Perspectives from 2022 Debuts, Young Adult Edition

By Michael Leali

We were able to ask several debut young adult authors about their highlights and insights from this past year. Featured in this article are Isaac Blum, Becky Dean, R. D. Stevens, Vanessa Torres, Leslie Vedder, and Rebecca Lowry Warchut.

Isaac Blum, The Life and Crimes of Hoodie Rosen

Tell us about your debut novel!

The Life and Crimes of Hoodie Rosen (Philomel, 2022) is an irreverent YA novel about an Orthodox Jewish teen dealing with hatred, betrayal, and first love. Hoodie Rosen’s Orthodox Jewish community has just moved to a new, non-Jewish town. But the locals aren’t happy about all the Jews moving in at once. When Hoodie falls for the daughter of the mayor leading the charge against his community, and the town is struck by a series of antisemitic crimes, Hoodie is forced to choose between his first love and the only world he’s ever known. The book is funny, but it’s also based on real-life tragic events.

Tell us about a highlight from your debut year.

One day I logged onto my local library website, and I saw that they’d ordered my book, and that somebody had placed a hold on it–I asked my mom and she swears it wasn’t her, so it could actually be a stranger I’ve never met. That was the moment when the whole thing felt real for me. I grew up in the Bala Cynwyd Library. My first job was as a “page” in the kids’ section. This was in the days of the Walkman, and I would listen to the same CDs on repeat while I shelved books. I’m so excited that my book will be in that same section. It’s surreal.

Did the editing process for your debut book offer any insights that you’ll be using in your writing process going forward?

There were a number of places in my debut novel where my editor asked, “How does the protagonist feel about this?” And I was like, “Who knows? I should probably figure that out.” That’s something I want to make sure I’m paying attention to moving forward: the internal world of my characters, especially if I’m writing a first-person narrative.

I think it’s important that those internal thoughts help the reader understand your character and how the character feels about the world around them. But I also think, from a craft perspective, if you get the character’s thoughts and feelings on the page it helps you, as a writer, to track their emotional arc. Even if I delete some of those internal thoughts later, they’ll help me during the drafting process.

Becky Dean, Love & Other Great Expectations

Tell us about your debut novel.

Love & Other Great Expectations (Delacorte Press, 2022) is a young adult contemporary romance about a girl competing in a literary-themed scavenger hunt that takes her to the locations of classic novels throughout England. She meets a bookish British boy who makes the journey and takes some unexpected turns as she comes to grips with losing her soccer career and learns to hope again through the power of stories.

Tell us about a highlight from your debut year.

A definite highlight was visiting a local library’s teen book club. When I introduced myself to area librarians before the book was released, one was especially excited about the book because she’s originally from England. She scheduled the book for their regular book club the month after debut and arranged for the kids to get copies.

It was incredible to see seventeen teenagers show up that evening, all holding copies of my book that they had read. We talked about their favorite scenes and what they liked, and they spent an hour asking questions. Then I signed their books, got my first fan art, which had been an author dream of mine, and took pictures. They were not only smart, insightful, and fun, but it was so encouraging to hear that the things I hoped my book would do actually resonated with readers in my target audience.

What advice would you give to pre-published writers?

The biggest thing that kept me going over the years was the writing friends I made, so my main advice is to find a community! I know that’s not always easy, but whether it’s through a local writing group or one of the many online groups or attending a writing conference, put yourself out there (yes, even introverts!) until you meet at least a couple other people who can encourage and support you and who understand the writing life.

Be disciplined, but don’t feel like you have to write every day. I definitely believe in the importance of having a schedule and making yourself get words on the page. But restoring your creative well is important, too. Sometimes you have to give a story time to spin in the back of your head; go for a walk, watch a movie, read a book, live life. Those times are critical for me and help make the days I write more productive.

And finally, keep trying! Success in publishing is about perseverance as much as writing ability, and often the difference between those who make it and those who don’t is simply: did they keep going?

R. D. Stevens, The Journal

Tell us about your debut novel!

The Journal (Vulpine Press, 2022) is a young adult contemporary fiction novel which asks the question: how far would you go to find the one person you truly care for? The main thread of the story is set in Southeast Asia and involves a journey through the backpacking world of the early noughties. Ethan Willis, the voice of the book, is a confused 18-year-old who struggles with the depth and uncertainty of life. It’s been six months since Charlotte, his free-spirited sister, disappeared in Cambodia. In a last desperate attempt to find her, he sets off to follow her trail around Southeast Asia.

