Being a humanities major at Penn is harder than you’d expect. Even campus coffee shops—a haven for our kind—are buzzing with coffee chats for prestigious finance jobs and consulting clubs on any given afternoon.
But tucked away in quieter spaces like the Kelly Writers House and Fisher–Bennett seminar rooms, students are taking the road less traveled to pursue their passion for writing. This determination, and Penn’s underrated English department, has driven several of them to publish books about everything from a Romeo and Juliet retelling set in 1920s Shanghai to a graphic novel about the physical and emotional changes of puberty.
According to Chloe Gong (C’21)—New York Times bestselling author, BookTok darling, and 2021 Penn graduate—the English department houses the “unsung heroes” of Penn. Back in Chloe’s sophomore year, when she juggled papers with revisions for her debut novel These Violent Delights, her professors not only helped her out if she ever needed an extension, they also introduced “life–changing” ideas that crept into her writing. Classes like a Shakespeare course and a research seminar on race and dystopia planted seeds in her mind of topics for future books, from Cleopatra to cyberpunk sci-fi.
Chloe has been writing manuscripts since the “second golden age” of YA fiction. In the late 2000s and early 2010s, Chloe immersed herself in the fantasy and dystopian worlds of massive hits like Cassandra Clare’s Shadowhunter books and Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy (which is now experiencing a social media resurgence). She craved the escapism that these stories offered, so when she first started writing, she mostly worked with paranormal tales and murder mysteries. “I wanted to create a world that made me feel the way that I felt [when] reading,” Chloe says.
When she came up with the concept for These Violent Delights, she saw a different kind of value in the unique premise: Romeo and Juliet navigating their love story amid the tumultuous backdrop of 1920s Shanghai, ruled by rival gangs. Fantasy elements also came into play—like a mysterious monster that serves as a metaphor for colonialism. Many of these ideas were inspired by Chloe’s Shakespeare class, where she pondered ways to add something new and meaningful to an existing classic. “Once you find comfort in the idea that there’s no originality left, it's only the spin that you take on it, it’s so much more interesting,” she says.
This story, she realized, was one she needed to share: “It was something that I thought could reach other people and welcome them into whatever world I'd created in my head.”
Over the summer after her first year at Penn, Chloe devoted her attention to writing These Violent Delights. The timeline was quick. Soon after returning in the fall, she signed with her agent, and landed a publishing deal with Simon & Schuster midway through her sophomore year. All of a sudden, she was in the deep end, facing sleepless nights and constant edits. By November of her senior year, the book was published, and Chloe, in between Zoom classes, cooped up in her room in The Radian, officially went from writer to author.
She kept her expectations low but still recalls her surprise and joy when she got the call informing her the book was a New York Times Bestseller. People began to recognize her on campus and in her classes. “It was suddenly very mind–boggling to me because all my life, writing had been something that I was just doing in isolation,” she says. “It was a strange experience to suddenly not [be] just a random Penn student but also an author.”
Mirroring the YA book series that had captivated her before, Chloe expanded the world of her novel and deepened the lore in a sequel entitled Our Violent Ends. She also released two novellas and switched gears for a spin–off duology based on As You Like It, a lesser–known Shakespearean comedy. Foul Lady Fortune tells the story of Rosalind, a character she felt she didn’t get to fully explore in her first two novels.
“[Foul Lady Fortune] follows a character who nobody liked, which was really fun for me to do because it's not as challenging to do a spin–off of a character that people already know.” Serendipitously, Rosalind shares the name of a character in As You Like It, and her story allowed Chloe to imagine a tale about identity—the faces and facades we switch between in public and private spaces.
Foul Heart Huntsman comes out in September of this year, but in the meantime, Chloe is plunging into adult fiction, set to release Immortal Longings in July. In the book, she reexamines star–crossed lovers Antony and Cleopatra and their shared obsession with power. “I started thinking, it's kind of meta if I had debuted into YA with Romeo and Juliet, and then I debut into the adult space with an Antony and Cleopatra–inspired story. It's a very English major thing for me to do,” she says, laughing.
“One day, maybe someone's gonna write a thesis about my booklist, and I'm gonna make it easy for them. I want to make it back in those Penn English classrooms.”
Last spring, Sophie Young (C’25)—currently enrolled in one of those very English classes—heard from her pre–major advisor Jamie–Lee Josselyn about the opportunity to co–write a graphic novel for girls about navigating puberty. Her first thought was, “Wow, that’s a really fantastic opportunity.” Her second thought was, “I don’t have time.”
