Today on the site, I’m excited to have both brains behind the exciting upcoming Toronto Pride-centric YA, When You Get the Chance, coming May 4th from Running Press! Here’s a little more about the book:
As kids, Mark and his cousin Talia spent many happy summers together at the family cottage in Ontario, but a fight between their parents put an end to the annual event. Living on opposite coasts—Mark in Halifax and Talia in Victoria—they haven’t seen each other in years. When their grandfather dies unexpectedly, Mark and Talia find themselves reunited at the cottage once again, cleaning it out while the family decides what to do with it.
Mark and Talia are both queer, but they soon realize that’s about all they have in common, other than the fact that they’d both prefer to be in Toronto. Talia is desperate to see her high school sweetheart Erin, who’s barely been in touch since leaving to spend the summer working at a coffee shop in the Gay Village. Mark, on the other hand, is just looking for some fun, and Toronto Pride seems like the perfect place to find it.
When a series of complications throws everything up in the air, Mark and Talia—with Mark’s little sister Paige in tow—decide to hit the road for Toronto. With a bit of luck, and some help from a series of unexpected new friends, they might just make it to the big city and find what they’re looking for. That is, if they can figure out how to start seeing things through each other’s eyes.
Tom: It’s been almost five years since I woke up to a text from you that said something like “hey Tom, I just had an idea: we should write a big queer Canadian YA novel together!” Obviously I was totally into it, and before long we were brainstorming and sending chapters back and forth. Do you remember what prompted you to reach out in the first place?
Robin: I missed you! You had moved two thousand miles away, and I missed hanging out and talking about writing. Plus I’d just written a non-fiction book about Pride, so I was out in schools and talking with young people, and realizing just how much queer kids and teens wanted to see their lives reflected in the books they were reading. It was really impulsive though- like I had the idea and sent the text about three seconds later!
Tom: One of the things I love most about When You Get the Chance is that the premise of the story grew from the situation we were in when we wrote it. I was on the east coast, you were on the west coast, and we both wished we could meet up somewhere in the middle to hang out. It was basically a no-brainer to echo that in the plot, bringing cousins Talia (your character, from B.C.) and Mark (my character, from Nova Scotia) together for a family funeral in Toronto. Once we had that framework established, I really felt like the rest of the story came together quite naturally – did you feel the same way?
Robin: Yeah, very much so. I think part of that came from the fact that we both think and care deeply about some of the same things: family, friendship, queer community and history, connections and sharing of ideas between older and younger people, the way our communities and language and identities continue to evolve. Once the characters came to life and the story started taking shape, it became clear that those themes were all woven into the book. I know we both have had opportunities to meet with lots of LGBTQ+ youth because of our previous books… Do you feel like those experiences and conversations influenced this story?
Tom: Absolutely. Like you, I’ve had a lot of opportunities to speak with LGBTQ+ youth groups, GSA’s, etc… and one of the things that I’ve been most struck by is how queer and gender non-conforming teens are able to hang out together in big groups, which would have been completely unimaginable when I was in high school. There’s a long – and proud! – tradition of coming out narratives in LGBTQ+ YA, and I will dig in my heels to defend those stories, because they’re really important, but the reality is that more and more they don’t reflect queer teens’ broader experiences. I will never forget visiting a large group of queer teens in Vancouver during Canadian Children’s Book Week, and during the Q&A one teen made a comment about how much they wanted to see more books that show lots of queer kids hanging out together, because that reflected their reality a lot more than a solitary queer teen in a world full of straight people. I described WYGTC and explained that it was on sub, and hopefully someone would pick it up. The group was so excited about it, and in the cab on my way back to my hotel, Eric called to say we had an offer! That was a definite high point in my career.
Robin: I remember that! I was actually at a cabin in the woods when I got the call…in the middle of a week of school visits as part of a book festival. In fact, the way we celebrated the news over the phone, from different parts of the country, fit right in with the way we wrote the book. And now, because of the pandemic, that will also be the way we’re launching it. We had originally hoped to be at Pride events together, in person, this summer- but it seems like those will have to be virtual events. Still, while parades can be canceled, pride itself cannot! Since Pride is a big part of our book, do you want to share something about your experiences at Pride?
Tom: I’ve lived in several different cities across Canada, which means I’ve been lucky enough to experience a bunch of different iterations of Pride. Each of them has developed its own traditions over time, but some aspects of Pride are universal, like the way the culture of a city or town transforms for just a short while into something much more vibrant and queer. At its heart, Pride is about community, and getting caught up in the energy created by so many people who are joyfully celebrating the right to be their truest selves is magical, every single time. What about you, Robin? Any particular Pride moments stand out?
Robin: I’ve been to Pride events in lots of different places too- from the Chicago Dyke March to the small and super friendly Pride celebrations on Salt Spring Island. Toronto Pride will always be special to me, because that is where my very first Pride events were, when I was still in my teens. And of course, I love going to Pride here in Victoria, with my family and community. My kid was just a month old at his first Pride march! In the last few years, I have been really lucky to celebrate with people who are attending their first Pride events, and that has brought me a whole new appreciation for how beautiful and brave and necessary it is. And of course, I love some of the other Pride events in my town as well- especially the Big Gay Dog Walk, which is exactly what it sounds like- lots of queer people meeting up to walk our dogs together!
Tom: I’ve really enjoyed doing this interview, because it played out exactly the same way the book did! I kicked it off and sent it over to you, and we went back and forth until we reached a natural end. On that note, I’m going to pass it back to you for the final word, but first I want to say that everything about this process has been a total pleasure. I value your friendship so much, and getting an opportunity to share this experience together has been a total treat! I can’t wait until we can finally meet again in person – at a Pride event obviously – and share a long overdue hug to celebrate WYGTC!
Robin: Oh, I CANNOT WAIT to celebrate this book with you in person! You are absolutely one of my favorite people and while I wish we lived closer, I am so grateful that we haven’t let the distance come between us. And I was thinking the same thing about this interview—it’s been so much like writing the book together! Condensed and sped up, and with less plot twists– but really fun! I’d write something with you anytime. Just saying…
When You Get the Chance releases May 4th, 2021 from Running Press Kids!
Today on the site I’m excited to be sharing the entire first chapter from Jessica Verdi’s upcoming Follow Your Arrow, which releases from Scholastic on March 2nd and centers on setting biphobia on fire. Or I could just let the publisher describe the book in a slightly classier way:
CeCe Ross is kind of a big deal. She and her girlfriend, Silvie, are social media influencers with zillions of fans and followers, known for their cute outfits and being #relationshipgoals.
So when Silvie breaks up with her, CeCe is devastated. She’s lost her first love, and now she can’t help but wonder if she’ll lose her followers as well.
Things get even messier when CeCe meets Josh, a new boy in town who is very much Not Online. CeCe isn’t surprised to be falling for a guy; she’s always known she’s bi. And Josh is sweet and smart and has excellent taste in donuts… but he has no idea that CeCe is internet-famous. And CeCe sort of wants to keep it that way.
But when CeCe’s secrets catch up to her, she finds herself in the middle of an online storm, where she’ll have to confront the blurriness of public vs. private life, and figure out what it really means to speak her truth.
And here’s the first chapter of Finding Your Arrow!
I study the app post like it’s a Renaissance painting, dissecting and analyzing each detail before tapping the button that will send it out to the world. It took me ten minutes of crafting and deleting and rewriting to land on this combination of words and images and emphasis, but I’m still not sure about it.
Do the all-caps and exclamation points convey the right level of enthusiasm, or does the tone tip over into annoying? And I purposely limited the hashtags to three, because too many and people will just scroll right by instead of putting in the effort to read, but maybe I should have hashtagged #spring and #news too? For discoverability? And the emojis . . . I love emojis, but sometimes I wonder if everyone else in the world is over them and I’m showing how out of touch I am when I use them too much. Not that anyone’s said, “Hey, CeCe, you might want to rethink how many emojis you use” or anything. I just . . . I don’t know. I worry.
“Does this look okay?” I ask Silvie, holding the screen out. We’re lying on the floor in her room—our usual hangout spot. My leg is draped over hers, and we’re both scrolling on our phones—our usual position.
