Writing in general is a complicated thing, writing for a younger audience doubly so, because you must craft a good story, and you also have to make it digestible, without underestimating your audience. Fangirlish had a chance to talk to Samira Ahmed about her book Hollow Fires, which is now out, writing for this younger audience and what it means to trust this generation to do better …and be better.
For Ahmed, it’s important that both her writing and her story are accessible. But she also wants to “write in a way that honors who young people are and what their stories are.” Because “young people and teens are constantly dealing with pretty tough situations,” she told us, adding that “The last six years, young people have gone through this pandemic. They’ve had to sacrifice so much. They had to balance so much on their shoulders.”
It’s a balance, of course, to do that while not letting the weight of the story bring you down. But the balance comes from remembering that her characters, like Safiya in Hollow Fires, are teenagers and are dealing with regular teen things, even while shoved into extraordinary circumstances. And there’s also just having trust in your readers, no matter their age.
“I think that young people are incredibly observant. They are smart, they are thoughtful, they are curious. They ask important questions,” Ahmed shared. “I feel like adults don’t fully recognize the intelligence and thoughtfulness of teens and young people,” which she told us sometimes leads adults to place their own discomfort on kids. That’s why we end up with banned books, for example, and with these ideas about what kids can or should learn, and when.
Ahmed, who writes for younger audiences, however, has a lot of faith in her readership – and what they can achieve, and that really comes through in talking to her, just as it comes through in her books. “Even when I am writing about difficult situations and even when there is some bleakness in my stories, I try to ensure that there’s hope on every page because young people believe in hope, and I as an adult, believe that hope is a necessity in the human experience. I think that when adults lose that connection to hope, it’s pretty tragic, because they then impose that cynicism on young people.”
But it’s not just about hope as an abstract term, for Ahmed, it’s about hope as something active. It’s about taking that first step into that hope and making changes – something she truly believes young people can harness. Which is, perhaps, why it’s such an interesting journey to talk to her, even as someone who generally enjoys the YA/Middle Grade genres. I didn’t even need to be convinced, and yet, somehow, I was.
To read Hollow Fires. To try to do better. And to try to recapture not just that hope, but that drive that is present in the generation Ahmed is mostly writing for, and which she perfectly understands.
“One of the things I always say about the difference between sort of young adult books and books for adults is that young adult books are about doors opening and the adult novel is about doors closing,” Ahmed went on to explain, “And when you look at those doors closing, you approach that with a kind of like regret or cynicism instead of thinking, hey, you know what? I’m able to close some of these doors. What freedom does that actually gives me?”
It’s different when it comes to YA, because it’s about beginnings. “Sometimes it’s not going to be easy. Sometimes people are going to try to block them from those doors, but young people have that courage and hope to try to choose the doors that are going to be right for them, that are going to lead them down the path that they want to take. Sometimes they’re making their own path by just walking on it. That’s what’s so cool about young adult literature. I think it exists in the realm of possibility.”
For Safiya, the heroine of Hollow Fires, that path means asking questions. “Safiya is the editor of her high school newspaper. I was also the editor of my high school newspaper. So as a journalist, you understand that part of the job is to ask questions. But one of the things that Safiya is trying to interrogate is, look, we’re always told that journalists have to be objective and neutral. And one of the things she’s realizing is there is no real neutral.”
More importantly, the journey for Safiya is about understanding what that means, because, as Ahmed explained “to claim that you’re objective is actually making yourself unaware of what your own biases are. It’s not a weakness to admit that we’re not objective. It’s instead saying, hey, I am going to investigate what my biases are and understand that those are informing the story that I’m telling.”
This framing is what makes Hollow Fires such an illuminating read, and why the book – even though it’s written for Young Adults, carries the kind of message that is relevant no matter your age. We don’t always have to accept the status quo. We don’t have to accept the story other people tell us. In fact, we shouldn’t.
“Curiosity is so important,” Ahmed underscored, adding that it doesn’t have to be a door adults close. “Instead, I think it’s a door that we should always have open and be trying to look through, to walk through to being curious. To me as a writer, people always say writing is your passion, but for me, I think it’s something different. I don’t just follow my passion. I follow my curiosity. And that’s what allows me, I think, to have longevity.”
And to write the kind of books that uplift young people, but can find their way to your heart, no matter how old you are. There are, after all, some lessons that touch us all, some messages we all need. Particularly when they come in such a great storytelling package.