His works “are the types of books I wish that I had more access to when I was younger. It feels like a responsibility as a writer to fill up that bookshelf of books that you wish you had: An explanation of ideas and issues that you went through,” Fenton tells The Coast, speaking by phone to mark the release of his newest novel, The Summer Between Us. A stand-alone sequel to his 2018 book Worthy of Love, The Summer Between Us chronicles the summer after graduation—and how it’s a time in life that feels like a simultaneous sunset and sunrise.
“It's very unapologetic in its own way,” Fenton adds of his latest. “It’s kind of a take on the punk rock scene here through the lens of a group of racialized teens who are just trying to make their way through—but also learning to build the confidence to take up space in a scene where they don't always feel welcome.”
But don’t be fooled into thinking you’re too old to read Fenton’s work. The kids he casts in amber across the pages of The Summer Between Us are dealing with serious stuff, the likes of which it takes most of us well into adulthood to figure out: Questions of identity, fidelity and how to stay true to yourself without disappointing those you love. “These life lessons that are actually quite universal, that resonate with people—that create a catalyst or a change, regardless of age,” Fenton adds.
Here, we caught up with the author to talk endings, new beginnings and why coming-of-age can happen at any time in life:
The Coast: A while ago on Twitter you mentioned how the characters in The Summer Between Us are characters you’ve carried around in your head for many years. How does it feel to be letting them go now, as their storylines close?
Andre Fenton: It's an experience. I first started reading about Adrian and Mel when I was in high school, [in the book] Worthy of Love. When I first started writing The Summer Between Us, it started off as a sequel—but through drafts and just the rewriting of it, it just became so much more: It became kind of like a love letter and a sendoff to these characters I've been writing for so long.
It's sad in a way: This is my goodbyes to the characters I've been writing forever—but it's also a really beautiful grief to have experienced that growth with these characters as you write them over time.
What are some unexpected shapes the main characters’ growth takes?
[There is] an exploration about family tensions: Adrian and his father are very different people. They love each other. But they're on opposite ends of the idea of masculinity. And throughout the book, they try to come to terms with one another. That’s not always something that's super easy to do.
I hope I'm not spoiling it, am I?
No, not at all! Please continue.
I also really wanted to make that representation of the generational gap between Black men and really kind of finding common ground in this crossroads of trying to find a healthy way to view masculinity—and understanding that there are things that are different between these two generations, but that doesn't mean they don't still have love for each other.
For me writing this book has been the vehicle of processing my own thoughts and my own feelings. And it's also been very, very healing for me as the author.
That’s fascinating. A couple things popped into my head as you were speaking, but one was how a lot of stories and media currently talk about the ways masculinity can be toxic. We need that, but we also need positive examples of masculinity. I’d love to hear why the latter is one focus in the book.
Through the lens of [main character] Adrian, I did kind of draw some things from myself. I am the type of person who does wear my heart on my sleeves—and who's always trying to learn and unlearn.
Sometimes through that process, we hit a crossroad of some traditional ways that we see masculinity that, sometimes, [will] judge us for trying to air out the toxicity and trying to be better for the people around us. And in a way, I kind of viewed this as a process of generational healing—especially through the lens with Adrian's father: You can always learn things from the younger generations, too.
Whenever I work with young people, I always learn some sort of wisdom. I think the Gen Zs are going to be okay. And that's something I did want to explore through this, too.
I love that. I also find there’s a certain type of person who won’t pick up a Young Adult book, because they think they’re too old for it. But when I was doing my research before our interview, what struck me was how ageless a lot of the themes are—like how to be your authentic self or balancing finding your calling with a relationship. Let’s talk about that.
I feel like, definitely with YA, there's always this idea that you have to be a teenager to read it—but everybody loves the coming of age stories, you know? They pull all the right heartstrings, regardless of age. I find the reason why we look at YA specifically for young people is because sometimes, we view young people as having really pure hearts. But at the end of the day these life lessons carry over to other generations just as much and are just as impactful, regardless of the genre.
You’ve mentioned how you feel a responsibility to write the kinds of books you had when you were young: The Summer Between Us is dedicated to “Black and brown kids everywhere.” That’s a really beautiful mission statement for your art. Can you expand on why this is important?
When I was young, I didn't really have much representation—through the lens of seeing a protagonist who can look like me or have the same hair as me or went through some of the similar situations as me, regarding race or feeling not welcomed in certain spaces. And those books definitely did exist—but I just didn't really feel like I had much access to them at the time.
I kind of found myself through spoken word poetry. And making that transition to write novels for young people, I couldn't help but think back and think of the young person that I was in high school who was just kind of looking to be seen and accepted and just cared for in the ways that that I wanted to be. And being able to make that representation through the lens of Adrian, through Mel, through their friends, through their parents: It’s really just validating their struggles and finding solutions to it. It was always such a rewarding experience for me.
It’s also a very, very big healing process for me, to be able to make these characters and to really kind of explore these thoughts, feelings and these emotions I've been carrying for so long just through these stories. The Summer Between Us has been such a long time coming. And, now that it's here, I just feel super, super excited that other people can get their hands on it and just know that it'll fall into the hands of those who need to read it