Silvie’s room is spacious, artfully designed, and looks like an #ad. Lots of white furniture, framed photography, and intentional pops of color. We spend most of our time at Silvie’s house, especially on weekends when my mom’s working long hours, or when we have a video to record or a livestream to do, like today. The sleek lines and bright light of her bedroom make for a way more professional backdrop than the chaos of mine.
Silvie skims my post draft in one point five seconds, then glances back at me. “Looks good. Why haven’t you posted it yet?”
“I needed to get it right.”
She rolls her eyes. “Ceece, we go live in”—she checks the time on her own phone—“ten minutes. Just post it; it doesn’t need to be perfect.”
She doesn’t get it. She could post Hey. Live video at 1. Watch it. and get fifty thousand likes and a hundred new followers within minutes. Everyone loves Silvia Castillo Ramírez.
I, on the other hand, have had to work incredibly hard to get people to like me and care about what I have to say.
I hold my breath and tap post. “Okay. Done.” Silvie goes back to scrolling.
When I first joined social media in seventh grade, @Hi_Im_CeCeRoss was a lot different than it is now. Not only my follower count and reach, but the content itself. The few people who actually read my posts probably got a kick out of the twelve-year-old white girl in the Midwest going on epic rants about #gerrymandering and #prisonreform and #healthcarepolicies. But I’d been fighting against my father’s conservative beliefs pretty much since I was old enough to speak. It was not only all I knew; it was who I was. And at first, the app felt like a natural extension of that: a chance to express my views without my dad telling me I was wrong, or that I’d understand when I was older, or that I was embarrassing myself. I didn’t edit, didn’t self-censor, didn’t obsess. I posted whatever was on my mind.
But then my father left.
And everything changed.
Suddenly I didn’t want to be The Girl with All the Opinions anymore, the girl who was so strong-willed, so defiant, it had torn her family apart. I just wanted to be happy, for once. I wanted—needed—a chance to breathe.
When Silvie and I met, she already had a following online—people actually listened to her, looked to her for her thoughts and perspective. Sure, her feed was mainly about stuff like #fashion and #style, but still. She was happy.
So I followed her lead.
For over two years now, I’ve done everything I can to make it look like my life is as shiny and special as Silvie’s. And that’s the thing about social media: You get to decide how people see you. You can become a casual, confident, carefree girl with more friends than she can keep track of and not a single problem to be seen. Every post, each comment, is another stitch in the tapestry of my online world. A heavily filtered selfie here, a post with a potentially controversial opinion edited out before being posted there, and about a zillion tongue-biting, sugary-sweet replies to haters. And honestly, even the haters are tolerable, because #lifestyle influencing might invite eye rolls, but it rarely invites the vitriol that fighting over immigration policies does. It certainly doesn’t lead to shouting matches so intense they make the walls of your house shake. It doesn’t stretch the limits of family, and it doesn’t result in divorce.
“You really need to stop overanalyzing everything,” Silvie says, clicking her phone off, untangling her leg from mine, and standing to stretch. It’s an unseasonably warm day for late March in Cincinnati, but the loss of skin-to-skin contact sends an instant shiver over me. “It’s not good for you.”
That’s where she’s wrong.
Overanalyzing—though I prefer to call it curating—has worked. Silvie may have 1,200,000 followers, but I have 985,000. She might have six sponsorships at the moment, but I have four. We’re both continually featured on Famous Birthdays’s “trending influencers” list.
Life isn’t perfect, the world isn’t perfect, but the time I spend on the app is as close to perfect as I’ve found. It’s my loophole. And I’d like to keep it.
Speaking of, I need to retouch my makeup before we go live. I sit at Silvie’s vanity and uncap the eyeliner I keep at her house, while she comes up behind me and grabs her brush. People often do double takes when they meet my girlfriend in person for the first time, because her combination of blue-green eyes, dark hair, and olive skin is unexpected. But those same people invariably go back for a third and fourth glance. Silvie is truly one of the most beautiful people most of us have ever seen, even online.
I, along with most of the world, am a little more ordinary-looking than Silvie. But in moments like this, studying our side-by-side reflections, it’s not hard to see what our fans see: Silvie and I don’t only look good together; we look like we go together. Our hair is almost the same shade of dark brown—Silvie’s long, mine falling in a blunt bob to just above my chin. And even though Silvie’s seven inches taller than me, we fit. My skin is pale, and my eyes are a basic brown, but I think I have nice eyebrows and shoulders, and my earlobes are just the right shape for earrings. The ones I’m wearing right now are little yellow dangly houses; they were a birthday gift from Silvie last year. Silvie’s wearing the lesbian like whoa T-shirt she got at a thrift store.
She finishes fixing her loose side pony, and I wordlessly hand her a bottle of hand lotion. Whenever she brushes her hair, she likes to rub a tiny bit of lotion into her hands, then gently tamp down the frizzies on the top of her head. After being together for over two years, we know each other’s quirks like they’re our own. “This stuff is the best, isn’t it?” she says as she squeezes a small amount of lotion into her palm and massages her hands together.
“What, the hand cream?” I lean closer to the mirror and dab some of Silvie’s coral-tinted lip gloss onto my lips.
“Yeah, all the Dana & Leslie stuff. It’s insane that they’re not more mainstream.”
“Well, that’s what they have you for.” I give her a smile, then quickly devote my attention to applying a pointless second layer of lip gloss.
Dana & Leslie is the gender-inclusive, organic, cruelty-free skincare brand Silvie’s an ambassador for. I fully support their mission, and the partnership has been great for Silvie, but if I’m being honest, I can’t stand the cloying smell of that lotion. And the face wash dried my skin out.
I’ve been avoiding sharing my opinions on Dana & Leslie with Silvie, because she’s really proud of her collaboration with them, and I don’t want to start a fight or come across as unsupportive. I even purposely left all the products she gave me out in plain view on my bedside table at home just so she would see them when she came over.
But I guess I don’t have her fooled. She’s staring at me, unblinking, in the mirror, clearly waiting for a more emphatic agreement that Dana & Leslie products are, in fact, “the best.”
Silvie and I mastered the art of the face-off long ago, and I have no choice but to allow myself to stare back. I know what she’s thinking, she knows what I’m thinking, and we both know we’re on a moving bus, just a stop or two away from The Argument of the Day.
But we’re only four minutes out from one p.m., so Silvie returns the Dana & Leslie lotion to its home on the vanity and wordlessly finishes her hair.
“Looks nice,” I say gently, an attempt at keeping the atmosphere light.
Silvie and I have always bickered. It used to be a point of pride for me. It proved, I thought, that you can be in a committed, long-term relationship with another person but still have your own thoughts and opinions, likes and dislikes. Like this painting I saw once at a museum of two people forehead to forehead, balancing on a board placed on top of a ball. I remember thinking that, apart from it being a man and a woman in the painting, the depiction could have been me and Silvie. Two individuals, each unique and strong-willed, yet when they’re together, perfectly balanced. Not halves of a whole, but two wholes who do better together than apart.
Lately, though, the board has tipped, and our balance is off. It seems every little thing I’ve said or done these last few days has annoyed Silvie. She hasn’t been smiling as much, hasn’t been finding excuses to touch or hug or kiss me all the time like she used to. The bickering has turned into arguing, and the arguments are taking longer and longer to rebound from.
I know she’s stressed about the prom planning. It’s part of her responsibilities as president of our school’s Gender and Sexuality Alliance (I’m vice president—our dynamic is nothing if not consistent). Silvie and I had planned to spend this afternoon brainstorming not-cheesy prom theme ideas to bring to our next GSA meeting. We also wanted to put out feelers to @DJRio, a Chicago-based DJ who follows us both on the app, to see if he’d consider DJing our prom. But I can’t help but feel like there’s something else going on with her.
“Just don’t post about it,” she says finally, her tone clipped.
“Post about what?”
“That you don’t like the Dana & Leslie products. It was really nice of them to send extra freebies for you.”
In one second flat, the air in the room goes stale.
“Are you kidding me?” I splutter.
“Since when do I post about stuff like that?”
This makes no sense. I don’t post anything without double- and triple-checking it. I would never do anything to jeopardize Silvie’s career, or the work we both do, or our freaking relationship.
She knows that. But all she says is “Just saying.”
“Right, okay.” I mimic the action of typing on my phone and pretend to read aloud. “Hey, just thought you’d all like to know that Dana & Leslie, the company my girlfriend, Silvia Castillo Ramírez, is an ambassador for, is overpriced garbage and I don’t know why anyone would ever want to use the stuff. ’K’ byeeee!”
