I had something else I was going to write on representation. But then I heard about Robin Williams, and I thought of other things. About feeling alone. About depression, that horrendous, hideous beast that traps you and makes you feel like there’s no reason to get out of bed. I thought about my depression, which I still struggle with. What I struggled with during high school, particularly (I hesitate to say because of) my struggles with my sexuality, with not feeling like I belonged anywhere, especially when I was still in the closet.
It was lonely. God. I can’t speak for everyone but I felt so God damned lonely, all the time, like no one understood this fog that had taken over my brain. I wasn’t sad. I didn’t feel anything except loneliness and an acute desire not to get out of bed. I didn’t want to talk. I didn’t want to do anything.
But wading through the fog gets easier with help. For me, that help was friends and writing. Writing is what’s been there for me when I can’t get out of the slump. Sometimes it’s the only thing I do in a day, sometimes it’s just twenty words or a scene but some days that feels like enough, and when I want to just lay in bed and sleep it helps to immerse myself in this fictional world that I’ve created, replace the fog with words. Writing, it would seem, helped more than anything else has.
Reading helps, too. Reading, especially now, is my way of not feeling alone. It’s my way of connecting with characters who are feeling the same things I’m feeling, regardless of whether or not they’re fictional. And as books have become more diverse it’s been easier to find those characters, whether they suffer from mental illness or are queer or any number of things. They help me not feel alone.
And that, I think, is what it boils down to. At least for me–this issue of representation, of seeing yourself in literature. Because the worst part of depression, bar the not getting out of bed, bar the fog, bar the sadness, was the indescribably crushing loneliness. That’s why books helped, that’s why reading was so important to me, because of representation. Good, accurate, thoughtful representation where my issues and fears and doubts and feelings were important. Where I was important, where I could feel like I was, and because of that—because of those books where people like me were valued—I began to find value in myself, too.
Because when you can’t find yourself represented, not only in literature but in every type of media, you start to feel like you don’t exist. When all you read are straight protagonists, you begin to feel like your story isn’t worth telling. Where every YA has a cis-male love interest for the cis-female protagonist, where the only books with queer protagonists you can find involve the angst of coming out and how awful it is to live in a world and be queer, you start to think that people like you don’t get a happy ending, or even a story at all. You begin to feel like you don’t deserve a story, or your story has to end in angst and tears. And if you’re me, it means that, for awhile, you just stop looking for your story at all. You stop looking for queer protagonists, you stop hoping that maybe you’ll find yourself in the pages, that the girl will fall in love with her best friend rather than the boy next door. You give up. You just… you stop.
But I do exist. My story does have value. I can have a happy ending, even if I have to write it myself. And you, reading this, whoever you are—you have value too. You exist. You are so, so important to the world, and to me. Even if you don’t see it yet. You are important. Your story is important, and I won’t tell you it gets better, but there are things that haven’t happened to you yet that are going to be amazing. And you need to experience them.
You’re not alone. I promise. Even if it feels like it, even if you can’t find yourself in a book right now, there’s someone out there experiencing the same things with you. If you tell your story, I guarantee you’ll get someone agreeing with you, with your experiences. Just stick around to tell it.
Nita Tyndall is a tiny Southern queer with a penchant for sweet tea, cardigans, and words. She’s been writing since she was five, and her first piece was Scooby-Doo fanfiction in bright pink, all caps font—though now she prefers to write about sad teenagers. She’s currently in college attempting to get an English degree, and briefly was a college columnist for the lesbian webmagazine, Autostraddle. You can find her on tumblr at nitatyndall where she occasionally writes about YA and queer things, on Twitter at @NitaTyndall, or at her website nitatyndall.com.
Editors note: Part One of the We Are Not Just a Diversity Checkbox mini-series addressed background MOGII characters in media, and why there is no good excuse to leave out queer characters. In Part Two, Emily K, one of our Teen Voices, goes further into this, looking specifically at speculative fiction. This series updates every Friday, and will be wrapping up the first week of September.
It doesn’t stop at just a lack of queer characters. Many YA speculative fiction books take place in worlds where the existence of MOGII people isn’t even considered. The possibilities in world-building for speculative fiction is limitless. We already live in a heteronormative and cissexist world; it doesn’t need to carry over into science fiction and fantasy stories.
