It is a new year, a new decade – and it’s election year. With many calling this election the most important race in years, it is no surprise that we are seeing an increase of discussions of political activism in Young Adult books in 2020. Yes No Maybe So, released February 4, by Becky Albertalli and Aisha Saeed is one of these stories that follows teens as they try to make a difference in their own communities – all before being of age to vote.
Yes No Maybe So is one part rom-com, one part political activism conversation, and a whole lot of inspiration. But don’t be fooled by this advocacy-focused standalone: it is just as heartfelt and romantic as it is serious and moving. I was so glad when Albertalli and Saeed agreed to talk with me over their own experiences canvassing, what it was like to write together, their love for Atlanta, and so much more.
TYF: In your own words, can you please explain what the book is about?
Becky Albertalli: I would say YES NO MAYBE SO is about a boy and a girl who fall in love while canvassing for a local election. It’s definitely about teens having their first experience with activism, but it’s also very much a romantic comedy.
Aisha Saeed: I really believe during these times there’s so much going on. But it’s also really important to hold onto joy and the good parts. And so this book is also exploring how to face the realities that we live in, but how to also lean on one another and to find that joy regardless of the difficulties – in spite of it.
TYF: Where did the idea for this story come from? How did it develop into becoming YNMS? Did it appear as y’all were canvassing?
Saeed: So sort of. I think Becky and I have been huge fans of each other’s work from the beginning, and we always used to say ‘wouldn’t it be nice to one day write a story together.’ But it was truly while we were canvassing, it was this ray of hope, because until then we had voted, of course. We donated to local campaigns and did things like that. But we never actually had been on the ground, like knocking on the doors, making phone calls, things like that. And so after that election in 2016, there was this urge to do something, and not just – I mean – do something else. Do something more, the thing that we could actually deep dive into. And so, canvassing was one of those ways, and we were really intimidated by the process at first. Knocking on strangers’ doors is intimidating, but the more we did it, it was actually not that bad. And it was actually – we learned a lot. We thought we were going to be knocking on everyone’s doors, but actually for this particular campaign in our 6th District of Georgia, we were only knocking on the doors of democrats or independents. So we were speaking to like-minded people and not to try to change their minds but just remind them about an election and to come out and vote. All of this kind of culminated, and we thought it would be really interesting to explore all of this in a story: how important local elections are. How important it is for teens, especially, to know that they have a voice because a lot of times teens can’t vote unless you’re eighteen. What can they do because all of the issues that are happening affect children, affect teenagers, and it can be really frustrating to not be able to do things. So we wanted to write a love story, but we also wanted to explore that: what can you do even if you can’t vote to make your voice heard, and make a difference.
Albertalli: Another thing too, maybe getting a little bit too deep into our process, is when I think about the setting too, one of the things we were excited to do was to set YES NO MAYBE SO in our city. So we both live kind of in the Atlanta area. The book is set in this particular part of the city where Aisha lives now. I live a little further away, but it’s actually right where I grew up. It’s really, like, the setting is really personal to us. And I think, you know, with YES NO MAYBE SO, definitely takes place in one of these districts that you sometimes hear about in the news… We are a little bit of a swing district. We are a congressional district that flipped from red to blue in 2018 for the first time in decades. So it feels like just the possibility for change – for hard won change – is something that feels very present and real to us right now. And I think that was a lot of what infused this book with its urgency in a very personal way for us.
Saeed: This book also was a love letter to Atlanta. We have Café Intermezzo in there. We have all of the suburban Targets that we love. … There’s a little bookstore that we love across the street from Target — there actually is one. We fictionalized it a bit but it’s really there by this particular Target that we set the story in, so it really was a love story to Atlanta.
TYF: What was it like to write this book together after canvassing as a team? You were already interested in writing a book together, correct?
Saeed: It was like ‘you know, maybe one day, someday,’ but it was never anything concrete. This book just kind of came to us, I feel like. We actually met up at Café Intermezzo – which is if you read the book, you know is an important location – and we came up with the story. It came through texting. It came through meeting. It just kind of happened. It’s probably one of the most, I don’t know, for me it was one of the most organic books that I’ve ever written.
