Today on the site we’re talking to Nina Varela, whose name you probably know from the smash hit Crier’s War duology, and who’s now hopping categories to Middle Grade with the Sapphic adventure Juniper Harvey and the Vanishing Kingdom, releasing tomorrow from LBYR! Before we get to her fantastic post on book bannings, resilience, and growing into identity, here’s a little more on the book:
When Juniper Harvey’s family moves to the middle of nowhere in Florida, her entire life is uprooted. As if that’s not bad enough, she keeps having dreams about an ancient-looking temple, a terrifying attack, and a mysterious girl who turns into an ivory statue. One night after a disastrous school dance, Juniper draws a portrait of the girl from her dreams and thinks, I wish you were here. The next morning, she wakes up to find the girl in her room…pointing a sword at her throat!
The unexpected visitor reveals herself as Galatea, a princess from a magical other world. One problem—her crown is missing, and she needs it in order to return home. Now, it’s up to Juniper to help find the crown, all while navigating a helpless crush on her new companion. And things go from bad to worse when a sinister force starts chasing after the crown too.
Packed with adventure and driven by a pitch-perfect voice, this middle grade debut from Nina Varela is about one tween forging new friendships, fighting nightmarish monsters, and importantly, figuring out who she is and who she ultimately wishes to be.
Buy it: Bookshop | Amazon | IndieBound
Now here’s the post!
In Juniper Harvey and the Vanishing Kingdom, 11-year-old “June” Harvey has a lot on her plate: she’s starting sixth grade at a new school in a new town, hundreds of miles away from her best
(and kind of only) friend and everything else she’s ever known. And that’s before the magical princess from another dimension crash-lands in her bedroom. And that’s before June starts wondering if maybe there’s a reason said princess makes her face go red, and not just out of annoyance.
June is a kid. She’s in her first year of middle school. She’s experiencing basically her first crush—definitely the first crush she’s been aware of while it’s happening. And the focus of that crush is another girl. Despite the rest of the plot—which involves gods, flying nightmare monsters, and islands that float in the sky—this was maybe the most difficult part of the story for me to write. You wouldn’t think so, considering I certainly know what it’s like to experience a middle school crush, and also what it’s like to experience a gay crush. But when I was June’s age, I had no idea I was queer. I knew of queerness—I knew gay people existed, and as I learned more about queerness and homophobia I became a staunch “ally”—but it didn’t seem like something that could apply to me. I’m not even really sure why. Plenty of people know they’re gay from a very young age, whether or not they possess the vocabulary to describe it. But at some point I had assumed my sexuality was the default, that I was straight, and it wasn’t until years later that I began to question that assumption. To be clear, as an adolescent, I did experience nonplatonic feelings for other girls; I liked girls, I wanted girls, I just didn’t make the connection that it was something intrinsic to who I was, something real and important enough to shape my worldview, the way I move through the world, the way I interact with myself and others, the way I live my life. I knew adults could be gay, yet somehow it didn’t occur to me that gay adults surely grew from gay children. That the confusingly intense feelings I had for other girls were not an improbable series of flukes, but something that mattered, that would continue to matter.
My experience, my timeline, is not unique. Again, some people know they’re gay from the onset, but I’ve had countless conversations with other queer people who didn’t realize they were gay until young adulthood or later—even if, in retrospect, we were having a lot of gay teenage feelings. So much of this comes down to socialization, the social hierarchies that play out beneath the surface of every interaction. Generally, we are taught to believe our gender and
sexuality align with whatever the default is. If you’re a girl, then you like boys, and only boys.
I am about to turn twenty-eight. In 2006, when I was in sixth grade, calling things “gay” as an insult was extremely normal and common and happened in my vicinity roughly 500 times per day. To my knowledge, there were no “out” queer kids in my middle or high school, though there were rumors. (Plenty of my classmates have come out in the years since. Love this journey for us.) The idea of self-identifying as queer, as a kid, let alone knowing multiple other queer kids, is wild to me, unthinkable. But for Gen Z, that’s increasingly something close to the norm. My youngest sibling just turned fifteen. Many of their friends are proudly, loudly queer and have been for years. “My friend who’s a trans lesbian,” they tell me. “My nonbinary friend, my friend who’s bi and ace.” Internet access means information access. Kids these days tend to learn about
queerness—broadly, and in specific terms—so much earlier than just one generation before. They tend to start questioning their own assumptions about themselves—the world’s insistence that they conform to a default—so much earlier. That’s pretty freaking cool. It doesn’t matter whether or not a certain label sticks; whether some kid calling themself a lesbian is an “experiment” or a phase. That’s what being young is for. Being a kid is about learning, growing, discovering who you are. Straight kids have crushes, have first relationships. The gay kids of my generation often didn’t—or had “straight” relationships because that’s what was expected. But
the fact is that gay kids should be allowed the same grace, the same space to be messy and fluid and changeable. And it’s hard to do that if you don’t know that queer is something you have the
option to be—that it’s something a kid can be, and it rocks.
The moral panic around queerness specifically in relation to children has been simmering since the 90s and in recent years has begun boiling over into full-blown cultural hysteria. Lawmakers introduced more than 300 new anti-LGBT bills in 2022 alone, many of which targeted LGBT youth. There’s an ongoing crusade against the imaginary problem of children attending drag shows, as if the mere existence of gay and trans people can somehow harm or groom children.
Just this past week, the New York Times published a wildly transphobic piece of faux-concerned hand-wringing about the concept that a kid might come out as trans to friends and trusted teachers but not parents, to which children of queerphobic parents everywhere responded: Yeah. And?
In March 2022, Florida—where Juniper Harvey is set—passed the so-called “Don’t Say Gay” law, which says public school teachers may not instruct on sexual orientation or gender identity in kindergarten through third grade. A year later, there’s a new Florida state law that requires all books in classroom libraries to be approved or vetted by a media specialist or librarian trained by the state. In September 2022, PEN America reported that during the previous school year, more books had been banned than in any previous year. Of the books, “41% had LGBTQ themes or main characters, while 40% featured characters of color.”
Kids deserve better. Queer kids exist, have always existed, will always exist. They deserve to know they’re not alone, that they’re not broken; there’s nothing wrong with them; they deserve love and joy and companionship of all kinds same as anyone else. Kids these days may be more aware of their own potential for queerness than I was at that age, but that doesn’t mean they’re safer or happier, that they’re living in a kinder world. I hope books like Juniper Harvey, books about queer kids dreaming big despite-despite-despite, can give them some seed of warmth and hope—but books can only do that if they actually make it to the kids’ hands.
For more information about censorship and how to fight the book bans sweeping the US, kindly look here, here, and here to start. Thank you.