GLBT Youth- Hiding in Plain Sight

I was shaken recently when a friend relayed a story from a school in my liberal state of Massachusetts: an 8th grader received an anonymous note at school, to the effect of “Faggot- hope you kill yourself.”

lockers

In my writer world, I admit I get lulled into a sense of security– look at the praise heaped on books like Alex Gino’s GEORGE and Tim Federle’s BETTER NATE THAN EVER! Things are better. So much better!

Nate

In my adult world, as an out lesbian, I sometimes forget how hard it is to come out, to BE out, to risk safety and relationships to be who you are.

That story of the 8th grader reminded me. Not so fast. We have more work to do. More books to write. This is what drives me to write my current novel, Tomfoolery, about a boy who is trying to muster the courage to be who he is.

More vigilance. More supportive adults. Let’s keep at it, with organizations like GLSEN and Rainbow Boxes and The Trevor Project and Lee Wind’s blog. We need to keep being visible. We need to be there for our youth!

national coming out day

Back to the homeland: NYC

I’m still buzzing from a dynamic weekend in NYC. I saw family, covered a lot of ground (Bronx to the Battery!), and attended the Rutgers One-on-One Conference.

The Rutgers One-on-One conference is a different kind of conference: it feels very focused, very professional. Writers must submit their work and an essay in order to be accepted, and an equal number of industry professionals are invited. I was paired up with an energetic agent named Carrie Pestritto from Prospect Agency, and she had insightful things to say about my novel pages, my query letter, my list of next projects, and more. What a dynamo she is!

I'm here in this crowd, taking it all in at the Rutgers One-on-One.
I’m here in this crowd, taking it all in at the Rutgers One-on-One.

I met several other wonderful writers, editors and agents during the day, and I left feeling very directed, energized, and sure that I am on the right path with my current work, my middle-grade novel Tomfoolery.

With my daughter Rose, I also hit a few spots in NYC that I have been meaning to get to: the Poets House and the Irish Famine Memorial in Battery Park. For a college paper, Rose interviewed author and educator Zetta Elliott about the need for more diversity in children’s literature… and I got to pop in at the end and meet Zetta, too!

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With my cousin, I went up to the borough I was born in, the Bronx. We stopped by the church where her and my parents were married, St. Luke’s in the South Bronx (where I teach a poetry workshop once a year)– now home to a new generation of immigrants from Ghana. We marveled at the way that St. Luke’s has always welcomed and educated immigrants– children of Irish immigrants like our parents, children of immigrants from Africa and Latin America now. We also stopped by the new Bronx Brewery and sampled micro-brews… right in the South Bronx! Who knew!

Bronx Brewery in the South Bronx
Bronx Brewery in the South Bronx

Now I am back on quiet Cape Cod, ready to dive into my novel and polish it up. My heart and head were filled to the brim on my trip… now it’s time to settle in and get this novel ready to send!

Irish Famine Memorial in Battery Park
Irish Famine Memorial in Battery Park

Summer School on Gender

Learning about gender: that was one of my summer reading goals as a children’s writer, a teacher of teachers, and a creative writing instructor. As a lesbian writer and supporter of We Need Diverse Books, I am always on the look-out for new titles to recommend. Two books on my summer reading list have stayed with me.

Middle-grade novel GEORGE by Alex Gino brought me inside the mind and heart of a transgendered child– fourth grader George, who sees herself as Melissa. George yearns to play Charlotte in the school production of “Charlotte’s Web,” and she figures that will be a perfect vehicle for telling her mother and others that she really is a girl, despite being born in a boy’s body. GEORGE is chock full of heart and humor. Within the past few months, I’ve talked to teachers who are figuring out how to best respond to students who identify as transgendered… students ranging in age from preschool to middle school. Teachers, start with GEORGE. Feed your brain with information for allies, statistics and studies… but GEORGE will feed your heart.

Read more wonderful tips from author Alex Gino here: “How to Talk About George.” 

George

Young adult novel NONE OF THE ABOVE, by I. W. Gregorio, taught me so much about the experience of being intersex. Main character Kristin is diagnosed with an intersex condition, and she worries that it means she’s “not exactly a girl.” This book made me think so much about the “either/or” gender dichotomy so prevalent in our world, and how that traps so many kids who feel different or gender variant in some way. There is so much information conveyed gracefully in this book; while I was learning about the intersex experience, I fretted over Kristin’s worries about peer reactions, medical issues, implications for her romantic/sex life, and her future. For teachers wondering about the “I” in LGBTQIA– this is your book!

none of the above

Now I am back in the groove of juggling teaching, tutoring, writing… but I feel enriched and refreshed by my summer reading, and these two titles still resonate long after I read them under my beach umbrella.

beach umbrella

 

 

 

 

Rainbow Boxes- books for LGBTQ+ youth

Have you heard about Rainbow Boxes? It’s a way to get sorely needed books into the hands of LGBTQ+ youth.

rainbow boxes

Flashback to a scene in a middle school library about six years ago: the school counselor, who happens to be my wife, was showing me the section in the library where the books on sexuality could be found. Included in the collection were a few books referencing gay and lesbian youth. Except you could never find them, she said, because kids would covertly take the books, read them furtively in the far corners of the library, and stick them back into a random shelf when they were done.

