I’m so happy to welcome young adult and middle grade author Lisa Jenn Bigelow to the blog today for 30 Days of Pride. Lisa has written the books Starting from Here and Drum Roll, Please. Her next middle grade novel, which I’ve read and is absolutely fantastic and a must for any lover of diverse middle grade fiction, is titled Hazel’s Theory of Evolution and comes out on October 8, 2019. She has been so supportive of this blog series and having the chance to read her poignant, perfect book early and then talk to her about it and other topics has been such a joy. You can pre-order Hazel’s Theory of Evolution on Amazon, Barnes & Noble or Indiebound. You can find Lisa on Twitter and her website.
Taylor Tracy: 30 Days of Pride is all about creating a sense of queer community during Pride Month by giving writers, bloggers, etc. a platform to share their voices and identities. Can you talk a bit about what queer identity means to you and what pride means to you?
Lisa: I’ve never gotten along well with labels. We’re living in a time when there’s seemingly a label for every identity under the sun, not to mention tremendous pressure to adopt one, yet none of them quite feels like me. At this point in my life, when I feel compelled to pick a label, I choose “queer” because it’s the most expansive, least determinate. That’s okay. I’m an adult, living a life I’m happy to live, and a label isn’t going to change that.
Having said that, I’ve coped with my share of questioning, heartache, and internalized homo/biphobia. Not that queer identity must somehow be “earned,” but those struggles have given me a sense of ownership that in turn gives me a stronger sense of self, confidence, and freedom. It means living my life without worrying so much about other people’s assumptions about who I am, my relationships, or what path my life will take.
An acquaintance once told me they didn’t understand the point of Pride because “it’s not like being queer is an accomplishment.” I have two responses: one, the opposite of pride is shame, and you can guess which I’d pick. Two, actually, it is. To be yourself in a society that continually debates your existence, your morals, your sanity, and your rights is a big damn accomplishment. Some people risk their lives to be who they are. We all ought to be proud of them. (That acquaintance was queer themselves, by the way. Go figure.)
Taylor: Your upcoming middle grade novel, HAZEL’S THEORY OF EVOLUTION, is incredibly diverse, with a sweet, nerdy Mexican-American transgender girl, a snarky disabled boy, doting, tough-cookie lesbian moms and an adorable aroace main character. Can you talk a bit how you came to include all of this representation into this book?
Lisa: I’m white, I’m cis, and I’m abled, so I’ve had the privilege of spending much of my life relatively clueless about people who aren’t like me. When I wrote my first novel, Starting from Here, I gave only a passing thought to inclusive representation. When it hit me how homogeneous my cast of characters was, I knew I couldn’t make that mistake again.
But I also know I owe it to readers not to offer harmful or inauthentic representation, however well intentioned. Adult readers might be able to reject it or shrug it off. Young readers can’t be expected to do the same. They’re absorbing it all. That’s my greatest fear: that I’ll write something that harms a young reader. I have to remember my limitations.
I owe a huge debt to blogs like Diversity in YA and Disability in Kidlit, which helped me begin to confront my privilege. They educated me about why inclusive representation is important and about problematic tropes in literature. They didn’t magically “fix” my biases or my writing, of course—that’s on me—but they were a tremendous resource and starting point. I’m bound to make more ignorant mistakes in the future, but I’m always trying to learn and do better.
All this said, I wasn’t ticking off checkboxes while writing Hazel. The story almost demanded that Hazel have two moms, and I drew inspiration from my various midwestern, middle-aged, lesbian mom friends. Yosh, the wiseass with a heart of gold, had already materialized in not one, but two, shelved manuscripts. Sure enough, he popped up again. And I’d wanted to write a trans character for a while, out of recognition and respect and love for the trans people in my life. That’s how Carina came along.
As for Hazel, I’d wanted to create an ace main character for years. But I hadn’t planned on Hazel being aroace. In fact, I initially thought she and Yosh might become an item. I knew Hazel’s sex ed unit would stir up anxiety about her mother’s pregnancy, but as I wrote, her discomfort grew deeper and more personal. It never became the main focus of the story, but it’s an undeniable facet of Hazel’s character. It’s not a “BTW, Dumbledore is gay” situation.
Taylor: More specifically, the friendship that forms between Carina and Hazel in HAZEL’S THEORY OF EVOLUTION is so heartwarming and special. Can you talk a bit about how you came to write this adorable friendship?
