by Sonia Alejandra Rodriguez
Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe (2012) opens in the summer of 1987 in El Paso, Texas and follows Aristotle Mendoza’s journey toward self-discovery. Fifteen year old Ari is smart and witty but quite isolated from other boys his own age. However, after meeting Dante Quintana at the pool he begins to feel a renowned interest in life and an unfamiliar feeling for Dante. Benjamin Alire Saenz creates a beautiful flourishing relationship between the two young boys that forces both of them to look inward. Ari and Dante find solace, friendship, and love in one another that helps them overcome the obstacles that stand in their way. Saenz’s novel speaks to the innocence and pain of accepting one’s cultural and sexual identity in a society that might not be as accepting. Aristotle and Dante is a fabulous novel for many reasons but here are five reasons why you should love it too.
1. There’s an important discussion on a family member in prison
One of the issues burdening Ari’s identity is the silence around his brother’s incarceration. While his parents refuse to speak about Bernardo and what he did to end up in prison, his presence is still very much palpable for Ari. His parents’ shame of having a son in prison dictates what they expect from Ari and this becomes too much of a weight for him. After Ari gets into a fight and sends another young man to the hospital it is revealed that Bernardo went to prison for doing something similar. Ari’s parents fear that he may be headed down the same path. Saenz’s discussion on a family member in prison complicates the novel and makes it more than a simple coming out narrative. Ari must contend with what it means to be a man of color in his present society and his brother is a constant reminder of the racism and discrimination that men of color face. Ari cannot fully embrace his sexuality until he comes to terms with what Bernardo represents about Latino masculinity and how those terms define Ari. The focus of the novel is certainly Ari’s coming-out; however, Saenz’s makes it evident that Ari’s intersectionality with race, ethnicity, and class are also contributing factors to understanding the character as queer.
2. You’ll wish Dante was a real person so y’all can hang out
Dante first meets Ari at the pool and they bond over their rather unusual names. Dante is different than the other guy’s Ari knows and is estranged from. He is intelligent, kind, and vulnerable. Ari and Dante become inseparable that summer and spend much of their time reading, writing, and taking the bus around town. Dante’s romantic view of the world is new to Ari who has a darker vision of society. His positive outlook, though, sometimes gets Dante into trouble and Ari becomes protective of him. Dante forces Ari out of his comfort zone and into a special, almost magical, place of self-discovery. With Dante, Saenz has created an opportunity to talk about how class, ethnicity, and sexuality intersect. His father is a professor and his mother is a psychologist and while they are both supportive of his queer identity, he still feels like does not fit in with other Mexicans/Mexican Americans. Many readers will be able to identify with Ari because he can’t quite seem to find a place where he belongs and these readers will wish for a friend like Dante. Dante gives Ari hope and we all either have or need someone like that in our lives.
3. Ari and Dante’s passion for literature is contagious
One of the subjects that Ari and Dante bond over is literature. The accessibility to literature that the boys and their families have is extremely important because it challenges many stereotypes about literacy and education in relationship to Mexican-American communities. While it certainly helps that Dante’s father is an English professor, and it says plenty about class, this accessibility remains significant because they use it as part of their healing process. The books that Ari and Dante share help them process much of what they understand about the world around them. Books also allow them to connect to their parents in ways they didn’t know was possible. For example, Ari learns that his father’s favorite book is Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Other literary references in the novel include Walt Whitman, William Carlos Williams, The Grapes of Wrath, War and Peace, and W.S. Merwin. Reading leads Ari and Dante to begin journaling and writing letters to one another. Writing allows Ari to process many of the nightmares he has and it allows him to stay connected to Dante. It is through these letters that the Ari and Dante talk about issues like kissing, smoking, and masturbating. Whereas the books and the letters promote a healing process in Ari and Dante’s life, they also encourage the novel’s readers to delve into a literary world with which they may not be familiar.
4. Ari’s genuine desire to have a relationship with his father
It is likely that Ari’s father suffers from PTSD after serving in Vietnam. Mr. Mendoza’s silence about Bernardo and the war make it difficult for Ari to get close to him and this distance pains Ari. Throughout the novel, Dante becomes a catalyst through which Ari gets to know more about his father. By knowing his father he gains more knowledge about his family and about what it means to be a man. However, Mr. Mendoza recognizes his son’s inner struggle and is there to help him come-out. The father/son relationships in Aristotle and Dante are more supportive than those found in other young adult Latino gay novels. Most often the fathers either reject their son’s gay identity or are entirely absent from their lives as is the case in Alex Sanchez’s Rainbow Boys and Charles Rice-Gonzalez’s Chulito, for example. While Ari and his father definitely have some important issues to work through, his father is there to support him when it matters most. Ari’s desire to have a relationship stems from a desire to accept himself. By the end of the novel, Mr. Mendoza becomes instrumental in helping Ari see that he loves Dante and is able to go after him. In Ari’s coming out process, it is significant that he has relationships with the other men in his family. That he can have some sort of a relationship with them by the end of the novel is a beautiful gesture.
5. Because “I don’t think liking boys is an American invention”
Aristotle and Dante creates a space to discuss the intersectionality of being queer and Latino. Ari struggles to come out because he has some unresolved issues with the other men in his family, who are essential in defining Latino masculinity for him. Dante is openly queer but he struggles with feeling a connection with his cultural identity. He feels that his class status and his sexuality separate him from the Mexican community around him. Dante’s fear is a real experience that many Latino youth face. Often times, queerness is constructed and understood as an identity only accessible to white people. In claiming a queer identity, Dante feels further removed from his cultural community. However, Ari and Dante, and other queer characters of color, complicate and challenge these misconceptions. Dante reveals to Ari that he does not feel Mexican because he likes boys and Ari replies that he doesn’t “think liking boys is an American invention.” Ari’s nonchalant reaction is powerful because he directly challenges notions about who can claim a queer identity while simultaneously creating a space where he and Dante can exist. Saenz’s novel contests many stereotypes about queer and Latino communities; in doing so, he further affirms to queer Latino youth that their experiences are legitimate.
Sonia Alejandra Rodriguez is a PhD candidate in the Department of English at the University of California Riverside doing research in Latina/o Children’s and Young Adult Literature. When she’s not reading or writing about Latina/o kids lit she spends her time reacquainting herself with her home city of Chicago. She is also a contributing blogger for Latinos in Kids Lit. Follow her on twitter @mariposachula8
 Saenz is the author of several young adult novels and children’s books including Sammy and Juliana in Hollywood, Carry Me Like Water, Names on a Map, Last Night I Sang to the Monster, He Forgot to Say Goodbye, and A Gift from Papá Diego. Aristotle and Dante has won numerous accolades including a Pura Belpre Award, a Stonewall Book Award, and a Lambda Literary Award.
