Posts Tagged LGBTQIA+

WNDMG Wednesday – Celebrating – and Fighting for – Queer Joy

We Need Diverse MG
We Need Diverse MG Logo hands holding reading globe with stars and spirals floating around

Illustration by: Aixa Perez-Prado

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.

Safe Places

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.

((If you enjoyed this guest post, you might enjoy reading this archived WNDMG interview with Nicole Melleby.))

About the Authors:

A.J. Sass

author headshot person wearing purple camp QUILTBAG tshirt

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

headshot of author Nicole Melleby, a brown-haired smiling woman in an outdoor setting

Photo Credit: Liz Welch

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.

 book cover with two tweens hanging out smiling

 

Preorder Camp Quiltbag here!

 

WNDMG Wednesday Author Interview with Nicole Melleby

We Need Diverse MG Logo hands holding reading globe with stars and spirals floating around
We Need Diverse MG Logo hands holding reading globe with stars and spirals floating around

Illustration by: Aixa Perez-Prado

Welcome to WNDMG Wednesday and happy September to you all. I’m excited to share my interview with author Nicole Melleby, on her latest book: THE SCIENCE OF BEING ANGRY (Algonquin Young Readers, May 2022).

Book cover with the title The Science of Being Angry featuring a figure in the center of a re-orange circle - with two people looking on at the main figure

About the Science of Being Angry

Eleven-year-old Joey is angry. All the time. And she doesn’t understand why. She has two loving moms, a supportive older half brother, and, as a triplet, she’s never without company. Her life is good. But sometimes she loses her temper and lashes out, like the time she threw a soccer ball—hard—at a boy in gym class and bruised his collarbone. Or when jealousy made her push her (former) best friend (and crush), Layla, a little bit too roughly.

After a meltdown at Joey’s apartment building leads to her family’s eviction, Joey is desperate to figure out why she’s so mad. A new unit in science class makes her wonder if the reason is genetics. Does she lose control because of something she inherited from the donor her mothers chose?

A warm WNDMG welcome to Nicole Melleby (and welcome back to MUF!)!

A Two-Mom Household

MUF: What’s the origin story for your book?

NM: During the early days of the pandemic, I binge-watched a lot of the TV show the Fosters. It’s one of the only shows I had seen that had lesbian moms as the head of the family. It was representation I didn’t realize I was craving. And I realized that I hadn’t yet written a book with a family dynamic that could resemble the one I would have someday. So I knew then that I wanted to write a book with two moms, and tell a story about what their family might look like. I also wanted to tackle childhood anger, and with all of these things in place, Joey came to be. With Joey’s anger, and her two-mom household, it naturally developed into a story about nature vs. nurture and what makes us worthy or not of love from there.

The Science of Being Angry

MUF: Your main character, Joey, is searching for answers about why she is the way she is – and since it’s in the title, (!!) I guess it’s no spoiler to say she’s wondering about why she’s always so angry. You’ve framed a thoroughly 21st century perspective to this age-old but also complicated question. How did you work through the challenge of exploring the science and the question itself for a middle-grade audience?

NM: I think that what it came down to for me was to show that Joey’s anger causes a lot of issues, but that Joey herself doesn’t mean to be this way. She hates that she’s this way and can’t control it. And while yes, her actions need to have consequences, I wanted to show that Joey isn’t unlovable because of it. She deserves love and she deserves to feel safe regardless of her anger issues. In her search for those answers, she ends up on an ancestry website to find out why she is the way she is, and I think having those sort of answers at her fingertips with the internet is a very 21st century middle grade thing. It’s messier when you pair the internet with any sort of soul searching, regardless of how old you are!

An Unconditional Love

MUF: I was particularly struck by a moment in the book where (no spoilers here) your main character, Joey, expresses concern that one of her mothers will want to give her up because of her anger. I think all of us have those moments where we worry that the love we get from others is conditional. Why was this scene important for the book?

NM: I wanted to show that DNA doesn’t make a family, love does, and that Joey’s anger doesn’t make her any less worthy of that love. That who she is, regardless of where her DNA came from and which parent she shares a biological connection with, doesn’t mean that any one of her family members could just walk away from her. It’s a struggle for everyone to learn how to understand one another, but at the end of the day, they are there for Joey no matter what.

