Posted in Shattering Stigmas

Q&A with Nicole Melleby, Author of “Hurricane Season” and “In the Role of Brie Hutchens…”

I’m so excited to welcome Nicole Melleby, one of my favorite middle grade authors, to my blog for Shattering Stigmas. I loved Nicole’s heartfelt debut HURRICANE SEASON and can’t wait for her next two books IN THE ROLE OF BRIE HUTCHENS… and HOW TO BECOME A PLANET. I’m so grateful for the multi-faceted and relatable girls that Nicole is bringing to kid lit and I always love to support a fellow Jersey Girl. You can can buy HURRICANE SEASON on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Book Depository and IndieBound. You can pre-order IN THE ROLE OF BRIE HUTCHENS… on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Book Depository and IndieBound. You can find Nicole on Twitter and her website.

Taylor Tracy: In Hurricane Season, there is the emotional arc of Fig’s Dad, who is struggling with mental illness, and then Fig, who is struggling with questioning her sexuality and the stress of managing her Dad’s mental illness to “protect” her family from CPS. Can you talk a bit about how you developed these two arcs and what you hoped to say with this story? 

Vincent van Gogh plays a major role in Hurricane Season. He serves as a lens through which Fig copes with her Dad’s illness and her role in relation to it. How did van Gogh and his life come to be a part of this story and did any research you did on his life surprise you?

Note: These were originally two separate questions that Nicole answered together. 🙂

Nicole Melleby: In spring 2017, my cousin Andrew was studying abroad in London. My aunt and uncle were planning a vacation for themselves and Andrew’s two younger sisters to go out for a week to see him. I pretty much decided I was going to crash the trip, and they, being the best, didn’t complain about it. 

At the time, I was coming out of a low period emotionally, and hadn’t really been writing anything much; it was too hard to be creative when I was feeling the way I was. But I was finally ready to try something new. I knew I wanted to explore the relationship between a father and daughter…but that was pretty much all I had. I didn’t really expect to work on the idea at all while on vacation, but I adjusted to the jet lag pretty quickly, while my family decidedly did not. So, I had my mornings to myself and I knew that the National Gallery in London was free—and I do love a free museum—so I decided to check it out.

When I got to the Van Gogh paintings, there was a tour guide talking about Van Gogh’s mental illness, and there was just…something so unbelievable relatable about what he was saying—particularly since, like I said, I was just coming out of my own depression—and I ended up going to the gift shop and buying a book of Van Gogh’s letters. At the time, the only thing I knew about Van Gogh was that he cut off his ear—so the surprising part was learning how much I felt connected to him and his thoughts and his mental illness the more I read about him, the more I wanted to understand him. 

I read all of his letters on the plane ride home, and I knew exactly what I wanted to write by the time we landed.

As far as Fig’s sexuality—I always knew I wanted to write queer stories, so I didn’t really give it much thought at first. I’m a queer woman, and I know how much these sort of coming of age stories would have meant to me when I was younger. 

The one thing I hope kids get out of this book, the one thing I wanted to accomplish, was that they know they aren’t alone, that they’re seen, that I see them.

Taylor: Hurricane Season and your upcoming 2020 middle grade, In the Role of Brie Hutchens…, deal with the emotional struggle of discovering one’s identity and beginning to share that with the people in one’s life. Can you discuss a bit about what brings you to write about the emotional journeys of queer girls in middle grade and how writing Brie’s story was different from writing Fig’s?

Nicole: Like I said, as a queer individual, it’s important for me to tell stories that I would have needed. That’s pretty much the question that every queer kidlit author is asked: Do you write the stories you needed? Of course I do! But also the answer is a little more complicated than that. The middle grade readers of now are different than when I was a middle grader—what they needed is different than what I needed, or wanted. So I try and think about what it would be like to be queer in today’s world, and mix that with the stories I wish I had when I was younger, and then just tell the most honest story I can about that journey. 

