Read an essay from contemporary YA author Julie Buxbaum

The alternative selves in each character she writes

Before writing What to Say Next, meeting my main characters has always felt a lot like looking at myself in a fun-house mirror. The characters were never me, but they were not, not me, either. They were me, twice removed. Alterna-mes, whether they be aspirational (in Tell Me Three Things, Jessie is everything I wish I had been in high school when faced with a similar loss), crazier (The Opposite of Love) or more broken (After You) versions.

With What to Say Next, though, instead of having to stare down my demons in a mirror, the experience felt much more like giving birth, (albeit with a powerful epidural). David and Kit, my two main characters, no doubt share a huge chunk of my DNA, but they are also made of the magic and wonder that somehow gets baked into the creation of entirely new people. And so I love them (and writing about them) in that whole-hearted, inexplicable way that I love my own children, which is to say, so much more than I love myself.

When we meet Kit, she’s at her lowest and weakest, and yet she’s still funny and kick-ass. Her mom is first-generation Indian American, and her dad is American, and one of the many things I love about Kit is that she comes from a family that looks not so different from mine. When my real life children are old enough to read this book and meet their fictional siblings, they’ll get to see someone who looks like them represented in fiction, which doesn’t happen nearly enough.

And of course, this book also belongs to David, whose voice I will miss in my head most of all. There is a famous expression that when you meet one person with autism you meet one person with autism. Labels can be liberating, but they can also be limiting. In What to Say Next we meet David. Just David. And what a joy he is.

This is a story about unexpected connections and finding your tribe. About the wonder of finding a friend when you feel at your most alone. About the miracle of discovering that someone who can see you clearly when you feel at your most misunderstood.

This book is about embracing our differences, and that beautiful, mystical alchemy that makes each of us who we are. That makes us find a lifeline in the places we least expect to. Lastly, this book is about making yourself a home in the least hospitable place in the world: high school.

In my next novel, Hope And Other Punchlines, we meet Abbi and Noah, two characters who wouldn’t have been born without the narrative siblings who came before them. Abbi and Noah, like Kit and David are not me, and instead are my thematic offspring. They too tell a story of overcoming adversity, of finding connection, of learning to live in an after.

I very much hope you love them even a fraction as much as I do.

Julie Buxbaum

JULIE BUXBAUM is the author of the What to Say Next, as well as the New York Times bestseller Tell Me Three Things, her debut young adult novel. She also wrote the critically acclaimed The Opposite of Love and After You. Her work has been translated into twenty-five languages. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and their two young children.

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