Ethan idolizes his sister for her spontaneity and individualism, but finds himself unprepared for the colour and complexity that greet him on his journey. Thrown into this heady world of backpacking and clashing cultures, Ethan is confronted with the fact that Charlotte is not the only one who is lost.

With only a battered journal and some new acquaintances to guide him, Ethan is taken on a meandering passage through the countryside of Cambodia, into the remotest parts of Laos, and finally to the party islands of Thailand. As this expedition unfolds, Ethan must also look inward to address unresolved questions about his past and the world around him, not only searching for Charlotte herself, but for an understanding of why she left. Ethan will stop at nothing to look for Charlotte, but is he truly ready to find her?

What advice would you give to pre-published authors?

My answer to this question requires a bit of backstory because my journey to publication has been a little different to many other authors. Four years before my novel was published by Vulpine Press, I was in the same position as many pre-published authors are now. I had gone through the trauma that is querying publishers and agents, and I was left with a lot of rejections, a handful of lovely specific responses from some agents telling me how much they liked my writing, but no concrete offers. So, I decided to put some savings down and fund publication of a few copies myself in the hope that the novel might get noticed. I worked with a company to do this and ensured that the product was professionally edited and presentable.

Then, I put in the hard graft—I went to the local markets, sent it off to reviewers, contacted bloggers and submitted to online competitions, etc. and managed to get some great reviews, sell a modest nearly 1000 copies (ebook & paperback), win a couple of awards and really enjoyed the experience. The indie author community is a brilliant one—really supportive and encouraging —and I have made some great, super-talented author friends along the way. I also started to regularly buy other indie authors’ books and post about reading them, as well as writing reviews of them online, in order to try and contribute my own little piece to the community.

After a few years, I had about three other works in progress on the go and had finished another novel, almost reaching a point where I was ready to move on from ‘The Journal’ (and beginning to brace myself for a second stab at querying) when I was contacted by a commissioning editor who had come across ‘The Journal’ and loved it. I couldn’t believe it initially, but soon enough I had signed a contract with my publisher.

I wanted to give this story to remind and encourage anyone who is writing that there is potentially a lot to be gained from going for it as an indie author. It can be a really rewarding experience and offers a potential route into the more traditional publishing world, if you put in the work, be resilient and get a bit lucky! There are many different paths towards publication. My advice for those of you who are looking for a more traditional publishing route is to keep plugging away, keep working, keep persevering, and keep holding out for that little bit of luck because you never know who might end up reading your work and loving it.

If you could tell your younger-writer self anything, what would it be?

Firstly, in general terms, I would tell myself that everything you write is valuable because it is part of the process of improvement—not necessarily because it is brilliant in its own right—so you need to be accepting of not achieving big things right away, and of the amount of time you spend writing things you end up hating! It’s all valuable in the end.

Secondly, I would tell myself that not everyone will like your writing, but that is okay! The high-mindedness of youth meant that I wanted to write a book that everyone would recognise as good. No book is loved by everyone—not even the true greats—so expect criticism, learn from it and hold out for finding the people who will love what you’re doing.

A third, more specific piece of advice I would give myself would be about bringing locations to life. The challenge for any author in bringing a location to life is to present it in such a way that is authentic, invites the reader into the space, and also acknowledges the subjective nature of our experiences. Any person that steps into a location brings with them their own past experiences, fears, likes and dislikes etc., and we never simply view places/people/events with neutrality. Accommodating for this in a story can be a challenge, and it is important to remember that the book’s voice is only representing a perspective of how things are, rather than how things are in themselves, independent of all the baggage that we bring with us. I think this is something that perhaps we all appreciate more as we grow up.

Vanessa Torres, The Turning Pointe

Tell us about your debut novel!

The Turning Pointe (Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2022) follows Rosa Dominguez, a Mexican American, Prince-obsessed ballerina in 1980s Minneapolis. Born into a family of accomplished dancers, Rosa is weighed down by rigid expectations—to continue the Dominguez legacy and become a prima ballerina. But Rosa longs to be done with her pointe shoes. She dreams of letting her hair down and dancing to a funky beat, though she knows it will drive her family further apart. And the Dominguezs are already struggling to keep it together following significant trauma and change, something for which Rosa blames herself.