Vee: Hello there Steven! Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us. It’s a pleasure to have you on the blog. To start off, can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
Steven: Thanks for having me, Vee! I was born in the Big Apple to Portuguese & Dominican parents, but grew up in sunny South Florida, which I still currently call home (when I’m not calling it some not-so-nice words in the height of our steamy summers). I have a Journalism/Communications degree and also studied Motion Picture and Television production. I thought I’d be making movies one day. Life sort of got in the way and I ended up in the legal field (don’t ask), but my love for film/TV manifested itself in the form of writing books, which I visualize like movies in my head. So I guess my training and love for film hasn’t gone to waste! In addition to movies, I love board games and binge-watching TV series on video or streaming. Oh, and I’m also very passionate, vocal, and opinionated on LGBTQIA issues!
V: How would you describe THE CULLING for someone who hasn’t read it? And what can you tell us about the main character, Lucian Spark?
S: I would say that THE CULLING is like a mix of LORD OF THE FLIES & SOPHIE’S CHOICE, except magnified to the nth degree, bloodier, and starring teenagers in a Post-Apocalyptic world. The main character, Lucian “Lucky” Spark is a sensitive, romantic, somewhat naïve gay young man, who gets a crash course on betrayal and trust issues, and decides to make things happen rather than let them.
V: The series is called THE TORCH KEEPER– can you explain what a Torch Keeper is?
S:Without giving away too much of THE CULLING, a Torch Keeper is someone who keeps hope alive during times of extreme darkness, and becomes a beacon for a brighter future.
V: Diverse books are hard to find, and intersectionally diverse books even more so. Why do you think that is?
S:Unfortunately, I would have to say it’s largely due to fear. Fear on the part of publishers, who are afraid such books won’t sell, and perpetuate the cycle by not publishing these books and giving them the chance to be discovered. And fear on the part of some readers, who dismiss books because the people contained within their pages aren’t like them. The good news is that things are starting to change, and the people who believe in diversity are speaking out loudly and getting their voices heard.
V: What was your path to publication like?
S: Can you say rollercoaster ride? In 2008, I wrote a YA Paranormal/Espionage book called DAGGER, which was the name of the main character, a smooth-talking gay male teen who attends High School by day, and travels the globe at night defending it from all manner of demonic terrorist spies. Think Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Supernatural, Teen Wolf, etc. and you can get an idea of the flavor, a mix of supernatural, spies, and humor. One of the agents who read the book, said she LOVED it, that it really stood out from the crowded Paranormal YA market, and had great series potential. But she crushed me by telling me that as much as she adored the book, she couldn’t take it on because it starred a gay male character, and the YA market was predominantly heterosexual females, so no one would buy the book. I can’t tell you how devastating it was to hear that. Basically, if I wanted to get published, I couldn’t write a book starring people like me. Despite all the frustrations and suggestions that I change the main character’s gender and ditch the ‘gay,” I was determined to prove them wrong and went on to write THE CULLING, which sold in 2011.
V: I’m really curious about how people of different sexualities are perceived in this dystopian world. So far there hasn’t seemed to be any homophobia. What was your thought process in making it that way? How do you feel about futuristic or fantasy worlds that include homophobia?
S: Great question! In the world of THE CULLING, despite all the horrible things that happen, homophobia does not exist. My reasoning was based on the world we live in today. Every day more countries and states embrace marriage equality and LGBTQIA rights. In just a few months (fingers crossed) the United States may codify into law marriage equality across the entire nation. That concept was unheard of not too long ago! LGBTQIA kids being born today in this country will most likely grow up knowing they can marry whomever they fall in love with! That’s HUGE! Since THE CULLING takes plays hundreds of years in the future, it would only seem natural that homophobia would be a long forgotten travesty of the past. That’s what really irks me when I read fantasy/futuristic books that still rely on today’s bigotry or pretend LGBTQIA people don’t exist. Considering the glorious path we are traveling on in the present and the growing acceptance of LGBTQIA people, it doesn’t make any sense to impose present day bigotry on the future!
V: Even though dystopia and post-apocalyptic books are very popular in YA, there are very few that include queer characters. The two that come to my mind immediately are Proxy by Alex London and Adaptation by Malinda Lo. Have you read either? If so, do you have any thoughts on how your work compares to them?
S: I haven’t had the pleasure of reading Malinda Lo’s ADAPTATION yet, but I’ve heard fantastic things and plan to real soon! I did read Alex London’s PROXY and thought it was wonderfully written and very enjoyable! As discussed in the previous question, THE CULLING takes a decidedly different approach to homophobia in the future than PROXY does, but that doesn’t mean booth books can’t be equally enjoyed.
V: I’m only about 50 pages in right now, but I can already see that this world is really well structured. Can you tell us, is there anything about or that happens in this world, that you know is there but haven’t shown in your books?
S: In my best Gia Gunn voice, “Absolutely!” How did the world in THE CULLING come to be? Just WHAT are those pesky Fleshers? Why/How did the Trials come about? In the sequel, THE SOWING, I begin to explore those questions and raise some (hopefully) juicy new ones!
V: What would you like to see more of in queer YA?
S: HORROR! Really scary, keep-you-up-all-night-shivering-under-the-covers-horror! And before you ask, Yes, I want to attempt to write one!
V: Is there anything you hope readers will take from THE TORCH KEEPER SERIES?
S:I hope readers will take a sense of hope for the future, no matter how dark things may seem now. Also, that everyone, regardless of sexual orientation/identity, race or ethnicity, shares the same dreams and fears, and the desire to love and be loved is universal and can be appreciated by all readers. And especially to the LGBTQIA readers out there, YOU can be the hero and make a difference, despite what anyone else tells you.
V: What’s next for you? Is there a third book in The Torch Keeper series? And do you plan to keep writing more queer YA in the future?
S: I’m currently editing/revising the third book in THE TORCK KEEPER series, which will conclude the story. I definitely plan on writing more YA books featuring LGBTQIA characters! The novel I spoke of before, DAGGER, is currently making the rounds to publishers again. Let’s hope 2015 treats him better than 2008 did! And I hope to get around to writing that horror novel this year as well.
And if you want to support THE CULLING Movie/TV Series Proposal, Click “Support” and “Share” the IF List!
Thanks so much for having me!
I’LL GIVE YOU THE SUN by Jandy Nelson
I’LL GIVE YOU THE SUN is a complex story about FAMILY, secrets, GRIEF, love, growing up, FINDING AND BECOMING YOURSELF, self-esteem, and art.
It’s perfectly described in one of the epigraphs with the following e. e. cummings quote, “It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are” (spoiler alert: It takes a whole lot of courage. And it’s incredibly difficult). The novel reflects on the journey to becoming that person.
FROM GOODREADS: Jude and her twin brother, Noah, are incredibly close. At thirteen, isolated Noah draws constantly and is falling in love with the charismatic boy next door, while daredevil Jude cliff-dives and wears red-red lipstick and does the talking for both of them. But three years later, Jude and Noah are barely speaking. Something has happened to wreck the twins in different and dramatic ways . . . until Jude meets a cocky, broken, beautiful boy, as well as someone else—an even more unpredictable new force in her life. The early years are Noah’s story to tell. The later years are Jude’s. What the twins don’t realize is that they each have only half the story, and if they could just find their way back to one another, they’d have a chance to remake their world.
TRIGGER WARNINGS: rape, bullying, suicidalness, death.