It’s worthwhile to note that it is possible to set a story in a society that ignores same-gender couples in order to point out the heteronormativity. For example, the novel Acid by Emma Pass (Delacorte Press, March 2014) is set in dystopian London, and the main character, Jenna, meets an explicitly stated f/f couple. It leads Jenna to wonder about other same-gender romantic relationships and how they had to live with the heteronormative government-mandated match-making. This is a positive example also because it doesn’t use the pain of MOGII characters to further the growth of a main character, both girls in the couple are named, and they have multiple conversations with Jenna in the chapters they appear in. While this is better than what most books in the genre have done, there’s no need to take such baby steps when there are books with, ya’ know, canon queer protagonists.
Minor characters who are MOGII are important, though. In the words of Rainbowheart, another contributor to the Goodreads thread, “side characters are as important as main characters because it reflects the diversity of our world. So teens can read these books and see that parents, siblings, friends, teachers and so on are not necessarily straight by default.” While that’s important for cishet teens to realize, “queer characters do not and should not have to ‘make straight people see how normal we are’…Queer characters should first and foremost be for queer people. If straight people get anything out it, then that is a neat perk.” (Sarah Stumpf)
Some authors try to pass off subtext, allegories, “undefined relationships,” and “love that’s open to interpretation” as equal to blatant textual evidence that a character is MOGII-identified. While that was really the most people could hope for in terms of representation 50, 40, or 30 years ago, that’s not the case anymore. For example, Malinda Lo has written four novels picked up by mainstream publishers, none of which feature cishet protagonists. Ash (Little, Brown 2009) is a lesbian retelling of Cinderella with more fantasy elements, Huntress (Little, Brown 2011) is a prequel to Ash that features two queer female protagonists, and her duology Adaptation (Little, Brown 2012) is a science-fiction story with a bisexual female protagonist. Lo has been a guest at speaking events, book panels, book conferences, and signing tours since first being published in 2009; her books have sold well and all four of them are either already published or soon to be published in the U.K. and Australia.
Despite the success of Adaptation and other Young Adult sci-fi books with one or more canon bisexual major characters such as Otherbound by Corrine Duyvis, Saga by Brian K. Vaughan (which is a graphic novel series, but still worth noting in this list), The Summer Prince by Alaya Dawn Johnson, and Love In The Time of Global Warming by Francesca Lia Block, people are spending time writing articles about whether Divergent is the science fiction genre’s first bisexual allegory. It seems backwards to congratulate books for having possible queer interpretations of characters when books with canon queer characters, many of which are written by MOGII-identified authors, exist and are going unnoticed (which is also due to the fact that the books with MOGII characters are given less press and are allotted less money for marketing than their cishet-palooza counterparts).
Drop a comment to let me know what you thought of this week’s post, or talk to me on Twitter @captainbooknerd.
I’m Emily, an asexual kinda-girl/kinda-agender lesbian in an American high-school straight out of a TV teen drama. I’m also a sci-fi/fantasy book and comic enthusiast. I can be found in one of the three libraries I have a card for, my local bookstore, the awesome comic store in my town that has fluffy cats, or at my computer. My goal is to become an editor at a Young Adult fiction publishing imprint. Twitter: @captainbooknerd, tumblr: adventureswithinthepages.tumblr.com
Mama doesn’t like boys, but Jack’s not like most boys.
Born a girl during the Civil War, Jack has been passing as a boy in the slums of Five Points, Manhattan, since running away from an orphans’ home at age eight. He makes his living at petty thievery, surviving pocket watch-to-pocket watch until he discovers a talent for gambling.
Lucy is a bright girl trapped in a dreary life with her widowed mother. When she meets Jack on the street, her days are happier than they have ever been. But her heart is broken when mother takes her far from New York, perhaps never to see Jack again. Her new home in a rowdy Arizona mining town is as dismal as ever, but she finds a glimmer of hope in dreams of a career on stage.
Now, to find their way to the life they promised each other, Jack and Lucy will have to dodge dangers and take risks they never dreamed of as childhood sweethearts.
Jack tells the story of a cross-dressing, biracial teenager in 1800s America, when tolerance was low and society was largely male dominated. Cate not only addresses the perils of being transgender in a historical context, but focuses on the corruption of a male dominated society and racial tension in the civil war era. But aside from all that, Jack is much more than a story that has the intention to educate. It is a novel which stems from romance; Jack, the titular character, strives to reunite with his childhood sweetheart, Lucy, after she and her mother leave New York to live in Arizona. And as Jack and Lucy inch towards their happy ending, they encounter adventure and heartbreak.