The biggest difference between writing Fig’s story and writing Brie’s, is that Brie’s sexuality plays a huge role in IN THE ROLE OF BRIE HUTCHENS…, it’s basically the leading storyline. Every obstacle that Brie faces stems from her awkward first crush on a girl, and her desperation to connect with her religious mom, in the face of her sexuality and what that means for her moving forward. Fig’s sexuality wasn’t what the story was shaped around, it was just a part of who Fig was. Both books also have coming out scenes—but Fig’s is short, and simple, and easy (which was something I wanted to write more than anything) and Brie’s is much more complicated, and happens over, and over, and over again. Fig’s dad accepts her (he’s even learning about his own sexuality in the meanwhile) while Brie’s family needs a little more work. 

It just goes to show that there’s no one way to come out, there’s no one story, that there are different ways to be accepted, different ways to understand who you are, different understandings of it in general. 

Taylor: I have to say, from someone who was a huge space nerd and Hayden Planetarium geek as a kid, I am SO excited for your 2021 release How to Become a Planet. Can you tell us anything about that book and what you’re trying to do with the mental health representation in it?

Nicole: I keep referring to this book as my inverse HURRICANE SEASON. The story starts off with an 11-year-old girl named Pluto having just gotten a depression and anxiety diagnosis. While HURRICANE SEASON dealt with Fig and her dad struggling with his undiagnosed bipolar disorder for most of the book, Pluto and her mom are struggling to understand and deal with Pluto’s diagnosis and what that means for Pluto moving forward. 

My friend Josh Levy (who wrote a wonderful sci-fi MG book called SEVENTH GRADE VS. THE GALAXY) actually told me that he called the Hayden Planetarium Question and Answer Hotline to ask them questions about traveling in space while writing his book, which takes place on a public school that is a spaceship. When he told me this, I had already written a first draft of Pluto’s story—and her mom’s love of outer space and how she gave that love to Pluto—and I knew immediately I wanted to write that into my story. So Pluto, while wondering why astronauts decided that Pluto (the dwarf planet) wasn’t a planet anymore, and wondering why she has depression and why her life is changing because of it, calls up the Hotline to ask all of the big questions that are on her mind. Even if they can’t exactly help her. 

Taylor: What are some of your recommendations for great mental health representation, whether it’s in books, movies, TV, etc.? 

Nicole: Here are some of my favorite Middle Grade books that feature characters with mental illness: 

Taylor: Are there any mental health issues you wish were more widely represented in middle grade and YA, or issues you hope to write about but haven’t had the chance yet?

Nicole: Just like I said about how there isn’t one story fits all for sexuality, the same goes for mental illness. I would love more of the issues already written about, I would love ones that haven’t been written yet. Just like in LGBTQ MG—there isn’t as many stories about POC with mental illness, so I’d like a wider variety of children’s stories being told, too. I’m hoping to be able to continue to explore different stories about middle grade characters with different sexualities and mental illnesses moving forward, too. 

Taylor: Do you have any self-care tips, tricks or secrets you’d like to share, especially for writers?

Nicole: You don’t have to write every day—I see so many writers wracked with guilt over how much or how little they write day-to-day, and it’s hard! Write how much you want to write, how much you need to write. You decide what those answers are. 

Find a group of writers who are in the same boat as you. If you’re looking for an agent? Find writers to commiserate with. If you’re on sub? Ditto. Find a debut group if you’re having a very first book coming out—because all of these stages are daunting and new and no one knows how to navigate them, but it helps not navigating them alone. 

Also: If you’re facing a rejection? I find it best to sing this ridiculous song, because it’s so ridiculous it makes me feel better every single time I have sung it to myself (which has been often, because rejection is part of being a writer!): Nobody loves me, everybody hates me, I should just go eat worms. Worms! Worms! Worms!

Nicole Melleby is a born-and-bred Jersey girl with a passion for storytelling. She studied creative writing at Fairleigh Dickinson University and currently teaches creative writing and literature courses with a handful of local universities. Her debut novel, HURRICANE SEASON earned three starred reviews and was awarded the Skipping Stones Honor Award for exceptional contribution to multicultural and ecological awareness in children’s literature. Her second novel, IN THE ROLE OF BRIE HUTCHENS… will be released Spring 2020. When she’s not writing, Nicole can be found browsing the shelves at her local comic shop or watching soap operas with a cup of tea..