I’LL GIVE YOU THE SUN is a book about…
-that moment when you learn you need to put up walls to survive. But it is also a book about tearing them down, or at least, learning to.
-growing up. Growing apart. People distancing themselves from their own selves.
-learning to live in the aftermath of tragedy. How do you go on after your worst fears have become true? How do you live like that?
-discovering yourself, making yourself; hating the person you have become and then finding your way back to yourself again.
-how different lives intersect for better or worse.
But Nadia, what about the LGBTQIA+ aspect of the book?
LET ME TELL YOU ABOUT IT.
One of the twins, Noah identifies as gay, as well as another supporting character.
Noah’s queerness is an important part, but it’s not the entire plot, it’s not what the book is about. I believe this might just be the kind of book people mean when they say they want a queer book “that is not about coming out”. Noah does struggle with being gay, and it is a secret that weighs him down, but his queerness is it’s also celebrated in the way the author describes his feelings and his crush. The best part is that the queer romance is it’s just as beautiful, meaningful and earth shattering as the other romances present in the book.
This novel really captures the feeling of when you know you are queer, and your existence suddenly feels like a “life or death” situation if others were to find out about it. Or that feeling you get when/if your crush doesn’t feel the same way about you, and is instead disgusted by you, which then helps reinforce the thought that you are alone and not worth it.
Like I said, it’s not about him being gay, but it is about him discovering his queerness and it being a part of him. And more specifically how it colors and affects his growth and life (past, present and future).
“I’m thinking the reason I’ve been so quiet all those years is only because he wasn’t around yet for me to tell everything to.”
And what about the writing?
Then of course you have the freaking prose.
Oh my Clark Gable, can Jandy Nelson write! (if/when you read the book you’ll get the Clark Gable joke). Her writing is lyrical and stunning. Her characters are fleshed out in such a way that you can actually feel their pain. It wouldn’t surprise me if they managed to jump out of the page and accompany you while you read (although that would be creepy huh).
Proof of this lady’s gift:
“This is what I want: I want to grab my brother’s hand and run back through time, losing years like coats falling from our shoulders.”
“Meeting your soulmate is like walking into a house you’ve been in before – you will recognize the furniture, the pictures on the wall, the books on the shelves, the contents of drawers: You could find your way around in the dark if you had to.”
The book is told in alternating chapters, Noah relates the past at 13 years old, and Jude the present at 16 years old. Jandy Nelson is aware of what she’s doing, and she does it well. This creative decision of connecting the past and present, and connecting the twin’s’ actions and reactions through time absolutely works, and it would be hard to picture the book done in a different way.
Some criticisms (SPOILERS)
-At times it felt a bit misogynistic, with Noah’s commentary about women, calling them demons. I let it slide because Noah felt that way mostly about everyone that he didn’t like, and because that was said in the same scene in which he was assaulted by a woman so it would make sense for him to feel that way.
-I wanted more of Noah and Brian in the conclusion. I wanted more of Noah’s dad talking about his son’s queerness. I know the book ends with a Jude chapter because it’s the present, but I wanted more.
All in all, taking the good and the bad, reading I’LL GIVE YOU THE SUN was a very rich experience. Noah broke my fucking heart. Jude broke my fucking heart. Everything was beautiful and everything hurt.
Get some tissues and a highlighter when you get down to reading it. But most of all be prepared because I’LL GIVE YOU THE SUN will break your heart, and then put it back together. You must let it.
And if none of this satisfies you, I suggest reading the following sentence from the book so you can have an excellent idea if it’s for you or not, because this is exactly what it’s about:
“(…)we make choices, good and bad, as we screw up, step up, lose our minds, find our minds, fall apart, fall in love, as we grieve, grow, retreat from the world, dive into the world, as we make things, as we break things.” (p. 354 from the ARC)
(P.D: BY THE WAY, did anyone else read Noah as neuroatypical? My best friend works with neuroatypical children and while reading she told me she believed Noah fit the criteria. What do you think?)
Nadia spends most of her day tweeting and daydreaming. Lover of books, comics, dogs and chinese food. Find her on twitter @heartless_tree
Of course, we’re all talking about Leelah Alcorn. Or at least we should be. And if we’re not, then we’re not grasping the meaning of her last letter to the world. It’s much easier to go through life unaware of actual abuse transgender minors are put through by their own unaccepting parents. Sometimes we just don’t listen, and it isn’t until these struggles are written out in a novel, or a television script, or even a suicide note, and handed to us that we truly listen.
But sometimes scripts and even novels dance around certain things, or they lighten them up with humor and heart. Suicide notes have a habit of being a bit more truthful, and a lot more abrupt.
Leelah’s suicide note was harsh, to the point, and full of anger. It definitely made me rethink a lot of things, including circumstances which I’m guilty of not thinking of enough, such as actual abuse towards transgender children by overly religious parents rather than just unacceptance, not to mention paid professionals who still practice conversion therapy and aid in promoting dysmorphia and shame in their young patients. Is that because I don’t live in this same situation? Or is it because that type of situation isn’t always looked into too deeply, even in the still rare times that transgender issues are talked about? Or is it because these triggering circumstances are often dressed up with flawless supporting characters and a wise beyond their years protagonist who always manages to pick themselves back up, so we don’t have to worry? I think it’s a combination of those three, that keep us away from the whole truth.
If you knew what happened to Leelah and didn’t read the suicide note you would think Leelah was a tortured soul who acted irrationally and should have held on. But I don’t think that’s really true. Leelah, though she was angry and afraid, seemed to me to be present and thoughtful, not irrational. Often, we look for a beautiful tragedy and a heartstrong hero who is somehow both amid yet above all their pain. But that belittles the victim, and romanticizes the entire situation. And when so many others are living it, that’s a huge problem plaguing a situation that does not need anymore negativity surrounding it. Romanticization doesn’t lead to actually changing things and it dehumanizes a situation, leaving it untouched and overlooked. Leelah didn’t find getting above her present pain to be of much worth, because our present society has yet to adjust itself to rightfully accommodate trans people living today.
I’m not going to make any generalizations about her final letter, I don’t believe in glorifying this serious issue by trying to find something beautiful and uplifting in her tragedy. This is a sad and for many people, myself included, highly sensitive issue. What gets to me the most is that she explicitly says anyone who wishes they could have helped her or gotten to know her better is full of shit, so I’m not even going to attempt to try to give any hindsight advice to this gone girl. Instead, I’m going to talk about books, particularly a book that packs the hard truth in the same way a suicide note does and happens to be my Number One All Time Most Favorite Book In The Whole Damn World.
The title of this book is perfect. “Invisible Monsters”. Written by the author who made me realize that writing weird books actually can become an important career rather than just a pipe dream, Chuck Palahniuk. Chuck Palahniuk is a hero and a voice to anyone who has ever lived in complete chaos. “Invisible Monsters” is perhaps the most realistic, chaotic, and tortured novel of his and it is, in my opinion, his greatest. It is also his first novel he ever wrote (yes, even before Fight Club). “Invisible Monsters” tells the absolute truth about being transgender: it can really suck.
