Head­shot by Mag­gie Hall

Dahlia Adler is a hero in the YA read­ing and writ­ing com­mu­ni­ty. She edits antholo­gies, sup­ports her fel­low authors on Twit­ter, and curates LGBTQ Reads, a site ded­i­cat­ed to pro­mot­ing LGBTQIA+ lit­er­a­ture for all ages. She knows lit­er­al­ly every­one. It makes you won­der how she finds time to write her own mov­ing, fun, and fun­ny short sto­ries and books. Case in point: Adler’s lat­est nov­el. Cool for the Sum­mer is a spark­ly and poignant page-turn­er about a Jew­ish teen’s jour­ney of iden­ti­ty and self­hood; sev­en­teen-year-old Lara final­ly lands Chase Hard­ing, the guy of her dreams, only to have her unexpected(ly female)” sum­mer fling trans­fer to her school. Cool for the Sum­mer tack­les clas­sic rom­com love tri­an­gles and what it means to be a friend (those love tri­an­gles) with grace, grit, and salt.

Emi­ly Stone: Tell me a lit­tle bit about your Jew­ish upbring­ing and how that led you to writ­ing YA.

Dahlia Adler: I grew up Mod­ern Ortho­dox, which is still how I iden­ti­fy. While I did­n’t nec­es­sar­i­ly feel resent­ment at its restric­tions, I’ve always been hyper­aware of what they mean I won’t be expe­ri­enc­ing. I’m the youngest kid by a whole bunch of years, so I used to read all my sib­lings’ hand-me-down books well before they were age-appro­pri­ate, like Sweet Val­ley High. They showed what seemed like such a cool life to live that was just nev­er gonna hap­pen for me. I real­ized writ­ing was the way to keep the world I had while get­ting to live in one I nev­er would expe­ri­ence oth­er­wise. I start­ed with an exam­i­na­tion of teen years, and I’ve just always lin­gered there.

ES: Where does LGBTQ iden­ti­ty fit in?

DA: It didn’t fit into my upbring­ing, real­ly. I wasn’t raised with neg­a­tiv­i­ty toward any­thing LGBTQ, but while I knew what the B stood for, it was­n’t some­thing I even con­sid­ered apply­ing to myself. I liked boys! I also had a weird affin­i­ty for col­lect­ing mag­a­zines with cer­tain female mod­els and actress­es on them — but why would I ever dig into that? Then I wrote a book, my sec­ond YA nov­el, and I real­ized the main char­ac­ter was a les­bian — it was going to be an LGBTQ nov­el. Whew, the dig­ging I did then both raised and answered a whole lot of ques­tions for me, shall we say. So, depict­ing LGBTQ iden­ti­ty was­n’t my ini­tial inspi­ra­tion to write, but after things final­ly clicked in my late twen­ties, it has def­i­nite­ly been some­thing that keeps me going.

ES: Of the three char­ac­ters in the love tri­an­gle — Lara, Jas­mine, and Chase — the two girls are Reform, though one is Ashke­nazi and one is Syr­i­an. I loved the sub­tle inter­play of their Jew­ish iden­ti­ties. How much does Judaism inform your life and writing?

DA: Thank you! My Jew­ish iden­ti­ty informs a lot of my life — I keep kosher, observe Shab­bat, send my school-age son to a Jew­ish school, etc. As I write this, I’m even still on track with count­ing the Omer. But I’ve been slow to let it inform my writ­ing for a few rea­sons. One is that I see the way read­ers some­times take license to pick apart the pieces of your­self you’ve put into a book. That’s their right, but it isn’t some­thing I want­ed to expose Mod­ern Ortho­dox Judaism to. The oth­er biggest rea­son is that I real­ly do like writ­ing YA, and writ­ing about teen char­ac­ters with my upbring­ing would mean putting them in Jew­ish schools, with pri­mar­i­ly if not only Jew­ish friends, and I just haven’t had a lot of mod­els for how to do those things.

It’s excit­ing to see more authors tak­ing those leaps, though, like Suri Rosen in Play­ing With Match­es, David Hopen in The Orchard, and Leah Scheier in her upcom­ing The Last Words We Said. Lit­tle by lit­tle, I’ve also been crack­ing into it, espe­cial­ly in short fic­tion. My con­tri­bu­tions to two dif­fer­ent YA antholo­gies—It’s a Whole Spiel, edit­ed by Kather­ine Locke and Lau­ra Sil­ver­man, and That Way Mad­ness Lies, an anthol­o­gy of Shake­speare reimag­in­ings I edit­ed that was pub­lished this past March — both have Mod­ern Ortho­dox pro­tag­o­nists. Cool for the Sum­mer is my first nov­el with a Jew­ish pro­tag­o­nist, though, and obvi­ous­ly I gave the main char­ac­ters back­grounds a lit­tle dif­fer­ent from mine. So, still edg­ing in. But grate­ful to have them there!

