There’s a trope about coming out in LGBTQ+ young adult fiction. And there’s another trope about falling in love. Pick up a queer story with a teen protagonist, and I would understand if you expected certain things. Kissing. Maybe sex, depending on your idea of what makes something a YA book versus a book for adults. A story that centers on the big gay reveal to Mom/Dad/Coach.
I get where that came from. The whole concept of queer young adult stories told in a positive light, that genre being a thing at all, that is still fresh and wonderful. Queer literature in general is relatively young as a category, and it’s no surprise that the first few generations of stories had a lot to do with falling in love and coming out. After all, that’s what makes us different. It’s who we are and who we love. And the dangers that can strike when we tell the world the good news. That makes for pretty huge drama, and no matter how enlightened your family or your hometown, the day you come out is always going to be a pretty huge day.
But some of the best queer YA books, lately, have not been love stories. They haven’t even been coming out stories. The audience is ready for that now; they have been for some time. There’s no closet factor in these non-romances, no miserable gay teens who can’t show themselves in all their splendor for fear of violence or being misunderstood by the people they have to live with. It’s just…kids. Kids who already came out before the book started. Some of them have sweethearts. Some are single. Some are fixated on that special diving champion or choir girl, or just on losing their virginity, but some are fixated on their mother’s immigration status or the app they’re creating or any one of a million different real-life things.
In other words, they’re real kids.
In Will Grayson Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan, the central relationship is between two friends, a gay boy and a straight boy. There’s a mention of sex, but not between those two. The story explores the range of complex emotion in a teenage best-friendship. That’s what it’s about. And I love it for that. Andrew Demcak’s beautiful Ghost Songsis similar: the main character is gay, but that’s a given. His story is about bullying, and a deep friendship, and an alcoholic parent, and just plain growing up as a sensitive kid. It’s not a romance. It doesn’t need to be.
I knew when I started writing The Songbird Thief that there was no love story. Or -- there was, but not a romantic one. It’s the story of Lee, a fifteen-year-old girl from rural Marin County who runs away to San Francisco to be near her grownup friend, Sonja. Lee has a crush on Sonja, but it’s not reciprocal. Sonja is like a mother to Lee. Girls Lee’s age come along who could be love interests, and there’s a flirtatious moment or two, but Lee is busy looking for a job and trying to find her real father. Lee’s life is complicated by magic, and her singing voice makes people do things like unconsciously walk into traffic. She’s distracted. She’s a girl who happens to be gay, whose story has nothing to do with kissing.
Being different can be dangerous, and discovery can be deadly.
High school freshman James Kerr is finding out he’s not quite like his classmates. Around the time he realizes he’s attracted to his best friend, Paul Schmitz, James starts channeling a dead writer’s poetry and also discovers he has an ability to manipulate energy-a super power. Before James can figure out why this is happening to him, tragedy strikes in the form of Paul’s abusive father, and James is sent to a government-run school, The Paragon Academy, which specializes in juvenile paranormal research. There, he meets Lumen, the daughter of a famous Korean actress. Lumen’s psychic ability might be the key to helping James understand both his poems and his own power.
I was in a really bad mood when I picked up a copy of A Little Bit Langston, having had an especially horrendous week of insomnia. But I picked it up anyway, really just out of habit, hoping to kill some time before the end of the day. Before I knew it, I had finished half the book. If you can overcome one of my insomnia induced zombie states, you are an especially engaging author.
A Little Bit Langston is not at all what I expected. It follows a young teen, James Kerr, as he tries to come to terms with a highly strange occurrence. He is assigned to write a poem for class, and unwittingly, he writes a beautiful poem that just happens to resemble the work of the famous poet, Langston Hughes. The mystery is instantly gripping, as James tries to figure out what exactly happened. Is he somehow channeling a long dead, poet? His teacher naturally thinks he plagiarized it, and poor James doesn’t know what to do. His quirky mother finally intervenes and decides to enroll him in a unique school, Paragon Academy, where they work with “special” kids. And that’s where the strangeness intensifies. Now cut off from his mother and friends, James discovers that this school is not what it professes to be, and he must learn to tap his strange power, as well as rely upon some equally gifted teens, to solve the institution’s very odd secret.
Demcak’s strength as a writer comes through in the eminently likable characters he creates. James himself is a beautiful, if confused soul. And I loved his interactions with his new friend, Lumen, a Korean girl already familiar with much of Paragon Academy’s strange secret, due to her own unique ability. And finally James has a love interest in his best friend Paul, who himself gets caught up in Paragon’s bizarre past.
