By Aleah Gornbein
Today we’re pleased to welcome Dahlia Adler to the WNDB blog to discuss upcoming young adult novel Home Field Advantage, out June 7, 2022!
Amber McCloud’s dream is to become cheer captain at the end of the year, but it’s an extra-tall order to be joyful and spirited when the quarterback of your team has been killed in a car accident. For both the team and the squad, watching Robbie get replaced by newcomer Jack Walsh is brutal. And when it turns out Jack is actually short for Jaclyn, all hell breaks loose.
The players refuse to be led by a girl, the cheerleaders are mad about the changes to their traditions, and the fact that Robbie’s been not only replaced but outshined by a QB who wears a sports bra has more than a few Atherton Alligators in a rage. Amber tries for some semblance of unity, but it quickly becomes clear that she’s only got a future on the squad and with her friends if she helps them take Jack down.
Just one problem: Amber and Jack are falling for each other, and if Amber can’t stand up for Jack and figure out how to get everyone to fall in line, her dream may come at the cost of her heart.
Dahlia Adler’s Home Field Advantage is a sparkling romance about fighting for what—or who—you truly want.
You very much turned the cheerleader dating a quarterback cliche on its head in Home Field Advantage. What was the inspiration behind this story (for those who don’t know about the iconic photo)?
There was this great article in the New York Times that ran on September 2nd, 2012 and the article was about the first female quarterback on a high school team named Erin DiMeglio. There was a picture in the article where she’s having her hair done by a female cheerleader and that picture just went wild on the internet with everybody assuming they were a couple. It was so cute, but by the time I found out they weren’t even a couple, it didn’t matter. The seed had been planted. The story idea was there. I knew I was doing the first female quarterback at a high school in a relationship with a female cheerleader. I’ve been writing this book since 2015 so it’s been in the works for a very long time and I just really wanted to do a novelization of what everyone took from that picture. I even commissioned art with the main characters from the cover of the book in that pose. (I’m very attached to that image.)
What was the experience writing Home Field Advantage?
Actually, it was terrible. By 2016, I was finished with some New Adult novels and had just had a baby. From the third trimester through the first year and a half of having a kid, I was struggling with writing so much and this was one of the two books that I was working on at the time, so I put it aside because I could not figure out how to do it. I did some short stories for anthologies in that time, and then I did my own anthology His Hideous Heart, which came out in 2019 and the day that came out is the day I sold Cool For The Summer in a two book deal. I knew I wanted Home Field Advantage to be the second book because I think it goes really well with it and it would be a good kick in the butt to figure out how that book goes.
Part of the struggle with writing Home Field Advantage in that time span was also because it’s a book that required a lot of research for me. I didn’t go to a high school that had football or cheerleading. I went to a private Orthodox Jewish school on the Upper East Side. We had basketball and hockey and tennis. Plus, it wasn’t something I could easily write on my commute where I normally had my writing time. Once I was working from home more, that made it easier, and I wrote most of the book on my maternity leave for my second child. That’s what I did in 2020 since I had the time to sit down, write, and research. Still, though, thank God for friends who are experts in things. Without Maggie Hall and Sarah Henning, the sports in Home Field Advantage would have been a disaster. I was really stuck at one point and I had a great phone call with Anne-Marie McLemore, who had been a cheerleader in high school. They asked me really great questions and in talking to me about their excitement about the book, I got the sense for what they wanted to see and it helped me flesh out what the rest of the book would be.
Another part of the struggle with writing the book was that I originally wanted to do this fluffy tropey romance without anything difficult in it. And it just doesn’t work with what the story is. It was hard to give myself permission to let all the truth of the story come through and deal with the harder things in it, but it didn’t feel right to ignore it. If I’m talking about a girl having a hard time being on a football team, you can’t ignore the misogyny. I really didn’t want there to be any homophobia, and I don’t make it heavy in the story, but I wanted them to be happily out. And it just doesn’t work. It’s not honest about what these girls, or boys, would be facing where they are and in the positions they’re in. It took me a while to write the most honest version of the story that wasn’t necessarily the fluff-fest that I wanted it to be, but what it needed to be.
