WNDMG Wednesday is thrilled to host author M.K. England this month. M.K. wrote a fantastic post for us exploring themes central to their writing–themes that consistently create connection and validation, which is the connective tissue of what diverse kidlit is all about. Thank you so much, M.K.! And congratulations on Player vs. Player — so excited for this book!
Guest Post, by M.K. England
My work as an author is a bit all over the place. I started out in YA sci-fi/fantasy with The Disasters and Spellhacker, skipped to adult sci-fi with Guardians of the Galaxy: No Guts, No Glory, then hopped to YA contemporary with The One True Me and You, which just came out on March 1st. Now, after all that, I’ve finally found my way to middle grade—and what a joy it is to be writing the Player vs. Player trilogy.
Two Consistent Features
What in the world could possibly connect all of those very different books, other than the fact that they all lived in my brain? There are two consistent features of everything I write:
- Strong, loving, supportive friend groups that treat each other like family, and,
- A reading experience that I, the queer nerdy Star Wars loving gamer child, would have felt validated by.
It’s dangerous to go alone!*
In the Player vs. Player trilogy, both of those features are fundamental to the story. We get to see the formation of my hallmark friends-as-family group in action as four kids come together to bond over their shared love of a video game called Affinity. Book one, Ultimate Gaming Showdown, is like a video game version of Mr. Lemoncello’s Library, where four kids team up in a virtual tournament to do battle for an amazing prize package. They play well together… but there are whole heaps of loneliness and isolation (and maybe a few secrets) keeping them from playing their best and coming together as a team—and as true friends.
- Josh’s family moves around a lot for his mom’s job and just wants some friends to game with.
- Hannah struggles in school and plays alone at the public library every evening while her mom works a second job.
- Gaming is banned altogether in Larkin’s household, and she’s got a million other things going on in her life—but her heart and dreams are filled with video games.
- Wheatley struggles to relate to other kids and has an overbearing father… and a secret that could wreck the whole team.
I loved getting to design the video game these kids play together, and writing the action of the tournament was a blast. It’s the process of getting these kids together as a team, as friends who trust and care about each other, that ultimately propels the book forward though. There is such incredible power in finding the people who see you and validate the things you care about, something all of these kids desperately needed. To many people, video games are a waste of time, something shameful that kids should avoid. To these kids, gaming is a critical lifeline, a source of purpose and pride… and maybe even a future career.
Of course, as we’ll find out in PvP book two, it’s not all smooth sailing once you’ve found your people. Staying friends, especially when you’re on a team together? There are… challenges.
* – A classic Zelda reference that the kids in this book would totally not get. I embrace my status as an Elder Millennial Nerd.
Gamers are cool now, right?
The second constant in my writing, a reading experience that validates my queer nerdy young self, is baked right into the core concept. I loved video games a lot as a child. It’s the earliest thing I remember being very into, starting with button mashing on our old original Nintendo as soon as I could get my hands around the controller.
However, when I was the same age as the kids in PvP, it was the late 90s. Being a gamer at that time wasn’t especially cool for anyone, but definitely not if you weren’t a boy. Things have improved, but gaming is still a boy’s club in a lot of ways. For example, the vast majority of the top streamers on Twitch are straight cis white guys. Meanwhile women, BIPOC folks, and queer people get harassed right off the site. We clearly still have a long way to go.
For adult me, a queer non-binary person who grew up as that weirdo “gamer girl,” the opportunity to write this story is healing. The gaming team in PvP includes two girls competing at the highest level in eSports—and as a kid, I would have been obsessed. PvP is a book I would have read until the paperback had gone soft and fuzzy, full of creases and little torn off chunks missing from too much time spent in a backpack or wedged between the bed and the wall. Though there weren’t books for kids and teens back then that mentioned the word nonbinary (that I knew of), I gobbled up anything where I saw kids like me—girls who didn’t fit, who dared to ferociously love unexpected things, who chafed against their boxes. If there’d been a book series about girls in video games? Game over.
It’s been fascinating to me, writing characters who are just beginning to discover who they are. Characters in YA are doing the same thing, but they’re much further down the path. In middle grade, kids are just starting to take those first steps to differentiate from their families and embrace who they’ll become.
For some queer, trans, and gender-expansive kids, by the time they hit that 8-12 range, they’re already well aware of their identities. For others, like me, it takes longer. Maybe it was just the lack of representation in media and the “tomboy” label I was saddled with as a kid, but it wasn’t until high school that I really started to understand and embrace some aspects of who I was, and the full picture didn’t come into focus until my early 30s. Before that, it was much more subtle. Blushing glances, that awkward blend of curiosity and embarrassment, experimenting with clothes to see what felt right. While I’m sure I’ll write a more overt middle-grade story later, for right now I’m enjoying writing this subtle growth into queerness that so reflects my own experiences while the characters put 99% of their brainpower into their gaming goals.
It’s an honor to be writing directly to and for the next generation of gamers, who I hope will create a much more open and welcoming gaming culture in the years to come. I’ll still be here, controller in hand.
M. K. England grew up on the Space Coast of Florida watching shuttle launches from the backyard. These days, they call rural Virginia home, where their house is full of video games, dogs, plants, Star Wars memorabilia, and one baby human. MK is the author of THE DISASTERS (2018), SPELLHACKER (2020), THE ONE TRUE ME & YOU (2022), and other forthcoming novels. Follow them at www.mkengland.com.