Dahlia Adler is a hero in the YA reading and writing community. She edits anthologies, supports her fellow authors on Twitter, and curates LGBTQ Reads, a site dedicated to promoting LGBTQIA+ literature for all ages. She knows literally everyone. It makes you wonder how she finds time to write her own moving, fun, and funny short stories and books. Case in point: Adler’s latest novel. Cool for the Summer is a sparkly and poignant page-turner about a Jewish teen’s journey of identity and selfhood; seventeen-year-old Lara finally lands Chase Harding, the guy of her dreams, only to have her “unexpected(ly female)” summer fling transfer to her school. Cool for the Summer tackles classic romcom love triangles and what it means to be a friend (those love triangles) with grace, grit, and salt.
Emily Stone: Tell me a little bit about your Jewish upbringing and how that led you to writing YA.
Dahlia Adler: I grew up Modern Orthodox, which is still how I identify. While I didn’t necessarily feel resentment at its restrictions, I’ve always been hyperaware of what they mean I won’t be experiencing. I’m the youngest kid by a whole bunch of years, so I used to read all my siblings’ hand-me-down books well before they were age-appropriate, like Sweet Valley High. They showed what seemed like such a cool life to live that was just never gonna happen for me. I realized writing was the way to keep the world I had while getting to live in one I never would experience otherwise. I started with an examination of teen years, and I’ve just always lingered there.
ES: Where does LGBTQ identity fit in?
DA: It didn’t fit into my upbringing, really. I wasn’t raised with negativity toward anything LGBTQ, but while I knew what the B stood for, it wasn’t something I even considered applying to myself. I liked boys! I also had a weird affinity for collecting magazines with certain female models and actresses on them — but why would I ever dig into that? Then I wrote a book, my second YA novel, and I realized the main character was a lesbian — it was going to be an LGBTQ novel. Whew, the digging I did then both raised and answered a whole lot of questions for me, shall we say. So, depicting LGBTQ identity wasn’t my initial inspiration to write, but after things finally clicked in my late twenties, it has definitely been something that keeps me going.
ES: Of the three characters in the love triangle — Lara, Jasmine, and Chase — the two girls are Reform, though one is Ashkenazi and one is Syrian. I loved the subtle interplay of their Jewish identities. How much does Judaism inform your life and writing?
DA: Thank you! My Jewish identity informs a lot of my life — I keep kosher, observe Shabbat, send my school-age son to a Jewish school, etc. As I write this, I’m even still on track with counting the Omer. But I’ve been slow to let it inform my writing for a few reasons. One is that I see the way readers sometimes take license to pick apart the pieces of yourself you’ve put into a book. That’s their right, but it isn’t something I wanted to expose Modern Orthodox Judaism to. The other biggest reason is that I really do like writing YA, and writing about teen characters with my upbringing would mean putting them in Jewish schools, with primarily if not only Jewish friends, and I just haven’t had a lot of models for how to do those things.
It’s exciting to see more authors taking those leaps, though, like Suri Rosen in Playing With Matches, David Hopen in The Orchard, and Leah Scheier in her upcoming The Last Words We Said. Little by little, I’ve also been cracking into it, especially in short fiction. My contributions to two different YA anthologies—It’s a Whole Spiel, edited by Katherine Locke and Laura Silverman, and That Way Madness Lies, an anthology of Shakespeare reimaginings I edited that was published this past March — both have Modern Orthodox protagonists. Cool for the Summer is my first novel with a Jewish protagonist, though, and obviously I gave the main characters backgrounds a little different from mine. So, still edging in. But grateful to have them there!
ES: Is it a form of world-building to create a secular, non-Jewish high school that someone named Chase Harding would attend? Talk to me about how you invented Stratford High.
DA: God, yes, and this is such a hard thing to explain to people who have this notion of universality when it comes to secular experiences — how do you explain that this is actually very foreign to you? The amount of research I’ve done into random school schedules, what kinds of classes would you have in a “normal school,” when practices take place, what nights would there be football games, what’s the culture like in schools with football teams at all, whatever it is — it’s so much just to get to this baseline everyone expects you already have. Stratford High is just that — baseline. All I want is for readers not to notice my school settings at all, basically. In fact, Chase was initially a basketball player because I had no idea it was a mid-season sport; what yeshiva has a football team? Very grateful to the person who called that out in an early read, even if it meant making a lot of changes!
ES: Kiki is my favorite character. They are all great, but I want you to write a sequel with Kiki. Do you ever find a character taking over a book? Did that happen here? Do any of them surprise you?
DA: Ha, she’s everyone’s favorite, I think! She was so much fun to write, and she kept evolving and taking up more space, and I’m not upset about it!
I’d say the biggest case of this happening was when I was writing my second YA novel, Under the Lights, which is my first f/f YA (a YA book containing a romantic and/or sexual relationship between two girls or women). It’s a dual-POV novel between a straight boy who’s just a complete Hollywood tool, and an actress realizing she’s a lesbian. Originally, it was just supposed to be his book; my debut, Behind the Scenes, was bought with the understanding that I would write a sequel with him at the heart. But Vanessa, who’s the best friend of the main character in Behind the Scenes ended up being someone my publisher wanted to read more about. So Vanessa became a protagonist as well, and then completely overtook the novel. Not upset about that either!