So much has changed since then!

First, my wife wrote a grant and her school library now has a full collection of GLBTQ+ books. Plus, there is a middle school GSA (now called GSE, for Gender, Sexuality and Equality). There is more openness, inclusion, conversation– at the school level and in our country as a whole!

But that’s just one school, with some progressive leadership, on Cape Cod. There are so many schools that don’t have those resources. YA authors Amy Rose Capetta and Cori McCarthy are aiming to fill that need with their genius idea called Rainbow Boxes, which are boxes filled with books about GLBTQ+ characters. These books, funded by an Indiegogo campaign, will be sent to every state in the union (to one school and one shelter)– if the project reaches full funding! This project goes hand-in-hand with the We Need Diverse Books mission.

I’ve made my contribution. Will you kick in a few dollars, for kids who need to see themselves represented realistically and positively in a book? And check out their book list (on the Indiegogo page) for some fantastic summer reading.

rainbow boxes2

Follow Rainbow Boxes on Twitter at @RainbowBoxesYA.

Follow We Need Diverse Books on Twitter at @diversebooks.

 

When Stars Align: diversity, writing & pop culture

As a teacher on summer hiatus, I’m grabbing all of the free hours I can muster, running as far and fast as I can with my middle-grade novel-in-progress, Tomfoolery. And the other day, the stars aligned to tell me, “Yes! Keep going. You are moving in the right direction!”

You see, my main character Tom’s world is being rocked by taking part in an art class in beautiful Provincetown. Suddenly, as a gay/questioning, artsy kid, he doesn’t feel so alone– he has found his people.

 

Provincetown
Provincetown

I wrote a scene the other day in which the art teacher referenced ballerina Misty Copeland. In response to someone using the term “firebird,” the teacher shows an image of Copeland leaping mid-air in flaming red regalia. I wrote some dialog from the teacher:

“Misty Copeland,” Will pointed. “African American soloist  with the American Ballet Theater. Most famous role: Stravinsky’s Firebird.”

Misty Copeland
Misty Copeland

Finished with my writing time, I clicked on over to Facebook for some social interaction, and there on the headlines was Misty Copeland: newly-named as the first African American principal dancer with the American Ballet Theater. I immediately went back to my manuscript and made that change!

In the middle of my novel, where my gay/questioning character feels a bit at sea, a bit too “different,” I had introduced an example of another artist who has also had experiences of feeling at sea, and different. And then, there she was, like a Firebird, soaring. Inspiring my character, inspiring me.

The stars aligned, in a little way– but it was enough for me. To keep me going, when I feel a bit at sea in the writing process.

FIREBIRD, by Misty Copeland. Illustrated by Christopher Myers.
FIREBIRD, by Misty Copeland. Illustrated by Christopher Myers.

I’m going to keep soaring.

 

Up and Coming (Out): song for a budding lesbian

If we stare long enough, there are times when we swear we can see a budding flower actually bloom.

fun home logo 1

That’s the tender window of time portrayed in “Ring of Keys,” the signature song from the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical “Fun Home.”

Based on Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir of the same name, “Fun Home” allows us to witness the moment when young Alison, a tomboyish girl, sees a grown-up lesbian and has a transcendent moment of recognition.

sydney lucas.fun home

Middle-grade writers will want to study the clip of Sydney Lucas singing “Ring of Keys.” It captures an emergence, a turning point, a discovery, that is found in all rich middle-grade novels. That’s why I used the clip in a recent workshop I presented, Developing Gay and Questioning Characters in Middle Grade Fiction.

In an interview in Variety, composer Jeanine Tesori said, “This is a song… that is a turning moment, when you think you’re an alien and you hear someone else say, ‘Oh, me too.’ It’s a game changer for Alison. And that’s just Musical Theater 101.”

In her Tony acceptance speech, Tesori said the song “…is not a song of love, it’s a song of identification, because for girls, you have to see it to be it.”

You have to see it to be it.

Those are words to remember for anyone writing for children and teens (boys and girls!). Let’s continue to give our readers a multitude of moments, of discoveries, of ways of being–
so that they can fully inhabit their world and more clearly see their place in it.

keys

 

Tips for writing gay/questioning characters in Middle-Grade!

What a delight to contribute a guest post on Lee Wind’s dynamic blog I’m Here, I’m Queer, What the Hell Do I Read?

I have tips for middle grade writers who want to create multi-dimensional gay/questioning characters in their stories.