This novel, as a whole, was a breath of fresh air. The characters were a little two-dimensional, but I felt as if Cate’s intention was to focus more on the story-line than character development. The plot was fast paced, edgy for a historical novel, and, therefore, some of the development was a little too convenient for me, however, I enjoyed the mystery behind some of the characters, their schemes and foibles; there was parts in the story where I became breathless with excitement; parts where I swooned at the romance and particular parts where I couldn’t help cringing with disgust (as the author surely intended). Cate knows how to write a fast-paced adventure.
Perhaps this is me as a reader, but I love to know more detail. Yes, I love me some juicy imagery and slow, sensual description. Jack seemed to lack some depth where the writing was concerned. And although the short free prequel, Jump, gives the reader insight about Jack’s background, I still felt as if there was something holding me back from indulging in the character’s emotions; the love between Jack and Lucy was a little under-developed, very sudden and slightly rushed.
A particular racy scene between Jack and Lucy was much needed. The physical intimacy between the characters, not just Jack and Lucy, but Bill and Shanna gave the story a more mature angle, made their love slightly more believable and interesting, and developed the relationship, giving it a more realistic, grittier edge. Hats off to Cate for not blurring out the scene or eschewing it completely, but instead, telling her story exactly the way she desires it to be told.
Jack’s plot line and ingenuity was brilliant. I thought Cate pulled off the motif of gambling throughout her story well; Jack’s propensity towards gambling and the palm reading went well together, giving the book a mystical edge. The novel was well executed and I felt as if Cate had put as much thought into the character’s back-story and endgame as she did with the plot.
Overall, the novel itself is not unique because it features a transgender protagonist, but because it succeeds in creating a well written plot filled with a great romance and even greater adventure. I will definitely be reading more from this author.
Simren is an 18 year old student with a passion for reading and a glutton for romance, adventure and wit. She writes as much as possible in her free time, be it journalism, fiction or reviews.
Find her on twitter @Simren2105, or drop a comment down below.
Read our interview with Shannon LC Cate here!
Editor’s note: We are so excited to be hosting this mini-series We Are Not Just a Diversity Checkbox. It will be updated every Friday and wrap up the last week of August. Emily K, one of our Teen Voices will be talking about MOGII (Marginalized Orientation, Gender Identity, and Intersex) representation in YA, specifically minority characters, and others that are included more or less to check us off.
When the hype for Disney’s animated feature “Frozen” was at its peak, many people were exuberant over the male store owner having a husband and children who were shown for two seconds sitting in the sauna. How wonderful! A huge corporation like Disney has finally provided some MOGII representation! Except, they didn’t. The scene was completely ambiguous, and there has been no official word from Disney as to whether the man in the sauna was the store owner’s husband. This is not representation. Even if they were a confirmed couple, after all the movies Disney has put out with heterosexual couples, one minor background couple whose scene is very short and so ambiguous that there would need to be a press release to confirm that they aren’t straight doesn’t count as progressive in the least bit. This is an extreme example, but it leads me to a question for the young adult genre: does having background/minor MOGII characters count as progressive?
There is quite a long answer to this question when you dive into the gray areas and specifics, which I will, but the straight-forward answer is no, a passing mention or appearance of an MOGII character shouldn’t be lauded now in 2014. Back in May of this year, I posed this question to fellow members of the Goodreads’ group YA LGBT Books. The group has brought about many lively discussions about issues in Young Adult literature with regards to the MOGII characters (or the lack thereof). In this thread, user Jay D. mentioned author Robert A. Heinlein, who intentionally wove positive MOGII characters into the plot of Stranger in a Strange Land (Putnam Publishing, 1961), though they were edited out. Jay had a very succinct answer to my question. “What Heinlein did with minor LGBTQ characters was groundbreaking but it would not now be any big deal.”
Books with MOGII protagonists have sold well, and a large portion of YA readers have made it clear that they are starving for books like that. Despite this, in 2013, books with YA MOGII characters make up, at the high end of the estimation, 2.4% of all YA books published that year. And that small slice isn’t very diverse; cis gay boys made up 59% of the protagonists in the Big 5 and 75% in specifically LGBT publishers. The representation of characters in multiple oppressed minorities, such as being MOGII and a person of color, is dismal. “The book won’t make money” can no longer be used as an excuse, nor can “There will be backlash from homophobes/transphobes,” for two reasons. First off, there will be at least some backlash for every book published. Books about genetic modification and cloning, drug/alcohol use, magic, political and religious viewpoints, or violence have all received backlash. Religious groups ran to libraries in droves to get the Harry Potter series banned because they thought that the magic would encourage satanism or occultism, yet now the series is famous the world over. Publishing houses are willing to publish books with scenes of graphic violence, but many seem to draw the line at stories with happy MOGII characters. Secondly, if authors and publishers are more interested in catering towards bigots than treating MOGII people with human decency, then they are part of the problem.
