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Joy, Connection and Community: Finding Pride in Books During a Pandemic, a conversation between Robin Stevenson and Tom Ryan

Robin: Tom and I are excited to be finally launching our co-written YA novel, just in time for Pride month 2021! Of course, when we started writing this book a few years ago, we could never have guessed what 2021 would look like. I was living on the west coast of Canada, and Tom had moved back to the east coast, and we missed hanging out together in person. So I sent him a text…

Tom: I woke up one day and checked my phone (Nova Scotia is four hours ahead of B.C.) and there was a text from Robin that said something like: hey Tom I just had a great idea, we should a big queer Canadian YA novel together! I didn’t have to think it over, I just texted her back and said obviously! and things went from there. We had a few phone calls to figure out a rough plot, and then we started writing. I wrote the first chapter and sent it to Robin, who wrote one and sent it back to me, and so on and so forth. It was a lot of fun, and a really smooth and rewarding experience. The plot and the characters evolved as we wrote, but we both knew from the start that we wanted it to be really queer in an intergenerational way.

Robin: Over the last few years, I’ve had some wonderful opportunities to talk with teens about LGBTQ+ rights, identities and communities. At one event, a teen came up to me, visibly upset, and explained that they had not known anything about the queer history I had just shared. “It’s MY history,” they said. “It’s the history of MY community. And no one ever talks about this stuff.” It really brought it home to me that queer history isn’t usually passed on to kids by their parents and often isn’t taught in school either. In WYGTC, our teenage characters hear stories from people who came out forty years before them, and they also try to explain things to a much younger sibling–and in both cases, the learning flows in both directions. That very much fits with my experience: I have a huge amount of respect for the hard work done by the generations of queer people who came before me, and I have learned so much from the ideas and activism of today’s teens and kids as well.

Tom: I feel exactly the same way. It’s been such a joy and a privilege to meet and talk with LGBTQ teens since I first started writing YA, and I feel like I’ve learned so much from them. Queer people have always had to go out into the world to find family and community, which is what makes Pride such a central and important concept and event. We were actually supposed to launch this book last year, with appearances at Pride festivals and events around Canada and the U.S. and a launch at Toronto Pride, which has a very central role in the book. Because of Covid, we decided with our publisher to delay our launch by a year, and now we find ourselves in a similar situation. There’s light at the end of the tunnel, but we still can’t gather, and Pride festivals are being cancelled for the second year in a row. It’s a bit of a bummer, but we genuinely hope readers will find some of the joy and connection and community of Pride in our book!

Robin: Absolutely. I know a lot of people have felt very isolated during the pandemic, and I think this last year has been particularly hard for teens. They are at an age when many people want to be stepping out into wider worlds, having more freedom, meeting new people and exploring new places. Instead, most of them have seen their worlds shrink around them! And of course we all know that some LGBTQ+ teens are not able be out to their families and may not have a lot of support at home—so for many of them, not being able to gather with their friends and communities has been devastating. While books can’t replace other kinds of connection, they often do help many readers to feel less alone. Diverse queer representation is more important now than ever, and I am so grateful to everyone who is helping get these books into the hands of teen readers. One important part of Pride is how it makes LGBTQ+ identities and communities more visible, and Tom and I tried to do this within our novel. We wanted readers to feel seen, and we wanted to give them a glimpse of what Pride can be. We hope readers will enjoy going to Pride with Talia and Mark as much as Tom and I did! Happy Pride, everyone!

Tom: Happy Pride indeed! I know there’s a rainbow waiting for us all when these clouds lift, and I honestly can’t wait for the day when we can finally meet up in person and celebrate WYGTC the way we always meant to. It might not be the launch season we expected, but Pride is always worth celebrating.

Meet the authors

TOM RYAN is the award-winning author of six books for children and teens. His debut novel, Way To Go, was a nominee for the OLA White Pine Award, and made the 2013 ALA Rainbow List, as well as YALSA’s 2013 Quick Picks. Tom was born and raised in Inverness, Nova Scotia, and currently lives in Halifax with his husband Andrew and their awesome dog.

ROBIN STEVENSON is the author of more than twenty books for children and teens. Robin’s YA novel A Thousand Shades of Blue was a finalist for Canada’s highest literary honor, and her middle-grade novel Record Breaker won the Silver Birch Award, Canada’s largest reader’s choice award for young readers. Robin lives on the west coast of Canada with her partner and their son.

About When You Get the Chance

Follow cousins on a road trip to Pride as they dive into family secrets and friendships in this contemporary novel—perfect for fans of David Levithan and Becky Albertalli.
 
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.