I wait for her to apologize. Laugh at the ridiculousness of it. She doesn’t. She simply picks up her phone again and asks, her voice flat, “Ready to go live?”
NO, I’m not ready to go live, I want to retort. You’re being a brat and really unfair and we need to talk about this.
But it’s one o’clock. We have work to do.
I check my teeth in the reflective, silvery material of my phone case, and nod. Without further discussion, we sit on Silvie’s bed. Our bodies inch closer together and our smiles appear. Silvie hits the go live button.
“Hey, everyone!” I say, giving a little wave as the screen projects our images back to us.
“Happy Saturday!” Silvie says.
“And happy spring!” I add. Today is March 20, the official first day of spring. I love spring. The hours of sunlight stretch longer, you can wear dresses without tights underneath, and avocados are in season again.
“Oh yeah! Spring break is only three weeks away!” Silvie says. “I’m going to Mexico to visit my grandparents, and we have plans to spend a few days at the beach. I cannot wait.”
“Bring me back a seashell?” I squeeze her hand, and she laughs.
“I’ll bring you a hundred seashells, babe.” She looks at me with hearts in her eyes, and I take my first real breath since the lotion debacle. We’re back at equilibrium, I think with no small measure of relief. It was just bickering, not fighting. She’s not mad at me. Everything’s fine.
“We have lots to share today, so let’s get to it, shall we?” Silvie says.
“Yes, let’s!” I slide a sealed brown box across the bed into the camera frame and grab scissors from Silvie’s nightstand. “This package just arrived this morning from an awesome new company called Benevolence.” Silvie holds the camera steady as I slice the packing tape open. Our followers love a good #unboxing vid, and I have to admit, I do too. There’s something inherently relatable about the feeling you get when a new package arrives on your doorstep, the little thrill that zips through you as you open it up, eager for its secrets to be revealed. Will the item inside match your expectations? Will it fit? Will it be the right color? Or maybe it’s a gift from someone, and you have no idea what you’ll find beneath the cardboard box flaps.
Silvie and I don’t have an official commission-based or pay-for-posts arrangement with Benevolence, but companies often send us free stuff in the hopes that we’ll share the products on our app accounts. We almost always do. Once or twice we decided not to because the company that sent the stuff was well-known for supporting politicians whose values didn’t align with our own, but that doesn’t happen often.
I remove the packing materials and extract the pieces of clothing one by one, holding them up for the camera. Scrunchy blue socks. A soft tank top in a red-and-white geometric pattern. A forest-green cropped-length hoodie. A pair of mustard-yellow short-shorts with white polka dots.
“Oooh, give me those!” Silvie says, propping the phone up on her nightstand so she’s free to duck out of frame and try the shorts on.
I keep talking, keep describing the clothes to our over 70,000 real-time viewers. “This stuff is super cute,” I say honestly. “And the best part is it’s all eco-friendly.” I take the little information card out of the box and read aloud. “Benevolence clothing is made from one hundred percent hemp, which requires fewer chemicals and much less water than cotton to produce.”
I have a captive audience—I could totally take this opportunity to talk more about the importance of choosing carbon-neutral and sustainable products when buying new, but I don’t. Environmental efforts are considered political, and I make sure to keep politics far away from my content. “Everything is so soft!” I say instead, sliding the fabric of the tank top between my thumb and pointer finger. “I bet this would look great under a pair of overalls.”
Silvie pops back into the shot, doing a spin and showing off the shorts, which fit her perfectly, surprising literally no one. Her legs are so long that shorts always look good on her. The girl is like a freaking mannequin.
“These shorts are mine now, thank youuu,” she says with an adorable gleam in her eye.
“You look amazing, babe,” I tell her, and she grins.
She picks up the phone again and leaps onto the bed beside me, bouncing us both. “Okay! Ready for the other big news?”
“Yes!” I say eagerly, though of course I already know what she’s about to say.
“June is a little over two months away, and you know what June is?” She grins at me.
“June is Pride month!” I reply.
“Yup! Each year, throughout the month of June, Pride parades and celebrations are held in cities across the world.” Silvie’s facing the camera again. “And . . .”
She pauses for dramatic effect, and I do a little drumroll sound. “CeCe and I have been asked to lead this year’s march on Cincinnati! We’re going to be the grand marshals at our hometown Pride parade on June fifth!” She sends up a confetti filter over our faces.
“Not only that,” I add, “but we’ve been asked to give a speech at the pre-march rally!”
Talk about #goals. By its nature, this event will be slightly more political than our usual thing, which is a little scary. But I’ve worked so hard to get people to like me, and this invite is proof that I’ve made it. People want to hear me and Silvie speak. They care what we have to say. Even just the idea of that is a dream for me. How could I say no? And besides, Silvie and I will be doing it together, standing side by side, addressing a crowd full of allies with a speech we both wrote.
Silvie gives our now 78,000 real-time viewers a few more details and sets a countdown clock on her app profile. “We still have some time before the event, obviously,” she says, “but mark your calendars if you live in the Cincinnati area! We want to meet as many of you as we can!”
We end the live session the same way we always do: I throw an arm around her and kiss her on the cheek. Sometimes Silvie kisses me in these moments, and sometimes I kiss her. But it’s always on the cheek, and always right before we sign off.
The feed stops.
“Hey, I’m sorry about earlier . . .” I begin lightly, riding the high from our announcement, but Silvie pulls away.
And just like that, the energy bleeds from the room, seeping under the door and through the air conditioner vents.
She’d only been pretending everything was normal during the live feed; I see that now. I should have seen it earlier, but I wanted everything to be fine so badly that I chose to pretend her way-too-fast mood shift was real.
Silently, Silvie adds the video to her stories stream and tags me, then starts scrolling mindlessly, her eyes affixed to the screen.
“What’s wrong?” I ask after a moment. It comes out whinier than I’d planned. I want to add, Don’t make me guess. Just talk to me—we’ll figure it out. I love you. But I don’t say anything more.
She shakes her head. “Forget it.”
“Forget what?” I honestly don’t even know what we’re talking about anymore.
“Nothing. I don’t want to talk about it.”
“But I do want to talk about it.” I need answers. Clarity.
Silvie doesn’t say anything. She’s still looking down at her phone, scrolling so quickly I know she’s not actually absorbing the posts.
“I’m sorry I don’t like the Dana & Leslie stuff, okay?” I continue. “But is that a requirement? That we have to like all the same things?”
“Of course not.”
“So what, then?”
“I don’t know,” she mumbles after a beat. Still not looking at me. Still avoiding me.
“You do know,” I press, starting to feel like I’m asking for her to yell at me. “Something is on your mind, Silvie. Just tell me.”
“I don’t want to!” she finally blurts, clicking her phone off and dropping it onto her bedspread. “Stop pushing me!”
I gape at her. “Pushing you? I’m not pushing you! I’m trying to catch up to wherever it is you are. You keep snapping at me. I just want to know what I did to make you so mad at me.”
“I’m not mad at you,” she says. “I already said I wasn’t mad at you. Jeez, CeCe.”
“Well, you didn’t say that, actually,” I half shout. “But how about I’m mad at you now?”
She has the audacity to look shocked at that. “For what?”
“Silvie, you just accused me of planning to trash-talk both you and an entire company online. For literally zero reason. Don’t you know me at all?”
“I didn’t mean that, all right?” Her chest rises and falls with a shuddering breath. “Can you just let it go? Please?”
Let it go. I’ve gotten really good at letting things go over the years. I know how to put my feelings aside for the sake of keeping the peace. I know how to shut up and smile when all I want to do is scream. I just didn’t think Silvie would ever request that of me. “No.” My voice comes out on a strange waver, as if I’m battling to stay upright on a tightrope. “I think I deserve an explanation.”
The seconds pass.
Eventually she nods, like she’s decided to give in.
I wait, anticipating some semblance of an explanation.
But that’s not what I get. Out of nowhere, Silvie pitches forward and kisses me. It’s not what I was expecting, but, hey, I can roll with this. I immediately slide closer, kissing her back. We’ve done this countless times; I know the give of her lips, the curves of her face, the taste of her lavender tea obsession so well they’ve become a part of me.