Albertalli: For me too. Yeah, no question. We have been marveling for a while about how this book wrote itself. I mean, turning it into words was hard, but it just felt very natural – like coming up with the story, coming up with these two characters. It sort of felt like we already knew them very early on. We just – the process has been really, really fun – this is my second time co-writing. I love it. Not just because you’re only writing half of the book. I like that too though. It’s just such a rich, interesting experience to be able to live in that creative space with someone else. I could only do it with somebody who I really love and trust and love their writing. That’s actually not very many people. I know it feels like I’ve done a lot of collaborations, but I could only imagine doing it with very specific people. But if you find that person, it’s just so special. It is like having a child together, like you’re parenting together in a way because it’s just such an intimate experience to have within a friendship. And now we have this book together, and it’s so much less lonely than, you know – when you release a book on your own before people have read it, you don’t really have somebody to be as invested in this world and in the characters you’ve created, if it’s, like, a solo book. But Aisha and I are all in with this.
Saeed: I’ve told Becky this numerous times, but I am forever spoiled by having this gift of being able to write a book with somebody and immediately bounce off an idea like ‘hey, what do you think about this plot? What do you think we should do about this?’ and I’m definitely forever spoiled. For sure.
TYF: Why do you feel like it is important for teens to be able to read about voting and elections in YA in this day and age?
Albertalli: We were very contextual about wanting to make Maya and Jamie seventeen, so I mean of course eighteen and nineteen year olds can vote. But when we think of teens, a lot of times we think of minors, you know, who are too young to vote, and it is kind of a weird thing if you think about it to be writing a book about an election that focuses on kids who can’t engage in that election in a way you’ve always pictured that engagement. But I think we – part of what we wanted to do was to almost create a road map of ways that teens could feel empowered to be a part of elections. Part of it was wanting to sit with teens in that frustration, and just feel like we see that. It’s valid. I remember, this was like very me-specific in a completely different historical moment, but I turned eighteen something like ten days after the 2000 election, which was the one George W. Bush kind of won. I remember, like, how completely powerless I felt. I was just days too young to vote in an election that felt really, really important to me. And it wasn’t an election that wasn’t decided until I already had turned eighteen but still couldn’t vote in it, and I felt that this huge decision was made without my input and it’s such a – I do think it’s kind of a fundamental teen experience too in that very broad sense, like, all of these things adults do affect me and nobody is listening to me. So I think that’s something that we really wanted to recognize and kind of maybe make a space for with this story.
Saeed: I’ve done a lot of school visits in 2019, and that was the number one thing whenever I would visit high schools and even middle schools actually was a frustration and a fear about the upcoming election, and how it would affect them, and how frustrating it was. That was definitely something that came up multiple times, so it really gave, I think, both of us a pressing motivation and urgency to write this book, because as much as it is a love story, it also – we intentionally have put in many ways – not just canvassing – but other ways like phone banking and other ways you can also participate in and do something to make your voice heard.
Albertalli: I wanted to recognize too, a lot of teens have kind of found their voice in this space already. So this is not something that we are trying to invent – teen activism or something – but there are so many teens who are so inspiring like off the top of my head the Parkland teens, Marley Dias, we’ve got Greta – there are so many. But I think we, with Maya and Jamie too, another thing we wanted to kind of take these teens that are not natural leaders or activists necessarily – you know, they’re just sort of a little bit lost when it comes to this kind of thing – and also there are a bunch of middle school characters too – who everybody just has their own sort of personality and their comfort level of activism … and those who are more or less supportive of their perfect candidates you know.
Saeed: We wanted to kind of unpack some of those dynamics and just try to show what that might look like even if you are a shy, socially anxious teen like Jamie. If you don’t have a car like Maya.
TYF: With so many young activists — like Greta Thunberg and the Parkland teens — how does it make you feel to see teenagers becoming more involved with politics and activism over the last few years?
