Rachel Lynn Solomon’s young adult novels, You’ll Miss Me When I’m Gone, Our Year of Maybe, and the forthcoming
Today Tonight Tomorrow, weave themes of identity, including Jewish identity, into exquisite stories of growth and development. Her writing explores the experience of Jewishness as it relates to learning and prayer, ability and sexuality, and ultimately, finding hope, even in desperate moments.
Jewish in Seattle: Are there fundamental ways that writing for young audiences differs from writing for adults?
Rachel Solomon: To me, the biggest difference is that books for young readers should end with a sense of hope. That doesn’t mean every plot thread needs to be tied with a neat bow, but can you imagine The Hunger Games if Katniss hadn’t overthrown the Capitol? I believe we have a responsibility to show young readers that whatever hardship they’re dealing with, they can get through it.
Can you talk a little bit about your writing process? How do you get to know your characters?
I start with a premise. My goal is to be able to tell someone, “my book is about X,” and for them to immediately get excited. From there, I write a short synopsis, then an outline, and then an extremely rough draft. Each step adds more depth, and I get to know my characters along the way. It’s usually not until I’m revising that I’m able to fully inhabit their voice.
There have been amazing YA books in recent years that focus on often politicized identities — The Hate U Give, The Fault in Our Stars, Towelhead. How does Jewish identity inform your work?
I was living in a bubble when I drafted my debut five years ago — anti-Semitism didn’t feel immediate to me. You’ll Miss Me When I’m Gone doesn’t touch on it, and there’s a brief reference in Our Year of Maybe, but in my book coming out next year, Today Tonight Tomorrow, the characters discuss and confront it on-page. Now when I write Jewish characters, it’s with the knowledge that they have likely experienced hate. Most of my characters are also, like me, still figuring out what being Jewish means to them.
How is it different to be a young adult today from when you were a young adult? Is that something you think about as you’re writing?
Social media, of course, and teens today are incredibly engaged and aware. For me, writing YA is a mix of catharsis and an exploration of modern relationships with characters whose emotions are big and messy. That’s my favorite part of YA: These characters feel so much. Maybe I like torturing them a bit, but I make it up to them by the end.
Excerpt from Our Year of Maybe
By Rachel Lynn Solomon
Originally published January 15, 2019, by Simon Pulse
Upstairs, I turn on my laptop. According to WebMD, I’m either dying or totally fine. The kidney transplant sites tell me this kind of pain is rare but not entirely unheard of after a transplant, which I know already. Still, it helps me relax a little.
I clutch the bracelet on my wrist, sigh, release my grip. Something about its presence, and those two tiny charms, soothes me. My room is nothing like Peter’s, but I wouldn’t exactly call it messy. Sure, there are clothes on the floor, draped over the back of my desk chair, under my bed. But my desk area is clutter free — I can’t focus if it isn’t — with a giant whiteboard mounted on the wall next to cutouts from the Twyla Tharp calendar Peter got me years ago, an array of folders to organize my assignments, the rainbow pens I use to mark up my notes.
My teachers let me record their lectures because I have a lot of trouble listening and taking notes at the same time. I sort the past week’s audio files into folders on my computer. Then I download an audiobook for English and curl up in bed with my headphones and heating pad and imagine Peter next to me, warm and solid. His hand on my back, tracing the ridges of my spine. I don’t always think about kissing him. Sometimes it’s enough to imagine him holding me.
I dance my thumb along his name in my phone, though if I really wanted to see him, I could go across the street. Right now putting on a coat, slipping into shoes, walking seems like too much effort. The lights are off in his room anyway.
Playing with him always feels incredible. But tonight was different, maybe because it had been so long or because I was keenly aware of the scars connecting us. This time when we played, we had more in common than we ever had before.
Instead of feeling like the surgeons stole a part of me and gave it to Peter, it feels like that missing piece stitched us closer together.
I wonder if he felt — feels — it too.
When my feelings for him changed, it wasn’t because of a singular romantic moment between us. It was gradual, a side effect of the music we made and the hours we spent together. I started noticing how cute his smile was, how much I liked his eyes, the warmth that flooded my body when we hugged or leaned against each other while watching a movie. When I made him laugh, something deep inside me rumbled along with him. Something that said, Do that again.
After his declaration of love, the one in hindsight I wish I could have returned, Peter went out of his way to ensure I knew he didn’t feel that way anymore. I don’t think we hugged for a full month. So I decided I’d wait for a sign. The problem is, anything can be a sign if I wish hard enough.
