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Tuesday, March 29, 2022

What's it to YA? (Brian Katcher)

 I remember once, while speaking at a high school, a bright young girl asked me if I ever considered writing children's stories, as I'm an elementary librarian during the day.

I of course had her removed from the audience; my contract specifically forbids the public from addressing me in any way. But as I watched that crying 15-year-old being hustled out the door by security, I pondered her question: why not try another genre? Why not children's literature, or adult literature for that matter?

Personally, I don't think I have the right temperament to write for younger readers. So much of that genre is visual and I'm no artist. Also, I think my dark side would ooze through and I'd write titles like: Monsters are Real and They Live Under Your Bed or Mommy and Daddy Got Divorced Because You Were Bad (autobiographical).

And why not adult fiction? Actually, my third book, Everyone Dies in the End, originally featured college age characters. Unfortunately, my beta readers all said that I'd merely taken teenagers and shoehorned them into an adult environment.

Personally, I think YA gives an author a lot more freedom than other genres.

*Your characters have enough autonomy that they can be free from adult supervision for long periods of time, but youthful enough to get into exciting situations.

*Your characters are experiencing powerful and crazy emotions for the first time. Teen romantic drama is powerful because it's all fresh. By the time you're 25, you're so jaded and emotionally dead that you don't even care that the person you really liked ended up some douche who's more athletic than you and why even bother? Huh? Why even BOTHER?

*It's a chance to relive your own lost youth through author avatars. That same emotionally awkward, crushing world of hormones and humiliations that characterized all our teenage years. Right? Back me up here.

*You just can't put murders in children's books. I really thought the world was ready for an abridged, kid-level version of Stephen King's works, but apparently Mr. My Novels are Copyrighted and his lawyers didn't agree.

So there you have it. Now I'm off to write my next YA masterpiece: two kids who don't get along suddenly are forced to work together to achieve a common goal and unexpectedly develop romantic feelings for each other. And the boy has cute dimples. There you have it.

Monday, March 28, 2022

Why Write YA? Why Not? (And Show Real Teens) by Dean Gloster

 

            Honestly, if you could do anything in the world, and some genie offered you the promise that you’d do it well, why wouldn’t you write for young people?

 


            Reading gives teens the gift of resilience—stories show characters triumphing over adversity or learning and growing in the process of dealing with adversity. Young adult (YA) novels almost always end with a note of hope.

 


            Stories also teach empathy—readers identify with characters, even those different from themselves. The one thing our world could most use more of now is empathy.

 


            They’re also fun. Adolescence is a time of self-discovery. (Who am I? Who will I choose to become?) And, for a lot of us, a fierce stage where we have not yet come to accept some of the outrageous BS in this world. You can have realistic character arcs, because adolescence really is a time when many of us can (and do) change. And YA is a category—the novel features a teen protagonist, not an adult looking back at their youth—but within that huge category you can write essentially any genre: contemporary realistic, historical, suspense, thriller, horror, romance, rom-com, high fantasy, surrealism.

            You can write in startlingly beautiful prose (Bone Gap by Lara Ruby, anyone?) can include, offhand, the most achingly beautiful poetry about grief and loss ever written (Jandy Nelson’s The Sky Is Everywhere) or write a completely different kind of brilliant book every time, in a completely different category and format. (The career of Martine Leavitt, who gave us Calvin, Keturah and Lord Death, and My Book of Life by Angel.)  

 


            YA novels also help teens feel like they are genuinely seen.

            I wrote my YA debut Dessert First partly for that reason. It’s the story of smart, fierce 16-year-old Kat Monroe, who is afraid that her bone marrow transplant won’t save her younger brother from his leukemia relapse.

 


            My wife is a former pediatric ICU nurse who went on to work at a children’s hospice, and I wanted to write about the world of the kids she took care of—bone marrow transplant kids who went to their prom by smartphone, while wearing a tux from the waist up in their hospital bed.

            And at the same time, through Kat, I wanted to write the emotional truth about what it had been like for me in high school. When I was a teen, my mother was finishing her decade-long quest to drink herself to death. And every day I would saunter off to school, having to deal with crushes, conflict, geometry, and conjugating verbs in German class as if nothing was going on at home.

            There are millions of kids who have an experience like that. And some of them, I thought, would see a reflection of themselves in Kat and how she struggled (and made some mistakes in struggling) with that.

            They would be seen.

 


            Of course, this idea of having kids be seen in fiction is now under broad and dangerous attack. Across the country, thousands of books are being quietly removed from school library shelves because of parental challenges or to avoid those challenges. The American Library Association estimates that between 82% and 97% of book challenges go unreported, but even the reported challenges were higher in the last quarter than any time since they started tracking these numbers 32 years ago.

            The challenges have been almost all brought against books critical of racism, which accurately portray the history of racism in the U.S., or which contain LGBTQ+ characters. And the challenges have disproportionately been brought against books created by BIPOC and LGBTQ+ authors.


            Teens should see themselves in books. And should see authors who look like them and who can write their authentic experience accurately. Give readers a broad range of characters to identify with and feel empathy for.

