Today is World Mental Health Day, and I’m thrilled to be celebrating it by having two wonderful gay kidlit authors discuss the representation in their book!
Maulik Pancholy (r.) is the author of the newly released The Best At It, a Middle Grade contemporary starring a gay Indian boy with OCD who’s starting seventh grade and getting used to lots of new changes, and Phil Stamper (l.) is the author of the upcoming The Gravity of Us, a contemporary YA love story between two boys who happen to be the sons of astronauts who are on the same mission to Mars. They’re here to talk about the roles mental health plays in their books, especially as it relates to queerness, pressure, and competition. Please welcome them!
Maulik: Hi Phil! I’m excited to get to do this with you. I loved The Gravity Of Us. I wanted Cal’s FlashFlame show to be real so I could actually tune in, and I was rooting for him and Leon from the first moment they met. I also lived in Houston for a year, so I related to all the characters having to deal with all that humidity! For folks who haven’t read it yet, want to give us a quick recap?
Phil: Thank you so much! A bit about my book: The Gravity of Us is a queer teen love story set against the backdrop of a present-day NASA mission to Mars. The story follows teen social media journalist Cal, whose carefully planned life is uprooted when his father is picked as an astronaut for the Orpheus missions to Mars. Amidst the chaos, and the move from Brooklyn to Houston, Cal meets the son of another astronaut on the program and finds himself falling for him—fast. But when Cal uncovers secrets about the program, he must find a way to reveal the truth without hurting the people who have become most important to him.
Do you want to give a brief rundown of The Best at It as well? It’s such a fantastic story. I love Rahul (and Chelsea! And Bhai! And the whole gang, really) and I remember having a similar need to be “the best” at something when I was his age… even if I could never quite figure out what that “something” was.
Maulik: Thanks! I’m glad it resonated with you. The Best at It is about Rahul Kapoor, a 12-year-old, Indian American boy who is just beginning to realize that he might be gay. He’s dealing with anxiety around that, and he’s also being bullied for multiple layers of his identity at school. One night, his favorite person in the whole world, his grandfather, Bhai, tells him a story that makes Rahul believe that if he’s just the best at something, all of his other problems will disappear. So with his best friend Chelsea by his side, he sets off on a mission to prove his self-worth. He’s only got two problems: What is he going to be the best at? And what if he falls short?
Phil, one of the things that I was struck by, is that in both of our books we have characters dealing with different forms or manifestations of anxiety. In your book, Becca, Cal’s mother, struggles with anxiety in a way that really hit home for me. I was drawn in by the way you described her facial expressions, and how it affected Cal to see that. Want to talk about that a bit?
Phil: Ah, that’s so great to hear. Becca’s anxiety was based off of my own experience, but it was really interesting writing Gravity from the perspective of someone who does not share those experiences. At that time, I think I was trying to be more cognizant of what happens to me and how that might affect or appear to people, and that really helped when describing the smaller physical manifestations of her anxiety.
Cal’s mom was such an interesting character, because I wanted to play against the “perfect astronaut wife” trope of the 60s. While she still knows there’s an expectation of her to be polished, steady, and camera-ready when it comes to the media circus of the launch, she gets to break down some of those expectations with Cal and her family, because she’s so open and clear about her experience with anxiety.
While we’re on the topic of mental health, one thing about The Best at It that stuck with me was how naturally Rahul’s experience with probable OCD was “revealed” on the page. Oftentimes with mental health in media, especially with OCD rep, we get something that’s a little less nuanced, but the way it was shown in your story made his experience seem so authentic and relatable. How did you choose to show this throughout the story?
Maulik: Rahul’s behaviors in the book are similar to some of the “checking” behaviors that I dealt with as a kid, and honestly still do as an adult. In my experience, those behaviors presented in different ways. Sometimes it was just checking something, like a lock, in a seemingly absent-minded manner, not really aware of the impulse why. Sometimes it was having an overwhelming feeling that something bad would happen if I didn’t check something, repeatedly. That dread of, “Is the stove really off? Am I SURE?” And, for me, these patterns were certainly triggered–and intensified–by stress, including emotional stress.
I’m hearing from middle school teachers that they see more and more kids dealing with anxiety. So, I didn’t want to shy away from this in the book. I also wrote the scene between Rahul and his father to model the kinds of conversations that I think adults and kids can be having around this.
