On an ever-growing list of girl groups and bands, we have influential artists such as The Chantels, The Ace of Cups, The Supremes, The Runaways, The Go-Go’s, Dixie Chicks, Spice Girls, TLC, SWV, and Destiny’s Child. Filled with defiant, fun, angsty, and era-defining anthems, just these groups alone have music ranging from doo-wop, punk, rock and roll, pop, R&B, and hip-hop. They’re in good company along with a number of other groups, and their contributions to music have made way for groups like Fifth Harmony, Little Mix, The Aces, The Tuts and more to have brought their own definition of what it means to be a girl group/band.
Described as “Sleater-Kinney meets Jhene Aiko with Lera Lynn undertones” (a thing that if it didn’t exist before, author Rebecca Barrow is claiming it now), it’s possible that Rebecca has just written your new favorite fictional girl band. And they come with the deep and dance-y Americana-ish R&B roots you’ve been looking for. Don’t worry, I’m sure Josie and the Pussycats are more than willing to make the room and welcome them.
Rebecca’s second book is titled, This Is What It Feels Like. Having experience playing piano, the title takes after what Rebecca describes as “the feeling I get right before I hit that one perfect part of a piece, and to feel how that moment physically moves you as you play through it, rolling shoulders and closed eye and all that goodness”–a sentiment interwoven throughout.
Exploring the power of music and the emotion and action involved, This Is What It Feels Like focuses on three girls: Dia, Jules, and Hanna. Taking place two years after the three best friends, under the band name Fairground, have disbanded with a falling out isolating Hanna from the other two, we see the girls graduating high school and preparing for life in new adulthood.
Dia’s a single mother learning to let loose and open her heart again. Jules is an out and proud lesbian learning how to manage her new crush/relationship. Hanna, meanwhile, is a recovering alcoholic on the bumpy path of redemption juggling her own self-loathing and the doubts everyone around her seems to have on her ability to continue keeping it together.
In the midst of their own personal lives and dilemmas, the girls stumble upon the opportunity of a lifetime: the Sun City competition. With a cash prize of $15,000 and the chance to open for the girl’s favorite band Glory Alabama, the three girls attempt to get the band back together (under the new name Wildfire) partly in spite of and partly to mend their past.
“In media and in society, there’s plenty of talk about romantic relationships and how to handle [the relationships] ending, but not so much about platonic relationships, and those have always been the hardest for me,” Rebecca responds when I bring up Dia and Hanna working to build their friendship back up from the distrust and differences that pulled them apart in the first place.
What I was interested in showing was how two people can come back together and build things back up as the people they have grown to be.
It may not be the first time in stories aimed at young adults to focus on rebuilding friendships in this aspect as opposed to romantic relationships, but it’s still less common. “What I was interested in showing was how two people can come back together and build things back up as the people they have grown to be. My books often deal with themes of changing and discovering who you are, and at the beginning of the book, Dia and Hanna have spent the past two years since they fell out changing and coming into their own. Now it’s about how their new selves work together,” she says.
Rebecca continues, “Often, I think, teenage friendships can be quite rigid and everyone has their assigned role: the funny one, the smart one, the mess. But what happens when we try to step outside of those parts? Friendship can fracture. So I wanted to explore what happens as they come back together, and see how much they’ve both changed, and navigate this new phase of their friendship.” Throughout the book, we see Dia and Hanna both struggling with trying to keep the other at a distance while knowing each other all too well. There’s an exploration of what happens when friends step outside of their roles, and there’s also an exploration of what it’s like learning how to deal with good and bad memories while making more.
For Dia, she’s not only dealing with the good and bad memories associated with Hanna but also of her first love Elliot, the deceased father of her child. Rebecca gives a shoutout to her editor Elizabeth Lynch for the inclusion of his voice in the story as opposed to just hearing about him from Dia and the other girls. “When I sent her the first draft, there was still work I wanted to do but didn’t have time for,” Rebecca refers to writing deadlines. “One of those things was incorporating flashbacks–there are so many references to the past and there’s so much history that I felt it needed some flashbacks to explore more.”
Elizabeth agreed and offered the idea that those flashbacks be seen through the eyes of Elliot instead of the girls. “I think that works well because you get to see this boy who’s no longer around,” Rebecca says, “to see what the girls were like before everything fell apart, and to see them as he does.”
Perspective is a pretty important element surrounding the book. Told in the third person, a choice that Rebecca says comes naturally to her, the reader doesn’t get to directly read the characters thoughts, but we still see their worldview and as a result, we see how the characters see each other. “For this book, I chose to write from the point of view of all three of the girls because I wanted each of them to have a voice and to be able to show their different perspectives of events,” Rebecca explains having noted how she’s tried to write in first but realized that third provides the distance she wants for her stories. “You know, what Dia thought was justified, Hanna thought was cruel; what Hanna thought was fun, Jules thought was stressful, and on and on. And just as Jules says that the band is about all three of them, I thought the book needed to be the same way.”
