Nicola Yoon can’t draw.
The best-selling young adult fiction author has worn many hats over the course of her career — investment bank employee, writer, mother, advocate — but the visual arts still elude her. So when a 4 a.m. inspiration struck, she called on her husband, David, to sketch out the complement she needed for her debut novel.
"I woke my husband up … and I’m like, ‘Honey, honey! Draw me a fish,’" Yoon told me when we spoke by phone last month. "He is the best thing because he got up and made coffee, gave me a kiss, and asked me no questions. And drew the fish for me. And that version of the fish is the fish that started it all."
Yoon’s debut novel, Everything, Everything, tells the story of 18-year-old Madeline Whittier, a girl whose entire life has been shaped by her experiences with an incurable disorder called severe combined immunodeficiency (SCID). The only people Madeline interacts with regularly are her mother (a doctor) and her nurse, Carla; her father and young brother died in a car accident when she was a toddler. The book traffics in many of the conventions young adult fiction is known for (melodrama, dubiously justified disdain for parental figures, general teen angst), but Maddy Whittier is an exceptionally sheltered protagonist: She never leaves her meticulously decontaminated house, lest she come into contact with any common contagion. Grass, the sun, pets, Southern California air? They could all kill her.
Maddy is resigned to her life inside a glass bubble; illness may be the determining factor in how she lives her life, but it is not, as the book takes pain to emphasize, the sum total of her character. Beyond spending time with Carla and her mother, she stares outside her massive windows and writes pithy, abbreviated book reviews on the internet to connect with the outside world. (And, eventually, with Oliver, the cute boy who moves in next door.) Maddy’s drawings allow her to both create her own world and interact with one just beyond her reach. The fish she fixates on — the one Yoon’s husband lent to the text — is the humuhumunukunukuapuaa, the state fish of Hawai’i.
"When you’re super tired at 4 a.m., really strange things occur to you — seriously, the weirdest things — and I just had this idea that she would try to draw the world, like if she couldn’t be in it, she would try to bring it to herself," Yoon said. "We’d gone to Hawai’i for our honeymoon, and … I thought, ‘Oh, she would love Hawai’i; she would draw the state fish.’"
Hawai’i — and the ocean, more broadly — plays a pivotal role in Maddy’s imagination and the text writ large, which weaves David’s illustrations, simulated instant messenger conversations, web pages, and a whole host of other nontraditional elements alongside Nicola’s words. The novel hinges largely on the tension between Maddy and Oliver’s playfulness and the gravity of her situation. Olly Bright’s sudden presence in the house next door churns Maddy’s insides with all the intensity of wind blowing glass. The two begin to communicate almost immediately: first through messages on their windows, then through text and instant messaging, and then, most catalytically, in person. When Maddy first reveals — via instant messenger — that she can’t leave her house, Olly tempers his curiosity with flirty banter: "very mysterious. are you a ghost? that’s what i thought the day we moved in and i saw you at the window. and it would it be my luck that the pretty girl next door is not actually alive."
Everything, Everything feels at once snarkily modern (Olly’s email address is "email@example.com") and charmingly timeless. The book is unique in its clear, complex depiction of young love — even and especially when the stakes are impossibly high. Everything, Everything weaves the mundane and the improbable with close attention to how its characters connect as they experience both. Yoon writes with a deft, compassionate hand; her Maddy is inquisitive, optimistic, kind, and goofy. Yoon’s commitment to writing characters who exist in and reflect a diverse vision of the world grants Everything, Everything both universal appeal and a much-needed specificity. Maddy, with all her quirks, could be any girl falling for the cute boy next door. But in a genre as white as young adult fiction, it still matters that a black girl gets to fall in love.
The Warner Bros. film adaptation of the young adult romance, written by J. Mills Goodloe and directed by Stella Meghie, stars Amandla Stenberg as Maddy and Nick Robinson as Olly. Stenberg lights up the screen, capturing both Maddy’s anguish and her sometimes unlikely optimism. The film floats on the synergy of its leads; they orbit one another with tentative glances, nervous half-smiles, and anxious fidgeting. The first time Maddy and Olly are in a room together, they observe each other almost suspiciously from a gradually narrowing distance. It’s a delight to watch: a sweet but not overly saccharine reminder of the ways love catalyzes growth, freedom, and fun (even and especially when it feels awkward at first). Stenberg and Robinson’s chemistry captures both the joy and agony of young love, buoying the story in the process. When we spoke over the phone last month, Meghie cited Stenberg and Robinson’s casting as an immense boon to the success of a challenging film: "It was exciting to be on set and see them together and know that this kind of chemistry was palpable and was gonna translate."