But this kiss . . . It’s different.
Oddly, it reminds me of our very first one, when we were younger and pent up with not only those unbearable, impossible-to-articulate feelings of unexplored need, but also that added layer that all queer kids have to deal with. That feeling of something akin to delicious danger. Of everything feeling so freaking right for once, even with all the people telling you it’s wrong.
This kiss isn’t that, exactly. But it is just as loaded. And it stops as suddenly as it began.
Silvie pulls back, putting her palms out to carve some distance between us.
“We need to talk, Ceece,” she whispers, picking at the stitching of the bedspread. Her lips are still pink and the tiniest bit swollen from our kiss.
“That’s what I’ve been trying to do,” I insist.
“I really wasn’t planning on doing this today,” she continues, almost to herself.
My stomach grows cold. “Doing what?”
She turns her phone over, so the screen is facedown, and she finally, finally looks at me fully. Her meaning is crystal clear in her eyes.
Need to talk. Wasn’t planning on doing this.
I suddenly feel woozy, like I’ve been pitched headfirst over a precipice. I leap off the bed just to feel the sturdy floor beneath my feet.
“No.” Only after the word is out there in the room do I realize I’m the one who whispered it.
JESSICA VERDI is the author of And She Was, My Life After Now, The Summer I Wasn’t Me, and What You Left Behind. She is a graduate of The New School’s MFA in Writing for Children program and lives in New York. You can find her online at jessicaverdi.com.
We’re honored to have Jay Coles on the site today, revealing the cover of his sophomore novel, Things We Couldn’t Say, which releases from Scholastic on September 21st, 2021! (Preorder links down below!) Here’s the story:
There’s always been a hole in Gio’s life. Not because he’s into both guys and girls. Not because his father has some drinking issues. Not because his friends are always bringing him their drama. No, the hole in Gio’s life takes the shape of his birth mom, who left Gio, his brother, and his father when Gio was nine years old. For eight years, he never heard a word from her … and now, just as he’s started to get his life together, she’s back.
It’s hard for Gio to know what to do. Can he forgive her like she wants to be forgiven? Or should he tell her she lost her chance to be in his life? Complicating things further, Gio’s started to hang out with David, a new guy on the basketball team. Are they friends? More than friends? At first, Gio’s not sure … especially because he’s not sure what he wants from anyone right now.
There are no easy answers to love – whether it’s family love or friend love or romantic love. In Things We Couldn’t Say, Jay Coles shows us a guy trying to navigate love in all its ambiguity — hoping at the other end he’ll be able to figure out who is and who he should be.
And here’s the beautiful cover, designed by Baily Crawford and accompanied by a few words from the author!
I’m so very, very excited for the world to see the cover for Things We Couldn’t Say and for the world to eventually read what’s inside it! I’m a huge fan of James Baldwin and how he writes about the unique intersections and complexities of Blackness and queerness, racism and homophobia. I’ve always wanted to write a book attempting to explore that, too. I was and (continue to be) inspired by Mr. Baldwin. In fact, two of the main characters in Things We Couldn’t Say are named after the two main characters in Mr. Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room.
During the process of writing this book, I faced trials of many kinds: crippling anxiety, depression, family conflicts. Together, we faced horrific racial injustices and a global pandemic, among other things. Throughout all of this, I felt burnt out, broken, beaten down, defeated, and thought I’d lost my way, my voice. I thought I couldn’t write anymore. But I kept thinking about what this book might mean to a Black kid and QPOC all over the world. This story sort of demanded that I write it. And I’m so, so thrilled that I did. This book saved me in so many ways. It helped me fight. It helped me process the things I couldn’t say. It made me brave. At the very least, I hope this book inspires you to be brave to talk about all the things you couldn’t say before!
24-year-old Jay Coles is a graduate of Vincennes University and Ball State University. When he’s not writing diverse books, he’s advocating for them, teaching middle school students, and composing for various music publishers. His acclaimed debut novel Tyler Johnson Was Here is based on true events in his life and inspired by police brutality in America. He resides in Indianapolis, Indiana.
You may know In at the Deep End by Kate Davies as “Queer Bridget Jones,” and it definitely has those elements, but my deep love for this book about a woman realizing her sexual identity as a lesbian and embarking upon her first relationship with another woman is in its depiction of a toxic relationship that pushes all her boundaries. Don’t dive into the deep end of this one (sorry, I had to) without being aware that’s the true heart of the book, but for anyone else who struggles with toxicity in relationships and may need an eye-opener, I hope you love this one as much as I did!
Julia hasn’t had sex in three years. Her roommate has a boyfriend—and their sex noises are audible through the walls, maybe even throughout the neighborhood. Not to mention, she’s treading water in a dead-end job, her know-it-all therapist gives her advice she doesn’t ask for, and the men she is surrounded by are, to be polite, subpar. Enough is enough.
So when Julia gets invited to a warehouse party in a part of town where “trendy people who have lots of sex might go on a Friday night”—she readily accepts. Whom she meets there, however, is surprising: a conceptual artist, also a woman.
Julia’s sexual awakening begins; her new lesbian life, as she coins it, is exhilarating. She finds her tribe at queer swing dancing classes, and guided by her new lover Sam, she soon discovers London’s gay bars and BDSM clubs, and . . . the complexities of polyamory. Soon it becomes clear that Sam needs to call the shots, and Julia’s newfound liberation comes to bear a suspicious resemblance to entrapment . . .
I’m so thrilled to have Nicole Melleby back on the site today, especially after reading the wonderful In the Role of Brie Hutchens…, their new heartwarming, adorable, romantic, and soap opera-centric Middle Grade contemporary set at a Catholic School, releasing today from Algonquin Books! Come check out a little more about the book, which made me cry and relive my love for As the World Turns:
Introducing Brie Hutchens: soap opera super fan, aspiring actor, and so-so student at her small Catholic school. Brie has big plans for eighth grade. She’s going to be the star of the school play and convince her parents to let her go to the performing arts high school. But when Brie’s mom walks in on her accidentally looking at some possibly inappropriate photos of her favorite actress, Brie panics and blurts out that she’s been chosen to crown the Mary statue during her school’s May Crowning ceremony. Brie’s mom is distracted with pride—but Brie’s in big trouble: she has not been chosen. No one has. Worse, Brie has almost no chance to get the job, which always goes to a top student.
Desperate to make her lie become truth, Brie turns to Kennedy, the girl everyone expects to crown Mary. But sometimes just looking at Kennedy gives Brie butterflies. Juggling her confusing feelings with the rapidly approaching May Crowning, not to mention her hilarious non-star turn in the school play, Brie navigates truth and lies, expectations and identity, and how to—finally—make her mother really see her as she is.
To understand why I wrote my second book, In the Role of Brie Hutchens… you need to know two things about me.
One: I went to Catholic school.
From kindergarten through 8th grade, I was a St. Mary’s Saint. For high school, I was a Mater Dei Seraph.
(We didn’t know what a Seraph was at first either.)
I wore a school uniform. My only two detentions were actually because of that uniform. One because my skirt was rolled too short (we all rolled our skirts; you only got caught if it was less than two inches from your fingertips.) Two because I had a gray shirt on under my blouse instead of a white one.
Yeah, I know.
This was also a school that banned Harry Potter because JK Rowling was a satanist.
The girls wore boxers under their skirts, to keep the guys from looking up them as we climbed the stairs. Senior year, we got to wear pants…as a privilege. Those privileges could be taken away.
They often were threatened to be taken away.
We went to church every week, which was only exciting because on those days, we came back from mass to shortened class periods. There was only so much the teachers could do in twenty minutes.
Sometimes we cut class and hung out in the chapel. You couldn’t get in trouble if you got caught. Not if you said you just needed a moment with Jesus.
I wonder if they thought I needed that many moments with Jesus. They probably wish I took those moments for real now.
Health class consisted of our gym teacher yelling ABSTAIN at us. In class, in the hallways, at school dances.
We didn’t abstain.
We didn’t have the vocabulary or understanding of everything we were doing.
I didn’t have the vocabulary or understanding of everything I was feeling.
How could I even begin to explore my sexuality behind walls where they didn’t tell me it was possible?
The second thing you need to know about me is that I. LOVE. Soap Operas.
As a writer, I know what storyline tropes to avoid.
