EPISODE 18 – Creating Three-dimensional LGBTQ+ Characters with Guest Sam Cameron
In this episode, Sharon and Christy are joined by fellow Author Accelerator Certified Book Coach Sam Cameron to talk about how to create inclusive three-dimensional LGBTQ+ characters, some great positive examples, some tropes to avoid, and supportive resources to help you get it right.
Topics Covered Include:
- Three-dimensional LGBTQ+ Charcters
- The Importance of Representation
- The Vito Russo Test
- Tropes to Avoid
- Using Proper Pronouns
- Informational and Supportive Resources
Uncle Bobby’s Wedding by Sarah Brennan
When Aiden Became a Brother by Kyle Lukoff
Julian is a Mermaid by Jessica Love
Grandad’s Camper by by Harry Woodgate
Too Bright to See by Kyle Lukoff
The Prince and the Dress Maker by Jen Wang
Darius the Great is not Okay by Adib Khorram
Marissa Meyers’ Gilded Duology
She Drives Me Crazy by Kelly Quindlen
This Poison Heart by Kaylynn Bayron
Resources Mentioned Include:
Coaching KidLit Transcript –
EPISODE 18 – Creating Three-dimensional LGBTQ+ Characters with Guest Sam Cameron
Episode 18 – Creating three-dimensional LGBTQ characters
[00:00:00] Sharon Skinner: Welcome to Coaching KidLit, a podcast about writing and publishing Good KidLit.
[00:00:07] Christy Yaros: We dig into various aspects of writing craft through a KidLit lens, and provide inspiration and clear actionable items to help writers like you move forward on their KidLit writing journeys.
[00:00:19] Sharon Skinner: I’m Sharon Skinner. Author Accelerator, certified book coach and author of Speculative Fiction and KidLit, including picture books, middle grade and young adult.
[00:00:31] Christy Yaros: And I’m Christy Yaros, author accelerator, certified book coach and story editor focusing on KidLit, including middle grade and young adult.
[00:00:40] Christy Yaros: Hey Sharon,
[00:00:42] Sharon Skinner: Hey Christie.
[00:00:44] Christy Yaros: how are you?
[00:00:45] Sharon Skinner: I’m great. I hear we have a guest today.
[00:00:48] Christy Yaros: We do have a guest. We have a fellow book coach joining us.
[00:00:52] Sharon Skinner: Yes, I’m excited. Sam Cameron (she/her) is a high school history teacher, YA author and Author Accelerator certified book coach specializing in KidLit. She believes all children deserve to see themselves represented in great books. They deserve a chance to read your story and you deserve a chance to tell it.
[00:01:14] Christy Yaros: I love that.
[00:01:15] Sharon Skinner: We’re so excited to have you here.
[00:01:17] Sam Cameron: It’s great to be here. Thanks for having me.
[00:01:19] Sharon Skinner: So Sam, when did you start writing?
[00:01:22] Sam Cameron: So I’ve been a storyteller since before I actually could write. We actually found in my parents’ house a story that I dictated to my mom before I could actually write the words myself. And I illustrated it with some yellow highlighter. So this has always been a part of my life that I’ve been writing and telling stories.
[00:01:39] Sharon Skinner: That’s awesome. And right now though you are still teaching?
[00:01:44] Sam Cameron: Yes, so I am a part-time high school history teacher. This is my eighth year of teaching. And I’ve also been continuing to work on my novels specifically for YA. And I started book coaching about a year ago. And got this Author Accelerator certification because I knew that I wanted to keep teaching in some capacity, but I wanted something that would bring me closer to stories and storytelling, because I think that’s just such a powerful, medium of expression, especially for writing for kids.
[00:02:16] Sharon Skinner: We all agree with you. This is one of the reasons we write for kids
[00:02:20] Christy Yaros: So, Sam, what is it that you wanted to talk about with us today?
[00:02:23] Sam Cameron: So as Sharon shared when she read my bio. I really strongly believe that all children deserve to see themselves represented in books. And I happen to have a lot to say about LGBTQ plus representation in children’s books. Which is something that was really not available when I was a kid and I think would’ve made a really big difference to me.
