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Posted by Louie, June 10, 2021

On writing queer middle grade

To mark Pride Month, we’re delighted to share this piece by Louie Stowell, author of the Dragon in the Library trilogy and Otherland, on writing queer middle grade.

I’ve been having a lot of chats since the start of Pride Month about what it means to write middle grade about queer characters – specifically, lesbian/gay/bi/pan characters. The upshot: a lot of queerness in middle grade is found in the adults, whether it’s two dads or an adult non-parent character.

For example, In Otherland, the Fairy Queen is pansexual, as is her former Favourite, Mab. (That is, she’s pan from a human perspective; fairies don’t use romantic labels of any kind. The only labels they care about are honorifics like Your Most Glorious and Superb Highness, Bringer of Light.) When I was drafting Otherland I assumed the word “Favourite” clearly meant “gay lover in the night time” but then I realised 8 year olds probably haven’t read all the books and definitely shouldn’t have seen the films that would give them that concept. So, with the great patience of my editor – and audio narrator – I added a gloss explaining it meant boyfriend or girlfriend.

It’s all very incidental as this isn’t Gloriana and Mab’s story really, though it was important to me to make sure it didn’t get buried in subtext. But this story belongs to Myra and Rohan.

When it comes to the child characters in Otherland, there’s no obvious love stuff. They’re eleven and they’re both a bit clueless in their own way. The way Myra is dazzled by Gloriana is 100% a crush for me, but Myra wouldn’t know it as such, and it’s up to the reader how they view it. In my head, it’s Sarah looking at Jareth in Labyrinth. But since authorial intent is meaningless, and I don’t write kissing books (yet), I’m very relaxed about how queer you read it on the page.

But, let’s just say, I tend to assume all characters I write are queer until proven otherwise. And that my experience was very much that queer kids are drawn to each other without realising it. So I suppose I assume Myra and Rohan are both queer. But at the same time, that’s not their known experience, so they’re also not. Schrödinger’s gays.

There’s definitely middle grade out there explicitly about crushes, but I’m intrigued by people writing queer identity about children who don’t know yet. I didn’t know until I was about thirteen or so, for instance. It’s easy to look back and read into things but my experience at the time was firmly not knowing, or even thinking much, about love stuff, beyond “yuck, kissing”. Some children know things earlier than others. And I’m sure people growing up now have more opportunities to know, given that they aren’t under the deadening blanket of Section 28. But I imagine there will always be kids who don’t know until they’re older, because they’re busy being covered in mud and hitting each other with toy swords.

I wouldn’t say I write queer representation in any conscious way. It’s more just a matter of what comes out of my brain that may or may not reflect my lived experience. The only way you get good queer rep in the end is with a spread of many authors across the entire queer spectrum. No one writer ever represents everyone. But every queer child deserves a story just for them. I hope Otherland is that for some out there. Or, for them when they’re thirteen and they look back and go, waaaaaaaait.

If you’d like to read more queer MG, here are some brilliant ones:

The Strangeworlds books by LD Lapinski
The Accidental Diary of B.U.G. by Jen Carney
Me, My Dad and the End of the Rainbow by Benjamin Dean
Princess Princess by K O’Neill
The Murder Most Unladylike series by Robin Stevens
Susie Day’s Pea books and Secrets books
Lumberjanes by Noelle Stevenson (hard to categorise age wise but I reckon MG/YA borderlands)

Thank you, Louie! If you’ve not yet discovered Otherland, you can read the opening chapters of the book below:

Buy the book.

And you can also listen to a preview of the audiobook edition here:

Buy the audiobook.