As a soap fan, I know what storyline tropes I absolutely goddamn ADORE.
There’s just something magical about discovering that two characters are pregnant at the same time.
Why? Because there’s definitely a baby swap coming.
If there’s a wedding planned during sweeps month?
It’s definitely going to go up in flames. (And not always metaphorical ones.)
If a beloved character dies? Or a classic villain?
Well, don’t worry too much. They’ll probably be back. Resurrected from the dead, recast with a new actor. (Lots of plastic surgery.)
There’s something so enjoyable about the narration over an old character with a new face, “The role of so and so is now being played by…” as the storyline itself doesn’t miss a single beat.
There’s something awe inspiring (something breathtaking) about a character, in the middle of the afternoon, in broad daylight, on a show that you watch with your mom (that so many moms watch) saying, “Mom, I’m gay.”
My mom was my 8th grade teacher at that Catholic school.
We drove home together at the end of the day.
We turned on our soaps when we got home.
We watched them together.
We watched as Erica Kane’s daughter (Erica Fricken Kane!!) said the words, “I’m gay.”
What you should know is that I didn’t come out to my own mom until much (much) later.
I felt seen that afternoon, anyway.
In the first printing of In the Role of Brie Hutchens… there’s an error in my acknowledgements. A mistake happened as mistakes tend to do, and the last paragraph of those acknowledgements were left out.
In those acknowledgements I thanked Agnes Nixon. For writing those characters. For creating Bianca and writing that storyline where that brave young woman came out to her mom, Erica Kane.
What you should know is that Agnes Nixon made me feel less alone. Agnes Nixon made me feel seen.
I can only hope that, for some reader, somewhere, In the Role of Brie Hutchens… can do the same.
Nicole Melleby is a born-and-bred Jersey girl with a passion for storytelling. She studied creative writing at Fairleigh Dickinson University and currently teaches creative writing and literature courses with a handful of local universities. Her debut novel, HURRICANE SEASON, was a Lambda Literary Award Finalist. When she’s not writing, Nicole can be found browsing the shelves at her local comic shop or watching soap operas with a cup of tea.
Today on the site, I’m so thrilled to have Alice Oseman, whose YA graphic novel, Heartstopper, releases May 5th from Scholastic! We’re lucky enough to have an exclusive excerpt from the book, so check out the blurb and then enjoy a sneak peek!
Shy and softhearted Charlie Spring sits next to rugby player Nick Nelson in class one morning. A warm and intimate friendship follows, and that soon develops into something more for Charlie, who doesn’t think he has a chance. But Nick is struggling with feelings of his own, and as the two grow closer and take on the ups and downs of high school, they come to understand the surprising and delightful ways in which love works.
Alice Oseman was born in 1994 in Kent, England. She graduated from Durham University and is the author of YA contemporaries Solitaire, Radio Silence, and I Was Born for This. Learn more about Alice at aliceoseman.com.
After an assault, bigender seventeen-year-old Aleks/Alexis is looking for a fresh start―so they voluntarily move in with their uncle, a Catholic priest. In their new bedroom, Aleks/Alexis discovers they can overhear parishioners in the church confessional. Moved by the struggles of these “sinners,” Aleks/Alexis decides to anonymously help them, finding solace in their secret identity: a guardian angel instead of a victim.
But then Aleks/Alexis overhears a confession of another priest admitting to sexually abusing a parishioner. As they try to uncover the priest’s identity before he hurts anyone again, Aleks/Alexis is also forced to confront their own abuser and come to terms with their past trauma.
Welcome back to another Authors in Conversation post on LGBTQReads! If you’ve been following LGBTQA MG, you know it’s been blowing up in the most gorgeous way these past couple of years, and here are two of the authors responsible for that: Kit Rosewater (L), author of The Derby Daredevils, a brand-new illustrated series that kicks off with Kenzie Kickstarts a Team today(!), and Nicole Melleby (R), author of last year’s Hurricane Season, next month’s In the Role of Brie Hutchens…, and at least two more queer MGs after that! (Not to mention co-editor with Katherine Locke of the upcoming all-queer MG anthology This is Our Rainbow!)
Kit and Nicole are here to talk about their new books, what’s up next, and more, so pull up a seat and listen in!
Nicole: Hey Kit! I’m excited to get to do this interview with you! I’m a pretty easy sell when it comes to queer kid lit, but The Derby Daredevils is such a special addition to LGBTQ+ middle grade shelves. It made me want to go dust off my skates, which I haven’t used in, like, a decade. (It’s like riding a bike, though, right?) For those who weren’t lucky enough to get their hands on it before its March 24th release, why don’t you tell us a little bit about it?
Kit: Thank you so much Nicole! I literally dusted off my childhood skates as I researched and wrote The Derby Daredevils! (My feet didn’t grow much after fifth grade.) Book 1 of the illustrated series, Kenzie Kickstarts a Team, follows best friends Kenzie and Shelly as they set out to expand their Dynamic Duo into a whole team of roller derby skaters so they can play together on the Austin junior league. But for every potential new player they recruit, more and more tension gets wound into their own friendship… until Kenzie’s not sure she wants the Dynamic Duo to change at all. As the cast of characters slowly builds, the story shifts, and a big turning point comes when Shelly tries to get Kenzie’s secret crush to join the crew.
You should also tell us about your upcoming middle grade, In the Role of Brie Hutchens! I love how you’ve infused this in-depth history of soap operas and coming out scenes with Brie’s personal story. The way Brie sees the world is so darn relatable, and I have to admit that I slipped right back into my days of first girl crushes as I read along.
Nicole:In the Role of Brie Hutchens is what I keep referring to as Love, Simon meets Lady Bird. Brie is a soap opera obsessed Catholic school girl (much like myself) who has a complicated relationship with her mom, which is only further complicated by her mom’s strong faith and Brie’s first crush on another girl. Nothing seems to really go Brie’s way, especially when her mom walks in on Brie googling inappropriate photos of Brie’s favorite soap opera actress, and to divert her mom’s attention, Brie lies and says she’s been chosen to play the big role in her 8th grades religious May Crowning ceremony…which she obviously hasn’t been. So, to make that actually happen, Brie decides to ask the smartest girl in her class (who happens to be Brie’s crush) for help.
I’m excited we both have queer middle grade novels out this year, especially ones that deal with that awkwardness of a first crush (and those poor decisions you sometimes make because of them!) Kenzie Kickstarts a Team is your debut, and I know you’ll be following up with a sequel later in the year. Would you tell us a bit about your journey to publishing queer middle grade? Did you face any roadblocks or fears when you started?
Kit: I love that both our books explore first queer crushes too! Honestly, this was a subject that until a few years ago, I didn’t realize I was allowed to write about. I was a pretty escapist kid, always trying to disappear into worlds I made up in my head, and my earliest manuscripts were mostly fantasy. I experienced A LOT of typical roadblocks in my publishing journey, from moving between agents to having various projects not make it out of revisions. But the biggest roadblock for publishing queer middle grade was ultimately… me. For so long I had looked back on my first girl crushes in 5th and 6th grade with absolute shame–the same kind I get when I think about accidentally wrecking my mom’s car as a 16-yr-old. It took a long time to realize I could “escape” into positive queer middle grade stories. Now I never want to stop writing about kids who are queer and not cloaked with the type of shame I felt.
There is so much room for all kinds of queer stories in the middle grade canon, and I love every type of story out there–the coming out stories, the unrequited feelings stories, the found families stories, the happy ending stories–all of them! While reading Brie Hutchens, I was so impressed at the way you handled some hefty topics like reconciling being queer within a heavily religious setting. You said that like Brie, you were a Catholic school girl. Would you mind sharing your experience with writing some details from your own childhood into Brie’s story?
Nicole: It’s actually funny–I said earlier that In the Role of Brie Hutchens could be comped to the movie Lady Bird. I actually walked out of the theater after seeing Lady Bird and said, “I want to write about a coming of age queer middle grade story based on my experience in Catholic school.” Only, when I sat down to write that story, I realized that the experiences of middle grade readers now are much different than when I was that age. In big part thanks to the internet (I sound about a thousand years old right now), today’s middle grade readers have access to and an understanding of queer identities and vocabulary that I had no idea existed until I was in my twenties. I had to find a way to tell the story I wanted to tell, but for today’s audience. Brie is exactly like I was: dramatic, confused, a little self-centered, questioning the idea of faith and religion. But Brie knows that she has feelings for girls and doesn’t really struggle with understanding what that means–just what to do about it.
