Take risks: that was the most powerful message I took away from the New England SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators) regional conference, I’ve been home a week, and I’m still reflecting on moments and messages from the conference.
It’s a powerful feeling to be in a conference room full of people who all care about kids, from toddlers to teens. Because that’s why we write, isn’t it? I reveled in that. In this current moment in our history, there were over 700 people gathered together who want to make the world a better place for kids. With their words.
I took my own risks during the weekend. I gave two workshop presentations, filled with enthusiastic writers who want to write stories about LGBTQ+ kids and families.
I took part in a panel (my first!) in which we discussed the state of children’s publishing and LGBTQ+ books for kids. It was well received and many people told me it was a highlight of their conference!
Jane Yolen cheered on our efforts. Nova Ren Suma urged us to be our true selves. Melissa Sweet inspired us with her artistry. Mr. Schu illuminated the room with his enthusiasm for children and their books.
All of it lit a fire that warmed the room, that connected us, that dared us to keep going, to do better.
No matter what stage of my career I’m in, I find a home in the SCBWI community. The conference inspired me and emboldened me, and I know there were seeds planted during that conference that will indeed make the world a better place for our readers. I’m sure of that.
Next up: I’ll be presenting at the New Jersey SCBWI Conference in early June about writing about characters with LGBTQ parents, and writing about gay and questioning middle graders. More info here.
If you write middle grade fiction, it can be difficult to keep track of the ebbs and flows of a middle schooler’s daily life if you are not the parent or teacher of kids this age.
I interviewed a middle school guidance counselor (I’ll call her Ms. Counselor) for insights—some granular details ranging from school day schedules to substance use to gender, sexual orientation, and the beginnings of romance.
I am thrilled that my poem “We Know How to Do This” is included in the voices of dissent in the anthology If You Can Hear This: Poems in Protest of an American Inauguration. Published by Sibling Rivalry Press, the anthology is available through Amazon, or you can download a pdf of the anthology through the publisher’s website.
Searching for My Sidekick: I wrote that essay three years ago, as I remembered my childhood friend Wilfredo on his October 12 birthday. I’d recently learned that he had died, and I had an unsettled feeling, wondering about the circumstances of his death at age 34.
Many friends and readers responded to my essay, so I have to share this update. This past year I found Wilfredo’s sister, Jeannine. She is ten years younger than Wilfredo and I; she is an educator and a mom. She filled in a lot of missing pieces, about what a great brother Wilfredo was to her, about his career, his partner, his humor, his life in the Village, his battle with AIDS. We’ve shared stories and photographs.
I felt a sense of both sadness and peace, knowing how Wilfredo was loved, cherished, held by his family. Jeannine is now a friend and I’ve had the chance to talk on the phone to her and to their mother—the woman who pierced my ears in her Bronx kitchen so long ago! Oh, and Wilfredo has a handsome young basketball-playing nephew–named Will.
You can read my original essay published at she.com, Searching for My Sidekick, here.
Those are words LGBT advocate Cyd Zeigler and his husband exchange each day. Part affirmation and part words of gratitude, Zeigler’s words electrified the audience of student-athletes, coaches, advocates, and educators. We had gathered in Hyannis, MA for a summit to discuss the intersection of student athletes, LGBTQ diversity, and anti-bullying.
Zeigler had returned to his native Cape Cod to share his own story: teased for being gay years before he came to the realization himself, Zeigler didn’t come out until well after his high school years. A lifelong athlete, Zeigler recognized after he came out that there wasn’t much overlap between the realm of sports fans/athletes and the gay community. He set out to do something about it by co-founding OutSports.com. You can read more about OutSports here.
Student-athlete Braeden Lange also presented. Imagine a thirteen-year-old boy holding a conference room in thrall with his positive message and poised responses to questions. A lacrosse player, Braeden spoke about coming out as a sixth grader, how ostracized he felt, and how connecting to Andrew Goldstein, a well-known gay lacrosse athlete who is out, saved his life and gave him hope. Braeden shared that those connections are what keep young LGBTQ students from feelings of despair and isolation. This is one of the goals of the short documentary about him and Andrew, The Courage Game, that was shown at the conference. You can view the ESPN feature here. (13 min.) It’s amazing!
Zeigler also emphasized the power of connection and coming out: he often hears from athletes who are deeply fearful of being ridiculed and ostracized by their teams. Often it is the opposite that happens, Zeigler recounted: athletes feel the support of teammates and coaches, and the liberation of no longer harboring a secret.
As Braeden said, “living your truth…you don’t have to have that weight on your shoulders.”
State Representative Sarah Peake spoke about her own coming out process, her memories of being a student-athlete, and her appreciation for the positive messages of Zeigler and young Braeden.
Jonathan Peters, a senior at Sturgis Charter School who spearheaded the event, closed with words of gratitude and inspiration. He thanked Cyd Zeigler and Braeden for traveling to the Cape for the event that attracted participants from as far as Rhode Island. He spoke about his own process, saying that rather than using the term “coming out,” he prefers, “invite the world in.”
That’s exactly what happened in that conference room. The world was invited in. Student athletes, advocates, principals, coaches, educators, and allies came together. The power of connection was affirmed. And everyone left that room feeling a little braver, more connected, and optimistic about the intersection of LGBTQ diversity and sports.
After a summer off from blog writing and teaching, I have that fresh and exciting September feeling!
A few insights from my summer travels in Ireland:
The bookstores of Ireland were a feast, both the independent ones as well as the chains. There was a wide variety of titles from Irish authors as well as authors from the States and other countries.
I also loved seeing familiar titles in Irish. Kids in Ireland study the Irish language all the way through secondary school, so the language is alive and well.
I had tea with Irish author Sarah Moore Fitzgerald, author of two books I love: The Apple Tart of Hope (which I reviewed here) and Back to Blackbrick (with her third book coming soon). We had an energetic conversation about the book business in Ireland and the U.S., her books, time travel, and more.
I was intrigued to find that the U.S. classic by Mildred D. Taylor, Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, is an oft-used book in classrooms and in the leaving cert. exam in Ireland. It was in every bookstore I visited! I even found a dog-eared copy on my nephew’s bookshelf in Galway. I am amazed and delighted that such an iconic American book is so widely read by students in Ireland!
Ireland continues to delight and surprise in terms of its political climate and LGBT rights. If you haven’t seen the Noble Call speech on homophobia by “accidental activist” and drag queen Panti Bliss (aka Rory O’Neill), you’re in for a treat. I had the chance to visit Panti Bar, iconic LGBT hotspot and gathering place in Dublin. So much fun!
I also had wonderful conversations with a gay teacher and others about how much has changed in Ireland over the last decade (including last year’s successful landmark marriage referendum).
My trip to Ireland was food for the soul and the mind. I spent time with family, with my sister, cousins, and more. I made new friends, immersed myself in the book scene, and brushed away a tear as I promised myself I’d return–soon!