We need to show authors and publishers that we are not content with tiny scraps of representation, but I know how difficult it is to contain the excitement over those tiny scraps when we are starving. We need to make having MOGII characters or at the very least not excluding them during world-building an expectation instead of something non-MOGII authors are praised for.
Part Two of We Are Not Just a Diversity Checkbox will be up next week and is about MOGII characters (or really the lack thereof) in speculative fiction. I’d love to hear your opinions on Part One; leave a comment, or tweet them to @captainbooknerd on twitter!
First things first, this a beautiful book. You don’t even need to read it to realise that it’s beautiful: you can tell by the way the dust jacket is all textured and pretty, with the letters jutting out and being bumpy underneath your fingers. It is a gradient turquoise sky, a stormy sea, and a splash of orange that’s like the splash of hope this book will provide for the queer teenagers who read it or have read it.
It’s a reimagining of Homer’s Odyssey, which is incredible in itself: this is a book I had read to me as a child as I lay in bed, listening, awestruck. Just like the Odyssey, it’s full of mythical creatures and adventure and the elements, and the story is driven by a hero. Francesca Lia Block even managed to capture the mood of the Odyssey, or at least the mood it inspired in me when I was seven years old: the feeling of being surrounded by wonderful things that you don’t quite understand but want to. It feels like it’s enchanted: the way the sentences are so beautifully and richly woven together and the way that flashbacks are placed amongst present tense narrative so that they blend in, perfectly, rather than feeling awkward as is the danger when an author takes readers away from the main storyline.
Reading this novel does require a certain amount of suspension of disbelief – things are constantly happening and changing and they are all fantastical without huge amounts of explanation. It’s set in a post-apocalyptic LA, but the way that the pre-apocalyptic world is described does not make it seem entirely realistic. Everything is very stylised, to the extent that reading the book is like looking at an impressionist painting. You know what’s happening but it’s not being presented in a lifelike way. For some people this might create distance from the story, but personally I liked this aspect of the book, because it once again captured the feeling of the Odyssey. I’m a Latin student so I love this sort of classically inspired writing with roots that go way back to the Ancient World, but the style isn’t for everyone.
My favourite part of the book, though, were the characters. There are four friends, all teens, all queer, and between them they go on an adventure to keep themselves safe and find the main character’s family. One of the most successful parts of the characterisation was that the sexual orientations and gender identities of all four of them seemed like a non-issue: only at one point did the characters actually discuss being queer. In the rest of the book, they just got on with their lives, falling in love and saving lives and making grand sacrifices. A primary theme was the importance and value of family, which was very nice to read about in a time when YA novels are often just romances without any other plot.
Altogether it was an incredible book! I would recommend it for teens that have grown out of fairytale books but would still like to escape the real world, and also for queer teens, because they may be able to see themselves reflected in the heroes of this story, which is how it should be.
Georgie is a teen writer and bookworm from England. At the moment she’s working on a gay YA novel of her own and can be found procrastinating on Twitter (@missgeorgie) or else ranting on her blog (georgiepenney.weebly.com).
Today we have author Shannon LC Cate talking about race and gender histories, the importance of small-press or self publishing, and of course, her book Jack. Find out more about Jack here!
Question: Why did you choose the particular time and setting? (Post Civil War, New York and Arizona?) What about that time and those places interested you, or served the story?
SHANNON LC CATE: I studied this period during my graduate work in American literature. When I write historical fiction, I tend to naturally choose the last quarter of the 19th century because of my familiarity with that time and its various social settings. As for the places–I knew I would need a western setting, which is where the story began in my mind. I chose the Arizona Territory, because though I’ve never lived there, my dearest friend lives in Tucson and I have fallen in…not love exactly, but fascination with the place and its history on my visits to see her.
I needed to go backwards from the western scene that initiated the story in my mind (the first scene I conceived was near the climax of the novel) and the more I filled out the main character of Jack, the more it seemed he had come from Five Points, which was a rough immigrant area of Manhattan in this period. It just fit his character perfectly for that to have been his background.
Q: What’s your favorite feedback, so far, from readers?