Speaking about main characters–Kenzie (or should I say Kenzilla?) was likeable and relatable right from the start. She’s determined to start her own team, and even with her mistakes along the way, I was rooting for her to succeed while maintaining her changing friendship with Shelly. Can you tell us more about Kenzie, and who she is as a character? Are there any similarities between Kenzie and your younger self?
Kit: Thank you so much! As much as I try not to get personally attached to reader’s opinions… it’s such a relief to know that Kenzie is relatable, because this girl is basically me. I tend to enfold myself into almost every character I write, and because The Derby Daredevils series has rotating protagonists, I wanted a huge chunk of my personality in each team member. But Kenzie feels especially close to home. At her best, Kenzie’s a leader, and she cares deeply about dynamics and how everyone works together. Whenever I’m thriving in a group setting, whether it’s a writers meeting or a school project, it’s because I’m taking on that same role. At her worst, well… Kenzie can be a bit exclusionary. And so was I. I’m embarrassed about how often I bristled when a new person came into my friend group. Maybe I was worried they would replace me in some way. Or maybe, like Kenzie, I was just scared of change. As an adult I try to be really conscientious of including others, but I can still be a bit of a butt about it from time to time. I was one of those kids who always pined for one best friend, and that kind of pining relies on exclusion to some extent.
Brie’s friendship with Parker really tugged on my heartstrings in the best way over the course of their relationship in the book. I love the moments of disconnect they have because they’re such different girls, but the ultimate reassurance that their friendship is one built on mutual support and care. Did you have a close friend like Parker growing up? Were there allies in your life as you explored various parts of your identity?
Nicole: I was actually the kid who was friends with everyone, so I had different groups of friends and different best friends throughout the years. What I wanted to do with Parker was a couple of things. Like I said above, I wanted to tell a coming of age Catholic school queer story for contemporary readers, and Parker played a big role in that. She’s understanding and supportive, because kids are full of empathy and understanding in ways that I didn’t always have growing up. She doesn’t question Brie’s sexuality; they have the knowledge and vocabulary to have a conversation about it. When I was Brie’s age, I remember turning to a friend of mine and saying, “Do you ever just…really like the way another girl’s face looks??” I had no idea I was talking about attraction! I also wanted Parker to be completely boy crazy–because some eighth grade girls are, and there’s nothing wrong with that!–so that I could have Brie encounter those awkward moments and feelings and conversations I was used to. Those ones where a friend says, “Which guy are you crushing on?” and you have to decide, “Am I going to lie?”
As an adult, when I knew I needed to fully come out of the closet, I did have important allies, though, which is why I put a lot of people in Brie’s corner. Teachers, friends, even some family members…it was important for me to build Brie’s support system, because my support system was the only thing that got me through my whole coming out process. I had friends who bought me ice cream and beer the night I came out to my parents, and I had a mentor who listened and helped me get to a point where I was ready to come out at all. Without all that, I don’t know what I would have done. So while not everything goes well for Brie, I wanted some things to go well, too.
What I really liked about Kenzie’s story is that she wasn’t new to the idea of queer identities either–Kenzie even has a transgender parent. It’s another one of those contemporary queer stories–our audience has queer friends and families and are discovering their queer identities themselves openly and in a way queer middle grade books are starting to reflect. Could you tell us more about your decision to write Kenzie’s dad’s identity, along with her own budding sexuality?
Kit: Absolutely! I wrote the queer themes in Kenzie Kickstarts a Teamboth as a queer/bisexual author and also as an ally to the transgender community. Someone very close in my life came out to friends and family as transgender in 2017. They were in the midst of seeking help for anxiety and depression, and the process of coming out was long and fraught with a lot of emotional speed bumps and roadblocks. As their primary support and contact, I spent so many days crying on the phone with this person, sending notes, contacting other people in our network to buffer negative reactions or intercept inappropriate questions… I couldn’t get any writing done during that time. I finally reached out to my agent and said I just wasn’t interested in continuing to work on the darker middle grade project we’d had in revisions for months. I needed to write a different story, one where being transgender was normalized and celebrated, and where being queer in general was normalized and celebrated. I had gotten into the Austin roller derby scene a few months earlier, and it was like all the pieces fell into place. Once I started writing through Kenzie’s lens, I knew I wanted her to explore her sexuality in a positive and open environment. The only queer stories I’d been exposed to as a kid were tragic ones! I wanted young readers–especially young queer readers–to know there is nothing inherently negative about the queer identity. If people react negatively, that’s 100% ON THEM.
Brie ends up dealing with a variety of reactions–both immediate and eventual reactions–as she explores her own sexuality. I absolutely loved the complexity in her dynamics within each of those relationships. There wasn’t a cliché bigot villain or hero ally, which allows Brie the agency and freedom to navigate the coming out process in her own beautiful, messy way. What would you say is the number one takeaway you hope young readers get from reading Brie’s story?
Nicole: My goal in having Brie come out again, and again, and again… throughout the novel, to a variety of responses, was to show that “coming out” isn’t one moment. It’s a lifetime of moments. And it sucks, it does. It’s frustrating for Brie as much as it is freeing. But I wanted to balance the bad reactions with the good ones. I wanted to show that, despite the struggle and the pain, there is good, there is hope. The soap opera scene that Brie consistently goes back to, the one where the character Bianca comes out to her mom, Erica Kane, is this sweet, heartbreaking scene where Bianca begs her mom to see her. “Can’t you see who I am? I want you to see who I am.” That’s exactly what Brie wants throughout her whole process, too. She wants to be seen, she wants her mom to see her. My number one takeaway I’ve always wanted my young readers to get from this story (and every story I write) is that *I* see them, regardless of the rest.
I think that’s so important in queer middle grade especially–for us to give our readers hope. I think you do that especially beautifully with Kenzie’s story, with the queerness being so celebrated and normalized. I know you have a sequel coming out, too. Could you give us a sneak preview of what we can expect from this continuing story? Are you working on anything else at the moment?
Kit: Book 2 of the Daredevils series is called Shelly Struggles to Shine, and follows Kenzie’s best friend Shelly as the Daredevils team gears up for their first roller derby tournament! Shelly’s story is an artist’s story as she tries to figure out how being creative fits into a sport setting… which it absolutely does in derby! But finding that “in” is tricky. Shelly doesn’t identify as queer, but I wanted to keep the loving and open queer community ongoing in this book. Kenzie’s crush continues to flourish. Shelly’s friend and mentor in art class is non-binary. And many characters from Book 1 make some surprising guest appearances!
Apart from the Daredevils series, I have an upper middle grade WIP with characters closer to Brie’s age. There is a fair bit of queerness in there… with some of my favorite cheesy tropes! One pivotal scene chases my two lead characters, who are camp enemies with secret hots for each other (f/f) up a tree and leaves them stranded. I love the camp setting and the bickering, and am having so much fun with the whole project. My biggest hope is that eventually it will make its way onto shelves and be comped to In the Role of Brie Hutchens!
Nicole, thank you so much for joining me in chatting about our upcoming releases. I’ve been a huge fan of yours since Hurricane Season, and couldn’t be more thrilled to sit down and gab about queer middle grade and the long and drawn out process of coming out! Thank you Dahlia at LGBTQ Reads for hosting us!
Kit Rosewater writes books for children. She lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico with her spouse and a border collie who takes up most of the bed. Before she was an author, Kit taught middle school theatre and high school English, then worked as a children’s bookseller. She has a master’s degree in Children’s Literature and a knack for finding her characters in clouds, ceiling plaster, and Cheetos. Books 1 & 2 of her debut series THE DERBY DAREDEVILS rolls out in 2020 through Abrams.
Nicole Melleby is a born-and-bred Jersey girl with a passion for storytelling. She studied creative writing at Fairleigh Dickinson University and currently teaches creative writing and literature courses with a handful of local universities. When she’s not writing, she can be found browsing the shelves at her local comic shop or watching soap operas with a cup of tea.
Today on the site, I’m thrilled to have Rachael Allen, whose upcoming young adult contemporary, The Summer of Impossibilities, releases May 12 from Abrams! We’ve got an exclusive excerpt from the story, so check out the blurb and dig in! (And pssst: keep scrolling for your chance to win an advanced copy!)
