to be at times, give me hope. At our best—and we are seeing this right now—we know what is most important, for ourselves and for the world. We hold these truths to be self-evident. And we have to be activists for those truths. People out there on the front lines right now, in all walks of life, are heroes. Those staying home and caring for one another are heroes, too. There will be time for other actions. And we will come together, I feel certain.

Author photo © David DeVries

Two-time National Book Award finalist Deborah Wiles reckons with a dark moment in American history.

Scholastic editor David Levithan reflects on working with Suzanne Collins on her hotly anticipated Hunger Games prequel, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes.

How did you balance the way The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes would speak to adults who grew up reading the Hunger Games, as well as to a new generation of teen readers?
I think what’s so exciting about the book is that it will appeal both to fans and to a new generation of readers. As to how we maintained this, we were lucky to have two editors on this project: my colleague Kate Egan and me. Kate reread the trilogy right before we started work, so it was fresh in her mind. I did not—so I represented all the readers who loved the books but who might not have stopped by Panem since the last book (or movie) was released. We had to make sure it worked for both of us—and it did. 

Collins has explained that The Hunger Games was inspired by her experience of channel-­surfing between a reality TV show and news footage of the war in Iraq. Have contemporary realities similarly informed this new book?
I can’t speak for Suzanne about specific inspirations. But I will say that the book engages larger philosophical issues about power and personhood. It’s striking that they are as relevant now as they were a decade ago . . . or hundreds of years ago.

“The book engages larger philosophical issues about power and personhood. It’s striking that they are as relevant now as they were a decade ago . . . or hundreds of years ago.”

What was it like when you read The Hunger Games for the first time?
Just when I think I know where Suzanne is going with a book, she always manages to drop the floor out from beneath me. With many of the authors I edit, you get to know their writing well enough that you can see into their bag of tricks. Suzanne’s bag of tricks is still a complete mystery to me.

Editors shape books in subtle, invisible ways; other times, their involvement can be more straightforward. Will you share with us something in any of Collins’ books that’s there because of you?
During the writing of the trilogy, when the first drafts came in, it was a little clear who Suzanne felt had the greater claim on Katniss’ heart. So to make it more of a fair fight, I argued a lot for Gale, which I believe in Suzanne’s head made me very Team Gale. (I believe this because at some point she told me, “You’re Team Gale.”) But honestly? If Katniss were going to choose either of them, I’m glad she made the choice she did.

What is one of Collins’ unique strengths as a writer or as a storyteller?
Not many of us manage to write books that effectively challenge readers to question how they see the world and how they see their role within it. But that’s exactly what Suzanne does.

Writers often mention things they learn from their editors. What’s something you’ve learned from Collins?
Rarely have I seen someone structure a story as deliberately and as well as Suzanne. Editorially, I am by nature a tinkerer. But I know not to try to tinker with Suzanne’s structure, because its calibrations are vital to the storytelling.

What’s something about Collins that might surprise readers, who only know her from her words on the page?
I think the natural thing for readers to do is conflate authors with their most famous characters. So I’d understand if people assume Suzanne loves to forage through the wilderness in her free time. But really, she likes the feel of a good recliner as much as the rest of us.

Scholastic editor David Levithan reflects on working with Suzanne Collins on her hotly anticipated Hunger Games prequel, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes.

Phil Stamper’s debut YA novel, The Gravity of Us, is the story of two teens, Cal and Leon, who are brought together when their parents are both selected for a new NASA mission to Mars. Stamper magnificently balances the boys’ burgeoning relationship against a backdrop that brings the space race into the 21st century. We spoke to Stamper about his day job in book publishing and writing characters that feel real—and, of course, geeked out about space.

You work in book publishing, so this is a bit of a “chicken or the egg” question: Which came first, working in publishing or writing? Was it ever challenging to balance your knowledge of publishing as an industry with your own creative needs and process?
Writing came first! After college, I really didn’t know what I wanted to do for a job, but I eventually worked my way into nonprofit PR and marketing. I loved writing for a living, but the press releases got old fast, so I started writing fiction to recharge my creative energy. Through the exhaustive process of writing, revising, researching and querying, I really fell in love with book publishing. So much so that I got my M.A. in publishing from a school in London and now I work for one of the Big Five in New York City. (Ed. note: The “Big Five” is a publishing industry term for the five largest American book publishers: Penguin Random House, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Simon & Schuster and Hachette.)