SC: I love to hear that teens are reading and connecting with my book! Lots of my own age-peers have read and enjoyed it, and that’s wonderful, of course. But when I get feedback from an actual “young adult” that’s when I know I’ve hit the target for writing “young adult” literature. Most especially gratifying are the comments from queer teens who can identify with Lucy and Jack for that reason, too.
Q: Why did you choose to make the character of Jack biracial?
SC: Jack’s race makes sense for the time period and the setting. There was (and is) much more mixing of races in U.S. history than is commonly discussed in the mainstream culture–especially in urban communities of recent immigrants. Many families today contain both Black and white members even when they are unaware of it. One thing I like to do in my fiction is bring out hidden histories–queer histories, of course, but race histories, too.
The more I thought about who Jack was–from his looks, to his childhood story of running away from an orphanage, the more it made sense that he was biracial, and to a certain extent, he had been abandoned because of it. You can read Jack’s back story in a free short story I wrote as a prequel to the novel, called “Jump.” I knew this was Jack’s story all along, but I didn’t decide to write it down until an enthusiastic fan asked for more.
Q: Is Jack transgender? Or an orphan girl who has found living as a boy safer and/or more freeing than conforming to the accepted feminine behavior of the period?
SC: Yes. And yes.
Actually though, Jack is not transgender because that category wasn’t available in the 1870s. To call him transgender would be inappropriately anachronistic. Jack is an example of a historical phenomenon of girls or women changing their identities to boys and men. Sometimes this was temporary–many women served in the Army in the Civil War dressed as men, for example. Some went “back” to being women after the war. Some remained men. We can’t quite know what exactly it meant to them, because our society is so different than theirs was–not as constrained by rigid notions of binary gender. Jack was an orphan girl who made a practical decision to change genders. But grown up Jack is a man. He is a man with a difference, to be sure, but a man.
Q: There’s some major horse riding in the book. Can you talk about that?
SC: Well… much of the action does take place in the West–which is a good excuse to put horses in the story. I have always loved horses and as a kid, loved reading about horses. I couldn’t resist a few good horse scenes!
Q: Did the story take you anywhere you didn’t expect it to? Any surprises while writing?
SC: There is a pretty big surprise that came to me entirely out of the blue, when I had to solve a problem in the plot. It became Jack and Lucy’s problem and don’t you know, they solved it for me! It’s good to have clever main characters who can help a writer at sticky moments. I can’t tell you the surprise though, because I don’t want to spoil it for readers.
Q: How would you like to see Gay YA evolve in the next few years?
SC: What I’d love to see is a place where readers can find the books that don’t necessarily make it into the big NYC publishing houses because they are supposedly too risky, or too niche-interest to sell in big chain bookstores.
While it’s good to see the offerings among mainstream big presses begin to include more queer characters, there is still a fairly narrow script–and a narrow type of “queer” character that is allowed to squeeze through those gates.
But we know that readers’ interests are broader than that. If NYC isn’t willing to gamble on many, say, trans characters of color, who are simply who they are and it is not The Big Issue in the book, then small presses, e-first presses, and self-publishing writers can–and do–take that plunge.
GayYA can be–will be, I hope!–the place to find those books.
Shannon LC Cate has been writing about family, parenting, politics and religion since 2000. Her work has appeared on Babble.com, BlogHer.com, Literary Mama.com, VillageQ.com, in Adoptive Families Magazine, Gay Chicago Magazine and elsewhere. Her debut novel, Jack, is an Editor’s Top Pick from Musa Publishing.
Shannon, her partner, and their two young daughters divide their time between Chicago and Urbana, Illinois. You can find her online at ShannonLCCate.com or on Twitter @LilySea.
Announcing our August 2014 BotM: Love in the Time of Global Warming by Francesca Lia Block!
Her life by the sea in ruins, Pen has lost everything in the Earth Shaker that all but destroyed the city of Los Angeles. She sets out into the wasteland to search for her family, her journey guided by a tattered copy of Homer’s Odyssey. Soon she begins to realize her own abilities and strength as she faces false promises of safety, the cloned giants who feast on humans, and a madman who wishes her dead. On her voyage, Pen learns to tell stories that reflect her strange visions, while she and her fellow survivors navigate the dangers that lie in wait. In her signature style, Francesca Lia Block has created a world that is beautiful in its destruction and as frightening as it is lovely. At the helm is Pen, a strong heroine who holds hope and love in her hands and refuses to be defeated.
©2013 Francesca Lia Block (P)2013 Brilliance Audio, Inc.