You mentioned that you wanted to keep the story fluffy and having to bring it more into reality. Was the blackmail situation something you added in further on in the writing process or was it always part of the plot?
A lot of what happens with the Amber and Miguel storyline wasn’t going to be quite as prominent, but I saw a great tweet from an adult gay romance author, Nathan Burgoine that mentioned wanting to see the fallout of a lavender couple (a fake relationship between a queer guy and girl). I wanted to explore what happens for the other person when that kind of relationship falls apart, when somebody ends up with someone they actually want to be with and it really drove the story for me. This made me want to give Miguel 15 times the amount of airtime he already had and to deeply explore what would happen in that case. What would it mean for each of them? How does it work when you decide you want to end that relationship? I don’t remember if the blackmail was always part of it or not, but Robbie was always a bad guy. I was really interested in dissecting the sanctification of a dead kid who made your life living hell, but would seem wonderful and saintly to everybody else, and not being able to do anything about it. To me, that was a really important element of the story.
Besides talking with other authors who do have more athletic experience, what type of research into cheerleading and football, etc. did you do?
Oh my gosh. So much research into cheerleading positions, football schedules, what game days are like, what athletes eat on game day, where they’d be traveling, what they would be doing at practice, and what kind of exercises there would be. Also, the book is set in the Florida Panhandle, which is an area that I have not been to (that I chose for various reasons). Lauren Gibaldi had spent a lot of time there so she and her friends were really helpful with getting some of that local stuff right, too. (There are really good reasons to build an author network, like really, really good. Have a great network of friends who are knowledgeable and helpful and have awesome friends. It makes a really big difference.)
There’s this whole scene at a diner and I needed to know what would they be calling various things, what would they be getting, and what kind of food would be available. There are so many little contemporary world-building details that people don’t think about because you associate world-building so deeply with creating a fantasy world or life on another planet. You really have to get that stuff right in contemporary, too. Cool For The Summer was much easier in that regard because I set it in a fictional town in Westchester that was just basically ripping off where I live and I’ve been to Outer Banks, but this just would not have worked anywhere that I knew well. Oh, and I had to learn all about Homecoming and Spirit Week, which was also totally new to me. Homecoming keeps featuring in my stories, and I don’t know why…I don’t know anything about it, except what I research. I have actual printouts of different Florida schools and their homecoming schedules.
As the two main characters are athletes, I have to ask if you you play any sports?
It’s so embarrassing to say no, because I’m also editing a girls in sports anthology with Jennifer Iacopelli and my story is so deeply unsporty; it’s just fan service to myself about Jewish summer camp. I was a big fangirl of professional basketball in the early 90s when the Knicks were exciting, I was on the volleyball team, and I was sports staff in camp, so I wasn’t a deeply unsporty person. I was not somebody who unironically used “sports ball,” but I’m not a fantastic athlete, shall we say. Hockey was my sport, but football was the picture that inspired the story so that was what I was sticking with.
With the “Don’t Say Gay” bill that recently passed, it’s amazing to see plenty of queer characters on the page of a book set in Florida: Amber and Jack, Jack’s friends, Miguel and his boyfriend, even Amber’s mom is bi! Obviously you couldn’t know that this law would eventually pass when you were writing the book, but is there anything you want to say to queer kids living in Florida right now?
I hope it helps Florida teens feel good and know that they are remembered. It wasn’t something that I could write into the book because obviously that happened afterward, but like I mentioned earlier, the truest version of the story did not have a friendly environment to the queer characters. It makes me much gladder that I went with the truer version rather than the fluffy version because you never want to make kids feel like their reality has to be erased for a good, happy story. You want them to get to feel their reality and give hope that it can work despite that reality. I’m extra glad I didn’t erase that reality just for my idea of what fluff should be. I’m really glad they’ll have this story, and I definitely want to be on the lookout for more Florida-set queer stories, especially if they’re by Floridian authors, which I’m not. I really want to help promote those more and help Florida teens feel seen.
