Posted in Shattering Stigmas

Q&A with Erin Hahn, Author of “You’d Be Mine” and “More Than Maybe”

I’m so excited to welcome author Erin Hahn to the blog today. I talked to Erin about her heartbreakingly beautiful debut You’d Be Mine and her highly anticipated sophomore novel More Than Maybe. You can buy You’d Be Mine on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Book Depository and IndieBound. You can pre-order More Than Maybe, out May 12, 2020, on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Book Depository and IndieBound. You can find Erin on her website, Twitter and Instagram. And if you love music and You’d Be Mine, check out Erin’s playlist here. Heck, listen to it while you read this interview…

Taylor Tracy: One of the goals of Shattering Stigmas is to dismantle the stigma against mental illness by creating a safe space for people to discuss and raise awareness about mental health via their favorite mental health reads and personal experiences. What does mental health awareness mean to you and how does it intersect with your creative process?

Erin Hahn: I love the term “safe space”, because I was a teen when the internet first went World Wide and changed the dynamic of sharing personal experiences. The anonymity of the internet (particularly before social media) felt like a safe space to be real. It seemed at the time that you could blog your journey and strangers could read it and there was no judgment. Except there absolutely was! And that same anonymity that the bloggers felt, protected the often cruel readers too. It was a painful realization that hurt so many young people and adults alike and scared many people back into their shame-filled shells.

Books are different. You can’t talk back to a book. You can certainly vet your feelings about something an author has written, but there is no onsite-comments section. At least for the duration of the readers time spent in the pages, they are safe to understand and read and feel whatever the author evokes in their writing. I love this. It impressed upon me that I have this small window of opportunity to reach a reader where they are at with a taste of where I’ve been and maybe show them they aren’t alone. That what they are feeling or experiencing isn’t specific to them. Or if it is, perhaps it takes the loneliness away. It can validate. Let me say that again… VALIDATE. To me, validation is everything. Social media is full of people telling others HOW TO FEEL or telling them WHAT THEY ARE FEELING IS WRONG or telling them TO STOP FEELING THAT WAY RIGHT NOW and thats bullshit (pardon). I wanted to write books, particularly for teens, that showed people saying THIS IS HOW I FEEL and THAT’S OKAY because I AM SURVIVING THE BEST WAY I KNOW HOW.

Sometimes survival is therapy, or treatment or screaming your feelings in a cemetery. Sometimes its medication or journaling or activism. Sometimes its distancing yourself from hurtful people. Its imperative that we are offering up solutions for young people and allowing them the space to see what works for them.

Taylor: Part of what I love about You’d Be Mine is that it’s a steamy romance about fame and music, but it’s also an incredibly poignant story about loss and emotionally struggling in unhealthy ways. How do you balance these two sides of the story when you’re writing?

Erin: Goodness this was a tough one for me. I’m glad you think it worked. 🙂 I was extremely mindful of the all-too common trope of “love fixing all”. More than anything, it was important to me that Clay (and to a lesser extent, Annie) healed first. Love doesn’t fix all and it’s dangerous to let young people believe it can. Everyone has their own battles to face, even in a contemporary romance. Maybe it’s not as heavy as addiction and grief and celebrity, since not everyone is as famous as Clay Coolidge, but that doesn’t mean its not real. When I set out to write a story, I’m actually writing two. I always write a dual point of view, complete with dual character arcs. Every person has a journey and just because falling in love is a apart of that, doesn’t mean its the end of it. It’s taken me a while to reconcile this process… I realize when people are picking up a YA romance, they are looking for butterflies and sweetness and sometimes my version is too messy and raw for that readership.

But that’s okay. My version of events helps me to sleep at night, knowing I’m telling it like it is. My characters will always find their happily ever after, they’ll just have to work a little harder for it.

Taylor: Some of the mental health issues you explore in You’d Be Mine include substance abuse, suicide, the pressures of fame and panic attacks. How did you choose to write about these issues in this book and what was the process of writing them like?

