Author Q&A with Aisha Saeed

What inspired you to write AMAL UNBOUND?

The idea for AMAL UNBOUND came to me several years ago. At the time I’d known I wanted to write about a girl like Amal who was brave and full of hope and who lived in Pakistan—an often misunderstood country— but I wasn’t sure what her specific story would be. While reading the day’s headlines one day in 2012 I came across the inspiring story of Malala. Her story stopped me in my tracks because it reminded me of the strength and resilience many young people I worked with as a teacher showed every day—their situations were of course starkly different than Malala’s but many of my students were also resilient and brave in the face of unspeakable difficulties. With this in mind, thinking about all the brave children around the world who never get a headline but who work in the way of justice nonetheless, I began writing AMAL UNBOUND. Lately, many people have told me that AMAL UNBOUND feels like a timely story. I can understand that. A story about resistance and justice against all odds and the power of each of us to affect change does seems like an incredibly timely story. Of course in 2012 when I began writing this story I could have had no idea how deeply relevant the story would have been today but it is and I’m grateful if it is giving people hope. The name Amal means hope in Arabic and it is my hope AMAL UNBOUND that not only does this book show us a glimpse into a country that is often misunderstood but that it also reminds readers of their own inner strength and the importance of working in the way of justice whether a spotlight shines on us or not.

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Industry Q&A with Trisha de Guzman, Associate Editor at Farrar, Straus, Giroux BFYR

Please tell us about the most recent diverse book you published.

I’m still at the very early stages of building my list, but I was fortunate enough to edit two books with diverse characters recently:

The Fantastic Body is a nonfiction, illustrated guide to the human body for kids. Because the book would be so heavily illustrated, we wanted the children depicted to be multifaceted and diverse. The book is nonfiction and prescriptive, so the text doesn’t actually address race in a direct way. It’s important to address serious issues of race, culture, and identity in diverse books, but it’s also important to show that children are children, no matter their background, and that there are more things that unite them than divide them. I firmly believe in publishing books featuring diverse characters without making race the main issue, so I’m proud of that book.  


I was also the developmental editor for a middle grade series of novels called Shred Girls. The first book, Lindsay’s Joyride, is about young girls who befriend each other through their shared love of BMX. What I loved about the book was how multifaceted every main character was. Lindsay likes comic books, but she also, it turned out, loves riding bikes. And she likes many other things: her new friends. Her Mexican grandmother’s cooking. The cute boy who rides at the same park. Kombucha. Mariana Pajón, Colombian cyclist and two-time Olympic gold medalist and BMX World Champion. No one thing defined her, nor any other character. While Lindsay is Latina and proud, her heritage informs the novel but isn’t its sole focus.

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Full Circle

By Kathleen Burkinshaw

Every year in May, 20 Hiroshima city employees gather at the Cenotaph in Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park. After a moment of silence at 8:15am (time the bomb was dropped), they begin to remove the 114 leather bound volumes that now hold over 305,000 handwritten names of each person that was in Hiroshima that day and has since died (unknown victims also have a dedicated page).

I think of the compassion and reverence that these employees hold for the atomic bomb victims.  They use white gloves to carefully remove one volume at a time, place them on a white sheet, and delicately air them out page by page.  After that, they move these registers inside to be protected from the upcoming humid, rainy season.  Lastly, they add the names of Hiroshima survivors who have passed away within this last year (regardless of where they were when they died). At the August 6th memorial service, they will return these volumes to again rest under the protection of the cenotaph arch.


I added my mother’s name to one of those leather-bound volumes in July 2015, when my husband, daughter and I visited Hiroshima six months after she passed away.  As I stood in front of the cenotaph, I believed my mom had come full circle. She returned, in a sense, to her beloved papa, her family, and her friends. And yes, I felt the pain of the horrific suffering and loss that happened on that very ground, as well as in the years that followed for the survivors whether physical, emotional, or both. But, in my heart I also felt the strength of the survivors like my mom who kept moving forward when the world they knew ceased to exist.

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Pride Month Feature: Reading & Writing Queer Novels

By Mark Oshiro

Pride season is upon us, and I have never been more proud to be a part of children’s publishing as a queer person. Whether you’re celebrating your own identity or supporting those you love, it’s important for us to reflect on why Pride is such a vital time for LGBT and Queer youth and how we can best reach LGBTQ readers.

Why Pride?