Posted in Blog Series

Q&A with Greg Howard, Author of “Social Intercourse” and “The Whispers”

I’m so excited to welcome middle grade and young adult author Greg Howard to the blog today to talk about his middle grade debut The Whispers and his young adult debut Social Intercourse. Greg writes with heart and humor, and I adore both of these books. Greg’s next middle grade novel, Middle School’s a Drag, will be out February 11, 2020 and I am already so excited for it. If you are too, pre-order it here. You can also find Greg on his website and on Twitter.

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, community and pride mean to you?

Greg Howard: It actually took me most of my life to be so comfortable with being gay that I didn’t want any part of my life to be hidden from anyone. Family was the final frontier in that regard. I feel like queer pride is about owning, loving, and accepting yourself. Unconditionally.

Taylor: I love both THE WHISPERS and SOCIAL INTERCOURSE so much, and can’t wait to discuss them both with you. First, how was the experience of writing a queer middle grade novel different than writing a queer young adult book?

Greg: Honestly, they both came pretty naturally but for very different reasons. In high school, I was usually pretty crass—always trying to make people laugh and uncomfortable at the same time. That’s the kind of humor to which I respond, so writing SOCIAL INTERCOURSE (especially in Beck’s point of view) was kind of second nature. THE WHISPERS, of course, is a different voice all together—younger, more innocent, but also wise beyond your years. But since so much of that story is based on my life when I was around Riley’s age, I didn’t have much trouble slipping back into the mindset of eleven-year old queer Greg Howard. And in my opinion, Riley is just as funny as Beck, but in a totally G-rated way.

Taylor: Part of what I loved about THE WHISPERS is that Riley knows that he’s gay, but because he’s a kid he’s also still working out the language to describe himself and navigate his relationships in the beautiful, clumsy way of a kid. At what point did THE WHISPERS become a queer story–did you know that that was a part of Riley’s identity from before you wrote or did that develop over the course of writing?

Greg: Since the story is my story in a lot of ways, and I was a gay kid trying to figure it out, the choice of making Riley gay was always the plan. And I want those queer kids living out in the rural South to feel seen and know that they are not alone. And let’s face it, queer kids are just as “messy” as non-queer kids. I believe in showing that reality—warts and all. When queer kids are romanticized and sterilized in YA and MG books, it’s feels like those books are written for a non-queer audience because it doesn’t always feel authentic (with some exceptions, of course). Obviously, I want non-queer kids and adults to read my books as well because reading promotes empathy. But I mostly want queer kids to feel like they are realistically represented

Taylor: SOCIAL INTERCOURSE is such a special book that looks at the growing friendship, alliance, etc. (no spoilers here!) between the deeply closeted bisexual son of two moms and an out and proud gay teen. How did you go about creating these characters and develop the queer representation in this book?

Greg: It all started with Beck. I wrote that first chapter in the voice of the kid that I wish I had been in high school. Out, proud, honest, confident in his queer identity, because it is the exact opposite of who I was in high school. It was very freeing to get lost in Beck’s voice as he took over the story. Jax needed to be the polar opposite, so I based his character a lot on the non-queer guys friends I had in high school. One classmate in particular as far as Jax’s looks, and another for his personality and how he related to the world and his sexuality.

Taylor: A southern setting is so key to both THE WHISPERS and SOCIAL INTERCOURSE, and it’s so incredibly done in both books. How does your choice to set your books in the south influence how you write books about queerness and community?

Greg: Growing up gay in the South is such an interesting and unique experience—the social norms, over-bearing religion, growing up around casual racism and homophobia, etc. Because I grew up in South Carolina with all of those factors influencing my journey, I feel that I can pretty accurately portray that experience in an authentic way. Of course, my journey is and was not everyone’s journey who grew up there, but I think a lot of the same themes resonate.

Taylor: What are some queer identities, stories, themes, etc. you want to see in YA that you haven’t seen yet?

