He Couldn’t Read It, So He Wrote It, a guest post by Justin Arnold￼
It took me an embarrassingly long time to realize that I could write my own community’s experience in fiction. Growing up in a small, red-state town, I was told a lot of lies. Being gay was a foreign, mythical creature that us “good folk” didn’t know too much about. As rare as vampires, and more dangerous than werewolves. Gay people were, it felt, the wicked witches of the woods.
I can still feel the anger of my 16-year-old self while listening to adults debate whether or not kids like me should be allowed to go to prom like every other kid. I can still hear the insults, the slurs. Smell the breath of bullies getting in my face. I didn’t even know then exactly how gay I was. But I guess the oracle who knows these things (Maybe it’s RuPaul?) ran to the town square and alerted them. I was the spooky, wicked witch come from the woods. And they made sure I put together that they knew.
But it wasn’t all suffering and tragedy. I did have great friends. And— a lot of books to read.
This was the time that YA had a giant boom thanks to a certain story about an awkward outcast who becomes the true love of a hot, if sparkling, vampire. Yes. It was the year of Twilight. And it was the perfect remedy for this angry, bullied, and forever single mess. I devoured the books and obsessed over the impending movie adaptation.
Hooked, I read every teen paranormal romance I could get my hands on. As long as there was some sort of supernatural force and the blurb mentioned a “mysterious, beautiful boy,” it got a break from the library and a home on my nightstand for the next two weeks.
My thirst for intense teen romance and dangerous monsters was ridiculously insatiable. But something was missing that could have saved all of this from being the miseducation that it was. In the world of the books I loved— I did not exist.
There were no authentic gay characters to learn from during that YA boom. At the time, the teen section of our library had only two books that were arguably “for me.” Sadly, I can’t remember their names, but I do remember that both were tragedies, involving coming out, rejection, and severe bullying. No romance. No supportive parents. No vampires.
Now, these books should absolutely exist. I’m not faulting them. And I wish I could remember their titles so that I could share them all these years later. What bothered me was the lack of variety, and the message being sent at that time. If you’re queer, your life will be tragic. If you’re straight, you’ll be loved and have adventure.
No thanks, bartender. I’m here for an escape. I’ll take a mysterious, beautiful boy— shaken, not stirred— with sugar, and put some bloodshed in it, please and thank you.
Outside of books, I was a big fan of Sabrina The Teenage Witch, both the 90s version and the comics. Later, I discovered and obsessed over Buffy The Vampire Slayer, and slowly moved toward darker and more horrific fare. I knew somehow, even then, that this was what I wanted to write. Something you could put on the shelf next to paranormal romance, next to Buffy, next to Sabrina, and maybe even next to the darker stuff.
It took about five more years before I realized I could have a gay lead in these stories. That was when Dane Craven, the protagonist of Wicked Little Things, showed up and informed me that I needed to write down everything he said. From the campy horror to his witchy humor, and yes, to his gag-worthy crushes.
When I began writing Wicked Little Things, it was almost in rebellion. This was right before the floodgates of diversity burst in YA. There still weren’t that many books featuring queer leads. The great strides that publishing has since made to ensure minority communities are authentically represented by both books and the authors wasn’t there quite yet, even only a few years ago. I was nervous to write a book like this, but I eventually stopped fretting and got to work.
It was a long, cathartic process, most of which happened during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic. At the time, I lived alone, isolated, and with little to do but look back on my life up until that point and connect the dots. The routine was wake up. Work alone. Reflect alone. Get tired. Repeat. I’d have lost my mind if I hadn’t had Dane to sort it out with. Wicked Little Things isn’t just a book to me; it pulled me back together again and made me a lot stronger for it. It’s a piece that is more personal than I usually write, and leaving it all out there on the page has been an exhilarating, if anxiety-inducing, experience.