We like to pick not only our favorite books for the Book of the Month, but also ones that contribute something very unique to Gay YA. In most Gay YA (especially speculative fiction), there’s only one or two queer characters, and they’re surrounded by a cast of straight, cisgender characters. And while we’re happy to get representation in that way, it’s also great when you find a book in which the majority of the characters are queer– especially in speculative fiction, because for some reason most authors think that being queer is still taboo in future and fantasy worlds, and more often than not, we end up with a book made up entirely of straight, cisgender characters. Love in the Time of Global Warming is such a wonderful subversion of that. I don’t want to spoil anything, but let us just say there is queerness abound in this book, and it’s done respectfully and wonderfully. I especially love it, because I love all the re-tellings of Greek and Norse mythology, and I’ve always wanted a re-telling with queer characters. This book, being based on The Odyssey, fills that.
And, okay, I must unleash the inner fangirl: This book is so good you guys. SO GOOD. Literally, I carry my copy around with my everywhere and snuggle it while I sleep (although I do alternate with some of my other favorites like Brooklyn, Burning, Split, and TPoBaW).
I’m super excited about this next month, and not just because our BotM is one of my very favorite books of all time.
We have TEN BOOKS for a giveaway– 5 copies of Love in the Time of Global Warming aaaaannnnnd 5 ARCs of The Island of Excess Love, the next book in the series! I screamed when I opened the package…they’re so beautiful guys. SO BEAUTIFUL.
We are doing a Skype interview with Francesca Lia Block, the wonderful, amazing author, and are going to try record that audio for you all. I say ‘try’ because we’ve never worked with the technology before, and also since we are both such huge Francesca Lia Block fans, well, you might just be listening to a lot of giggling and pterodactyl-like screeches.
And on top of that, we are starting the process for a total site redesign– not only are we waayyy behind the book blogging times with the layout we have now, but it also restricts access to a bunch of our really great posts from the past, many of which are still 100% relevant today. So we’re getting ready to switch over to a new layout, which will make it much more pleasant to read new posts, and will make it easier to find posts on whatever subject you might be interested in.
We’ve got some great guest bloggers lined up for August as well. We’re going to be talking about minor queer characters in media, and f/f pairings and general female sexuality– if you’ve got some thoughts on either of those topics– or something related to them– and would like to do a guest blog, send me an email at email@example.com with your topic idea.
I’m so excited for August you guys I can barely contain it. In the meantime, if any of you have read or are reading Love in the Time of Global Warming, hop on over to our forums to discuss it with us! (This will earn you 5 entries in the giveaway! )
Oh, and until the end of the month, we’ll be accepting applicants for our book review team! Just send us (firstname.lastname@example.org) a little blurb about yourself and a sample review that you have written, and we’ll let you know within a few days if you’re a fit or not! People of all ages, sexualities, romantic orientations, and genders are welcome to apply.
That’s all for now!
Your Webmistress, Victoria
Molly Beth Griffin
I didn’t start writing my first novel assuming that it would actually be read by anyone but me and my graduate school advisor, and maybe the memory of my teenage self. It was an experiment in longer-form fiction taken on by a self-defined picture book writer. But the project took flight, and after years of hard work, *Silhouette of a Sparrow *hit shelves in hardcover in 2012 and then again in paperback in 2013.
Which was terrifying.
Aside from the usual trepidation of a debut novelist, I had some added fears. Why? Because although the book, to me, is a beautiful and wholesome love story about a girl transforming into the woman she wants to be, I knew that to some it could be considered baser reading material for teens than pornography. It has gay people in it. Gay people! And, you know, a little bit of sex.
And what I think is a unique and wonderful asset of the book—the fact that it is a love story and not an “issue book”—I knew might cause even more problems in the big world. People might actually pick it up not knowing that it has gay people in it! They might think it’s historical fiction, a coming-of-age novel, nature writing, and so forth, and then be shocked and appalled by its “hidden agenda.” Or something. They might even have the gall to ban it. Kissing is dangerous! Can’t let teens read about that!
But as nervous as I was about all that, I was also thrilled by it. It has always irked me that novels about queer people are almost always coming-out stories, where the actual romance takes a back seat. Thankfully there are some new ones that break this mold (my very favorites being *Brooklyn, Burning *by Steve Brezenoff, and *Every Day *by David Levithan), but *Silhouette of a Sparrow* is still in the minority. It seems obvious to me: gay teens sometimes just want to read books about other gay teens that *aren’t about being gay*. And straight teens need to see gay teens for what they are—people, with all kinds of complex issues related to and unrelated to being gay. These characters’ stories are worth reading about in their own right, by all kinds of people.