“They all had their easy parts and their hard parts,” she starts when I ask which perspective was the easiest and which was the hardest to get in the head of. In the end, however, Rebecca shares that overall Dia was the easiest and Hanna was the hardest. “Dia definitely has my determination and stubbornness, and I think she came pretty easily because she’s the driving force of the book. Hanna was harder because writing someone in such a low space meant tapping into my own experience of that and trying to put some of it on the page. And then there’s also the fact that Hanna is an alcoholic and I’m not, so writing that kind of character with nuance and without turning her into a stereotype was definitely something that challenged me and that I had to keep in mind as I wrote and changed her,” she concludes giving credit to sensitivity readers for their contribution to making her more layered.
So, I like adding stories to the world that show people doing some questioning, wondering, and testing things out.
Touching on topics such as alcoholism, sexuality, and pregnant/parenting youth isn’t new to media about young adults. But, it can sometimes be rare for these topics to be explored in a way that doesn’t completely sensationalize them and instead, seems to be attempting to speak to the youth going through/trying to understand these things.
For example, in Jules personal storyline, there’s a moment between her and a girl named Autumn (her new co-worker and crush) where the two discuss sexuality and assigning yourself a label instead of having others put one onto you. “I wanted to show some kind of range. Jules knows her sexuality and is sure of it; Autumn is unsure of herself and what her sexuality is. Both experiences are valid and I wanted to show them beside each other to say to readers, ‘Hey, if you’re certain like Jules, that’s cool, if you’re uncertain like Autumn, that’s cool too!’”
Rebecca explains further, “I didn’t have Autumn say that she doesn’t like labels because that’s not how she feels–or maybe it will be one day, who knows? At the point she’s at in the story, she’s searching to understand herself and what might fit her. Maybe she’ll pick bi as her label, or maybe pan, or maybe gay, or queer, or or or…”
Rebecca has talked here and there about being bisexual and her experience (for example, here). And with the inclusion of characters who are questioning their sexual orientation and characters who know their label shows the range Rebecca mentioned earlier, but it also shows some of the many different experiences people can have around sexual orientation. “On a personal level, I like having a label. I like being able to say I’m bi (or queer, I use both). If you’d asked me a few years ago, I wouldn’t have used either of those labels. though, and part of that is down to bi erasure and part of it is down to the overwhelming narrative of ‘you always know’. I didn’t always know,” she exclaims. “And for a long time, I thought that if I were anything other than straight I would know, and that my being unsure meant I couldn’t be, which is just not true. So, I like adding stories to the world that show people doing some questioning, wondering, and testing things out.”
In her debut book, You Don’t Know Me But I Know You, Rebecca told the story of Audrey Spencer, a photography-loving seventeen-year-old black girl who was adopted as a baby and takes to the self-journey of understanding who she and her biological mother are as she’s faced with a pregnancy of her own and deciding what she should do. In This Is What It Feels Like, we have Dia who raises her daughter as a single mother after the death of Elliot and thanks to her support system, is able to balance an education, working, and getting the band back together as well, even though none of it necessarily comes easy.
I bring up how common teen pregnancy and parenting for black teen girls is as a flat stereotype, especially a stereotype met with a negativity and shame surrounding the girl–something which feels like Rebecca shies away from. “I am by no means an expert in this area, so all I really try to do is create fully-realized, multi-dimensional characters for people to see and understand, rather than some kind of 2D stereotype. When I started writing my first book, I didn’t set out to write about a black girl who got pregnant–she was a black girl from the beginning, but the pregnancy didn’t come in until later drafts,” she explains when I ask her about how she figured out her approach to topics such as teen pregnancy, adoption, and abortion.
“I always question what I’m doing–why I’m writing it, what response it will get, am I perpetuating a stereotype without realizing it? So when I wanted to bring in the pregnancy, I did question whether I was going to be bringing something negative to the book. But then, it was important to me to show a young black girl going through a situation that girls of all ethnicities go through,” Rebecca concludes about Audrey’s story. “And then, when I wrote Dia, I really wanted to show all the things a teenage mother could be. She’s a badass musician and a baker and a loving daughter and a good friend who got pregnant and made her own choice and is living with that choice,” she says. “I hope that anyone who goes into my books believing those stereotypes of black girls realizes how wrong they are and understands that with my characters, I’m only scratching the surface of how wonderful and different and vibrant black girls can be.”
I hope that anyone who goes into my books believing those stereotypes of black girls realizes how wrong they are and understands that with my characters, I’m only scratching the surface of how wonderful and different and vibrant black girls can be.
Overall, in all these glimpses of messy and imperfect girlhood that This Is What It Feels Like offers, it shows redemption, forgiveness, and growth in others and in yourself. “People change and shift and should know that’s okay. We all make mistakes, we all look back and wish we’d done things differently, we all try on different identities as we search for who we are and what fits best,” Rebecca starts when asked about her effort to make space for girls to experience these things. “There are so many ‘rules’ for teenage girls–how to act, how to dress, how to feel: be nice and polite and smile, look pretty, but not too pretty, be confident, but don’t be arrogant, be relatable, but have your shit together, speak your mind but not in that way, be independent, but remember your place… Of course, it feels like you can’t win sometimes like you have no idea what you want to do or who you want to be.”