Erin: Wow, when you list it all out like that… *whew*. To be frank, I didn’t set out to write any of those things when I started. I don’t choose issues for my characters to face, just as real people don’t necessarily choose their struggles. I chose to write Clay and Annie’s stories and those were natural motivations and ramifications of their journey. Annie was a traumatized mess when she came to me and thats BECAUSE her parents died the way they did. Clay was a borderline alcoholic at 18, that doesn’t just happen because he liked the taste of beer. He was burying some real grief. I think it’s vital that we as authors are mindful of digging into the whys. It’s irresponsible to give a character mental health issues without exploring what brought those issues about in the first place. One of my favorite parts of that book is when Annie finished performing the song “You’d Be Mine” for the first time in the recording studio and she’s talking to her cousin, Kacey. Kacey kind of scoffs at Annie for saying she and Clay together were a volatile combination. She says, “You’re barely 18, Annie, what on earth do you know about being volatile?” Annie looks at her and says, “I was raised on volatile!” I love how Annie had the sense of self and maturity to realize her and Clay’s emotional baggage was too much even when their friends and family and managers and label execs didn’t.

Taylor: Your upcoming 2020 release More Than Maybe, also explores music, fame and teen love. Can you talk a little about what emotional and/or mental health issues you address in that book?

Erin: Sure! Luke and Vada aren’t famous in the same way Clay and Annie are. That said, Luke is the soft-spoken son of a famous former British Punk Rock icon. He has natural song-writing and singing abilities that drive his father bonkers because he’d love nothing more for Luke to follow in his footsteps and Luke would love nothing less. More Than Maybe discusses a lot of Parent-Child angst. Parents who fail to see who their kids really are and love them as is. Parents who aren’t really parents at all and break their kids hearts. Adults who aren’t biological parents, but end up filling in those parent-shaped holes in a teen’s life. These were all things that I personally related to and while they aren’t super high on the Epic Mental Health Issue roster, I think they are real. Growing up, your first interactions and experiences with mental health involve those closest to you… your families. For better or worse, they form who you become and how you deal moving forward as an adult. Luke and Vada have their work cut out for them and I think they do a wonderful job advocating for themselves as they dive into young adulthood.

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

Erin: Hm. This is a hard one for me, BECAUSE mental health is so personal and I feel like me, listing out specific titles and encouraging people to go there, could lead to someone being disappointed or hurt? If that makes sense. Ironic, I know, as someone who writes the books I do. To be perfectly honest, for me, the most universal mental health representation happens in music. A well-written song can reach a person exactly where they are at and both validate and sooth at once. This past summer, something kind of horrifying and extremely painful was revealed to me, sending me spiraling, even at nearly 37 years of age. I immediately went to music and listened to the same four songs on repeat, every day, until my eyes dried up and my throat hurt from screaming. Were those songs written about me? Or the specific things that were breaking my heart? Nope. But they did a bang up job of piecing me back together regardless. Those lyrics and emotions healed me where I stood. That’s the power of music. I don’t know a book or movie or TV show that can do that so perfectly.

PS The songs were “Waiting at the End” Linkin Park, “I’ll Find You” Lecrae and Tori Kelly, “Praying” Kesha and “Life on Earth” by Snow Patrol.

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?

Erin: In my third book, I’m tackling religious trauma. There isn’t a day that goes by that there isn’t some story in the news about some scandal in the church, or about how many young people are distancing themselves from religion because of abuse, neglect, persecution or gaslighting. As someone who grew up in the church and has experienced some or all of these things, I want to write about them and shed light in a pretty lonely place.

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

Erin: When I am writing heavy, I have to read light. Or watch TV, light, as the case may be. People assume that because my books are on the darker side, that’s where my interest lies. It might have been at one point, but in the process of writing deep, authentic, hurting characters, I have to also put myself in that place time and again and it’s a lot! I balance that with comedy and kissing books and cross stitch and watching musicals with my little girl. I take my dog for long walks and paint my nails. I have a playlist that is entitled “Just Erin, Not a Character” where its only music that belongs only to me. After finished a particularly rough draft or scene, I bury myself in that playlist and let it heal up the sharp aches. I enjoy coloring and Great British Bake Off. I’ll make confetti cake for my family.

