Hilary T. Smith is one of my favorite young adult authors, and not just because she's a fellow "mentally interesting person," in her words. She's passionate about the environment, she's passionate about writing for teens as a serious audience, and she's passionate about writing books that tell real stories about real people. While they often cover serious and important issues, they're not issue books — and she's of the mind that people of all ages can read YA if they want to and if they feel like it.
As Smith puts it on Issue Books:
It’s always been really important to me to reject the whole issue book idea. I’m doing a lot of thinking about that and how when you set out to write a book about something like abortion or rape or mental illness or any 'issue,' there are a lot of ways it could go. One is that it’s grim. Everything is bleak and sad and terrible. Another way it can go is that there are too many transcendental redeeming moments where the character sees rainbows and everything’s okay. There’s all these kind of rabbit trails that lead to disaster. The high school counselor gives you the flyer about mental illness or eating disorders and you realize you have a capital P Problem and those always make me cringe. I make a point in my writing to figure out an alternate way.
Her debut novel, "Wild Awake," plunged readers into a fantastical and intense world as the main character grappled with utter upheaval in her life and the onset of severe mental illness. For readers like myself with parallel experiences, it really resonated. "A Sense of the Infinite," her forthcoming book, follows a friendship between two girls as it slowly begins to rupture, forcing both girls to evaluate their lives and their relationship to each other.
I had a great conversation with Hilary about her characters — Annabeth and Noe — along with the issues they face, her love for nature, abortion, gender, pinkwashing, and bathroom liberation. She's actually such a pleasure to talk to that almost an hour and a half went by before we wrenched ourselves away from the phone, which is often the case with the authors I chat with — I love it when authors are every bit as delightful and amazing as they seem from their books.
One of the things that really stands out about "A Sense of the Infinite" is, of course, the inclusion of a female friendship at the core of the book. Female friendships are actually pretty unusual in YA. It can be tough to find one that passes the Bechdel test (this one does), and usually romance, not friendship, is considered the most important thing. This despite the fact that friendships between teens can be incredibly intense, and that teens can construct their own reality, as Smith put it — for an extreme example, consider the Parker-Hulme murder.
"There’s an incredibly strong pressure in the YA market to have a romance be at the forefront," Smith says. "I got feedback that it doesn’t have a romance, or a really big hook. ‘What do you mean it doesn’t have a hook? There are so many things going on in the story!’ I think that friendship is fascinating and extremely complex, and can be just as tumultuous as romance, sometimes even more so. I know this was true for me as a teenager."
This is a friendship that also starts to fracture along some important lines as Noe starts dating Steven, a smart, funny guy who's deeply in love with Noe, but who also worms his platonic way into Annabeth's heart, too. Steven isn't the breaking point, though: It's Noe's increasing focus on gymnastics to the cost of everything, along with her slip into consumer culture, a big theme for Hilary, who's concerned about the environment and the interactions between humanity and the planet.
"One thing that kind of drives me crazy living in this world is living in this giant machine that is just so destructive, and it’s invisible to us because we’re born into it and it’s all around us," Smith said of the themes she wanted to weave into their relationship. "When you start waking up to the machine and noticing it, it can be a really scary and sad and maddening experience. It was getting more and more important for me to express that and explore that in writing. I was feeling frustration with how little these ideas are talked about, especially in young adult fiction. We should be calling the attention of young readers to these issues."
Annabeth represents the nature side of the equation, as the girl who loves camping and trees, who considers going to a small regional college with a focus on the environment. Noe represents the malls and consumerism of the world — and Annabeth feels torn as she wants to follow her friend, but also feels increasingly distant from Noe's pursuits, and grows worried about Noe's health as she begins to understand that Noe has an eating disorder and needs help.
Smith does a really great job of balancing a number of balls in "A Sense of the Infinite" without making the book feel too packed or too after-school special. One particularly key element of the book is Annabeth's abortion, which, surprisingly for YA, is decisive and unapologetic. She learns she's pregnant, decides to get an abortion, and gets one. She's nervous, understandably, and a little sad afterward, but she stresses that this is because anyone would have some intense emotions after a major life event.
"I didn’t do any agonizing over it, my logic was parallel to Annabeth’s," Smith said of her decision to include the abortion in the book, though she was nervous about how it would go over with her publisher. "I knew it was another way I had to defy the issue book trope. I reject the idea that a novel has to be like a brochure with all these options. One of Annabeth’s great strengths as a character and one of the ways she’s not weak is that she knows her own mind and she doesn’t look for other people to tell her what to do. She takes very decisive, calm, and mature actions."
I brought up the question of parental notification laws, and how many teens in the US don't have the option of being as decisive as Annabeth, between having to find abortion services in the first place and facing mandatory reporting. "I hope I can contribute to a discussion that will make any kind of reproductive services available without restrictions," Hilary said, which also led to the book's sharp commentary on gender.
The relationship between Steven and Annabeth starts as a friendship, but evolves into something very rich and radical in many ways, beginning with the Pee Sisters, when Steven starts going into the women's restroom with Annabeth. Noe's upset and alienated by the bond the two forge between the stalls, and many of the girls on campus find the Pee Sisters unsettling as well. Steven's finally banned from the bathrooms, but not without a lengthy conversation on bathroom liberation.
Long before I wrote this book, I’ve often said to friends that by the time we’re 75, or 50, people are going to think that we are so old-fashioned because we grew up with gender-segregated bathrooms. Like 'grandma, you had to pee in a different room?!' I’m not sure what year the paradigm shift will happen, what generation will be totally shocked by that, but I know it’s gonna happen in my lifetime, and it’s gonna be hilarious, looking back.
Gender liberation is about more than bathrooms. Smith also struggled with pinkwashing.
They always ask what you want to see on your cover, and then they go ahead and do what they want. They sent me a cover, it was a really beautiful cover, a big ole pink flower, a lovely font…it was a really beautiful cover, and it looked like it was a book about a wedding. I sat there thinking 'this is a beautiful cover, what does it have to do with my book, and the story I’m telling.'
Horrified at the sight, Hilary contacted her agent and editor, and they worked on addressing the situation, finally turning up with the book's current cover, a figure against a stark, moody sky. "I felt very disappointed that they felt the only way they could sell this book was if they dolled it up, made it look pretty and pink. It was a big shock to me," Hilary said, and she was pleased by the outcome of her request for a different cover — "to their credit," she notes, under her contract Harper Collins could have forced through the pink cover and she would have had no recourse. Instead, they were responsive, and developed an alternative that she was immensely happy with.
"A Sense of the Infinite" has stark, poignant, sad moments, and also wacky and ridiculous ones. You'll see a finger thrown over a waterfall and a nail-on-the-head description of depression. You'll be introduced to characters you'll absolutely fall in love with, I absolutely promise.
It also comes out May 19th, and you can totally preorder now from your local independent bookstore!