            And, while I write fiction, there is absolutely no way I will ever pretend there is no history of racism in this country or that it magically evaporated in 1968 or whenever, leaving behind only the chalky pine scent of whitewash. Or the wood smoke spell of burnt books.  


             I know we all have lots on our plates, these days, but: Vote. Vote in every election, especially for school boards. And, you know, buy good books. Good luck to us all.


 

Dean Gloster is a former stand-up comedian and a former law clerk at the U.S. Supreme Court. His debut YA novel DESSERT FIRST is out from Merit Press/Simon Pulse. School Library Journal called it “a sweet, sorrowful, and simply divine debut novel that teens will be sinking their teeth into. This wonderful story…will be a hit with fans of John Green's The Fault in Our Stars and Jesse Andrews's Me and Earl and the Dying Girl.” His YA short story “Death’s Adopted Daughter” is about to come out in the anthology Spoon Knife 6: Rest Stop from Autonomous Press.  



Friday, March 25, 2022

Why YA?

            The topic this month is why we write for a young adult audience. I feel this topic, though seemingly straightforward, could get a bit complicated considering that YA is so widely read by an adult audience now. For starters, it is read by writers, agents, editors, reviewers, librarians, teachers, parents, booksellers... It is also read by adult bloggers, vloggers, Bookstagrammers, BookTubers, and BookTokkers. A recent article I came across said that more than thirty percent of YA readership consists of adults. 

            So, are we writing for YA, really? 

            Is the increase in adult readership changing the content and demands of the YA genre?

            If so, is the intended audience – the actual young adults – enjoying these changes? It seems “sophisticated” material is being explored more and more in YA. But who is reaping the benefits? Teens? Adults? Both?

            Good questions, and maybe the answers are not so straightforward. But, personally, as a writer, I’ve had to take a couple steps back from thinking about audience because having that mentality – for me, for now – means that someone will likely be disappointed (including myself).

            I wrote Jane Anonymous without thinking about audience at all (and it was published for “upper YA”). I’m writing my current work-in-progress the same way (and I’m guessing it will be published for “younger YA”), but I feel those age parameters can be somewhat limiting – for the audience and for the writer.

            But, back to why I went into this business of writing for young adults to begin with? That answer is pretty straightforward. I wasn’t a big reader as a teen, so I wanted to target those like me, who didn’t naturally gravitate toward reading, and get them excited about books. Whenever I did get excited about reading as a young person, it was with titles that were filled with mystery, suspense, secrets, and romance. It’s no coincidence that my first line of books explored those very topics.

            Why am I still exploring “young adult” themes? For one, I feel there’s such opportunity. Those years of “teen-hood” are filled with so many first, so much drama... It’s a time of beauty and ugliness and disappointment and embarrassment and heartache - all at once, sometimes. For another, perhaps I still feel empathy for my old teen insecure self, and I hope other teens can find solace in what I’m able to share. 

Thursday, March 24, 2022

The case for teen fiction (Brenda Hiatt)

 Why do I write young adult novels? I summed up a lot of my reasons last month, since YA fiction was the “love” I chose to write about for our February Love theme, but I’ll reiterate some of the most important ones here as I expand on the reasons I write books for and about teens.

 One thing that struck me when I first started reading YA fiction (as an adult) is the intensity of emotion. I kept that in mind when I started writing YA fiction myself and quickly discovered how much fun it is to use that intensity in my own stories. Reactions that might be unbelievably over-the-top for adult characters in adult fiction are totally believable in teens, who are still experiencing so many “firsts” in their lives. Ditto dumb mistakes. A blunder that might brand an adult heroine TSTL (too stupid to live) is much, much more realistic and relatable in a teen, who doesn’t have a whole lot of life experience yet. 

 

Another fun thing about young adult fiction is how huge the character arcs tend to be. That totally makes sense, since these emerging adults are still figuring out their place in the world and who they want to be. This can involve super-important decisions that will affect the whole trajectory of their lives. It’s wonderful, as both a reader and a writer, to watch a character grow and develop, discovering previously unsuspected strengths (and weaknesses) along the way. 


And then there’s now wonderfully broad the canvas is for YA fiction! I can tell stories in that “genre” (can you even call it a genre?) that would never fly elsewhere. Genre-bending is so common there, I don’t know if anyone even calls it genre-bending anymore! Even more fun, those quirky, coloring-outside-the-lines storylines are now finding their way into adult fiction, as well. Probably because so many readers (and writers) realized what enormous fun it can be to ignore the old “rules.” 

 

Finally, YA fiction lends itself incredibly well to important lessons, even messages, without sounding preachy. That’s because the young characters in these stories are still learning what works, what doesn’t, and what the consequences of bad choices can be. I’m sure that’s why so many YA “issue books” have become hugely popular. I can’t claim to have written an “issue book” myself, but my stories definitely reflect my own worldview and opinions about what’s “good” and “bad.” If that inspires my readers to consider something they might not have otherwise, so much the better! 



Brenda Hiatt is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of the award-winning Starstruck series. With the recent release of 
Unraveling the Stars, there are now ten books in the series:  eight full-length novels and two novellas. Starstruck, as well as two short stories in that universe, are currently free to newsletter subscribers! 