These are Important Stories

MUF: At WNDMG, part of our canon is that representation matters, but in this current (loud) culture of book banning, that message sometimes gets shouted down. Have you faced challenges to your book?

NM: I have! And it’s hard, and it sucks, and it’s easy to get caught up in it in a “woe is me” kind of way. But, really, you need to use it to fuel you to keep pushing. I’m going to keep writing these stories because they’re important and these kids need them. And, well, the more books like this I publish, the less of a chance they can ban all of them, right?

MUF: Right!!!!! You never name Joey’s diagnosis – curious to know whether you were describing Oppositional Defiance Disorder?

NM: I purposely didn’t name Joey’s diagnosis because I wanted to show that it could take time to get one. Hopefully they find a good solution, but it was more about everyone understanding one another. When I was writing, I looked up a bunch of different reasons a kid like Joey could have these anger issues—Oppositional Defiance Disorder was one of them, so was ADHD, sensory issues, and a whole slew of others. I took the time to decide what Joey’s anger looked like, and realistically what it could look like, and shaped it from there. I have my own theories as to what she would be diagnosed with, but I never sat down and pin-pointed one specific thing.

((Enjoying this interview? Here’s another from the last time she visited with MUF during her 2019 debut of Hurricane Season))

Keeping Track of the Triplets

MUF: What parts of this book were hard to write?

NM: Honestly, the hardest thing was balancing triplets!!!! I originally write it as quadruplets, but it was way too many siblings and I kept losing track of one of them. So, they became triplets, and even that was a lot to keep track of! I kept forgetting who was in a scene and who wasn’t. Those poor brothers of Joey.

Valid and Worthy of Love

MUF: What resonates most for you?

NM: Getting to write about and see this particular type of family in a published book meant a lot to me.

MUF: Who did you write this book for?

NM: I wrote it for the kids of same-sex parents, for the angry kids, for the queer kids. I want them to know that I see them and that they’re valid and worthy of love.

What’s Next

MUF: What are you working on next?

NM: I have a lot to look forward to in 2023! My very first picture book, Sunny & Oswaldo, comes out from Algonquin Young Readers in Februray, and my very first co-written middle grade project, Camp QUILTBAG, written with A. J. Sass, comes out in March!

Cover illustration featuring two young people, one with an arm slung around the other, both smiling.

We Love Easter Eggs

MUF: The Wild Card question: is there anything I didn’t ask but you wish I had? Feel free to use this space for closing remarks if you like!

NM: Are there any Easter Eggs in The Science of Being Angry? Why, yes! Like every single one of my books so far, Joey and her family live in my hometown of the New Jersey shore. And, because of this, in every one of my books the characters get pizza from Timoney’s pizza (the pizzeria Pluto and her mom own in my book How to Become a Planet!) Though, unfortunately for Joey, she doesn’t get to eat the pizza so much as she’s hit in the face with it…..

 

About Nicole Melleby

headshot of author Nicole Melleby, a brown-haired smiling woman in an outdoor setting

Photo Credit: Liz Welch

Nicole Melleby, a New Jersey native, is the author of highly praised middle-grade books, including the Lambda Literary finalist Hurricane Season and ALA Notable book How to Become a Planet. She lives with her wife and their cat, whose need for attention oddly aligns with Nicole’s writing schedule. Visit her online at nicolemelleby.com and @LadyMelleby on Twitter.

To buy Nicole’s Books:

Workman Publishers

Bookshop.org

 

 

Interview with Rob Sanders, author of BLOOD BROTHERS

Today, I’m delighted to introduce Rob Sanders and his latest book to Mixed-Up Files readers. While known mostly as a picture book writer, Rob ventured into middle grade with his new verse novel, Blood Brothers, which releases this week. Before we get on with the interview, here’s a bit about Rob and his work. (For purchasing information, mouse over the titles and covers of Rob’s books.)

Rob is a teacher who writes and a writer who teaches. He is known for his funny and fierce fiction and nonfiction picture books and is recognized as one of the pioneers in the arena of LGBTQIA+ literary nonfiction picture books.

