New Voices: Adalyn Grace & Rabiah York Lumbard on Character, Career & Connection

By Stephani Martinell Eaton

Today I am pleased to introduce YA debut authors Adalyn Grace and Rabiah York Lumard to our Cynsations readers. Both of these authors talk about the importance that their main characters’ identities bring to their work, their transitions to writing as a career, as well as connection to community.

Adalyn Grace

What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

The initial inspiration was 1000% the main character of All the Stars and Teeth (Imprint, 2020), Amora Montara.

I didn’t have a clue about what kind of world this would be, the magic, the plot, or anything. All I knew to begin with was that I wanted to write a morally gray heroine. I wanted to write someone incredibly ambitious, who is loud about what she wants and is unapologetic for wanting.

Amora is going to do whatever it takes to reach her goal. She’s a skilled fighter, but I also wanted to ensure that in all that action, she didn’t also lose her femininity.

I feel like women often get labeled and put into roles—you get to be the Arya Stark or the Sansa Stark [of “Game of Thrones”]—a warrior or someone who loves gowns and courting and court intrigue. Never both.

I feel like the only way to break through these gender roles and molds that women are often expected to fill is to create more characters in the media who don’t adhere to those roles and can just be themselves. They can like being in the thick of action and wearing a gown while they do it, never shunning one or the other.

That’s who I wanted Amora to be, and the rest of the story was built around her.

Please describe your pre-publication craft apprenticeship. How did you take your writing from a beginner level to publishable?

I actually started writing on the Neopets boards, roleplaying stories about wolves and vampires before I was really super into reading. Back in those days, I was not a great writer; I was just doing it for fun! It wasn’t until a few years in when I got kicked out of a roleplaying guild about wolves for not being a skilled enough writer that I was like, “Oh, I guess I should care about getting better at this!” I was probably only about eleven or twelve years old!

Around that time, Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight (Little Brown, 2005) came out. I enjoyed reading before that, but it wasn’t until that book and meeting the author at one of her first book signings that I realized writing could be a job. I could do what I loved to do, all day, and get paid for it! It was such a cool realization, and from then on, I feel in love with YA books and read everything

I could get my hands on. I also just wrote non-stop, churning out thousands of words each day because it was my favorite thing to do. I wrote several manuscripts, and had dreams of being the next Amelia Atwater-Rhodes; published by the time I was a teenager.

Obviously, that didn’t quite work out, but with every manuscript I got stronger. I learned to write. I learned to tell a story. But it wasn’t until I entered a manuscript into a contest called Pitch Wars in 2016 that I really learned one of the most important parts of publishing—editing.

I learned that editing wasn’t just about making a sentence sound good; it was about ripping out parts of your manuscript and rebuilding. It was about critically examining story elements and being okay changing things that didn’t fully benefit the story.

It was learning that, coupled with finding trusted beta readers and critique partners, that really helped me take my work to the next level.

Learning how to edit was the most difficult part for me, because it’s being comfortable with starting from scratch. But that’s truly what I think made all the difference for me in terms of getting my work to the next level, and ready for publication.

What were the best and worst moments of your publishing journey?

I’ll always remember the moment I got the call that my book had sold. I was in the café of a Barnes and Noble, texting my friend about how hard being on submission with editors is, and how I was worried my book was never going to sell.

Before she could even text me back, my phone lit up with a call from my agent. I had to run outside because I immediately started crying and could barely get through the phone call. All I remember is ending the call by telling my agent “I have to go call my mom!”

Meeting readers is another part of this business that I absolutely love! Getting that face-to-face time and having the opportunity to interact with them is one of the most fun parts of this job. They’ve all been so great, and there’s really nothing else like it.

In terms of worst experiences, being on submission was incredibly difficult. It’s a time when you feel so close to your dream, but whether or not you get that dream is completely out of your hands. All your hard work has gotten you there. This book you love is now being read by others, and all they have to do is get their team to say yes, and then your dream comes true!

But getting a group of people to agree about investing in a book isn’t always easy, and sub can be super challenging. It was a really difficult time for me to stay positive, and there were a lot of really hard days.

