Tuesday, January 27, 2015

"A Touch on Lesbianism"

Last week my editor said she'd get to the draft of my next book (sequel to TWTSML) "next month," which means I really need to get off my duff and start the book after that. It's about Egypt, and now that I've finally named the main character I'm nearly ready to roll. On the other hand, I'm speaking in Chicago on Sunday (the American Library Association conference at McCormick Place, 1-2 pm on the Pop Talk Stage, if you're interested) and I need to figure out, and possibly even write down, what I'm going to say. I don't worry about speeches too much--I have a surprising ability to open my mouth and just keep talking--but for ALA one hopes for a touch of professionalism.

So I've been trying to decide what people want to know about TWTSML. I've come to realize that a few readers question the veracity of the horse stuff. Let me tell you, the horse stuff is damn straight. I could go on at length to tell you why, but I'll spare the details and only say that as a child I myself was perfectly willing to climb on any horse in the universe and take off galloping in open space--helmetless, in sneakers, with no knowledge, training, or supervision at all--I could tell you stories--so there's no reason to think my character Ada couldn't do it--anyhow, the horse stuff is straight.

It amuses me no end when people refer to it as a "horse book." To me, the horse stuff is almost incidental. I mean, sure, there's a horse--well, mostly a pony--but a real horse book would have about five times the horse details, and very little else.

One of the commentators on Goodreads, ironically named Becky, gave the book five stars but also said, "I wonder if there wasn't a touch on lesbianism that some parents would worry about?" The phrase "a touch on lesbianism" has amused me for days.

Susan, the primary adult character in the book, is gay. At the start of the book she's spent nearly three years mourning the death of her partner, a woman named Becky (hence the irony above). The fact of her homosexuality, while in my opinion not "touched upon" but perfectly obvious to any adult and most child readers, is never explicitly mentioned, because: 1) to do so would not be historically accurate; 2) the protagonist, from whose point-of-view the story is told, could not only care less but never even thinks about it at all. Ada is a child who knows very little about any sort of love. She's too busy fighting to survive to care if Susan and Becky got naked together years before she arrived on the scene.

The other thing that struck me about the Goodreads comment was "some parents would worry." Because I don't believe that children will worry. Not a whit.

Have you talked to teens and middle-schoolers recently? The fight for gay rights may not be over, but the war has been won. We're past the tipping point. Equality has prevailed; all that's left now is tamping out the brush fires and skirmishes. The other day when I had to drive my daughter to her high school, I was stopped at a crosswalk to let a herd of teenagers cross the road. They looked like teenagers the world over, slumping off to class. A few couples casually held hands. I realized that one of the couples was two boys. They were holding hands, walking together, completely calmly and unremarked in the crowd. This could not have happened when I was in high school. I don't know why not, but it couldn't have. It would have been unthinkable. But thirty years later, here in this very conservative part of the country, heart of the Bible belt, it wasn't. It wasn't even a Thing. It simply was.

Many of my friends in our small town have children roughly the same ages as my own. They've all grown up in one bunch; they aren't all friends, but they're interconnected by schooling or sports or holiday picnics or pony club. A few of them have come out as gay. One, who used to babysit my kids, is transgender. Here is the total reaction of the entire group of children to the news: oh. Or, yeah, I kinda guessed that. Moving on. Or--in the case of the transgender child--oh. So did he change names? Okay, cool.

No outrage. No disgust. No change of opinion about anyone's character, morals, or fitness as a friend. The person's sexuality registered at the level of hair color, sartorial taste, and ability to do calculus, treated as part of a sea of facts, no one more important than another.

I'm so pleased by this, I can't tell you.

So, yeah, there's a lesbian in my story. Her name is Susan. She's an Oxford graduate with a degree in maths, daughter of a clergyman, clinically depressed. She doesn't like horses, loves to sew, takes her tea with sugar, recognizes in Ada's prickly offensiveness a bottomless well of grief, and, in the end, throws her whole heart into fighting for that child. She's the hero of my story. Her sexuality serves a literary purpose: it ties her to Ada in that both of them have been expected to feel ashamed for something beyond their control. It means that Susan understands at a core level why Ada still longs for affection from her abusive mother. It's part, but only part, of what makes my story work.

The children won't mind it at all.


  1. I just posted on your author Facebook page a very initial review of "The War that Saved my Life" or rather the transformation your audio book has had on our mornings. I hope you see it. I will also post about it today to our store's FB page https://www.facebook.com/bookpeoplemoscow

  2. It's funny, I just saw a review of this wonderful book on Amazon, captioned "needless feminist and lesbian messaging." Oh dear "Woody Academy," some women actually don't want to be moms, and yes, there are lesbians among us, past, present and future. Love how Susan's relationship with Becky is presented as both a source of great joy, followed by deep grief, which we all know is what happens in this life. If we are lucky enough to love big, we will mourn big. I loved the fact that their relationship is placed matter of factly in the book; this is invaluable for children to help create a "proper map" of this world, as discussed by Walter Dean Myers. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/16/opinion/sunday/the-apartheid-of-childrens-literature.html And the kids will recognize it, accept it, continue on their journey, and will worry"not a whit," as you point out. I can't wait to book talk this book to my sixth graders!

  3. I am reading this book aloud to my 4-6 graders, and each day, when our reading time is over, they beg for more. They cannot get enough of Ada, and neither can I. I have found that my sweet children are far more disturbed by what humans do to each other in war to worry much about what they do when they're in love.

  4. We are reading this book and I missed some details one night when my husband was reading. "So who is the girl or woman who Miss Smith misses so much." "Its her girlfriend who died" said my husband. So he thought it was pretty clear and neither we nor our elementary school kids are concerned that you touched on lesbians. Thanks for a beautiful book with a touch of lesbian.


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