Tag Archives: How to Become a Planet

Authors in Conversation: Nicole Melleby and Eliot Schrefer

Today on the site I’m delighted to welcome frequent LGBTQReads guest Nicole Melleby, author of one of yesterday’s fabulous new releases, How to Become a Planet, and site newcomer Eliot Schrefer, whose The Darkness Outside Us releases June 1st!

Yes, we’re bridging the MG/YA divide here. A rare occurrence on the site, but there is a connection between these authors! Want to know what it is? Read on…

Nicole: Hi Eliot! I’m excited to be doing this interview with you. A fun fact that most people might not know: you were my mentor in grad school, so you’ve actually gotten to see me grow from the baby writer I used to be. It makes it even more fun that we’ve both got books out this year that in some capacity–yours literally and mine as more of a metaphor–involve outer space! (And, of course, are both queer!)

The Darkness Outside Us is such a great addition to LGBTQ+ YA shelves. For those who weren’t as lucky as me to get their hands on it before its June 1st release, why don’t you tell us a little bit about it?

55200663Eliot: Nicole! How amazing is this?! If only we could go back to 2014 and tell baby Nicole and Eliot that they’d one day be having this conversation, and doing gay space book events together (you can check us out together virtually on June 8th hosted by Best of Books.) I’ll have lots more to say and ask about the years in-between later, but for now, yeah, let me tell you about The Darkness Outside Us. It’s set 400 years in the future, when Earth is locked into a cold war between two remaining countries. When the first settler of Titan trips her distress signal, the countries have to mount a joint mission to rescue her—with one astronaut from each country onboard. They start as enemies, but wind up developing feelings for each other, even as they discover that their mission isn’t what they thought it was. At all.

You gave me some awesome feedback on the manuscript, and changed its course! I love this new phase of our lives when we’re peers and friends. The world has some really devoted Melleby fans (“Mellefans”?) in it. It’s been awesome to see your accolades and masses of happy readers—I know how excited they are about reading How to Become a Planet. Would you tell us about Pluto’s story? 

Nicole: You gave me feedback on an early draft of PLANET, too, back when it had an entire arson subplot (when in doubt, add fire?) There are no fires in the finished draft, but How to Become a Planet is about a 12-year-old named Pluto who loves outer space, her single mom, her family’s pizzeria, and running around the boardwalk with her best friend Meredith. The novel starts right after Pluto is diagnosed with depression and anxiety, after a month of missing school, finding it too hard to get out of bed, ignoring Meredith’s phone calls, and arguing more and more with her mom. Because of this, Pluto can’t help but wonder how she can try and feel like herself again. Pluto-the-planet isn’t a planet anymore, and Pluto-the-person doesn’t know where she fits anymore, either.

So, Eliot, you are no stranger to kidlit (Mr. Fancy Pants two-time National Book Award Finalist) but, and correct me if I’m wrong, this is your first YA novel with explicitly queer characters. I’m living for gays in space, but why did you decide to write this story now, and has your experience writing gay characters been any different than your other work?

Eliot: I think I’m ten Earth years older than you (though just 0.04 Pluto years!), and it’s been a big ten years for children’s literature, and books in general, around LGBTQIA+ themes. Though there were important early queer works already when I started writing YA, for the most part books were either about queerness or they had no queer characters, with little in between. For the most part, my narrative instincts don’t lean toward romance, so I had characters in most of my books who were driven by other interests, not romantic ones.

With THE DARKNESS OUTSIDE US, though, my first moment of inspiration was the book’s big (no spoilers here!) plot twist, which requires two people to be trapped on a ship together. That got me thinking of a romantic storyline, and the romance I came up with was true to my own (gay male) identity. I continue to be a plot-first sort of writer, but this plot really called for these two boys to be on a ship, falling in love. Cue the gaaaays in spaaaace!

In writing their romance I was inspired by Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot, where he writes about how seeing Earth from space “underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another.” Nicole, I’d love to know how our conception of space and (non?) planets works in HOW TO BECOME A PLANET, whether literally or metaphorically or anything in between!

Nicole: When I sat down to write PLANET, what I really wanted to do was show that mental illness can be a lifelong issue. I wanted to let Pluto explore what it meant for her, now that she has this diagnosis, moving forward. How does it change her? Does it change her? What does it all mean? Which, in turn, made me start thinking about Pluto-the-planet. When I was in middle school, Pluto was still a planet, and all of a sudden we were told, “no wait, we changed the definition of what makes a planet, so Pluto doesn’t qualify anymore.” What did that mean? Was Pluto-the-planet suddenly different? No, of course not. The definition changed, but Pluto was exactly the same as it was, and still is, as when I learned about it back in middle school. All of its properties are still exactly the same. Getting a depression diagnosis for Pluto-the-person is just like Pluto-the-planet getting a new definition. It doesn’t change who she is; if anything, it gives her a clearer understanding of who she is.

