Perspectives from 2022 Debuts, Young Adult Edition, Part 2

By Michael Leali

As we close out 2022, I’m thrilled that we can learn from a few more fantastic young adult debut authors’ experiences. Featured in this article are Charity Alyse, Susan Azim Boyer, Anna Gracia, Elizabeth Kilcoyne, Keely Parrack, and Betty G. Yee.

Charity Alyse, Other Side of the Tracks

Tell us about your debut novel!

Other Side of the Tracks (Simon & Schuster, 2022) tells the thrilling and heart wrenching story of a racially divided town separated by train tracks and what happens when Black blood is spilled on the white side of town. As a result, both towns erupt into an all out war zone with Zach, Capri, and Justin (our three main characters), caught in the middle.

It’s a very loose Romeo and Juliet retelling with forbidden love at the center, except it’s interracial! It’s told from three points of view as well. So, readers will get to know each character so deeply. Their personal stories that feature love, family history, and how life is on either side of the tracks unravel in a powerful way. It’s the bravest thing I’ve ever written and I am So proud of it. Here is the full synopsis for more information:

This lilting and riveting young adult debut novel about three teens entangled by secret love, open hatred, and the invisible societal constraints wrapped around people both Black and white is perfect for readers of All American Boys [by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely (Simon & Schuster, 2015)] and The Hate U Give [by Angie Thomas (Balzer + Bray, 2017)].

There is an unspoken agreement between the racially divided towns of Bayside and Hamilton: no one steps over the train tracks that divide them. Or else.

Not until Zach Whitman anyway, a white boy who moves in from Philly and who dreams of music. When he follows his dream across the tracks to meet his idol, the famous jazz musician who owns The Sunlight Record Shop in Hamilton, he’s flung into Capri Collins’s path.

Capri has big plans: she wants to follow her late mother’s famous footsteps, dancing her way onto Broadway, and leaving this town for good, just like her older brother, Justin, is planning to do when he goes off to college next year. As sparks fly, Zach and Capri realize that they can help each other turn hope into a reality, even if it means crossing the tracks to do it.

But one tragic night changes everything. When Justin’s friend, the star of Hamilton’s football team, is murdered by a white Bayside police officer, the long-standing feud between Bayside and Hamilton becomes an all-out war And Capri, Justin, and Zach are right in the middle of it.

Reflecting on your personal journey, what bumps did you encounter and how have you managed to defy the odds to achieve success?

I’ve encountered a lot of bumps along the way on my journey to publication.

I was in kindergarten the first time I heard I’d never be a writer. I used to remix fairytales with Black characters at the center. Sleeping beauty had micro braids and Prince Charming had dreadlocks. I showed my kindergarten teacher with anticipation for positivity but I received the exact opposite. She told me I’d never be a writer. She made it clear that if I kept writing stories like that, I’d surely be arrested for copyright infringement. It crushed my little heart.

It was at that same school where I was forbidden to borrow Junie B. Jones books [by Barbara Park, illustrated by Denise Brunkus, Random House, 1992-2013] from the library due to racism. Access to books and positive encouragement when it came to my writing wasn’t something that I was given. The rejection stung and I wanted to stop writing for good. But the words wouldn’t let me go. I wrote throughout all middle school and high school.

Other Side of the Tracks was born out of an assignment for my Creative Writing Children’s Stories class in college. It was a ten page assignment that my professor encouraged me to turn into a novel. Nine months later, I began querying and received over 200 rejections. I tried giving up on the story, but the characters haunted me. I knew their lives needed to be told, that readers needed to hear about a story of oneness, equality, friendship, and love. In the wake of the George Floyd protests, my mother told me to submit one more time. Perhaps, now people would pay attention. They did. I got an agent shortly after and a book deal. People were ready to talk about the subject of racial equality and so was publishing. I was so grateful.

I defied the odds because I wouldn’t let rejection have the final say. I prayed so much during that time and relied on Jesus for help. I also kept a support system rooted in family and friends. They encouraged me to keep pushing, that my story was worth fighting for.

