When readers met Darius Kellner, star of Adib Khorram’s standout YA debut novel, Darius the Great Is Not Okay (2018), sophomore year was off to a rocky start. Smart, funny, fractional Persian (on his mom’s side), tea enthusiast, Trekkie, and diagnosed with a major depressive disorder, Darius was light-years beyond the comprehension of the Soulless Minions of Orthodoxy (i.e. bullies) at Chapel Hill High School in Portland, Oregon. He had more enemies than friends, more questions than answers. He’d never been kissed.

On a life-changing trip to Iran, he learned about his heritage, grew closer to his family, and met Sohrab Rezaei, a soccer-loving Bahá’í boy who became his first best friend.

Darius was better than OK, Kirkus wrote in a starred review: “This tear-jerker will leave readers wanting to follow the next chapter in Darius’ life.” The only problem was the story was conceived as a stand-alone.

“I never intended for there to be a sequel,” Khorram tells Kirkus by phone from Kansas City, Missouri. “During the writing process, I certainly had ideas of where Darius’ life would take him after the novel, because it helped me bring realness to his life and to his arc, but it was always intended to be a stand-alone.”

By the time he began touring in support of the book, he was working on a new novel with a completely different cast of characters. But at a charity event in Washington, D.C., an audience member asked when Darius was getting sequel and what it was about. Speaking extemporaneously—and hypothetically—about this sequel, Khorram noticed Dial editor Dana Chidiac giving a thumbs-up from the back of the room.

Darius was soon en route to an encore.

“It was the cleanest first draft I’ve ever written,” Khorram says of the sequel. “We were all surprised by how quickly it came together, which was a really exciting experience. Maybe somewhere, deep inside, I had, in fact, been thinking I needed to tell more of his story.”

Junior year is off to a promising start in Darius the Great Deserves Better (Dial, Aug. 25). Darius has a fresh look (classic fade), a spot on the varsity soccer team (Go Chargers!), and some surprising new friends. He has a perfect first kiss with dreamy Landon Edwards, whose father owns the tea shop where he interns on the weekend. And best of all, he can hop on his laptop and call Sohrab, in Yazd, to tell him all about it:

“Sohrab was the first person I told about Landon. Actually, Sohrab was the first person I told I was gay. It was super scary, even though I knew he would be cool with it. (I hoped he would be cool with it.)”

Sohrab is more than cool with it, and it’s a pleasure to behold their friendship in full flower. The honesty and vulnerability it takes to be a true friend was a focus of Darius the Great Is Not Okay and the hardest part to get right, Khorram told Kirkus in 2018. The No. 1 challenge of Book 2, he says, was depicting teen romance, hookups, sex, and love.

“I didn’t come out in high school, I didn’t date in high school,” says Khorram, who just turned 36. “Trying to authentically depict a high school relationship I hadn’t experienced was very challenging for me. A lot of it was trying to ask myself what would I have wanted to be like. What would the reality have actually been like, versus my idealized version? And how would Darius have experienced those things?”

Informed by conversations with queer high school students at events around the country, Khorram’s insightful writing captures the important exchanges teens are having with one another and their parents. Like the sex talk that arises after Darius’ father, Stephen Kellner, sees him making out with Landon in his bedroom:

“Dad nodded. Okay. You know it’s healthy and normal if you do [want sex]. And healthy and normal if you don’t. Right?’

“I nodded and stared at my feet. 

“Dad let out a slow breath. ‘Did you tell him?’ 

“I shook my head. ‘We were kissing.’ 

“‘Okay.’ He stared out my window for a second. The curtains were open, and dusk was settling over the neighborhood like a blanket. ‘First, it’s okay to hit pause on kissing so you can communicate. Relationships, or even just casual, you know, whatevers, need communication….’”

Despite the cringe factor, Darius recognizes his father is doing his best, and he’s grateful for it. “As hard as it was to have conversations like this, he never made it seem like he didn’t want to do it,” Darius reflects.

“I felt it was vital to show what people should be doing as best I could,” Khorram says. “Especially having Darius’ dad have the uncomfortable, necessary conversation with him, because I like to think that is a job for parents—to teach their kids correctly. One thing Stephen learned over the course of the first book is how important it is to be open and honest, and where he had failed in that. He’s definitely trying to make up for it now.”

Another vital piece of Darius’ education comes from a surprising source: After a brief mention in the first book, his married grandmothers (on his dad’s side), come to stay with the family for a few weeks. Initially reserved, they eventually impart powerful lessons in queer history and activism.

“I didn’t have a queer network around me until I was an adult and on my own, and I wanted to show what it can be like,” Khorram says. “Young people today didn’t live through Stonewall, they were maybe in cribs during the fight against Prop 8, and that’s important history.

“I think one of the most important books that came out last year was Abdi Nazemian’s Like a Love Story,” he says. “That examines the legacy of ACT UP and the fight against AIDS. That part of queer history is often lost on people unless they know to go looking for it. So I wanted to show Darius finding his way to those stories.”

For readers hoping Khorram extends Darius’ story once more, a third book isn’t currently in the works. But he’s certainly not ruling it out.

“As a theater kid who used to study the Greeks, I appreciate a trilogy,” he says. “I also know that this is publishing, and so much is up to mysterious market forces, but it would be fun to return if I’m given the opportunity. I definitely have ideas of what his last year of high school would be like.”

Megan Labrise is the editor at large and host of Kirkus’ Fully Booked podcast.