The writing—which she’d tackle alongside children’s book author and publisher Julie Merberg and another Penn student, Gemma Hong (C’24)—would happen the summer after her freshman year. Sophie, a psychology major, was already planning on committing 35 hours a week to the Penn Undergraduate Research Mentoring Program that summer, at the Center for Mental Health at Penn. But despite the time crunch, writing a book had always been on her bucket list. Right before Sophie and her twin brother were born, her journalist mother came across an article that claimed every book in the house supposedly increases your child’s IQ. “So she was like ‘Bet,’ and now I think we have, like, 2,000 books in the house,” Sophie says.
Scientific or not, the method helped Sophie develop a lifelong passion for reading and writing. She began submitting her poems to elementary school contests, attended a summer camp at the South Carolina Governor's School for the Arts and Humanities, and eventually, went there full–time for high school. It was there, in a creative nonfiction class, that Sophie found how weaving facts into a memoir–style narrative can be just as fulfilling as fiction.
Sophie adds that “although there are a lot of puberty books that exist out there, there aren't a lot that were doing what [Julie Merberg] wanted to do, which was to make something that was inclusive for a wide variety of experiences.”
Growing up in South Carolina, Sophie never got a comprehensive sex education at school—nothing beyond a quick sixth–grade discussion where the takeaways were, “Wear deodorant. This is what a period is.” Luckily, her mom gave her “the talk,” along with a copy of American Girl’s The Care & Keeping of You. While these resources definitely helped, she feels like they fell short. As a queer kid in a socially conservative area, Sophie recalls that she had to handle a lot of feelings she didn’t fully understand.
“I had to deal with a lot of internalized homophobia,” she says. “It's an important part of who I am, but that definitely complicated the learning about puberty experience because there were things that I was going through, feelings that I was having, that some of my peers weren't having. So I was Googling and searching for videos on YouTube that I probably shouldn't have been.”
In Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Puberty—and Shouldn't Learn on TikTok, Sophie helped to transform what she sees as the superficial narrative of most puberty and sex–ed books, going beyond just “If you’re a girl it’s okay to like girls, if you’re a guy it’s okay to like guys—it’s totally normal, moving on.” Instead of normalization, the book dives deep into topics like gender dysphoria, different types of attraction and sexualities, and having crushes on female friends.
Sophie’s part of the book also covers emotional changes during puberty, depression, and anxiety. Framing the section on depression was particularly challenging, because she had to balance normalizing mental illness with making sure girls know when they should reach out for help. Merberg, Gemma, and Sophie blend information from research articles with relatable first–person anecdotes to achieve this balance, drawing from their own lives, and the experiences of their friends. At the end of each part, there’s an “Am I Weird?” page with anecdotes about all kinds of things girls might be dealing with, from figuring out their sexuality to managing premenstrual dysphoric disorder, a more severe version of PMS.
The graphic novel’s illustrations by Amelia Pinney also help girls from different backgrounds feel represented. “[Amelia] brings everything to life because we have this anecdotal, universal ‘I’ perspective that we're using,” Sophie says. “I think you get this ability to see yourself in what you're reading, which can be really powerful, especially if it's a topic that's been stigmatized.”
Like Sophie, Alina Grabowski (C’16) credits Jamie–Lee Josselyn with playing a major role in her publishing journey, bringing her to Penn through Kelly Writers House recruitment and serving as her pre–major advisor. Indeed, it was within one of the Kelly Writers House seminar rooms upstairs, in a fiction workshop taught by Karen Rile, that Alina crafted the short story she would eventually transform into her first novel. “It feels very full circle,” she says. “In some form, I've been working on this book for seven years.”
Alina has known she wanted to be a writer for even longer. She used to tag along to her mother’s printmaking studio “in lieu of childcare” and write in her notebook while she watched her mom at work. As an only child, she read voraciously, speeding through the Dear America diaries and the American Girl books, which always offered a mix of comfort and entertainment.
In middle school, reading A Mango-Shaped Space helped Alina feel less isolated as she managed seizures and an epilepsy diagnosis. The main character, Mia, realizes her synesthesia causes her to see the world differently from everyone else, and she struggles to communicate this to her friends. Alina related to having a different perspective on the world.
When she developed the setting for Women and Children First, Alina drew from her personal experience growing up in Scituate, a small coastal town in Massachusetts. Despite the pristine beaches and natural beauty of the area, it was often at war with nature. In 2015, a wild blizzard breached the seawall, flooding a major chunk of the town. The tumult of the weather, combined with the complex relationships between residents of small towns like hers that span generations, created the perfect setting to explore interconnected narratives.