I know this book exists far outside the realms of typical Young Adult fiction, but I do think that it is an important read for young
adults transgender or not. There is not a large selection of books with transgender protagonists to begin with anyhow (*cough, cough* this is why we need more diverse books). I love YA, but it has a habit of always catching us when we fall because young adults are fragile things after all. Most YA novels that do deal with trans issues, deal with teenagers and their issues being trans. They don’t go deeply into those dirty details that arise when you are someone like Leelah, who may face rejection and isolation in their adult years. This is why I suggest other transgender teenagers read this, not to scare them or depress them, but to open their eyes.
I’m so proud to live in a world where there are books like Gracefully Grayson and shows like Transparent (Which won TWO GOLDEN
GLOBES). But none of neither of those comes close to the realities that young people like Leelah actually live through. Sure they make you want to cheer on the main characters, and they make you feel proud and give you hope. But what if you’re like Leelah and the hundreds of thousands like her, who are living in a hopeless world? It feels like mockery, it feels like fairy tale, it’s not true to many and it can often make matters worse. I know that has been the case for myself and others I know. When people see these tragically uplifting stories it makes it seem like trans issues are heartwarming and that transphobia is dead, and we’ve achieved equality—hurray! But that’s not entirely true and it aids in real trans issues continuing to be ignored. Our society often searches for romanticism in these tragic and dramatic situations to sugarcoat the harsh realities, but Palahniuk never takes this route. He doesn’t sugarcoat, he rubs salt in the wound. Leelah had a similar approach in her suicide note. Leelah acted on her own accord to free herself, but tried to pave way for others through her pain. Similarly Palahniuk and “Invisible Monsters” gives you hope in the form of a shotgun to the chest.
I love the title “Invisible Monsters” because what other way can you truly describe the transgender community? It’s a community far too often overlooked, and when it does get a glance they are not treated as human. It has been deemed legal to kill a transgender person using the “trans panic” defense. You hear of “honor slaying” (legally killing a homosexual in fear of sexual assault however only standing if the accused is heterosexual) and you think of how barbaric and archaic that is, but in many countries and some states in the U.S., the trans panic defense is still valid and has taken countless lives. Although this defense hasn’t been used within the last few years, the state of California has only just recently become the first and only state to eradicate this. Which doesn’t sound like progress or like the transgender community is getting the rights, recognition, and protection they deserve.
If I could somehow have known Leelah and understood the inner workings of her mind when she was alive and suffering, I would have given her both of my copies of “Invisible Monsters” and “Invisible Monsters: Remixed” that I have read and re-read countless times in my life. But unfortunately I did not know her, and if I did, how could I have known to help? Made to feel shame by her family and paid professionals, forced into isolation, Leelah unfortunately was left with no choice but to feel like an Invisible Monster herself. Even worse, she was made to feel this way by the people she needed most in the world.
This is the same story of Brandy Alexander, born Shane McFarland, the Queen Supreme of “Invisible Monsters”. The story is told from the perspective of Brandy’s closest companion (Who in vain of most of Palahniuk’s work, remains for the most part a nameless narrator) who Brandy often refers to as Daisy. Daisy is disfigured and also an “Invisible Monster” in her own way, forced to hide her disfigurement beneath veils and scarves and due to her disfigurement is left no little to no capabilities of speech. The two meet in a hospital after their reconstructive and cosmetic surgeries and instantly bond. The story then takes off as Brandy employes Daisy to aid her on a journey that Leelah Alcorn was very much afraid of herself, making money to support her full transition.
After being completely ostracized and abused by her family for being gay, “Shane” ran off to become Brandy Alexander. With no support of family, no where to live, no one to take care of her when the side effects of the hormones and surgeries took a toll on her new body, Brandy was almost entirely helpless, depressed, dysmorphic, and worried about this horrific mistake she thought she made. She felt completely alone until fate brought her and Daisy together. And it is a shame that the only person Brandy feels any connection to or camaraderie with is a woman who cannot speak and is often called “a monster”. The only person Brandy can relate to is a faceless, voiceless, non human entity. This disconnection Brandy feels to herself and her place in the world, sadly, is literally embodied by Daisy in a way that many transgender people are made to feel their whole lives.
The story of Brandy’s transition and acceptance of her new life is more than rocky. If you know anything about Palahniuk you know his stories are never ones that leave you feeling completely inspired or entirely glowing. They leave you feeling beat down and spit shined at best. But there’s a unique beauty in this style that only he can achieve. Through the harsh truths, the destruction, the sheer mayhem, and wild twists his stories take, you as a reader close the book feeling like you’ve just gotten the most satisfying punch in the gut that you’ve ever received.
For me, personally, Leelah’s suicide letter left me with almost the exact same feeling.
If Leelah could have known The Queen Supreme Miss Brandy Alexander, I’m sure the two would have been great friends.
They knew what people really thought of them. They knew who they truly were and how disastrous the consequences of being that person would actually be. Leelah’s main concerns were not with the tragedy of her own horrible past, or the pain of her own confusion. She couldn’t handle the reality of finally being free, but then only becoming a prisoner to herself. A slave to her own body that to maintain as what she wanted, would take time, effort, money, family, acceptance, love, and support that she wouldn’t be able to find.
This too was the struggle of Brandy Alexander. Unfortunately for Leelah, she wasn’t allowed to find her own Daisy.
I’m re reading “Invisible Monsters” for a what might be my fifth time, but could likely be more. I need it bad right now, because like many people in this world I know what it’s like hearing that “God doesn’t make mistakes” and then wondering then what the hell you even are. Am I going to have to fear for my life in public, risk being abused or tortured or killed for acting on my own concept of my gender? Or worse, will I be made to feel like I need to torture, abuse, or kill myself like Brandy and Leelah?
I’m left feeling so guilty because I know there have been people like Leelah before who didn’t have the aid of the internet to have
their voices finally be heard—even if it was too late. But I’m glad that voices can be heard now. So I don’t want to waste mine.
YA writers: We need more books like “Invisible Monsters” in the YA community to have an accurate portrayal of real and honest fears that trans teenagers have. I can’t emphasise this enough. It is not hard to find a conflict that they will deal with, or think about, even when they are teenagers, because unfortunately there are plenty. We need to talk about the truth. It can be sometimes hard to hear, but there is always an audience waiting to listen in the YA reader community.
And YA readers: I suggest in the meantime, if you ever feel like you need a really good punch in the face, read “Invisible Monsters”. In all honesty, it is one of those books that will either help you or hurt you—And coming from someone who has read it at many different times in my life, for me it has done both. It will depend on who you are when you read it, and who you decide you want to be after.
Because trust me, it won’t be the same, and it will not be what you were expecting.
Karina Rose and her ya/gay/nerdpunk novels are currently trying their luck in the publishing world. In the meantime, she hopes she is funny on twitter as @karinarosewhite, creepy on Tumblr as TheNightValePost, and as cool as she thinks in real life (Where, let’s be honest, she’s really not and probably just writing some more). She’s from a small beach town in Orange County, California which is why she’s so liberal and so broke.