I’m in a lucky spot in publishing. I get to help authors every day but not work on specific titles or marketing campaigns, which gives me plenty of energy to work on my own edits/marketing on my downtime. I’m not sure where this career will lead, but I’m happy with the balance I’ve struck. Even if it can be a little stressful when edits are due!

I think it’s important for authors to understand the publishing industry, and especially their role in it. But the more familiar you are with the industry, the more you realize that “what works” is all pretty random. Stories that don’t fit the mold can get book deals and find success, while stories that tick every single box can get lost in the stacks. At the end of the day, it’s taught me that writing things I’m passionate about is the only thing I can do. If you put that energy into your work, readers will feel it. And that’s about all you can control in this process.

Do you see The Gravity of Us as being in conversation with or descended from other YA titles? Which ones, and how?
This is a really interesting question! I think it’s hard to write YA without reading YA and knowing what’s out there. I do see The Gravity of Us as being “in conversation” with plenty of books. I’ve always felt that we need all sorts of queer stories and experiences out there. I built this book in a world where homophobia is just not acknowledged, and I wanted this story to be a safe space for queer teens who always feel like they have to keep their guards up when reading a book.

In that way, I feel like my book is descended from books like Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli or You Know Me Well by Nina LaCour and David Levithan. But it’s also out there in conversation with heavier (but still hopeful!) stories like Ziggy, Stardust & Me by James Brandon and Like a Love Story by Abdi Nazemian.

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our starred review of The Gravity of Us.

Can we talk about space for a bit? Have you always been into space, or was it an interest you cultivated when you began writing this book? What kind of research did you do to write accurately and convincingly about this aspect of the book?
Oh, yes! We can always talk about space. I’ve been a space nerd for decades now, especially when it comes to the Mercury/Gemini/Apollo missions. I’ve read dozens of astronaut/engineer memoirs, watched documentaries, and I’ve got a growing collection of LIFE magazines from the era.

While reading The Astronaut Wives Club, actually, I realized that one thing in the background of every astronaut story kept calling out to me. The astronaut families essentially became the celebrities of this era, frequently gracing the covers of magazines and giving interviews for national news outlets. This meant the astronauts’ spouses and children had to be immaculately dressed, polished and ready to entertain, all while not knowing if their husbands or fathers would come home alive that night. In The Gravity of Us, I wanted to capture this brilliant tension while also showcasing a contemporary queer love story.

What do you love about the idea of space exploration?
There’s so much to love about space exploration, but for me, that love is tricky and complicated. I often hear that those at NASA were so focused on this exploration that they missed the many important movements of the 60s. But I don’t fully buy that. They saw the world changing around them and refused to change with it. Women and people of color were excluded at every turn, even though NASA had the influence to actually make a change. Too often, I think we focus on that starry-eyed joy and power of the space race and not the realities of it, and I am glad I got to deconstruct that some in my story.

Do you have a favorite constellation, nebula, planet or other celestial body?
Cassiopeia has always been my favorite constellation! It’s easy to pick out, and it’s shaped vaguely like a crown. In high school, my best friend liked it, so we’d always keep an eye out for it. I mention that one in the book, and I also talk about the constellation Lyra, which isn’t one I was very familiar with before researching the book. When naming the Orpheus missions, I was curious to see if there was a constellation representing the myth, and Orpheus’s lyre is represented in the tiny constellation, so that was a fun discovery.

How about a favorite astronaut or other real-life figure from the history of space exploration?
Oh I could go on for days about this, really. I loved learning about all of the astronauts, even the ones that weren’t exactly good people, because they were fascinating. But I guess you’d have to be pretty interesting to willingly take the kind of risks they had to take every day. But to answer your question, my favorite real-life figure from this era is probably Poppy Northcutt. I think she had one of the most interesting experiences of the space race. She was the first female engineer to work in NASA’s control room, and she dealt with a lot of sexism during her time there and because of that experience she later became a lawyer to fight for women’s issues.

