March 09, 2018 at 10:00 AM EST

Julie Murphy and Nic Stone are but a small group of acclaimed YA authors who have contributed to Hope Nation.

The new anthology, which was published in February (get it here), features original essays from 24 writers that confront the anxious state of the world. Each is a story of hope, directed at teens and younger readers, and a message for why it’s worth fighting for. The A-list set of contributors includes Angie Thomas, Jason Reynolds, and Renée Ahdieh. (Dr. Rose Brock, a professor who has worked with teens for decades, serves as the collection’s editor.)

The timing of the book’s publication is not accidental: it comes in the thick of the Trump era, a time when political activism has spiked. These authors, in their own way, have contributed to the anthology in part because they believe it’s especially important to focus on joy and comfort. As such, many of these authors have relayed deeply personal stores in order to inspire their readers.

Two such authors are Julie Murphy, author of the acclaimed novel Dumplin’ (soon to be a movie starring Jennifer Aniston), and Nic Stone, of the powerful Dear Martin. Exclusive to EW, the two gathered to discuss the book with Dr. Brock, as well as their general experiences in the aftermath of the 2016 election, and what they’re doing to keep hope alive. Read the exclusive interview below.

Penguin Young Readers

DR. ROSE BROCK: To begin, I’d love to know why you agreed to be a part of my hope project where the goal was to collect stories of personal experiences by beloved YA writers that would ultimately become Hope Nation?

NIC STONE: I did it because I felt like it was important. Around the time you asked, the election had just taken place, and I was feeling a little hopeless myself. Accepting the invitation — and having the motivation of knowing this would be a book marketed to teenagers — made me dig for my own hope. If there’s anything anybody needs right now. it’s hope. Especially kids, I talk to a lot of kids, online, at events, on school visits, and they are desperate for some glimmer of hope. So, you done good with this project, Rosie!

DR. BROCK: Thank you, Nic! Julie, what about you?

JULIE MURPHY: Well, I get asked to be in anthologies all the time. Hah! But especially after the election there was a rash of people wanting to put together anthologies in response and a lot of them were coming from a place of anger, which is good and it’s important and we need anger because anger is what fires the rebellion. But the rebellion doesn’t go anywhere without hope and so I was really happy and really pleased to get this invitation and to find out you were doing this and that this was very specifically an anthology geared towards finding hope in whatever part of your life you found it in. I was in a very hopeless place after the election (as were most white ladies) and like Nic said, it really made me dig, it really made me think and it challenged me. The other anthology invites that I got (and I said yes to a few) came in a much more natural way because I knew what I was angry about and I knew what I was fired up and passionate about. But finding out what you are hopeful for or what gives you hope, that’s like being in a job interview when they ask, ‘What’s your greatest strength?’ and I’m like, ‘I don’t know! Don’t ask me that!’

DR. BROCK: Hope Nation is about inspiring readers to fight for hope in their own lives and doing good … While considering what gives you hope, do you mind sharing what charity you personally committed to supporting with this project and why you selected it?

STONE: There is a charity here in Atlanta called Lost-N-Found Youth. It’s a charity that focuses on helping homeless LGBTQ youth here in Atlanta. Queer teen homelessness is a big problem here. First of all, we are in the Bible Belt. Secondly, Atlanta has one of the highest populations of African-American LGBTQ people in the nation, so you have this intersection of intensely religious parents and kids who are trying to figure themselves out and a lot of the time they end up homeless because their parents aren’t supportive of their identities. So I really wanted to support that particular charity because it’s a cause that is very near and dear to my heart. Marginalization is unfortunate in all forms, but this is a charity that focuses on two areas of mine, so it was the definitely the way to go for me.

MURPHY: I decided to donate my proceeds to RAINN because one of my very best friends is an author and she publishes in the YA world and she was sexually assaulted at a conference by a fellow author and this was before the rash of #MeToo articles came out and people were really stepping forward about this. But since this happened she had been very vocal about it and very willing to talk to female colleagues about it so the same thing didn’t happen to them. So given this opportunity, I wanted to make this donation on her behalf.

DR. BROCK: And in case readers don’t know what RAINN is, can you tell us a little bit about the charity?

MURPHY: RAINN stands for the Rape, Abuse, Incest National Network and it goes to creating resources for sexual abuse survivors regardless of what level of sexual abuse they have had to deal with. Whether they need legal resources or mental health resources and provide physical support as well.

DR. BROCK: Would you mind sharing a bit of your personal story that you offered to readers in Hope Nation?

STONE: So this is March of 2017 and we are a couple months post-inauguration. Another YA author, Ashley Woodfolk, and I drove up into Gatlinburg, Tenn. for a writing retreat. (Julie was there — Hi, Julie!) But driving through Tennessee, it was like we were seeing Confederate flags every five feet. We had to go to the grocery store one day and frankly, we were terrified, but what ended up happening at the grocery store — it shook us both. We were completely disarmed by this guy who looked like the type who’d have a Confederate flag tattoo on his forearm or something — it sounds terrible, but he just had that kind of look to him. Trucker hat, mean stare, arm draped out of his truck with a cigarette between his fingers… And he looked me right in the eye and told me he liked my sweatshirt. “Straight Outta Azkaban” was plastered across the front. And that one point of connection: realizing that despite the fact that our country was in turmoil and that people were scared of each other based solely on the way each other looked, there was this commonality between me and a person who looked so different from me — to the point where I was afraid of him. That one compliment on my Harry Potter sweatshirt not only helped me to just take a breath, it also reminded me that these meeting points of sorts do exist. These points of connection, these points of commonality, they are there. We just have to find them.