Pride celebrations around the world have evolved since Christopher Street Liberation Day, which most people in our community consider to be the “first” Pride celebration. It’s important to remember that Pride was born out of necessity; LGBTQ people have been and continue to be targeted because of who we are, both on a personal level and a systemic level. Until true equity and liberation is achieved, Pride holds a meaningful place for many people in our community! We get to be out, loud, and proud during this time of year, and that kind of affirmation often fuels us for months to come, long after the season is over.

Why LGBTQ Children’s Literature?


Growing up, I had virtually no positive role models who were out. I still remember when Ellen came out; I felt seen and validated by Rickie Vasquez from My So-Called Life. But I didn’t have the sort of queer and LGBT-themed literature that is now available to readers today. Anything I found as a closeted teenager was usually: a) geared towards adults and pretty much inappropriate to me OR b) featured gay or queer characters who died, were villains, or only existed as a witty sidekick without their own stories. It wasn’t until I got to college that I discovered books geared at teens that contained meaningful depictions of LGBTQ characters. It made for a lonely experience in the library. I read voraciously, but I often had to force myself to identify with stories that were not my own.

We know that books have the power to change lives, and it’s important that children’s literature reflect the world around us. I think of books as exercises in empathy, as a chance to view the world through someone else’s eyes. The books that meant the most to me as a teenager weren’t just those that reflected my own experiences; they were also those that allowed me to expand my understanding of what it meant to be human.

What does LGBTQ YA look like today?

I set out to write an openly queer YA novel nearly six years ago, but at that time, I still worried about getting published. I had come to love the work of Malinda Lo, of David Levithan, of Benjamin Alire Sáenz; I had read Annie On My Mind perhaps a hundred times; the same fate awaited Ruby by Rosa Guy, which I was lucky to be handed after escaping to college after being outed. So, I knew young adult literature could have openly gay or queer characters within it. But I had also heard and seen so many horror stories. Would it be too much to write multiple queer characters in the same book?

It might seem presumptuous to say so, but there are days where I feel like we are in the midst of an LGBTQ renaissance within children’s literature. In 2018 alone, I’ve devoured so many books in which characters across the broad spectrum of our community were center stage. I started 2018 with the powerful and hopeful Let’s Talk About Love (Claire Kann), the first novel I had ever read with a main character who is biromantic asexual. I wept over Kheryn Callendar’s Hurricane Child, and I recommended They Both Die At The End (Adam Silvera) to every person who would listen to my shrieking. (Surprisingly, a large number of people.) I’ve recently finished books by Caleb Roehrig (Last Seen Leaving & White Rabbit), who writes incredibly gay murder mysteries, and Amy Spalding, whose The Summer of Jordi Perez (And The Best Burger In Los Angeles) is the exact sort of romantic book I desperately needed when I was living in Los Angeles myself.

Of course, it certainly helps that we’re living in the age where Simon vs. the Homosapiens Agenda became the cinematic sensation that was Love, Simon. And while Becky Albertalli’s moving and touching writing is part of the reason for its success, it’s also clear that readers want more stories with LGBTQ characters. There is a whole generation of kids that are learning to come out, to wrestle with their identities, to discover the right word for what they feel. We should be there for them. We should be able to provide stories that help them explore a confusing but ultimately rewarding part of their lives. This Pride month is the perfect time to reflect on this!


Mark Oshiro is the Hugo finalist (in the Fan Writer category) creator of the online Mark Does Stuff universe (Mark Reads and Mark Watches), where he analyzes book and television series unspoiled. He was the nonfiction editor of Queers Destroy Science Fiction! and the co-editor of Speculative Fiction 2015 with Foz Meadows. He is the President of the Con or Bust Board of Directors. His first novel, Anger is a Gift, is a YA contemporary about queer friendship, love, and fighting police brutality. It will be released on 5/22/2018 with Tor Teen. When he is not writing, crying on camera about fictional characters, or ruining lives at conventions, he is busy trying to fulfill his lifelong goal: to pet every dog in the world.

Moving Past ‘Queer Misery’

By Sophie Cameron

I can still remember every book with a LGBT main character that I read as a teenager in the 2000s – I was lucky enough to be able to buy some online, and even then I only found a handful or so. With some great exceptions, such as Annie On My Mind by Nancy Garden or Geography Club by Brent Hartinger, a lot of them ticked the “queer misery” box: bullying, outing, murder, suicide… sometimes all of the above. But back then, I was just pleased to see gay characters in a book at all. I didn’t really question the message that books like this (inadvertently) send out: that same-sex relationships are ultimately going to lead to isolation, violence, and death. Fun stuff, eh?!