We are absolutely thrilled to be hosting Carrie Mesrobian’s cover reveal for her new book Cut Both Ways out in September 2015. Carrie was one of mine and Kathleen’s middle school writing teachers, and we’ve been in other classes with her over the following years. She’s a great instructor, a fabulous writer, and has been incredibly supportive of us as we re-launched GayYA. We’ve been hearing little snippets about this unnamed book that had a bisexual guy as the protagonist for months, so when she approached us with the chance to host the cover reveal I was like uuuuuuuuuuummmmmmmmmm YES.
So so so! EEEEEE! Here’s the newly released blurb, first!
Will Caynes never has been good with girls. At seventeen, he’s still waiting for his first kiss. He’s certainly not expecting it to happen in a drunken make-out session with his best friend, Angus. But it does and now Will’s conflicted—he knows he likes girls, but he didn’t exactly hate kissing a guy.
Then Will meets Brandy, a cute and easy-to-talk-to sophomore. He’s totally into her too—which proves, for sure, that he’s not gay. So why does he keep hooking up with Angus on the sly?
Will knows he can’t keep seeing both of them, but besides his new job in a diner, being with Brandy and Angus are the best parts of his whole messed-up life. His divorced parents just complicate everything. His father, after many half-baked business ventures and endless house renovations, has started drinking again. And his mom is no help—unless loading him up with a bunch of stuff he doesn’t need plus sticking him with his twin half-sisters counts as parenting. He’s been bouncing between both of them for years, and neither one feels like home.
Deciding who to love, who to choose, where to live. Whichever way Will goes, someone will get hurt. Himself, probably the most.
Now…..(drumroll please!!)……………the cover!!!!!!!!!!!
Gaaaaaaah, isn’t it amazing? I think it’s amazing. I just love the colors and the image of the bed with the clothes strewn around… Aaaah!
We also had the chance to ask Carrie a few questions about the cover and the book itself.
Vee: What can you tell us about Cut Both Ways? What should we expect?
Carrie: Well, it feels similar to my first two books in that there is a lot of sexual content and it is narrated by a male main character in first person. And there is family drama and romance and angst. Lots of duality: urban/rural, rich/poor, visible/invisible.
There is a girl character that I feel so fondly for. I want wrap her in a quilt and put her in my pocket. This is also a book that explores the world of work as far as adolescents encounter it. I like it when characters in YA books have jobs. One of my favorite books, Story of a Girl by Sara Zarr, explored this so well. I like my characters to have first job experiences as part of their story.
V: Since we are having a cover reveal after all, let’s talk about it. What are your thoughts on it? How does it relate to the book?
C: I really love the cover! I think there are many tiny elements that adhere to themes and motifs in the book. There’s a LOT of sex in this book. (Maybe I should have counted the scenes?) There are a variety of sex scenes, between two boys and between a boy and a girl. Most of them take place in various beds, now that I think about it. Though a few don’t. So really, there’s something for the whole family!
^that last sentence was a joke
V: How much input did you have in the cover making process? What was the process like?
C: I didn’t have anything to do with it. Which is generally the case for authors and which I’m fine with, actually. I don’t think visually and have zero sense of what the cover “ought” to look like in my head while I’m writing the story. And it’s just another area where I have no expertise. My main focus is trying to make the words right.
How it works is, basically, the publisher has their designer read the book and then he or she mocks stuff up and then I imagine that they have some mysterious meeting about which cover they like best and then they pick one and send it to you and say, “ here is your cover – what do you think?”
For all three of my books, my reaction was, “I like it! Thank you for making such a lovely thing!” So I have no idea what happens if you don’t like it. Probably you just feel really bad?
That’s really about all I know about the process of cover art. Which is weird, when you consider that the cover is the first thing a potential reader interfaces with and here I am, the writer, having zero to do with it.
V: Comparing the writing process of your past two books, both which featured straight main characters, how was it different for you writing a queer protagonist?
C: I had to work against my natural tendency to over-parent my characters. I wanted to tell Will that he was okay and he could be anything he wanted to be and it was all okay and relax, honey! I wanted to make everything smooth for him. But I couldn’t do that, because, well, that’s very boring. And I don’t think he’s the kind of person who was raised hearing that kind of reassurance, anyway.
I also didn’t clearly understand what sex between young men looks like, especially first sex experiences. I needed some help from guys who knew what was up. Will, the main character, doesn’t have a lot of words for what he’s doing; he’s never considered himself gay. So having him narrate the experience of being with another boy took a couple of tries to get right. There is him liking the experience and how it feels, but at the same time, there is him holding himself apart from the experience as it happens, because he can’t accept what it might mean about himself.
I often felt quite nervous while writing this book. I’m a straight woman using my imagination and trying to push beyond assumptions and clichés and stereotypes. It’s a risk, unlike writing as a male, because I live in a world where patriarchy is basically the weather. Describing that isn’t that difficult; I live around and among male assumptions and privilege. But entering into a sexual identity that I’ve never experienced, in a genre that’s historically ignored those experiences? That’s a big responsibility. I did read a lot about bisexuality and sexual fluidity, though to be honest, it was hard to find personal accounts from bisexual men. There is a lot out there on the sexual fluidity of women.
V: Can you talk at all about how Will’s bisexuality will affect him in CUT BOTH WAYS? Is it a coming out novel? Is he already out and proud? Or is it more of a side thing for him?
C: It’s not a coming out novel, in terms of a character being open about who he is to the world. It’s more of an internal identity thing, about Will trying to come out to himself, first. Will is sort of ambushed by his attraction to his Angus and doesn’t know how to categorize it. I think the entire novel is about bisexual erasure, actually, but that’s a concept Will doesn’t understand, strangely enough.
Now I feel weird saying that. Because maybe it’s not about that? I’m both nervous and eager for readers to give me their view on that. I’m hoping that readers will clue me in on what I got right and what missed the mark, as uncomfortable as that might be for me personally.
I HAVE ALL OF THE EXCITEMENT FOR THIS BOOK.
Have thoughts on the cover? Share them below!
February 5th (USA)
Unspeakable by Abbie Rushton — (LESBIAN)
Goodreads Summary: “Megan doesn’t speak. She hasn’t spoken in months.
Pushing away the people she cares about is just a small price to pay. Because there are things locked inside Megan’s head – things that are screaming to be heard – that she cannot, must not, let out.
Then Jasmine starts at school: bubbly, beautiful, talkative Jasmine. And for reasons Megan can’t quite understand, life starts to look a bit brighter.
Megan would love to speak again, and it seems like Jasmine might be the answer. But if she finds her voice, will she lose everything else?”
February 10th (USA)
Promposal by Rhonda Helms — (GAY)
Goodreads Summary: “promposal (n.)–an often public proposal, in which one person asks another to the prom, eliciting joy or
Camilla can’t help hoping her secret crush, Benjamin, might randomly surprise her out of the blue with a promposal. However, when she’s asked to prom by an irritating casual acquaintance–wearing a fancy tux and standing in front of a news crew–she’s forced to say yes. Yet all hope’s not lost. A timely school project gives Camilla a chance to get closer to Benjamin…and it seems like the chemistry between them is crackling. But is she reading into something that isn’t there?