Rob’s nonfiction books continue to break new ground, including the first picture books about the Pride Flag, the Stonewall Uprising, a transgender Civil War soldier, a gay presidential candidate, and the first gay marriage in America. His work also continues to introduce readers to heroes of the LGBTQIA+ community—from Harvey Milk to Gilbert Baker, from Cleve Jones to Bayard Rustin, and more. His fiction explores friendship, relationships, standing up for others, and being allies.

He serves as co-regional advisor for SCBWI Florida and is a frequent speaker, teacher, mentor, coach, and critiquer. He is also a member of the SCBWI Impact and Legacy Fund Steering Committee.

 

Dorian: Congratulations on your middle-grade debut! Can you tell us a little bit about Blood Brothers and your inspiration for the story?

Rob: Thanks, Dorian, and thank you for helping me celebrate my middle-grade debut. Blood Brothers is a middle grade historical fiction novel written in verse. Blood Brothers is the story of the Johnston brothers who are tainted. Untouchable. The bad blood flowing through their veins is threatening to kill them. So are their neighbors. The Johnston brothers have been kicked out of everything—school, baseball, scouts, even church. Calvin—the oldest of the brothers and the story’s protagonist–is trying to be the man of the family, the superhero who saves the day, but he’s really Mr. Frozen-in-one-spot, Mr. Never-speak-up-for-himself. When a judge’s ruling allows the brothers back in school, Ashland’s anger erupts into a fireball. The only silver lining is that Calvin’s best friend, Izzy, lives 65 miles away at the beach and has no idea about his secret. But news has a way of spreading . . . just like HIV. The story is told over a 16-day period in August of 1987.

The story was inspired by the Ray brothers of Arcadia, Florida, who were contemporaries of Ryan White. Just like Ryan, the Rays were hemophiliacs who contracted HIV through tainted blood transfusions. I had forgotten all about the story until I was doing research for one of my nonfiction picture books and ran across a photo of the Ray brothers. I wrote a poem about that photo and that poem eventually became the first poem/first chapter of Blood Brothers. Of course, before that happened, I found myself diving deep into the stories of the Ray brothers, Ryan White, the early days of the AIDS epidemic, and more. I felt compelled to write about the fictional Johnston brothers in an attempt to understand what I discovered in my research and out of a fear that maybe communities, churches, and schools might not treat kids in similar situations any better today.

Copy and paste the link below to view the photo that inspired Rob along with an article on the Ray brothers: https://www.maryellenmark.com/bibliography/magazines/article/life/the-castaways-fears-about-aids-drive-three-boys-from-home/L

 

Dorian: Why was it important for you to tell this story?

Rob: I was an adult working in a church in Texas when I heard on the evening news that a family with three HIV-positive boys had been burned out of their house. As I sat in Texas listening to the story of those boys, I realized that I lived in a town like theirs. I worked at a church like theirs. I knew kids who went to a school like theirs. I wondered if our school would kick them out. I wondered if our church would turn the family away. I wondered if people I knew would treat three boys with such hate. I wondered if I might. While I hoped we would be different, I couldn’t say for sure that we would be. More than thirty years after the fire at the Ray’s home, I wonder how people would treat a family like theirs today. I wonder if things have changed. I hope they have. But to make things different for people with HIV/AIDS, we have to be educated and aware. We have to intentionally take steps to be different. I hope Blood Brothers might start a discussion that could make today’s generation be the first that we can say, without a doubt, would not fear kids like Ryan White, the Ray brothers, or the Johnstons, and would treat them with respect and be brave enough to stand up for them.

 

 

Dorian: Did you have to do much research for Blood Brothers?

Rob: I write lots of nonfiction, so research is my thing. Of course, I read everything I could find about the Ray brothers and Ryan White. I found magazine and newspaper articles about the early days of the epidemic, worked with a pediatrician friend, a retired nurse who had worked in pediatric AIDS, and another nurse who worked in the burn unit of a local hospital. A good friend of mine is a social worker for an HIV/AIDs organization, and she became a valuable source in my research. And another friend—a longtime Floridian—became my go-to for questions about the flora and fauna of Florida. I scoured government sites for statistics about HIV/AIDS—both historical and current—watched old news reports and documentaries, and more. So, yes, a lot of research went into the writing of the book, and I went back to my sources at various times for vetting.

 

Dorian: Why did you choose the verse novel format?