And I know a lot of other people to whom it would’ve made a big difference. And so this is a particular aspect of representation that’s really important to me personally. So I wanted to talk a little bit about that.
[00:02:56] Christy Yaros: We’re so grateful to have you here to talk about that because Sharon and I also believe the same thing. And we’d love to hear some of your expertise in the area and help our listeners figure out how they can best show representation in their own stories.
[00:03:12] Sharon Skinner: So, I know you’re a YA writer, but you talk a lot about representation across categories why don’t you talk a little bit about how you see that and the importance of it.
[00:03:24] Sam Cameron: Yeah, sure. Absolutely. So I think that a lot of folks assume that LGBTQ representation is mainly a topic for YA, but like you said, Sharon, it’s really. Something that is viable or important in all levels. Before I dive into that, I do want to give a quick note on terminology that I’m going to use. So in addition to LGBTQ plus, you may hear me use the word queer.
I want to quickly acknowledge that some LGBTQ people don’t love that term, right? It used to be a slur. It also, originally means strange. But increasingly there are a lot of folks who like the term for people who like it, it has sort of a playful connotation. It’s also a little bit less of a mouthful than LGBTQ.
And also a lot of us don’t really fit neatly into the categories listed out in LGBTQIA. So identifying as queer is a really quick way of indicating I am something other than heterosexual and or cisgender. And you don’t have to fully define your gender or sexual orientation. So before I dive into that, I just wanted to clarify.
That’s what I mean when I say queer. And just for the audience, that’s what that means. And some people don’t love that term. But some people really do. So as I was saying it’s not something that is unique to YA. So if you’re a picture book or a middle grade author stay here, with us.
‘Cause I think there’s still a lot that you can do. And I think this representation is really critical for the younger ages because exposing kids to LGBTQ plus characters from a young age in their picture books, in their cartoons, in their chapter books, all of that, it really normalizes these identities.
Whereas if we make these conversations taboo, kids are going to pick up on the subliminal message that these identities are wrong. Right? Even if that is not at all your intention, just by omission, it sends this message that these identities are wrong. So like that was definitely my experience growing up is not only did I not really see any positive queer representation, I wasn’t really seeing any until I was a teenager.
And so that meant that when I was a teenager and I started to realize that I wasn’t straight, I didn’t initially have the language to describe what I was experiencing. And once I eventually did figure out I was bisexual, I had to then come to terms with what it meant for me, that that’s this part of my identity.
And I’m still going through that process. I probably will forever. Now, on the flip side, imagine instead the kid who has LGBTQ plus representation everywhere through their whole childhood and it’s positive representation. That kid is probably going to spend a lot less time than I did trying to figure out how to name their identity and worrying about having this big secret.
And who should they tell? Should they tell anyone? How will they tell anyone? Because to that kid who sees that kind of representation everywhere being gay or bi or transgender or asexual, none of that’s going to seem like that big of a deal. And more importantly, probably it’s not going to be a big deal to their peers either, right?
Their cis heterosexual peers. And that means less bullying. So that will increasingly make it more and more comfortable for LGBTQ folks to be out and exist in the world.
[00:06:18] Sharon Skinner: I think it will also make it more comfortable for all of us to exist with one another. When we don’t know about something, we tend to fear it. When you talked about normalizing identities people exist and if we know of the existence of people who are different from ourselves, we’re less afraid of them, and we can be more open and accepting and comfortable around people who are different from ourselves.
And I think that’s just critical for all of us.
[00:06:42] Sam Cameron: Yeah, I think that’s a really great point that it, it not only gives kids who are questioning their identities, the language to describe it, it also gives everybody else the language to describe it. And you will kind of see in some of these picture books, especially that the messages aren’t just for the kids or for the adults too, right?
They give the adults who didn’t get this kind of representation a way to navigate the issues that they might still have questions about.
