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Writing for Change
The Importance of Coming-of-Age and a Chat with Becky Albertalli
The rock is the size of an egg. It sails through the air and hits me. Momentarily stunned, I squint through the bright sunshine at the child who threw it. “[SLUR]!” he calls across the park as he catapults another. Then I laugh at the absurdity and force myself to walk, not run, away.
This is a core memory for me. I can still remember how people watched, that one bead of sweat that took its time rolling down my back, as my heartbeat blurred with fear while I made my escape. That’s how I’ve approached many things in life, trying to get away so no one would know I’m here.
I grew up in a small Alabama town where the Bible Belt is buckled too tightly for comfort. Elementary school opened the door to bullying with stolen glasses, hair pulled, ears twisted until they bleed. My self-esteem was shattered by a 2nd grade teacher who called me a sissy. I didn’t understand what the older kids meant when they called me slurs. Don’t even get me started on the religious stances I faced. Hormones paired with old copies of Men’s Health magazine finally cued me in on who I was. With this discovery, I hid from the world and quietly watched as a fellow classmate (and football player) came out as bisexual, seeing firsthand the hell that ensued in rural Alabama. So, farther into hiding I cowered.
When I think back on this time of my life, the memories blur much like my heartbeat in the park that day. It’s a supercut set to the remorseful laughter I forced at homophobic jokes by friends and peers while I tried to belong: taping photos of models in my locker, pretending to crush on girls out of my league while secretly in love with Dean on Gilmore Girls, escaping to college to figure myself out, having my first kiss in a room full of Roll Tide memorabilia, suffocating under the weight of guilt, trying to make my brain work right, sinking into a deep depression, wanting to die, planning my exit from existence. That’s when the sad reel of memories comes to a screeching halt.
I was 22 years old. It was 2009. My friends and I were in a Barnes & Noble. A book in the Young Adult section caught my eye.
The cover of The Vast Fields of Ordinary by Nick Burd was innocuous—a teen boy in bright plaid shirt lying in vibrant green grass—but there was something about it that made me walk over to the shelf. Maybe it was the slight tilt of the boy’s chin, or maybe the delicate way he held a hand against his chest. Either way, I grabbed the book and read the jacket. It promised a tale of dreamy-eyed misfits, boyfriends, coming out…. With sweaty palms, I immediately put it back on the shelf and walked away as though a giant arrow flashed above my head. While my friends were busy, I snuck back to the YA section and rushed to buy it. Later when I returned home, I began reading behind a locked door.
It was the moment I saw myself for the first time.
All those blurred memories began to make sense as I discovered myself on the pages. So at 22 years old, I came of age while reading a Young Adult novel. I felt seen, and my life didn’t feel like a burden. It was both life-changing and lifesaving. It’s a driving force to where I am today, writing YA books for queer teens to see themselves as I did.
Representation on the page allows readers to come of age and come into their own unique identity. But it’s more than that. Seeing themselves represented as a main character lets readers know they aren’t alone—that we’re here together. This message is of the utmost importance for those, much like my younger self, struggling to belong. When I first discovered that The Vast Fields of Ordinary is on banned book lists and being ripped out of school libraries due to anti-LGBTQ+ initiatives, my stomach lurched. If I hadn’t had access to that book, who knows if I’d be here today. What does that mean for teens who desperately need these type of books?
We have to find our voice and make them understand we’re here too. This is why I wrote my debut Last Boyfriends (publishing Summer 2024 from Delacorte Press / Penguin Random House) in which teens fight their school’s anti-LGBTQ+ initiatives. I wanted to show readers they deserve to fight back and don’t have to accept a fate forced upon them. Writing for hope in addition to writing for change is crucial, especially when readers are coming of age during turbulent times when they aren’t sure where they fit in. Given the political climate, it’s more important than ever to effect change and highlight activism. To show readers much like my younger self that they belong here.
One of my favorite authors is doing just that.
Becky Albertalli is a New York Times bestselling author of incredible Young Adult novels, all of which I highly recommend. She’s a professional at instilling hope and writing characters who do more than make readers feel seen—they leap off the page to hold your hand and lend a shoulder to cry on. From her 2015 groundbreaking debut Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda to her upcoming May 2023 release Imogen, Obviously (preorder details here), Becky’s words remind readers we’re here and give them permission to come of age on their own terms.
We sat down (virtually) and chatted about Young Adult literature and effecting change:
Thank you for reading (and watching) this issue of WE’RE HERE! Please know if you’re out there struggling to see yourself, I see you. You matter and deserve to be here.
We’re here together.
There are many resources available to help you be here, too. The Trevor Project offers crucial support for LGBTQ+ young people who are facing crisis and suicidal risk, which are available here, and a 24/7 service at 1-866-488-7386 or texting “START” to 678-678. If you’re nervous about looking at their website, there is an escape feature that will navigate quickly to the Google homepage — tapping three times on your phone screen or pressing the ESC key three times if you’re viewing via computer. Additionally, I’m teaching a writing masterclass in April 2023 to raise funds for The Trevor Project if you want to support their organization. More details can be found here.
The 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline is available 24/7 in the US by calling or texting 988. Counselors are standing by to listen, understand how your problems are affecting you, provide support, and connect you with resources if necessary. If you’re international, you can find resources from the International Association for Suicide Prevention by clicking here.