I’ve learned that forcing myself to be social and generous with my time is self care, as contradictory as that may sounds. I’m such an introvert and I love spending time in my head with my characters, but for my sanity, I have to close the door on them and talk to real, live people, too. It’s always a battle, but once I’m there, I’m glad I’ve done it.

Thank you so much, Erin!
It’s been a pleasure to talk to you for Shattering Stigmas!

Erin Hahn spent the first half of her life daydreaming in a small town in northern Illinois. She fell in love with words in college when she wrote for the campus paper, covering everything from drag shows to ice fishing and took way too much liberty with a history essay on the bubonic plague.

She started writing her own books when her little sister gave her shade about a country music-themed Twilight fanfic. By day, Erin gets to share her favorite stories with her elementary students. By night, she writes swoons. She married her own YA love interest whom she met on her first day of college and has two kids who are much, much cooler than she ever was at their age. She lives in Michigan, aka the greenest place on earth and has a cat, Gus, who plays fetch and a dog, June, who doesn’t.She started writing her own books when her little sister gave her shade about a country music-themed Twilight fanfic. By day, Erin gets to share her favorite stories with her elementary students. By night, she writes swoons. She married her own YA love interest whom she met on her first day of college and has two kids who are much, much cooler than she ever was at their age. She lives in Michigan, aka the greenest place on earth and has a cat, Gus, who plays fetch and a dog, June, who doesn’t.

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 Shattering Stigmas

Welcome to Shattering Stigmas 4.0

October has rolled around once again. Everyone has their “spooky” names on Twitter, people are coveting their ridiculous pumpkin spice products and, at least here in the Northeast, there’s a subtle chill in the air and the leaves are tinged with yellow and red.

And it’s time for a new year of Shattering Stigmas, an annual two-week blogging event dedicated to ending the stigma against mental illness through the sharing of personal essays, media and book lists centered on mental health. If you’re new to Shattering Stigmas, welcome. If not, thanks for coming back. Either way, thank you for your support of this project and I hope you find it useful in some way. Posts will be going up every day until October 20.

Shattering Stigmas was started by the lovely and wonderful Shannon @ It Starts at Midnight three years ago and none of this would be possible without the immeasurable amount of work she has devoted to it since it began. I took over the organization of it because I firmly believe in the power of these stories and the power of offering people a platform to speak their truths without shame and judgement. We can all learn by listening to each other with respect and empathy.

I am not alone in organizing Shattering Stigmas this year. I am joined by four amazing co-hosts who have put an equal amount of work and energy into this project: Madalyn @ Novel Ink, Kitty @ Jelly Fable, Ben @ Ace of Bens and Marie @ Drizzle and Hurricane Books. Without them, Shattering Stigmas would not be possible. Be sure to check out their blogs and follow them to keep up with all of the amazing posts people wrote for us.

I hope that over the next two weeks, you’ll read and engage with as many of the posts you can as we continue the conversation about mental health. Each year, I’m so struck at the honesty, courage and power that our writers bring to their pieces. Listen to our stories. Share your truth. End the stigma. And thank you for your support.

Enter our *international* giveaway for a mental health read of your choice!

Interested in more Shattering Stigmas posts? Check out this post that Ben, another of our amazing co-hosts, put together listing every single Shattering Stigmas guest post and giveaway so you don’t miss a thing!

Posted in Blog Tour

Blog Tour: I Do Not Trust You by Laura J. Burns and Melinda Metz (Review and Q&A)

I am so thrilled and grateful to be a part of the blog tour for I Do Not Trust You, the latest thrilling and adventurous YA book from duo Laura J. Burns and Melinda Metz.

You can find the book on Goodreads, Amazon, Barnes & Noble & IndieBound.

Check out the summary here:

37638243Memphis “M” Engle is stubborn to a fault, graced with an almost absurd knowledge of long lost languages and cultures, and a heck of an opponent in a fight. In short: she’s awesome.

