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From the Boston Book Festival: YA Authors Discuss Compelling Characters and Young Love

Caleb Roehrig, Joan F. Smith, and Gabi Burton at the Boston Book Festival
Caleb Roehrig, Joan F. Smith, and Gabi Burton at the Boston Book Festival By Courtesy of Kaity E. Nairn

On Saturday, Oct. 14, Boston Book Festival attendees gathered for the “It’s Complicated” Lecture featuring YA romance authors Caleb Roehrig, Joan F. Smith, and Gabi Burton. Spanning genre and subject matter, the panel centered around three recently released novels that include romantic subplots subverted by family, forbidden love, and coming of age struggles: “Teach the Torches to Burn,” “The Other Side of Infinity,” and “Sing Me To Sleep.”

Moderator Amy Pattee, a professor of Children’s Literature at Simmons University, began the event by inviting each author to read a short excerpt from their book. Roehrig read a passage from “Teach the Torches to Burn: A Romeo and Juliet Remix,” in which Romeo and Valentine, the enchanting Capulet boy who has caught his eye, share a tension-filled conversation during a party. Smith opted for a moment that outlines her protagonist December’s uncanny ability of foreknowledge, setting up the central conflict for her novel, “The Other Side of Infinity.” Burton chose to share the riveting first page of her debut novel, “Sing Me To Sleep,” in which her main character Saoirse, a siren and assassin, hones in on a kill.

For all three authors, characters are the heart of a great story. Throughout the discussion, each author explained the power of YA characters to resonate with young audiences, challenge preconceptions and prejudices, and build on classical stories or tropes.

When asked about the process of creating Saorise’s character in “Sing Me To Sleep,” Burton explained that she was constantly questioning her character’s motives: “We have to go really deep in her head because you want the reader to know that this is wrong, but not hate her,” she said.

Saoirse’s story unfolds in Kierdre, the fantasy world which features a cast of entirely Black and Brown characters. Her struggle as the only siren in Kierdre intrinsically links her to the real-world struggles of grappling with identity, race, and acceptance.

Roehrig faced another challenge altogether in adapting the centuries-old tale of Romeo and Juliet to include a central queer story. Roehrig’s first goal was to bring depth to Romeo, the narrator of “Teach the Torches to Burn.”

“It was so interesting, taking these characters that exist, but then figuring out what I would do. Who am I in the story, and what is my thought process?” said Roehrig.

As part of the Remixed Classics series, Roehrig’s novel also features familiar Shakespeare characters written with a new lens. “Teach the Torches to Burn” joins eight other reimagined works in a collection from Macmillan Publishers dedicated to bringing marginalized voices to the forefront of YA literature.

For Joan F. Smith, inspiration also comes from her own experiences. “I need to have personal things in my books in order to keep writing them,” said Smith.

Her most recent work reflects her interest in the butterfly effect—the notion that one small change can have a domino effect and cause unexpected consequences. Her novel “The Other Side of Infinity” is written in a dual narrative structure between her main character December and her love interest, Nick, and encompasses complex storylines of seemingly minute events. After saving the life of a man drowning at the pool, December must reckon with the unforeseen chain of events that puts Nick’s life in danger.

In describing her writing process for this book, Smith said she would, “Move stuff around on my floor like a puzzle piece until everything went together.”

Ultimately, each author explores the unpredictable nature of young love. Smith’s protagonist December, a girl who can predict any life event, never saw Nick in her future. Roehrig’s Romeo is similarly shocked by his budding romance with Valentine, a sworn family nemesis. The same holds for Burton’s secret siren Saoirse, whose heart is suddenly caught in a delicate balance as she takes on her riskiest job yet as Prince Hayes’ personal bodyguard.

These central love stories tackle essential questions of fate, love, and belonging. Yet, when it comes to answering these age-old questions, as far as authors Caleb Roehrig, Gabi Burton, and Joan F. Smith are concerned — it’s complicated.

— Staff writer Katy E. Nairn can be reached at katy.nairn@thecrimson.com.

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