ISBN-13: 9780762495009
Publisher: Running Press Book Publishers
Publication date: 05/04/2021
Age Range: 13 – 18 Years

Book Review: Nice Try, Jane Sinner by Lianne Oelke

Publisher’s description

It’s Kind of a Funny Story meets Daria in the darkly hilarious tale of a teen’s attempt to remake her public image and restore inner peace through reality TV. The only thing 17-year-old Jane Sinner hates more than failure is pity. After a personal crisis and her subsequent expulsion from high school, she’s going nowhere fast. Jane’s well-meaning parents push her to attend a high school completion program at the nearby Elbow River Community College, and she agrees, on one condition: she gets to move out.

Jane tackles her housing problem by signing up for House of Orange, a student-run reality show that is basically Big Brother, but for Elbow River Students. Living away from home, the chance to win a car (used, but whatever), and a campus full of people who don’t know what she did in high school… what more could she want? Okay, maybe a family that understands why she’d rather turn to Freud than Jesus to make sense of her life, but she’ll settle for fifteen minutes in the proverbial spotlight.

As House of Orange grows from a low-budget web series to a local TV show with fans and shoddy T-shirts, Jane finally has the chance to let her cynical, competitive nature thrive. She’ll use her growing fan base, and whatever Intro to Psychology can teach her, to prove to the world—or at least viewers of substandard TV—that she has what it takes to win.

 

Amanda’s thoughts

nice try jane“Sometimes I’m afraid that if I don’t feel amused, I won’t feel anything at all.”–Jane Sinner

This was completely enjoyable. It was my first read for winter break and I easily read it in one day because I couldn’t put it down. The narrative voice is EXCELLENT. As a totally character-driven reader, I was instantly hooked.

Jane, who recently attempted suicide while dealing with her depression and a loss of faith, is looking for a new start. Newly expelled from high school, she agrees to finishing up her credits at the local community college—if she can move out. She needs a break from her religious parents (who think returning to youth group and church will solve all her problems) and is hopeful that community college, where no one knows her or her past, will be different. But, it’s kind of hard to fly under the radar when you immediately begin appearing on a small-time reality show, which is exactly what Jane does with House of Orange. The student-run reality show airs on YouTube and will provide Jane with a cheap place to live. Jane, who thinks of herself as a “washed-up nihilist,” is snarky, savvy, and brimming with personality. She’s perfect for this show. She looks to establish authority early, determined to win through alliances, manipulation, surveillance, and a little psychology. She begins to grow close to Robbie Patel, her fellow contestant, hoping they can be the last two left standing, but things don’t always go as planned, especially for Jane. She came to college looking for a second chance, but can get a third? Maybe finishing high school online would’ve just been easier than all this.

 

In the midst of all this reality show filming and going to classes, Jane is still dealing with her mental illness. Or, really, she’s not dealing with it. She hasn’t been taking her meds and the only psychiatrist she’s been talking to is the one she invented in her head. She is sort of passionately indifferent to everything. She’s not necessarily suicidal anymore, but wouldn’t mind ceasing to exist. These thoughts—of indifference and of not minding to not exist—are so well captured throughout her story and feel SO familiar to those of us who have depression. There is a particular hypothetical exchange with her supervisor at work that was just fantastic. Jane imagines calling out not necessarily sick, but telling her supervisor she can’t come in because she can’t get out of bed, because there’s no reason to, because she can’t feel anything, because she’s dead inside, and she imagines this supervisor telling her to make a list of things she’s grateful for, drink some tea, listen to a favorite song, or look at cats on the internet—that should help her feel better. Sounds familiar, right?

 

This funny and smart book is not to be missed. Jane’s deadpan voice will draw readers in, and once all the reality show shenanigans start, they will be desperate to know what happens, especially once all the duplicity going on begins to be revealed. An excellent look at second (and third and fourth) chances. 

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9780544867857
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date: 01/09/2018

Book Review: Girl Mans Up by M-E Girard

Publisher’s description

girl mans upAll Pen wants is to be the kind of girl she’s always been. So why does everyone have a problem with it? They think the way she looks and acts means she’s trying to be a boy—that she should quit trying to be something she’s not. If she dresses like a girl, and does what her folks want, it will show respect. If she takes orders and does what her friend Colby wants, it will show her loyalty.

But respect and loyalty, Pen discovers, are empty words. Old-world parents, disintegrating friendships, and strong feelings for other girls drive Pen to see the truth—that in order to be who she truly wants to be, she’ll have to man up.

