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Queer Joy, Pain, and the Other Side of Silence, a guest post by Steven Salvatore

Pen tips scratching the surface of notebook paper; fingers clacking against keyboards; ideas bursting into eager young minds like popping corn, unleashing sighs of relief as the clock ticks: these are the sounds of silence that fill a creative writing classroom.

I wasn’t planning on beginning a new book during a standard freewrite at the start of a creative writing class I taught Spring of 2018. But my students had a way of taking my prompts and creating magic, and that day, I couldn’t resist joining in on the exercise.

One image flashed in my mind: a red-haired teen standing in front of their high school locker staring at a pair of destroyed ruby red sequin heels.

Immediately the scene shifted; I saw this same teen in their therapist’s office. It was raining as they stared out the window, telling their therapist that the shoes had been destroyed, likely by a bully who had it out for them, and that they needed the heels as a good luck charm to audition for the school musical.

I didn’t know the plot yet, but in that twenty minutes freewrite, Carey Parker, the central character of CAN’T TAKE THAT AWAY, was born. Not yet by name, but in spirit. They were a voice in the back of my mind for a long time but until that day I wasn’t quite able to see them clearly. This scene still exists, making it past querying, submissions, editorial acquisitions, and multiple rounds of developmental edits once it sold to Bloomsbury YA. With some key differences, as readers will soon spot. That day in my classroom, whether my students at the time knew it or not, was the beginning of something life-changing for me. It was the beginning of me admitting to myself that I was genderqueer.

I wrote the first full draft CAN’T TAKE THAT AWAY, which was originally titled DIVA and sold under the title THE OTHER SIDE OF SILENCE, in forty-six days that summer. When I finished, I knew it would be the book that would lead to me realizing my dream of becoming a published author. How? Because it was the first time I was completely honest in my writing.

The best writing advice I’ve ever received was from a fellow writer who once told me that if something in a draft isn’t working, it’s because somewhere along the way in the writing process, you told a lie. Maybe it was a forced plot point, or uncharacteristic move by a character. Or maybe it was something you feared writing, so you avoided it entirely. I never knew how afraid I’d been.

My life has been weighed down by fear.

I’ve been writing since I was six years old when, after becoming obsessed with animated Disney films like Aladdin and The Lion King, I wrote what was essentially fan fiction of those stories. I created stories in my head for years but never thought I could turn writing into a career until I got to Ithaca College. I majored in writing and latched onto my professors, telling more than one of them that I wanted to become them one day. Thankfully, they encouraged me, and I did become a composition professor.

Years were spent honing my craft. I wrote my first novel as a sophomore in college at the age of twenty. That manuscript will never see the light of day, but the main character in that story will finally get a chance to shine with my sophomore novel AND THEY LIVED… publishes from Bloomsbury YA in March of 2022 (who, originally, was a hopelessly and delusionally straight character.)

I wrote six more manuscripts and queried more than three hundred agents over a nine-year period. Those manuscripts were all about characters who couldn’t quite confront their own queerness much the same way I couldn’t confront my own queerness: I was gay. I knew that. I came out as gay at twenty-three. But there was more to me that I couldn’t grapple with. And it took me years of enduring depression, suicidal ideations, and therapy to untangle that and accept all facets of my genderqueer identity.

In 2018, I signed with my first agent for a different manuscript that never sold and has since been shelved and stripped for parts. We eventually parted ways because we weren’t a good match. Meanwhile, I was writing and revising what would become CAN’T TAKE THAT AWAY as a way to work through my genderqueer identity. I was finally able to tell the truth. I was finally able to pierce through the silence, all the things I was afraid to say, and shout them for the world to see through Carey Parker’s voice. As Carey found their voice, I found mine. My current agent, Jessica Regel of Helm Literary, found Carey in the slush pile of her inbox and gave both of us a chance. She believed in my truth, and it sold two weeks after going on submission.

Still, there was this voice in the back of my head telling me that I wasn’t genderqueer enough. That I would never be enough. That readers would scoff at it, or worse, hate me and Carey for who we are or because this story isn’t their story or because it isn’t a shiny bucket of rainbows, despite all the joy on the page. After it sold, I was told by an LGBTQ+ author that nobody wanted to read anything that wasn’t utopic queer joy, that “pain has no place on the page.”