I haven’t been aware of any outright censorship of my book, so far. I’m sure that some gate-keepers have restricted access to it in quiet ways, by choosing not to include it on summer reading lists or face it out on the library shelf. But its “content” has probably inspired some adults to actively put it into the hands of a teenager—the right teenager—and then have a conversation with them about it. Some gate-keepers are swinging the gate wide open, and to them I am grateful. I never exactly intended to write for this audience, but now I’m eager to connect with them. Taking my cue from today’s queer teens and allies, I’m setting my fears aside and joining the conversation.
Molly Beth Griffin is a graduate of Hamline University’s MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults and a writing teacher at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis. Her first picture book, *Loon Baby, *came out with Houghton Mifflin in 2011, and her first YA novel, *Silhouette of a Sparrow*, was published by Milkweed Editions in 2012. *Silhouette of a Sparrow *won the Milkweed Prize for Children’s Literature and was a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award, the Minnesota Book Award, and ForeWord’s Book of the Year. It was featured on ALA’s Rainbow List and the Amelia Bloomer list of feminist literature. Her next book is a picture book called *Rhoda’s Rock Hunt*, which comes out with the Minnesota Historical Society Press in October. Although her writing reaches across all age groups and genres, it all demonstrates her passion for exploring young people’s changing relationship to the natural world. www.mollybethgriffin.com
SILHOUETTE OF A SPARROW is GayYA’s July Book of the Month. We are giving away a signed copy in our monthly raffle, which you can enter HERE!
Upon opening Silhouette of a Sparrow, I took its first-person narrative as a tragic misstep, which is the case in many YA novels I have read (or, attempted to read). I was pleasantly mistaken, and by chapter 2, I was hooked.
Silhouette of a Sparrow is narrated by 16-year-old Garnet Richardson, a bird-lover with a curious mind and an honest voice, who is sent to stay with relatives, the Harringtons, over the summer while her mother cares for her war-torn father.
Garnet, who has been brought up by her mother to be the future lady of a middle-class 1920s household, is happy for the opportunity for independence and adventure. With the help of her aunt, Mrs. Harrington, Garnet acquires a job at a local hat shop, where she chances a meeting with a dazzling flapper named Isabella.
The two hit it off immediately, and in pursuing Isabella, Garnet steps outside of the life she knows and glimpses lower-class ‘20s society in Minnesota, befriending the colored doorman of the hotel where she stays and carefully deceiving the haughty Harringtons, who would disapprove of her growing relationship with the girl they view as a “common, low-class slut”.
As the summer burns on, Garnet learns about blue-grey herons, woodpeckers, and the life of Isabella, who “looks at her the way she looks at birds.” At the same time, her cousin Hannah grows suspicious with each misstep, and letters from home–her father’s condition, her expectant boyfriend’s “important” question for her–plague her mind with doubts about her future and the choices to come.
As a teenaged lesbian, I had not seen myself portrayed on the page until age sixteen; this is only the third book that I have read in which a character of my orientation appears. I found Garnet to be well-written and relatable, portrayed as a human being and not simply for her sexuality. Each character in the story is a shade of grey with their own flaws and strengths, and each makes a visible journey throughout the book. (I especially liked the character development of Garnet’s cousin, Hannah Harrington, who caught my eye the second her scowl graced the page.) I saw myself and those around me in the characters, despite living 90+ years after the story is set.
Molly Beth Griffin paints an easily-readable, well-researched picture of summer in Minnesota, the roaring ‘20s, and love without labels. Garnet and Isabella and their story are portrayed with gentle honesty and a brave humanity. Silhouette of a Sparrow is a flighty summer romance, and above all a “wonderful novel about independence and first love.” (–Marsha Qualey). 10/10 would recommend.
Book review written by Kathleen, co-webmistress of GayYA.org.
Hey everyone! Today we have Kirstin Cronn-Mills, author of BEAUTIFUL MUSIC FOR UGLY CHILDREN (our June 2014 Book of the Month) talking about music, research, her book, and of course ice cream. Tune in!
Victoria: Beautiful Music for Ugly Children is about a guy named Gabe, who is navigating his way through life, romance, family and friendship, the same as any other teen. The only difference is that he was born in a girl’s body, as Elizabeth. BMUC tells the story of him coming into himself and leaving Elizabeth behind. How did this story come to you?