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

I would tell her not to quit her daydream. I dreamt of being a writer since I could hold picture books in my hand. I wanted to create stories that made people laugh and cry. As I grew older, I knew I wanted to write stories that made people feel to the point where it would spark a real change within them for the better.

I hope that Other Side of the Tracks is the first of many books to do just that.

Susan Azim Boyer, Jasmine Zumideh Needs a Win

Tell us about your debut novel!

Jasmine Zumideh Needs a Win (Macmillan, 2022) is a Buzzfeed Most Anticipated featuring a bitingly funny, Mindy Kaling-esque, Iranian American heroine, who makes messy, complicated choices that snowball into an avalanche when an international incident intrudes on her high school election, forcing her to reckon with her identity in a way she never has before.

Reflecting on your personal journey (creatively, career-wise, and your writer’s heart), what bumps did you encounter and how have you managed to defy the odds to achieve success?

It has taken me twenty years to make my young adult fiction debut with 50 in the rearview! After studying screenwriting in the early aughts at UCLA, I got a fancy pants agent, who told me I would have to wait another year to make it onto a television show’s writing staff because they had already placed “a female.” A, as in singular. I kept writing scripts and was a finalist in several screenwriting competitions. Many years later, a fancy pants manager told me that I was very talented but “not 22,” and I transitioned to novel writing, which has been more accessible.

My first novel took 1st place in the YARWA Awards [Young Adult Romance Writers of America] for Young Adult Historical Fiction and got seven full requests for the manuscript – but no offer of representation! This was a low point. I almost gave up. I had tried so hard, and it was taking so long. Then I had a shift in mindset. Instead of focusing on an agent and a book deal, I focused on being part of a vibrant community of readers and writers. My second novel (and my debut), Jasmine Zumideh Needs a Win, got multiple offers of representation and acquisition and was released on November 1.

I never gave up because I was part of that vibrant community of writers and readers who buoyed me when I was down; who read and critiqued my work, and helped me improve as an author; plus, I have a wonderfully supportive spouse who never gave up on me, even when I was tempted to give up on myself.

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

First, I get my edit letter, which could include continued development of a character, expansion of a relationship between two characters, sequence of events, and stakes. Along with the edit letter comes the manuscript with tracked changes including revisions of text and comments that need to be addressed. For my first and second novels, these edit letters have been roughly three pages in length, and I’ve been able to return a revised manuscript in about a month.

I am blessed with a wonderful editor, who has pushed me to better my writing and dig deeper! Coming from a background in screenwriting, my strengths are story, plot, and narrative momentum. However, internal thought and elaborate descriptions are forbidden in screenplays. What does a character or setting look like? Well, that will be up to the casting director and set designer. What is this character thinking? Convey it through dialogue and subtext. I’ve had to get much better at giving readers emotional access to make sure they know exactly how my characters are feeling – and how they express that emotion physically – at any given moment, which has carried through to my third book – which I’ll be submitting to my editor shortly.

Anna Gracia, Boys I Know

Tell us about your debut novel!

Boys I Know (Peachtree, 2022) follows 18-year-old June Chu through her last year of high school. As one of the few Asian Americans in her small, Iowan suburb, her friends don’t understand June’s strict Taiwanese parents or the frequent microaggressions she faces among her all-white peers. She sees college as a means of escape, but even that is heavily overseen by her parents, who have a decidedly different vision for her future.

So June decides to focus on things she can control–her sexuality. She attempts to seduce her sort-of boyfriend as a way of securing intimacy, but when that fails, she doesn’t hesitate to explore her other options. She doesn’t know exactly what she wants, but she’s brave enough to try for it anyway, risking heartbreak, family alienation, and pregnancy along the way.

Ultimately, June’s story is about searching for love and acceptance, and finding yourself in the process.