So I asked myself: Is this joyful enough? Realistic enough? Too realistic? Too painful? Am I letting queer readers down somehow? Can joy and pain coexist?

Over the last five or six years there has been an explosion of new queer writers, and I’ve seen a shift in discourse about what queer books “need” to accomplish to satisfy readers. The discourse mainly centers around the shift from the “solely queer pain” narrative to the “necessary queer joy” narrative, and it’s inspiring to see more and more joy-filled queer books by #OwnVoices authors get published. There also exists in these conversations a didactic line of thought that posits new queer books as needing to only be about Queer Joy, and that queer books exist within a limiting binary of either Queer Pain or Queer Joy. Queer trauma should never be a selling point for queer narratives, and if pain is written as shock value or a central plot point for a straight character, it’s incredibly harmful. But not all pain on the page is harmful.

Without pain, how do we understand joy? Or triumph? How do we measure love? Maybe that’s a little “chicken or egg,” but as far as I know, true utopias don’t exist even in the fantasy genre, and the world I live in is one where LGBTQ+ persons continue to face discrimination, whether in small ways like microaggressions from “well-meaning” people (many of whom are relatives or friends) or actual physical pain.

With Can’t Take That Away, I wanted to highlight, emphasize, and showcase joy and all the ways in which Carey discovers their voice and shines in the spotlight they deserve. I wanted to depict supportive family and friends and underscore the love—self-love and otherwise—that surrounds Carey. How Carey got there matters.

There is so much queer joy in Can’t Take That Away. There are also moments of real pain. I detail my own struggles in the Author’s Note at the end of my book, and unfortunately these are persistent truths for too many queer youth. As an openly out college professor and a volunteer at my local LGBTQ+ center, I constantly hear hardships from queer youth. The reality is that, for queer folks, microaggressions are a near daily occurrence. Bullying is a major problem. Physical and emotional pain is unavoidable, regardless of who you are. To ignore reality would be disingenuous and do a disservice to myself, Carey, and queer youth.

The point is that there is life on the other side of pain.

And as a gay, genderqueer person, I shouldn’t have to remain silent or write around that. Nor should I have to fear the truth in my writing anymore. I also try to remember that one story does not represent all stories. My genderqueer experience is not the only one. But it is mine, and there’s power in that realization. Carey taught me that.

I wrote this book to heal myself and process my pain. I wrote this book for the queer teens who desperately need Carey’s story. Had I had a book like Can’t Take That Away in high school, I might have found inner peace—and my own joy—much, much sooner.

Can’t Take That Away no longer belongs to me, but it did for a short time. I’m grateful Carey came to me when they were ready.

I hope you find the joy.

Meet the author

Steven Salvatore is a gay, genderqueer author, educator, Mariah Carey lamb, and Star Wars fanatic who spends most days daydreaming and making up stories. They have an MFA in Creative Writing from The New School. They were formerly a full-time Assistant Professor of Composition and Director of the Writing Center at The College of New Rochelle. After the college permanently closed in 2019, they took a step back from teaching full-time to focus on their writing, though they do still teach at a few colleges while running a writing workshop at The LOFT, an LGBT resource center in White Plains, NY. Steven currently lives in Peekskill, NY, with their amazingly patient husband, whose name is also Steve. stevensalvatore.com • @StevenSSWrites

About Can’t Take That Away

An empowering and emotional debut about a genderqueer teen who finds the courage to stand up and speak out for equality when they are discriminated against by their high school administration.

Carey Parker dreams of being a diva, and bringing the house down with song. They can hit every note of all the top pop and Broadway hits. But despite their talent, emotional scars from an incident with a homophobic classmate and their grandmother’s spiraling dementia make it harder and harder for Carey to find their voice. 

Then Carey meets Cris, a singer/guitarist who makes Carey feel seen for the first time in their life. With the rush of a promising new romantic relationship, Carey finds the confidence to audition for the role of Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West, in the school musical, setting off a chain reaction of prejudice by Carey’s tormentor and others in the school. It’s up to Carey, Cris, and their friends to defend their rights—and they refuse to be silenced. 