Ashwin Sood is a little too posh for her tastes, a member of an ancient cult (which she’s pretty sure counts for more than one strike against him), and has just informed Memphis that her father who she thought was dead isn’t and needs her help.

From the catacombs of Paris to lost temples in the sacred forests, together they crisscross the globe, searching for the pieces of the one thing that might save her father. But the closer they come to saving him—and the more they fall for one another—the closer they get to destroying the world.

I got the chance to ask Laura and Melinda some of my burning questions about the world-building and writing process for I Do Not Trust You:

Tay: In I DO NOT TRUST YOU, M and Ash visit a variety of significant cultural locations around the globe, bringing them to almost every continent on a high-stakes hunt for pieces of a mysterious ancient statue. What was the research process like for choosing these sites? Did you work together? Were there any big surprises or Aha! moments?

Laura and Melinda: We did try to hit most of the continents! Antarctica and Australia didn’t make the cut, unfortunately. We knew the basic requirements for the locations we needed–they had to have been built a certain number of years ago, they had to be religious sites–and that helped narrow down our research. We initially made a long list of possible locations, and then narrowed them down in such a way that we’d have a variety of mythologies and cultures.

The best Aha! moment came at the very beginning, when we were plotting out the story in broad strokes. We knew we wanted an adventurous search for something, but we didn’t know what. We thought of an Egyptian artifact right away because we love Ancient Egypt, but we weren’t sure what it should be. One of our favorite Egyptian myths is the story of Osiris and Isis, which also involves Set, who is a dark god. Set kills Osiris and chops his body into pieces, which he scatters throughout Egypt. Isis, Osiris’s wife, searches for all the pieces and reunites them, reincarnating Osiris. And as we discussed this myth, we thought (Aha!) Isis searched for scattered pieces, and that’s what our heroine is doing as well. So we could use that myth as the basis for our (fictional) Egyptian artifact–it’s chopped into pieces and scattered around the world. It worked perfectly.

 

Tay: Along the same lines of my previous question, were there any sites or locations that you wanted to include, but ended up not fitting into the story?

Laura and Melinda: It was hard to pick only one spot in Egypt. We had a list of several, as you can imagine given our obsession with it! But it wouldn’t have worked for the plot to spend too much time there, so we had to choose the one that fit our story best. We also have an intense attraction to Druids, and we really wanted to use a location that might’ve been sacred to the Druids. Alas, we couldn’t quite find a way to work that in either.

 

Tay: A big part of what I love about I DO NOT TRUST YOU is that it offers a nuanced discussion of religion and what is sacred. Is that something that you two initially set out to write or did it develop over time? How did the weaving of different belief systems from Egyptian cult beliefs to Catholicism to local indigenous pagan beliefs develop as you wrote and then revised the book?

Laura and Melinda: We love anything involving complex mythology or the occult, and we love to create our own mythologies. The different belief systems are fascinating to us, and it’s impossible to separate those systems from the cultures that gave rise to them. One thing that we think gets forgotten when learning about the gods of ancient cultures is that, while we view the myths as merely stories, the people who lived then viewed them as a religion. It’s a mistake to assume that priests in Ancient Egypt weren’t just as devout as priests in our current religions, for instance. One of the best ways to learn about a modern culture is to study the religious beliefs of its people, and that’s true of ancient cultures as well. We like to think about what the lives of those believers were like, rather than only thinking about the gods and what they might symbolize.

With our main male character, Ash, we tried to figure out how it would feel to believe so completely in your religion that it crowds out all other considerations. And with our protagonist, M, we went the other way–she knows so much about so many different belief systems that she doesn’t have one particular belief of her own. Eventually, the theme that we settled on was one of respect for all the different faiths. If an act is done in service of the greater good, then it is sacred. That was something both of our characters could agree on.

Thank you so much Laura and Melinda for answering my questions!

Interested in learning more about I Do Not Trust You and my thoughts on this lovely imaginative book? Keep reading for my review!

