When I was in college and working retail, I’d scour the clearance section of my mall’s Borders (oh God, my heart) for discount books to read on my breaks. Those brief moments of reprieve from people yelling at me about shoes. I’d picked up and fallen in love with a lot of books during those years, but one that stuck with me for a long time was The Frog King by Adam Davies.
It’s an adult contemporary novel about this guy working in publishing, and he’s pretty terrible. A backstabbing womanizer trying to work his way up in the business, very Nick Hornby but about the book world. The author hasn’t written anything new since 2008, which breaks my heart. Because he wrote this one line in that novel that has stuck with me for years. Over a full decade after reading it.
“Every book is a love letter.”
He goes on to talk about how a book “is just taking three hundred pages to say I love you”, and my goodness, doesn’t that just dig into your book loving heart?
Cause it’s so very true.
In The Girl and the Grove, my latest YA novel with Flux, readers meet Leila, a recently-adopted teenager wrestling with identity and what “family” really means. As an adoptee, it’s a book very close to me, and as someone who used to live in Philadelphia, the novel is a love letter to my decade in that spectacular city.
There are little Easter eggs dotted throughout the story that aren’t just about the love I had for a city and the people there, but for actual individuals that had a massive impact on my life. And I’m hoping as the people near and dear to me read it, they see themselves on the page.
Like how the father in the novel, Jon, is named after and based on Jon McGoran, an environmentalist author from the Philly area, whose warm presence and kind heart always left me inspired. When I think about the sort of father I’d want to be, for my future teenager, I think of Jon.How the two runners that Leila meets, Britt and Mikey, are inspired by… well, Britt and Mikey, two dear friends who run,
but also make the world around them more beautiful. Britt, with her stunning paintings and non-profit endeavors, Mikey with his push to make the technology world more accessible. When I think about the kinds of friends I’d want my future teenager to surround himself with, they are among the shining examples.
You’ll notice faux user names on the social media platforms Leila uses, names that, if you’re maybe in the YA world, you might recognize. One name that sounds a lot like Lauren Gibaldi. Another that sounds like Blair Thornburgh. Books like Timekeeper by Tara Sim and Updraft by Fran Wilde mentioned by name.Writers who have had an impact on my author life, sometimes through their actions, sometimes through their writing.
There are more. Lots more, in the book. Nods to friends. Hidden shout outs to authors. Maybe you’ll figure out who Dr. Saft and Dr. Cordova are. Who Jill the Birder, Casually Weird, Shannon Christopher, LaRandelle, DMeier, AJimenez, KrummAli, and more are on the message boards. Or catch the other literary references peppered throughout. I hope you will.
Because The Girl and the Grove is a love letter to adoption and Philadelphia. To kids who grow up having a hard time telling people where “they are from” when asked that annoying question. But it’s also a letter to the people and places who have left me inspired and feeling loved.
It’s for you.
I thought it might be fun to ask a few authors I adore (two of whom I talk about in this post because they are actually in this book!), how their books are love letters.
Caleb Roehrig, White Rabbit: In a lot of ways White Rabbit is definitely a love letter to Burlington/Vermont. When I first came up with the plot, I actually envisioned it taking place in Ann Arbor like LSL, but realized almost immediately that it was a bad idea. I still wanted the same intimate, university town feeling, and moving it to Burlington was an easy choice. My husband and I got married in Vermont in 2011. We were living in LA, but this was post Proposition 8 and before Obergefell, and at the time there were very few options for us.
So we planned the wedding from the opposite side of the country, made one visit in 2010 to see venues and meet with caterers (we chose our baker sight unseen based on references—and, in the end, the cake turned out to be THE best part of the meal) and then got married in Huntington, VT, in September of 2011.
Long long long story, but: we stayed in Burlington the week of the ceremony. We had some drama (a friend was officiating, and we found out the day after we arrived that Vermont didn’t recognize certain online churches, and we rushed to find a Justice of the Peace to make it *official*; so we were technically married in an apple orchard four days before the actual wedding [and the apple orchard was on South Hero Island, where the murder in White Rabbit takes place]) but we really fell in love with Burlington, with Vermont, and with all the people we met there. So that’s why, when I needed a new setting for my book, it was easy to choose the state that gave me a chance to get married.
Three days after the wedding, we moved to Europe for four years, but that’s another story (and another book?).
I was riding the Megabus to Minnesota and was eavesdropping on a woman’s (two-hour) phone call, during which she lamented the fact that her daughter was “too emotional.” The girl wanted to be a scientist, she said, but “chickened out” of having to dissect a frog. “She has too many feelings,” the woman said. “She might need to choose another career path.”
