What’s Barry Lyga’s secret to writing books teen readers love?

“I don’t write for teens,” says the New York Times bestselling author of I Hunt Killers. “That’s my secret—I write about teens.

“I’m aware that my books are published as YA,” he continues, “and I love that, and there’s a magic to having teenagers tell you a book of yours has changed or saved their life....Teenagers are still in that molten lava stage, where the right book can really send them off in a different direction. That’s not why I write, but it’s the best possible side effect of what I write.”

Lyga is the author of 17 YA novels, including an acclaimed debut, The Astonishing Adventures of Fanboy and Goth Girl (2006), and the aforementioned I Hunt Killers (2012), told from the point of view of a serial killer’s son.

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His latest, Bang, is told from the point of view of 14-year-old Sebastian Cody, who shot and killed his baby sister when he was just 4 years old. Since then, Sebastian’s been biding time, planning for the act he believes will finally set things right: his suicide. Lyga writes in Bang:

I had plans for the summer. Not the sort of plans Mom wants me to have, but plans nonetheless.

There were gaps in those plans—one big one in particular—but summer is long and I am a teenage boy with idle time. I would have worked around the gaps.

Every night for almost as long as I can remember, I go to bed and I ask the voice in my head, Is it time yet? And every time, the voice says, No. Not yet.

With his privileged best friend, Evan Danforth, away at Young Leaders Camp for the summer, Sebastian anticipates finally having the time and space he needs to execute his plan. But the arrival of a new family in the neighborhood upends his expectations.

Lyga_coverAneesa Fahim is the same age, intelligent, charismatic, Muslim, and of Turkish descent—an anomaly in homogeneous Brookdale, recently voted the “Whitest Town in Maryland.” She judges Sebastian for who he is, because she doesn’t know what he’s done. Moreover, she seems to really like him.

“Is there any chance?” he writes. “Any chance at all that she could overlook my past? A chance I could stay?”

While Sebastian grapples with whether to disclose his past to Aneesa, the two team up on a major summer project: a culinary YouTube channel starring “Chef Sebastian,” whose specialty is inventive pizzas. Meanwhile, Lyga takes on gun violence, racism, classism, and mental health issues—without ever reducing Bang to an “issue book.”

“The book obviously has gun violence in it, but I never thought of it as a book about gun violence,” Lyga says. “There’s not a scene where [Sebastian] debates somebody from the NRA or anything like that—I try not to write books that I think of as ‘issue books,’ though, obviously, there are issues in this book.

“This book is about reconciling your past,” he says. “This book is about trying to figure out a way to move on after you have made the mistake that had never been reclaimed or fixed. No level of apology, no level of contrition, no level of atonement will ever come close to repairing the damage you’ve caused—how do you move on?”

Megan Labrise writes “Field Notes” and features for Kirkus Reviews and is the co-host of the Kirkus podcast, Fully Booked.