Continue reading “Blog Tour: I Do Not Trust You by Laura J. Burns and Melinda Metz (Review and Q&A)”

Posted in Book Review

Book Review – Keeper of the Bees by Meg Kassel

37638219
Keeper of the Bees by Meg Kassel, EntangledTeen, 304 pp., $17.99

Rating: Recommend

Content Warnings: Death, gore, physical violence, forced institutionalization, schizophrenia

Sometimes what hooks me on a book is a unique premise. Other times it’s just because I’m into really weird things. I love honeybees, so I had to give Keeper of the Bees, a new speculative/surreal thriller by Meg Kassel and a companion to Black Birds of the Gallows, a chance as soon as I saw the cover.

For centuries, Dresden has been a beekeeper. A hive of bees lives inside his ribcage, the result of a curse put upon him by an evil queen. The bees yearn to sting humans, which drives them to madness and death, their suffering harvested by similarly cursed beings, Harbingers. But when the bees demand that Dresden sting Essie, a young girl whose family has been cursed by a madness that has evaded diagnosis from physicians, Dresden resists, sending him on a journey to fight for his and Essie’s humanity in the face of a looming disaster.

This book was okay. If you’re looking for an interesting Saturday read that has a quirky premise, this book is for you. It has an intriguing premise. It has a few twists. I couldn’t stop reading, because I needed to see how it was going to end and whether or not there was an way for Dresden and Essie to have some kind of a happy ending.

This book is definitely imaginative and gritty in a way I wish that more books were. The system of magic and curses that serves as the backbone of the book was so weird, but it was also so engaging and intriguing. I was a bit hesitant on the representation of mental illness in the book, since I’m not a fan of mental illness becoming conflated with madness brought on by some magical curse. This book definitely walks that fine line. In the end, it works out mostly okay.

The writing was also engaging and descriptive. I would recommend The Keeper of the Bees for anyone looking for a quick, enjoyable rainy day read.

I received an advance copy of this book from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. 

Posted in Book Review

Review – Darius the Great is Not Okay by Adib Khorram

37506437Rating: ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥

CW: Bullying/Harassment, Death, Terminal Illness, Discussions of Depression and Suicide

Representation: Fat MC, Depressed (with medication) MC, Gay MC, Iranian-American MC

Release Date: August 28, 2018

A strong distinct voice and an unforgettable story are two of my favorite things in a YA novel, but to say that Adib Khorram’s debut YA novel Darius the Great is Not Okay checks off both of these boxes would be an understatement. This lovely little book is such a masterpiece about struggling to fit in, exploring one’s cultural identity and finding one’s place in the world. It has incredible depression rep and an overweight, Iranian-American protagonist that you will all root for as he finds himself.

Avid tea lover and Star Trek nerd Darius Kellner feels like he doesn’t belong. He doesn’t belong at school, where he’s bullied by Trent Bolger and his crew of jock friends. He doesn’t fit in at home, where he feels constantly judged for his appearance and behavior by his white dad who also deals with depression and alienated from his mom and little sister who both speak Farsi. When Darius’s grandfather in Yazd, Iran falls ill, the Kellner family travels across the globe to visit him and while there, Darius starts his own journey to find his place within himself, within his family and within the world.

In terms of voice, this book hits it out of the park. Darius is such a full, complex, nuanced character. His thoughts, his cares, his fears jump off the page. He’s gay and overweight. He’s a thinker. He’s a tea aficionado. He’s a thoughtful friend. He’s self-conscious. He’s a good brother. And he loves people so deeply, but doesn’t know how to express it.

I know so many people who are looking for more spot-on internationally set YA. If that’s you, this is your book. As someone who doesn’t get to travel much and would never get to see a place like Iran from the perspective of someone with family there, I love books like this that open that world for me. Darius the Great was a window book for me. It showed me this whole part of the world I knew little about and the richness and beauty and complexities and dark sides of the culture there. The depiction of Yazd felt so complex and nuanced. But it also excites me to no end that this will be a mirror book for Iranian-American teens as well as fat, depressed and/or queer teens. The intersectionality of the representation is fantastic and made me wish all books could be like this. 