Joshua, Camilla’s bestie, has been secretly in love with his gay best friend, Ethan, since middle school. Just as he decides to bite the bullet and ask Ethan if he’ll go to prom with him, even if just as friends, he gets a shocking surprise: Ethan asks Joshua for help crafting the perfect promposal–for another guy. Now Joshua has to suppress his love and try to fake enthusiasm as he watches his dreams fall apart…unless he can make Ethan see that love has been right in front of his eyes the whole time.
The road to the perfect promposal isn’t easy to navigate. But one thing’s certain–prom season is going to be memorable.”
February 11th (USA)
Tales from Outer Lands (Mangoverse # 0.5) by Shira Glassman — (BISEXUAL, ASEXUAL)
“Aviva and the Aliens” is a science-fiction farce starring Perach’s bisexual chef-turned-royal-mistress. On the night before the royal Passover seder, Aviva has to outsmart the aliens who abducted her to cook for them because they had grown sick of their spaceship’s food replicators. Will she get home before Queen Shulamit wakes up and panics from her absence? Tune in for a kickass curvy brown bisexual woman rescuing herself!
“Rivka in Port Saltspray” is a dark piece of fantasy/action about one of Rivka’s adventures during her years on the road before settling down in Perach as Shulamit’s captain. Trapped in a seedy port town because an innkeeper is holding her shapeshifting dragon-horse hostage until she can pay all the charges he invented, Rivka finally has a chance at some decent money when a wealthy but weak man hires her to rescue his fiancée. But she quickly learns there is more at stake. This story contains an important aromantic/asexual character, and the only romantic pairings mentioned at all are background and/or off-screen. Warning for violence.
February 17th (USA)
Dark Rites by Jeremy Jordan King — (GAY)
Goodreads Summary: “The actors in the 1922 production of Weinstein’s Wonderacts have a secret: they aren’t just performers, they’re members of a Circle, a coven dedicated to enlightenment through magic. To enhance their power, they have their eye on the new girl in the cast, Margarite, a natural witch. But the coven’s leader, Vincent, isn’t satisfied. He’s hungry for more, to become a Complete Man. He turns to a mysterious wanderer for counsel, but could the teacher’s intentions and rituals be malevolent? Being the only one with true gifts, it’s up to Margarite to save her friends from enacting these dark rites.”
February 18th (USA)
Conjoined at the Soul by Huston Piner– (GAY)
Goodreads Summary: “Sixteen-year-old Randy Clark just looked in the mirror and discovered he’s gay. Now all he needs is a boyfriend. That should be easy enough, right? Unfortunately, Randy has a knack for being attracted to the wrong guys, like the one who hasn’t spoken to him since he told him he had pretty eyes. Then there’s that locker room jock that puts him down every day. And new student Kerry Sawyer would be perfect – except for that girlfriend he left behind back home.
Randy turns to Jeremy Smith and the outrageous Annie Brock for help, and Annie’s more than willing to help him find the right guy. But between Randy’s own bad luck and Annie’s less than helpful dating advice, things are getting out of control. And if that’s not enough, there’s Blake trying to get him to join the cast of South Pacific, Annie’s love-hate relationship with Mike Kowalski, and bullies at school targeting Jeremy – not to mention a bigoted father and the world’s most irritating little brother. Randy’s tenth grade year is certainly shaping up to be one to remember – if he gets through it!”
FROM PREVIOUS MONTHS:
December 30th (USA)
Becoming Andy Hunsinger by Jere’ M. Fishback — (GAY)
Goodreads Summary: “It’s 1976, and Anita Bryant’s homophobic “Save Our Children” crusade rages through Florida. When Andy
Hunsinger, a closeted gay college student, joins in a demonstration protesting Bryant’s appearance in Tallahassee, his straight boy image is shattered when he’s “outed” by a TV news reporter. In the months following, Andy discovers just what it means to be openly gay in a society that condemns love between two men. Can Andy’s friendship with Travis, a devout Christian who’s fighting his own sexual urges, develop into something deeper?”
January 15th, 2015 (USA)
An Unexpected Summer by Kate Sands — (GAY)
Goodreads Summary: “Life at home has become awkward since Brendan told his parents he’s gay. Relief comes when his cousin gets him a job at a nearby lake resort for the summer. Happy to get away, he plans to give his parents space while saving money for his college fund and hanging out with his cousin Tracey, the only other person he’s out to. Turns out Tobin, a boy from school Brendan has a crush on, is also working there for the summer, and the two of them have been assigned to share a room. Brendan’s nervous reaction doesn’t get the summer off to the best start. Now, not only does Brendan have to fix his relationship with his parents, he has to figure out a way to make things right with Tobin too.”
January 22th, 2015 (USA)
May Day Mine by Verity Croker — (LESBIAN, BISEXUAL)
Goodreads Summary: “Life in a small mining town can be like living in a fishbowl, where everyone knows everybody else’s business. Fifteen-year-old Jodi’s mother wants her father to quit his binge drinking and his dangerous job at the mine—even more so after a collapse leaves two miners dead and three trapped deep underground.
As tensions escalate both at home and around the town, Jodi seeks comfort with her friends but soon faces a double betrayal. Meanwhile, her ten-year-old brother Jake reacts by joining a gang of schoolyard bullies who engage in increasingly dangerous antics.
As Jodi struggles to gain autonomy over her life, she begins to discover the person she really is. But with everything around her spiraling out of control, it may not be the right time to let her family, friends, and ultimately the whole town know—no matter how much she wants to.”
Each year the American Library Association (ALA) announces the Youth Media Awards given to outstanding children and young adult books (including audiobooks, videos and graphic novels). This year the awards were presented on Monday Feb 1st, in a ceremony in Chicago, USA.
One of the awards presented was the Stonewall Book Award, which is granted to “English language books that have exceptional merit relating to the gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender experience” (via ALA’s website).
This year the books recognized were:
Stonewall Book Award -Mike Morgan & Larry Romans Children’s & Young Adult Literature Award
“This Day in June,” written by Gayle E. Pitman, Ph.D.,
illustrated by Kristyna Litten and published by Magination Press,
an imprint of the American Psychological Association.
“Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out,” by Susan Kuklin,
photographed by Susan Kuklin and published by Candlewick Press.
“I’ll Give You the Sun,” written by Jandy Nelson,
published by Dial Books, an imprint of Penguin Group (USA) LLC.
“Morris Micklewhite and the Tangerine Dress,” written by Christine Baldacchio,
pictures by Isabelle Malenfant, published by Groundwood Books / House of Anansi Press.
Congratulations to all the books and authors recognized! Here’s to a 2015 filled with more amazing LGBTQAI+ books!
All of this information was obtained from ALA’s website. You can check out the rest of the awards and winners here.
In February, we’ll be reading The Five Stages of Andrew Brawley by Shaun Hutchinson!
Andrew Brawley was supposed to die that night. His parents did, and so did his sister, but he survived.