If you’ll allow me to be sentimental for a moment, having you for a mentor in grad school helped me have a clearer understanding of myself, too, and who I was as a writer and a person–particularly one who writes about queer characters and stories. We also had the privilege of launching Fairleigh Dickinson University’s Writing for Children concentration in their creative writing MFA program, you as a professor and me as one of the first batch of students under that concentration. I learned a lot from you (I’m done stroking your ego after this) and I thought I’d ask, if you could teach student writers like myself only one thing, what would that be?

Eliot:  Oh, please don’t be done stroking my ego! Nicole, one of the things I love so much about Pluto’s story is how you make her depression feel real and intimate and not like some huge crisis that ruins the lives of “other people.” It’s just part of life, and part of being a person in the world. That’s something I love so much about your novels—even though my life experiences might not always match your characters’, you’ve brought me so cleanly and simply into their minds that I still feel this very close kinship to them.

I should answer your question, though! Lately I’ve been thinking that one of the most important things student writers have to learn is the power of withheld information. I feel like every protagonist should have a secret, even if they’re not consciously hiding it. The instinct as a writer is to tell the reader everything about a character’s situation, as quickly and efficiently as possible. But instead I think it’s so much more powerful to hint at all the things the reader doesn’t know yet, and take your time as an author revealing the information, producing dramatic tension all the while. The first chapter of The Hunger Games is a total master class of this, and I think that’s a big part of the book’s huge success. On this craft topic, do you have any thoughts to share about handling backstory and frontstory in the early part of a book? How do you do it in Pluto’s case?

Nicole: In fairness, The Darkness Outside Us also is pretty damn good at doing exactly that–both of your characters have things they play close to the chest, and the plot twists (don’t even think you’ll get spoilers out of me, reader) in your book speak for themself in terms of knowing exactly when to reveal certain parts of the story.

For Pluto in particular, it was important to me to tell a story from the perspective of what happens after the diagnosis. Which meant that I had to decide how much of the first chapter to bog down with what came before the diagnosis. I wanted to explore the results and consequences instead of showing the entire journey that led to the doctors and medications. I introduce the idea that Pluto needs to be tutored over the summer, and that’s because she missed a lot of school. Her best friend Meredith is upset and mad at Pluto, and that’s because Pluto stopped calling and hanging out with her during the school year. These are the things that happened before the novel started that are part of the reason Pluto ended up with the diagnosis, but I didn’t need to spend the time at the start of the book detailing that.

This craft conversation actually reminds me of the essay I had to write for you during grad school, where I analyzed the moment in a handful of MG/YA books where the author “outs” the character to the reader. It’s again one of those important decisions as a writer: when and how do I reveal this piece of information to the reader. Do you remember what that moment is for Ambrose? (This is just a warm up question, don’t get too comfortable.) For Pluto, its revealed by her slowly developing a crush on Fallon, which was nice to write on my end, because Pluto doesn’t really have an “oh, I might be queer” moment. She just has an “oh, I think I like Fallon” moment.

Staying on the craft conversation: my real question for you is, since Darkness is a SFF novel that takes place in an alternative futuristic version of our universe, what was the worst part about having to develop and world build your idea of this future, and, also, what was the best part?

Eliot: I that essay so much! I learned so much from you, working with you on that. And I remember your presentation of it was also about your coming-out journey, and had half of the MFA cohort in tears.

As far as outing Ambrose: he comes from a really progressive country, 400 years in the future. I let myself imagine how far we might have come by then. They’re well past labels at all, so when Kodiak (who’s from a less progressive society) asks Ambrose if he’s gay or bi or what, Ambrose busts out laughing, because the question sounds like it’s out of a historical fiction. That’s one of the things I love most about sci-fi, that you can imagine better futures, not just worse ones. That was the best part, creating a character and giving him a kinder, more inclusive place to live in.

The hardest part was trying to make a believable future, tech-wise. I tried to imagine evolved technologies, but I’m sure someone actually from 400 years in the future would crack up at my version of future tech. Kind of like how everyone in the 1960s was convinced we’d have robot maids and be riding around in flying cars by now.

Nicole, my last question for you: You stopping by Pluto’s house for breakfast, ten years after the events of HOW TO BECOME A PLANET. How’s she doing? (More important: what does she serve you to eat?)

