New YA novel ‘Why We Fly’ shares the story of a cheer team that takes a knee against systemic racism

Authors Kimberly Jones and Gilly Segal's new YA novel "Why We Fly" will be released Oct. 5.
Authors Kimberly Jones and Gilly Segal's new YA novel "Why We Fly" will be released Oct. 5.
Credit Kimberly Jones and Gilly Segal

The AJC Decatur Book Festival returns this weekend with a spotlight on two collaborative co-authors of a new young adult novel, “Why We Fly.”  Kimberly Jones and Gilly Segal wrote the book about two teenage girls, one Black and one white, whose friendship is tested by an act of rebellion against systemic racism. The co-authors will speak at the festival this Saturday, Oct. 2. Jones and Segal joined “City Lights” host Lois Reitzes to talk about “Why We Fly” and the real-life events that inspired it.

Interview highlights:

“Why We Flys” major characters and relationships:

“Lennie and Nellie are both seniors in high school when the book begins. At the beginning of the book, Lennie, who is white and Jewish… starts out recovering from two consecutive concussions, which have jeopardized her cheer career,” said Segal. “Lennie is also falling for the quarterback of the football team, and is a little starstruck by him.”

“[Nellie] is the kid that we all knew in high school that had a plan…. She does not want to deter from the plan, and is very ambitious, and is acutely aware that the level of ambition that she has, in terms of what she wants to do with her career and what type of education she wants to get, requires a certain level of strategy as well as consistency,” said Jones. “She is not interested in life doing anything to disrupt that, but life continues to do that.”

“‘Three’ is the star quarterback, and a truly extraordinary athlete, you know, one of the kids that people start talking about very early… as a ‘future’ and a ‘feller,’ a future Hall-of-Famer,” said Segal. “He and Lennie fall for each other. They’re both recovering from injuries at the beginning of the book, and they bond based on that…. Some of the early readers have commented on ‘Three’ not being a great boyfriend, which I’m not sure he is. But he’s also a teenager in his own right, and I’m not sure he has the tools to handle the situation any more maturely than he does.”

An allegory on action against systemic racism:

“’Why We Fly’ is another story inspired by real-life events. This book [is] inspired by the Kennesaw State cheerleading team that, a number of years ago, inspired by Colin Kaepernick themselves, took a knee during the national anthem at a college football game, and subsequently [were] removed from the field… A number of them lost their scholarships. There has been ongoing litigation to this day related to that action that they took,” said Segal. “We process by writing, and we wanted to tell a story, and think through why and how; what kind of courage those teens had to speak up, and stand up for something that they believed in, understanding that there might be consequences.”

“Lennie and Nellie, I think, start out a little bit on top of the world. It’s the start of senior year, they have high hopes and expectations, then they take a knee during the national anthem, and the community is really not supportive,” said Spiegel. “Nellie is punished more harshly than any of the other cheerleaders, which raises questions about how Black students versus white students are disciplined in schools, and the disparate punishments that are handed out to students. But it really sets them on a journey of figuring out, for Lennie, what’s the difference between being an ally and being an accomplice?”

“Lennie would like to be an ally, and support this social justice action, but she has a hard time seeing the disparate impact, seeing that her consequences are different than her peers.”

On Jones’ and Spegal’s collaborative writing process:

“We lean into our strengths and weaknesses,” said Jones. “Gilly is way better, and far more skilled, educated, and learned in terms of the structure of a book; in terms of her beautiful interiority into what the characters are thinking and feeling, and her description as to what the room looks like, giving you the feeling of where we are… My strong suit is dialogue and pacing, making sure that we are not lingering in a space for too long, and making sure that the characters sound like real people, and not fifteen-year-olds sounding like forty-year-olds.”

“Definitely none of our work is a memoir in any way… but we draw on our cultural lived experience to give viewpoint,” said Jones. “People always ask us, ‘Are you, Lennie? Or are you…’ And we jokingly say we keep writing each other; my characters are more like Gilly, and her characters are more like me, so we think that’s funny.”

The Decatur Book Festival takes place Saturday, Oct. 2, at the First Baptist Church of Decatur. Kimberly Jones and Gilly Segal will present a discussion on “Why We Fly” at 2 p.m. More information is available at

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