Wednesday, March 23, 2022

 Betsy Ray-Feminist Icon

By Christine Gunderson

            This month we're talking about why we write Young Adult novels. I write YA because the YA novels I read as a teenager had a bigger impact on me than any of the novels I've read later in life. These YA books weren't necessarily better than the books I discovered and read as an adult. But they had a deeper impact because I read them when I was trying to make sense of...well...everything. 

            I realized this recently while binge re-reading the series I loved most as a young adult. The Betsy-Tacy books by Maud Hart Lovelace are set in a small, fictional Minnesota town around 1910, but the books and characters are based on Maud Hart Lovelace's real life as a teenager in Mankato, Minnesota during the early 1900's.

            These books are not edgy. They're full of hayrides and songs sung around the piano and "spoony" boys who try (gasp!) to hold hands with girls.

            But they portray the real and honest struggles of Betsy Warrington Ray, a teenage girl with a pompadour, petticoats, and uncooperative hair trying to figure out who she is and how to be true to herself as she becomes an adult. 

            Improbably, these books set in the early 1900's resonated deeply with me and with thousands of other girls growing up in vastly different eras. The Betsy-Tacy books were published and re-published by Harper Collins, first in 1952, then in 1980, 1996, 2000 and 2009. There's even a nationwide fan club for the series called the Betsy-Tacy Society located in Mankato, Minnesota. 

            The books aren't preachy, and Betsy isn't perfect, which is perhaps why I loved them so much. Betsy has romantic travails of all sorts. She barely passes algebra. She worries about her hair and clothes and how she looks and whether or not she's popular. She worries about being invited to dances by the wrong boy instead of the right boy, or horror of horrors, not being invited at all. If you replace the petticoats with Guess jeans, Betsy's life in 1906 was pretty much identical to my life in 1986. Teenagers are still grappling with the same issues almost 120 years later.  I know this because I live with some.

            Betsy aspired to be a writer, a highly improbable career choice in an era when women didn't have careers, but that didn't stop Betsy or Maud Hart Lovelace from achieving this dream. In 1993, New York Times columnist Anna Quindlen gave a speech to the Betsy-Tacy Society entitled, "Betsy Ray, Feminist Icon." Because she was, and still is, corset and all.

            Growing up is hard whether you wear your hair in a perm or a pompadour. That's why it's a privilege to write YA, in any era.

###

            Christine Gunderson is a former television anchor/reporter and former House and Senate aide who lives outside of Washington, D.C. with her husband, children and Star, the Wonder Dog. When not writing, she’s sailing, playing Star Wars trivia, re-reading Persuasion, or unloading the dishwasher. You can contact her at www.christinegunderson.com

Tuesday, March 22, 2022

Open Letter to Aspiring YA Authors by Patty Blount

 You know, it's funny. I have a large family and I think maybe two people out of all of them have read my books. Not gonna lie, that hurts my feelings, but yet, I get it. 

Most of my family is far outside the YA range. They think young adult novels aren't for them. Then, you have those that think romance is nonsense, so they won't read that, either. 

To each, their own. 

Despite the lack of interest from my family, I think YA serves an important purpose. You'll recall last month, I posted my rant against the evils of book-banning. This month's post is a bit of addendum to that. If you're an aspiring author, the first thing you need to know about YA is that it's not a genre, but an age group, usually about 13-18. My characters are typically still in or have just finished high school. 

Within the YA age group, you have all genres like romance, mystery, historical, science fiction, paranormal, horror, comedy or fantasy. 

I write award-winning contemporary romance for young adults. Here are my titles:


I also write adult contemporary romance, too.

What do we know about 13 to 18 year olds? Well, for me, the most important thing to remember about being this age is that they're standing on the cusp of so many worlds. There's adulthood for one. Teens are just growing into the bodies they'll have for the rest of their lives. There's career, for another. Teens are making plans for their future, deciding what work they'll pursue. There's friendship, love, sexuality, and probably a whole lot more but you get the point. 

Remember, I said they're standing on the cusp...the other side of these new worlds is the familiar one. Childhood. For many teens, it's one they can't wait to leave behind. It could be marred by abuse. Or it could simply be restrictive while they long for freedom. Whatever it is, teens in this age group walk the fine line between both sides of their world. 

That's where you draw from when you're crafting YA characters. You don't have to be 18 yourself. You just have to remember what it was like. Because even if you were eighteen when there was still black & white TV, the emotions of being too old for one world but far too young for the other are universal and ageless. 

The next important thing to remember about writing for this age group is that the books I write--the books YOU write--are safe places for readers. This means we can write with abandon. Bar no holds, spare no feelings, avoid no emotion. In fact, write every emotion like it's the last one you'll ever experience because for this group of readers, it's likely the first time. If you want your readers to be wary of strangers on the internet, don't tell them, show them all the horrible things that happen to a character who is too trusting (Bailey in TMI). If you want your readers to understand toxic masculinity and rape culture, show them a character who's had all she's going to take and another character who's finally able to see how his actions supported the very culture the other is fighting against (Ashley and her brother, Derek, in SOMEONE I USED TO KNOW). If you want your readers to stop bullying, show them a character who's consumed by guilt from when he was a bully (Dan in SEND). If you want your readers to fall into real, everlasting love, show them characters willing to put their very dreams aside for the other (Kristen and Elijah in THE WAY IT HURTS). 