Stenberg is especially resplendent in the role. Watching her feels like stepping into sunlight. Robinson’s Olly is brooding, complicated but genuine in his affection for Maddy. The casting feels natural, uncannily so. For Yoon, who wrote Maddy as biracial (black and Asian), Stenberg’s casting came as a thrill.
"When they said Amandla, it’s like she’s perfect," Yoon said. "She’s exactly what I would picture." Stenberg, who is of African American and Dutch heritage, has the same brown skin and bouncy curls as the book’s Maddy (and Yoon’s own daughter).
Like the broader publishing industry, young adult fiction is notoriously white. The genre’s de facto celebrities, those whose books are most often bought and promoted and adapted with massive industry support, tend to be white — the John Greens, Rainbow Rowells, and Suzanne Collinses. The Jamaican-born Yoon, whose Korean American husband illustrates her books, is not just a black woman writing young adult fiction; her novels focus exclusively on characters whose lives mirror and magnify those of the people around her. Authors of color typically face resistance for writing stories that aren’t "universal" (a thinly veiled euphemism for "white"); Yoon’s debut, however, sold at auction, and debuted at no. 1 on the New York Times best-seller list — staying on the list for eight months.
Yoon is outspoken about the need for increased diversity in all forms of literature, especially YA. "When people talk about diversity … it’s almost always a political discussion, but all of these things are always just very personal. And Maddy looks the way she does because my little girl looks like that," Yoon said. "I wanted her to see herself in the book when she grew up, knowing that I never saw myself, really, when I was younger. There were very few examples, and I didn’t want that for her."
The issue is as widespread as it is personal. In March 2014, just over three months before his death, prolific children’s book author Walter Dean Myers wrote a perennially relevant op-ed in The New York Times. It posed a simple question — where are the people of color in children’s books? — and opened by citing an appalling statistic: "Of 3,200 children’s books published in 2013, just 93 were about black people." In the time since Myers’s essay, book lovers and authors of color have employed different platforms to rectify the industry’s gatekeeping. Organizations like the multiyear grassroots initiative We Need Diverse Books work to remedy the significant barriers that authors of color face in publishing, especially in genres like children’s and young adult literature. Their work exists in concert with that of authors who remain committed to writing characters of many different backgrounds. Yoon has supported the campaign since its inception, and the film adaptation of her book helps carry the organization’s mandate across mediums: onscreen romance for black women characters is scarce, but Stenberg’s casting in a young adult film is remarkable both in its rarity and its significance for children and teens watching.
"The broader sort of idea is that we live in a diverse world," Yoon said. "That’s just the truth of the world we live in, and a writer’s job is to tell the truth.
"The world is better for its diversity; it’s more fun, it’s more interesting, the food is good," she added with a laugh.
The moment she received the script, director Stella Meghie thought Everything, Everything was "incredibly sweet." But it wasn’t until she learned more about Yoon — and her commitment to telling stories focused on characters of color — that Meghie’s interest in the novel became a mandate. She pursued the job aggressively. "When I read the script and realized that this was a film with a black lead at a studio that would be going wide release, I grabbed onto it and was like, ‘This is mine, I wanna do this, I am going to bring this to life,’" the Jamaican Canadian director explained. "That opportunity does not present itself very often, and I felt incredibly right-place-right-time-right-moment and was, like, intent to take advantage of it."
For all of the publishing industry’s shortcomings, Hollywood is hardly a diversity panacea, either. According to a 2016 study by the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communications and Journalism, the ratio of male to female directors stands at 5.6 to 1, and female characters fill only 28.7 percent of speaking roles in films. Of the 407 directors surveyed for the study, 87 percent were white; only two were black women. Even as the industry slowly creeps forward at the behest of viewers and creators of color, film continues to be plagued by whitewashing scandals (and flops), imbalances of power, and impossibly unrealistic demands imposed on people of color. Everything, Everything — with its Jamaican American writer, Jamaican Canadian director, and African American and Dutch lead actress — is still an anomaly, especially as a heavily promoted wide release.
Meghie’s adaptation captures the book’s many moods without sacrificing character development, largely thanks to her innovative approach to incorporating the novel’s nontraditional elements — David’s illustrations, the mini book reviews, and especially Maddy and Olly’s messages to one another. The movie captures the novel’s dynamic spirit with stunning visuals and imaginative, layered usage of technology. "When you only have an hour and a half, you have to bring these characters together and let the audience see them together and understand that they’re, you know, falling in love," Meghie explained. "And I think the book’s spirit allowed for that because even though there’s not much fantasy necessarily in it outside of [the drawings], it seemed very natural to kind of have that in the movie as an expression of her imagination and a tool."