Greg: One reason why I love writing middle grade, is that I can push boundaries without getting dragged on Goodreads and Twitter. SOCIAL INTERCOURSE (my YA debut) has been called bi-phobic, anti-lesbian, misogynist, fat-phobic, trans-phobic and just about everything else you can imagine. I doubt the people who said those things finished or even read the book at all, because I show teenagers as raw and messy. They do and say really stupid things. And guess what. They are messy! But lessons are learned, and characters are redeemed by the end of the book. And when I talk to teens who read it— they get it all and LOVE it all because it’s realistic. I feel strongly that we need more authentic and realistic queer representation in YA. And I would love to read those stories by “own voices” writers.

Taylor: What are some of your favorite queer middle grade and young adult recommendations? 

Greg: In middle grade I absolutely loved Lily and Dunkin by Donna Gephart, The Best Man by Richard Peck and Hurricane Season by Nicole Melleby. We need more queer reads for middle grade readers, but the representation is improving slowly but surely. Some favorite queer YA books are Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz, Ziggy, Stardust, and Me by James Brandon, and Proxyby Alex London.

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? 

Greg: I am “of a certain age” so when I discovered the first Tales of the City mini-series on PBS, my eyes were opened to a whole new beautiful world of queer possibilities. It was the first unabashedly queer television series I’d seen on television. I immediately devoured the whole series of books by Armistead Maupin and all the following seasons of the show. Right after that first season of Tales of the City aired, Will and Grace took things mainstream—which was great. But Tales of the City made a lasting imprint on me and I am loving watching the newest iteration on Netflix now.

Taylor: If you could give advice or a message to the LGBTQPIA+ identifying folks who maybe don’t have a sense of community, feel alone, aren’t out, etc. this month, what would you say?

Greg: I see you. You matter. You are not alone. Your story has value.

Posted in Blog Series

Q&A with Derek Milman, Author of “Scream All Night” and “Swipe Right for Murder”

Welcome back to 30 Days of Pride! Today I’m so happy to have had the chance to talk to Derek Milman, who I shook down these answers from during his BEA signing (JK JK JK). Derek is one of my favorite people in YA right now and I know y’all are going to love this conversation. He has also worked as a playwright and actor, and ran an underground humor magazine as a teen…which makes a lot of sense if you read his books. His next book, SWIPE RIGHT FOR MURDER, is out August 6, 2019 and his debut SCREAM ALL NIGHT is out right now. You can pre-order SWIPE RIGHT FOR MURDER, and you should (or else), from Amazon, Barnes & Noble and IndieBound. And you can find Derek on Twitter!

Taylor: SWIPE RIGHT FOR MURDER, which comes out August 9, is your second book. To start us off, could you begin by talking a bit about how writing your second book was different than writing your first book and what you brought into your sophomore book that you learned from writing your debut?

Derek Milman: I wrote SWIPE right on the heels of of SCREAM ALL NIGHT. Barely a pause at all, I was afraid to pause. It’s like I had the same engine and that thing was just whirring in high gear and I needed that horsepower. I feel like that engine has since been replaced with something more searching and deliberate (which is fine, just different) because my third book which I’m currently drafting is moving at a much more measured pace.

Once SAN got acquired, everyone asked what else I was working on. I really wanted to put a troubled gay kid at the center of an action-adventure story, and address that part of my identity in my own way. I said something to my agent about how I wanted to write a “dark, funny, gay Hitchcock” — something that felt very now but also had a subtle gloss of something classical to it, and she was like: please write this for me! The main thing that was different this time was that I didn’t have Moldavia. I wasn’t sheltered behind a fictional movie studio; this was happening more so in the real world (as we know it), so there was a different level of research needed. Not less, or more, just different. But I got to do some fun reconnaissance work. I went to the Mandarin Oriental Hotel (from the first scene in the book) and scoped it, had their tea service, took photos. I set a chunk of the book around where I live, so I went to those parts of Brooklyn and took photographs (of the tennis courts, for instance, where Aidan makes that climactic drop near the end) and of all the wild urban art in Bushwick, and the glowing re-purposed factory spaces, to see what it all looked like late at night. It has a fantastic Neo-noir glow to it all.

