Secret Worlds and Hidden Lands: Middle Grade and LGBTQIA+ Kids, a guest post by Will Taylor
When people ask why I write middle grade, (which happens way more often than I thought it would) I always mumble some combination of the following: Those were the years I became a big reader; my favorite books are MG even today; some of the very finest writing is being done for this age level; and I still feel eleven at heart. But as I worked on The Language of Seabirds, my first contemporary story, I realized there was one big reason I’d been overlooking: I was ten years old, smack in the middle of those middle grade years, when I realized I was gay. And it was not a happy moment.
This was 1992, and even though I was barely double digits and still collecting stuffed animals I was aware of the raging fire of the AIDS crisis out there in the grownup world. Magic Johnson had announced his status the year before; Freddie Mercury was dead; and kids on the playground told HIV jokes and refused to share foursquare balls with a classmate whose family had recently vacationed in San Francisco. So when I experienced my own first moment of attraction—momentous and confusing for any kid—it was instantly buried by a sense of looming, personal dread. It’s no exaggeration to say I felt doomed, both socially and in terms of my chances at living a full, happy life. The social fears were closer to hand, however, so I resolved to tamp down and hide everything my heart was telling me—as far as I was concerned forever—and went to lose myself in a book.
I was already a reader at ten, but as fourth grade rolled into fifth, I became obsessed. I’ll never forget getting in trouble for reading A Wizard of Earthsea during a math lesson, or the time the teacher confiscated my beloved stack of Redwall paperbacks for a whole week because they were “cluttering up my desk.” I inhaled books, only dimly aware that I might be looking for some refuge or escape, some world where maybe the secret I was holding onto wouldn’t feel quite so dangerous. I never came across kids like me in the stories I read in those years—and certainly never happy, thriving queer grownups—but I did find something like relief as I returned again and again to tales of overlooked, lonely kids finding their way into grand hidden lands.
“Through the looking glass” stories aren’t exclusive to middle grade, of course, but I would argue that middle grade does them best. And I think that’s because being nine years old, or ten, or eleven, is such a particular place to be. Kids that age are the oldest they’ve ever been, and they know it. They’re able to look back and see their growth, their leveling-up, their differences—they have history now. But they are still also solidly, definitely kids. Adolescence and the grownup world are somewhere up ahead, foggy and perilous and, for the moment, closed off. Yet they have new skills and energy, ideas and dreams, and a need to be seen and honored for what they can do.
That means all middle graders have reason to dive into stories about enchanted worlds lurking behind the scenes. They might sometimes feel lonely and awkward out here, but in books these kids can travel through pillow forts; rule entire countries from the backs of their closets; track down treasures no grownup could find; turn the tide in a battle for the galaxy; or earn the friendship of dragons. And for LGBTQIA+ kids especially, the notion that freedom and glory are close at hand if you are clever, and know how to look, and are willing to peer sideways into the hidden corners of the world, well, that can be like an oasis in the desert. It sure was for me.
To be clear, I’m not claiming tales of hidden lands as a uniquely queer fascination; that would be silly. But I am noting it as a particularly queer one. When you wake up one day to find the majority of people around you are not, in fact, like you at all in a very fundamental way, of course you feel the need to find someplace where you and all your strangeness can belong. That’s the refuge stories of inner worlds and hidden lands can provide.
I’ve done my best to add to that refuge with The Language of Seabirds, a story of two twelve-year-old boys building their own world right alongside their everyday one, weaving a secret pattern language across the backdrop of two shared weeks on the Oregon coast. There are grownups in the story too, of course, but they’re busy with their own concerns, and my boys, giddy in the swell of a mutual first crush, manage to build something fierce and enchanted and free. It is, in the simplest way, everything I wanted when I was their age.
It’s been three decades since 1992, and while the world may have changed, many elementary kids today still deal with the same fears and circumstances I did way back when. At least there are a few queer books for young readers on the shelves now, and no discussion of the field would be complete without naming Kacen Callender and Alex Gino. They built this category from the ground up, creating some of the finest stories ever written in the process, and countless adults as well as children are seeing themselves on the page because of them.
As for my own contribution, I hope Seabirds will act as a love letter to readers looking for the same community and reassurance I once was. All kids deserve more than we’ve given them, and queer middle graders especially need stories where they can see themselves shine. They may still revel in the glamour of secret worlds and hidden lands—I sincerely hope they do!—but they should never have to depend on them for survival. They deserve stories about kids like them out front and center, facing the world, seen and honored for exactly who they are. That, in the end, is why I write middle grade: to offer kids today what I barely understood I was missing. What I was once so certain life would never ever let me have.
Meet the author
WILL TAYLOR (he/they) is a reader, writer, and honeybee fan. He lives in the heart of downtown Seattle surrounded by all the seagulls and not quite too many teacups. When not writing he can be found searching for the perfect bakery, talking to trees in parks, and completely losing his cool when he meets longhaired dachshunds. His previous books include Maggie & Abby’s Neverending Pillow Fort, Maggie & Abby and the Shipwreck Treehouse, Slimed (as Liam Gray), and Catch That Dog! You can visit him online at willtaylorbooks.com.
About The Language of Seabirds
A sweet, tender middle-grade story of two boys finding first love with each other over a seaside summer.
Jeremy is not excited about the prospect of spending the summer with his dad and his uncle in a seaside cabin in Oregon. It’s the first summer after his parents’ divorce, and he hasn’t exactly been seeking alone time with his dad. He doesn’t have a choice, though, so he goes… and on his first day takes a walk on the beach and finds himself intrigued by a boy his age running by. Eventually, he and Runner Boy (Evan) meet — and what starts out as friendship blooms into something neither boy is expecting… and also something both boys have been secretly hoping for.
Publisher: Scholastic, Inc.
Publication date: 07/19/2022
Age Range: 8 – 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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