MURPHY: I think that’s a really good reminder about the South, too. I mean, all of us living in the South hear from people in other parts of the country who have very specific ideas about what the South will be and the type of people there. Nic and I live in the South, but we don’t live in places where they fly Confederate flags openly. At least not for the most part. We live in major cities and that’s just not as acceptable here. It’s nice to see, though, that even in tiny, small-town Tennessee, there is someone you can connect with in an unexpected way. That is always my biggest pet peeve when traveling is people’s ideas of the South and the reality of what the South is and this idea that racism only exists in the South — it is everywhere.

So, my story! Anytime I am asked to be in an essay collection, I think there is this idea that I am going to write about fatness because I write a lot of books about fatness. But for me, when I actually sat down, it just wasn’t there. It felt like the same old speech, the same old thing I had written before and I tried to think back in my life when I felt the most hopeless and it was when I was 18 years old and I was about to graduate from high school and my family lost our home. It was this formative time where you are not only expected to figure out who you are, but you are also expected to figure out where you want to go.

And I didn’t even have a home and I didn’t have the chance to go straight to college like all my peers, and for me, the immediate future was to find a place to live with my family and work at the mall. I had all these dreams and plans for my future, and if I told 18-year-old Julie today what her life is and the choices she’s had the power and the ability to make, it would shock her. I am almost glad she doesn’t know because she would probably get a really big head really fast! At that time, though, I had never felt more alone because everyone I knew was going off and becoming something that didn’t have anything to do with me.

DR. BROCK: I have to say, that your story really resonated with me for all those reasons because I grew up in a home where money was always an issue, and I guess, at times my parents were considered working poor. While we never lost our home, my mom would often joke about dumping all the bills in the tub and each month, one of the kids would get to draw out a bill, and whatever company was selected, they were the “lucky” folks that got paid that month! I think many kids can relate to that feeling of the stress of a family’s financial insecurities.

MURPHY: Thanks, Rose!

Penguin Young Readers; Christy Archibald

DR. BROCK: In Hope Nation we have an incredible group of very talented writers as part of our Team Hope and while I am not asking you to play favorites, whose story or stories are you most excited about reading and why?

STONE: For me, it’s Jason Reynolds because I want to be better than him at everything. It’ll never happen, but I haven’t been able to get rid of that drive. He is my bar and every time he raises it, I feel like I have to jump a little higher. So I am looking forward to reading his the most because then I see what I have to achieve next. His greatness and seeing all he’s accomplished is actually a source of hope for me.

MURPHY: Oh, this is so hard. I am excited to read everyone’s. Libba Bray, obviously. I think I have some type of Adult Attention Deficit Disorder but every time Libba Bray talks I can focus in and I am so excited to read whatever she has to say because she is always so riveting. But the other one I am really excited to read because she is someone I really admire, but haven’t gotten the chance to get to know really well, is Jenny Torres Sanchez. She is this super incredible writer and I think that the library world has really started to pick up on her books, but she is that person I am really waiting for to really get discovered and for her books to really blow up and I am really excited to see what she has to say.

DR. BROCK: So a final question for you both: Each of you shared about the past year and despite all of the challenges in the larger world, 2017 was actually pretty incredible for both of you. Will you talk about what your personal highlights were in 2017 and what you are most excited about in 2018 professionally?

STONE: Personal highlights of 2017 — I mean, obviously making the New York Times best-seller list is a highlight and will always be a highlight. But selling two more YA novels to my publisher, thus solidifying the fact that I get to keep doing this — get to keep writing books — that was probably the highest highlight of 2017. It’s good to know that you’ve chased a dream and caught it, and it’s possible to hold on to it.

For 2018, the most exciting part for me is getting to meet readers. Doing festivals and school visits is such a joy for me — it’s my favorite part of the job. So getting to continue to meet these young readers and interact with them and encourage them and getting them writing. That is what I am most looking forward to in 2018.

DR. BROCK: You forgot to mention being a finalist for the American Library Association’s Morris YA Debut Award!

STONE: Was that 2017? I guess it was!

Penguin Young Readers

MURPHY: That is a super big deal! For me, it has been a crazy year. All of my favorite things that have happened are things that I didn’t have to do anything for, really. Movie related things, mostly watching people be really good at their jobs. Getting to visit the set of Dumplin’ and see how much work goes into a movie being made. And then, I mean, getting to meet Dolly Parton and —

STONE: Yas!

MURPHY: — getting to work with her on the soundtrack of the movie. That’s like, out of this world crazy. I just met her a week ago now and I am still mentally recovering from it. I am going to tell you a really funny tidbit about Dolly Parton: she doesn’t email with people. Her manager does that for her, which makes sense. But when Dolly wants to directly connect with you, she sends you a letter on Dolly Parton letterhead and her manager sends it to you as a PDF. I just got a sweet little letter today that was like, “It was so great to meet you. It was so great meeting you and your husband, you are such precious people.” And it’s like, no big deal, Dolly Parton, but I will frame that above my desk.

DR. BROCK: & STONE [in unison]: Yes! That’s amazing!

MURPHY: As for the thing I am most excited for next year, this might sound boring to most people, but I get to write two books this year. And I think it is an opportunity for me to really hone in on what my day as a writer looks like, and what I want my life to look like for the next ten years because if I am going to write two books this year, I really need to get my stuff together. I really need to create a schedule and be mindful of my time and the time of the people I work with. I’m excited for that!

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