Skyler, Ellie, Scarlett and Amelia Grace are forced to spend the summer at the lake house where their moms became best friends.
One can’t wait.
One would rather gnaw off her own arm than hang out with a bunch of strangers just so their moms can drink too much wine and sing Journey two o’clock in the morning.
Two are sisters.
Three are currently feuding with their mothers.
One almost sets her crush on fire with a flaming marshmallow.
Two steal the boat for a midnight joyride that goes horribly, awkwardly wrong.
One of them is hiding how bad her joint pain has gotten.
All of them are hiding something.
One falls in love with a boy she thought she despised.
Two fall in love with each other.
None of them are the same at the end of the summer.
I WAS HOPING SHE WOULD BE THE FIRST PERSON I saw. Only, now that I’m here, I have no idea what to do. I know what she was thinking about doing with that knife—it’s why I stopped dead in the doorway, so she’d have a chance to put it down and paste a smile on her face before my mom could see around my body. But maybe I would have stopped dead no matter what. There’s something about seeing her in person after so many emails that makes me forget how to breathe.
“Scarlett, hi.” Mom gives her a hug. “You’ve gotten so tall.”
She’s definitely taller than I imagined she would be, but I’m only five foot four, so everyone is tall. She’s even more beautiful than in her pictures, all long red hair and curves and freckles. But somehow different. Edgier or sexier.
I stay on the other side of the room. If I get too close to her, will she know? I feel like my mom would know.
“Is Adeline around?” Mom asks, brows furrowed with concern.
“She’s upstairs.” Scarlett bites her lip, and I have to look out the window. “I think she’s not doing so well. Can you check on her?”
“Of course.” Mom squeezes her shoulder and leaves immediately. There’s something about the way she walks out of the room—her steps are so purposeful. I almost don’t recognize her for a second.
Skyler bounds in just as Mom is leaving. She grins at me, but her eyes are red.
“Amelia Grace!” she squeals, giving me a big, bouncy hug. “I haven’t seen you in forever! You look just like your pictures on Insta!”
And then it feels like it would be weird for Scarlett and me not to hug after I’ve just hugged her sister, and she must be feeling the same way because she takes a couple steps toward me too. Her shirt is wet in patches, and so is her hair.
“Are you okay?” I ask. It’s a general are you okay, but buried underneath is a very specific are you okay? Because back when things were really bad, with the girls at school and the cutting, she used to email me every day. But that was three years ago, before our emails trickled to every few weeks and then every few months. A part of me wants to pick back up right where we left off, but—
“I’m fine,” she says.
She hugs me, and it isn’t a big or bouncy one like Skyler’s, and it’s over too quickly, and it doesn’t answer any of my questions. I guess I thought we meant more to each other than that.
There’s the sound of another car pulling up outside, and Skyler runs out of the room to meet them, her chestnut ponytail swinging behind her. Scarlett takes exactly one step closer. She lowers her voice and says in a whisper that’s just for me, “I’m really glad you’re here.”
My heart squeezes in my chest, and I almost choke on my own spit. “Me too.”
The kitchen gets really quiet. I can hear Skyler outside, greeting the new arrivals with some unintelligible bubbliness. A trickle of water from the faucet goes drip- drip- dripping down the sink.
“I should, um, go upstairs and change.” She gestures to her shirt.
“Right. See you.” See you? Of course, I’ll see her. We are living in the same dang house for the summer.
Her footsteps echo up the stairs, and I feel like I’m on the cusp of realizing some great truth. Then my phone dings in my pocket. Carrie? I type in my password. Nah, just a bunch of social media updates. Including one from Carrie. It’s a photo of a book she’s reading—she posts those a lot—with a tiny caption.
So, she does have her phone. Well, maybe she doesn’t know what to say or maybe she’s feeling really bad about things or maybe she wishes it never happened and she never wants to see me again but she’s too sweet to tell me.
What if you just promised you wouldn’t kiss any more girls or go on dates or anything?
Maybe it wouldn’t be such a big deal to promise that after all. If Carrie doesn’t want to talk to me, I mean, I don’t know anyone else in Ranburne who might be interested. And Scarlett, well. She’s in a relationship. I know this. She has emailed me about this. I have pretended to be happy for her on multiple occasions.
I could email Pastor Chris—he’s our youth minister, the one I was going to be serving with. See about being a junior youth minister when I come back in the fall, maybe sooner. I could promise him, like Abby said. I only have one more year of high school anyway. And it wouldn’t be changing who I am so much as it would just be . . . waiting.
Sometimes I imagine what life will be like on the other side and all the shapes my life could take, but mostly I’m scared to even think about it. Because if I do, all the possible futures start to shift like a kaleidoscope, each one falling into place, forming a single dream. I want to marry a sweet girl who I’m in love with. And I want us to have kids; I don’t even know how many. Two? Three? Seven plus a menagerie of pets? I don’t even know how the baby- having part would work exactly, but who cares as long as they’re ours? And she and I will walk down the street holding hands and we’ll sit together in church on Sundays, each holding up one half of the same hymnal.
That’s about where the future starts to fall apart. Because I already know I’ll never be able to have all those things at the same time.
I realize I’m still staring at the stairs, so I go outside, because I don’t want to seem like I’m creeping around Scarlett’s kitchen waiting for her. Skyler is dancing circles around a woman I recognize as my aunt Seema, and her daughter, Ellie. I remember playing with her brother, Zakir, when I was little. I haven’t seen them since Mom married Jay and moved to Tennessee. We stopped seeing all the aunts after that.
I walk up to the group of them, everyone talking at once. I say hi to Ellie, who is impossibly gorgeous and who gives me a hesitant side- hug like she isn’t sure what else to do.
Seema beams at me. “Amelia Grace, love, you look beautiful.”
I smile and allow myself to be scrunched into a hug. I remember that about her from when I was little—she gives the best hugs.
A tan SUV pulls up next to us. There’s not exactly a driveway, more just a dirt road that makes a circle in front of the house. A tall, Latinx woman with golden brown skin and glossy hair gets out. She has a piercing through one eyebrow and a flower tucked behind one ear. Definitely Val.
“I’m here, and I have everything we need!” she hollers. She pulls out a cardboard box from the passenger seat. “My ‘fasten seatbelt’ alarm has been going off since the liquor store. You know it’s a good day when you have enough alcohol in your seat that your car thinks it’s a person.”
She sets down the box so she can give Seema a hug. It’s like watching family members get reunited at the airport.
“How are you, Seema?”
“Good.” Seema smiles slyly. “I’m good. Because I have everything we need.”
“Wh—? Excuse me? I have wine, whiskey, bourbon, and tequila. I’m not sure there’s anything else a person could need.”
Seema swings a wrinkled brown paper bag. If she has weed in there, just, I don’t know, shoot me dead. I am so not prepared for this.
“Every kind of Cadbury you can imagine from when I visited my mother in Canada.”
Val clutches her heart. “You brought Cadbury? Did you bring—”
“Coconut cashew? Yes, five bars of it, one of which I instructed Ellie to write your name on in Sharpie.”
“God bless you.”
I used to think Cadbury was just those eggs you get at Easter, but it turns out Canada has a whole new level of chocolate going on. I remember I would totally freak out every time a care package from Aunt Seema came in the mail.
“Is that whole bag really filled with chocolate?” I ask.
Seema smiles. “About three kilograms.”
“I love it when you talk metric to me,” says Val, and Seema cackles.
And then it’s like they both remember why they’re here at exactly the same time.
“I am going to kill Jimmy Gable,” says Aunt Val.
“You’ll have to arm wrestle me for it, jaan, because I’m going to kill him first.”
I stare up at the blue house with the white wraparound porch, where my mom is no doubt holding my aunt Adeline like she’s trying to put her back together. Scarlett stands in the second window from the left, looking down at the lawn. The way the light hits her makes her look like a ghost. She’s never even talked about liking a girl, so I know she’ll probably never feel the same way, but the things I’m feeling, they’re so big, it doesn’t even matter. I look at her, and I feel lucky just to feel this way.
The great truth finally takes shape inside my head: If I was ever thinking about doing what they want, of going back to the way I was before and locking away the part of me that likes girls and hiding the key until college—seeing her makes me realize that is no longer an option.