Then, Rosa discovers Prince is using the studio above her own to rehearse for the movie Purple Rain. There’s soon an announcement that rocks her world even more—auditions for the opportunity to dance on stage with Prince. Her chance to break free of her legacy and groove the way she’s always wanted is now. Then, Nikki struts into her life, a gorgeous funky dancer who looks better in his pointe shoes than she does. Caught up in the excitement of new love, and the possibility of following her dreams even though it may break her family forever, Rosa is at a crossroads. The Turning Pointe is a book about grief, finding forgiveness, the search for self-love, and the discovery of what really matters.

What advice would you give to pre-published writers?

I love this question because I’m still learning as I go. I would say to anyone aspiring to become a published author, don’t be surprised if the book you are currently writing doesn’t end up being The Book—the one that gets you a contract. Someone once told me the same, and I refused to believe this could be the case for me. But it was. My first book was my practice book. I still love the story and think about it quite often. But it wasn’t ready, and I can see that now.

Plot twist! My agent and I have been talking about revisiting a revision when the time allows. So, there’s a possibility my practice book could be published. The moral of the story is, no writing is wasted time. You just never know what could become of your manuscript in the drawer.

What was an early experience where you learned that language had power?

I was a reluctant reader as a child and a young adult. I understand now that this was because I never saw myself in books. I am from a loving Mexican American family, one that did not encourage speaking Spanish. We were also a family that sometimes struggled with money. And all the books out there at the time, (I am a child of the 70s and 80s) did not depict anything like my coming-of-age experience. Not to bag on the Sweet Valley High books, but at the time, this was what we had for YA lit. And driving around wearing a matching sweater-set in a shiny new Fiat was so not me.

It wasn’t until my sister started reading Beverly Cleary’s Ramona Quimby series that I became interested in books. Here was a close-knit, working-class family, making ends meet like we were. That tiny spark was powerful, because it got me reading. I felt seen—normal. They weren’t Mexican American, but it was a start. I’ve been striving to represent myself in my books ever since.

Leslie Vedder, The Bone Spindle

Tell us about your debut novel!

The Bone Spindle (Penguin/Razorbill, 2022) is a genderflipped Sleeping Beauty meets Indiana Jones young adult fantasy starring two girl partners. There’s Fi, a bookish treasure hunter destined to wake the sleeping prince, and Shane, a queer ax-wielding mercenary falling for a mysterious witch!

The fierce friendship between these girls is the heart and soul of this book for me—as well as the chance to have prickly, fun, larger-than-life girl heroes on a wild adventure!

What’s the best piece of advice you received in your debut year?

Be sure to join your debut group, and also try to make connections with other authors in your area! I was lucky enough to have a few other debut authors nearby, including one whose book came out the same day as mine. It meant a lot to be able to chat with other authors going through the same experiences—to team up for events, compare notes on editing and promotion, and laugh about things no one outside the publishing industry understands. And it’s even more fun if you can do it while drinking coffee or boba tea, or browsing a bookstore!

Tell us about a highlight from your debut year.

One of the most special moments for me in this entire publishing journey was getting a fan letter from a teen girl who fell in love with my book. As a debut author, there are so many wild ups and downs. Between official trade reviews, and reactions on social media, my head was spinning, and it was so easy to lose sight of everything. Getting that message from a young reader, I was transported back to my teen self, who loved books so wholly and fiercely. It reminded me why I wrote The Bone Spindle and who I had written it for. My book had been found by exactly who I had hoped would read it! That is a truly magical feeling.

Rebecca Lowry Warchut, Catastrophe Theory

Tell us about your debut novel!

In Catastrophe Theory (Woodhall Press, 2022), Vera’s soccer career is suddenly sidelined at the start of her senior year when she’s blinded by a brain tumor. When her single mom clings too tightly, both her identity and her freedom are in jeopardy. They make it to St. Petersburg just as Hurricane Phoenix’s trajectory turns directly toward them. As it churns closer and closer, their paths collide with a coder, recently expelled from college, a Catalonian magician, and holograms of Salvador Dalí himself.

If you loved I Survived [by Lauren Tarshis (Scholastic, 2010-2022)] in elementary school, or if you devoured Five Feet Apart [by Rachael Lippincott
with Mikki Daughtry and Tobias Iaconis (Simon & Schuster BYR, 2018)], Everything Everything [by Nicola Yoon (Delacorte, 2015)] or The Fault in our Stars by John Green (Penguin, 2012)] recently, read Catastrophe Theory.

When you look back on your writing journey, what are the changes that stand out?

