WNDMG Wednesday is excited to host authors Nicole Melleby and A. J. Sass this week as they write about celebrating and fighting for queer joy. Welcome to WNDMG!
Celebrating–and Fighting for–Queer Joy
Guest Post by Nicole Melleby and A. J. Sass
When it came time for us to write this essay, it would have been all too easy for us to sit here and talk about book bans, and challenges, and how queer authors, like ourselves, are often thrust into the spotlight as a result of them. This is an important topic, without question. Because kids deserve to see themselves and their identities represented in books without bigoted pushback–because we deserved to see ourselves in books when we were kids, too, but we rarely did and we want to do our part in giving young readers this representation now, despite the repeated attempts to censor it. And we also acknowledge that these acts of censorship are hard on queer authors and their readers. It’s sad and terrible that this has been happening with increasing frequency.
It’d be all too easy for us to focus an entire essay on that.
But this is not what our novel, Camp QUILTBAG, is about. At least, not for us. Camp QUILTBAG is pure queer joy, and when we sat down to write it together, that was exactly what we felt: Joy. There was something special about sitting down with a best friend and saying, “Let’s write about these queer kids–one who is like me, and one who is like you, and let’s give them support, and love, and a place to be safe and feel comforted.” There was something special about laughing and creating together as queer authors, something so incredibly rewarding about the happiness we found while losing ourselves in developing these characters and creating these pages.
When it comes down to it, that’s what we believe is important. Giving an anxious, twelve-year-old who loves Laura Dern and knows she’s a lesbian but is ridiculed by her old friends at her Catholic school a place to find kids who understand her. Offering a hurt, angry, and closed-off thirteen-year-old nonbinary kid a place where e can let eir guard down, to understand what it really feels like to give and have support, to maybe even develop a crush of eir own. What was important to us was giving a trans boy a safe place to get his period for the first time, and having a friend who understands why he feels betrayed by his own body. It was important to give an autistic queer kid the room to fully embrace who she is, and to fight for what she believes in. It was giving a Jewish kid the space to have a conversation about queerness and faith with a Catholic kid. It was introducing all of these kids to one another and saying, “Hey, all of your problems aren’t going to magically go away, but look how much love and support and comfort you can find in the meantime, together.”
The queer joy is important. Realizing you can have that happiness, even when people are trying to tear that joy away, is important. Being able to look the lawmakers trying to pass these blatant attempts at censorship in the face and saying, “You may want to ban our books, you may want to create laws that take our rights away, you may want to try and take our happiness away” but telling them, and showing them, we can be happy and joyful anyway–that’s what is ultimately important. It feels especially crucial for our readers to see.
It’s important to us, anyway.
Both of us were sad, confused, sometimes angry, queer kids–even when we didn’t fully realize our identities, we knew something was different. Neither one of us had books at our disposal that reflected who we were. We didn’t have representation we could look at and say, “Hey, that character is like me!” Sometimes we didn’t even have the vocabulary to describe how we were feeling, and sometimes that made us feel very much alone. It’s hard to find joy when you don’t know how someone like you is supposed to be happy–or that you even can be. It’s hard to know what support looks like when you can’t find any examples anywhere.
Examples and Role Models
Examples and role models are so important within the queer community, which is why we’re also so grateful to be going on a book tour together to celebrate Camp QUILTBAG’s release. Two queer authors, talking about our friendship and our writing process. Two examples of living, breathing queer joy for young readers and their caregivers to see, along with a message for them: you may feel confused or alone or angry right now, but there are people out there just waiting to love and support you. There is a future for you that has every good chance of exceeding your wildest expectations. There are adults who will never stop fighting to ensure this happens. We are so honored to count ourselves among them.
And in a time when books are being banned more, and more, and more–it’s important to keep pushing back, yes, but it’s equally as important to keep talking about the fact that being queer IS joyful. That being queer is okay. It’s normal. Even more than that, being queer is wonderful. We wrote Camp QUILTBAG because we envisioned a place for kids like us to thrive–because every kid, no matter how they identify, deserves to have support and acceptance and feel joy.
About the Authors:
A. J. Sass (he/they) is an author whose narrative interests lie at the intersection of identity, neurodiversity, and allyship. He is the critically acclaimed author of the ALA Rainbow Book List Top 10 titles Ellen Outside the Lines, which was also a Sydney Taylor Honor Book, and Ana on the Edge, as well as the co-author of Camp QUILTBAG (with Nicole Melleby). All three books are Junior Library Guild Gold Standard selections.
A. J. is the author of the upcoming middle grade book Just Shy of Ordinary (Little, Brown, 2024), the picture book Shabbat Is … (Little, Brown, 2024), and a contributor to the This Is Our Rainbow (Knopf Books for Young Readers), Allies (DK/Penguin Random House), and On All Other Nights (Abrams, 2024) anthologies.
When he’s not writing, A. J. figure skates and travels as much as possible. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with his husband and two cats who act like dogs. Visit him online at sassinsf.com and follow him @matokah on Twitter, TikTok, and Instagram
Nicole Melleby, a born-and-bread Jersey native, is the author of highly praised middle-grade books, including the Lambda Literary finalist Hurricane Season and ALA Notable Children’s book How to Become a Planet. She currently teaches at the Fairleigh Dickinson MFA Creative Writing program, and spends most of her free time roller skating. She lives with her wife and their cat, whose need for attention oddly aligns with Nicole’s writing schedule. Feel free to follow her on Twitter @NeekoMelleby.
About Camp Quiltbag
Twelve-year-old Abigail (she/her/hers) is so excited to spend her summer at Camp QUILTBAG, an inclusive retreat for queer and trans kids. She can’t wait to find a community where she can be herself—and, she hopes, admit her crush on that one hot older actress to kids who will understand. Thirteen-year-old Kai (e/em/eir)is not as excited. E just wants to hang out with eir best friend and eir parkour team. And e definitely does not want to think about the incident that left eir arm in a sling—the incident that also made Kai’s parents determined to send em somewhere e can feel like emself. After a bit of a rocky start at camp, Abigail and Kai make a pact: If Kai helps Abigail make new friends, Abigail will help Kai’s cabin with the all-camp competition. But as they navigate a summer full of crushes, queer identity exploration, and more, they learn what’s really important. Camp QUILTBAG prominently centers queer joy and community in a book that promises love and encouragement to all who turn its pages. As one of the first middle-grade books with an all-LGBTQIA+cast of characters, the enormous breadth of queer identity and experience portrayed will help young readers discover the language and encouragement needed to explore and affirm their own identities. This unapologetically warm book offers readers the delight of feeling part of a community, and the happiness and freedom that comes with being and loving themselves.