Kirstin: This story was a bit of a surprise. I wanted to write about a guy who loved music and radio, and who wanted to be a radio DJ because he could hide behind his show and be a cool, funky, interesting version of himself. At the same time I was beginning the book, I was picking books for a diversity literature class at my college, and I came across a book called The Phallus Palace, by Dean Kotula, about trans* men and their transitions. It included short autobiographical stories from these men, and I was struck by how clearly they stood up for themselves, against some serious odds. They didn’t abandon themselves, and I admired that. Then BAM. Gabe became a trans* man—because I could see a trans* kid using a radio show to try out her or his authentic self. Then I had to figure out if I could really write a book about a trans* guy.
V: Is there anything specific you wanted to achieve or avoid while writing Beautiful Music for Ugly Children?
K: I don’t think I had anything specific I wanted to achieve, really, except telling an engaging, funny, interesting story. I wanted to get to the emotional truth of what it means to have an ally, and what it means to step into who you really are. I wanted to convey some of the joy of being a music and radio nerd, too. : ) I didn’t set out to write an issue book, or to do anything specific for trans* rights and equality, though I think the book does some of that. But if you try to write a book with an agenda, you end up sounding preachy, and that’s rarely positive. I set out to tell a good story about a music nerd who happens to be trans*.
It took me a long time to realize what I was getting myself into, in terms of privilege and information and exploitation and everything like that, and by the time I understood how much of a mistake I might be making, I was too in love with Gabe, and couldn’t give him up. So I did an enormous amount of research to get the trans * part of his life into the realm of possibility. The emotional journey of the story—finding ourselves, finding friends, feeling like you’re not alone—is the stuff that people can identify with no matter what gender they are, so I figured I was OK there. But making sure the trans* part was respectful and correct (within the realm of correct) was the part I sweated the most.
There are DEFINITELY things I wanted to avoid while I was writing: first, stereotypes/ negativity about individuals who are trans*, and second, cisgender privilege. I hope I’ve done that. I’ve been questioned about why I included violence in the book, when it seems sort of stereotypical, but I’d counter with the fact that the threat of violence is an undercurrent of many trans* individuals’ lives, so it’s realistic to include it. And, if you want to write about positive things like friends who love you unconditionally, showing the negative allows us to value the goodness even more.
V: How did you conduct your research for this book?
K: Oh wow—I did all sorts of things. I read my ass off (both with books and on the Internet), I did a lot of lurking and listening, and the thing I liked best was spending time with youth in a gender exploration group in the Cities. The group moved several
different places over the course of writing the book (they’re currently housed at RECLAIM, in Minneapolis, a phenomenal organization) and they were instrumental in helping me understand how Gabe’s mind might work. They were very generous to me, letting me listen to their stories and ask them questions. I owe them so much.
V: In the book, you use the term ‘bio guy.’ Why did you decide to use that instead of cis?
K: You have to remember how much the conversation around trans* life has changed in the last two years since the book was published. Using the word “cis” to describe someone who’s not trans* is a relatively new thing! Nine years ago, when I started the book, nobody was using the word “cis.” I think I picked the term “bio guy” because I’m a poet at my core—that’s how I started my creative writing life—and I liked how the words sounded together. Plus it was short and sweet and it got the point across.
V: In BMUC, Gabe listens to a lot of music– do you share his music taste?
K: Some of it. We get joy from some of the same songs, but I’m not a huge fan of current pop music, nor of the “bitches and hos” variety of hip hop and rap. When it comes to music, I tend to be pretty flexible, and I’ll give anything a listen (if it’s not misogynistic and rude). In that way, Gabe and I are alike.
V: What was the hardest part of the book to write?
K: The hardest part was making sure I wasn’t screwing up the trans* stuff, and watching out for stereotypes and privilege and all of that. Emotionally, the hardest part was writing the violence, because I am extremely protective of Gabe, John, and Paige, especially Gabe. I didn’t want anyone to get hurt. In general, I don’t feel like it’s wise to get attached to my characters, but I can’t seem to break that habit with Gabe.
V: Is there anything you can tells us about what’s next on your writing horizon?
K: I have an illustrated YA novel coming out in the spring of 2016, called Original Fake. It’s about sibling rivalry and street art (think Banksy), and there’s a lot of gender flexibility in it. I’m also working on a new novel that’s about bodies versus brains, and also porn (!). We’ll see if I can pull that off.
V: And most importantly, do you have a favorite ice cream flavor?
K: Oh wow—I like lots of ice cream flavors, but since I don’t eat chocolate, most people will not be impressed. My favorite flavor is peanut butter, closely followed by lemon gelato. But I’m pretty flexible!