To be clear, I don’t have anything against those books. They were written at a time when barely any LGBTQ+ stories were being published, at least in YA fiction. And as far as I remember, most were trying to provide a critique of how society treats LGBTQ+ people, rather than of them or their relationships. Perhaps that was misguided, but regardless, it wouldn’t be fair to judge those books by today’s standards.

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A Different Kind of Diversity in Reading

By Janet Tashjian

As a longtime autism advocate, I spend a lot of time thinking about diversity. My son Jake—who’s illustrated two of my series for Macmillan—is on the autism spectrum and also has a language-based learning delay, which has made reading especially difficult. But stories are so important to us that Jake and I found a way to improve his reading—and to help kids around the world be better readers.

When Jake was in fourth grade and books started getting harder (i.e., fewer pictures), he decided to draw his vocabulary words on index cards to learn them. Our garage is filled with boxes and boxes of these index cards with stick figure drawings illustrating words like “royalty,” “embarrassed,” and “military.” Friends would see the cards and laugh at Jake’s cartoons—not only because of his sense of humor but for the spot-on accuracy of how his drawings illuminated his vocabulary words.


As a novelist, I asked myself the quintessential writing question: What if? What if I wrote a novel about a kid who has a difficult time reading but still loves books and stories? What if Jake illustrated the novel with his stick figures? What if we could help other reluctant readers in the process of helping Jake?

My son and I collaborated on what would become My Life As A Book, which is now a series of seven novels in twenty-six languages. (My Life As A Youtuber is the latest.) It’s not the success of this middle-grade series that humbles me, however; it’s the can-do attitude of a kid with special needs taking control of his own learning process.


Over the past seven years, Jake and I have traveled the country doing author-and-illustrator visits to elementary and middle schools, talking to students about the different ways people learn. In our series, our main character is a visual learner, so drawing is the way he processes information. When Derek reads, he imagines the story as a movie in his head, the same way experts teach children with reading disabilities to picture stories. When we visit schools, I’m always amazed at the different ways people learn: kids with auditory processing issues, children with tactile and sensory concerns, or some kids who really need infographics to make sense of data. Diversity of learning is an important topic in education today, one that I’ve studied firsthand to help Jake make sense of and learn to process information in his own way. (My path to learning includes copious amounts of coffee and chocolate.)

Having a series that’s a staple in ESL and Special Ed classes—not to mention enjoyed by neurotypical middle-grade readers who just want a funny story—thrills me to no end. More important, it’s given my son purpose, along with a career doing something he loves. Sometimes working through things that are most difficult for us can lead us to discover not only solutions to our own obstacles but to other people’s as well. Great job, Jake Tashjian. You make me proud.


Janet Tashjian is the author of the popular My Life series including My Life as a Book, My Life as a Stuntboy, My Life as a Cartoonist, My Life as a Joke, My Life as a Gamer, and My Life as a Ninja, as well as the Einstein the Class Hamster series, illustrated by her son, Jake Tashjian. Jake and Janet live in Studio City, California.

Finding Your Way Out of the Margins

By Caleb Roehrig

From the outside, it probably seems a self-evident choice when an author from a marginalized group chooses to write a protagonist that shares their lived experience. If “write what you know” is sound advice, then choosing to speak from a personal and underrepresented point of view would seem obvious. But for me and many other “own voices” writers, the decision was not obvious at all.

When I was a teenager, just discovering my love of writing, there was no such thing as It Gets Better, and no gay characters in fiction for young adults; if a gay person appeared on a television show, it was advertised as a stunt, aired at a special time, and came with a content warning; and if gay characters appeared in the movies, they were cruelly drawn caricatures, tragic victims or offensive comic relief. Back then, it never even occurred to me that a gay person could anchor a piece of mainstream art or entertainment.


My very first attempt at a full-length manuscript was a YA horror novel about a teenage girl and her smart-mouthed pals. One of her friends was implicitly gay (not out, not on the page, but the subtext was there,) which was about as close as I dared come to representing myself in my own work. My second manuscript featured a straight male protagonist who, in a running gag, was frequently assumed to be gay by others—resulting in funny protests of the “not that there’s anything wrong with that” variety. My third attempt: straight girl MC with a gay friend. My fourth: straight girl MC with a gay friend.

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Author Q&A with Elizabeth Acevedo

Tell us about your most recent book and how you came to write/illustrate it.

My debut novel, The Poet X, came out a month ago! I began writing the book when I was an 8th grade English Language Arts teacher in Prince George’s County, Maryland. The novel was a direct response to working in a school that was 77% Latinx and 20 % Black, but it seemed for that age range there were not enough texts that culturally represented my young people. I was inspired to write a coming-of-age story from a very specific lens: an Afro-Latina growing up in New York City discovering her voice through poetry.  I wanted a book about a girl learning to take up space.

