Kelly Loy Gilbert’s debut novel Conviction splashed onto the YA scene this May, with Kirkus describing it as a “hopeful and devastatingly real” read.
“This is a story about something I think a lot of teens and non-teens face: how to live in a world that turns out not to be as black and white and as simple as you always thought it was, and how to live with yourself when you can’t bear the choices you’ve had to make.”
In Conviction, Braden thought God gave him a sign that his family would never fall apart. His older brother is estranged from him, and his father – the only parent Braden has known – is arrested for murder of a famous Christian radio host, leading to a “racially-charged trial in a small town.” Baseball is Braden’s saving grace, he has to play against the nephew of the officer his father is accused of killing, forcing him into an impossible situation.
“This story started with its narrator,” said Gilbert. “Sixteen-year-old Braden Raynor, a gifted pitcher who wrestled with his own moral code, felt real to me from the first lines I ever wrote. The rest of the story – about a billion different drafts of it – came from some random convergence of different things that were haunting or inspiring me: real-life instances of hate crimes and police brutality and corruption, and the ways that communities divided in response. My experience growing up in a Pentecostal church. My love of baseball. Bahamas’ song ‘Sunshine Blues.’ The kind of heartbreaking loyalty I’d seen in some young adults I knew.”
Braden feeling real didn’t stop Gilbert from having to do research. She talked to lawyer friends to get the details right and studied criminal law, prisons, the death penalty, baseball, and running a high-end restaurant.
“The things I came across that’ve really stayed with me were mostly failures of the justice system, like the Pennsylvania judge who imprisoned kids for money, or the ways kids are affected by having incarcerated parents. The whole system feels incredibly broken, and that continues to haunt me.”
Conviction also tackles issues of faith alongside “family dysfunction, first love, codependency, abuse, anxiety and depression, race and class issues, adoption, and the justice system.” Gilbert can list other YA novels that feature faith in varying degrees – Aisha Saeed’s Written in the Stars, Cindy Pon’s Under a Painted Sky, Aaron Hartzler’s Rapture Practice, Jeff Zentner’s upcoming The Serpent King – but she feels that faith is underrepresented as a whole.
“Faith is such a core facet of life. Believing in something that feels so central to who you are and to the way you understand the world can be so difficult to navigate––especially when tragedy upends everything you always thought was true, and especially when you’re young and are faced with new moral crises that you’ve never encountered before. I think coming to terms with what you do and don’t believe, and how to exist with the tensions of doubt and mystery, is such a rich and textured and universal experience that makes for compelling and deeply human stories. And these stories offer a form of community for readers who long to see their own experiences honestly reflected back to them, or readers who want to see inside the hearts of characters completely different than themselves.”
Gilbert hopes that readers can connect with Conviction in some way – whether it’s relating to faith, to the writing, or to the characters she has loved for years.
“I am so, so wildly excited to share with readers these characters who’ve lived with me these past years––Braden, of course; his conflicted, difficult older brother Trey, who’s returned from a decade of estrangement to take temporary custody of Braden; his talk-show celebrity father Mart, who’s on trial; Maddie, the talented singer in Braden’s youth group; Alex, the nephew of the officer who was killed. I hope they’ll feel equally real and complicated and vibrant and human to readers, and that readers will understand them, even if they don’t always agree with them. There are a lot of difficult choices and moral dilemmas and gray areas in the book, and I hope readers will come away with a sense of empathy,” said Gilbert. “I’ve dreamed of publishing a book since I was six years old, and each step in the process – getting an agent, selling the book, calling my parents to tell them, seeing the cover, holding the ARC in my hands – has felt completely, utterly surreal in that way things do when you’ve dreamed about them for so long they just stop feeling real. The process has been such a gift.”