I’ve never been afraid of really “going there” in what I write. Life can be over-the-top and sometimes unbelievable. Look what’s going on right now, it’s like we’re living in a dystopian sci-fi story. But, that said, people might be surprised by how many aspects of SWIPE are real — Vegas Hotel death rays, co-living start-ups, the Merrick Gables, Samy Kamkar, the anonymous leaflet the Swans use as their manifesto — all are real or based on real things. And going off all that, the main thing I brought to SWIPE that I learned from my debut is probably a firmer sense of myself as an artist – -this is what I do, this is how I develop characters and tell stories, this is clearly my style, and having more of an awareness of that and embracing it, which allows for more risk-taking in my writing. And I believe in taking risks. I like when things are a little dirty, a little messy, so they pop.

Taylor: In SWIPE RIGHT FOR MURDER, Aidan is a gay teenager who is both experiencing things that are very normal or average for a gay teenager to experience and also dealing with the FBI, cults and terrorist organizations. Can you discuss a little bit about how you one, created Aidan as a character and two, crafted these very different feelings and situations that he experiences in the book.

Derek: Aidan is similar to me in that we both grew up in relatively sheltered suburbs. But people still go through shit growing up, and coming out, and we both had our hearts broken (albeit in different ways, but pain is pain). Writing books takes a huge toll on me I’ve learned, not just the emotional/psychological/mental, but also physical. For some reason the process of writing SAN led to these mysterious stomach issues; when a doctor did take an EKG and thought my heart might be enlarged (it’s not) I went through the same process as Aidan in the beginning of the book, having an echocardiogram done on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. I use everything that happens to me in life in my writing; I have a very slanted, sometimes wicked sense of humor, and if these wild things did occur, I’m pretty sure I would joke about them — in the way Aidan does — since humor is a healthy, necessary way of dealing with all the darkness and the horror of life (and coming of age, especially if you’re broken like Aidan is, and have added pressure on top of all that to figure out who you are, and who you’re going to be).

It’s really about forging a link from Aidan — his distinct voice — to the circumstances surrounding him, and keeping that link strong. They aren’t two diverging things per se, character and plot, it’s all happening through Aidan’s eyes, so he’s the reader’s way in, through his own observations, which are built out of his life experiences. Aidan came alive on the page as I went along. I just don’t see the gay people that I know, that I meet in life, reflected in movies and contemporary literature much. Gay dudes love rock n’ roll and EDM and art and have piercings and tattoos and complex family relationships, and they’re architects and cardiologists and museum curators and drink craft beer.

There’s a whole spectrum of humanity out there, and I wanted to explore that. I wanted to create a very different kind of hero for all the gay kids out there who may not feel like they belong where they are, or see themselves reflected in contemporary media. Aidan’s had some real tragedy in his young life, and out of that, he’s made some questionable decisions as a way of dealing with pain, and guilt, and out of that came more questionable decisions, so creating his psychological profile was like going from point A to point B, understanding all his flaws and where they stem from. It all makes a kind of sense when you think about what he’s been through, what he’s running from. And then this spring break happens to him! In Hollywood parlance, I wanted an out gay teen to be the one “holding the gun” in an action-adventure caper — I wanted him to be Carey Grant. At the end of the day, Aidan just wants to be loved, like any of us do. That’s all he truly wants.

Taylor: In SWIPE RIGHT FOR MURDER, you include a terrorist organization that specifically targets homophobes, which is such an interesting and tantalizing concept. Can you discuss what led you to include this organization in your thriller and what you hope it adds to the conversation around queerness and identity in your book?

Derek: I will never suggest we all become the Swans and kill right-wing homophobes or harm anyone, I’ll never be for violence and destruction, but we can’t let complacency swallow us up either. This is going to shock you — but when I first started drafting this book, approximately three years ago, Trump wasn’t even in office yet! It wasn’t as bad as it is now, and I do think our rights are perpetually being endangered. It just takes one bakery in the middle of nowhere that is allowed to deny service to gay people, and from there, it’s a domino effect. It starts very small, people don’t realize that. Sometimes it just starts with a cake.