Nicole: Ten years after the events of PLANET, Pluto would be around 23 years old. She’s doing well–she kept up with her therapist and her doctors and took her medication. There were some bumps along the way, because as Pluto learns throughout the course of the book, mental illness isn’t an exact science and things change and she still has her ups and downs. But she knows who she is and she’s proud of it. I don’t think she studied astronomy or a related science when she got to college–I think while she’ll always love her connection to space and still read and learn as much as she can about it, I think she’ll grow to spread her wings a little bit. Astronomy is what connected her with her mom, and they still share that, but I think Pluto would find something to make completely her own. Still in the sciences–maybe health science? Maybe she’s going to be in a lab somewhere someday helping to advance the resources available for kids with anxiety and depression, just like her.

And, of course, she would serve me some sort of breakfast pizza!

Eliot, thank you so much for joining me in chatting about our upcoming releases. I’ve been a fan of yours since that first year at grad school, and I couldn’t be more thrilled to be able to sit down and gab about our queer books. Thank you Dahlia at LGBTQ Reads for hosting us!

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ELIOT SCHREFER is a New York Times-bestselling author, and has twice been a finalist for the National Book Award. In naming him an Editor’s Choice, the New York Times has called his work “dazzling… big-hearted.” He is also the author of two novels for adults and four other novels for children and young adults. His books have been named to the NPR “best of the year” list, the ALA best fiction list for young adults, and the Chicago Public Library’s “Best of the Best.” His work has also been selected to the Amelia Bloomer List, recognizing best feminist books for young readers, and he has been a finalist for the Walden Award and won the Green Earth Book Award and Sigurd Olson Nature Writing Award. He lives in New York City, where he reviews books for USAToday.

Nicole Melleby, a born-and-bread Jersey girl, is an award winning children’s author. Her middle grade books have been Junior Library Guild Gold Standard selections, recipient of the Skipping Stones Honor Award, and a 2020 Kirkus Reviews best book of the year. Her debut novel, Hurricane Season, was a Lambda Literary finalist. She lives with her partner and their cat, whose need for attention oddly aligns with Nicole’s writing schedule.

Most Anticipated LGBTQ Middle Grade Fiction: January-June 2021

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Goldie Vance: The Hocus Pocus Hoax by Lilliam Rivera, ill. by Elle Power (January 5th)

Marigold “Goldie” Vance lives and works at the Crossed Palms Resort Hotel in Florida with a whole slew of characters: her dad, Art, the manager of the joint; Cheryl Lebeaux, the concierge and Goldie’s best friend; and Walter Tooey, the hired hotel detective. Her mom, Sylvie, works nearby at the Mermaid Club.

Prepare to be amazed by Goldie’s second middle-grade adventure! The Crossed Palms is hosting the first ever League of Magical Arts Convention, bringing the world’s most renowned and emerging magicians to the resort, including an overeager part-time magician and detective named Derek Von Thurston. When some of the magic starts to go awry, Goldie — and Derek — are on the case! Can Goldie uncover the saboteur before the final act goes live?

Based on Hope Larson and Brittney Williams’s critically acclaimed Goldie Vance comic, this thrilling novel explores a never-before-seen caper and features 8 full-color comic pages essential to unraveling the mystery.

Buy it: Bookshop | Amazon | IndieBound

Meow or Never by Jazz Taylor (January 5th)

Avery Williams can sing, but that doesn’t mean she can sing in front of people. She likes to stay backstage at her new school, which is where, to her surprise, she finds a cat tucked away into a nook. Avery names the stray Phantom and visits any time she’s feeling stressed (which is a lot these days).

As she sings to Phantom one day, her crush, Nic, overhears her and ropes Avery into auditioning for the school’s musical. Despite her nerves, Avery lands the lead role!

She knows she should be excited, but mostly Avery is terrified. Can Phantom help her through her stage fright? And what will happen if anyone finds out about her secret pet?

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Middletown by Sarah Moon (April 6th)

Thirteen-year-old Eli likes baggy clothes, baseball caps, and one girl in particular. Her seventeen-year-old sister Anna is more traditionally feminine; she loves boys and staying out late. They are sisters, and they are also the only family each can count on. Their dad has long been out of the picture, and their mom lives at the mercy of her next drink. When their mom lands herself in enforced rehab, Anna and Eli are left to fend for themselves. With no legal guardian to keep them out of foster care, they take matters into their own hands: Anna masquerades as Aunt Lisa, and together she and Eli hoard whatever money they can find. But their plans begin to unravel as quickly as they were made, and they are always way too close to getting caught.

