Novelly: Youth-Authored Literature for Connection, Affirmation, and Healing

by Jenna Abrams

A Case Study from the Connected Wellbeing Impact Studio

“The literature students needed did not exist yet – and youth are talented enough and motivated enough to write those stories.”
– Anna Gabriella Casalme, Novelly founder

A teen looking for literature that resonates with them could turn to a lot of places – YA literature is a plentiful landscape. But there is something infinitely more special and affirming for a teenager in reading stories that not only align with their unique and diverse perspectives but are written by youth like them. This can be especially meaningful if it’s a perspective underrepresented in mainstream literature – for example, a story about a Mexican teen separated from their family during pandemic lockdowns, or a story about an isolated teen confined to bed because of illness and the impact on their mental health. What kinds of conversations could reading and talking about diverse youth-authored literature open the doors to? And could facilitating those conversations have a positive impact on young people’s wellbeing?

Novelly – a fiscally sponsored project of Independent Arts & Media (IAM) in San Francisco, CA – is devoted to supporting youth-authored literature and getting youth-authored stories into the hands of as many teens as possible. They have all the books described above, and more in a growing library, all of which speak to issues today’s teens connect with. The Novelly library highlights a rich and diverse set of youth voices, which Novelly hopes can create pathways for students to process the world around them and navigate challenging topics, discussing literature created by teens who relate to their unique points of view. 

Novelly operates under the view that “stories are key to healing, connection, empathy, and hope, especially in the face of injustice.” They support youth authors through writing, editing, and publishing their own stories, and work to get these stories into the hands of other youth, both by publishing them in the Novelly online library and in advocacy work to get youth-authored books into classrooms. Novelly’s publishing program, which platforms underrepresented youth perspectives, treats youth writers as equals to adults. Youth participants in Novelly’s publishing program receive robust support through the writing, revising, publishing, and promotion process.

About the Connected Wellbeing Initiative

The Connected Wellbeing Initiative brings together researchers, designers, educators, and funders to accelerate youth and community-powered innovations for fostering wellbeing in a digitally connected world. The Initiative’s Impact Studio supports early- to mid-stage innovations that model the core principles and approaches of connected wellbeing:

Principles
  • Young people are leaders and sources of strategies, as well as beneficiaries.
  • Caring relationships and communities are tapped as essential supports for wellbeing.
  • Solutions grow from youth identities, interests, lived experience, culture, and communities.
Approaches
  • Connecting to people who get you
  • Harnessing tech for equity and inclusion
  • Diversifying and amplifying youth voice

Novelly is one of 11 innovations in the Impact Studio that benefits from personalized advising, capacity building opportunities, and cross-sector connections to accelerate impact and build shared purpose. This case study highlights some of the innovative and meaningful ways that Novelly supports youth wellbeing in the digital age.

Novelly has also developed a bank of curriculum tools they co-create with teens about their original works. Youth are encouraged to engage with these tools when they select Novelly titles to read, and to share them with their teachers. This is a big part of Novelly’s mission – to have educators and youth use these stories to get teens talking about topics that are important to them, but might be challenging for them to engage with directly. “Fiction makes it easier,” says Anna Gabriella Casalme, Novelly founder and Managing Director, in discussing the value of using fictional stories to invite teen participation in complex or sensitive discussions. “There’s a safe distance, but it’s still very resonant. You’re talking about the thing without talking about the thing.”

In less than a year after its launch, Novelly gained over 1,300 readers. Since then, Novelly has been working to broadcast more diverse youth voices and create spaces where youth can discuss and process difficult issues through the lens of fiction. In this case study, we look at how Novelly works to achieve its goals, and discuss its relationship with connected wellbeing approaches.