Depicting LGBTQ identity wasn’t my initial inspiration to write, but after things finally clicked in my late twenties, it has definitely been something that keeps me going.
ES: You are an extremely prolific author — have you ever considered writing a YA or new adult LGBTQ romance novel where the protagonist is Orthodox and bi?
DA: I’ve considered it and I hope to someday, but it’s one of those things where I don’t want to be the first; truly what I’d love is to find someone else who wants to do it and help them get there. Those two identities have never been “at war” (for lack of a better phrase) for me, because by the time I figured myself out, I was already married and settled, and I never had to go through the implications of being a bi Orthodox teen. So it feels disingenuous to thrust myself in there like I’ve lived the experience to that extent. However, if you have, and you’re reading this, and you’re writing a YA novel about it, please reach out to me!
ES: I know you call yourself the “overlord of LGBTQ Reads.” You must read at least two hundred books a week! I’ve noticed that, at least in schools, the Jewish voice is often silenced. What do you see as the trend for LGBTQ literature for young people, and where does the Jewish voice fit in?
DA: Ha, for anyone who isn’t familiar, LGBTQ Reads is a website I founded and run that curates LGBTQ+ book recommendations; to be clear, I don’t think I’m the overlord of LGBTQ books overall! But I do read a lot, though no more than three books a week, max, since having kids. Truthfully, every time I ask someone in the know what they’re reading in schools, it sounds like curricula are still pretty focused on the classics, rather than embracing how many great new books there are that target teens and middle-grade readers. That’s been a little disappointing to see, as is the fact that Holocaust literature is often the only Jewish presence on reading lists; I hope we can explore other narratives in the Jewish past and present someday. I can’t speak to any silencing, as it’s not something I’m witnessing, especially since the teens in my life all go to Jewish schools.
ES: Cool for the Summer is a novel about the exploration of identity through love, and how we find ourselves when we take a chance and open our hearts. What is the trajectory of the presence of bi protagonists (both cis and trans) in YA literature?
DA: This is actually a fascinating year for bi YA literature, and I love that Cool for the Summer is part of the narrative. Follow Your Arrow by Jessica Verdi, Perfect on Paper by Sophie Gonzales, Hani and Ishu’s Guide to Fake Dating by Adiba Jaigirdar, and Cool for the Summer all tackle different aspects of bi identity, questioning, and/or biphobia, and all four were released between March and May, so it’s like a beautiful onslaught of perspectives we haven’t gotten nearly enough of in YA. At the same time, Adam Silvera’s bi YA They Both Die at the End is one of the bestselling books in the entire country (the power of BookTok!). Jay Coles’s Things We Couldn’t Say is coming out in September and examines bisexuality from the perspective of a bi Black teen. And as nonbinary representation rises in YA, we’re seeing that perspective as well, like in Mason Deaver’s I Wish You All the Best.
Bi representation in YA really is everywhere from “totally accepted and commonplace aspect of society” in some works of science fiction and fantasy, to “I have to fight to prove my validity as a queer person because I’m dating someone of the opposite binary gender,” to “I didn’t realize I was bi because of the effects of compulsory heterosexuality” (hello, Cool for the Summer), to “my being bi is as significant a detail about me as my being a brunette.” And I love that spectrum, because it really isn’t the same for everyone!
ES: What’s missing in Jewish YA? What books do you wish existed?
DA: We are definitely lacking in Orthodox representation, including Modern, but even more than that, we’re lacking in non-Ashkenazi representation. I would love to read more books about Syrian, Moroccan, or Persian Jews, for example. I’d also love to see more historical Jewish YA that isn’t about the Holocaust. We have such a rich history in Spain, Portugal, and Morocco. Or how cool would it be to have a book set at the Mir, a European Yeshiva that relocated to Shanghai during the Holocaust? Or even just more incidental representation — Jewish teens on a road trip pulling over to daven before it gets too late, deciding whether they need to stuff their kippahs into their pockets before entering a gas station, checking different snacks for hashgachas. I’d love to feel seen in that way.
ES: What are some other Jewish LGBTQ YA books you would recommend?
DA: Two of my absolute favorites are historical with supernatural elements: The Spy With the Red Balloon by Katherine Locke and The City Beautiful by Aden Polydoros, which will come out on September 7th. In romance, my favorite is probably Kissing Ezra Holtz by Brianna R. Shrum, which has a bi protagonist and a delightful Sukkot scene. And speaking of Sukkot scenes, I really love the graphic novel Mooncakes written by Suzanne Walker and illustrated by Wendy Xu. Finally, I also really loved Sacha Lamb’s novella Avi Cantor Has Six Months to Live, which is a speculative romance between two boys with a trans lead.
ES: Can you give us a hint about your next project?
DA: Remember how I said it requires a ton of research for me to write those typical secular school things like football? Well, writing a football player/cheerleader romance was probably a mistake in that regard. But that’s what’s next, and I hope readers love Amber and Jack (short for Jaclyn) as much as I do!
Born in New Orleans and raised in Brooklyn, Emily Stone is the author of Did Jew Know? (Chronicle Books).