After countless admittedly bad love poems, 20 years in finance, and one big leap, Yoon is finally living the dream — of being a professional writer — that she shared with her diary at 8 years old. Warner Bros. and MGM are also adapting Yoon’s second book, The Sun Is Also a Star, with Tracy Oliver set to write the screenplay. It tells the stories of Natasha, a Jamaican teenager on the brink of deportation, and Daniel, a Korean American boy she meets on her last day in America. The novel isn’t autobiographical, but it does find inspiration in the tenor of Yoon’s relationship with her husband. The two met in graduate school, and David’s Korean American family inspired some of the vignettes in The Sun Is Also a Star. Yoon giggles when she talks about him, her enthusiasm palpable; their relationship is part of why she loves writing romance.
Yoon doesn’t believe that the levity and magnitude of love are reserved for adults. Her books grant teens the freedom to explore the headiness, heartbreak, and joy of love without condescension; each development invites the reader to recall the agony and delight of a high school crush, and the sense of possibility that comes with realizing they might just like you, too. In The Sun Is Also a Star, readers see proud skeptic Natasha — a girl "who believes in science and facts" over silly things like fate — embrace a strange, exhilarating new world in which circumstance and chemistry collide when she meets Daniel on what could’ve been the worst day of her life. That shift is as thrilling as it is nerve-racking — for Natasha and Daniel, but also for the reader.
Yoon writes their relationship as its own universe, a dynamic the author felt with her husband when they met. "I didn’t meet my husband over 12 hours in New York City whilst we were being deported or anything like that, but, I mean, what’s true is the spirit of our relationship," she said. "We’re both really philosophical and we’re sort of geeky, so we do always have these conversations about the meaning of life and does God exist and we’re always asking big questions. … And then there’s other stuff, too, like I do really love singing ABBA at karaoke, you know what I mean? Dumb stuff like that."
Yoon grapples with race more directly in The Sun Is Also a Star. The scenes of conflict between Natasha and Daniel’s family are deftly written and rare in their exploration of the insidious antiblack racism that exists among people of color. The Sun Is Also a Star doesn’t prominently feature any white characters, but Yoon’s analysis of white supremacy comes through without being didactic or heavy-handed.
The tension between black and Asian communities in the book isn’t all-consuming, but Yoon takes care to not understate it, either. "[Discrimination] all stems from the overarching problem of racism, anyways, but sometimes we do it to each other, and I really wanted to talk about that. But I also wanted to be hopeful," she said. "At some point Daniel says, ‘I want to apologize for racism.’ And Natasha says, ‘You can’t!’ and he’s like, ‘Why not? Why can’t I? I just love, I wanna love you. I wanna have our own little world, I wanna build our bubble,’ is what he’s saying."
Neither The Sun Is Also a Star nor Everything, Everything offers love as a unilateral balm for oppression or strife. Idealistic and fantastical though the books (and teens themselves) may be, they are also grounded in a realism that resists easy solutions to complex issues. The Sun Is Also a Star takes great care to depict the complicated parts of loving one’s family: Natasha’s parents’ relationship weighs on her, just as it does on them; Daniel struggles with his antagonistic older brother; both protagonists grapple with what it means to love the cultures and countries they come from — and the one they call home now, if only for a little while. Everything, Everything is Maddy and Olly’s love story, but it also spotlights the sometimes frightening consequences of threatened maternal love. (That story line has earned some ire from readers, but Yoon — who started writing the novel as a new mother — remains sympathetic to both Maddy’s mother and Maddy herself.)
Yoon’s novels are not remarkable simply because their protagonists are young black girls. That makes them rare, but the care with which she writes her characters and the depth of feeling she imbues in her characters — and, in turn, the reader — is uniquely captivating, at times even gut-wrenching. Even at the height of her infatuation with Olly, love is as terrifying as it is exciting for Maddy: "The wanting scares me. It’s like a weed that spreads slowly, just beneath your notice. Before you know it, it’s pitted your surfaces and darkened your windows." For Natasha, falling for Daniel happens against the backdrop of a family upheaval: "Growing up and seeing your parents’ flaws is like losing your religion. I don’t believe in God anymore." Yoon writes characters, not tropes. Maddy and Natasha experience joy, grief, anguish, excitement, fear, intrigue, and a host of other emotions as their journeys progress. That complexity shouldn’t be rare, but it’s not often afforded to characters of color. To see Maddy’s rich inner world captured in film — and to anticipate the arrival of Natasha’s — is a unique joy for readers of color.
"I think love is all there is. And I don’t just mean romantic love, though. I mean, like, all the types of love and the love of family and friends and your work and your art," said Yoon. "I think that people sort of talk down at the books that are about romance or are about love, but the truth is that love is all there is. Like everyone loves it or everyone’s recovering from it or even recovering from losing it; everything is about love."