I cannot tell you how many gay men told me, around 2016, that “Hillary wasn’t an option for them” and they probably just weren’t going to vote because no one “spoke to them.” SIDE RANT: People have to understand the stakes are even higher for 2020. We may not get the exact candidate that we want; we may not get our first choice, but we have to come together and vote for the right side anyway. The damage being done now by the Republicans is already incalculable; it will reverberate for generations. It is very hard undoing an autocracy. Everyone must vote for the sake of our lives.

This does come up in the book a bit, but there is less of a culture these days, I think, tying LGBTQ people together. We’re all isolated, sprayed out into the digital universe, streaming our own TV shows, having anything we want be delivered via app, any piece of information can be googled, anything can be downloaded, and I think this leads to a removal of reality, of any actual danger, thinking we’re just on the periphery, and it’s other people’s rights who will be taken away. During the AIDS crisis, members of ACT UP chained themselves to the New York Stock Exchange to protest the soaring price of AIDS drugs, they stood in front of the FDA and shut it down! They went to jail. Can you imagine that happening today? Everyone should look to the Women’s March, which is amazing and vital, even though protests need to be constant and organized, and all marginalized communities need to have them CONSTANTLY to protest any infringement on their rights — quickly, constantly, with much fury! Plus, Gay History, the struggle for LGBTQ equality, is not taught in schools, and that needs to change.

The Swans were born out of a simple conversation I had with a gay friend many years ago, who’s a writer and performance artist. We were talking about how it was still just sort of culturally and politically OK in many sectors to marginalize members of the LGBTQ community by hiding behind these loose ideas of “religious freedom” — this was before Mike Pence was our VP. I said, “well, what do we do? How can we mobilize?” He gave me a dark look. He said: “You’re not going to like what I have to say.” I said: “what, tell me?”  He said: “we need to start blowing stuff up.” I have never forgotten that conversation.

Taylor: Your writing is so notable for its wit and humor. Can you discuss a bit why it’s important for you to include humor in your books, especially thrillers?

Derek: Thank you, that’s kind of you to say, it’s nice to be considered “notable” for something, haha. I have a humorous brain. I think comically, always have. This keeps me up at night thinking about the absurdity of situations. I think life is absurd; I’ve found escape through humor, through comedy, and as a writer I think it’s important to take the side of your reader, and sort of chaperone them, to an extent, onto the battlefield that is your own book. It can’t just be about you, the writer. Humor is a great way to keep a story tonally balanced; if there’s horror, pain, darkness, you can’t hammer your reader over the head with just the heavy stuff, you have to give them a palate cleanser, a little cup of grapefruit sorbet to keep them going. I always want to write things that will make people feel things, but I never want to leave a reader feeling destroyed, exhausted, and hopeless. 

Taylor: What are some queer identities, stories, themes, etc. you want to see in YA that you haven’t seen yet?

Derek: Holy cow, where do I start? OK, this isn’t strictly YA, but I want to read about a gay marriage. Maybe even divorce. I want the whole thing. There is virtually nothing written about long-term gay couples and how they survive and stay together in today’s world. I have been with my partner for almost 19 years. We met when we were very young; I guess I don’t talk about this much for the sake of our privacy, and my partner’s privacy, but young gay men, and perhaps society at large, should know this is possible. Gay people can find lasting love.

More ideas: how gay couples manage their money! Haha, I know that sounds so mundane, but I feel like a whole book could be written about that topic. In more YA, I’d love to see a gay superhero, a gay assassin, a gay warrior, chef, whatever, where the character’s identity isn’t the plot, but just a given about who they are. Spider Man, but instead of Mary Jane Watson he has a boyfriend, who happens to be a journalist. Wonder Woman, but she has a girlfriend who’s also pilots a fighter jet. Why not? I’d love to read more stories about gender fluidity like Jeff Garvin’s amazing Symptoms of Being Human, queer retellings and pansexuality, especially in high concept, like Once & Future by Amy Rose Capetta and Cori Mccarthy, and f/f romance in beautifully-written fantasy like Girls of Paper and Fire.