This was a great, quick read, and lots of fun — exactly what I needed during a long hot summer day and a week of insomnia. I enjoyed following James as he first discovers his strange powers, and then learns their true origins. X-files fans will especially enjoy the ride. Those steeped in UFO lore will get a bit more out of this, as Demcak makes references to famous cases throughout. And if nothing else, the book gives you the most poetic euphemism for “gay” that I’ve ever seen, a phrase captured in the book’s beautiful title. I know the author has already penned a sequel to A Little Bit Langston, called Alpha Wave. I’ll definitely be on the lookout for it to be published.
Enter now (below) to win a signed copy of my Teen GLBTQ Sci Fi novel, A Little Bit Langston.
Kirkus Reviews raved: "This book really ... takes its place in the marginalized-will-lead-us genre,
as popularized by The Matrix and the X-Men franchises."
Being different is a challenge, especially for James Kerr.
He’s no average teenager. James begins to channel a dead writer’s poetry and then discovers he has the power to manipulate electricity. At the same time, romantic feelings for his best friend, Paul Schmitz, make him realize he’s gay. But he has little time to explore the drastic changes in his life before heartbreak strikes at the hands of Paul’s violent father. James is sent to The Paragon Academy, an institute specializing in juvenile paranormal research. There he meets Lumen Kim, the mysterious daughter of a famous Korean actress. Lumen’s psychic ability might just be the thing that helps James unlock the secrets of both his poems and the origins of his supernatural talents.
This review is from: A Little Bit Langston (Kindle Edition)
A Little Bit Langston starts off in your head. No, YOUR head, the head of an LA teenager who has a learning disability and a demanding, self-absorbed mother and a bubbling volcano of feelings for his best friend. Or at least the book starts in the head of someone you love. James, the main character, is so engaging, so immediately present on the page, that I was willing to follow him right down the rabbit hole, no questions asked.
And it is quite a warren down there. I don’t want to spoil too much, but let’s just say if you’re a fan of alien technology, secret government agencies, and gifted young people who can probably kill you with their brains, you won’t be disappointed. Not to mention if you’re a fan of Langston Hughes, the Langston of the title. The author doesn’t use any excerpts of Hughes’ actual work; instead he paraphrases, or in some instances inserts original lines that are clearly intended to remind the reader of famous Hughes poems. But the spirit of the poet is there--in the multifaceted identities of the main characters, in the brave actions of young men who get beaten for being gay, in the expansively hopeful feeling of the story as a whole.
The plot fits into the classic “chosen one” style of tale. James appears at first to have trouble reading at school, but a bizarre talent quickly emerges when he begins to channel the writing of long-dead poet Montgomery Langston (Langston Hughes). At the same time, his electricity-related superpower shows itself. After a period of being persecuted at school, and some harrowing real-world complications involving his best friend/love interest, Paul, James finds himself at a special academy for gifted teens like himself. Which is when the alien + conspiracy questions really kick into gear. I’m glad the author set us up for a sequel, because the busy, scheme-filled underworld he created is way too big for just one book.
I love a YA story where the superpowers appear at adolescence, where they overwhelm the character and then through the arc of the story he masters them. That’s what growing up feels like: channeling electricity with no control, destroying all the lightbulbs in the house, knowing for a fact that no one can understand your side of the story. Even though James’ demanding mother claims she always knew he was special, we see James changing into his true self on the page, as his feelings for Paul blossom and he discovers who he really is. In this case that’s pretty literal; James gets a big surprise when he finds out who his father is. Good YA science fiction stuff.
The love story isn’t center stage here, and that’s a big strength of the book. There’s plenty already going on in this story, and not all YA stories or coming-out stories have to be love stories. Another significant strength is Demcak’s skillful, barely-there handling of race and ethnicity. Way too much science fiction is, historically, way too white. That’s started to shift in recent years, but slowly. In A Little Bit Langston, the love interest, Paul, is Filipino, while James is white. Hardly anything is ever said about that difference between them, but Paul never has that insert-diversity-here feeling as a character. He’s three-dimensional, with a complex family and history of his own, and his journey toward loving James feels very earned. When we meet Lumen, another student at the special school, James expresses curiosity about her Korean heritage, but when the two turn out to be half-siblings, no one misses a beat, because these characters live so easily in a multicultural world.
Don’t miss out on A Little Bit Langston. I will be holding my breath until the sequel comes out.