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

To me, teenagers are possibly the most authentic versions of ourselves. They’re messy, brutally honest, and willing to change their minds if presented with compelling evidence. What I love about writing YA is the ability to explore topics and ideas with an open mind that adults often simply don’t have. Characters can make impulsive or ill-advised choices, often free of the heavier burdens of adulthood, and their world is much smaller, granting more time for in-depth examination. Everything feels so immediate and monumental as teen, and I like the urgency that comes with that.

The challenge, of course, is remaining relevant and relatable. The further we age, the less we relate to or remember the problems of youth. It’s important for YA authors to do their homework–to make sure that the issues they’re speaking to, and about, are the issues teens today care about. They don’t pick up a novel to be lectured at, but to reflect their reality. Writing for teens forces us to stay in that angsty space and not project our adult experience onto them as a way to “teach” them.

Reflecting on your personal journey (creatively, career-wise, and your writer’s heart), what bumps did you encounter and how have you managed to defy the odds to achieve success?

Growing up, I had always been one of those people. The “I’d like to write a book one day” kind of person. No plan, no vision, just future vibes.

Of course, “real” life intervened. I majored in accounting and went on to earn my CPA license, leaving barely enough time for sleep, let alone any kind of creative endeavor. Then I quit it all and went back to school to earn my teaching degree–another career that left little time for outside pursuits. And somewhere in between all of that, I birthed three children.

Not until the reality of my past and current situation (a stay-at-home mom earning zero dollars, using none of her multiple degrees, and devoid of any meaningful adult interaction) sank in did I finally return to that long-ago dream: writing.

When I think back on it, it seems like a ridiculous idea–to be severely sleep deprived, run ragged by three kids under 5, and take on a massive pursuit like writing and publishing a novel simply because I wanted to see my time valued by a dollar amount. But finally, the grit and determination I used in conquering those other challenges finally came in handy. I was going to will myself into success, no matter the personal cost.

Every time I managed to get the kids settled long enough to clear my brain and write a few words felt like a victory; every time I moved the plot forward even an inch, fighting against the sound of Paw Patrol in the background, felt like a victory. I clawed my way through potty training breaks and tantrums and trips to the zoo and endless (literally) energy-sucking feedings to type the words “the end” however many months later.

Most people never write the story they want to. Many writers say, “Just make the time!” But I’m not sure even if I’d had the capacity to do so earlier, that I would have had the drive I do now. My desire to see myself as a capable, productive, intelligent, successful, whole, complex human being again overrode my sense of (healthy) self-preservation and propelled me to where I am now. It’s quite possible I only defied the odds because my ego wouldn’t have allowed it otherwise.

I write a lot about what it’s like growing up with a strict Asian parent and how it shapes our drive and success. I can’t help but think that maybe all of that is why I have the deluded self-confidence needed to pursue this to my satisfaction. Writing is an exercise in belief–the belief that you have something worthy to say and that others will want to hear it. I believe I defied the odds because I refused to give up until it happened. I kept revising, kept querying, and kept writing, until I broke through.

I have no idea if this would work for other people. I’m not even certain it’s a healthy way to approach writing. (Certainly, we should all learn to value ourselves beyond our productivity.) But regardless, I do know this: Writing a novel is hard work. And it requires a level of bravery and determination that is equal to very few things in life. So to all of you out there, grinding away every single day to make this happen for yourself, know that I have nothing but admiration and support for you.

Elizabeth Kilcoyne, Wake the Bones

Tell us about your debut novel!

Wake the Bones (Macmillan, 2022) is a young adult southern gothic horror novel from Wednesday Books in which the sleepy little farm that Laurel Early grew up on has awakened. The woods are shifting, the soil is dead under her hands, and her bone pile just stood up and walked away.

After dropping out of college, all she wanted was to resume her life as a tobacco hand and taxidermist and try not to think about the boy she can’t help but love. Instead, a devil from her past has returned to court her, as he did her late mother years earlier. Now, Laurel must unravel her mother’s terrifying legacy and tap into her own innate magic before her future and the fate of everyone she loves is doomed.