Saeed: I think it’s amazing, and I think it’s inspiring. I think teens have been doing a lot of heavy lifting, not just the last few years, but for a long time. And I do – also when I see these teen activists, I feel a lot of hope for the future. But I also, as an adult, know that we also have to do our part because we’re the adults and we also need to be doing what we can. So I think that’s a careful line, like, I do believe teens are doing so much and it’s inspiring. But I also think, as an adult, we can’t put it off on teens, you know? So it’s going to require a collective effort.
Albertalli: I completely agree with that. I do find it really inspiring and proud to know teens and it makes me proud to write YA. And like Aisha said, I think it’s really important that we are checking ourselves and making sure that we are worthy of these teens. And you see that a lot too with another group, we can do this a lot, are black women. I feel like a lot of people are saying like ‘black women are going to save us.’ But it’s definitely true that black women for a very long time have been leading the way in progressive activism, but sometimes I think we can fall back on statements like that and almost use it as an excuse not to fully engage if we are not part of that group. You can admire somebody’s activism whether it’s teens or black women or kind of whatever group it is that is inspiring you at the moment, but it is really important to, no matter who you are, to step up and be a part of that and support that work yourself.
TYF: Without spoilers, what is something you are really hoping readers will learn and take away from YNMS?
Albertalli: As a general rule I try to shy away – I tend to not want to be too prescriptive about a lesson that I want readers to learn. I love that reading the book, readers are always going to pull their own message from any book based on their own experiences and how they engage with the text. But I will say, it’s really exciting for me when some readers have told us that reading the book has inspired them to take steps – even small steps – to be more politically engaged and to participate more in this election cycle, of leading up, of course, to a big election in November of this year. And even, of course, it’s really important for me to hear from some readers that this book has made them feel seen in some way. Of course it’s really, really exciting when its a Muslim reader or a Jewish reader. And I think it’s really exciting too, just hearing from teens in general, who have felt ‘this is hard’ and to be able to read this book and kind of, you know, going back to what we were saying before, of teens and that frustration to kind of have a little bit of that validation from Maya and Jamie in that story.
Saeed: I think you said it perfectly.
TYF: Lastly, do you have any suggestions on how young people who are not able to vote but want to be involved can be politically active?
Saeed: I think there’s so many ways: there’s phonebanking where you can even just call to remind people to just get out to vote. You can text. I get so many texts. I think I get more texts than calls about reminding me about different things that are happening, and elections happening.
Albertalli: Me too.
Saeed: I think rallies and marches and things like that are so important. I am also relatively new to this. I used to, when I was in college, I went to marches. And I’m starting to again now since 2016, and one thing that I had forgotten was that not only are these things important and necessary, they’re also fun. When I’ve been to the Women’s March, to protest for Kashmir, you’re with like-minded people. You remember that you’re not alone in this, and I think that’s so huge because I think a lot of times you’re just on your phone or on your computer – just in your own little bubble – you can kind of forget that there’s actually a lot of people. And seeing those numbers out marching, it can really do so much good for you just to know that. And of course canvassing is definitely something that we talk about in the book.
Albertalli: That’s exactly what I would have said. I think it’s perfect.
About the Authors:
Becky Albertalli is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of William C. Morris Award winner and National Book Award longlist title Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda (now a major motion picture, Love, Simon); the acclaimed The Upside of Unrequited; and What If It’s Us (cowritten with Adam Silvera). Becky lives with her family in Atlanta. You can visit her online at www.beckyalbertalli.com.
Aisha Saeed is the New York Times bestselling author of the critically acclaimed novel Amal Unbound; the Bank Street Books Best Book Written in the Stars; Aladdin: Far from Agrabah; and Bilal Cooks Daal. Aisha is also a founding member of the nonprofit We Need Diverse Books. She lives in Atlanta with her husband and sons. You can find her online at www.aishasaeed.com.
Yes No Maybe So by Becky Albertalli and Aisha Saeed is currently available in bookstores.