[00:07:03] Christy Yaros: I think that holds true, not just in this context, but all of the things that we talk about in kids’ books. Kids don’t have language for a lot of things. Their feelings the way that they see the world, and we’re giving them something that says, huh, this seems familiar to me and I didn’t have the words for it before, but now I understand that maybe what I’m feeling is anxiety.
Maybe what I’m feeling is that I might be queer. Maybe what I’m feeling is, hmm, I am not comfortable in my body and this is the reason why. And I didn’t know that that was either not normal before or what it meant. I mean, I remember even as a kid having anxiety but not knowing how to, Verbalize that, and it was, my stomach hurt, so I got sent to the doctor for a stomach ache.
But it wasn’t a stomach ache, but had I seen, things that would show me, oh, that’s what you’re feeling and that’s what that means. So even in the larger context,
[00:07:56] Sam Cameron: Yeah. I think one of the myths about LGBTQ people is that we just know immediately that that’s who we are. And some people do from an extremely young age, know exactly who they are. And it’s very clear to them. But there’s an awful lot of people, myself included for whom it’s not immediately clear.
And there’s more and more stories that you see published of people figuring this out when they’re adults, because now the language is available. So, I think that’s another important point here, is that it’s giving the language for kids to describe themselves.
[00:08:26] Sharon Skinner: Well, and I think that goes back to nature versus nurture too. I mean, nature is a big part of this, but nurture is the part of being able to accept who your child is. But if you’re cramming that child into a space that is different than who they think they are or feel like they are they feel like they have to be in that space.
And, people, especially in a cultural norming situation, like what we have where, hey, that’s weird or that’s not normal. People just want to stay in that space because they’re afraid to not be in that space. And they’re afraid to come out of that space . we’re sticking people in these spaces and then they don’t know how to escape from that and be who they really are. And I think that that’s true across the board for many of us in many, many ways. Because frankly, we’re all multifaceted.
We’re not one thing. And one thing does not define us. And when I looked at the information that you provide about, writing solid LGBTQ plus characters, that’s the thing that really resonated with me is that Vito Russo task that you talk about.
What else defines the character aside from their gender or their sexual identity or what have you, what are the other things that make them human, that make them a multifaceted, well-rounded character? That’s what we want to focus on because people are people first.
[00:09:47] Sam Cameron: Yeah. No, I think that’s a great point and this goes for most marginalized identities. A lot of what I’m going to say applies across the board to any type of, marginalized identity that you’re trying to represent is, like Sharon said, people are people and they’re multifaceted. And so honestly, if you treat your LGBTQ characters with the same care that you treat all of your other characters and make sure that they’re really well-rounded, three-dimensional people that’s really what you need to do, right, is to make sure that they’re these well-rounded people.
So I can talk a little bit about the Vito Russo test since you mentioned that . So I’m going to put on my history teacher hat for a second and tell everyone who Vito Russo is or was in, in case anyone’s not familiar with him. So he was a film historian and activist and he wrote the 1981 book, the Celluloid Closet.
There’s a documentary of the same name and it is about film representation of LGBTQ characters, but a lot of what he had to say about film and representations and tropes and film. I think you can see some crossover into books as well. And he is the co-founder of both GLAAD and Act Up. So GLAAD is the one I’m going to talk about more.
It’s the world’s largest LGBTQ plus media advocacy group, and their mission is to promote fair, accurate, and inclusive representation of LGBTQ people across all media. With the idea that this will promote inclusivity and understanding and acceptance. And that’s glad G L A A D. So Vito Russo actually did not create this test.
He unfortunately died from AIDS complications in 1990. But GLAAD created this test and they named it after him. And it’s inspired by the Bechtel test, which some folks might be familiar with. The Bechtel test is this three question test. It establishes a baseline for representation of female characters.
So it’s is there more than one named female character? Do they talk to each other? Is their conversation about something other than a man? So that’s the Bechdel test. And inspired by the Bechdel test. There’s numerous other similar kinds of tests that you can find that look at a particular type of marginalized identity and comes up with like three questions that establishes the baseline for representation. So the Vito Russo test is for LGBTQ plus representation. And think of it as passing these tests is not at all clear that, your representation is perfect, but it’s kind of like a baseline or a minimum that if you’ve passed these three questions, you have a good start. And if you don’t pass these three questions and you are interested in representing LGBTQ characters, then you know you have a bit more work to do.