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Thanks a Lot, Universe by Chad Lucas (May 11th)

Brian has always been anxious, whether at home, or in class, or on the basketball court. His dad tries to get him to stand up for himself and his mom helps as much as she can, but after he and his brother are placed in foster care, Brian starts having panic attacks. And he doesn’t know if things will ever be “normal” again . . . Ezra’s always been popular. He’s friends with most of the kids on his basketball team—even Brian, who usually keeps to himself. But now, some of his friends have been acting differently, and Brian seems to be pulling away. Ezra wants to help, but he worries if he’s too nice to Brian, his friends will realize that he has a crush on him . . .

But when Brian and his brother run away, Ezra has no choice but to take the leap and reach out. Both boys have to decide if they’re willing to risk sharing parts of themselves they’d rather hide. But if they can be brave, they might just find the best in themselves—and each other.

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Hazel Bly and the Deep Blue Sea by Ashley Herring Blake (May 25th)

Hazel Bly used to live in the perfect house with the perfect family in sunny California. But when a kayaking trip goes horribly wrong, Mum is suddenly gone forever and Hazel is left with crippling anxiety and a jagged scar on her face. After Mum’s death, Hazel, her other mother, Mama, and her little sister, Peach, needed a fresh start. So for the last two years, the Bly girls have lived all over the country, never settling anywhere for more than a few months.

When the family arrives in Rose Harbor, Maine, there’s a wildness to the small town that feels like magic. But when Mama runs into an old childhood friend—Claire—suddenly Hazel’s tight-knit world is infiltrated. To make it worse, she has a daughter Hazel’s age, Lemon, who can’t stop rambling on and on about the Rose Maid, a local 150-year-old mermaid myth.

Soon, Hazel finds herself just as obsessed with the Rose Maid as Lemon is—because what if magic were real? What if grief really could change you so much, you weren’t even yourself anymore? And what if instead you emerged from the darkness stronger than before?

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How to Become a Planet by Nicole Melleby (May 25th)

For Pluto, summer has always started with a trip to the planetarium. It’s the launch to her favorite season, which also includes visits to the boardwalk arcade, working in her mom’s pizzeria, and her best friend Meredith’s birthday party. But this summer, none of that feels possible.

A month before the end of the school year, Pluto’s frightened mom broke down Pluto’s bedroom door. What came next were doctor’s appointments, a diagnosis of depression, and a big black hole that still sits on Pluto’s chest, making it too hard to do anything.

Pluto can’t explain to her mom why she can’t do the things she used to love. And it isn’t until Pluto’s dad threatens to make her move with him to the city—where he believes his money, in particular, could help—that Pluto becomes desperate enough to do whatever it takes to be the old Pluto again.

She develops a plan and a checklist: If she takes her medication, if she goes to the planetarium with her mom for her birthday, if she successfully finishes her summer school work with her tutor, if she goes to Meredith’s birthday party . . . if she does all the things that “normal” Pluto would do, she can stay with her mom in Jersey. But it takes a new therapist, a new tutor, and a new (and cute) friend with a checklist and plan of her own for Pluto to learn that there is no old and new Pluto. There’s just her.

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Almost Flying by Jake Maia Arlow (June 8th)

Would-be amusement park aficionado Dalia only has two items on her summer bucket list: (1) finally ride a roller coaster and (2) figure out how to make a new best friend. But when her dad suddenly announces that he’s engaged, Dalia’s schemes come to a screeching halt. With Dalia’s future stepsister Alexa heading back to college soon, the grown-ups want the girls to spend the last weeks of summer bonding–meaning Alexa has to cancel the amusement park road trip she’s been planning for months. Luckily Dalia comes up with a new plan: If she joins Alexa on her trip and brings Rani, the new girl from her swim team, along maybe she can have the perfect summer after all. But what starts out as a week of funnel cakes and Lazy River rides goes off the rails when Dalia discovers that Alexa’s girlfriend is joining the trip. And keeping Alexa’s secret makes Dalia realize one of her own: She might have more-than-friend feelings for Rani.

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Both Can Be True by Jules Machias (June 8th)

Ash is no stranger to feeling like an outcast. For someone who cycles through genders, it’s a daily struggle to feel in control of how people perceive you. Some days Ash is undoubtedly girl, but other times, 100 percent guy. Daniel lacks control too—of his emotions. He’s been told he’s overly sensitive more times than he can count. He can’t help the way he is, and he sure wishes someone would accept him for it.

So when Daniel’s big heart leads him to rescue a dog that’s about to be euthanized, he’s relieved to find Ash willing to help. The two bond over their four-legged secret. When they start catching feelings for each other, however, things go from cute to complicated. Daniel thinks Ash is all girl . . . what happens when he finds out there’s more to Ash’s story?

With so much on the line—truth, identity, acceptance, and the life of an adorable pup named Chewbarka—will Ash and Daniel forever feel at war with themselves because they don’t fit into the world’s binaries? Or will their friendship help them embrace the beauty of living in between?

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