ES: Is it a form of world-build­ing to cre­ate a sec­u­lar, non-Jew­ish high school that some­one named Chase Hard­ing would attend? Talk to me about how you invent­ed Strat­ford High.

DA: God, yes, and this is such a hard thing to explain to peo­ple who have this notion of uni­ver­sal­i­ty when it comes to sec­u­lar expe­ri­ences — how do you explain that this is actu­al­ly very for­eign to you? The amount of research I’ve done into ran­dom school sched­ules, what kinds of class­es would you have in a nor­mal school,” when prac­tices take place, what nights would there be foot­ball games, what’s the cul­ture like in schools with foot­ball teams at all, what­ev­er it is — it’s so much just to get to this base­line every­one expects you already have. Strat­ford High is just that — base­line. All I want is for read­ers not to notice my school set­tings at all, basi­cal­ly. In fact, Chase was ini­tial­ly a bas­ket­ball play­er because I had no idea it was a mid-sea­son sport; what yeshi­va has a foot­ball team? Very grate­ful to the per­son who called that out in an ear­ly read, even if it meant mak­ing a lot of changes!

ES: Kiki is my favorite char­ac­ter. They are all great, but I want you to write a sequel with Kiki. Do you ever find a char­ac­ter tak­ing over a book? Did that hap­pen here? Do any of them sur­prise you?

DA: Ha, she’s every­one’s favorite, I think! She was so much fun to write, and she kept evolv­ing and tak­ing up more space, and I’m not upset about it!

I’d say the biggest case of this hap­pen­ing was when I was writ­ing my sec­ond YA nov­el, Under the Lights, which is my first f/​f YA (a YA book con­tain­ing a roman­tic and/​or sex­u­al rela­tion­ship between two girls or women). It’s a dual-POV nov­el between a straight boy who’s just a com­plete Hol­ly­wood tool, and an actress real­iz­ing she’s a les­bian. Orig­i­nal­ly, it was just sup­posed to be his book; my debut, Behind the Scenes, was bought with the under­stand­ing that I would write a sequel with him at the heart. But Vanes­sa, who’s the best friend of the main char­ac­ter in Behind the Scenes end­ed up being some­one my pub­lish­er want­ed to read more about. So Vanes­sa became a pro­tag­o­nist as well, and then com­plete­ly over­took the nov­el. Not upset about that either!

Depict­ing LGBTQ iden­ti­ty was­n’t my ini­tial inspi­ra­tion to write, but after things final­ly clicked in my late twen­ties, it has def­i­nite­ly been some­thing that keeps me going.

ES: You are an extreme­ly pro­lif­ic author — have you ever con­sid­ered writ­ing a YA or new adult LGBTQ romance nov­el where the pro­tag­o­nist is Ortho­dox and bi?

DA: I’ve con­sid­ered it and I hope to some­day, but it’s one of those things where I don’t want to be the first; tru­ly what I’d love is to find some­one else who wants to do it and help them get there. Those two iden­ti­ties have nev­er been at war” (for lack of a bet­ter phrase) for me, because by the time I fig­ured myself out, I was already mar­ried and set­tled, and I nev­er had to go through the impli­ca­tions of being a bi Ortho­dox teen. So it feels disin­gen­u­ous to thrust myself in there like I’ve lived the expe­ri­ence to that extent. How­ev­er, if you have, and you’re read­ing this, and you’re writ­ing a YA nov­el about it, please reach out to me!

ES: I know you call your­self the over­lord of LGBTQ Reads.” You must read at least two hun­dred books a week! I’ve noticed that, at least in schools, the Jew­ish voice is often silenced. What do you see as the trend for LGBTQ lit­er­a­ture for young peo­ple, and where does the Jew­ish voice fit in?

DA: Ha, for any­one who isn’t famil­iar, LGBTQ Reads is a web­site I found­ed and run that curates LGBTQ+ book rec­om­men­da­tions; to be clear, I don’t think I’m the over­lord of LGBTQ books over­all! But I do read a lot, though no more than three books a week, max, since hav­ing kids. Truth­ful­ly, every time I ask some­one in the know what they’re read­ing in schools, it sounds like cur­ric­u­la are still pret­ty focused on the clas­sics, rather than embrac­ing how many great new books there are that tar­get teens and mid­dle-grade read­ers. That’s been a lit­tle dis­ap­point­ing to see, as is the fact that Holo­caust lit­er­a­ture is often the only Jew­ish pres­ence on read­ing lists; I hope we can explore oth­er nar­ra­tives in the Jew­ish past and present some­day. I can’t speak to any silenc­ing, as it’s not some­thing I’m wit­ness­ing, espe­cial­ly since the teens in my life all go to Jew­ish schools.