Books are places where your readers can experience things for the very first time without risk, but not without pain. Because if you your job well, readers will feel all the feels for the characters you've created. Characters who look like them, talk like them, have similar backgrounds as them -- but, and this is crucial -- are NOT REALLY them. This way, when they close your book, they'll still be in their homes, in their rooms, in their world, but will emerge CHANGED, marked by the emotional experience your story gave them. 

Write the gay and lesbian stories, the trans stories, the homeless stories. Write the neurodivergent stories. Write the mental health stories. 

Write the stories you wish YOU had when you were this age. 

Just write. 

You know, maybe the best advice I can give aspiring YA writers is to consider how you'd like your readers to feel by the of your story and then write that book. For example, while writing SOME BOYS, I wanted readers to feel as furious as I did about the crime of acquaintance rape. Anger and outrage were my goal and all the awards that story has earned tells me I hit it. 

If more people would read YA before they criticized it, I imagine we'd have far fewer instances of book-banning. 

Oh, one more thing. I think I'd like to make readers laugh this time, so I wrote a rom-com called The Christmas Strike. It's not published but I'm crossing my fingers. Here's an excerpt. Tell me if I made you laugh?


The Christmas Strike by Patty Blount

Chapter 1: Elle

 

JUST FIVE MORE DAYS UNTIL December 25th.

I. Couldn’t. Wait.

Not for Christmas. For my birthday.

In exactly five days, I would be eighteen years old. An adult. My life could finally begin on my terms. Tingles of anticipation zipped along my skin.

Mom and I were in the mall with my best friend Crystal, which was a minor miracle. I’d made a deal with Mom back in November. I’d asked that in honor of my eighteenth birthday, could we scale wa-a-a-ay back on Christmas this year and she’d agreed.

I still couldn’t believe it.

To say my mom loved Christmas was a Santa-sized understatement. As soon as the weather turned cool, she got this gleam in her eye. She loved Christmas the way cats loved catnip. Mom started playing Christmas music the day after Halloween, put up a tree in every room of our house. She baked a gazillion cookies, forced us to spend hours taking the perfect photo, and has probably seen every Hallmark Holiday movie ever aired.

When Crystal called and invited me shopping with her to find the perfect outfit for the big birthday event I’d planned, Mom actually agreed to drive us. We’d been on our way to the boutique across the street from the mall when Mom decided to pop in and pick up a gift on my little brother’s wish list. Pax wanted the latest Legend of Zelda game and if I didn’t I love my little brother so much, I’d never be near the mall this close to Christmas, let alone in one.

Malls were the tenth circle of hell.

The line just to get into the game store snaked around the food court, where the line to see Santa Claus also happened to be. We shuffled our way along a rope queue that weaved in and around mall obstacles like huge plants, waste bins, and the occasional bench, which people lunged for like they were playing a game of musical chairs. Every few seconds, a ho ho ho boomed across the space, followed by the terrified shrieks of children.

Like I said, tenth circle of hell.

“I wanna go home,” came the whine of tired little boy we’d passed a few times now as our respective lines moved.

“If we go home now, you won’t get to see Santa and tell him your Christmas wish,” his mom said.

“I don’t care. I hate Christmas.”

Okay, don’t judge me because, in my defense, we’d been on this line for what felt like months and it just sort of slipped out. Plus, I hated Christmas, too. Do you have any idea how rare it is to find a kindred spirit?

In a mall?

At this time of year?

So, without thinking, I blurted, “Me, too.”

He looked up at me with shock and, I like to think, a little awe. “You do?”

“Yep.”

His mother, on the other hand, looked at me like I’d just oozed out of a rotting Easter egg someone only now just found. Mom gave me the look that said, “Shut. Up. This. Minute.” Crystal’s dark eyes popped wide and she frantically shook her head.

“You don’t really hate Christmas, honey. You’re just tired,” his mom assured him, glaring holes through me.

“How come you hate Christmas?” The boy asked me.

Mom was still glaring at me, Crystal was still shaking her head, so I bit my lip and turned away. A few seconds later, the lines moved. We moved left. The little boy and his mom moved right. I breathed out a sigh of relief.

“Noelle,” Mom said. “I have to find the rest room. Stay on this line,” she ordered and stepped over the rope barricade. “Oh, and take all this for me, will you?” She shoved her shopping bag, her coat, and the mega-cup of soda she’d been drinking into my hands and disappeared into the crowd.

“Elle, are you crazy?” Crystal whispered the second Mom disappeared.

“It just slipped out!”

“Well, tighten your grip! My parents are gonna flip out if your birthday trip is canceled because you’re grounded. They moved all our holiday plans around it.”

Guilt flared.

Crystal was right.

My mom had a hair trigger where Christmas was concerned and I couldn’t risk her cancelling all the birthday plans. On Christmas Day — excuse me, I meant to say, on my birthday, we were going to New York City, to see a special exhibit at a museum that’s normally closed for the holiday. After that, we were going out to dinner. My birthdays were usually no big deal so I was insanely excited about this and counting the days.