Rob: I don’t know if I chose the format or if it chose me. For some time, I’ve been writing poems about significant anniversaries, events, and people in the LGBTQIA+ community. It’s been my personal way of connecting to my history and celebrating it. So, when I saw that photo of the Ray brothers, I responded by writing a poem. (Granted, the boys were not part of the LGBTQIA+ community, but the treatment they received because of the HIV/AIDS status does connect.) I was in a critique group at the time which included one member who had published a novel in verse and a couple of others who were pursuing the genre. It just seemed like the perfect fit with the story because it was intimate and personal and provided a way of addressing a heavy topic without overwhelming the reader with text. Given the choice, I would much rather overwhelm them with emotion.

Dorian: This question is a two-parter: How different was it writing this book compared to writing your picture books? And how did writing picture books prepare you to write a verse novel?

Rob: Well, the novel took longer—that’s one big difference! The novel format gave me more time and space to explore the plot, develop characters, and create an emotional impact. You do all that in picture books, too, but in a condensed way and with illustrations that help support the story and take it to deeper levels. My picture book writing style is lyrical and brief, and I use lots of stacked phrases and sentences that guide the reading experience. All that certainly is related to writing in verse. The research skills I’ve developed when writing nonfiction picture books also came in handy when writing my novel in verse. There were two things I had to focus on even more when writing the novel as compared to when writing picture books. One was “sitting in scene” and squeezing every ounce of emotion out of every moment. The second was to strive to always find the best word, phrase, or comparison, the perfect simile, the just-right way to create an image, and so on, and to always work to raise the poetic quality of the text.

 

Dorian: What middle-grade books inspired you as a child?

Rob: I’m not sure my memory goes back that far, Dorian! The first novels that I remember being read to me were from the Laura Ingalls Wilder series. Of course, those books have not aged well, but what I really remember about the books was the experience associated with them. My third-grade teacher, Mrs. Henley, read the books to us aloud one by one, one chapter a day. I distinctly remember the anticipation she developed in us by using that approach. Mrs. Henley also took us on our first field trip which was to Wilder’s home in Mansfield, Missouri. That was the first time I think I realized that authors were real people.

Though I read extensively as a child, my next memory of middle-grade books was while I was in grad school. That’s when I discovered a local children’s book store and discovered Cynthia Voight and Katherine Paterson. I read everything they’d written. But it was when I started teaching, that I really got into contemporary middle-grade writing as I became aware of state award lists, Newbery winners, and tried to ferret out what kinds of books were of interest to my students.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dorian: What contemporary middle-grade books do you wish you had been able to read as a child?

Rob: Anything by David Levithan.

 

Dorian: What are your top three pieces of writing advice for our Mixed-Up Files readers who’d like to try their hand at writing?

Rob: As I compose my responses to these questions, I’m sitting in a cabin at the Highlights Foundation where I just finished a week of teaching. I concluded my keynote yesterday by suggesting that authors be able to answer three questions about their works-in-progress. You may be able to answer the questions before beginning a project, or the answers may develop as you write and revise. But certainly, before sharing your writing with an agent or editor, you would be wise to have formulated (and maybe even be prepared to share) your answers. Here goes:

Why THIS story?

Why does this story need to be told? Why do children need to read it? Why does it need to be on the shelves of libraries? Why?

Why this story NOW?

Why is it imperative that this story be on the market now? An anniversary? Something happening in the world today? Why?

Why ME to write this story?

Why is this story in your wheelhouse? How is this a story you can tell authentically? Why are you the only one who can tell it in the way that you will? Why?

 

Dorian: Great advice! What books by you can Mixed-Up Files readers look for in the future?

Rob: I have two nonfiction picture books releasing this fall. The Mother of a Movement: Jeanne Manford—Ally, Activist, and Co-Founder of the Pflag. illustrated by Sam Kalda (Magination Press) and Song for the Unsung: Bayard Rustin, The Man Behind the 1963 March on Washington, co-authored with Carole Boston Weatherford and illustrated by Byron McCray (Henry Holt Books for Young Readers). I have two other fiction picture books and two other nonfiction picture books under contract, and those projects are in various stages of revision.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dorian: Many thanks for the interview, Rob! Here are some links for readers to keep up with Rob and his work:

Website: robsanderswrites.com

Twitter: https://twitter.com/RobSandersWrite

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/RobSandersWrites

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/robsanderswrites/