* * *
And here’s more from Rachael!
In addition to giving away ARC’s of THE SUMMER OF IMPOSSIBILITIES, I thought it would be fun to do a giveaway where each of the girls in the book gives away her favorite YA book, and next up is an Amelia Grace giveaway and exclusive excerpt with LGBTQ Reads!
About Amelia Grace
Amelia Grace (Nickname: Ames)
Loves: interior design, kindness, being a junior youth minister, friends that feel like family
Favorite YA book: HOW TO BE REMY CAMERON by Julian Winters
Why: Remy is earnest and kind, and he’s confused about how to define himself because he’s a lot of different things – adopted, black, gay, a brother, a best friend. For Amelia Grace, being inside Remy’s head feels like talking to an old friend. It feels like everything. Especially because it’s really rare to find a book that talks about being LGBTQ+ and about religion. Also, Julian Winters is the absolute best at turning high school stereotypes upside down and he’s funny as hell. Like, catch-you-off-guard sly and witty. Please go read this book immediately.
Giveaway includes (open internationally!):
1 signed ARC of The Summer of Impossibilities
1 signed copy of HOW TO BE REMY CAMERON by Julian Winters
Giveaway note: As a rule, LGBTQ Reads doesn’t host giveaways because they are kind of a lot to deal with. Please note that this giveaway is 100% my (Rachael’s) responsibility, and if you have any questions or concerns, please take them up with me and not LGBTQ Reads. Thanks for being awesome!
* * *
Rachael Allen is a scientist by day and kidlit author by night. She is the winner of the 2019 Georgia Young Adult Author of the Year award, and her books include17 First Kisses, The Revenge Playbook, and A Taxonomy of Love, which was a Junior Library Guild selection and a 2018 Books All Young Georgians Should Read. Her next novel, The Summer of Impossibilities, is out May 12, 2020 (Abrams/Amulet). Rachael lives in Atlanta, GA with her husband, two children, and two dire wolves.
Rachael’s books have been published internationally in German, Spanish, French, and Polish. She is represented by Susan Hawk of Upstart Crow Literary.
Visit Rachael on Twitter: @rachael_allen and Instagram: @rachael.stewartallen
Today on the site, we’ve got some extra fun in the form of character portrait and excerpt reveals from one of my absolute favorite upcoming releases, Late to the Party by Kelly Quindlen! The book releases on April 21 from Roaring Brook Press/Macmillan, but you can get to know its stars now! (And, a fun note: you can also come see me and Kelly talking about said book at Books of Wonder this summer in NYC on Thursday, June 18th at 6:00 p.m., so save the date!)
Here’s a little more info on Late to the Party:
Seventeen is nothing like Codi Teller imagined.
She’s never crashed a party, never stayed out too late. She’s never even been kissed. And it’s not just because she’s gay. It’s because she and her two best friends, Maritza and JaKory, spend more time in her basement watching Netflix than engaging with the outside world.
So when Maritza and JaKory suggest crashing a party, Codi is highly skeptical. Those parties aren’t for kids like them. They’re for cool kids. Straight kids.
But then Codi stumbles upon one of those cool kids, Ricky, kissing another boy in the dark, and an unexpected friendship is formed. In return for never talking about that kiss, Ricky takes Codi under his wing and draws her into a wild summer filled with late nights, new experiences, and one really cute girl named Lydia.
The only problem? Codi never tells Maritza or JaKory about any of it.
And here are the portraits and excerpts! All portraits in this post have been done by Rima Salloum, a good friend of the author’s.
Codi Teller – the protagonist and narrator, a quiet artist who is questioning her wallflower status
You know how adults are always talking about teenagers? When I was in fourth grade, my family drove past a house that had been rolled with toilet paper, and my dad shook his head and chuckled Teenagers under his breath. My mom griped about Teenagers every June, when dark figures hung over the monkey bars of the clubhouse playground long after closing hours, but she never actually seemed mad; she seemed wistful. And then there’s all those shows and movies, the ones where thirty-year-old actors pretend to be high schoolers, and they go on dates and drive their fast cars and dance at crazy house parties where their fellow Teenagers swing from chandeliers and barf into synthetic tree stands. You grow up with these ideas about Teenagers, about their wild, vibrant, dramatic lives of breaking rules and making out and Being Alive, and you know that it’s your destiny to become one of them someday, but suddenly you’re seventeen and you’re watching people cannonball into a swimming pool in the pouring rain, and you realize you still haven’t become a real Teenager, and maybe you never will.
Maritza Vargas – Codi’s best friend, a headstrong dancer who is determined to expand her social world
Maritza leaned forward, an urgent energy about her. “Listen to me,” she said. “Last night we picked up your little brother from a date, something none of us have ever experienced, and we watched him almost kiss a girl for the first time, something I’ve been wanting to do for ages. Didn’t that feel as shitty for you as it did for me? I’m tired of feeling like I’m missing out. We keep hanging out just the three of us, doing the same shit we always do, watching bad movies we’ve already seen . . .” She clasped her hands in front of her and steeled herself. “We need to try something different, meet people who are different. It’s like Einstein said: The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and hoping for a different result.”
JaKory Green – Codi’s other best friend, a hopeless idealist trying to push beyond his anxiety
“Did you feel horrible yesterday, too?” JaKory asked.
I looked up from the colors I was mixing. “The worst I’ve felt in a long time.”
JaKory was silent. Then he screwed up his mouth and said, “I went home and wrote a poem about it.”
I smiled wryly. “’Course you did.”
“There was one line I really liked. ‘My youth is infinite but my fears are intimate.’”
I mixed my orange and yellow paints. Such bursts of color, such vibrant promises, like the infinite youth JaKory spoke of. And yet those intimate fears loomed larger.
“I’m scared, too,” I admitted. “Scared of . . . I don’t even know what.”
“I’m so pissed at myself,” JaKory whispered. “I always knew I was different . . . black, nerdy, queer… but that’s not why I’m missing out. It’s because I’m standing in my own way.”
Ricky Flint – the closeted football player who takes Codi under his wing and introduces her to a new social group
After a while, we ended up along the river. Ricky parked with his truck facing the water, and we kicked our feet up on the dash, slurping the last of the ice cream from the bottoms of our cups.
“So what do you and Maritza and JaKory do when you hang out?” Ricky asked. “Is it anything like this?”
I told him. I kept checking his expression the whole time, worrying that I was boring him, but he had this open look on his face that made me feel like he cared what I had to say. When I’d said enough, I asked him, “What about your friends? What’s your favorite thing about them?”
He looked out over the river. A whole minute must have passed, but he didn’t seem pressed to come up with the answer right away. Finally, he started nodding to himself and said, “That I feel like I could have met them in kindergarten.”
“What do you mean?”
“I didn’t meet most of my friends until high school, but every single one of them is someone I could have met on the kindergarten playground—it’s natural and easy, nothing held against each other. Remember how easy it was to make friends at that age?”
Lydia Kaufman – Codi’s crush who is trying to be brave during her last summer before college
She bit her lip, a secret grin on her face. “What’s your favorite color?”
I laughed unexpectedly. “That’s what you want to follow up with?”
I smiled, my hands in my lap now, all thought of the painting abandoned. “It changes all the time. Right now it’s violet.”
“I love that.”
“Green,” she said right away.
I nodded, unsurprised. “Like your eyes.”
She laughed. “Not for that reason.”
“The first house my family lived in was green. Like a pastel shade, you know? And anytime a friend’s mom would drop me off, we’d turn on my street and I’d say, ‘My house is the green one.’ I didn’t know how to count the mailbox numbers but I knew my house was green, and I loved it.”
My heart expanded inside me. In that moment I felt like it was okay to be exactly who I was, because she was being exactly who she was, and that must have meant something. I absorbed it all: her eyes, her secrets, her space in the world.
The only thing I managed to say was, “I like knowing that.”
“I like knowing that you know it.”
Kelly Quindlen is the author of the young adult novels Late to the Party and Her Name in the Sky. A graduate of Vanderbilt University and a former teacher, Kelly has had the joy of speaking to PFLAG groups and high school GSAs. She currently serves on the leadership board of a non-profit for Catholic parents with LGBT children. She lives in Atlanta. Follow her on Twitter @kellyquindlen.