I wholly admit that I judge books by their covers. I’ve been told not to, but I do it anyway. I fell in love with Like Home by Louisa Onomé the moment the cover (illustrated by Bex Glendining) crossed my Instagram feed. Soaked in soft hues and illuminated by street light, four smiling friends stand on a corner, shadows stretching off them, backdropped by a corner store with a welcome sign saying “a novel,” inviting you to open the book and be a part of this world. Maybe it was just my pandemic brain kicking in, but suddenly there was nothing I wanted more than to be with old friends in familiar places. Luckily, that is the exact feeling I found in the pages of Like Home.
I told Louisa that while reading, I felt nostalgic for a place I’ve never been. That’s the charm of Like Home, a story about Chinelo Agu, her best friends and their neighborhood, Ginger East; a place and people that completely come alive as you read. Your heart breaks alongside Nelo as you realize the good ol’ days are disappearing. The neighborhood is changing. The people are leaving. Is it too late for Nelo to grasp on to a little part of what made this place special?
I spoke with debut author Louisa Onomé about writing her first book and how she was able to craft such a remarkable setting and cast of characters.
Read the full interview transcript below.
Like Home tells the story of Chinelo Agu, a 16-year-old Nigerian Canadian who loves her home in the neighborhood of Ginger East. Many would say the neighborhood has seen “better days,” or “it’s not a good place to grow up,” but Chinelo is determined to stick around and support her community. What inspired you to write a story about gentrification for young readers?
With a lot of my work, I tend to write things so I can process things myself. I distinctly remember going back to the neighborhood that I grew up in, in Mississauga, and seeing things that were different. By the time we had driven down the road, I felt a bit sad. All these things that used to be there weren’t there anymore. I think maybe I’m just a sentimental person.
What happens when places change and they’re not the way that you remember them anymore? When you’re a kid, you grow up and you try to make sense of things. Nelo has heard of things like gentrification, but to experience it and see it is a little bit different. She’s seeing it and it still doesn’t make sense. I thought it was important to shed some light on how difficult that is.
Nelo’s neighborhood, Ginger East (or “G-East” as Maree would call it *cringe*), is full of character. By the time I finished reading the book, it felt almost familiar. How did you come up with this place? Were parts of Ginger East inspired by real-life neighborhoods you grew up in?
When I was writing the story, I want[ed] to talk about community and family. One of the major references that I always draw from of what a community can be is the place that I grew up — Mississauga.
So parts of it are inspired. Not everything. But just like the feel of it. Like [how] all the kids on the street are friends with each other. That was my experience as well. All the kids’ parents knew each other because we all played together. Our parents had to get to know one another and it was like this tight-knit community. I wanted to show that off.
The book has such a good vibe. It was making me feel nostalgic for a place that I’ve never been. While Ginger East is a fictional neighborhood, it is set in a very real city. Why was it important to you that this story takes place in Toronto?
I went through a weird back and forth about this because I wrote it based in Toronto and then when I was querying it, like before I got my agent, I got feedback that some people couldn’t conceptualize the setting. Because it was Canadian. So I changed it to America. But then I got my agent. I spoke to my agent and chang[ed] it back. Toronto is my home. This is where I live. I’m writing a story about community and home. It wouldn’t make any sense that it was in some vague Jersey city or something. I’m not American. I don’t know what it’s like to be American.
In fiction, I never see Canadian settings. If I see anything that’s set in Canada, it’s old and it’s always a portrait of Canada that I never recognized. Toronto’s my home. I really want to highlight it, but also I would love to see more Canadian cities in fiction.
I really want to highlight Toronto. I tried the best I could to describe the neighborhood, the streets and the shops. So it’s like even if you don’t know what Toronto looks like, you can follow the description to imagine the place.
Same! It’s hard for me to find books set in Canada. I grew up near Calgary. The shout-out to Chinelo’s dad living in Calgary was maybe the only time I’ve seen Calgary mentioned in YA. That was cool for me! The other thing that makes Ginger East so special is the people who live there. This book has a large cast of characters and each one of them stands out and has their moment to shine. Did you have a favorite character to write?
I don’t know if I had a particular favorite, but I really enjoyed writing them as whole people and including their negative points too. Like for Nelo, in particular, how she’s very loyal but very stubborn — and very quick to judge. It was fun trying to pull all those things out of [her].
I also thought it was fun to write Mr. Brown. He was very strict. He cared about one thing and that was it! I got to write from the perspective of an older Trinidadian man, which was always fun!
I think Chinelo is one of those YA leads that readers are going to fall in love with. She is all the best things about teenagers. She is funny, witty and smart but also stubborn. She’s angry at the world but also cares deeply about her community. In the novel, she struggles with all the changes she is going through. If you could speak to this character you’ve written and give Chinelo some words of advice, what would you tell her?
Don’t lose your passion! So many times people grow up and they forget about their interests. I would tell her don’t listen to anyone. Whatever [your passion] is, stick to it.
We’re so judgemental in the way people were judgemental of us when we were kids. It’s the cycle. This is what happens all the time. The older generation hates the younger generation. Why? You shouldn’t buy into that. I would tell her if someone is telling you you’re being childish or whatever, don’t listen to them! Just don’t listen to those people.
This is your debut novel and you’ve written a book that is going to mean so much to so many people. I can’t wait for readers to get ahold of it. I want to say thank you for sharing this story with us. How does it feel to finally watch your book go out into the world?
It’s exciting but it’s terrifying. I’m excited for people to read it. This has been a very fulfilling experience. But it is terrifying just because … it’s just scary! I think it’s because writing is such a solitary thing. You write it knowing someone will read it eventually but now that day is finally coming. I don’t even know what I’m so scared of! So yes, terrifying but also very fulfilling.
Louisa Onomé’s debut novel Like Home releases Tuesday, February 23rd. Her second book is already in the works. Follow Louisa on social media for updates and information on upcoming launch week events for Like Home.
Related: Like Home is one of Bookstacked’s Most Anticipated Reads of 2021
About Like Home
Chinelo, or Nelo as her best friend Kate calls her, is all about her neighborhood Ginger East. She loves its chill vibe, ride-or-die sense of community, and her memories of growing up there. Ginger East isn’t what it used to be, though. After a deadly incident at the local arcade, all her closest friends moved away, except for Kate. But as long as they have each other, Nelo’s good.
Only, Kate’s parents’ corner store is vandalized, leaving Nelo shaken to her core. The police and the media are quick to point fingers, and soon more of the outside world descends on Ginger East with promises to “fix” it. Suddenly, Nelo finds herself in the middle of a drama unfolding on a national scale.
Worse yet, Kate is acting strange. She’s pushing Nelo away at the exact moment they need each other most. Nelo’s entire world is morphing into something she hates, and she must figure out how to get things back on track or risk losing everything—and everyone—she loves.
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About Louisa Onomé
Louisa Onomé is a Nigerian-Canadian writer of books for teens. She holds a BA in professional writing from York University. When she is not writing, her hobbies include picking up languages she may never use, crying over her favourite video games, and perfecting her skincare routine. She currently resides in the Toronto area.