Take a moment and think about a time you found yourself somewhere in the pages of a book. Was it because the character shared an interest or a personality trait of yours? Was it because you had the same hopes or desires as a character? Was it because they achieved a dream you hoped you would someday too?
I have always been a voracious reader. As a kid, I found parts of myself in books all of the time. In Roald Dahl’s “Matilda,” I found the peculiar parts of myself celebrated. In E.L. Konigsburg's “The View from Saturday,” I found the nerdy parts of myself winning. And in Louise Fitzhugh’s “Harriet the Spy,” I found the aspiring writer in me begin to blossom. But as a young person, I almost never saw the queer parts of me in the stories I read.
Because there were so few stories with LGBTQ+ kids in them, and because those few often depicted a difficult life, I assumed that my queer identity was wrong and meant to be hidden from others and even from myself. Not seeing that part of me in the stories that I read made me feel very alone.
When I started graduate school to get my MFA in Creative Writing, one of the first books a mentor assigned me was “Ivy Aberdeen’s Letter to the World” by Ashley Herring Blake. If you haven’t had the chance to read this beautiful book, I highly recommend it. It’s the story of Ivy Aberdeen, a twelve-year-old girl whose house is destroyed by a tornado and who begins receiving mysterious notes in her locker that encourage her to be open about her queer identity, something she is only just beginning to understand. Over the course of the novel, Ivy deals with coming out, figures out how she belongs in her family with an older sibling and newborn twins, experiences her first crush, and reckons with her destroyed home. It’s a powerhouse of a novel, and even as a woman in my thirties I found myself weeping: here was a book that twelve-year-old me didn’t know was possible and still, even decades later, needed. As I read through it, I realized that parts of me were still deeply lonely from all the years wondering if my stories could matter, and if my queer life could be a hopeful one.
Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop, a groundbreaking academic in the field of children’s literacy, is known for many reasons including for having coined the phrase that books can serve as “mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors.” In other words, books can be opportunities for people to see themselves reflected, to peer into the lives of others, or to step into entire other worlds we have never known. One of the ways that I believe we can most support and celebrate young people is to help them find stories that offer them validation of their experiences and hope for their futures.
It is no small thing to find yourself in the pages of a book; when you see yourself in a story, you can start to believe and envision a life for yourself that is longer, more loving, more beautiful.
Next month, my debut novel, THE SONG OF US, will hit the shelves on May 30, 2023, just in time for Pride month. A queer middle grade novel-in-verse loosely based on the Greek myth “Orpheus and Eurydice,” this story offers young people a chance to see several queer experiences. The main characters, Olivia and Eden, have very different home lives: for Olivia, her parents accept her queer identity but have their own struggles, while Eden’s mother has left and her father is openly homophobic. Other key side characters, including Olivia’s trans best friend Lexi and school principal Dr. Z., are also queer. It was important to me in writing this book that young people could see that there is no singular queer experience. And in each case, no matter their experiences, the story ends with hope that each character will keep on living, loving, and belonging in the world.
When young people pick up THE SONG OF US, I hope they find the healing I found the first time I picked up “Ivy Aberdeen.” Finding ourselves inside the pages of a book can be a powerful, life-affirming experience, and my hope is that the more we help young people find themselves in stories, the more they will be reminded of how many great adventures await them in the years ahead.
About the Author
Kate Fussner (she/her) is a novelist, teacher, and accidental poet living in Massachusetts with her wife and dramatic dog. When not reading or writing, Kate can be found spending time with her family, baking, or singing her favorite musicals. Kate believes in the power of a good laugh and a good cry, and hopes her stories will provide readers with both. Learn more at katefussner.com.
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