Lisa: I knew when Hazel started at a new school, she was going to make friends whether she wanted to or not. Thing is, I thought her new best friend was going to be Yosh. Carina basically appeared out of nowhere, and it quickly became clear she was not in this for a bit part. With every page I wrote, she elbowed her way further into the story.
For those who haven’t read the book, the minimal spoilers version is that Hazel and Carina were both ostracized at their old school. They begin eighth grade at their new school keeping their heads down, hungry for acceptance but afraid to hope for it. Instead, they discover something glorious and precious: what it’s like for someone to know about the humiliations of your past and not give a damn. For them to accept you just as you are without you having to hide or change any part of yourself. That unexpected and mutual acceptance is, I think, what fuels Hazel and Carina’s friendship.
Hazel and Yosh still end up being pretty good friends. It just takes them longer to get there.
Taylor: You wrote an incredibly clear and informative author’s note about the aromantic asexual representation in the book, which I appreciated so much. Can you talk a bit about how you came to write this note and what impact you hope it will have on your young readers?
Lisa: I knew terms like asexual and aromantic would be unfamiliar to many readers—they were largely unfamiliar to me until the last few years, when suddenly certain aspects of my life made a whole lot more sense—and deserved an explanation. Yet, maybe because Hazel’s orientation isn’t a major plot point, I never found a way to pause the narrative to do so, not without it feeling didactic and distracting. The author’s note is my compromise.
What’s even more important than the terminology to me, though, is the validation Hazel (and, by extension, the reader) receives in the story. Our society has an age-old nasty habit of treating any less-common thing as abnormal or wrong, ignoring that basically every aspect of human biology and behavior exists on a spectrum. And of course, American culture is heteronormative as hell. It was crucial to me that readers hear that whatever their romantic or sexual orientation may be, and whatever choices they may make about their future relationships, who they are is not only okay, but good.
Taylor: Moving on to a discussion of craft, can you discuss a bit about how you approach writing about queer identities and queer characters in middle grade fiction?
Lisa: I believe there’s a moral imperative for middle grade fiction to portray queer identities in a positive, authentic, and hopeful light. Readers may be learning about queer identities for the very first time. Readers may be just starting to come out themselves, or their peers and siblings are. There’s so much phobic bullshit in the world. Done right, books can help counteract it. They can offer validation and support.
On one hand, writing queer characters feels like the most natural thing in the world to me. I know firsthand queerness is just one facet of a person’s identity but is also, hello, a pretty freaking important facet. My characters have goals and pursuits independent of their queer identity, but because I write realistic fiction, issues like coming out, safety, and queer culture are part of the package. Queerness doesn’t exist in a vacuum.
On the other hand, I struggle not to let my years of personal coming out anxiety, 25-plus years ago in medium-town Michigan, shade my characters’ experience too much. Because despite ongoing anti-queer rhetoric, legislation, and violence, especially against queer people of color, the overall climate is better than it was in the mid-1990s. Kids are coming out at younger ages and with less fear. I want to reflect the new reality, and more than that, I want to be optimistic that things will continue to improve.
Taylor: What are some of your favorite queer middle grade and YA recommendations?
Lisa: The past few couple of years have had more than their share of garbage fires, but one thing they have going for them is a serious uptick in the number of amazing queer books for young people. One of my recent favorites is Tillie Walden’s gorgeous, atmospheric graphic novel On a Sunbeam. I also loved Ashley Herring Blake’s middle grade novel The Mighty Heart of Sunny St. James and got a kick out of Jack of Hearts (and other parts), by L. C. Rosen. Honestly, if it’s got a happy—or at least hopeful—ending, I’m there for it.
Taylor: What other pieces of media (so books, movies, TV, theater, music, etc.) have been fundamental to your experience as a queer person or are your favorite examples of queer representation?
Lisa: As a teen, my typical queer reading experience was “Broadway play/investigative journalism about the AIDS crisis” because that was what I had access to.
My greater connection to queer culture was through music. R.E.M. and Indigo Girls were already two of my favorite groups, and it gave me a visceral thrill when I realized, Oh my God, they’re gay. (Well, Michael Stipe was identifying as fluid at the time, but hey, he was on the cover of OUT!) My personal music collection is still heavily weighted toward queer artists, not so much because they’re queer as because hot damn, there are a lot of talented queer musicians.
While I’m thinking about media, though, what I’d really love is more fun queer science fiction television. It guts me that Bill Potts only got a single season on Doctor Who. She was adorable, witty, and completely underutilized. And I want a resurrection of Firefly, but this time Mal Reynolds is a devilishly charming queer woman.