Video games are now really upping the level of storytelling, and they have touched on this briefly, but I’d be interested in seeing a gay hero of a video game. I don’t care about the specific genre.

I used to teach at a film school, and I was surprised by how many boys — not just gay ones, but straight ones — were completely obsessed with Kieran Culkin’s character from Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. He was low-key, chill about his identity, unapologetically sexual, very confident, he was who he was. That character was quietly groundbreaking, I think.

Taylor: What are some of your favorite queer YA recommendations right now?

Derek: Lie With Me is a beautiful, heartbreaking novel about gay love, essentially YA, similar to Call Me By Your Name, except there’s no age difference, there’s a class difference; they’re both high school boys, in rural France, way too aware that they both have two very different futures ahead of them that will ultimately splinter them apart. Two LGBT graphic novels really gripped me recently: Home After Dark, and Bloom. There are a lot of great authors writing YA with LGBTQ characters and themes these days; people seem to celebrate the same three or four, but make sure you check out books by David Levithan, Caleb Roehrig, Cale Dietrich, Shaun David Hutchinson, Jandy Nelson, Michael Barakiva, and Bill Konigsberg.

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? 

Derek: Andrew Smith with his Winger books has written some of the funniest, truest YA incorporating young gay characters that I can think of. I came of age during the peak of what’s now regarded as New Queer Cinema and early films by Todd Haynes, Gus Van Sant, and Gregg Araki were formative for me. Oscar Wilde’s life story (and his work) is such a massive influence on queer culture, but too many queer icons and artists are being forgotten and need to be re-discovered: Gertrude Stein, Quentin Crisp, Arthur Rimbaud, Derek Jarman, Jobriath, James Baldwin, Charles Ludlam, Thomas Eakins, E.M. Forster, to name a few.

Taylor: If you could give advice or a message to the LGBTQPIA+ identifying folks who maybe don’t have a sense of community, feel alone, aren’t out, etc. this month, what would you say?

Derek: I wasn’t always OK as a young gay man. Oftentimes, I felt alone, confused, broken, and worthless. I really struggled with my self-worth and identity. I fell prey to a string of unhealthy relationships, because that’s what I felt I deserved. I had no idea where or whom to turn to at times. There was just nothing back then, a dark empty field. I wound up seeing a therapist when I was around 20 who really helped me come to terms with a lot of things.  It’s the tangential people sometimes, those in the blurry margins of the painting of your life, who make the most difference, and wake you up. Every human being on this planet has worth, and no one should ever dare tell you otherwise. Thankfully, there are more resources now than ever, and no one should ever feel ashamed about reaching out, and getting help. Being a person is hard. This planet is rough and cruel. As bad as things can get, they will, and they do, get better. Please know that above all. No one is ever alone.

Posted in Book Review, Personal Post

Almost 15 Years After 9/11: Thoughts & Review of Towers Falling


I was six-years old-when the Twin Towers fell. It was the first Tuesday of the school year, the first day of art class. I was the first kid to get picked up, before the teachers even heard what happened. Before the pick-up line stretched around the parking lot and into the street.

It’s always felt weird to be on the cusp of memory for such a horrific tragedy. Kids a few years younger than me don’t remember it. Kids a few years older than me understood what was happening in a way that my six-year-old brain just couldn’t do yet. Many of my memories from that day are crisp and vivid. Sitting down in my grandpa’s chair in our back room with my clear, plastic dinosaur lunchbox from the Museum of Natural History. Eating a fruit roll-up while watching CNN news coverage of the attacks. My mom picking me up and putting me in my car seat. The adults gathered around the television in the kitchen around our wooden kitchen table.

And then I look at kids now like my mom’s friends’ kids or my little cousin, all of whom were born after the attacks. I’ve wondered from time to time if they know. If they know how much violence has seemed to be on the news lately. I wonder how they will handle the realization that the world is a messy place, if they have had it already.