“I think in these small, tight–knit communities, there can be these really lovely, loyal relationships, but there are also weird alliances that tend to be very loyal to perhaps their family over the greater community. There's a push and pull,” Alina says, citing “these dynamics and people who have lived in a place for a very long time and are trying to navigate the changing world.”
As a reader, Alina also loves to connect the dots in works like Penn grad Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad and Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge. So when her agent—who she signed with during the last year of her Master of Fine Arts program at Vanderbilt University—suggested that she weave the short stories closer together, she knew it was the right choice for the novel.
Women’s intergenerational relationships with each other occupy the emotional core of the novel. All the first–person voices, scattered across the coastal town, overlap with one another, presenting slightly different narratives of truth and memory. “I’m really interested in storytelling, the stories we tell ourselves about what's happened to us and who we are, and how memory plays into that,” Alina says.
At the same time that Alina was workshopping her short stories at Penn in a Fisher–Bennett classroom, Jennifer Yu (C’16) was drafting the initial 50 pages for her first of two published novels, Four Weeks, Five People. Though she’d always loved reading, bringing home “ungodly amounts of books” from her local public library, Jennifer began her college career on the pre–med track.
Surrounded by fellow STEM majors and carrying concerns about practicality, Jennifer floundered for a while before taking a creative writing course with Kathy Van Cleve. “I think it was hard to make the jump [to English] but once I did, I was like, ‘Oh, this is definitely what I want to be doing,’” she recalls.
As she fleshed out the novel, bolstered by feedback from her class (she went on to thank them in the novel’s dedication), Jennifer also found support in her friends at The Daily Pennsylvanian. Jennifer “got sucked in quite early” to the DP sphere, serving on board for two years beginning in her freshman spring.
During her junior fall, when she was the Opinion editor, she used the book as a procrastination method. Rather than facing work for other classes, Jennifer could find refuge in her office, writing constantly. “I'm quite nostalgic for that first book because every in–between space and every sliver of free time I had, I would just be working on it, and it felt very, very magical,” she remembers. Later, for her next two books, she outlined a lot more, but with the first, she never quite knew what the next page would bring until she got there. “I think that's how a lot of the best writing happens, you're just seeing what happens and having fun,” Jennifer says.
While she was able to relax and enjoy the writing process, Jennifer still felt pressure to “do everything”—excel in classes, spend endless hours at the DP, and somehow find time to go to BYOs. She thinks that Penn in many ways encourages students to be overwhelmed, since it can feel safer than the alternative of contemplating “What am I doing with my life?” Despite this self–awareness, plus a CAPS appointment here and there, Jennifer doesn’t think she was very good at prioritizing her mental health at Penn: “I would be overwhelmed and have my regularly scheduled emotional breakdown, and then keep going because, at that point, you're behind on your homework.”
Four Weeks, Five People, as well as the sequel, Imagine Us Happy, depicts the nuances of dealing with mental health issues as a teenager through a wide variety of characters, each with a different problem, kind of like the Pooh Pathology Test. Jennifer drew upon many of the mental health conversations that were happening around her on campus, as she and her classmates juggled the pressures and anxieties that Penn’s competitive atmosphere induces. “I'm lucky that I had the book because I think it was a way of processing some of those feelings,” she says.
In her writing, Jennifer wants to complicate the often too neatly tied up narratives about mental health. “Recovery isn't going to be linear; [it] oftentimes isn't,” she says, “and it's going to look different for different people. There's not always a clean arc to stories about mental illness.”
For any aspiring authors, Jennifer and Chloe have similar pieces of advice about the way you should approach the time you spend writing. Chloe recommends figuring out the best way to organize your time and prioritize writing. For Jennifer, Penn might have been hectic, but she realizes now that she had more time to “just write” than she’s had since. By shifting her perspective to thinking that “I have the opportunity to write today and that's pretty cool,” she’s helped keep that passion alive—and is set to publish her third novel in 2024.
Throughout the writing process and especially during revision, Alina has learned to balance “wanting something to be as perfect as you can make it but also feeling like you can take risks.” Letting go of her craving for total perfection can be difficult, but when she’s working with her editor and agent, she can “step outside of herself” and put trust in the opinions of those she respects.
For Sophie, who was struck with the realization the book was making a difference when it landed on a Mommy blog, her takeaway is simple: “It was a cool thing to be like, yeah, ‘I'm capable of writing a book.’ I didn't know I could do it.”