James has a pretty boring life. Sure, his mom is nuts, and also sort of interesting, but that’s par for the course for adults, who all seem a bit off. He’s in high school, but he still has problems with reading, and his best friend, Paul, seems to have a few problems as well. But people pretty much leave them alone, and all in all, he has nothing to worry about—just the average life of an average teenager. Until one day when he blacks out, and wakes up to find he’s written perfect copies of a dead poet’s greatest works… works he’s never seen before. On top of that, he starts zapping things with green electricity. Then things get weird, and he and his best friend have to face the facts: they aren’t your average teenagers anymore, and nothing’s going to ever be the same.
I don’t usually read young adult fiction—for many reasons—but I loved this book. I loved the two boys, James and Paul, and how their friendship turned into an adorable crush, and then into love. It had a very teenage boy feel—one scene in particular—and you’ll know the scene when you read it. It was perfect in characterizing their fragile love, and the forces that tried to keep them apart, creating a compelling story line.
I also liked the little secondary characterization details from James’s point of view: how poor Paul had to wear a helmet growing up, because his parents said his balance was off, and how Paul was always in front of James in line no matter where they went, and that was perfectly natural for both of them, or even how James’s mother kept saying he was destined for greatness… in that overly eccentric way of hers. Those details were incredibly beautiful and complete in how they showed the characters.
James and Paul are just “a little bit Langston”, and while that line is poetic in itself, I can also relate, because I’m just a little bit Langston too. The story, as well as these fantastic details, came off as more literary fiction than genre fiction, but then the world cracked open, and James and Paul were thrust into a crazy science fiction adventure, meeting new characters and creatures, and battling to save their lives, and maybe the entire world. Wow. Super good. Check it out.
Andrew Demcak has written much fiction, poetry, and other works, so if you favor a particular genre, I can assure you he has plenty to choose from. I can also assure you you’ll love it, and I’ll definitely be reading more.
My new GLBTQ Teen novel, A Little Bit Langston, will be forthcoming from Harmony Ink Press, winter 2015. If you want to add it to your Goodreads list, click HERE.
Being different is a challenge, especially for James Kerr. He's no average teenager. James begins to channel a dead writer’s poetry and then discovers he has the power to manipulate electricity. At the same time, romantic feelings for his best friend, Paul Schmitz, make him realize he’s gay. But he has little time to explore the drastic changes in his life before heartbreak strikes at the hands of Paul’s violent father. James is sent to The Paragon Academy, an institute specializing in juvenile paranormal research. There he meets Lumen Kim, the mysterious daughter of a famous Korean actress. Lumen’s psychic ability might just be the thing that helps James unlock the secrets of both his poems and the origins of his supernatural talents.
Lisa Brown (Daniel Handler's wife) did this marvelous sketch of me from my Booksmith's SF reading 04/29/2015. It was for one of Michelle Tea's RADAR Production Banned Books events. I was asked to read from a favorite banned Young Adult (YA) book. I read a tawdry scene from Flowers In The Attic by VC Andrews. Everyone had a good time.
I'm taking part in a Banned Books reading in San Francisco on Tuesday 04/21/2015 at Booksmith's. The evening is hosted by the fabulous Michelle Tea. Oh, and Lemony Snickett (Daniel Handler) is reading along side me. The book I chose to read from is V. C. Andrew's classic Flowers In The Attic.
A great new review of my YA novel Ghost Songs on Goodreads.
From GRW in the UK:
"This is a great coming of age story, mixed in with the sort of ghost story that the Victorians used to do so well.
The characters are very well drawn, especially the lead, who it is near impossible not to like and route for. The same goes for his best friend, his mother (for all her faults), and even the teachers at his school, which is odd for this sort of book.
Of course their has to be some villains in the shape of a couple of bullies and two others, who I won't mention as it's a bit of a spoiler.
The ghost aspect is down nicely, without the shock and awe that some writers would have gone in for but what is most refreshing about this book is that although Todd is gay, that's not what the book is about. Meaning that for once we get to read a book about a gay teenager that is (just) about a gay teenager. He's even okay with it.
In fact, it's barely even got anything to do with the main plot/s all of which would have worked almost as well if Todd had liked girls.
Here's my contract offer email from Harmony Ink Press:
Thank you for your submission. We are interested in publishing A Little Bit Langston. You will be receiving your contract via Echosign shortly. Please review the contract, and if it is acceptable, sign and return it digitally. Let me know if it doesn't arrive or if you have any problems. A certified pdf version will be emailed to you upon receipt.
Publication with Harmony Ink Press includes:
Thorough editing led by a senior editor
Cover creation with author input
Simultaneous release in print and digital to all major retailers
Marketing and social media promotion
Review coordination with dozens of sites and magazines, including School Library Journal, Publishers Weekly and Booklist
Custom blog tour
Feel free to email me if you have any questions about the contract or the process. We are excited to work with you on your new story.