“Dia and Jules and Hanna have all made mistakes and all will go on to make more, different mistakes. It doesn’t make them bad people. They’ve all changed and will continue to do so. I hope that anyone who reads the book comes away knowing that they don’t have to be the person that other people think they are, that they don’t have to meet any and all expectations put on them–that instead, they can throw those expectations out and start over, or try to become the truest version of themselves for themselves,” she says.
This is essentially summed up in one of my favorite quotes from the version of the arc I read: “Nothing was ever easy with them. But easy wasn’t always good.” A quote which Rebecca explains is about the girls dreams, desires, and push against expectations.
“The easy thing to do would be to keep on with their lives as they are, let the relationships go, and move on–but would that make them happy? Or would they rather try to do the harder thing? And it sums up their relationship perfectly because they’re not easy-going, charming girls–they’re three opinionated, stubborn, self-aware young women,” she says. “Everything’s always going to be push-and-pull with them, but it’s worth it for the high moments and the connection they have.”
However, Rebecca admits that she wrote several different outcomes during the drafting process. “In some versions, they won, in some, they lost…in some versions there wasn’t even a contest! In the end, I chose the ending I did because it felt right and it served the story the best, I believe. I think that’s the key to figuring out how a story is going to end–what serves it the best, what feels earned and worthy?”
“I’m a big fan of endings-as-beginnings, too–stories that don’t have a full stop but allow the reader to imagine a thousand different versions of what comes next,” she finishes.
“I do write in order, beginning to end every time, and this book went through several drafts and big overhauls until it began to settle into the book it is now. That was when I really started to look at each individual arc and how things were balanced.” Rebecca shares that throughout the books drafts, a lot of different threads were cut from the story. One example she gives is the removal of Hanna’s little sister Molly struggling with an eating disorder. “I took that out because I didn’t feel I was giving it enough depth and respect, and the book had so much going on already,” she explains the reasoning for omitting it.
Sharing the myths about writing that she was taught and had to unlearn, she shares three:
- Editing is just running spellcheck and shifting a few lines around
- A writer’s process will stay the same forever
- A book that’s easy to read is also easy to write
Rebecca quips, “Wow, if only” at the first one and notes that she thinks the third one might be the worst myth she was taught.
“My biggest hope for YA is that it continues to embrace marginalized authors and let them into space [where] they’ve been shut out of for so long, and to publish and support so many different books featuring different marginalised voices that, as authors, we no longer have to contend with the fear of representing everyone and doing it, ‘wrong,’” Rebecca speaks on the genre. Just recently, she penned an essay for YA Interrobang about what it means to authentically write blackness and how some can be prone to missing the mark on what blackness entails for different black people. In other words, yes, blackness is an identity that informs the way black people exist in the world (as does any person’s race), but that doesn’t mean blackness can only exist in stories of traumatic racism. A statement we see in the existence of Dia and Jules: two girls who get to be two everyday, relatable young adults that are explicitly described as black in a setting where they can be more than just black without “transcending” their racial identity.
In order to make space for stories like these written by authors who understand intersectionality in everyday life (or fantasy, mystery, etc.), Rebecca also notes the importance of letting authors breathe to give their work it’s due diligence. “I also would love for the focus to shift away from constantly searching for the Next Big Thing so that debut authors, and particularly debut authors of colour, aren’t pressured to break out immediately, and that the community and publishers can invest in people’s careers over time,” she says.
“I keep on writing YA because there’s no other place, for me, that so perfectly straddles the line of being so sure of everything and at the same time not knowing anything at all. I love to write about yearning and–obviously–change and self-discovery, and YA is the place that lets me do all of that. For me, 17-18-19 was when I started to crystallize into the most real version of myself, the beginning of the ‘Me’ I am today,” she says. “And so being able to explore those moments of becoming is really interesting to me.”
Rebecca Barrow’s Mini-Playlist for Readers [Listen Here]:
Yes! Okay, so since I have an official TIWIFL playlist elsewhere, I’ll give you a mix of things I’m listening to right now and all-time favourites.
Cigarette—Raye, Mabel, Stefflon Don
They Reminisce Over You—Pete Rock and C.L. Smooth
Sick of Sittin’—Christina Aguilera
Six Feet Under (Aire Atlantica Remix)—Billie Eilish
Slow Burn—Kacey Musgraves
Races—Emma Ruth Rundle
Fresh Pair of Eyes—Brooke Waggoner
To Be Alone With You—Sufjan Stevens
7 Seconds—Youssou N’Dour and Neneh Cherry
Running Up That Hill—Kate Bush
Let Me Be Your Fantasy—Baby D
(photo cred: Rebecca Barrow)