In adult queer fiction, there are some really notable books and authors. Kristen Arnett is the master of writing about Florida and her books are really dedicated to it and super queer. Deb Rogers has one called Florida Woman coming out July 5th. That’s one thing where adult is a little bit ahead of YA, just in terms of the Florida setting specifically. But I want Florida kids to know that they are seen and appreciated and loved and can have their happy endings no matter what.
How important was it for the book to be set in dual POV (points of view)?
I really wanted it to be, and I’ve actually never done it for romance. Even my romance novels that are dual POV are still POVs between friends. I wanted the inside look at the very different struggles that Amber and Jack have. Even though they’re living in the same place and are surrounded by the same people, they’re bringing very different baggage and histories into it. Each one deserved to voice what the struggles were for them, and what their background was. For Jack, what it’s like coming into this setting; for Amber, what it’s like coming from it. I don’t think that it would have been a sufficiently full picture of the story to just get one of their perspectives. I also wanted to give more of a look into what they’re like as people. This way, you got to see Jack’s friends a little more and you got to see the inside look at the football team and practices. With Amber, you got to see how all the time she spent with the cheerleaders and how hard she works so you got a better idea of the high stakes. I know not everybody’s super into dual POV in YA because it’s not quite as common, but for me, it was the right choice.
Amber is not sure how she identifies at the beginning of the book, but figures out a label that feels good by the end. Did you specifically want her to be polysexual from the start and can you give a brief definition for readers who might be coming across this identity for the first time? (I’ve never seen that represented in a book before!)
I actually didn’t know the definition of polysexual when I started writing the book; my original plan was for Amber to be bi, and then as I wrote, I thought pansexual fit her better. But the more I wrote, the more I felt that she was just not attracted to cis guys, so having her ID as pan felt off and I changed it again, to have her say that no label quite fits her being attracted to all genders except one. And then I thought, “I should probably, you know, actually check and make sure that’s true before she says it.” And so I did, and lo and behold, I discovered the Polysexual label, which means she’s attracted to many but not all genders. And that just felt like the perfect fit, and I decided that she would’ve done the same search and found the same thing.
It’s not quite like Cool for the Summer, where Lara didn’t know her label at all and then found a maybe fit; I think Amber’s known that’s the right one for a while. But she struggles with the perfect fit being a much lesser-known word than the others she could use, and I think that’s probably a pretty common struggle that I wanted to highlight on the page.
Amber references “the queer girl dance” at the beginning of the book before she or Jack have confirmation that the other is queer. Can you tell us more about this dance that queer girls do?
It’s not literal. It’s the scene where they’re super tentatively flirting, maybe. And it’s about that frustration where straight girls are sometimes so clueless about how flirty they sound that you kind of gaslight yourself about it. And it’s not that they’re queer-baiting, but then the queer girl tears herself up inside trying to understand the messages. Amber sees that Jack can’t tell if Amber is flirting with her and understands the struggle so she doesn’t want Jack to have this tear your hair out, is-she-flirting-with-me-or-is-she-so-straight-that-she-can’t-even-tell moment. Amber makes it clear with her flirtation that she is queer because the uncertainty is not a thing that Jack needs right now and she knows how frustrating it is. Amber is somebody who can’t really be out and it’s not that she never gets girls, but she knows it’s complicated so she just want it to de-complicate that one time.
Without giving too much away, what were some of your favorite scenes and/or lines of dialogue to write in Home Field Advantage?
I do like that scene where Amber is picking Jack up from from her house for this thing called Midnight Breakfast. it’s their first real unquestionable flirtation and Jack is feeling a little shy and embarrassed about wearing glasses in front of Amber. Amber tells her that she looks cute and it’s a little snipey, but obviously flirty. I love that interaction, but my absolute favorite scene in the book is one where Amber and Jack go on a double date with Amber’s best friend and his boyfriend. I really wanted to work in that queer solidarity moment and just give them all a night that felt super fun and free and allowed them to enjoy being around other queer people. It’s there where Jack recognizes another thing she’s getting from Amber: this connection to a world with queer people. She really misses her friends that she can be open with and who are also queer. It sort of opens her eyes that it’s something that she can still have even in this intense, closeting town. And I just love it. The bowling alley itself is this ridiculous place, and it was really fun to describe. I really enjoyed writing that whole atmosphere. And I won’t spoil it, but the whole end is really fun to me. There’s a character who shows up in the beginning in this very tiny way who comes back to stand up for them. I really enjoyed the way that this foursome interacts (the two queer couples) and I like the idea of them really enjoying each other for the rest of their time in high school.