Adalyn and Tomi Adeyemi on tour

How are you approaching the transition from writer to author in terms of your self-image, marketing and promotion, moving forward with your literary art?

For so long, writing was always my hobby. It was a way I relaxed and just had fun! Now, it’s the way I pay my bills, which has definitely put a bit more stress onto it. One of the hardest parts for me has been finding new hobbies and figuring out how to balance my time and not get totally sucked in to writing and publishing that I forget to live life and go outside.

It might sound silly, but it’s so real, and it’s so easy to get sucked in and let it consume you! In terms of marketing and promotion, I’m a lot more visible on social media than I otherwise would be if I weren’t an author.

Readers love to feel connected to authors; I remember feeling the same way when I was a teenager!

I used to read all the blog posts I could get and sign up for newsletters from my favorites. Now, things are a bit easier with Instagram and Twitter, and authors are often expected to be very accessible and engaged.

It’s difficult sometimes when people cross boundaries and make you feel like you owe them something for them following you, but ultimately, I really enjoy social media.

I’m not super consistent about posting photos on Instagram, but I love to hop onto the stories and just talk to people! I’ve met so many wonderful people through social media; I do think it’s an excellent tool, I just think you also have to be cautious as a public figure to be careful and set boundaries.

What advice do you have for beginning children’s-YA writers?

I have three major pieces of advice: find your people, be honest with yourself about what you want, and keep going.

Find your friends who are going to be happy for you when you hit a milestone. Find the ones you can talk to in confidence, and who you can complain to/celebrate with/ask questions without feeling judged or nervous.

Publishing is an incredibly difficult industry. There are so many things that are out of your control and having people who are just there for you and who understand and support you is worth far more than I can even begin to describe.

Writers Shelby Mahurin, Adalyn Grace, Isabel Ibañez, Adrienne Young, and Kristin Dwyer

Next, be honest with yourself about what you want for your career. I used to throw my manuscripts at anyone who called themselves an agent, in the hope that any of them would validate me. I didn’t stop to think that not all agents are equal, and not all of them could get me where I wanted to be in my career.

Writing is a business, and a lot of the time, especially as new writers, we forget that. I had to be totally honest with myself about the kind of career I wanted, and from there I put together a list of maybe 20 agents I thought could help me get there, using resources like Publishers Marketplace to review information about their sales, clients, and the types of deals they were making.

If none of those agents wanted my book, then I’d shelf it and write a new one, because I didn’t want to feel like I was settling on a business partner.

Everyone always says, “It just takes one yes,” but I’ve always thought that was bad advice. It takes the right yes. And the more honest you are about what you want, what you’re looking for, and what you’d be happy with, the easier it is to figure out your path.

Finally, keep going. Rejections are hard. I’ve had over 100 of them, so I get it. But the only way you don’t get this is if you stop.

Rabiah York Lumbard

As a member of a community underrepresented in youth literature, what did your perspective bring to your story?

People mistakenly believe that Muslims and/or Islam is a monolith. But the truth is that we’re as varied and unique as there are stars in the galaxy.

Not only is the American Muslim experience varied and wonderfully diverse, so too are many heritage zones of the Muslim world.

I’ve lived in Egypt, Jordan, the UAE, and Qatar and have also traveled to other parts of the Muslim world and only feel I’ve scratched the surface. None of us fit in a box.

These are qualities I try to reflect in my own work. The gray, the liminal, the nuanced.

Salma, the main character of my debut, No True Believers (Crown, 2020), has white convert mom (like me) and a Moroccan dad. der Dad, however, is not Arab; he is Amazigh. Her extended circle of family, friends, and supportive mentors are multi-racial, multi-religious, and irreligious.

Good people are good people. Period. Here, there, everywhere.

How are you approaching the transition from writer to author in terms of your self-image, marketing and promotion, moving forward with your literary art?

We are, at times, our own worst enemies. I see a ton of authors struggling because they haven’t figured out how to cultivate contentment. They get upset because they haven’t gotten any accolades or gotten on any lists or received much help from their publishers.

