By Jessica Verdi
When I began writing my first novel, My Life After Now (which was published in April of 2013), there were so many factors on my mind and story elements I wanted to be sure to get just right. The book is about sixteen-year-old Lucy Moore, a straight-A student and drama club star who makes a few bad decisions after a super bad week and, as a result, ends up testing positive for HIV. With a story like this, I was extra conscious to do as much research as it took to treat Lucy’s journey authentically and sensitively. There was one element of the story, however, that I didn’t need to spend a lot of time thinking about, because it was just already so solid in my mind that it basically wrote itself. This element was Lucy’s family structure—specifically the fact that she has two amazing dads.
Adam and Seth were so clear in my mind the whole time I was writing that I didn’t even stop to consider that their relationship with their daughter would be something that would stand out to readers. So imagine my surprise when the book came out and the majority of reader letters I received centered around not Lucy’s HIV status, but her family! The response was overwhelming, and it was one hundred percent positive.
I wanted Lucy to have two dads for a couple very specific reasons. 1) I wanted her life to be pretty damn great at the start of the book, before she makes the mistake that changes so much. That meant the family had to be great—and who better to put in that situation than two men? Gay people have to work really hard to get their kids, whether it’s through surrogacy, sperm donation, or adoption. So that means they really wanted their child, and they never take her for granted. 2) Because Lucy becomes HIV-positive, and eventually will have to tell her parents, I thought the parent/child relationship in this case was another great way to highlight that this can happen to anyone—even the child of parents who lived through the brunt of the HIV/AIDS crisis in New York City in the ’80s and ’90s, and taught their daughter everything they know about safe sex. Then, when they find out that Lucy is positive, it’s that much more impactful because they know, probably better than most parents,exactly what this virus is and what it does.
It’s been amazing to hear from so many readers about how they appreciate the strong, supportive parent/child relationship in the book. In fact, Adam and Seth made Barnes and Noble’s list of the Best Dads in YA this past Fathers’ Day. All the encouragement I’ve gotten from reviewers and readers about the family has been such a gift for me as an author—and has made me pretty damn optimistic that the days of same sex couples being discriminated against as parents are coming to an end.
After the wonderful response I received about Lucy’s dads, I knew I was on the right track with my second book, The Summer I Wasn’t Me (published April of 2014). In the story, seventeen-year-old Lexi Hamilton is sent to a conversion camp (also called an ex-gay camp) to learn how to become straight. Of course, her plans to “change” don’t go so well when she meets the beautiful and interesting Carolyn. This project also required a ton of research, and was often very emotionally difficult to write (in order to get inside the heads of my characters, I had to really try and understand why someone might send their child, or themselves, to a program like this), but I knew it was an important story to tell. After the response to Lucy’s dads, I felt strongly—and still do—that writing about certain parts of our world, parts that might not get tons of media attention but are incredibly important in their own right, is important and meaningful. Exposing readers via realistic fiction, particularly teen readers who might not have a billion biases in place in their minds yet, to things like the wonderful reality of two loving parents who happen to be same sex, or the awful reality of how some closed-minded parents and religious institutions treat their LGBT children, is one very valuable way of opening the minds and hearts of our society. I’m glad I get to help contribute to the conversation, in my own small way, and I’m hopeful that mind-opening and compassionate YA, and LGBTQIA+ YA in particular, still has a long and bright future ahead of us.
Jessica Verdi lives in Brooklyn, NY, and received her MFA in Writing for Children from The New School. She is the author of the contemporary young adult novels The Summer I Wasn’t Me, My Life After Now, and the upcoming What You Left Behind. Jess is continually reminded of how lucky she is to get to write and publish stories about things she thinks are important. By day, Jess is a Senior Editor at Crimson Romance, Adams/F+W’s romance eBook imprint. She is represented by Kate McKean of the Howard Morhaim Literary Agency. Some of her favorite things include seltzer, Tabasco sauce, TV, vegetarian soup, flip-flops, and her dog. Follow her on Twitter @jessverdi.