“Noelle, huh?”

At the sound of my name, my gaze snapped to the kind face of an older woman in the Santa line, clutching the hand of a small girl.

“With a Christmas name, I imagine you have a Christmas birthday,” she commented with a wry look that made me think she understood.

“I do,” I admitted, hope flaring like the Christmas star itself.

“Christmas birthday? That’s so cool.” A guy wearing an elf hat said from behind me, in the game store line. “You get double the presents.”

I could only shake my head. Christmas birthdays sucked. Christmas always came first. Even in the name, Christmas came first. Nobody ever calls it Birthday Christmas, amirite? It was sort of a Schrödinger’s Cat situation. People just couldn’t seem to wrap their minds around the paradox that it was both Christmas and my birthday, so you got the people who handed you a gift with the warning, “That’s for Christmas and your birthday” but was it really?

No.

They simply bought a Christmas present and said that to lower your expectations so you wouldn’t be disappointed.

I was, in fact, disappointed. Repeatedly.

Those presents were always the ones that said Christmas 2017 or were something to hang on a tree.

Then, there were those who assured you they didn’t forget your birthday and would make it up to you but they were just so broke from Christmas, but did they ever really?

Also no, because the truth was, they did forget.

It’s not like I expected diamond tennis bracelets and new cars. It wasn’t about the gifts at all, which was an impossible point to make because every time the topic came up, I got called spoiled or entitled. It was the sentiment—or more accurately, the complete lack of it that bothered me. I wanted the day of my birth to matter.

“People who hate Christmas haven’t figured out that the true spirit of Christmas comes from the giving, not the receiving,” the woman said.

Well, she wasn’t a grandmotherly type at all. She was a disapproving Sunday school teacher type.

I opened my mouth to tell her what I thought about Christmas spirit but Crystal elbowed me in the ribs.

Right. Deep breath. Do not ruin this.

 A ripple zipped along both lines as people offered their assessments. Someone called me spoiled. Another said entitled. Tears burned my eyes, but Crystal had begged me to stay quiet, so I did.

I sighed. We’d been on this line for eons and the boutique was going to close before Crystal and I found our cute outfits and now, people on two separate lines were plotting my demise. Where was Mom? I scanned the crowd for her but instead of Mom’s dark head, I spotted a familiar blond one.

No.

Please, God, not now.

Could you maybe smite me later, just this once?

But God was apparently as displeased with me as the people on line with me. My arch-rival, my nemesis, my sworn enemy locked on target and approached, that gleam in her eyes pure, undisguised joy when she realized I was trapped on this line and probably would be for the rest of my natural life.

“Noelle,” she said on a sneer, blue eyes skimming up and down my body.

“Ellery.” I matched her tone for tone, and skimmed my eyes up and down her body. Okay, that hunter green coat looked amazing on her, and her leather boots put my grungy Uggs to shame. Dammit.

“I suppose you’re here for the new Zelda game.” She held up her bag with a happy grin. “I sure hope they have enough by the time you reach the end of the line.” She cocked her head and studied me. “I could sell you this one…if you’re willing to pay.”

Oh, I was not going there with her. “Well, actually, I’m here for the new Star Wars game, but thanks anyway.” My phone vibrated. I took it out, hoping Ellery would take the hint and disappear. A text from my mom waited.

 

 

 

Mom: Meet me at the exit! Plans changed!

 

 

“Crystal, could you hold this?” I handed her Mom’s beverage cup. “My mom wants us to meet her at the exit.”

“Wait, what? Now? After standing here since dinosaurs roamed the planet? Why?”

“I don’t know. I’m texting now.” With Crystal reading over my shoulder, I texted Mom.

 

Elle: We just got to the last turn in the rope line. If we wait maybe 15 more minutes, we’ll get Pax’s game.

 

Mom: Noelle, NOW. Your brother brought home his roommate. I have a TON to do to prep for his stay.

 

Elle: But the boutique closes at 7:30

 

Mom: We’ll go some other time. I have to shop and clean and pick up another tree and register him.

 

 

Register him?

My blood froze in my veins.

No. No, no, no, no. This was bad.

Tears stung my eyes. Registering him could only mean one thing.

“Aw, looks like no game for you. Too bad,” Ellery smiled a self-satisfied smirk. “Should have gotten here earlier. Oh, well. See you.”

As she disappeared into the crowd, the guy in the elf hat said, “Wait, are they out of Zelda games? Oh my God! They ran out of Zeldas!” With a curse, he left the line.

“Wait, no!” I hastily wiped my eyes. “She’s just taunting me. Don’t listen to her!”

But my reassurances came too late. He’d been swallowed up by the Christmas crowd, too. Several more people left the line after the rumbling about no more copies made it to them.

A store employee headed over to us. “Folks, we have about 500 copies of Zelda left in stock. Don’t leave the line.”

“But that girl said there were no more games!” A woman said, shooting me a nasty glare.

I lifted my hands in surrender. “I never said a word. It was her—“ I pointed at Ellery but she was long gone.

“She said it to cut the line!”