Told in alternating chapters with identifying pronouns, debut author Steven Salvatore’s Can’t Take That Away conducts a powerful, uplifting anthem, a swoony romance, and an affirmation of self-identity that will ignite the activist in all of us.

ISBN-13: 9781547605309
Publisher: Bloomsbury USA
Publication date: 03/09/2021
Pages: 384
Age Range: 12 – 17 Years

Book Review: Can’t Take That Away by Steven Salvatore

Publisher’s description

An empowering and emotional debut about a genderqueer teen who finds the courage to stand up and speak out for equality when they are discriminated against by their high school administration.

Carey Parker dreams of being a diva, and bringing the house down with song. They can hit every note of all the top pop and Broadway hits. But despite their talent, emotional scars from an incident with a homophobic classmate and their grandmother’s spiraling dementia make it harder and harder for Carey to find their voice. 

Then Carey meets Cris, a singer/guitarist who makes Carey feel seen for the first time in their life. With the rush of a promising new romantic relationship, Carey finds the confidence to audition for the role of Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West, in the school musical, setting off a chain reaction of prejudice by Carey’s tormentor and others in the school. It’s up to Carey, Cris, and their friends to defend their rights—and they refuse to be silenced. 

Told in alternating chapters with identifying pronouns, debut author Steven Salvatore’s Can’t Take That Away conducts a powerful, uplifting anthem, a swoony romance, and an affirmation of self-identity that will ignite the activist in all of us.

Amanda’s thoughts

Here’s what’s beautiful about this book: Carey is surrounded by so much love. If only all teens could have the amount of love, support, and complete acceptance Carey receives. This is such a lovely look at what parent-child relationships can be, what deep and loving friendship can look like, what teachers can mean to teens, and so much more.

The publisher’s summary up there hits all the broad strokes of the story. Mariah Carey-obsessed Carey, who is genderqueer, is a wonderful singer and decides to try out for the school musical, Wicked. They try out for and are cast as Elphaba. New friend Phoebe (who is Black and pansexual) is cast as Glinda and Carey’s new maybe-boyfriend Cris (who is Filipino, Greek, and bisexual) is cast as Fiyero. With new friendships cropping up, old friendships on their way to being repaired, the musical, and a cute boy in their life, it seems like things are starting to go well for Carey, who is also dealing with frequent panic attacks and their beloved Grams ailing from Alzheimer’s.

But it’s not all great. Carey is being bullied and blackmailed by a classmate as well as discriminated against and verbally attacked by a teacher who is out to ruin Carey’s role in the musical (readers may want to know going in that there’s suicidal ideation, lots of misgendering, and vicious bullying). Then things with Cris get really complicated. And the bullying and discrimination Carey is facing at school grow beyond anything they can try to ignore. Before long, Carey is at the center of a movement to increase the safety and support of queer kids at their school, eventually leading a protest, starting petitions, addressing the school board, and gaining national attention.

Through it all, Carey is surrounded by love and support. They have a great therapist, a fantastic mother who is 100% there to support and love her kid, and far more friends than they initially feel like are in their corner. Throughout the story, Carey needs to learn to be brave, feel safe, and trust others (you know—just really tiny and simple things—ha!) in order to be seen as they truly are. Carey comes to really understand that the reality of people is that they’re complicated and messy, but those that are there for you will be there for you no matter what. This book will leave readers with the powerful and affirming message that you are worthy, loved, perfect, important, and deserve to be seen as yourself, whatever that may look like. And while many upsetting and completely unacceptable things happen to Carey over the course of the book, Salvatore makes sure Carey always sees the love and support, ultimately leading Carey to a much happier place than they start the story in. Carey’s road is not easy—in fact, it’s very painful to read about—but the crying I mentioned up there in my tweet? It wasn’t for the all-too-realistic trauma Carey goes through—it was for the beautiful expressions of love, support, solidarity, and acceptance. All teens should be so lucky.

Review copy (ARC) courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9781547605309
Publisher: Bloomsbury USA
Publication date: 03/09/2021
Age Range: 12 – 17 Years

Book Review: Like Water by Rebecca Podos

Publisher’s description

ra6Like Water is an unforgettable story of two girls navigating the unknowable waters of identity, millennial anxiety, and first love, from the acclaimed author of The Mystery of Hollow Places.