To that end, getting published can feel anti-climatic.

But here’s the thing: if you help even one kid feel as though they’re seen—then you’ve done your job. You’ve made the world a better place. Take joy in that.

Of course, we do have to get out there and hustle—but I honestly believe that if you’re genuine and you know your audience, then the right readers will find you. I also think it is vital to promote the work of others. Be a cheerleader. Lift and be lifted.

This industry has some magnificent souls in it. Knowing that and being that is the only way to move forward as artists. As we say in the Muslim world, there’s barakah in that. Real blessings.

What advice do you have for beginning children’s-YA writers?

Don’t worry about being the next great writer. Focus instead on your craft. Sharpen your skills. Read. Be patient, persistent, professional. There’s no real secret in this industry but practice, practice, practice.

I will add a small caveat: Try something new. Try a new genre, try writing from a different point of view. You might surprise yourself. I started as a picture book author and never in a thousand years thought I’d branch into YA conspiracy thrillers. But I did, and boy, do I love it!

Rabiah reading her picture book, The Gift of Ramadan

In terms of publishing, how did you navigate the process of finding an agent and, with his or her representation, connecting your manuscript to a publisher?

Part of life is just about showing up. You never know where a contact or seemingly insignificant communication is going to take you. For example, ages ago, I went to this conference where I met Rukhsana Khan, a veteran children’s book author. We chatted and had a lovely time.

Children’s author Rukhsana Khan

I was unagented, and sat back and listened to her advice. Years later, after many unsuccessful attempts at finding an agent, I remembered my meeting with Rukhsana, and thought, what the heck, go look up whatever agency she raved about. Her specific agent was full. But I scrolled through the website and found one that was open and had a great smile. He didn’t think my manuscript was there yet, but his door was open. Eventually, he accepted me as a client, and through him, many doors have opened.

Long story short: believe in the power of yet! Show up. Trust a good smile.

As an MFA in Writing student/graduate, how did that experience impact your literary journey?

I’m midway through my MFA journey at Spalding University, and even though I travel 7,000 miles a few times a year for those grueling residencies, I firmly believe that every mile is worth it.

Spalding’s program is cross-genre, which is exciting for someone who truly believes that by pushing the limit of what you think you can and cannot do, you will grow. It’s also a phenomenal process to work with a variety of mentors. MFA communities are tight, too. True family.

For someone like me, who is a bit isolated living abroad, it’s a golden experience. I know I’m prone to hyperbole, but I really do feel a new wind beneath my wings.

Rabiah with her three biggest inspirations

Cynsational Notes:

Adalyn Grace is a New York Times bestselling author of All the Stars and Teeth (Imprint, 2020), which was called “2020’s biggest YA fantasy” by Entertainment Weekly.

Prior to becoming an author, Adalyn spent four years working in live theatre, acted as the managing editor of a nonprofit newspaper, and studied storytelling as an intern on Nickelodeon Animation’s popular series “The Legend of Korra.”

Local to San Diego, Adalyn spends her non-writing days by watching too much anime and playing video games with her bossy cat and two dorky dogs.

Rabiah York Lumbard is an award-winning author of the picture book The Conference of the Birds (Wisdom Tales, 2012). Her latest picture book, The Gift of Ramadan (Albert Whitman, 2019), was highly recommended by School Library Journal as “a perfect addition to holiday book collections,” while her deeply personal debut novel No True Believers (Crown, 2020), which draws on her experience as an American Muslim at home and abroad has been hailed by Booklist as “taut debut novel” and “a page-turner that carries a message of radical love, regardless of faith.”

After embracing Islam at the age of eighteen, she earned a BA in religious studies from George Washington University and is completing her MFA in creative writing at Spalding University. She moves frequently, but currently lives in the Doha with her husband and three daughters where she also works as a part-time writing specialist at local universities. Favorite pastimes include rescuing Arabian Maus and kayaking in the Arabian Gulf.

Stephani Martinell Eaton holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts where she won the Candlewick Picture Book Award and the Marion Dane Bauer Award for middle grade fiction.