“But I’ve been waiting in this line forever! And I wasn’t the one who said it!” I protested, but no one heard me.

“She hates Christmas.” The voice in the Santa line belonged to the mother of the same little boy who also hated Christmas.

The entire assembly of people in both lines gasped in unison at that. People stared and glared. One guy even snapped a picture. Apparently, I was on my way to realizing my lifelong dream of becoming an internet meme.

Yay.

Crystal tossed Mom’s beverage into the trash bin nearby and clutched my arm. “Come on, Elle. We’re outta here.”

“Crystal, you heard what happened! I never cut the line and I never said that.”

“I know, but the crowd looked like they were ready to start roasting you over an open fire so…” she trailed off. We’d reached the exit but Mom wasn’t here yet. “Elle, listen to me. I saw the texts and I know what you’re thinking but please don’t have a fit. Your birthday trip hasn’t been cancelled. Your mom just wants Nick’s roommate to feel welcome. That’s all.”

“Okay. Yeah. You’re right,” I managed a tight grin. Mom hadn’t said anything about skipping the museum event.

But she had said something about registering him. Those words sent a shiver down my spine. I’d actually prefer being slow-roasted to that. I shut my eyes and sent up a tiny prayer. Please God, just one year. Just this year. Please.

Every year, our town holds a Holiday Spirit Contest, which was an Olympics of sorts. The contest had various competitions that families could enter from best decor to best greeting card. The family with the most points in all the competitions wins the award. My parents were absolutely fanatical about this contest. In fact, I was pretty sure that’s why they even had Pax and Holly so many years after Nick and me. Two kids with Christmas names was cute, but four?

Now that was a commitment.

Once the Christmas twinkle appeared in my mother’s eye, nothing else mattered, a fact made painfully aware to me every year since the town began this award. Last year, poor Holly caught a stomach bug and Mom left me alone with her, holding a barf bucket, so she could still make one of the events.

“Here she comes. Remember, stay calm.”

I nodded again. Mom jogged up to us, grabbed her jacket from me, and fished out her car keys.

“Mom, just go without us. Crystal and I can get ourselves home. We’ll head to the boutique—“

“No, no, I’ll need your help, Noelle. Nick said Quintin, his roommate, has never had a nice family Christmas, can you believe that?” She barreled over me. “I already contacted the awards people and they said it’s not too late to register him as a member of our team—“

My stomach plummeted to my feet and my heart cracked. “You promised me. You promised we’d skip the awards this year—“

“Elle,” Crystal warned.

“I never said we’d skip the competition, Noelle.” Mom quickly zipped up her jacket and slide her phone into a pocket. “I said we’d spend Christmas Day in the city, like you wanted.”

“You mean, my birthday.”

She waved a hand. “That’s what I said.”

Oh my God, could she be any more clueless? Temper surged deep inside me. “Mom, can you just drop us off across the street so all our time isn’t completely wasted?”

For the first time since she left us on the game store line, Mom remembered Crystal.

“Oh, Crystal, I’m sorry. Of course, I’ll drop you off, if you’re sure you can get home on your own?”

“Um, well, I guess I can call an Uber or…something so I don’t have to walk all the way home in the dark…”

Mom totally ignored the panic in Crystal’s voice but I couldn’t.

“Mom—“

“Noelle, enough. I need your help and that’s the end of it. Crystal’s a big girl and can buy an outfit without help, right?”

“Um. Actually,” Crystal began, her eyes darting from Mom to me and back again. “I really need to do this today, Mrs. Garland. My family has plans that we made around Noelle’s birthday. This is the only time I have to find that outfit. Please, Mrs. Garland. It shouldn’t take us more than half an hour.”

My jaw dropped. Crystal Yuet, who stood hardly even five feet tall, had just challenged Erica Garland. I turned to Mom, who was biting her lip and frowning and checking her phone.

“Okay. Fine. Half an hour.”

“Thank you, Mrs. Garland. Thank you!” Crystal hugged Mom and turned to me with a huge grin on her face. I knew I should be grateful for my best friend’s Hail Mary play but the only thing I could feel at the moment was keen disappointment.

The Garland family Christmas would once again take precedence over my birthday.


 

 

 

Chapter 2: Quintin

 

 

 

Words—a lifetime of them—got clogged behind my tongue while my father, Bradford Charles Grant II, finished issuing his latest decree.

“The car will come for you one hour after your final class ends. You’ll be packed, of course, and ready to leave.”

No way. “A-a-an hour? But—”

“You’ll fly commercial—we needed the jet here, couldn’t be helped, but don’t worry, your ticket will be first class so you can sleep over the Atlantic.”

“Atlantic? Wait. I thought we were—”

“As soon as you arrive, we’re expected at the castle, so be sure to wear your crested blazer and—Quintin Bradford Grant, will you stop making that face?”

My face? My face? Was it still attached to my body? All I felt was a tingling numbness while my father plotted out my entire mid-semester break, just as he’d been plotting out my life since the moment of my birth eighteen years earlier. I’d been perilously close to being named Bradford Charles Grant III, but luckily Mom put an end to that and named me Quintin Bradford Grant instead. It’s cool. Everybody at school calls me Quintin or QBG.