Now he lives in the hospital. He serves food in the cafeteria, he hangs out with the nurses, and he sleeps in a forgotten supply closet. Drew blends in to near invisibility, hiding from his past, his guilt, and those who are trying to find him.
Then one night Rusty is wheeled into the ER, burned on half his body by hateful classmates. His agony calls out to Drew like a beacon, pulling them both together through all their pain and grief. In Rusty, Drew sees hope, happiness, and a future for both of them. A future outside the hospital, and away from their pasts.
But Drew knows that life is never that simple. Death roams the hospital, searching for Drew, and now Rusty. Drew lost his family, but he refuses to lose Rusty, too, so he’s determined to make things right. He’s determined to bargain, and to settle his debts once and for all.
But Death is not easily placated, and Drew’s life will have to get worse before there is any chance for things to get better.
A partly graphic novel.
Here’s a great review by Amanda Macgregor at Teen Librarian Toolbox.
Here are the buy links!
We’ll be discussing both on Twitter and on Tumblr.
On tumblr, track and post in the GayYA Book Club tag. You can feel free to post reactions/thoughts as you read, reviews, pictures, introductions of who you are, fan art… anything you want, that’s related to The Five Stages of Andrew Brawley. GayYA’s tumblr account, thegayya, will reblog things so more people will see them!
Twitchat date to be announced! Keep an eye on GayYA’s and Katie’s twitter accounts, and this post.
Looking forward to reading and discussing with ya’ll! Email email@example.com if you have any questions.
by Danny M. Cohen
Early on in my debut novel, Train, teenagers Alexander and Marko make their way through the midnight shadows of Berlin to The Fountain of Fairy Tales in Friedrichshain Park. Statues of Red Riding Hood, Snow White, Hansel, Gretel, and other familiar storybook characters surround the fountain and watch the teenage boys share a kiss. But this is no fairy tale. This is 1943 Germany and the Nazi machinery of deportation and mass-murder is ongoing.
In writing Train, I wanted to tell the hidden stories of Hitler’s often forgotten victims—the Roma, the disabled, homosexuals, political enemies of the regime. And I wanted to write a compelling story that would underscore how the policies and deliberate actions of the Nazi government shattered real lives.
Through the writing process, the story became a fast-paced thriller about love, rescue, and desperation. I found that I had to fight against the temptation to romanticize that history. I had to ensure not only historical accuracy but also historical authenticity. Because in war, and in the face of genocide, there are rarely happy endings.
A problem of mainstream Holocaust literature (and mainstream Holocaust film) is the trend to provide hopeful endings and tidy lessons. When we tell stories about already marginalized people—whether they are gay or disabled or Jewish or Roma—there’s a tendency to resort to simple, optimistic messages. Good against evil. The triumph of the oppressed. After all, don’t we need strong, resilient role models who can show us how to endure victimization and survive against all odds?
But history often tells a different tale. There are countless stories of suffering that died alongside the victims of atrocity. Too many stories—too many lives—ended before their time. Yet, although hidden, unhappy endings are woven into the foundations that hold up our rights today. Even devastating stories can give us collective and individual strength.
I was faced with a challenge. How could I engage my readers—and perhaps even empower them—while being brutally honest?
The answer, I think, may lie in what could have been.
We sometimes forget that, before the rise of Nazism, 1920s Germany was somewhat of a haven for same-sex love and sexual freedom. Women and men flocked to Berlin’s gay bars and cafés. German scientists argued in support of understanding homosexuality as natural. Activists collected signatures for petitions to overturn homophobic laws.
But when those bars and cafés were closed down, when the Nazis threw that groundbreaking research onto their bonfires, when Hitler’s government used those petitions to hunt and imprison homosexuals, a thriving community and progressive culture were destroyed.
Yet, throughout the Nazi era, women and women, and men and men, and girls and girls, and boys and boys continued—in secret—to fall in love, to dream, to plan their lives together. Some lesbians and gay men hid their identities by marrying one another. Some went into hiding. Some tried to escape Nazi-occupied Europe.
Hiding from Nazi soldiers, on a mattress in an abandoned wine cellar, Alexander and Marko review their plan to escape to London. They’ll find Alexander’s family. They’ll get a place of their own. Eventually, Alexander will study cartography. Marko will train as an engineer. In a few hours, they’ll have their false papers and train tickets out of Hitler’s capital. Before their attempt to escape begins to unravel, there is the hope and a real possibility of that sweet ending—one that we all wish for ourselves.
Do we need fairy tale endings? Yes, of course, but only when history allows.
Danny M. Cohen is a writer of human rights fiction. He’s also a learning scientist, education designer, and Holocaust scholar at Northwestern University. His debut novel, Train – a young adult thriller inspired by hidden history – is published in partnership with Unsilence Project. Born and raised in London, Danny now lives in Chicago with his husband and their daughter. Read more about his work here: www.dannymcohen.com and follow him on Facebook here: https://www.facebook.com/dannymauricecohen
Check out our interview with Danny, here!
Today we are talking with author Danny M. Cohen about his debut novel, TRAIN, which comes out today! Happy release day Danny!
About the book:
TRAIN is a YA historical thriller with a particular focus on the Nazis’ persecution of homosexuals. This novel is self-published in partnership with Unsilence Project.
“This thriller gives voice to the unheard victims of Nazism — the Roma, the disabled, homosexuals, intermarried Jews, and political enemies of the regime.” (via Danny Cohen’s website)
Over ten days in 1943 Berlin, six teenagers witness and try to escape the Nazi round-ups of Jews and Roma. Giving voice to the unheard victims of Nazism — the Roma, the disabled, homosexuals, intermarried Jews, and political enemies of the Nazi regime — this historical thriller will change how we think about Holocaust history.
Marko screwed up. But he’s good at swallowing his fear.
By now, the 17-year-old ‘Gypsy’ should be far from Nazi Germany. By now, he should be with Alex. That’s how they planned it. But while Marko has managed to escape the Gestapo, Alex has been arrested in the final round-ups of Berlin’s Jews. Even worse, Marko’s little cousin Kizzy is missing. And Marko knows he’s to blame.
Yet the tides of war are turning. With hundreds of Christian women gathered in the streets to protest the round-ups, the Nazis have suspended the trains to the camps. But for how long? Marko must act now. Against time, and with British warplanes bombing Berlin, Marko hatches a dangerous plan to rescue Alex and find Kizzy.
There are three people who can help: Marko’s sister with her connections to the Resistance, Alex’s Catholic stepsister, and a mysterious Nazi girl with a deadly secret.
Nadia: Today is your release day! Happy pub-day! What does it feel like? Anything cool you are doing to celebrate today?
Danny: First of all, it’s an honor to be interviewed by GayYA.
I’m so excited this day is here. I’m nervous, too, of course, but mostly because so many people care so deeply about what my novel, Train, represents. Train is about real, hidden histories of the Holocaust that I hope will start some amazing and surprising conversations.
