My Agenda for Middle Grade Books, a guest post by Greg Howard
“Never before have I thrown a book away, yours is the first.”
That’s how the email began.
It was last summer, about eight months after the release of my debut middle grade novel, The Whispers. I’d been riding pretty high on positive reviews from the likes of The New York Times Book Review, The Guardian, The Washington Post, Entertainment Weekly, and others. I’d received a number of emails from kids and parents the world over telling me how much they loved the book and how the story touched them deeply. But all that was momentarily overshadowed by this new website contact submission form in my inbox.
If you haven’t read The Whispers, trust me, it’s a sweet and pretty innocuous story. Riley, the eleven-year-old protagonist, is struggling to come to terms with the fact that he likes boys instead of girls (there is a crush on an older boy and chaste – even comical – kiss between two boys). But that’s not the main story, not even close. It just happens to be who Riley is and what he’s going through at that moment in his life.
I was Riley—a lonely kid growing up in the deep South knowing that I wasn’t like the other boys around me. I never saw myself represented in the books I read, or on the TV shows I watched and that made me feel like I was the only boy in the whole world who was desperately attracted to other boys. The glaring lack of representation in books, television, and movies only compounded my sense of isolation and loneliness, making me feel even more like a freak than I already did. I can’t imagine the anguish I would have been saved if I’d had access to even one book at that age in which I saw another boy like me. It would have given me something I severely lacked at that point in my life—hope.
The email I received last summer was from a father whose son was reading The Whispers. Apparently when he asked his son to talk about was going on in the book, the boy’s response sparked his curiosity, so he read “a chapter or two” only to find, in his words, “references that project your own sexuality onto the lives of others,” and “you couldn’t resist having this projected onto my boy.”
The man went on to say, “…the moment you cross into my world and suggest to my kids your sexuality – you are pushing your own homosexual agenda. Your story didn’t need this. Your story didn’t need to mention that the character was straight, or gay. Just tell your story and have kids enjoy it.”
To emphasize his disgust, he was also kind enough to send me a picture of my book in the trash.
The first thing I thought when I saw this picture was, if this man’s son is gay, he just saw his father reject him and throw him in the trash, and the mere possibility of that breaks my heart.
But what this father was clearly saying in his email was that the mere suggestion of my existence, and the existence of kids like Riley, was and affront to him, his family, and his beliefs. And that in simply living my truth and even “mentioning” that Riley was attracted to other boys, I was pushing my “homosexual agenda.” I suppose all those books I read as a kid in which the boys were attracted only to girls and girls were attracted only to boys were pushing a heterosexual agenda on me. No one asked me how I felt about that, or if I was offended to have to read about such things, but I digress.
After the initial shock and deflation from reading the man’s email, I became more motivated than ever to write stories for and about queer kids. I was in the process of writing my new book when I received the email. Middle School’s a Drag: You Better Werk! is a contemporary story set in Charleston, South Carolina, in which twelve-year-old Mikey—gay but not out publicly yet—starts a junior talent agency and signs a thirteen-year-old drag queen, Coco Caliente, Mistress of Madness and Mayhem, as his first client. (Drag kids exist, too! Google it.) The man’s email also motivated me to make Mikey’s parents overwhelmingly accepting and supportive—sometimes annoyingly so, in Mikey’s opinion. Mikey has a crush on another boy at school, but as in The Whispers, that’s not what the story is about it. It’s just a part of who Mikey is. Queer kids exist and (News Alert!) they have crushes just like straight, or cishet, kids do.
Other than a handful of homophobic bully characters in Middle School’s a Drag: You Better Werk! Mikey’s world is somewhat of a middle school gaytopia. I wrote it that way on purpose. Because even if that’s not the norm in some parts of the South or in other parts of the country, don’t queer kids deserve that kind of hope too? The hope that one day they can be themselves openly and without fear of backlash for simply existing. The hope that they won’t be marginalized and othered in their daily lives. And the hope that they’ll have access to a plethora of books in which they see themselves represented, accepted, and celebrated.
Having been gay for some time now (read: always), I have yet to discover this elusive and seemingly subversive “homosexual agenda” that I’ve heard so much about over the years and have been accused of “pushing” onto kids in my books. But this man’s email inspired me to create my own, simple as it is. So, I thank him for that.
GREG HOWARD’S HOMOSEXUAL AGENDA FOR MIDDLE GRADE NOVELS
Write good books in which queer kids feel seen and represented.
Give queer kids their happily ever afters.
And most importantly, give them hope.
Meet Greg Howard
Born and raised in the South Carolina Lowcountry, Greg Howard’s love of words and story blossomed at a young age. Originally set on becoming a famous songwriter and following that dream to the bright lights of Nashville, Tennessee, Greg spent years producing the music of others before eventually returning to his childhood passion of writing stories. Greg writes young adult and middle grade novels focusing on LGBTQ characters and issues. He has an unhealthy obsession with Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups and currently resides in Nashville with his three rescued fur babies–Molly, Toby, and Riley. Connect with Greg at www.greghowardbooks.com or on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter: @greghowardbooks
About Middle School’s a Drag, You Better Werk!
In this heartfelt and hilarious new novel from Greg Howard, an enterprising boy starts his own junior talent agency and signs a thirteen-year-old aspiring drag queen as his first client.
Twelve-year-old Mikey Pruitt—president, founder, and CEO of Anything, Inc.—has always been an entrepreneur at heart. Inspired by his grandfather Pap Pruitt, who successfully ran all sorts of businesses from a car wash to a roadside peanut stand, Mikey is still looking for his million-dollar idea. Unfortunately, most of his ideas so far have failed. A baby tornado ran off with his general store, and the kids in his neighborhood never did come back for their second croquet lesson. But Mikey is determined to keep at it.
It isn’t until kid drag queen Coco Caliente, Mistress of Madness and Mayhem (aka eighth grader Julian Vasquez) walks into his office (aka his family’s storage/laundry room) looking for an agent that Mikey thinks he’s finally found his million-dollar idea, and the Anything Talent and Pizzazz Agency is born!
Soon, Mikey has a whole roster of kid clients looking to hit it big or at least win the middle school talent show’s hundred-dollar prize. As newly out Mikey prepares Julian for the gig of a lifetime, he realizes there’s no rulebook for being gay—and if Julian can be openly gay at school, maybe Mikey can, too, and tell his crush, dreamy Colton Sanford, how he feels.
Full of laughs, sass, and hijinks, this hilarious, heartfelt story shows that with a little effort and a lot of love, anything is possible.
Publisher: Penguin Young Readers Group
Publication date: 02/11/2020
Age Range: 10 – 12 Years
Filed under: Guest Post
About Amanda MacGregor
Amanda MacGregor works in an elementary library, loves dogs, and can be found on Twitter @CiteSomething.
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