When I moved away from Philadelphia in 2016, I started trying to write my way back.
At this point I’ve published 10 books for young adult readers, and have often been asked why they take place in Philly. After all, I grew up in Elizabeth, New Jersey, and lived in Richmond, Virginia, and Ann Arbor, Michigan — places that certainly hold a place in my heart and are ripe for storytelling.
But like anyone who has left Philadelphia will tell you…
There’s just something about this place that calls you back.
For me, Philadelphia represents why I love writing and reading young adult books, stories about characters figuring out their place in the world. It’s a city that’s constantly changing, much like the teenage protagonists of your favorite kid-lit stories. A town that says “no one likes us, we don’t care” just like that brooding character in an epic YA fantasy novel (though arguably that kid does care, and you learn more about why around Chapter 6). It’s a place where the historic district is lined with cobblestone streets and twinkling lights perfect for awkward first-attempts at hand holding, like in a YA romance.
It’s a city of firsts that also says it’s okay if you don’t quite have it figured all out just yet.
Philly has found its way into the heart of almost every story I’ve written. I put fictionalized versions of real places into just about all my books. And with my tenth YA novel out this month, I wanted to talk about some of those spots, and dish a little map of my Philadelphia.
The places I wrote myself home to.
My Philly, in my books.
In “The Girl and the Grove,” readers meet Leila, a teen adoptee who discovers her birth mother is a dryad in a hidden grove in Fairmount Park — that’s set to be demolished for a new visitor’s center.
While the first draft of this book was written in Philadelphia, it was revised and polished while living in Virginia, and published by the time I’d relocated to Michigan.
Books take a while, my friends.
In addition to traversing hidden nooks in Fairmount Park and familiar places tucked inside it, like the Please Touch Museum, Shofuso, and a fictionalized take on the Ohio House, the novel takes readers through Clark Park, along the Schuylkill River Trail, and up the Art Museum steps on an ill-fated date complete with a knitted sweater on the statue.
With the natural world playing a big part in the story, there’s also a stop at the Academy of Natural Sciences and a nod to the (now-closed) Roxborough Animal Hospital.
With a story about adoption at the core of the story, there’s also a fictional version of The Monkey and the Elephant, a café here in Philly dedicated towards helping foster youth.
As an adoptee, just knowing that place exists fills my heart.
Written while living in Richmond and Ann Arbor, “Don’t Read the Comments” is half set in Philadelphia, and focuses on two teenagers who meet one another in an online, World of Warcraft–style video game, and have to fight off racist and misogynistic trolls that have begun bleeding out into the real world.
In the Philly chapters, coffee shops also play a key role, with the kids convening at The Coffee Bar, a place that used to be in the Warwick Hotel, which now hosts Bluestone Lane, as well as LaVa on South Street, which is now The Social House. They were places my friends and I regularly wrote in, and it gave me a way to hold on to a piece of home.
The flea markets that often take over Eastern State Penitentiary and surround blocks around South Street make an appearance, as one character goes rummaging for old computer parts and vintage video games, much like I did as a kid.
Come 2020, me and my family had moved back to Philadelphia, and it was in the heart of the pandemic that I was writing “You Can Go Your Own Way.” A novel about two old friends turned enemies, it focuses on a failing pinball arcade in Old City, and a wild snowstorm that turns these enemies into something a little more romantic.
I was holed up inside, writing on a fold-down desk in our rowhome’s spectacularly narrow hallway. My wife is a social worker for veterans, an essential worker, and had to be out of the house. So the little time I stole away to work on my book, I spent writing about the places I was missing the most.
While the story is set around a fictional arcade, everything else around it is (or in some cases, was) very real. There are important moments at The Book Trader, Brave New Worlds, The Franklin Fountain, National Mechanics, the old home of Indy Hall, and the late Smak Parlour, where my wife and I took engagement photos once upon a time. There are nods to other wonderful Old City mainstays like Vagabond, Revolution House, Omoi, and Menagerie Coffee.
The book introduces readers to the late, great People’s Books and Culture (fka the Penn Book Center), where one of the characters is excited for an appearance by Celeste Ng. We zip over to NextFab, where one of the teens is daydreaming of learning more about electrical engineering.
I missed all those places, holed up inside. It was like getting to visit them. During this time, Harriett’s Bookshop in Fishtown had just opened, and I was going there every single weekend.
Whitney, one of the teens in the novel, carries around a tote bag from them.
The same way that bookshop carried me through that year.
My tenth book for young adult readers, “With or Without You,” comes out this month. If you’re from the area, you might be able to guess what it’s about from the title. Cheesesteaks.
In it, two teens working in rival cheesesteak trucks in South Philadelphia wrestle with hiding their feelings for one another when a production studio decides to shoot a reality show pilot about their warring families.
Their love for each other is simple, but the situation around them is messy. You know, like a cheesesteak.
Out of all my novels, I think this one leans the most into my love of this city. Most of the action takes place around South Philly, with nods to East Passyunk’s Singing Fountain, and speaking of singing, bands like Valencia, The Wonder Years, and The War on Drugs. There’s a cute moment at H&H Books in Fishtown, because every novel of mine has to mention a beloved bookshop at some point, and Dickinson Square Park makes an appearance, during a late-night date under the large street lamps that line the place.
Since so much of the book is about food, there are trips to Reading Terminal Market, twice, during mad dashes for ingredients for an upcoming food truck competition. There’s a fictionalized version of Greensgrow (RIP), and nods to ReAnimator, my favorite coffee in the city.
A core part of the book involves a teenager who wants to travel (in his food truck) and see more of the country but cannot wait to find his way back.
Because this is Philly.
Everyone finds their way back, one way or another.
I’m glad I did.