But celebrations will have to wait. Today is Holocaust Remembrance Day—it’s exactly 70 years since the liberation of Auschwitz. Tonight, I’ll be giving a public talk in Chicago on the question, What Is The Future of Holocaust Education?
N: Without being spoilery, what can you share about your debut TRAIN and its characters? Why should people give it a try?
D: At the heart of Train is a gay romance and two rescue stories inspired by real Holocaust survivor testimonies—the kinds of stories we rarely hear.
Marko, a seventeen-year-old ‘Gypsy,’ is keeping a dangerous secret. And he’s frightened—but not for himself. His best friend, Alexander, has just been arrested by the Gestapo in the final round-ups of Berlin’s Jews, and Marko has a plan to save him. At the same time, Marko’s sister, Tsura, is determined to travel to a Nazi camp for Roma on the edge of the city, to find their mother and aunt. But when their little cousin, Kizzy, goes missing, Marko and Tsura’s plans begin to fall apart. The characters draw us into questions about courage and hope and fear and fighting for the people we love.
N: What would you say was the best thing (or your favorite) about writing TRAIN?
D: I loved making sure that every event in Train—down to the minute—was historically accurate. I knew where the story needed to go, but my research (with advice from some brilliant Holocaust historians) dictated each plot twist and the book’s most incredible and haunting moments.
For example, when I was reading testimonies and historical reports about Marzahn, a Nazi camp for Roma on the edge of Berlin, I realized I’d unintentionally set a pivotal scene of the story during an Allied bombing raid on the city. So I had to rewrite that scene. Amazingly, the inclusion of the air raid changed the direction of the story and brought Train closer to historical truth.
N: I recently learned you work as a designer of Holocaust education. What does your work entail?
D: Being a Holocaust educator means I get to be a storyteller every day. Holocaust history can be entirely overwhelming, but we can make it accessible and relevant if we focus on the stories of individuals. Then, we need to connect those individual stories with other stories. One story plus another story plus another story, until we begin to have a sense of the big picture.
I have the honor of training educators to lead tours of Holocaust museums. I work with teachers. I work with communities. I help educators think about the appropriate (and avoid inappropriate) ways of engaging teenagers in urgent questions about human rights and our collective responsibilities to take action against atrocities around the world today.
N: You founded a non-profit dedicated to teaching and human rights, the “Unsilence Project.” It sounds like incredible work, what can you tell us about the project?
D: We break open taboos. Many educators have a hard time talking about certain issues and histories with young people. Unsilence Project creates free story-driven educational programs—and offers educator training—to engage young people in conversations about transgender rights, sexual violence, and other topics we struggle to talk about.
Train is the central text of Unsilence Project’s inaugural educational program, Overlapping Triangles, which we’ll be rolling out across the U.S.—as well as overseas—over the next year or so.
N: How difficult is it to talk to people about this subject? I remember being in high school, and finding out there are people out there who actually deny the existence of the Holocaust. Have you encountered this kind of trouble before?
D: The first Holocaust deniers were the Nazis themselves. When they realized they would lose the war, they started to burn evidence of their crimes. But there was too much evidence to destroy. If a student says to me, “My friend’s Mom says the Holocaust never happened,” I reply, “Look at all the photographs, watch the testimonies, read as much as you can, and then decide for yourself.”
As for the challenge of engaging people in the history: Some people can’t stomach the details of Holocaust history at all. Many people suffer from nightmares after reading too much about the Nazis’ camps and careful methods of murder. Train isn’t a light read. The story is dark. But it reflects the realities of human history. Sometimes we have to force ourselves to look.
N: Do you think teaching has influenced the way you write? If so, how?
D: I actually think it’s the other way around. How I write has changed how I teach. Every class I create starts with a hook, a compelling question, or even a surprising activity. From the start of any lesson, I have to keep the students on the edges of their seats. I have to keep them asking, “What will happen next?” And every class has to end on a cliffhanger that makes them excited to come to the next session. I know I’m doing a great job when the students can’t stop asking questions. And sometimes I have to stop myself from giving away spoilers. “Good question,” I’ll say. “But you’ll have to wait until next week before we answer it.”
N: When I read the summary for your book I was fascinated! The phrase “the unheard victims of Nazism” particularly struck me. What made you write about these unheard voices in particular? And since you could have easily written an adult book about this, why did you decide to make it YA?
D: For many decades, so many people and institutions—including the Polish government, some German politicians, some conservative Christians, and some ultra-Orthodox Jews—have opposed the recognition of homosexuals as victims of Nazism.
The Roma and Sinti—who were rounded up across Europe and murdered by the Nazis and their collaborators—as well as people with disabilities—faced many of the same barriers: denial of reparations, denial of victimhood, denial of dignity and commemoration. I trained as an education designer and I chose to dedicate my work to the unsilencing of these hidden histories.
I didn’t set out to write a novel. But over time, it became obvious that writing a page-turner for teenagers would be the most effective way of changing our collective memories. If thousands of middle school and high school students read Train, then these stories—of homosexuals, of Roma, of people with disabilities—alongside Jewish stories of the Holocaust, will be known by the next generation.
What’s great news is that other scholars and educators are so supportive of my work. For example, I’m working closely with the Illinois Holocaust Museum and, tomorrow, I’ll be running an all-day training for sixty Chicago teachers on how to teach Train and its hidden histories. And this is just the beginning.
N: TRAIN is your debut novel. But according to my research, you are not a first time writer. What can you tell us about your other work?
D: Last month, my choose-your-own-pathway mystery, The 19th Window, was launched. You can try to solve the mystery here.
I’ve always been a writer. Since I was in primary school in the UK, I wanted to be an author of fiction. I remember handing in a 50-page fantasy story about a kick-ass teenage girl battling a wicked sorcerer!
For years, I’ve been writing accessible non-fiction—mostly for history and education design journals—about the design of Holocaust and genocide education. I’ll continue to write for academic publications, but I’m starting to find my voice through human rights fiction for young adults, and it’s exhilarating.
N: What’s next on your horizon? Do you think you’ll write more LGBTQIA+ YA in the future?
D: Yes, absolutely. In fact, I’m working on my second novel—Hide Or Speak, a contemporary YA human rights thriller that has some brilliant queer protagonists.
In the middle of a U.S. election, the daughter of a presidential nominee goes missing, and the media and the public become caught up in a global treasure hunt to save her life. Behind the scenes, panic is overshadowed by a family secret that threatens to bring down the political campaign but could also change the lives of thousand of people across the world.
N: Thanks so much for talking the time to talk with us Mr. Cohen! And congrats on the new release!
D: Thank you and thanks for having me!
And there you have it folks! Doesn’t TRAIN sound fascinating? I for one can’t wait to pick my copy up and check the story out!
Check out Danny’s guest post here.
About the author:
Danny M. Cohen is a learning scientist, fiction writer, and education designer. Danny is also the founder of Unsilence Project.
An author of human rights fiction for young adults, his works include the new historical novel Train, the short story Dead Ends, the choose-your-own-pathway mystery The 19th Window, and the forthcoming contemporary thriller Hide Or Speak.
Born and raised in London, Danny lives in Chicago with his husband and their daughter.