History and Context

From Novelly’s July 2023 event, where Anna interviewed two high school students in the San Francisco Bay Area who advocated for youth-authored literature to be taught in schools.
Novelly founder Anna Gabriella Casalme used to be a health educator, and was determined to create a supportive classroom environment for her students in school. She tried to prioritize discussions about disability, race, sexual violence, and other issues that are core to student experiences but typically aren’t part of high school health education curricula. But it was challenging to get teens comfortable talking about difficult topics like consent or sexual violence. She began using fiction as a door into these conversations, and found it made a remarkable difference for the students. Discomfort became comfort, even verbosity. When the students were talking about fictional characters’ experiences, they had so much more to say – even on complex topics like mental health, gender norms, sexuality, and more.
When the students were talking about fictional characters’ experiences, they had so much more to say – even on complex topics like mental health, gender norms, sexuality, and more.

But the interactions were limited to Anna’s classroom – and she wanted to bring these experiences to more youth. This was the initial seed for Novelly: a library of literature geared towards youth that would facilitate rich conversations around difficult topics. Anna initially planned to work with existing adult YA authors, but ultimately realized she wanted to go in a different direction, explaining that she felt youth “are talented enough and motivated enough to write those stories [themselves].”

Today, Novelly is both a virtual library of youth-authored literature with dozens of available titles, and a robust publishing program that supports teen authors through the writing and publishing process, while simultaneously advocating and bolstering students as advocates for placing these teen-authored works in classrooms. Recently, they moved under the umbrella of Independent Arts & Media, which has offered them a variety of forms of support and allowed them to hone in on the key parts of their mission. 

Connected Wellbeing in Action

The graduation of Novelly’s 2023 cohort of youth authors.

In the sections that follow, we share more about how Novelly uses technology to reach a wide range of youth, many of whom are marginalized, and platform their stories. We’ll look at how Novelly works to bolster teen wellbeing by affirming youth identities and experiences, supporting youth as advocates for their own voices as well as their peers’, and facilitating caring connections and conversations around challenging topics among young people.

Redefining youth literature - Novelly’s virtual library harnesses technology to make diverse stories accessible to teens across the country

Imagine you’re a teen browsing Novelly’s library for the first time. You’ve previously only read books by adult authors, doing their best to get into the head of the youth they’re writing for – but now you’re scrolling through option after option of published works by teens like you. Maybe you want to read River of Stars, a sapphic retelling of the Chinese folktale “The Cowherd and the Weaver,” in which “two girls struggle to build a home together in a world that threatens to tear them apart.” Or a story about the first woman empress in China, on the three days leading up to an execution, ultimately a meditation on the cost of power as a woman leader. Or perhaps a dystopian story that re-imagines anti-Asian hate during the Covid-19 pandemic as coming to a point much like the internment of Japanese Americans during WWII. More into science fiction? You could read a sci-fi novella about a teen with epilepsy, teleporting between different worlds that are coping with climate change in different ways. 

Image: Some of the titles available in the Novelly library. 

It can be game-changing for teens to read stories that they actually connect with, as can the way Novelly frames discussions around its published works. One former Novelly intern, Rishi, shared in a blog post, “schools tend to force students to meticulously over analyze and dissect [books] in narrow, formulaic ways… You can’t read a book and enjoy it, interpret it the way you want to, or connect it with your experiences and understandings of the world.” He goes on to say that Novelly’s library is unique because it is for teens by teens, and curated to allow a wide variety of teens to find something they can connect with. “ A book is a box,” Rishi writes:

“Everyone will see a different thing inside the same box…the Novelly library [is] different from any other catalog of books; it is designed to help you find something you can enjoy reading. The stories center around issues relevant to specifically teenagers, such as mental health, social issues, and personal identity.”

Many stories are emotionally heavy – after all, a key part of Novelly is its commitment to representing the stories youth want to tell, and many youth need an outlet for their struggles, fears, and difficult experiences. Not all stories are dark, however – one currently in production with Novelly follows two gender-expansive royal siblings as they try to hide their royal status at school, a fantasy-tinged story about love and gender expression. Others include Amma Appa – ‘In quarantine with her grandparents, Aarti begins to learn that her family may have more to teach her than she anticipated’; When We Get There – ‘Ignacio Rodriguez has lived his entire life in a small Argentine pueblo—until his parents’ hope for more educational opportunities in America has Ignacio packing his bags’; Out of the Closet – ‘the author’s own experience coming out as a trans girl at a school assembly, and the celebration of her identity that her community showed her,’ and more.