Do you think of yourself as a diverse author/illustrator?

Both my parents are from the Dominican Republic and I was raised to be very proud of my cultural heritage. I cannot extricate my identity as a woman of Afro-Dominican descent from any of the work I create.

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The Bronx is Reading

Interview with Saraciea Fennell, organizer of the first ever Bronx Book Festival (May 18-19, 2018).


How do you self identify?

My family is a wonderful mix of many things. I identify as Afro-Latina/indigenous (Garifuna) from Honduras/Jamaica, and black and Native American.

Tell us about the Bronx Book Festival?

I’m bringing the first book festival featuring traditionally published bestselling and award-winning authors to the Bronx. This project has been years in the making. The idea was seeded years ago after I attended my first book festival as an adult. This festival will go a long way to make the literary community of the Bronx visible and viable. I’m excited for Bronxites of all ages to attend the festival and engage with authors/illustrators and industry professionals. Representation is everything, and who knows, maybe folks attending will find themselves aspiring to be the next bestselling author or editor or marketing in the industry.

Who are some of the authors attending?

We have an amazing line up including our keynote speakers Daniel José Older (Shadowshaper Cypher) and Elizabeth Acevedo (The Poet X), featured panelists include Heidi Heilig (The Ship Beyond Time), the Bronx’s very own, Adam Silvera (They Both Die at the End), Lilliam Rivera (The Education of Margo Sanchez), and Kem Joy Ukwu (Locked Gray / Linked Blue).


Why did you decide to take on this initiative?

The Bronx has a long tradition of literary culture including Edgar Allan Poe, James Baldwin, Bronx Writers Center, and Bronx Loaf. Many contemporary authors and other book folk have come from the borough. But because the Bronx is New York City’s poorest borough, this vibrant, book-loving community has often been overshadowed and underserved. I want to get people who look like me reading. I want Bronxites living in a borough without a bookstore to see that traditionally published authors are willing to come engage with the community. My hope is that this festival will ignite passions for reading and maybe this will be the seed that helps plant the roots for people to become editors, marketers, authors and create a more diverse publishing industry.

You’ve been working in the industry for years as a publicist. How did you get your start? 

I have, it’s been a bit over 6 years now. I got my start working as a publicity assistant at Simon & Schuster at an adult imprint. It didn’t take long for me to realize that kidlit publishing was the place for me! I love the work that I do and am amazed at the kidlit publishing community.


Where can people learn more about the festival?

People can learn more about the festival by visiting and they can also checkout the Kickstarter campaign and follow us on Twitter and Instagram at @thebronxisreading.


Saraciea J. Fennell is a publicist in the publishing industry. She’s worked with many award winning and New York Times bestselling authors like Daniel José Older, Tui T. Sutherland, Peter Sís, Jennifer A. Nielsen, Chris Colfer, Julie Andrews, Malala Yousafzai, Mike Jung, Deborah Wiles, Javaka Steptoe, Jerry Pinkney, and many, many more. She is passionate about books, and devours anything sci-fi/fantasy-related in books, TV and movies. Fennell grew up in the Bronx and spent four years in the foster care system. If it weren’t for books she’s not sure where she would be today. Follow her on Twitter @sj_fennell and visit for more information on the festival.

Author Q&A with Sayantani DasGupta

Why is diversity in science fiction and fantasy so critical?

I grew up on science fiction and fantasy – Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time to The Hobbit to Star Wars, Star Trek, and Carl Sagan’s amazing show, Cosmos. Science fiction taught me to imagine big, to envision things beyond my reckoning. It taught me to dream. But of course, science fiction and fantasy back then didn’t let me see anyone who looked like me in a central role. As a brown skinned, immigrant daughter, I loved science fiction and fantasy. But science fiction and fantasy didn’t really love me back.

I think over the years, we’ve seen a vast improvement in terms of representation in many genres of children’s fiction. My own kids got to read a much more diverse array of books than I ever did. But not across all genres, unfortunately. My son, in particular, was a huge fantasy reader – if there wasn’t a talking bird, or flying horse, or a wizard in the tale, he wasn’t having it! Yet, the same gaps in representation I found as a young lover of science fiction and fantasy are still around 30+ years later. That’s a problem, because if all books are in the business of building our imaginations, then sci-fi and fantasy are in the business of building radical imagination. And if there’s ever been a time during which we need a collective radical imagination, it’s now. That’s part of the reason I wrote The Serpent’s Secret.

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