Amber and Cara, her supposed best friend, don’t seem to have the best relationship, especially because they’re both keeping secrets from each other. As more about Cara’s character comes to light, I wonder how close they actually were…Was their friendship part of Amber’s way of trying to fit in and survive high school until she could leave town for college?
There are little hints at why Cara was so important to Amber growing up. She was the child of a single working mom and Cara’s family took her in a lot so their friendship was almost by necessity. It’s similar to Cool for the Summer where the main character’s best friend is not a great best friend, and the reader is wondering what’s going on. I just really like the idea of exploring these friendships of necessity, these friendships that bolster your ego or help you fit in. They’re kind of symbiotic and basically the types of friendships that are meant to be left behind in high school. I really like highlighting friendships that aren’t meant to make it, especially alongside friendships that are.
The distinction between Amber’s friendship with Cara and her friendship with Miguel is huge. Amber and Miguel are clearly bonded in a big way and she and Cara are clearly not meant to last, but Miguel wasn’t there growing up. Amber and Miguel become friends in high school; Cara is who she had and it wasn’t so easy for her. She didn’t have siblings, she had one parent present, and she felt very abandoned by her father. The cheerleading squad is what she had and even though you see people on the squad who seem like better people, that doesn’t mean that they’re necessarily interested in making Amber their number one. Their friendships are a little bit more superficial, but there is also the deep bond of being on the squad together and that’s why the squad is so important to her. Cara needed somebody too and chose Amber as her number one for whatever reason. She needed somebody who was willing to come to her chaotic house and Amber was willing because her house was empty and lonely. They found that fulfillment in each other that way in a way that works when you’re little kids and doesn’t work as you grow up. It was a friendship out of necessity for both of them, even as their lives deeply diverged.
What is the main thing you want readers to take away from Home Field Advantage?
Your people are always there (somewhere!) and you should seek out the people who make you feel good about yourself and who you really are. Those are the people who are meant to be your future. I feel like that’s a common theme in my work, but I strongly believe that. And sometimes you just haven’t met the right person who helps you feel the most you yet. Sometimes it might be a really unlikely person. But the person who helps you feel the most of you and helps you feel the most supported as who you are and who you want to be is the right person for you in your life.
As an author, publishing professional, and editor of multiple anthologies, what advice do you have for new writers, especially for those who want to write authentic YA stories?
Consume other YA stories and really pay attention to younger writers who are much closer to the current teen years. Things are different! You have to look at what teens are doing now, how teens are engaging with the world, and what they’re interested in seeing. You can’t write YA that’s a glorification of your own teen years that were 20 years ago. I see it a lot and I just think, I know you want to do this. I get why you want to do this. Find a way to tell it as adult. You have to meet teens where they are and write the things that are relevant to them now. If you’re not fitting in things like social media, discrimination, the greater number of kids who are out as queer, and all the changes since authors my age were teens, you are probably not writing something that is particularly relevant for teens right now. Think of what they need to read and who they are now versus who you were then and don’t write yourself fan service.
Are there any younger authors in particular who you think do this very well?
The truth is, I’m not great at knowing how old authors are. There’s this new class of them. I know Raquel Marie is really young and that Ophelia After All is supposed to be fantastic. I haven’t read it yet. I believe Jonny Garza Villa is young and I loved Fifteen Hundred Miles from the Sun. They are an author who I would definitely recommend and I’m really excited for the things they do next. Mason Deaver really tapped into something with I Wish You All the Best and I’m sure with their future novels too. I haven’t read Chloe Gong yet, and obviously she writes fantasy, which is not contemporary, but there’s still clearly something about the way younger writers are writing teens that is deeply appealing. I think Aiden Thomas is also really young, but I’m not sure. I’m so bad at knowing ages. Julian Winters writes great for teens and I would have thought he was 25 and it turns out he’s 40.