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

The best advice was to turn off my phone, stop looking at Twitter, and to pick a time after all the rush was said and done to look at social media. It was recommended to me by some good friends that I engage with and enjoy the people around me on debut day and to slow down as much as possible to let opportunities for in the moment joy come through. It really made a difference in how stressful my debut day was. I had a wonderful celebration and all the good news I heard from the people around me really uplifted me. From that good headspace, I was able to process all the joy on social media afterward.

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

I love writing for teens for the same reason I love teaching teens: I think they’re some of the best, most creative people at a time in life where life is fraught with change—watching their resilience as they learn to swim and cope with a whole new world is really inspiring to me. I think teens aren’t afraid to feel things deeply, to make big mistakes and to try new things in a way adults don’t always think to do. Because of this I think they’re excellent characters, great protagonists from whom audiences of all ages can learn a lot.

Keely Parrack, Don’t Let in the Cold

Tell us about your debut novel!

Don’t Let in the Cold (Sourcebooks Fire, 2022) is a Young Adult thriller set in Tahoe.

Lottie’s learned the hard way to only trust herself. But when she’s forced to stay in a cabin with Jade, her new stepsister, she figures it will be fine. It’s only one night, after all. But that night, a solar flare causes a massive black out. And as the snow starts to fall, a stranger, Alex, turns up at the back door with his dog, begging for shelter.

Lottie knows she has good reason not to trust him. But when a fire forces them into the snow, they must rely on each other to survive, not only the elements, but also Alex’s accomplices, who seem to be hunting them down in a scheme that’s taken a chilling, deadly turn.

I first got the idea from staying at my friend’s cabin in Tahoe with my then 8-year-old son. It was summer and so beautiful in the daytime, surrounded by trees in the mountains, but at night it was so dark and quiet. And everything seemed eerie and threatening. So then I imagined a teen girl staying there, and it became a story about found families, learning to trust again, and being braver than you ever knew you could be in the face of fear.

Tell us about a highlight from your debut year.

One of the most amazing things has been the feedback from readers. Family and friends and acquaintances from all different parts of my life have reached out and congratulated me, bought the book, turned up at the book launches, and given me such positive feedback! The support has been truly wonderful and unexpected.

But the one thing that really stands out was a message from a stranger on social media. They reached out to tell me that they hadn’t read any books in a while, but were so intrigued by this book’s cover, they picked it up. They raced through it, loved it, and it helped them get back into reading again!

That just melted my heart!

What advice would you give to pre-published writers?

My first YA book got me my first agent, way back in 2008, but I didn’t get my first YA book deal until 2020, twelve years later! During that time many of my friends and critique partners got deals but some of them didn’t. And the big thing I noticed is everyone’s journey is different, but every success story took a mixture of craft, luck, and persistence.

You can be ready for luck by working on your craft, going to workshops, finding supportive writing friends and critique partners. Joining an organization like the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators can be super helpful in connecting you to local authors and events and providing great resources, from agent lists to formatting information. And there are a lot of great kidlit groups and resources on Twitter, Instagram, and podcasts, such as Literaticast and Print Run, that answer a wealth of writer questions.

And don’t forget to read, read, read! Find out what is being published in the genre and age range you’re writing in so that when you do get that lucky break, your craft shines through, and you are ready!

And by lucky break I mean serendipity–your manuscript reaching the right agent or editor at the right time and being exactly what they are looking for. Or them seeing a spark of something in your work that speaks to them and makes them want to know more.

Persistence can be hard, but one of the most important things I’ve learned on this journey is to write because you love it, enjoy the ride, and cherish the friends you make on the way!

Betty G. Yee, Gold Mountain

Tell us about your debut novel!

Growing up in 1860s China, Tam Ling Fan has lived a life of comfort. Her father is wealthy enough to provide for his family but unconventional enough to spare Ling Fan from the debilitating foot-binding required of most well-off girls. But Ling Fan’s life is upended when her brother dies of influenza and their father is imprisoned under false accusations. Hoping to earn the money that will secure her father’s release, Ling Fan disguises herself as a boy and takes her brother’s contract to work for the Central Pacific Railroad Company in America.