Lee is an incredible resource on matters related to literature for children and teens that touch on all aspects of the GLBTQI spectrum. If this is the first time you have visited his blog, prepare to be wowed.

Lee Wind's blog banner

I’m honored to contribute a piece to the richness that Lee offers– here’s to more gay/questioning characters in middle-grade fiction. Our young readers need them!!

Poetry Love in the South Bronx

I recently received a bundle of letters from the kids at St. Luke’s School in the South Bronx. I delivered a poetry presentation there in the spring, using Jacqueline Woodson‘s BROWN GIRL DREAMING and Kwame Alexander‘s THE CROSSOVER as mentor texts.

SLS picture

St. Luke’s is located in the Mott Haven section of the Bronx. “Mott Haven has changed a lot in the past couple of decades, but it is still full of good people who struggle mightily to overcome difficult economic challenges.” (St. Luke’s newsletter)

SLS pic gr.7

My mother, Kitty Cronin, attended St. Luke’s as a child, the daughter of immigrants who were trying to make their way in a new country. Many of the children I met at St. Luke’s are navigating that same path, decades later.

Kitty Cronin

Kitty Cronin, back in the 1940’s

The seventh and eighth graders I spoke to were vibrant, earnest, and they fell in love with the two texts, which I gave to their teacher as a gift.

writer hands b

Their interest in poetry and love of literature are apparent in their notes, which I will treasure.

SLS pic Kitty

I sent them a note in return– telling them I got to meet Kwame Alexander at a writing conference (New England SCBWI).

Kwame Alexander + M

I told Kwame about the kids who loved his book in the South Bronx, and he sent his greetings, which I passed on!

F 4 books

Can’t wait to go back to St. Luke’s next year!

#poetrylove

NESCBWI Conference– was that a dream?

It’s taken me a while to come down from the clouds after the NESCBWI Conference in Springfield a little over a week ago. The theme of diversity, “Think Outside the Crayon Box,” was delivered in multi-layered and invigorating ways all weekend long.

Being on the faculty of the conference was an honor and delight!

name tag

It was my first time presenting, and everything went so well. My wife Bonnie (a middle school guidance counselor) and I presented “Developing Gay & Questioning Characters for Middle-Grade Fiction.” The workshop went smoothly, our participants asked great questions, and we received wonderful feedback. We have even been approached about offering the workshop in other locations! To be continued…

M&B NESCBWI

The keynotes were inspiring and affirming. Jo Knowles spoke about the importance of diversity in middle grade in a powerful and personal speech. Dan Santat had me thinking about the sources of  inspiration, and considering ways to stretch myself creatively. Kwame Alexander held an entire banquet room in thrall as he read from his picture book Acoustic Rooster— something I told my teachers in training about. Talk about holding the attention of your audience!

Kwame A. speaking

I used The Crossover in my Children’s Lit course this semester, and in a poetry presentation I gave in February to St. Luke’s School in the South Bronx. For those reasons and more, meeting Kwame Alexander ever so briefly, and basking in his mega-watt  interpersonal energy, was a total delight!

Kwame Alexander + M

Finally, the workshop on giving effective school presentations, offered by Marcia Wells and Kwame Alexander, was phenomenal. It was chock full of great examples, strategies, facts, and humor– practical and inspiring. And Marvin Terban, a towering presence in SCBWI, had us rolling in the aisles at his keynote on humor in children’s books.

I floated home, full of inspiration, the warmth of fellowship with other writers, and lots of notes and resources to keep me going. Congratulations to the organizers for a wonderful conference!

scbwi.folder

Gay and Questioning Characters in Middle Grade– planning our presentation!

The New England SCBWI* conference is coming in April, and I’ll be presenting, along with my wife, middle school guidance counselor extraordinaire Bonnie Jackman. Here is the description of our presentation:

Developing a Gay or Questioning Character in the Middle-Grade Context

Research indicates that kids who grow up to be gay may have an inkling by age 10 or earlier, but not self-identify until ages 14-16; there is a rich “middle” territory here for middle-grade writers. Some of our characters may indeed grow up and identify as gay, but what does that look like at the middle-grade level? How can we create space in our stories for those characters to be who they are (and for our readers to recognize themselves), before they are ready for romantic connections? We will consider family dynamics, school setting, and social relationships. Writer Mary E. Cronin and middle-school guidance counselor Bonnie Jackman will share age-appropriate character development tools, current research, and timely anecdotes to deepen your understanding of middle-graders, gender identity, and the characters in your work in progress.

**

The conference takes place in Springfield, MA (April 24-26, 2015), and registration opens February 4, 2015—more details here.

Bonnie Jackman and  Mary  E. Cronin, co-presenters
Bonnie Jackman and
Mary E. Cronin, co-presenters

Bonnie and I are using our snow day today (thanks, Big Blizzard!) to map out our presentation. What middle-grade books do you suggest for the reading list we’ll be giving to participants?

*Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators