When Theo’s promposal during the biggest house party of the year doesn’t go as planned, he escapes to an empty bedroom to regroup. Over the course of the evening, four more teens, each with their own troubles, join Theo in the mermaid-themed bedroom. What follows is a night of heartfelt conversation and more than one revelation as the five unlikely allies form a plan to confront their respective emotional hurdles. Joyful, funny and deeply felt, As You Walk on By is a story of friendship, love and standing up for the life you want.
Your publisher describes As You Walk on By as The Breakfast Club meets Can’t Hardly Wait, and the book itself references a number of other movies, including House Party. How have movies influenced you as a writer?
Movies have been a huge influence on my writing. Like I do with any great book, I find myself dissecting the movies I really love to discover why they make me feel the way I do. Why am I crying? Laughing? Why am I so invested in a protagonist or side character? There have been some great teen films over the years that have stuck with me, and I took this opportunity to pay homage to them while also giving queer, BIPOC characters their shine.
As You Walk on By opens as Theo is dared to prompose to his crush. Have you ever accepted any wild dares that you could share with us?
Unfortunately, I have accepted one too many dares in my life. One of the wildest was my senior year of high school. I was in Junior ROTC, and we were traveling by charter bus to Orlando, Florida. My best friend dared me to lick one of the windows. It was not the cleanest of buses, but as a queer teen, I think I was more afraid of sharing a truth about myself with my peers than ingesting the germs from a window. Not much has changed!
The book features five central characters, but we experience the story from Theo’s point of view. Tell us about Theo and why this is his story.
Theo is a funny, loyal, determined 17-year-old who’s one dare away from learning that he’s also a complete mess. He has a tightknit friend group, a solid relationship with his father and big (romantic) dreams he’s scared to chase.
I wanted to show this messy, queer Black boy who makes awful decisions and is forced to come to terms with the toxicity he allows to exist in his relationships with people. I’d never written a character like Theo, but I wanted to.
While each character has a very important, meaningful storyline, Theo’s felt like the core of what I wanted to explore with this novel: growing, learning and owning our mistakes so we can become the people we want to be.
The alliance that forms between the five teens hiding in the same bedroom becomes central to their growth as characters. Have you ever found support or encouragement from an unexpected source?
Yes. As a queer Black person, I’m always searching for spaces where I feel safe, valued and understood. Although I’ve had the same core group of friends since high school, sometimes my deepest and most personal conversations have happened with people I’ve known for weeks or hours. Vulnerability is infectious. One moment of honesty from someone can unlock so much about yourself.
Young adult books tend to gravitate toward portraying romantic relationships, but much of your work focuses instead on friendships. What do you hope readers take away from your books to help them navigate their own friendships?
I hope readers see that friendships are complex and complicated. Even messy! There’s so much to gain from a friendship, but also so much to lose. I’ve had to learn that the hard way. But when you find that person or group of people, especially as a queer person, you’ll learn what love and growth truly mean. Not just for someone else, but yourself.
Many of your books deal with queer Black boys as they struggle with how the stories around them don’t reflect their experiences. Theo, for example, finds it hard to picture himself in the fairy-tale-esque prom romances that his straight and/or white classmates take for granted. How does it feel to know that your books are helping real-life Theos imagine their own happily ever afters?
It has been the most rewarding, unexpected part of being an author. Hearing from readers is my favorite thing. I grew up wanting so many of the things I write about. Most of my teen years and early 20s were spent thinking happily ever afters weren’t possible for people like me. There weren’t a ton of examples that I could have one, so I started writing them for myself. Now I get to show young readers we’re more than deserving of the magic promised to everyone else.
Although the characters in As You Walk on By deal with serious issues, the book itself is so uplifting, funny and warmhearted. Is it always your goal to center joy in your writing? Why?
Always. I was given too many books as a kid where the queer or Black person’s storyline was about trauma, pain, discrimination and death. Their existence was a lesson for the readers who didn’t look or identify like them. It left me in a dark place. I refuse to let the next generation of BIPOC and/or queer people feel as though their lives are a lesson for someone else instead of being about finding joy in who they are.
Author photo of Julian Winters courtesy of Vanessa North.