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Believing, a guest post by Mark Oshiro

In many ways, I consider The Insiders— my middle grade debut—both the most magical and the happiest book I’ve ever written. That was deliberate; I wanted to challenge myself as a writer after having completed two (frankly) emotionally intense young adult novels. The joy was easy to find, too! At the center of this novel was a magical Room that allowed three queer and/or trans kids to not only find friendship in one another, but to gather the strength to face the problems they were having in their own lives.

Yet there’s a real-life event I experienced in seventh grade that informed the emotional core of Héctor Muñoz’s journey over the course of the novel. And I want to talk about what happens when adults don’t believe children.

Trigger Warning: For discussion of homophobia, bullying/abuse

Some context: The Insiders follows Héctor Muñoz as he is forced to move from the open-minded community of San Francisco to the suburbs of Orangevale, CA. There, he’s not just an outsider because of how he dresses or what he’s interested in, but he becomes the target of a trio of bullies who toe the line with homophobia. So, Héctor does as he is supposed to: He tells an adult (Ms. Heath, the head of security) that he’s being bullied.

Because Héctor’s bully is the ever-popular Mike, Ms. Heath refuses to believe Héctor.

I have no interest as an author in sanitizing the world for young readers. While The Insiders is certainly funnier than my YA novels, I also dig deep into some heavy themes. But I must admit that I did not exactly replicate the incident I went through within the pages of the book. I grew up in Riverside, CA during a time when homophobia had a firm grip on everyone around me. To say it was open and allowed doesn’t quite capture what it was like to be a kid then.

The bullying I was subjected to was consistent, intense, and highly specific. In particular, it was my tight clothing (this was the age of baggy pants and oversized shirts) that gained the most ire, and I came to school each day anticipating that I’d be called a homophobic slur.

One of my bullies escalated to physical attacks around Thanksgiving that year, and it continued until… well, I feel no need to recount what he did in detail here. It was bad enough that I had to go to the nurse, who then encouraged me to speak to our school’s counselor. At that point, I had, like many of my peers, been conditioned to believe that adults were there to protect you in these settings. If you see something, say something. So, as I had been taught, I told the counselor the truth. I explained (in great detail at the time) what this boy had been doing to me and how his actions had sent me to the nurse’s office.

Her response was to tell me that none of this would have happened if I didn’t invite it upon myself.

She proceeded to blame the bullying on me: on my soft voice, on my over-expressive hand gestures, on my “revealing” clothing, on a young boy who could not control who he was. She said I was exaggerating what he did to me; she said that I faked the trip to the nurse’s office.

I don’t think it’ll be surprising that for years afterward, I did not share a single vulnerable thing about me to another adult. Not my parents, not a teacher, not a counselor or administrator. Indeed, as things in my home life got worse, and I became homeless in high school, I more or less had to be FORCED to tell an adult what I was going through.

There are few things more isolating than not being believed. While Héctor’s journey is very different than my own, it was born from the same place. In his case, though, his initial solution is a hint of the speculative: a janitor’s closet that keeps appearing around campus to protect him. And while it serves a necessary role, I never wanted this to be the answer. Not for Héctor and certainly not for the larger story I was telling in The Insiders.

Why don’t we listen to children? Why don’t we believe them? I remember being constantly told that I’d understand something more when I got older, and here I am, not far from my 38th birthday, and you know what? That thing I didn’t like? That act that felt wrong? I STILL FEEL THE SAME WAY ABOUT IT! It was just easier for the adults in my life to refuse to actually listen to me rather than treat me like… well, a whole person with agency.

The Insiders has many other secrets and surprises in its story (including how Héctor resolves the issue with his bullies). But this aspect is one I’m open about right from the start: I want kids to be believed. I don’t want other people to grow up being afraid to tell the truth or to see vulnerability as a weakness, as something to be guarded against. I am very proud of this book, but I’m most proud of how I’ve written the version of myself I wish I was. If anything, I hope it inspires other queer youth to be more fully themselves so that we don’t need to have metaphorical closets to hide in.

Except the magic ones, of course!

Meet the author

Photo credit: Zoraida Cordova

Mark Oshiro is the Schneider Award-winning author of the YA books Anger Is a Gift and Each of Us a Desert. When they are not writing, they are busy trying to fulfill their lifelong goal: to pet every dog in the world. The Insiders is their middle grade debut. Visit them online at markoshiro.com

Buy link:

https://www.littleshopofstories.com/book/9780063008106

About The Insiders

Three kids who don’t belong. A room that shouldn’t exist. A year that will change everything.

Perfect for fans of Rebecca Stead and Meg Medina, this debut middle grade novel from award-winning author Mark Oshiro is a hopeful and heartfelt coming-of-age story for anyone who’s ever felt like they didn’t fit in.

San Francisco and Orangevale may be in the same state, but for Héctor Muñoz, they might as well be a million miles apart. Back home, being gay didn’t mean feeling different. At Héctor’s new school, he couldn’t feel more alone.

Most days, Héctor just wishes he could disappear. And he does. Right into the janitor’s closet. (Yes, he sees the irony.) But one day, when the door closes behind him, Héctor discovers he’s stumbled into a room that shouldn’t be possible. A room that connects him with two new friends from different corners of the country—and opens the door to a life-changing year full of friendship, adventure, and just a little bit of magic.

ISBN-13: 9780063008106
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 09/21/2021
Age Range: 8 – 12 Years

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