Which books do you think Home Field Advantage is in conversation with?
This is the easiest question of all time, and it’s so embarrassing because when I wrote it, I swear it did not have great comp titles to anything. And then 2021 saw Like Other Girls by Britta Lundin, She Drives Me Crazy by Kelly Quindlen, and Some Girls Do by Jennifer Dugan and it is a perfect mash-up of those three books. The only thing that’s not really mirrored in any of those books is the queer solidarity storyline with Miguel. But if you add in, like Kelly Quindlen’s Late to the Party, which is fantastically about queer solidarity, you probably get the whole thing.
Can you recommend any recently published or forthcoming YA books?
There are some really good sapphic romances out this year. Two that I loved recently are She Gets The Girl by Rachel Lippincott and Alison Derek and How to Excavate a Heart by Jake Maia Arlow, which is out in November. And They Lived by Steven Salvatore is a really fantastic and thoughtful college set romance. And out in July, A Furry Faux Pas by Jessica Kara was a really fun and pleasant surprise. It’s the first YA I have ever read with a main character who’s a furry (someone who very seriously cosplays as an animals, a “fursona”) and she’s actually questioning if she is on the ace spectrum. There’s no romance in the book, which is not something I’ve seen in a YA in a while. And her mom is a hoarder. You see how these characters tend to gravitate to their furrona as a way to help them be who they want to be when real life does not lend itself to that. I thought that was really cool.
These are not upcoming or that new, but people should read more books with female quarterbacks. Home and Away by Candice Montgomery is a really underread one that I think is fantastic and then I have to shout out Throw Like a Girl by Sarah Henning. I mean, she was so incredibly helpful with Home Field Advantage; Sarah and Jennifer Iacopelli know sports like nobody else.
Two of your new books just got announced—tell us about them!
I’m so excited about these. My next one is called Going Bicoastal, and it’s about a bisexual Jewish girl named Natalya who has to choose between her parents and the respective coasts they live on for the summer. Is she going to stay at home with her dad on the Upper West Side of Manhattan to figure out life and new romance there? Or is she going to move to L.A. with her semi-estranged mom and embark on something new, including a new romance there? There’s a female love interest in New York and a male love interest in L.A. It’s my first book where everybody is happily and comfortably out, and they don’t even think about it, which is a really nice thing about setting books in big liberal cities. It’s very much about how there’s no one right path to happiness and your correct future. I’m doing something really different with it that I really can’t share anything about.
The second one is My Name is Everett, which is definitely not going to keep its title, but which I’m so attached to, is a book that I wrote more than a decade ago. It was the first book I ever seriously queried and it should not have been bought. (Nobody was wrong to reject it.) It’s set in a boarding school and the main character is Everett (Evie) who is this really sunshiny girl. However, she has a very complicated relationship with her sister, who is a little bit of a bad girl and does whatever she wants. Everett thinks if she’s getting a new chance at school, she’s going to try living like her sister and she’ll maybe be happy. And then there’s this boy, Salem, who is at the boarding school and he’s really trying to be good. So he’s trying to help her be bad and she’s trying to help him be good. It’s this very cute sunshine/grump dynamic that I describe as Beach Read meets Foolish Hearts and it has a really fun cast and a fun setting. And there’s found family!
Dahlia Adler is an editor of mathematics by day, the overlord of LGBTQReads by night, and a Young Adult author at every spare moment in between. She is the editor of several anthologies and the author of many novels, including Cool for the Summer and Home Field Advantage. She lives in New York with her family and an obscene number of books.
Aleah Gornbein currently works in publicity at Holiday House, the first American publisher founded with the intent of only publishing children’s books. She liked school so much she went back to get a Master’s in Publishing a year after graduating college. As someone who has yet to read a story with all of her identities represented, her goal is to help put diverse books into the hands of kids. You can find her shouting about books on TikTok, Twitter (@bookworm613), and Instagram (@jewishyabooks) or at Books of Wonder events sitting in the back row (when we’re not in a pandemic).