ES: Cool for the Sum­mer is a nov­el about the explo­ration of iden­ti­ty through love, and how we find our­selves when we take a chance and open our hearts. What is the tra­jec­to­ry of the pres­ence of bi pro­tag­o­nists (both cis and trans) in YA literature?

DA: This is actu­al­ly a fas­ci­nat­ing year for bi YA lit­er­a­ture, and I love that Cool for the Sum­mer is part of the nar­ra­tive. Fol­low Your Arrow by Jes­si­ca Ver­di, Per­fect on Paper by Sophie Gon­za­les, Hani and Ishu’s Guide to Fake Dat­ing by Adi­ba Jai­gir­dar, and Cool for the Sum­mer all tack­le dif­fer­ent aspects of bi iden­ti­ty, ques­tion­ing, and/​or bipho­bia, and all four were released between March and May, so it’s like a beau­ti­ful onslaught of per­spec­tives we haven’t got­ten near­ly enough of in YA. At the same time, Adam Sil­ver­a’s bi YA They Both Die at the End is one of the best­selling books in the entire coun­try (the pow­er of Book­Tok!). Jay Coles’s Things We Could­n’t Say is com­ing out in Sep­tem­ber and exam­ines bisex­u­al­i­ty from the per­spec­tive of a bi Black teen. And as non­bi­na­ry rep­re­sen­ta­tion ris­es in YA, we’re see­ing that per­spec­tive as well, like in Mason Deaver’s I Wish You All the Best.

Bi rep­re­sen­ta­tion in YA real­ly is every­where from total­ly accept­ed and com­mon­place aspect of soci­ety” in some works of sci­ence fic­tion and fan­ta­sy, to I have to fight to prove my valid­i­ty as a queer per­son because I’m dat­ing some­one of the oppo­site bina­ry gen­der,” to I did­n’t real­ize I was bi because of the effects of com­pul­so­ry het­ero­sex­u­al­i­ty” (hel­lo, Cool for the Sum­mer), to my being bi is as sig­nif­i­cant a detail about me as my being a brunette.” And I love that spec­trum, because it real­ly isn’t the same for everyone!

ES: What’s miss­ing in Jew­ish YA? What books do you wish existed?

DA: We are def­i­nite­ly lack­ing in Ortho­dox rep­re­sen­ta­tion, includ­ing Mod­ern, but even more than that, we’re lack­ing in non-Ashke­nazi rep­re­sen­ta­tion. I would love to read more books about Syr­i­an, Moroc­can, or Per­sian Jews, for exam­ple. I’d also love to see more his­tor­i­cal Jew­ish YA that isn’t about the Holo­caust. We have such a rich his­to­ry in Spain, Por­tu­gal, and Moroc­co. Or how cool would it be to have a book set at the Mir, a Euro­pean Yeshi­va that relo­cat­ed to Shang­hai dur­ing the Holo­caust? Or even just more inci­den­tal rep­re­sen­ta­tion — Jew­ish teens on a road trip pulling over to dav­en before it gets too late, decid­ing whether they need to stuff their kip­pahs into their pock­ets before enter­ing a gas sta­tion, check­ing dif­fer­ent snacks for hash­gachas. I’d love to feel seen in that way.

ES: What are some oth­er Jew­ish LGBTQ YA books you would recommend?

DA: Two of my absolute favorites are his­tor­i­cal with super­nat­ur­al ele­ments: The Spy With the Red Bal­loon by Kather­ine Locke and The City Beau­ti­ful by Aden Poly­doros, which will come out on Sep­tem­ber 7th. In romance, my favorite is prob­a­bly Kiss­ing Ezra Holtz by Bri­an­na R. Shrum, which has a bi pro­tag­o­nist and a delight­ful Sukkot scene. And speak­ing of Sukkot scenes, I real­ly love the graph­ic nov­el Moon­cakes writ­ten by Suzanne Walk­er and illus­trat­ed by Wendy Xu. Final­ly, I also real­ly loved Sacha Lam­b’s novel­la Avi Can­tor Has Six Months to Live, which is a spec­u­la­tive romance between two boys with a trans lead.

ES: Can you give us a hint about your next project?

DA: Remem­ber how I said it requires a ton of research for me to write those typ­i­cal sec­u­lar school things like foot­ball? Well, writ­ing a foot­ball player/​cheerleader romance was prob­a­bly a mis­take in that regard. But that’s what’s next, and I hope read­ers love Amber and Jack (short for Jaclyn) as much as I do!