So here are the three questions for the Vito Russo test. Question number one, is there a character who is identifiably? And I’m going to add explicitly lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and or queer. Question number two is the character identifiable and defined by traits other than their sexual orientation and or gender identity.
So, in other words, can they be differentiated from each other or identified by unique character traits that might be used to differentiate cisgender and heterosexual characters? And the final question, is this character integral to the story such that their removal would have a significant impact?
So to quote GLAAD this means, quote, the character is not simply there to provide colorful commentary, paint urban authenticity, or set up a punchline. The character must matter, end quote. So those are the three questions.
[00:13:01] Sharon Skinner: This is an umbrella test, right? This is just okay, am I at least baseline getting this in the ballpark? So it’s a great beginning. It’s a good place to start. And if you’re not doing this and doing it well then, you know, I’m not even ready for a beta reader.
I’m definitely not ready for a sensitivity reader of any kind. This is a great way those of us who are writing outside our lane can start to make really good steps toward full and honest representation.
[00:13:28] Sam Cameron: Yeah, this test is definitely a great thing that you can do on your own. And, use that as a self test for am I ready for a beta reader? And the other thing though is if you realize you didn’t pass this test and you’re not really sure about where to go from there, that might be a good time to bring in a coach.
Someone who can, from the outside help guide you. Especially if, there are some coaches like me who focus on, helping representation of a particular identity who might be able to bring in that, greater expertise and experience.
[00:13:56] Sharon Skinner: And I think for you as a coach, you have that broad understanding across the board and you’ve done your research. Not only are you living this, but you’ve also dug in and done the research and you’re involved in your community and you really understand it in a very broad way and.
That that is really helpful because again, no single person is a monolith for their culture and yet you’ve got a lot wider understanding and a lot deeper understanding of this area than the average sensitivity reader might too, because maybe they’re only reading from their specific perspective.
[00:14:32] Sam Cameron: Yeah, that’s a really good point that, everyone has different experiences so let’s say you pass the Vito Russo test and you decide, you want to move forward from there. So other ways that you can check your own representation is there’s some really common tropes, which I can talk about what some of those are a little bit that if you check to make sure you’re not including those tropes, that would be a next step, right?
But also, as Sharon was saying, having a sensitivity reader of some kind is a really good idea, especially if you can get multiple different ones. Because again, everyone has totally different experiences and there’s maybe some things that one sensitivity reader thinks is totally fine and another sensitivity reader, maybe doesn’t like so much or has a particular experience that makes it feel very negative to them.
And ultimately what it comes down to is you’re never going to please everybody. And that’s true of any book you write, right? There’s always going to be people who don’t like what you’ve done and are going to have criticisms and you have to be comfortable enough with what you have written.
That you can stand behind it and say, I am fine with my name being on this book. Be confident that you’ve done everything you can to, not perpetuate harm, but to do something that is good. And just be aware of the fact that there’s always going to be someone who disagrees with your representation no matter how much research you do or how many beta readers you have.
Which is really scary, right? Obviously that’s really scary. And I think some writers see that and their responses to just not engage with it, which, that’s a choice and that’s a fine, perfectly fine choice to make, but it doesn’t necessarily solve the problem.
[00:15:58] Sharon Skinner: I think the important thing you just said is not only to stand behind it and be confident, but to own it. You really have to own what you’ve put on the page and be willing to take any heat that comes your way from people. I mean, not everybody likes my books. My books are not written for everybody.
My books are written for specific individuals , my target reader’s always that person who’s going to read the book, close it and hug it to themselves and feel seen and feel like they’ve had that experience that I’m trying to convey. And it’s not for everybody.
And that’s going to be the same for any topic that you’re writing about. But in particular, when you’re writing these sorts of characters especially if they’re outside your lane, you really want to do everything you can so that you can own it.