I always thought of myself as a writer and wanted to write a book, but it was not until I signed up for NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) in 2019 that I made it happen. Participating in NaNoWriMo forced me to get out of the ideation space and instead of hemming and hawing over phrasings of sentences and word-level edits, I had to keep the story moving. In writing 50,000 words during the month of November, I got over my inner critic and ended with a solid first draft of what would become Catastrophe Theory. As a teacher, I have brought NaNoWriMo to my students as well, and many of them are working on their own novels. If you’ve ever wanted to write a novel but find yourself getting stuck, this is your sign to sign up for NaNoWriMo.

What appeals to you about writing YA? What are the craft challenges of writing for this age group?

When I wrote Catastrophe Theory, I thought of my students and fellow teachers. For my more reluctant readers, I intentionally wrote short chapters that ended on cliffhangers to keep them wanting more. For similar reasons, the overall length of the book is accessible. Yes, Catastrophe Theory is about relatable dynamics including young love, old friends, mother-daughter dynamics, survival in the face of natural disasters and personal tragedies, and a former athlete trying to find herself in a world post-sports stardom. But Catastrophe Theory has numerous interdisciplinary connections as well, from extreme weather and climate resilient architecture to the majestic banyans and moral dilemmas to Salvador Dalí, Surrealism, and Catalan culture to appeal to a wide range of interests. This would enable it to be used easily in a range of classes, from AP Environmental to Intro to Philosophy to art history. Catastrophe Theory pairs well with non-fiction texts, from academic papers to more newsworthy sources, and lends itself to inspiring further research. The numerous symbols, including the Phoenix and the idea of rebirth, are both obvious and nuanced, giving a low floor for all students to understand symbolism and a high bar for more sophisticated analysis.

More than that, in the spirit of rebirth, I want my own children and all my students to know that it is never too late to reinvent themselves, rewrite their stories, and rise anew.

Cynsations Notes

Isaac Blum (he/him) is a writer and educator. He’s taught English at several colleges and universities, and at Orthodox Jewish and public schools. He lives with his wife in Philadelphia where he watches sports and reads books that make him laugh while showing him something true about the world. The Life and Crimes of Hoodie Rosen is his debut novel. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram @isaacblum_

Becky Dean is a fan of adventures both real and fictional. When she’s not writing or traveling, she can be found drinking tea, watching science fiction shows or Jane Austen, or quoting The Lord of the Rings. Though she lives in Texas with her husband, she remains a Southern California girl at heart. She writes young adult contemporary romance as Becky Dean and science fiction as B.L. Dean.

R. D. Stevens grew up in Kent, England, with an overactive imagination and a love of big questions. After going to university to study Philosophy, he escaped the UK and travelled the world for two years. On his return, he worked in the charity sector briefly, before training as a philosophy teacher and completing his MA. He currently works at a school in London and loves to write fiction, read books, play the guitar, and talk about existentialism. The Journal is his award-winning debut novel.

Vanessa L. Torres is Mexican American author, an adventure seeker, and mom to a flashlight-under-the-covers-reader. When she’s not writing, she balances her time between anything outdoors, and her other job as a firefighter/paramedic. She is a Paul Harris Fellow recipient from Rotary International for her work with emergency medical services in Guatemala. She was born and raised in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and now lives in Olympia, Washington with her husband and daughter.

Leslie Vedder is a queer ace author who loves coffee and cat snuggles. She grew up on fantasy books, anime, fanfiction, and the Lord of the Rings movies, and met her true love in high school choir. She currently lives in Colorado with her wife and two ultra-spoiled house cats. The Bone Spindle (Penguin / Razorbill) is her debut novel, and the sequel The Severed Thread comes out 2023. Find her online at

Rebecca Lowry Warchut brings characters and stories to life. For almost two decades, she’s done this in the classroom and on the stage, and now she does it again in her debut novel Catastrophe Theory, inspired by the Dalí museums in Florida and Spain. An alumni of Wake Forest University, Teach for America, and Bank Street College of Education, she currently teaches writing and social studies in Simsbury, Connecticut. She nurtures young voices by serving on the 2022 Girls Write Now Anthology Editorial Committee and running a NaNoWriMo Club. Rebecca lives in West Hartford, Connecticut.

Michael Leali is a writer and educator. He received his MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. When he’s not dreaming up stories, he’s probably playing a board game, eating cheese, or grading papers somewhere in the suburbs of Chicago. The Civil War of Amos Abernathy (HarperCollins, 2022) is his debut novel. Michael Leali identifies as white, cisgender, gay, and uses he/him pronouns. Learn more about Michael at