She was such an inspiration for her brilliance and tenacity, but she was also incredibly ambitious. She knew exactly how she was being treated and portrayed, and she found a way to turn the media’s sexist coverage of her into her own platform, making space for more women on the team and getting a chance to speak out about these issues on the national stage, in front of a fully captive audience. Her interviews from back then are phenomenal. If you’re interested in learning more about her, this Fast Company piece is a great place to start.

"Too often, I think we focus on that starry-eyed joy and power of the space race and not the realities of it, and I am glad I got to deconstruct that some in my story."

The characters of Cal and Leon feel constructed with a great deal of thoughtful intentionality (which also reads effortlessly and invisibly, making the reading experience an absolute joy). Can you talk about some of the choices you made as you crafted their characters?
Early on, I had sort of figured out the astronaut families. I knew what role I wanted the Tuckers (Leon’s mom, especially) to play in the story, and I also knew how Cal’s family was going to fit into that world. Then I wanted to create characters that really stood out against that. Leon’s mom is at times the voice of NASA, polished and concise and thoughtful. Leon doesn’t have it together, and doesn’t really want to have it together. He’s living in a spotlight he never asked for, and it makes him withdraw a bit. I gave him his own passions, and took a lot of inspiration from my own experience of pursuing things you really care about while depression makes you want to pull back. In this way, he became an earnest, authentic character. When Cal’s thrown into this fake, stressful new environment, he is automatically drawn to the authenticity of Leon and his sister, Kat.

Cal, however, was a foil to everything the media world is inundated with today: clickbait, sensationalism, “fake news.” Cal doesn’t buy any of that, and he will make it his life’s mission to show you that being real is what makes you stand out. I’m a pretty nostalgic person, sitting here with my LIFE magazines and my rose-colored glasses, so I had to put the cynic at the lead of this novel. I wanted this book to be a love letter to NASA in many ways, but I needed it to be relevant. I think there’s a natural urge to romanticize things from the past as well as things that are happening now. And Cal? He’s not having it.

Of course, Cal’s a bit of a hypocrite because he has his own ironic cassette collection. But I liked showing that not all our connections to the past are inherently bad, they just sometimes blind us.

I think readers are going to fall for the romance that unfolds between Cal and Leon in a big way, and I loved the way it was paced and incorporated into the book’s other narrative threads. What part of their relationship was the most fun for you to write? The most difficult?
I’m really happy with how the romance in this book turned out. I think so often in m/m fiction there’s the pressure to write characters who are sweet and devoid of flaws to please a broader audience. In this, I wanted to show two flawed teens who were trying. Cal is a little selfish, Leon’s a little guarded, but I had such a good time bringing these two together and letting them talk it out. From the beginning, they found an ally in each other, and I think they were able to hold onto that feeling of “I’m not alone in this” that got them through the many highs and lows that were thrown at them along the way. It was fun to create that bond from nothing, almost the moment Cal is dropped in on Houston.

The Gravity of Us is populated with a fantastic supporting cast. It’s something of a cliché to say that secondary characters feel as though an entirely new novel could be written about them, but in this case, I think it’s true. From Deb, Cal’s best friend back in Brooklyn, to Kat, Leon’s sister, to Cal’s parents and the other members of the Orpheus team, the crew of StarWatch — you’re balancing a huge cast of characters with lots of conflicting motives and desires that shift realistically over the course of the book. Who was your favorite of these characters to create and write? Who was the most challenging? Who kept trying to steal whatever scene they were in?

I hope that isn’t too cliché, because I love that comment! In all of my stories, I want my secondary characters to be fully fleshed out, have stories of their own and make you feel like you could just as easily be entertained if the book was from their perspective. Though I’m not a rigid plotter, I work off of beat sheets and I put all my characters through the same test. Even if things are happening in the background, their story should progress in a similar way to the main character’s. There are no cardboard cut-outs here, and my editor is great at helping me pull out the emotional arcs for these side characters.

I have a soft spot for Deb, who was certainly the most fun to write. I made sure to give her a full arc, but I also got to talk more broadly about how hard it is to keep a best friend when you move away from them and start to change as a person. Cal and Deb have a messy friendship, but that’s what makes it so real, to me at least. I see the comment “Where’s Deb?” from time to time as people are reading, and though I make sure we check in with her throughout, I want you to miss her. (Sorry!)