I permitted myself a virtual victory lap for that. I doubted sincerely if I’d have found cool friends at Yale, which is why I took great pains to self-sabotage any shot I had of acceptance there. That was how I found myself at Quinnipiac University, my major still undeclared despite have one entire semester under my belt, much to Bradford Charles Grant’s frustration.

One fights with the skills and tools they have and winning a battle with my father through calm discussion has never been in my arsenal.

I adjusted the screen on my laptop and pulled in a deep breath. My eye twitched—one of the signs of stress all my therapists had agreed I must acknowledge to avoid back-sliding into stuttering, the embarrassing affliction that had plagued my early years and practically convinced dear old Dad that he’d been sent home with the wrong newborn.

Grants had no afflictions. At least none publicly visible.

Mustn’t have that, agreed? My mother had said, like stuttering needed nothing more to overcome it than some tenacity, maybe a vitamin or two, and a few well-placed bribes.

“Quintin? Are you listening to me?”

Quoth the raven, nevermore. “No.”

I gasped when I heard the word leave my mouth, in my voice, though I hadn’t consciously meant to speak.

“Pardon me?”

My father’s tone—along with his expression—went from polite disinterest to foreboding. Thick eyebrows sucked together, lips turned down—it was an expression that had sent underlings tripping over themselves to fix and one, I was forced to admit, that had often sent me scurrying away, too. But I was eighteen now. A legal adult. Free to do as I wished.

And I wished not to set one foot in England, Scotland, Monaco, or wherever it was that held this castle my parents planned to visit.

“I can’t. I can’t come, Dad. I have a… I have a project due.” Yes, yes, a project. He’d believe that. “I’ll be working on it over the break.”

My eye began to twitch again and I blinked and twisted my lips into the faux sorry-not-sorry smile everyone in my family’s social circle learned to perfect before we finished primary school. I was sure my father wouldn’t notice the lie.

Reasonably sure.

Somewhat sure.

“Over the holiday break?”

The note of disbelief in my father’s voice was heavy enough to cause beads of sweat to pop out on my neck but I remained confident my father couldn’t see them via FaceTime.

“Quintin, I don’t think you realize how important this meeting is with the Haversham Corporation. Jonathan Haversham expects you to entertain Bronwyn while you’re here.”

I managed to hide a shudder.

Bronwyn Haversham. At eighteen, she’d already had body parts fixed, spoke with a haughty accent with her sculpted nose in the air, and thought it was great fun to sneak cigarettes and alcohol and me into her suite. While she was outwardly attractive enough, I always had the sense she was measuring me for something… ball and chain, maybe? A directorship in her father’s empire? We had absolutely nothing in common and after several meetings with her, I began to hate her for not being interesting. My parents had raised me—well, my parents had hired the staff who’d raised me—to treat women with respect. I wanted to like somebody before I—well.

There was the shudder. I could not suppress it this time.

“Are you ill?”

I rolled my shoulders and waggled my head from side to side. “I’m not sure yet. I may be coming down with a cold. I’ve had a sore throat.”

“I see. And this…project. When do you expect to complete it?”

I patted my desk searching for something, anything—ah. My hand curled around the notebook I used for assignments. “We’re expected to use this time for research on our topics, hand in an outline for the project, and then spend next semester completing the work.”

The lie expanded, its cells splitting like some blastocyst into a new life. Is this how God felt, conjuring up Creation in six days?

“And your topic is?”

Crap, crap, shit. Okay, so not God. Dr. Frankenstein, I presume?

I needed more material for this lie. I opened my mouth, felt my throat grow tight and my tongue thicken. I tried to form words, push them through the blockade, but I couldn’t manage a croak.

“Christmas traditions of typical American families.”

I whipped around just as a hand landed on my shoulder.

Hard.

“Hey, Mr. Grant.”

My father narrowed his eyes and assessed the person beside me…starting with the hand on my shoulder.

“Ah. Nicholas, is it?”

“Yes, sir. Nicholas Garland.”

“And you’re working on this…this project with Quintin?”

“Yes, sir. We’re partners. Q’s coming home with me for the break, sir. My parents are Christmas tradition experts.”

One of Dad’s dark eyebrows lifted. “Experts?” He echoed. And then his eyes bulged. “Partners? Quintin, are you, is he —”

While Dad sputtered, words were still a level or two up for me, an achievement I couldn’t seem to unlock.

“Gay, sir?” Nicholas, my roommate, helpfully supplied. “No, we’re not. He’s not. I’m not. It would be completely cool if either of us were…but we’re not. When we got this assignment, I told Q about—”

“Q? Who is Q?”

“Quintin, sir. We call him QBG, like Ruth Bader Ginsburg is RBG? Sometimes, we just call him Q. Anyway, my parents have this contest—”

“His name is Quintin. But you call him Q.”

“For short. Yes, sir.”

I could practically feel the heat from the flush crawling over my father’s face, even though we were an ocean apart. I tugged at my collar, cleared my throat, and shot Nick a look as he scraped his desk chair over beside mine. Despite the generous donation my father had given the university, I had nevertheless been assigned a double room where I met Nicholas Garland, a tall skinny guy with floppy dark hair and a boisterous laugh.