One of my great loves in this life is the representation of mental illness in YA books. Darius is depressed. He takes medication and has for years. He’s emotional and I loved the scenes where he cycles through multiple emotions at once because I’ve never seen that aspect of my depression represented on the page before. I had an “Ohhhhh” moment where I realized how my own mind works and how that aspect my mind probably looks from the outside in and it was weird and wonderful all at once. As a reviewer with depression and knowing that that aspect of the plot is also #ownvoices, it felt empathetic, complex and well-done.

Overall, just read this book. Do it. Darius the Great is Not Okay is one of the best YA books I have read in 2018. It is absolutely required reading, for everyone, for those who see themselves in it and those who will see through someone else’s eyes.

Posted in #SBPT

Wrapping Up the Summer Blogger Promo Tour

g4JfMVsm_400x400Whew, did this summer fly by…

Okay, I should have written this in Word before reading Brooke’s wrap-up post about me, y’all, because I AM EMOTIONAL. This is going to be short. Otherwise, it’s just going to be a mess of me spilling my feels all over the place.

I signed up for this promo tour because I know Jess and I wanted to support my friend. I NEVER expected to get a partner as kind, generous, lovely and amazing as Brooke. Long story short, I never expected to make a new friend, not one as sweet and awesome as Brooke, and for that I am eternally grateful. Brooke was always up for anything and although we are mutual procrastinators (we’ll fix that…one day), we always managed to get the job done.

So Brooke, thank you for making this a fun summer, for being my co-blogger and my friend, for helping me want to blog again. We did rock it (and I hope we both get to continue rocking it in the future!)! I’m so grateful for your recommendations. Jenn Bennett’s books are ones so needed in my life and while they are outside my usual genres, I really enjoyed Daughter of the Pirate King and Anna Dressed in Blood! Thank you for putting up with my Type A, anxious self!

I ALREADY MISS YOU SO MUCH!!!!

Posted in #SBPT

Swapping Favorite Reads with Brooke @ Brooke Reports!

This week for the Summer Blogger Promo Tour (#SBPT), Brooke and I have three bookish recommendations for each other. Check back next week to see the results of us reading each other’s favorite reads right now!

Brooke’s Recs

I love to read stories that fill me with giddiness, make me swoon, and give me all the feels–so when someone asks me for a good read, these are the three books that always come to mind straight away!

30312700Alex, Approximately by Jenn Bennett:

I recommend this book to anyone and everyone. I freakin’ ADORED IT! It was the perfect, swoony summer read! I feel like Tay appreciates the swoon just as much as I do, so I thought she may enjoy this one!

33643994Daughter of the Pirate King by Tricia Levenseller:

SO. Basically, I’m a Pirate-Whore. I needed Taylor to join me on this ship! I absolutely loved this one and everyone could use some swashbuckling fun in their lives right?

UntitledAnna Dressed in Blood by Anna Kendare:

WHO DOESN’T LOVE A BLOODY SUPERNATURAL THRILLER!? I’d be lying if I said the cover didn’t convince me to read this one. Luckily, the story inside was just as captivating. This book has romance, violence, heartbreak, AND LIKE?!? Yes, Taylor, please read this and be frightened IN A GOOD WAY?! Wow. Maybe i’m a terrible #SBPT partner lolol

 

Taylor’s Recs

I love stories that emotionally punch me in the face but also have a lot of hope and heart. For me a good read is a book that has a strong voice, strong feelings and strong, badass characters. These are 3 books that come to mind when people ask me for my favorites!

18718848Mosquitoland by David Arnold:

This book is just flat-out one of my all-time favorites. It’s fun, adventurous, validating and beautifully written. I need Brooke to read this so she can appreciate the fine treat that is a David Arnold book because each one is such a distinct type of reading experience. I also hope she’ll want to read Kids of Appetite and The Strange Fascinations of Noah Hypnotik too!

30653843Radio Silence by Alice Oseman:

When I think of amazing nerdy YA books that are super strongly voiced, this book sits at the top of the list. I need Brooke to experience Frances and Aled’s story about podcasts and finding the people that help you be your own brand of weird, even if that takes you on a path you never expected.