In Savannah Espinoza’s small New Mexico hometown, kids either flee after graduation or they’re trapped there forever. Vanni never planned to get stuck—but that was before her father was diagnosed with Huntington’s disease, leaving her and her mother to care for him. Now she doesn’t have much of a plan at all: living at home, working as a performing mermaid at a second-rate water park, distracting herself with one boy after another.

That changes the day she meets Leigh. Disillusioned with small-town life and looking for something greater, Leigh is not a “nice girl.” She is unlike anyone Vanni has met, and a friend when Vanni desperately needs one. Soon enough, Leigh is much more than a friend. But caring about another person threatens the walls Vanni has carefully constructed to protect herself and brings up the big questions she’s hidden from for so long.

 

Amanda’s thoughts

like waterMaybe it’s just because I’ve been churning out a ton of book reviews these days in an attempt to get ahead before school starts again (today’s date: August 16. Hi, yes, I’m a totally type A human who NEEDS planning and control to not lose her mind. We’ve met, right?), but I feel like it’s another good time to say this: Generally speaking, I only review books I like. I DNF books like a mofo—something a younger version of myself would never think I’d do, but now, I don’t have the time to read things that don’t connect. It’s not worth my time to write a review that is basically a rambling version of the word “meh” or expound upon what I dislike unless I feel like I’m addressing important and damaging things a book may be doing. That’s the long way of saying that I review what I like. So if it feels like nearly all of my reviews are gushingly positive, that’s because they are. I can’t read and write about everything, much as I’d like to, so my energy goes to boosting books that definitely need to be in teenagers’ hands. 

 

Savannah Espinoza, who goes by Vanni, lives in El Trampero, New Mexico, though the locals refer to it as La Trampa, or the trap. No one really leaves their tiny town, but Vanni has high hopes for going to college in California or on the east coast. Or rather, Vanni had high hopes—life changed after her father’s Huntington’s diagnosis. Now, she figures she’ll stay in town, help out at her family’s restaurant, help care for her father, and hopefully save up some money to eventually go to college. It’s a rough time in her life, and not just because of her father’s illness. Vanni’s no longer friends with her two closest friends, she feels completely adrift with what to be doing this summer after graduation, and she can’t stop analyzing every little cramp or twitch her body has, because there’s a 50% chance that she, too, could have Huntington’s. She hooks up with Jake, a waiter at her family’s restaurant, but it’s just as empty and meaningless as all of her previous hookups. When she meets recent Boston transplant Leigh Clemente, everything changes. The two start hanging out and when they eventually, and inevitably, kiss, Vanni tries to tell herself it’s no big deal—she’s kissed tons of people before, so who cares if she just kissed a girl? But, of course, it is a big deal—not that she’s kissing a girl (she doesn’t have any kind of crisis about this), but that she’s legitimately falling for someone in a way she never has before. Though they both have their defenses up and don’t always cope with their feelings in the best ways, their relationship is great, full of passion and laughter and a genuine enjoyment of each other’s company. But it’s hard to make something last when one person is resigned to a future they didn’t choose and the other has one foot out the door already, ready to chase down the life she’d rather have. 

 

It would be easy for this plot to feel overfull with all of the rather large things going on in both Leigh and Vanni’s lives. But Podos pulls them all together neatly, giving her characters room to make mistakes and figure themselves out in ways that feel realistic and hopeful. Vanni and Leigh discuss their identities, with Vanni being easily comfortable in realizing she’s bisexual and Leigh eventually revealing she’s genderqueer. Podos makes it clear, through her characters’ actions and thoughts, that they are more than their bodies, their mistakes, their fears, or their compromises. Beautiful and raw, this story shines thanks to memorable characters, authentic dialogue, and enough humor to keep the story, full of serious subjects, from feeling too sad. This story about futures, identities, and being an active participant in your own life will fly off the shelves. An easy recommendation.

 

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher and Edelweiss

ISBN-13: 9780062373373

Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers

Publication date: 10/17/2017