Dad would say it—that he—was gauche.

I thought he was chill. We’re good buds now.

Took us a few days to figure each other out. When Nick asked me something and I’d managed no more than a grunt in reply, he snatched the phone out of my hand, programmed in his own number, and shot me a text from his bed, which was all of three feet from mine.

You don’t like to talk. So let’s try this, K?

 

No one in my entire life including my parents had ever been that cool about what I wanted. And just like that, we’d become friends. 

Friends.

I didn’t have many of those. Oh, I had dozens of people who wanted to befriend me, but that’s only because I was Quintin Bradford Grant, son of Bradford Grant II, one of the wealthiest CEOs on the planet. Dad didn’t run Amazon or Tesla or anything glamorous like that.

No.

He ran an international container shipping company that sailed those enormous cargo ships across the ocean. I was his only child and so, was expected to take up the reins at the BG Group when I finished school.

“Does calling him Q actually save time rather than calling him Quintin?” Dad asked and when Nick opened his mouth to reply, his hand shot up. “Never mind. Quintin. This project of yours inconveniences me significantly. I’ll make your excuses to Bronwyn but you’ll need to smooth things over. Perhaps send a token of your affection?”

And what would that be, I wondered. An empty jar?

A box of cotton?

A shipping container full of silicone?

The mind boggled.

“I’d better have Kristen handle it,” Dad said.

And I’d better text Dad’s assistant myself, make sure she did NOT send red roses.

My father checked his phone. “We’ll talk next week.”

The screen went dark. That was Bradford Grant. Never wasted time.

“Q, what the hell, bro? I figured you were exaggerating but that dude is cold, man.”

Yeah. Yeah, he was. I looked away. Nick and I may have been friends, but I wasn’t a talk-about-my-feelings kind of guy. Hell, I was a could-hardly-talk-at-all guy. Yet, I had in fact shared a few details about my parents with him—mainly, to make their excuses for never visiting me.

“So…what are you really planning to do over the break?”

I shrugged and cleared my throat. “Hang around here, I guess.”

“That is like, ridiculously sad.”

I laughed. Yeah, I supposed it was.

“Come home with me. For real.” 

I lifted my eyes to his. He was entirely serious.

“Come home? To Long Island, you mean? No, I couldn’t impose.”

“Don’t worry about that.” He waved a hand. “My parents really are freaks for Christmas—I wasn’t making that part up—and if they heard you were planning to sit here all alone over the break, they’d kill me. You know, good will toward men, and all that?”

“Nick, I appreciate it, really. But I’ll be fine. I like being alone.”

Nick’s forehead creased and he tilted his head. “One of my sisters says that all the time. I don’t get it. How does anybody actually like being alone?”

Easy, I thought. Alone is the only time I can stop pretending.

Time for a subject change. “How many siblings do you have again?” He’d told me this more than once, but I knew Nick couldn’t resist a chance to tell me about his big, noisy, wacky family.

“Two sisters and one brother, all younger,” he said with a roll of his eyes. 

I’d wished for siblings. Used to beg my parents to have another baby when I was younger. When they looked at me like I’d suggested they divest their blue chip stocks, I knew, even at age five, I’d be alone.

So I got used to it.

And now, I preferred it.

But…Nick’s invitation intrigued me. What was it like? Living in a normal house without staff, with siblings, celebrating Christmas at home instead of in some hotel?

There’d be tree-trimming, cookie-baking, and probably caroling. I’d never done those things. They’d all been hired out.

“…and of course, hanging up the stockings, which my sister, Holly, goes crazy for. No one really knows why.”

I blinked and nodded like I’d been paying attention.

“Then there’s Pax. He’s a year older than Holly, but really chill. You’ll like him. He won’t talk your ears off your head. Then again, neither will Noelle, but—” He broke off, made a face. “Better shut up now or you won’t come.”

I indicated the pictures he had tacked up over his desk? “Tell me who’s who again.”

He scooted his chair back to his side of the dorm room and took a family picture off the wall. “That’s me holding Holly. That’s Noelle, and Pax. My dad’s Kevin and my mom is Erica.

I studied the image. Nick, Noelle, Holly and Pax—my head shot up. “You each have a Christmas name?” How had I never noticed that before?

Nick squirmed and then he shrugged. “I told you. My parents are cuckoo for Christmas. Noelle’s the only one of us with the Christmas birthday, though. December 25th. She’ll be eighteen this year. My parents had kids in batches. Me and Noelle back to back and then they caught their breath for a while before having Pax and Holly.” He laughed.

I went back to studying the photograph. Everybody smiled but no one looked forced into it. Holly had a handful of Nick’s hair and Noelle had both arms wrapped around Pax in a squeeze just a bit too tight, judging by the grimace that hid just beneath Pax’s grin.

A real family, the kind they produced sitcoms about.

“Well,” I said, stalling for time. If I went with Nick, I’d escape all those Bronwyn duties, I’d avoid the jet lag from traveling, and I’d have more time to come up with a gift for my parents that they didn’t already have and actually appreciated. “Sounds like fun.”

It sounded like heaven and I couldn’t wait.