28588459Still Life with Tornado by A.S. King:

I’d be lying if I said I didn’t partially recommend this book because I want Brooke to cry and have all the emotions I’ve had reading this book. Sorry, you’re in for a wild ride, but also a tremendous treat of brilliant, cathartic writing in this book. It’s absolutely a favorite of mine and this story means so much to me.

Posted in Top Ten Tuesday

Fifteen Fellow Book Bloggers You Need to Follow ASAP

Top Ten Tuesday is a book blog meme founded by The Broke and the Bookish and is now hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl. You can find out more information about TTT, including a list of past and future topics, here.

This week’s topic:

August 14: Favorite Book Blogs/Bookish Websites

Here are fifteen (so much for Top Ten this week and I still feel like I left so many people out *sobs*) of my favorite bookish bloggers. I didn’t want to number them, lest I imply I love some bloggers more than others, so I have listed them in alphabetical order. And I had to cut myself off at fifteen, so if you’re not here and we are friends, please know I love and appreciate you. Enjoy my very free-form post this week and happy blog hopping!

(Also a huge shout out to the Cool Bloggers Chat (and to Jess, Emily & Amber @ The Book Bratz and Stephanie @ OhanaReads who I also love dearly and whose blogs you should also check out because they’re also in that chat) because what started out as a planning tool for BookCon has evolved into a safe, loving and hilarious space to vent and talk about books. Love y’all so much! *all the purple hearts*)

Angel @ Avid Reader – The first time Angel and I met, I was a few people behind her in the Grishaverse line at BookCon and we didn’t realize we were texting and standing ten feet away from each other. We also survived one of the Penguin Drop lines together, so we’re basically friends for line. Check out her blog for all kinds of bookish content.

Breeny @ Breeny’s Books – I met Breeny because she left a comment on my blog as a new blogger. She’s also a kickass writer and I can’t wait to see where she goes in the future. Be sure to follow her blog!

Brooke @ Brooke Reports – BROOOOOKE! Hi, Brooke and I have been blogging together all summer for the Summer Blogger Promo Tour. She is an awesome person and you should definitely check out her blog (plus you’ll get to see some of my content on there too!).

Camille @ The Literary Empress – I’ve known Camille for a long while via Book Twitter. I look up to her and her Bookstagram is also lovely. Be sure to check out her blog!

Chloe @ The Elven Warrior – Chloe is such a sweetheart and so passionate about books. Watch out Netgalley and Publishers, she’s here to bribe you with her adorable cat pictures. Check out her blog!

Cody @ Roecker Reviews – Cody is one of my dearest, dearest friends and one of the smartest people I know so you need to go read his book reviews.

Darnell @ darnellouis – I met Darnell through our big bookish gc for BookCon. Check out his awesome and thoughtful blog!

Kayla @ Kayla Reads and Reviews – Kayla is my fellow Hallmork movie addict, dream wedding planning friend who I love to scream about books with, so you should definitely follow her blog!

Kitty @ JellyFable – I look up to Kitty and her thoughts about books and representation so much. I’m so happy to call her a friend, but I would be even happier if you checked out her blog!

Lefty @ The Left-Handed Book Blogger – Lefty is such an awesome, cool and quirky person and blogger. Check out her blog!

Lia @ Lost in a Story – I’ve known Lia for a while on Twitter and she is definitely one of the coolest bloggers and people I know. She also designs kickass bookish goodies! Go get lost on her book blog!

Mar @ Inked Margins – Most of the time I can’t believe Mar is only 15. They are so wise beyond their years. Check out their amazing blog!

Olivia @ Books and Big Ideas – Olivia is so passionate about theater, books and education. I’m so proud to call her a friend and you should absolutely check out her blog.

Shealea @ That Bookshelf Bitch – I love Shealea’s blog name SOOOOO much. Check out her blog and support international book bloggers!

Troix @ Almost Professional Book Reviews – I met Troix because she wrote a kickass post for Shattering Stigmas, a mental health awareness series I co-host. She’s awesome and you should check out her blog!