As for the others, I really enjoyed building out StarWatch producer Kiara’s story. Without giving spoilers away, she does some great and awful things, and she has her own motivations and frustrations. Leon’s sister, Kat, stole every scene and moment she was in, and I loved how she was so fiercely supportive of her brother the whole time. Cal’s mom, Becca, experiences anxiety, and how she and Cal support each other throughout was really authentic and sweet. And we got to see some of the astronauts’ lives in the interstitial chapters, which were really fun to play with. I just love all of these characters!

“I want my secondary characters to be fully fleshed out, have stories of their own and make you feel like you could just as easily be entertained if the book was from their perspective.”

Since you’ve worked in publishing, you know that authors typically aren’t heavily involved in the process of designing book covers. I’d love to hear a little bit about what (if any) input you had on The Gravity of Us jacket, and how you felt the first time you saw it.
From what I can tell, publishers seem to be involving authors more and more into the process. This isn’t the case for everyone, and many authors don’t want to take part at all, but I think it’s great that authors are at least being consulted or involved in early stages. For The Gravity of Us, I ended up sending over a mood board, had a miniature brainstorm about options with my editor, and they ran one illustrator by me (who was my secret top choice to begin with!) and got him signed up right away.

I will truly never have an easier cover design process. From the very first moment, my editor and I had the same scene in mind for the cover. I wanted the boys to be on the ground, holding hands, watching the satellite launch. Even in the rough sketch, the illustrator, Patrick Leger, captured the perfect emotion and mood of the book, with the warped perspective of the shot and the sunrise gradient, stars and the satellite in the sky. It came together quickly, and Danielle Ceccolini designed the full cover, and everything just clicked perfectly.

I was emotional when I first showed it and when I got to reveal it on Teen Vogue last May, but seeing the finished copy with the embossed text and the full jacket for the first time? There’s nothing like that feeling of seeing your book finished for the first time, especially when that book has such a beautifully queer cover.

What’s something you love about your book? Something you’re really proud of?
I really like that I was able to create a love story between two people who are fully functioning on their own—they have their own stories, struggles, dreams, and they’re both on their own paths when we meet them and when the story ends. I’m also really proud I was able to make this story a love letter to NASA and a nod to the amazing people involved in the 60s space race, while still allowing myself to critique that era and keep the story relevant for a teen audience in 2020.

What’s something you learned from writing this book that you’ve been able to use as you’re writing your next book?
I’ve always been great at plotting and pacing, and I always like my contemporaries to move quickly through beats. My YA origins are in 2010-era dystopian books, and I love action. So no, there are no sword fights in this book, but that urgency and tension can still be built into contemporary stories in a meaningful way. But as for what I learned, while working with my editor, I was able to pull out a lot of emotional moments throughout. She’s great at highlighting points where it’s nice to pause and take a breath, where we can dig into characterization and also just show the aspirational aspects of teens having fun.

I’ve brought that into my next book, a lot, and I think that’ll be the case for the other books I write as well. I will never abandon my beat sheets, but I will fight that urge to push forward and let the readers sit in important emotional moments a bit more.

“I was able to create a love story between two people who are fully functioning on their own—they have their own stories, struggles, dreams, and they’re both on their own paths when we meet them and when the story ends.”

Someone finishes reading The Gravity of Us and they love it. Recommend some things for them to read or watch next (while they wait for your next book).
Ooh, I love giving book recommendations. If you like fast-paced and unique YA contemporary, you’ll love Sadie by Courtney Summers and The Grief Keeper by Alexandra Villasante. If you love unapologetically queer YA, you have to check out Ryan La Sala’s Reverie and Abdi Nazemian’s Like a Love Story. If you love space, but want another book that’s set on the ground, check out The Weight of the Stars by K. Ancrum and, of course, The Astronaut Wives Club by Lily Koppel. 

And if you liked The Gravity of Us, I hope you’ll come back in early 2021 when my second book is on shelves!

Phil Stamper’s debut YA novel, The Gravity of Us, is the story of two teens, Cal and Leon, who are brought together when their parents are both selected for a new NASA mission to Mars. Stamper magnificently balances the boys’ burgeoning relationship against a backdrop that brings the space race into the 21st century. We […]

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