A Conspiracy of Stars is a love story to kids with “too many” feelings. In many ways, Octavia is an empath. She feels everything on Faloiv incredibly deeply which eventually translates into a sort of language. This empathy is considered a weakness by her father, but her mother knows better. “Empathy is your greatest asset,” Octavia is told and I believe that 100%. Why should science and empathy be mutually exclusive? Science has been responsible for violence and exploitation throughout history – violence against women and people of color, violence against people with mental illnesses…violence that could have been avoided if empathy was a language we all spoke a little more fluently. So often people with “too many feelings” are dismissed as overly sensitive. The love letter of this book says they will save us all.
Lauren Gibaldi, This Tiny Perfect World: My books are all a love letter to high school and college me. That may sound pretentious, but it’s true! They all take place in areas I’ve lived or worked, and all address something that was a concern to me when I was that age. The Night We Said Yes is about being a sidekick and finding your own moment to shine. In high school, I always felt that way–the sidekick to someone better, more popular, prettier. It took me a while to realize that I was tired of just being a secondary player.
Autofocus is about a girl debating the nature vs. nurture idea, and that was very much college-me. I was I going to turn into my parents, or would I form a different future for myself, now that I was away in college?. And, last, This Tiny Perfect World is about debating your future–stick with the easy plan or try for something new? That was me, too, in both those times–figuring out if I should stay or leave, if I should change or not. My books are personal in that way, and they’re a way of showing previous me that it’s okay, that I did okay.
So, they’re love letters to myself, but also to where I’ve lived (Orlando, Tallahassee). These places, though laughable at times (all of Florida isn’t weird, I promise!) are a part of me, and I light to highlight their…specialness. The indie record store that has late-night in-store performances. The gigantic tree that’s a historic landmark, hidden deep in the woods. The walls on the library that make music when you press them. They’re all real. The locations, though many names changed, are all references to real places. If there’s a random mention of a name, that’s probably a real person. (People who signed the roof in The Night We Said Yes are my original readers; my friend’s son is on the callback list in This Tiny Perfect World). Even The Pepperpots are real! (Okay, Matt, Jake, and Barker aren’t, but the name of the band is stolen from my best guy friends’ high school band.)
Books are personal, of course, so I made mine as personal as can be. The situations are false, but the feelings? Those are all mine.
Tara Sim, the Timekeeper trilogy: The Timekeeper trilogy is ultimately a love letter to the time I spent in London while studying abroad in college. It was my first time going across the Atlantic, so naturally I was nervous. My whole first week in London was an absolute mess; me and my roommate got lost countless times, we had to figure out how the money worked, we were super jetlagged, and it was ridiculously cold. (The first time we navigated going to class without getting lost, we literally cheered. In fact, my difficulty navigating the city went into a certain chapter in Chainbreaker, as well as a specific scene involving Colton and money which was inspired by my roommate and an irate bus driver). But after getting past the culture shock, I was strangely enamored with London despite not being a big fan of cities. There was hidden lore all over the place; I could feel it.
I felt it especially whenever I was near Big Ben. Something about the clock tower was fantastical to me, though I couldn’t say why. Peter Pan, maybe? In any case, looking at the clock tower made me happy, especially when it was all lit up at night. I tried to incorporate some of that magical feeling into Timekeeper. Chainbreaker, the second book, is also a love letter to my family’s roots in India, as well as the growing number of Indian American folks who struggle with diaspora.
All in all, places are powerful things.
Ashley Woodfolk, The Beauty That Remains: My book is a love letter to music. I’ve loved music since the year I turned thirteen. I fell in love with it alone, because as a black girl who was obsessed with pop-punk, rock, and folk, I often discovered new artists and attended concerts on my own. But as I found solace in some of the noisiest bands—in music I couldn’t listen to at any volume other than LOUD—I lamented the solitude of it. I didn’t find my people, (people who listened to and loved the same kinds of music as me), until I went to college, and even then I was still the only black girl screaming out lyrics at the top of my lungs. When I started writing, I knew I wanted to write a story about a girl like me, and about how music can heal.
My book is a love letter to every person I’ve ever lost. Loss is one of those universal experiences that no one likes to talk about. It exists in whispers and that’s often why it’s so lonely—I want us all to start talking about what hurts out loud. So as I wrote, I added all the things I’ve ever wanted to say about the people I miss the most, and everything I’ve never been brave enough to say to the people I love who are still here.
And lastly, it’s a love letter to love. That sounds corny, but let me tell you what I mean. Too often I find myself taking people for granted. I’ll forget to call my mom, or go a week without checking in on my friends, or I’ll neglect to give my husband a kiss the second he comes home. Life happens. People get busy. And before I realize it, it will have been a month since I’ve seen someone. I wanted this book to make me (and maybe my readers) hold everyone they love a little closer. To pay attention to all the moments you might normally let pass without comment. To kiss when you have a chance to kiss and to say the words ‘I love you’ as often as you feel them.