When it comes to tough issues like this, I often turn to books. For me, reading has always been a tool for building empathy and compassion as it is for entertainment or the thrill of a well told, well written story. My favorite young adult novel about 9/11 is David Levithan’s Love is the Higher Law.

Recently, I visited the 9/11 Memorial for the first time. Because of where I live in New Jersey, I know plenty of people whose relatives were in some way connected to the attack and knew people who knew people involved. I’ve passed by the plaques in my library for the two people from my town who were lost and seen countless local memorials. I didn’t know anyone personally who was there, but I still felt overwhelmed being at the Memorial, seeing the two gaping voids where the towers once stood. It’s impossible not to feel some

More recently I read the middle grade novel Towers Falling by Jewell Parker Rhodes, which gave me the answers to the questions I’ve been having about 9/11 and answers to questions I didn’t even know I was asking myself. A novel like Towers Falling reaffirmed my belief in the power of books to develop empathy. This book is not just for eight to twelve year olds. It is a book that everyone should read. It’s the kind of book that will make you a better human and bring you closer to understanding the incomprehensible.



Towers Falling by Jewell Parker Rhodes, Little, Brown BFYR, 240 pp.

Rating: ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ 1/2

Writing about tragedy is hard. Writing about tragedy well is even more difficult. And writing about tragedy for an audience just entering double-digits seems to be a Herculean task. However, Jewell Parker Rhodes’ newest middle grade novel Towers Falling tackles topics like 9/11, diversity, Islamophobia and homelessness in a way that is fresh, funny at times and heartbreaking, with a sense of honesty that jumps off the page.

Towers Falling doesn’t feel like an “issue book.” Instead, it’s a testament to the power of kids to the be the mediators of issues and restored my faith in the ability of children to handle these issues and only see a path forward instead of backward. Set fifteen years after 9/11, this is the story of how kids born after the attacks navigate learning about what happened.

The kid characters were one of the brightest highlights of this book. Narrator Dèja’s voice-from her confusion to her anger to her intense feelings of alienation-felt so real as I was reading that she often came across as a real person-more so than most other books I’ve read. Her words and emotions drew me into the story, and each change to herself is so felt, so tangible, that readers will feel themselves pulled into each plot point.

Her friends’ characterization was handled with equal care. Ben, who moved from Arizona to NYC, is the generous friend Dèja didn’t realize she needed and often the bearer of harsh realities when Dèja encounters a new, puzzling situation. Her other friend, Sabeen, whose struggles because of her devout Muslim faith was characterized so brilliantly and compassionately well, was another bright point in this book.

Books like Towers Falling, which include diversity in a non-didactic, intriguing way and present it as a normal part of growing up are so valuable, not only for their middle grade audience, but for their young adult and adult audiences as well. Parents of middle graders will learn just as much-about their children and themselves-from reading this book.

Dèja’s family-and her homelessness-is another aspect of this book that was handled well. While I longed for more scenes showing Dèja interacting with her family, her situation is depicted in a sensitive albeit heart-breaking way. It was also poignant to see how Dèja, with the help of her classes and friends, was ultimately able to help her father overcome his demons and help the family ultimately move forward. If you’re looking for a heartbreaking and heartwarming story about family, and about fathers and daughters in particular, then this is the book for you.

Dèja’s teacher, Miss Garcia, and the attitude of her school’s curriculum in general was another high point of this novel. While the complete lack of any mention about core standards and standardized testing felt a tad unrealistic, the message that Parker provides about the power and importance of education is key. This book shows that knowledge is power.

While singular elements and characters of this novel were particularly well done, overall the book delivered a beautiful, eloquent message about self-discovery and the interconnections of personal and cultural histories across generations. It also delivers a good story, one of growth and loss, tragedy and small victories. Accompanied by a writing style that felt immediate and intimately close, there’s really not much about this novel that wasn’t a complete home run. When I got this book, I was told that it was said to be spectacular. And while I was skeptical at first, I now know why and you should go find out, too.