For Rahul, his checking escalates as the level of competition in the book grows. In your book, Leon is dealing with depression related to the competitive world of Olympic athletics. Would you say that Leon is affected by competition in a similar way to Rahul?
Phil: That’s an interesting comparison, because I do think Leon and Rahul have a similar experience in that competition is a trigger for them. Gymnastics is a really intense sport that is full of pressure, and Leon’s response to that pressure was to pull back, to withdraw from the world and sort of shame himself for feeling this way, even if he couldn’t control it. That said, Leon’s a few years older than Rahul, and he is more-or-less removed from his Olympic trajectory by the time we get to meet him, even if the media conveniently forgets that on occasion.
Not a big spoiler here, but in the end, Leon finds a way to rekindle his passion for gymnastics, without subjecting himself to the pressure of competition. Similarly, and hopefully not a spoiler, but Rahul realizes that finding something you love and doing it until you get better is a better fit for him than competing. Does it mean that Leon and Rahul no longer experience depression or probable OCD, respectively? No, of course not.
But I do think it’s really important that both of these characters are learning more about themselves so they can hopefully better communicate that to their loved ones. Pivoting back to Cal for a moment—while I think Leon actually has a grasp on how to best avoid triggers like pressure and the spotlight, Cal’s kind of torn. He’s used to being in the spotlight, and he wants to be the one to break any and every news story, but he really gets himself into a mess in Houston, and you can really see the pressure and people’s expectations getting to him.
The more I think about it, Cal’s and Rahul’s stories both deal heavily with competition and perfection. With Rahul though, he’s experiencing this need for perfection all while trying to understand more about his queer identity. How do you think this affects his competitive nature?
Maulik: Rahul’s perfectionism and his need to win are 100% about proving his self-worth in a world where being different makes him feel less than. And his queer identity is one layer of that for sure. I just want to say, though, that it was important to me not to pathologize being gay. His mental health struggles are not because he’s gay. It’s the feeling less than, the wanting to fit in, that is stressful for him. And I think there’s something universal about that. What kid–or even adult–hasn’t felt like an outsider at some point?
Speaking of which, I think empathy for other people’s experiences really comes through in both our books, even if the characters themselves aren’t always perfect at expressing it. Rahul’s Dad doesn’t have all the language to talk about OCD, and in your book, you write about Leon’s parents choosing not to push the conversation around depression. In fact, it’s Leon’s sister, Kat, who’s a real ally to her brother. And Cal, of course, has Deb much in the same way Rahul has Chelsea. Was there a reason you wrote such great allies in the form of siblings and friends?
Phil: I guess I’ve written some really great allies and supporting characters, because the amount of comments I get about wanting to see more of Kat or Deb are astounding! Deb is loosely based around one of my best friends from high school, and she was so much fun to write. In the book, she’s the steadfast ally any queer kid would want, but I wanted to make sure she had her own story, her own arc, and didn’t exist solely for the benefit of Cal. So, I got to play with the boundaries of allyship and best friendship a bit. I also got to reflect on my own selfish tendencies, especially while I was in high school, and show how an ally can both offer unfaltering support about you and your identity while also being there to tell you to shut up when you’re out of line!
From our personal experiences with mental health, identity, and even the friendships we’ve had, it looks like we’ve both put a lot of ourselves into our debut novels. Would you like to talk briefly about why you chose to do this?
Maulik: Sure. The characters in my book go on a journey: they change, and they learn things about themselves. And maybe that allows readers to see themselves more clearly as well. What I really wanted was to tell a great story–grounded in reality, with both humor and pathos–and to hold up a mirror for kids who deserve to see themselves in the books they read. I guess that’s why I was willing to be so personal: I wanted to write a book that I could have used as a kid. But I have to say, it’s been gratifying to hear how many people–with experiences far different than mine–have made their own connections to Rahul’s story.
Phil: That’s fantastic. I set out to showcase a queer love story in a unique setting, so the feedback from the romance between Cal and Leon has been amazing. Less intentionally, though, I leaned on my own experiences with mental health while creating characters like Leon and Cal’s mother, and it’s been great to see readers connecting to that too.
I’m so glad we got to chat about this, Maulik! It’s been great getting to know a little bit more about your experience developing and writing The Best at It, and I can’t wait for readers everywhere to get their hands on a copy. And super special thanks to Dahlia and LGBTQ Reads for hosting us!