I just returned from a week in Los Angeles where I visited friends from my five-year stint there sixteen years ago. But the main purpose of the trip was to attend the annual summer conference of the Society of Children's Book Writers & Illustrators (SCBWI).
One of the highlights for me was a workshop entitled A Look at the LGBTQ Marketplace. With over 1,110 conference attendees, it was comforting to step into a room of forty gays, lesbians and queer-friendly people. More than comforting. Reaffirming. It's the largest group of gay people I've come across in the past two years. (Sad, eh?!) I could have just sat there for the hour and observed these confident, inquisitive people freely interacting without any self-censorship over topics or mannerisms.
Three people were listed as speakers in the program, yet the panel doubled that. (How wonderful that MORE people wanted to take part!) The speakers included an SCBWI exec, an activist, a publisher, an editor, a blogger and an illustrator. The message from all: bring authentic LGBTQ characters to middle grade and young adult readers. To paraphrase the editor: It's not a crowded field. The submission would stand out.
One of the handouts was a listing of Lambda Literary Award winners and nominees in the Children's/YA category, dating back to 1989. While MTV and "Glee" provide gay and lesbian content for adolescents, the publishing industry must continue to grow in introducing younger readers to relatable queer characters. (I did not stumble upon a book with a gay protagonist until I picked up E.M. Forster's Maurice when I was twenty-two...and that only occurred after I saw the Merchant-Ivory movie.
Today's teens have the Internet available to help them find gay and lesbian reading material. Moreover, they don't have to shiver with fear as I did in approaching the gay and lesbian section of a library or bookstore. They don't have to hide the cover of their book under an issue of Sports Illustrated. They have Kindle and other eBook devices, allowing them to access content without fear of being prematurely outed. This is especially important for teens in small towns and rural communities. I spent my adolescence in Southern Baptist-infested East Texas where the kindest thing I heard about gays was "love the sinner, hate the sin." Checking out or buying a novel with a major gay character was inconceivable (assuming the library/bookstore even carried a title or two).
The message from the panel and from keynotes by talented, successful YA authors Rachel Vail (Justin Case: School, Drool and Other Daily Disasters) and Carol Mackler (The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things; Vegan Virgin Valentine): create authentic, fully realized characters whose thoughts and actions are not filtered. In my first middle grade novel, Fouling Out (Orca Book Publishers, 2008), I touched on incessant gay putdowns in schools and had one of the main characters beat a friend he perceived to be gay. It was a start. But what I take away from the SCBWI conference gives me the confidence to proceed with a YA novel I'm developing with a gay teen as a strong, fully developed major character. Young LGBTQ readers have always sought relatable fiction. Now they have a better chance than ever in finding it.