 

 

Amanda’s thoughts

It’s no secret I was in a big-time reading slump this summer. I probably started and abandoned 30 YA books. Nothing was grabbing my interest. This roughly coincided with an extreme bout of insomnia. Instead of burning through my TBR pile, which mostly consists of YA books I’d like to review or use for other professional projects, I read a bunch of grown-up books (something I rarely do). I let myself off the hook with books I thought I “should” read. I started to assume that even things I had been excited to read would end up getting tossed aside. Thankfully, I was wrong. I got far enough into my pile to start finding things that really held my attention. And with this book, I couldn’t put it down. Part of my problem this summer with what I was reading was nothing felt NEW. Something would only hold my interest if it felt “fresh,” whatever that even means. Unique. New. Untold. New angle. Whatever. And this book? Was fresh. Even now that I’m done with it, I’m not sure I can come up with anything to rightfully compare it to.

Sometimes I don’t think about what’s missing from YA until I read a book that includes whatever that thing is and think, Oh! Hello there! YA desperately needs you! In this case, the “you” is Pen, a butch Portuguese lesbian who’s committed to being herself even though most people around her don’t understand—and don’t want her to have—her identity. Pen has a small group of friends—though “friends” is not really the right word because 2/3 of her group are utter jerks. Her supposed best friend is Colby, a neighbor boy who accepts her for who she is and protects her… but who also is incredibly mean, abusive, manipulative, and threatening. Pen begins to pull away from him when she becomes friends with Blake (her soon-to-be girlfriend) and Olivia (one of Colby’s recently-cast-aside conquests). As far as Colby is concerned, Pen exists to help him get girls and to remain “loyal” to him. Her pursuit of other relationships, especially one of friendship with Colby’s ex, is a betrayal to him. I probably hate Colby more than I’ve hated any other character I’ve read this year. He’s an awful human being.

 

Thankfully, in addition to her new friends, Pen also has her brother in her corner. Johnny has always stood up for Pen, who has a long history of suffering slurs and being shamed for who she is. Her parents don’t understand her at all. They feel she isn’t respecting them, that she isn’t being a “good girl.” Her mother would like her to look like a “princess,” horrified at Pen dressing in Johnny’s old clothes and shaving her head. Pen talks about having always been a tomboy. She’s often mistaken for a boy. She repeatedly says she doesn’t want to be a boy—she’s not transgender—but she’s not entirely comfortable being thought of as a girl (or at least as a stereotypical girl). She never uses words like genderqueer or nonbinary, or butch, for that matter—that word is mine. Pen comments often on what words like “boy” or “girl” mean to her, in regards to how she thinks of herself. She also thinks, “But I don’t think of myself as being gay, because that word sounds like it belongs to some guy. Lesbian makes me think of some forty-year-old woman. And queer feels like it can mean anything, but like—am I queer because I like girls, or because I look the way I do? Maybe I don’t know enough words.” She also just really doesn’t get why people care so much and need to label her. As she tells Olivia, during a conversation about if Pen could be trans, “I don’t feel wrong inside myself. I don’t feel like I’m someone I shouldn’t be. Only other people make me feel like there’s something wrong with me.”

 

She puts up with a lot of garbage regarding her presentation, what she “should” be doing, what her role is as a good Portuguese daughter, and so on. Rarely does she get to go through her day without someone from the outside commenting on her appearance, or asking her if she wants to be a boy, or calling her some gross name. It bothers her, but not a ton—Pen knows who she is and is fairly comfortable in her own skin, some body issues aside. At one point, she thinks, “Everyone wants something different from me. It’s like one second, I should be a better dude. I should stop being such a girly douche, and I should just man up. Then, it’s the opposite: I’m too much of a guy, and it’s not right. I should be a girl, because that’s what I’m supposed to be.” There are expectations and rules and confusion everywhere—within her family, with her old “friends,” with Blake, at school, EVERYWHERE. And though all of that is mega cruddy, Pen has lots of good things going on. Her brother Johnny unfailingly supports and protects her. She gets together with Blake, who is bold and funny and into gaming like Pen is. And their relationship is awesome—full of sneaking out and sexual tension and honesty and new experiences. One of my favorite f/f romances in a long time. She forms a legit friendship with Olivia, eventually accompanying her to an abortion and always having her back whenever it seems like things are about to heat up with Colby (who—have I mentioned? is a total ass).

 

She eventually has a pretty big blowout with her parents, as well as an impressive physical fight with Colby. She learns how to stand up more for herself and for her friends. There is so much wonderful stuff happening in this book. Pen is a great, complex character who’s not easily labeled. So much of her story is about identity, but none of it is because she feels bad about who she is. While she faces lots of haters, she has lots of people in her life who accept, love, and support her. I’m not sure I’ve read a book with a Portuguese main character (which may say more about me as a reader than about YA books) and the fact that she’s Portuguese is an important part of the story (her relationship with her parents, their expectations, etc). This is an interesting, well-done, and nuanced look at gender, identity, expectations, and what it means to really have someone’s back. I won’t soon forget Pen. 

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher and Edelweiss

ISBN-13: 9780062404176

Publisher: HarperCollins

Publishers Publication date: 09/06/2016