Research Background: Sponsoring youth interests

Novelly “sponsors,” or offers adult support for, youth interests–a core design principle of connected learning. Authors are offered emotional support, as well as access to knowledge, resources, and opportunities in order to make their stories come to life. Research has documented the positive outcomes when youth are able to share knowledge and engage in creative production within affinity networks tied together by shared interests and common purpose. By lifting up underrepresented narratives and identities, Novelly also addresses important gaps in representation. Research has consistently documented gaps in representation for racial and ethnic minorities, as well as how this representation matters for healthy and empowered identity development.

In addition to publishing works of fiction, personal essays, and poetry in their library, Novelly uplifts youth voices in other ways by publishing teen perspectives on its blog. These posts offer important youth insights into a variety of topics that impact their lives. Some examples include “Barriers & Opportunities for Youth in Publishing,” “How COVID Gave Racism a Way,” “What I Wish English Teachers would Teach,” and, in one post particularly in tune with Novelly’s core mission, “You Don’t Hate Reading; You Haven’t Found the Right Book.” There is also Novelly’s Read to Heal podcast, where teens interview youth authors about the books they’ve written and the process of creating.

The four high school students, Harnoor, Maddie, Eve, and Christina, who recorded Novelly’s Read to Heal podcast.

From Novelly’s July 2023 event, where Anna interviewed two high school students in the San Francisco Bay Area who advocated for youth-authored literature to be taught in schools.

Developing and supporting young authors: Novelly’s Rising Voices Collective

Novelly’s publishing program supports a small cohort of authors each year, a network called the Rising Voices Collective. Novelly devotes time and energy to these authors and to developing, distributing, promoting, and building curriculum around the youth-authored works. The program takes teens through the writing and publishing process, providing support along the way, which gives Novelly teen writers an education in an industry often opaque to new writers about what really goes into the writing, editing, revising, and publishing experience, and providing them with valuable information about expectations, norms, and process.

Novelly has also hosted high school interns on their marketing and communications team, pictured.

The publishing program prioritizes building youth confidence and helping teens develop a creative outlet. “Creative expression is a form of healing,” Anna says. “When you have students writing books about anti-Asian hate or anti-Black racism, having an outlet to discuss these difficult things is good.” At the core of the idea is “being able to engage with these topics safely,” and building teens’ confidence to turn their feelings and experiences into what they want to see in a story.

Novelly keeps cohorts small because the investment in each teen is extensive. Teens submit a writing sample and an outline of their proposed project, and are matched with a writing coach at Novelly, who works with them closely as they write, edit, and revise over months, providing high-level developmentally-oriented editing. They will help teens learn to map plot, develop characters, and build craft skills as part of the coaching process. They work with the teens from conception all the way to completion. Novelly’s support continues after the manuscript is complete: Teen writers work with a book cover designer before their book is published in the Novelly library, receive editorial reviews of their work, and receive public speaking coaching for interviews and panels, which Novelly also sets up for them (Anna acts as a quasi-publicist for all the youth authors). They also receive promotional support in the form of social media and newsletter announcements for their books, and the opportunity to do interviews about their work for the Novelly podcast and blog, which often lead to rich discussions. In one interview, the conversation about the book turns to the topic of race in today’s educational sphere. 

Images: The Read to Heal podcast; Podcast hosts Madi and Eve interview youth writer Mena Williams about her novella “The Untold History: Sea of Freedom”

The overall goal is to mimic, as closely as possible, the process that adult authors go through when publishing with one of the big publishing houses – with extra support through every step of the journey that adult writers wouldn’t receive formally. Youth writers don’t have the same kind of access to resources, communities, and connections that adult writers might, so Novelly steps in to provide that. Anna also emphasizes that for many of these youth authors this is their first experience meeting other teens who love reading and writing as much as they do, and so it’s important to Novelly that that experience be “mindful” and “caring” for the teens as much as possible.

