Laurie Halse Anderson and Tiffany Jackson discuss YA and the Me Too movement
Laurie Halse Anderson is one of the most iconic children's authors of our time — she's best known for her work on consent and sexual assault, and books Speak and Chains —but she's also a close friend of and mentor to Tiffany Jackson, one of the most exciting writers in the YA space right now. Jackson's newest book, Grown (Sept. 15), is inspired by real-life events surrounding the Me Too movement and her own experiences. To mark the release of the tome — and, let's be honest, foster some human connection in the time of COVID — the two friends came together with EW for a discussion about working in YA, the responsibilities they have to their readers, and where they'd like to see the industry go from here.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: First, can you just explain, from your point of view, how you met and built your relationship as friends and fellow authors?
TIFFANY JACKSON: Ooh, let me tell the story. I went to the Brooklyn Book Festival one year and they had an author reception — as I walked in I saw Laurie and was like, oh, let me introduce myself. She immediately knew who I was and invited me over to her house. I thought it must be a trap. But I did go over there and we had, basically, a sleepover party. I was at a point in my career where I didn't know where I was going and Laurie took me into her arms and we ate and talked and I came out completely refreshed. We try to do it once a year — I call it Weekend at Laurie's.
LAURIE HALSE ANDERSON: Every once in a while, somebody who's kind of a jerk sneaks into children's publishing and we work hard to make sure they don't stay [laughs], but the truth is most people are here because we care deeply for the kids. I got where I am in my career because the people who were there before reached down and gave me their hand, and they were honest about the things that it can be hard to get information about. I remember what it feels like to walk into a room and think, what am I doing here?
JACKSON: There's no real handbook no how to be an author — how to exist in that space. I had a thriving career in television and then I moved into publishing and had no idea what I'm doing. When my first book came out and I got my first starred review, my editor sent it to me and I had no idea what it meant. She had to tell me, it's like getting an A+ in Entertainment Weekly. Laurie helped me with all that, and was the person who encouraged me to do school visits to remind me that I'm really writing for my younger self.
Have either of you had experiences, either on school visits or other manners of talking to young readers, that directly influenced your later books?
ANDERSON: My first novel, Speak, came out 20 years ago. Once the English teachers got ahold of it my life changed. I started speaking to schools all around the country, and at the beginning, I would focus on topics that would give people who have been through sexual violence the language they needed to talk about what happened to them. But then I started to get questions from teenage boys, wondering why the sexual encounters in my book were upsetting to the girl. They seemed to think it wasn't as bad because it wasn't a stranger in the bushes. That later led to me writing a book called Twisted, which is the first I wrote from a boy's perspective.
JACKSON: When I toured for Monday's Not Coming we were talking about missing Black girls and how the justice system would rather assume that the girls ran away, rather than that something happened to them. In these visits, I got a lot of feedback from young boys saying, essentially, oh that girl was probably being fast with a boyfriend. I realized that something like 75% of schools do not have proper sex education, so kids are learning through porn or representation through media. So I wanted to, in my book, discuss those issues and protect girls, too.
How do you balance storylines that are ripped from the headlines so to speak, and those that are more influenced by your personal experience?
JACKSON: When I do ripped from the headlines stories I do my due diligence with research. I get all the case files. Then I twist elements, change endings or locations. Grown was a little harder because I was mostly inspired by the R. Kelly case but when I was writing it was at the beginning of the case, so in reality the story was inspired by the reaction to the documentary. It's harder to research something subjective like that — it gets into culture, economics. Also, I was a girl who had her own age-inappropriate relationship. I took a lot of my own feelings for the book, and it's the first time I've ever done something like that. As my therapist said, it wasn't doing regular research but more soul-searching. it was a much more emotional book to write, so I can imagine it was like that for you as well, Laurie.
ANDERSON: I never thought that Speak would be my first book to be published. I was a journalist and was working on what would later become my first historical novel, Fever 1793, but this character's voice just bubbled up in my head and I wrote and wrote. I didn't have an agent or anything so I sent it to publishers and when they agreed to publish it they said, don't worry, it's not going to sell many copies. I was like oh, cool. But I feel so fortunate it all worked out the way it did. I think what you did, Tiffany, was so much harder, because you knew about the exposure that comes with a book like Grown.
JACKSON: Which was one of the reasons that as soon as I wrote it, I went into autopilot: copy edits, cover draft, everything was fine. And then January hit and they were going to release the cover and I was like oh, wait, I have to tell my family. They actually didn't know about everything that happened [with my relationship] because I was secretive about it. It's the biggest thing I ever kept from my mom. But she was super understanding because at the time of my relationship we had just moved to this all-white neighborhood and I needed something for myself, a type of escapism. Meanwhile, I was freaking out. I was like, I'm about to go out into the world with my shame, basically. I immediately called Laurie, like, okay how did you deal with Speak?
ANDERSON: I don't know if you realize this, Tiffany, but Speak is very fictionalized. It's my feelings. But the attack, that's a different setting and set of facts. For awhile I went out and was like, look at my nice fictional story. Let me talk to you about metaphor, children. Nobody wanted to hear about my metaphor — the kids had very difficult questions, so I had to learn how to respond to them in a way that was both appropriate and ethical. All the adults in their lives have let them down and they don't feel safe asking them. I think you'll find your rhythm and you'll speak your truth.
JACKSON: We talk a lot, particularly in the community, the idea of being grown, which is basically a derogatory term for Black girls, assuming they are being fast or too adult-like, even though they can't help the way their bodies develop or the way men respond to their body's developing. We assign this label to them like Black children are supposed to be all-knowing. I've been called these things, too.
ANDERSON: You see this reflected in the different ways that institutions respond to white children and teens who are sexually assaulted versus children of color.
JACKSON: Absolutely, and it's an internal response as well. The way our potential mothers, fathers, aunties ay, well, what was she wearing or why was she there? They've internalized that. Our criticism is rooted in survival.
How do you find that political climates or cultural changes affect the way your books are received?
JACKSON: If I had written Grown first I don't know if anyone would have published it. I don't think people were truly ready to have this conversation about content back when I wrote my debut, in 2015. It's like a mirror that people aren't willing to look at. But everything that's happened since: a tragic election, the Me Too movement in the spotlight more than ever, it changed the way people receive information. What I love about the entire movement is it's making people really sit down and think about the language they're using — and passing down — about assault. And you know, I don't hear R. Kelly being played as much either. I'm proud of the progress we've made.
ANDERSON: I think this has a lot to do with why YA literature is popular among adults as well as kids — there's this generation of people who weren't exposed to this openness. I know so many adults who read YA and it helps them process what went wrong when they were kids.
What kind of hopes or goals do you have for the YA community and the publishing industry?
ANDERSON: We're just getting started. I don't want anyone thinking, okay we fixed things just because we have Tiffany's book coming out, and Jason Reynold's book. My goal is to do all I can do to make sure that we are providing the books that reflect the lives and experiences of our children. Imagine if we had diversified children's publishing back in 1960, how different our world would be today.
JACKSON: That idea kind of takes my breath away. I'm only four years into this industry and still understanding all the ways diversity has been a problem. When I was in television, diversity was a problem but instead of challenging it, I just navigated around it. I would keep my head down and keep working. Now, everyone needs to be using their voice and challenging a system. I should not be scared to publish a book like Grown anymore.