A New Debate-Focused YA Novel Completes A HONY Sensation

It was too rich a coincidence to ignore.

The new young adult novel by Jen Doll, It’s debatablefollows two high school debaters navigating the sometimes awesome, sometimes treacherous world of debate. The humans of New Yorkthe popular photoblog run by Brandon Stanton, had recently featured the hugely popular story of the Brooklyn Debate League (BDL), run by a teacher who had just spent all his savings on his passion.

Emails have been sent. Links have been established. And on Wednesday, what might seem like an unlikely pop culture-centric debate will take place at Greenlight Bookstorewhere Doll will be in conversation with the founding members of the Brooklyn Debate Leagueincluding Jonathan Conyers, at the center of the HONY feature, and KM “DiCo” DiColandrea, the aforementioned teacher, who implicated Conyers in the debate.

“We talk about how to change the world, and they actually do it through these human connections,” Doll explains. “The relationships you can build through debate can help save people. I wanted them to be involved in the event so that people are more aware of these things that are happening right around us.

Doll’s book deals with things that BDL students encounter on a daily basis. The protagonist, Millie, is a national-caliber debater who nevertheless encounters sexism. The author notes that hasn’t changed much since his own high school debate time two decades ago, when a teacher advised him never to show his knees.

“The statistics for women and girls who stay in the debate after a year are lower than those of boys who stay in the debate,” Doll says. “Girls are constantly bullied for the same bullshit, like ‘your voice is too high’, ‘you’re a bitch’ – you know, the same stuff we hear as women, like you can’t tell what you think or call yourself a Karen.

The Brooklyn Debate League, which raised $1.3 million through a GoFundMe after the HONY feature, attempted to create safe places for traditionally underrepresented students in the debate, including girls, students of color, LGBTQIA+ students, and others. Participation in the debate remains mostly white and male. BDL hopes to change that, something Doll’s Millie would certainly applaud.

“BDL offered ways to subsidize and give resources to people who didn’t have any. And by putting them in those spaces and giving them their voice, you can’t deny them,” says Conyers, who now coaches in the program with his former teacher.

“I can’t tell you how many kids come to their first tournament and say, ‘I can’t get into this room.’ And it’s not just because of stage fright, but because they say, “I’ve never spoken in front of a room of white kids before. I’ve had kids say that to me,” says DiColandrea. He notes that as a white coach, he can’t understand exactly what his kids are going through, but he tries to create an atmosphere that helps them navigate the experience. “We’re building a culture and building a community where children feel truly empowered to take on challenges that can be very intimidating personally,” he says.

One of the ways he can relate to children is by sharing his own experience of transition. “I try to model what it’s like to be vulnerable,” DiColandrea says. “As a trans person, I have the opportunity to have an incredibly personal and vulnerable conversation with the kids every first day of school because they need to know what to call me. Right? taught Jonathan, I was Miss Dico, I am no longer ‘Miss’.

In her book, Doll even instructs her protagonist to practice cuddling for competitions in order to “get it right” and not alienate the traditional-minded judges by walking away too soon or seeming to dislike the Hug. “I just thought about how I felt as a debater and how sometimes men would hug you too long when they handed you the trophy,” she explains.

She looks forward to discussing these issues with BDL members at Wednesday’s event and hearing their thoughts on other things she explores in the book, such as the intellectual approach to debate (is acceptable to defend something that you personally think is wrong?).

BDL members are eager to enter the new school year and continue to build on the things they have already taught their young debaters. Brendan Gorman, a BDL coach who teaches at Xaverian High School in Brooklyn, says that while kids care a lot about the outcome of a debate – everyone wants to win – they win much more than victories. “It empowers them,” he says. “We’re starting to focus so much more on who’s going to win the trophies and who’s going to win the round. Sometimes we almost forget to get there.

Wednesday’s event will include an overview of Gorman’s BDL curriculum and a mock debate with some BDL students as well as reflections from Doll, Conyers and DiColandrea on their debate years. There will also be time at the end for questions. The doll can’t wait.

“I would love to ask the students questions,” she says. “These are the ones I really want to hear.”

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