Not All Teenagers Are White and Straight
A Guest Blog by David-Matthew Barnes
Reactions from readers and critics alike never cease to surprise me.
While I always welcome responses from anyone and everyone who reads my work, every so often I’m caught off guard by the unexpected: a book you think had no hope in hell sells like mad, a seemingly unlikeable character becomes the object of immense literary love, moments that don’t ring true in a book are the subject of a stream of emails. By far, the element from my novel Wonderland that is generating the most feedback and discussion (not all polite) has nothing to do with my protagonist, the plot, or the supernatural and paranormal themes I built into the book. Rather, four of the supporting characters seem to have stolen the spotlight and are receiving an outpouring of fondness, but are also receiving considerable scrutiny and scorn.
The majority of the young adult novels I write are for and about LGBTQ teenagers. Call it a personal mission, but young people who are coming to terms with their identity and sexuality need literature that contains a reflection of their experiences. Some have said what I and other YA authors are doing is necessary. Others have deemed it controversial and immoral. After reading Wonderland, a 13-year-old boy wrote to me to tell me how much he identified with the character of Topher, detailing the daily rounds of bullying he is also forced to endure. On the other hand, a mother Facebooked me to let me know I was corrupting the youth of America with every word I write. Yes, it’s true: you can’t please everyone. And a writer should never create with that objective in mind.
The main character in Wonderland is a straight girl. She’s fifteen, clever, strong willed, and dealing with the grief of losing her mother to cancer. When she moves to an island in South Carolina, she begins a new life that includes living with her two gay uncles (one is a relative, the other is his partner) who have been in a loving, committed relationship for well over a decade. Immediately, Destiny is befriended by Tasha – a self-proclaimed bisexual African-American girl who tells her, “I like comic books and I love anime. I’m not into hip hop. Or rap. Or Beyoncé. I’m a diehard vegan and I hate people who refuse to recycle. I don’t hang out at parties and I refuse to go to school dances. Guys avoid me like the plague, which is perfectly fine with me, since I’m bi and I think girls are way hotter than boys.” In other words, Tasha refuses to conform. Given her somewhat rebellious nature, perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised by the numerous messages and emails I receive in regards to Tasha and her commitment to staying true to herself. While I live for the words from young people who find a connection with Tasha and thank me for bringing her to the page, there are other messages I get that shame me for Tasha’s outspokenness – and for her skin color. Of course those words only added more fuel to my fire when I sit down at the computer to start writing a new novel.
Similarly, the character of Topher has stolen the hearts of many readers who feel empathy for his plight, while one reader referred to him as “a sissy who needed to toughen up.” Jennifer Lavoie, a fellow young adult author who also writes for a diverse audience, liked Topher so much she suggested he should have his own novel – and, because of the affinity for him that readers have shown, this may very well happen.
Perhaps the strongest reactions have been caused by my choice to have my young female protagonist be raised by two gay men. Believe it or not, this is still a foreign concept to many – even in 2013. While many of my readers who live in a similar family structure share with me how cool it is to read about a girl who has two fathers like they do, there are some who are quick to tell me they feel this creative choice is a poor one, suggesting I’m “propagating perversion.”
Of course, my main goal when writing is to tell the best story possible. Once the work is done and released to the world, you hope it connects with a reader – even if just one. When it does, then you know you’ve done the job you were supposed to.
Moving forward, I will continue to write novels that are populated with a wide array of characters I feel truly represent the world around me, including those who some say are less than or not as worthy. In truth, those are the characters that deserve to make it to the page the most.
Here’s a song that inspired the novel: Young Blood by The Naked and Famous.
Genre: Young Adult/
Publisher: Bold Strokes Books
Number of pages: 181
Word Count: 49,000
Nominated for the American Library Association’s 2014 Rainbow Books!
After her mother loses her battle to cancer, fifteen-year-old Destiny Moore moves from Chicago to Avalon Cove, a mysterious island in South Carolina. There, she starts a new life working part-time as a magician's assistant and living with her eccentric uncle Fred and his hottie husband, Clark.
Destiny is soon befriended by two outcasts, Tasha Gordon and Topher McGentry. She accepts their invitation to accompany them to a place called Wonderland, a former boarding house owned by the enigmatic Adrianna Marveaux.
It's there that Destiny meets and falls in love with Dominic, Tasha becomes enamored with Juliet, and Topher gives his heart to Pablo.
When Destiny uncovers the reason she and her friends have really been brought to Wonderland, she's faced with the most crucial choice of her life.
About the Author:
David-Matthew Barnes is a filmmaker, novelist, playwright, poet, and teacher.
He is the award-winning author of nine novels including the young adult novels Swimming to Chicago and Wonderland, which were nominated by the American Library Association for their annual Rainbow Books, a list of quality books with significant and authentic GLBTQ content for children and teens. His literary work has appeared in over one hundred publications including The Best Stage Scenes, The Comstock Review, and The Southeast Review. He was selected by Kent State University as the national winner of the Hart Crane Memorial Poetry Award. In addition, he's received the Carrie McCray Literary Award, the Slam Boston Award for Best Play, and earned double awards for poetry and playwriting in the World AIDS Day Writing Contest.
Barnes is also the author of over forty stage plays that have been performed in three languages in eight countries. He is a member of the Dramatists Guild of America and International Thriller Writers.
Barnes' first film was Frozen Stars, which he wrote and directed while still an undergrad in college. The coming-of-age independent film stars Lana Parrilla of ABC's Once Upon a Time.
Barnes earned a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing at Queens University of Charlotte in North Carolina. He has taught college courses in writing and the arts for the last decade.
He lives in the city of Denver where he serves as the CEO of Fairground CineFilms.
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