At Bookish, we love getting two authors together to talk about their books, their craft, and their experiences in publishing. Olivia Hinebaugh is the author of The Birds, the Bees, and You and Me. Claire Kann is the author of Let’s Talk About Love and the forthcoming If It Makes You Happy. Here, Hinebaugh and Kann chat about their novels and the importance of candid and honest writing about sex education and asexuality.
Claire Kann: Typically authors don’t have any say in their books’ covers, but with Swoon Reads books, our process tends to be a tad bit different. Did you have any input regarding which symbols would be used on the cover of The Birds, the Bees, and You and Me? (A pad! A tampon! I am LIVING!)
Olivia Hinebaugh: I feel super lucky, because they really did take my suggestions for what pins would be on the cover. The first mock-up had IUDs inside little uteruses, and while I love a good uterus illustration, IUDs aren’t discussed in the book and aren’t generally a go-to birth control method for teens. We also made other little changes, like a guitar that became a microphone because no one in the band plays guitar. And the little ace flag. That’s the only pin that is a pin in the book. I was so happy when it showed up in the final version. It’s the image on the cover that I know readers have been excited about. But yes! Having menstrual products on the cover is just so amazing. When I was in high school, I was embarrassed to be carrying around pads. Now I march up to the register of the drug store with pride, clutching my menstrual products. I’m glad my book gets to wear these things with no shame about any of it.
Both of your covers, Let’s Talk About Love and If It Makes You Happy, exude happiness and confidence. Why is this important for teens, especially teens of color?
CK: I want my books to be seen as a safe space for teens. It’s interesting because Let’s Talk About Love is a painful read for a lot of people, which is valid. However, I always center my work on hope, and on finding and holding on to joy (with some cheesiness thrown in for laughs). I’m thrilled that my covers reflect that as opposed to being branded solely as “issue books.” There will be hardships, yes, but my stories will always end as happily as the cover suggests they will.
Also, I can count on one hand the number of YA books I saw as a teen with Black girls on the cover. Even if the protagonist was Black, they still weren’t on their covers. We should be able to see ourselves, too.
OH: I always love hearing what little details in the book are like a peek inside the author’s interests and fascinations. What are some things in Let’s Talk About Love that are 100% on-brand Claire?
CK: Probably the pop culture references. Alice had to know what she was talking about which meant I had to know what I was talking about. In terms of personality, I resemble Feenie more than any other character.
My favorite relationship in your book The Birds, the Bees, and You and Me was between Lacey and her mom. The tide is definitely changing, but historically in YA, parents have been unnecessarily strict monsters, useless to the point of neglect, and/or absent on the page even though they exist. What was your thought process in crafting Lacey’s family life? Did you encounter any obstacles, like accidentally falling into the “cool mom” trope while drafting?
OH: The “cool mom trope” is my favorite, though! Because I think I’m a cool mom. I joke that I’m a combination of Lacey and her mom. Their close relationship started out as a way for Lacey to have information and convictions surrounding sex. Her mom is pretty out there, but she is a fierce advocate for Lacey and her friends, while also giving them space to step up and, sometimes, mess up. I aspire to be like Lacey’s mom. Example: I gave the book Sex Is a Funny Word to my oldest when he was about seven. I’m all about open dialogue and stigma-free and inclusive sex ed. I am fully aware that as my kids get older they are going to occasionally be really embarrassed by me. But better embarrassed and knowing I have an open door and I’m not afraid to talk about prickly things than just not addressing it. (I’ll get off my soapbox now.)
CK: What kind of research did you do when crafting the sex-ed curriculum taught at Lacey’s school?
OH: In a kidlit group on Facebook, I put the question out there: What was the most ridiculous thing you ever learned in sex ed? It didn’t take much more digging than that. Though I did go onto some abstinence-promoting websites to see what kind of things proponents of abstinence-only education were saying. The big scene where Lacey takes a stand involves mixing cups of water together to illustrate sex, and here, blue food coloring was used to represent an STI. That is straight from someone’s recollection of their own sex-ed experience, and the scene pretty much wrote itself.
CK: One of my biggest fears as a teen was standing up to my teachers. I have so much respect for Lacey and the way she stands up to her sex-ed teacher. Was that something you would’ve done as a teen as well?
OH: No way. I hated making waves and being seen. That’s one of my favorite things about Lacey. She doesn’t necessarily like conflict, but she knows what she knows and she’s not going to be quiet if she sees harm being done. It’s how I sort of wish I was back in high school.
When I was a teen, I definitely had skewed and one-sided information. I didn’t realize that, because on the outside it appeared well-balanced. I learned about birth control and safer sex practices, but it was always like “Ok, kids, if you’re gonna do it, here’s a single-page printout of birth control methods.” And it was so heteronormative. The only time there was anything even remotely LGBTQIA inclusive was when we watched this awful film called What If I’m Gay? about three male friends and one of them was slight and soft and sweet, but then—PLOT TWIST—it was actually the macho jock who was gay! Needless to say, treating being queer as a dirty secret does not empower kids. I don’t want my book to feel overly didactic or anything, but I hope teens reading it realize they deserve access to a thorough and inclusive sex education.
CK: Sex-positive YA (or those with sex-positivity on the page) really isn’t as rare as some people seem to think. Do you have any favorite titles or recommendations?
OH: One of my favorites is Firsts by Laurie Elizabeth Flynn. She wasn’t afraid to show the awkward or imperfect parts of sex. And at the same time, she showed how emotionally complex sexual relationships can be. Her book didn’t demonize sex, but it was also realistic: It’s not always great and you might not always want to do it. I’d say that a lot of YA does a good job of not demonizing it, but I’m always wary of books that depict sexual intercourse as like “peak emotional moment.” Certainly sex can be the peak of emotional moments, but I think it helps to have books where characters aren’t necessarily sure of themselves, and books that show that sex is a choice that has as much to do with feeling good as it does with loving someone. One book that has stuck with me in how complicated the feelings were was Carrie Mesrobian’s Cut Both Ways. And I have to give a shout-out to L. C. Rosen’s Jack of Hearts (and Other Parts) for its stigma-fighting power.
CK: You mentioned not wanting The Birds, the Bees, and You and Me to feel “overly didactic,” something I also struggled with while writing Let’s Talk About Love. How were you able to strike a balance between staying true to the narrative voice and getting information across since sex-ed is so factual?
OH: Because Lacey is giving advice to her peers in person and online, there are times when she is giving information. And it’s impossible to have someone teach another person about something and not be teaching the reader the same thing. For Lacey, she kind of goes into “educator mode” where she’s either repeating things she’s heard from her mom or that she’s read online or on seen on YouTube. (YouTube is an AMAZING place to learn about sex ed! Of course, you should always vet your sources, but that’s a whole other thing.) She’s a teen who is passionate about sex ed and feminism, and she doesn’t try to hide that part of herself. So, yeah, she’s overly enthusiastic about it, and maybe a little preachy. But it doesn’t come from a know-it-all place. She isn’t showing off. She wants her classmates to be empowered and to not feel shame. It’s similar to Let’s Talk About Love, when Alice is explaining her asexuality. You can’t help but learn about it.
I love how you parsed out the difference between romantic attraction and sexual attraction in Let’s Talk About Love. Until I really immersed myself in asexual and aromantic spaces, I knew next to nothing. Things were always given in black and white. It’s either love, which means romance and sexual attraction, or it’s not. And that’s just simply not true.
CK: I’ve never really talked about this, but I didn’t realize discussing the difference between romantic and sexual attraction in a YA romance novel would be such a big deal until Let’s Talk About Love hit the internet. The opinions on the subject suddenly being thrown at me were a bit much. I am not an authority on the split attraction model by any stretch of the imagination. I know how I feel. I know how Alice feels. All I could do was stay true to that, research and shape the conversation in a way that made sense for the narrative, and try not to cause harm.
OH: There are a million ways to experience attraction and love, and hearing about more of them helps every reader (myself included) learn about the rich and varied ways humans experience things.
I love that Let’s Talk About Love starts with a breakup, and it’s not all “woe is me, let’s be sad and eat ice cream.” The breakup is awful, but I feel like Alice knows that relationship was not for her. It made me realize that I don’t read about breakups that often! But breakups are something that a lot of people experience. What made you want to start the story there?
CK: Initially, I didn’t. The beginning used to be when Alice saw Takumi for the first time. While I was building Alice’s backstory, I realized, she would have had a new roommate in college. Dating your roommate is usually a bad idea and I wanted to explore the normalcy of end-of-the-school-year separation, even if it was only for a couple of pages.
OH: Honestly, Alice’s voice in Let’s Talk About Love was so fun and real to me, I’d basically pick up anything you’d write. I can’t WAIT to read If It Makes You Happy, and I just want to add my voice to the chorus of “yay a gorgeous girl flaunting stretchmarks on the cover!” What are some things we’re going to love about Winnie?
CK: One of my early readers said: “Winnie always acts with love in her heart (for others and herself) but people don’t always like it.” That one line summed up her character so well, I started crying.
Winnie messes up quite frequently but always owns her mistakes because she never stops striving to be her best self. She’s also a Big Sister™, and it’s a title she takes seriously. Watching out for her siblings, making sure they’re happy, and being everything to everyone are her top priorities… and those, while great in theory, just aren’t realistic goals. I really hope readers are able to relate to how big-hearted and flawed she is.
OH: I can’t wait to meet Winnie!
CK: Music also plays a huge role in The Birds, the Bees, and You and Me. I loved reading about how passionate the main characters were about their craft and their band (and the fact that it wasn’t the usual rock quartet formation). What did you listen to while writing to get you into the mood? What songs would be on the perfect The Birds, the Bees, and You and Me soundtrack?
OH: Oh Claire, this is my favorite question! The two two musical acts that I modeled the Sparrows after were Grimes and Agnes Obel. Grimes is amazing at layering vocals and spinning music out of nothing. Agnes Obel is just such an artist. Her music is dreamy and emotional. When I saw her live, I was so inspired by her all-female band, all of whom played multiple instruments and were responsible for looping some of their parts (with looping pedals) so that this insane orchestral build would happen. The music would get super loud and intense and then just cut off. It was so powerful.
I’m a little obsessed with Agnes Obel in particular. If anybody reading this interview hasn’t heard of her, GO LISTEN!
When Olivia Hinebaugh isn’t writing fiction, she can be found writing freelance, making art, discovering new songs on Spotify, texting her writing buddies, or folding laundry. She lives near Washington, D.C. with her spouse, three kids, a dog that looks like a coyote, and a one-eyed cat. The Birds, the Bees, and You and Me is her debut novel.
Claire Kann hails from the glorious Bay Area where the weather is regrettably not nearly as temperate as it used to be. She has a BA in English/Creative Writing from Sonoma State University, works for a nonprofit that you may have heard of where she daydreams like she’s paid to do it, and dislikes snow and summer. Claire is the author of Let’s Talk About Love and the upcoming If It Makes You Happy.