On the journey from first draft to book deal, I received a lot of raised eyebrows. “You might want to make him more masculine,” one critique suggested. “I don’t see the problem. Gays like makeovers,” was another. There was also a matter of content. Some people wanted it to either stick to supernatural horror or romance, but not both. My personal favorite that sent me into hysterical fits of laughter was, “I don’t think you actually need the lead. No need to force in a gay person.” Yes there is, sir. Yes there is.
But I didn’t set out to write “an agenda piece” or “force in a gay person,” just as I didn’t set out to write a dark, scary book. Or a fluffy romance. I wanted to write a party mix of all of it, those things that I love, in a story world where I and everyone else exists, because that’s the book I wanted to read as a teen but couldn’t find. And as it turns out, I’m in great company. Several fantastic books about queer teens have come out in the past year, and I’ve noticed many of them also involve the supernatural. Basically, I feel the farthest thing from alone these days, and it’s an exciting time to be a writer.
For me, Wicked Little Things is full of adventure and fun and frights. I’ve noticed early readers sometimes refer to it as a ‘ride’ than a ‘read,’ and that’s so exciting to see. Meanwhile, I wanted to put a gay lead in the cannon of paranormal heroes along with Buffy, Sabrina, etc. Even if I’m the only one who’ll ever agree to put him there.
It’s like that well-known piece of writing advice. “Write what you want to read.” Well, I took that advice, and I’m glad I did. But I also wrote what I wish I could have read all those years. I sorely could’ve used it. My hope is that one young reader out there can use it as well.
Wicked Little Things is a spooky Young Adult novel, featuring campy horror, humor, a raccoon familiar, romance, and LGBTQIA+ representation. It will be available November 15 from Tiny Ghost Press, wherever books are sold.
Meet the author
Justin Arnold is a storyteller, occasional comedian, and junk food connoisseur. He lives in the bluegrass region of Kentucky, where gnarled woods and abundant ghost stories fuel his inspiration. When he isn’t writing, he spends most of his time trekking the wilderness, planning getaways, and hosting trivia.
About Wicked Little Things
Join a coven.
Catch a killer.
Get a makeover…?
When his cousin is murdered, recently outed 16 year old Dane Craven, is forced to return to his unbearably small hometown of Jasper Hollow. It would be easy enough for him to keep his head down if it weren’t for three inescapable facts.
One, Dane is a witch with fiery powers he can barely control.
Two, he’s been claimed by a coven of fashion forward ‘mean girls’ desperate to give him a makeover.
And three, Dane is pretty sure he’s responsible for the death of his cousin.
Being the gay best friend to a trio of teenage witches was never high on Dane’s list of aspirations, but fortunately for him these girls have the necromantic powers he needs to figure out who killed his cousin. Plus, he could do with some new clothes.
While on the hunt for his cousin’s killer, Dane discovers life in Jasper Hollow isn’t all bad. There’s the cute boy who works at the local coffee shop and enjoys long walks in the woods, for one.
But when the rabbit-faced killer comes for Dane, he’ll be forced to come to terms with who he is and where he belongs before it’s too late for him and everyone in Jasper Hollow.
Wicked Little Things is a spooky, campy, horror complete with mystery, romance, and a whole lot of sass. It’s Netflix’s Chilling Adventures of Sabrina meets Caleb Roehrig’s The Fell of Dark.
Publisher: Tiny Ghost Press
Publication date: 11/15/2022
Age Range: 13 – 18 Years
Filed under: Guest Post
About Amanda MacGregor
Amanda MacGregor works in an elementary library, loves dogs, and can be found on Twitter @CiteSomething.
SLJ Blog Network
Watch The Yarn LIVE with Kate DiCamillo at ALA!
Fuse 8 n’ Kate: Anatole by Eve Titus, ill. Paul Gadone
Suee and the Strange White Light | This Week’s Comics
Jane Austen, Cowboys, and Comics, a guest post by Rey Terciero
The Classroom Bookshelf is Moving