Life on “the Gold Mountain” is grueling and dangerous. To build the railroad that will connect the west coast to the east, Ling Fan and other Chinese laborers lay track and blast tunnels through the treacherous peaks of the Sierra Nevada, facing cave-ins, avalanches, and blizzards―along with hostility from white Americans.

When someone threatens to expose Ling Fan’s secret, she must take an even greater risk to save what’s left of her family . . . and to escape the Gold Mountain alive.

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

Much of my early life was spent re-imagining stories, retelling stories with a twist, or dreaming up sequels to beloved stories. I would pick a favorite character and write a new adventure for them. Some might call what I did in my younger days “fan fiction,” but I prefer to think of it as a kind of training ground that served as a scaffold for my future writing. Borrowing the background and characters from a beloved story was like having training wheels that gave me the confidence and ambition to start branching out to more original ideas. In time, I began spending more time on my own characters, my own worlds, and my own ideas.

I started to take writing classes where I met other writers. As I became more comfortable getting feedback from them and giving feedback in return, my identity as a writer matured. I was no longer writing for my own amusement, but writing with an eye towards expressing ideas to a broader audience. Revision and rewriting was no longer an evil necessity, but a lens through which I was both reader and writer.

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

Years ago, while on a trip to England, I visited Stratford-on-Avon, the birthplace of William Shakespeare. In the house where he was born, there is a window where, over hundreds of years, people had etched their name to show respect to a man whose work had touched them. Looking at the thousands of names on that window, and knowing that those names were only a micro-fraction of all the people he had reached (not to mention future readers) was both mind-blowing and humbling.

Cynsations Notes

Charity Alyse earned her bachelor’s degree in English literature at Rowan University and is currently working toward a master’s degree in clinical mental health therapy. Other Side of the Tracks is her first novel. Alyse lives in New Jersey. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram @Charity Alyse (YA Contemporary) (she/her) and

Susan Azim Boyer writes young adult fiction featuring Iranian American heroines (she *never* encountered growing up), who make messy, complicated choices that rapidly snowball into avalanches. Her debut novel Jasmine Zumideh Needs a Win was released on November 1, 2022, from Wednesday Books. She lives in the Palm Desert area with her husband, Wayne, and her Pug mix, Teddy. Her son, Alec, lives in New York.

Anna Gracia was born and raised in Minnesota, where she survived on Dairy Queen blizzards and the sheer audacity of Jessica Wakefield. Her YA debut, Boys I Know, was both an Indies Introduce and an Indie Next pick, and was featured in The New York Times, Paste, Buzzfeed, and Seventeen. When not writing, you can find her napping or wishing she was napping.

Elizabeth Kilcoyne is an author, playwright, and poet, born and raised in Kentucky. Her first novel, Wake the Bones, a YA Southern Gothic from Wednesday Books, received a starred review from both Publishers Weekly and Kirkus, who described her as “a new standard-bearer in YA Horror.” She currently lives in Lexington, Kentucky, where she gardens, serves on the organizational team for a local community vegetable market, and teaches writing.

Keely Parrack is the author of Young Adult thriller, Don’t Let in the Cold, and the picture book, Morning, Sunshine! She came from the UK to the USA twenty years ago, and liked it so much she’s still here, doing what she loves—writing young adult novels, poetry, and picture books, and motivating kids to love reading and to be confident creative writers. She currently lives in the San Francisco Bay area with her husband, and son.

Betty G. Yee was born and raised in Massachusetts. She spent much of her early life reimagining her favorite stories or writing sequels to them. Betty has been an elementary school teacher for over twenty years. When she’s not teaching or writing, she enjoys traveling, bike riding, eating french fries and immersing herself in the words and worlds of other writers. She lives with her two bossy cats, Zara and Piper. Her stories can be found in The Drum Literary Magazine, Hunger Mountain, Frost Fire Worlds, and RAZ Kids. She is the recipient of SCBWIs 2011 Multi-Cultural Works-In-Progress Grant. Gold Mountain (Carolrhoda Lab, 2022) is her first novel.

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