Over the years, it gradually dawned on me that if he didn’t get off the transplant list, he might die. And I would lose not only my best friend, but someone I was starting to love in a completely different way. That was when I vowed that if there was any chance I could help him, I had to try.
At dinner, I was surprised by his sudden interest in Judaism. I wear my Star of David necklace every day, the one my parents gave me for my bat mitzvah, but to me it’s more a symbol of belonging to something than a statement of religious devotion. Plus, my dyslexia made my Torah portion really freaking hard, so this necklace is sort of a reminder that I did it.
To me, “being Jewish” isn’t the same as “practicing Judaism.” I’m pretty sure there’s a difference, that I can feel part of something, that I can like that it makes me unique even if I don’t like going to temple. I’m Sophie Rose Orenstein and I have red hair and freckles and I dance and I’m Jewish. It feels like a defining quality, though it’s not the only quality that defines me.
Someone knocks on my door. I’m positive it’s one of my parents, so I’m surprised when Tabby enters.
“Luna’s asleep,” she says quietly, “and Josh went home. Can I come in?”
“You mean he doesn’t live here?” Tabby lifts her eyebrows.
I dial back the bitchiness. “Sorry. That was uncalled for.” “Yeah. It was.” She steps inside, fidgeting with her hair. “I can’t imagine how hard this is for you.” “You’re suddenly so smart?”
“I’ve always been smart.”
It’s true. Tabby was seven months pregnant when she took the SAT. She scored in the ninety-eighth percentile.
My bed creaks as Tabby sits down. “I’m sorry,” she says. “Me too,” I grit out. If she can be mature, I can too. “I...didn’t mean to take that out on you. You’re a good mom.” “Thanks. What you did was amazing. Complicated, but amazing. And...I know the way you look at Peter. I see what’s there.”
“You don’t.” I shake my head. “There’s nothing there.”
“Remember when I said I’ve always been smart?” She taps her temple. “Does he know?”
“I don’t think so.” I take a deep breath and then I let her in. “I’ve been hiding it for the past three years. Gahhh, it feels like I’ve been suffering forever.” I mash a pillow over my head and groan into it.
“Oh my God, that long?”
I nod. We are sisters sharing secrets. The kind of sisters we’ve never really been.
“Why haven’t you said anything? Done anything?”
“It never felt like the right time, I guess. And now, with the transplant...I don’t want him to feel like he owes me, or something.” I want him to love me because he wants to, not because he feels like he has to. “I never told you this, but...we kissed once.”
Tabby’s eyes widen. “You did? Shit, when?”
I have to laugh because this new Mama Tabby doesn’t swear nearly as much as she used to. As though a one-year-old would pick up on it. “Yeah. A few years ago. We were sort of...experimenting.”
It was my perfect first kiss with Peter. Tentative and sweet and searching. It was full of curiosity, each of us wanting to know what it felt like to press your mouth to another person’s. I’ve thought about our perfect second kiss a hundred, a thousand times, and all that matters to me is that it lasts longer than the first.
“He might be waiting for you to say something. To make a move. What would be the worst-case scenario?” “He doesn’t like me back.”
“And then what? You’re still best friends. The awkwardness would go away after a while, right?”
I want to believe that it wouldn’t be gutting to learn he doesn’t feel the same way. That’s why uncertainty is so safe: I can wrap myself in this potentially unrequited love and never risk getting shut down.
And as much as I hate to admit it, Tabby knows significantly more about romantic relationships than I do. I wonder what it would’ve been like if she’d confided in me about Josh when they started dating. If, when she got pregnant, I’d been a confidante as opposed to a mess of confusion and shock.
“Maybe you’re right,” I say, and then add: “Thanks.” She yawns. “It’s past my bedtime. God, I’m old.”
I whack her with a pillow. “Go to sleep, Grandma.”
After she leaves, I lift up my shirt and trace the jagged scar on my abdomen. It will fade, maybe one day even disappear, but I’ll always know what happened beneath my skin. I wonder how long I’ll be nervous about changing in front of other people. Peter is the only one who would understand how I’m feeling, but I can’t burden him with this, too.
I mull over what Tabby said, imagining all the different ways I could tell him how I feel. If I could hug him and have him not only hug me back, but bury his lips in my neck and tell me I’m beautiful, amazing, his. We could belong to each other, tied together in the most intimate pas de deux.