Novelly also works to connect with partners who can help to promote the youth-authored books themselves as well as spread Novelly’s word on the importance of elevating youth authors in order to benefit a larger community of students and educators. To further this mission and deepen the involvement of youth authors in engagement with their work, Novelly authors also work with their writing coach to co-create teaching resources based on their books. 

Research Background: Positive youth development

Novelly embodies a positive youth development (PYD) approach by giving youth spaces and opportunities to exercise their own agency and voice. PYD takes a holistic approach to youth development that recognizes the importance of healthy relationships, safety, and emotional support in addition to skill and knowledge development. Research in this tradition has documented the powerful individual and collective outcomes of supporting youth leadership, agency, and voice. Youth media production that embodies a “collegial pedagogy” of reciprocity in adult-youth collaboration is a particularly powerful way of amplifying youth agency and voice.

Novelly authors end up building a supportive community around each other. In a call last summer where a cohort of authors presented slides on their final book covers and manuscript synopses, students set up group chats and talked excitedly about starting a book club to read each other’s’ work. They mentioned things they were impressed by in others’ work like excellent dialogue and interesting historical context. “It’s great to hear them calling out each others’ skills,” Anna says. “It makes them feel seen by their peers on something that isn’t something you get celebrated for on a day to day basis, or isn’t emphasized in school.”

Overall, Novelly hopes to help youth authors build creative confidence, security in personal identities, and agency – to allow them to see themselves as writers, believe in the power of their voices to meaningfully impact other people, and develop the ability to talk about their work, incorporating aspects of who they are into something that can be shared with their peers.

The Future of Youth Literature in Educational Spaces: Novelly Plans for the Launch of Youth Authors Week

The graduation of Novelly’s 2021 cohort of youth authors.

Novelly is continuing to support young writers in forging literature that allows teens to see themselves, their experiences, and their unique identities represented in what they’re reading and discussing. With the added support of Independent Arts & Media, Novelly is able to hone its work on the next big step: putting youth authored literature into classrooms across the country.

A key piece of Novelly’s dream is getting youth-authored work into the hands of as many young people as possible. Along with support from the National Writing Project, Novelly is now building and preparing for the launch of Youth Authors Week: an annual campaign asking students and educators to read and discuss at least one piece of youth-authored literature.

Novelly’s aims for the campaign are about reaching as many teens as possible – they hope to recruit a chair, and build a coalition of similarly-minded organizations that want to share the mission of supporting young writers, which will spread the word about Youth Authors Week and use their own networks to garner support.

The Youth Authors Week campaign will have a website with useful resources like where to find youth-authored literature, and guides for how to discuss those works aimed at educators, librarians, as well as students and youth themselves, emphasizing that students can lead these discussions without adult input. The campaign will focus strongly on recruiting students, educators, and others who work in similar capacities with young people to bring youth literature into learning and reading spaces, centering young people’s unique and widespread interests, passions, and voices.

Are you an educator, library staff, or student interested in bringing youth literature and discussions around it into your classrooms, reading groups, afterschool programs, and more? Do you want to know more about where to find youth-authored literature that speaks to the wide variety of diverse young people’s experiences? Join Novelly’s newsletter on Substack here to stay in the loop on Youth Authors Week as it develops.

Organizations interested in supporting Novelly’s campaign or wishing to partner with Novelly in some way should contact founder Anna Gabriella Casalme directly at anna@novelly.org

In browsing Novelly’s library, it’s clear that they’re committed to elevating youth voice. But Novelly is so much more than a youth publishing platform — it’s on a mission to change teen literature for the better, and in doing so, make learning spaces synonymous with youth safety, connection, empathy, and affirmation. 

This case study was produced in partnership with Novelly and the Connected Learning Lab at UC Irvine, with the support of Brian Cross, research consultant; Mimi Ito, Connected Learning Lab Director at UC Irvine; and Krithika Jagannath, postdoctoral scholar at UC Berkeley’s Institute of Human Development. We also thank the communications and web team at the Connected Learning Alliance for their work on layout and design.