I went through that fear thing with one of my books and the interesting thing is, is that I tried to write my character in a different direction. And when I got feedback on it from an editor on just the first 10 pages, he said, I think your character wants to be gay. And I said, I wrote that out.
And he said why would you do that? And I said, because don’t think I’m the right person to write that. And he turned to me and he said, the most glorious thing. He said, Sharon, love is love. And I went, duh. Right? And I was able to write that book. And to be honest with you, just to share a quick little anecdote, I had a young woman come to me at the book festival this last month, come up to me and ask if there was another book in that series.
And when I said I was working on one, she says, well, do you have any other books that have any gay romance in them? And I said I have a. Representation, but not necessarily what maybe you’re looking for as in quote unquote romance in other books that I could point her to. But the fact that she came up to me and she was whispering, she didn’t want other people to hear, but she felt like she could trust me to ask that question and that I could tell she felt seen.
That just makes my heart full and that book almost didn’t get written .
[00:17:51] Sam Cameron: Yeah. Yeah. And I’m going to add in a little bit about the whole idea of staying in your lane. So this is one that I have some really mixed feelings about because, so for folks not familiar with that term staying in your lane that’s the idea that and this is not a universally held idea, but it’s the idea that writers should not have point of view characters or major characters that are marginalized in a way that the author doesn’t share.
So, for example, having a cisgender heterosexual author having an LGBTQ point of view character and I have mixed feelings about this, especially when it comes to sexual orientation and gender identity. Because on the one hand, yes, we absolutely want to center the voices of LGBTQ creators or other marginalized creators.
There is obviously a problem. If the only representations are from the perspective of straight and cisgendered authors, something’s going to be lost, right? Something’s going to be missing. We have the potential of representations only being tropes, but one, representation is so sparse to begin with that if you can actually have, these cisgender heterosexual authors, write these really beautiful, excellent representations that make people feel seen. And I absolutely do not want to shut that down. But also with sexual orientation and gender identity in particular those things are really complicated. So, like I said earlier, some people figure out very early on in their lives that this is who they are, but some people don’t figure it out until well into their adulthood.
And so for some writers who might present as straight or cisgender writing, these characters might be the way they’re figuring that out. It might be the way they’re exploring, experimenting with their own identity. So trying to say oh, you can’t write this because that’s not who you are because someone appears to be cisgender or straight.
That I think is potentially a problem. Becky Albertalli wrote about this a little bit because she, when she started writing Simon vs. the Homo Sapien agenda, she didn’t realize she was bisexual. And so she’s in her thirties having this, questioning of her sexuality that really most of us would like to have as private that she’s suddenly having to have in public.
Because all of these readers were feeling very hurt by the fact that this, person who appeared to be straight was writing these very successful books. And I know I, I kind of had this experience myself a little bit too, where even though I really was drawn to writing about LGBTQ characters and themes, I was not publicly out.
And I knew that if I was writing in that space, That people would want to have a public conversation about my sexual orientation in a time of my life when I did not even want to have that conversation with my very close and loving and accepting family. So that’s the, I think one of the things to be a little, it’s a little bit tricky, right?
There’s not like a simple answer to this question.
[00:20:24] Christy Yaros: That is also another kind of universal thing that can be extrapolated. We are writing as writers, we are exploring our own feelings, our own experiences, our past, we’re making sense of things. It’s the same if you’re writing about trauma and someone asks you, did you actually experience this our readers are looking for authenticity from us.
So they’re going to ask, did this happen to you? Did you go through this? What part of this is coming from your real experience and what part is made up and. There are lots of topics where we might feel like maybe we can’t write about this right now, because we don’t want the whole world to know that yes, this is part of our identity in any sense.
Right. That we’re not ready to share with the world. But especially with, what Becky went through, I don’t feel like it’s anybody’s right. You don’t owe anybody any kind of explanation as to who you are or any kind of justification for what you are. And the way that that was handled was pretty awful what she had to go through.
I have noticed a lot of adults my friends myself included, who, once we have children we see the world again, new through their eyes, and we see things that they experience and that we think, oh, that’s normal.
That’s kind of like what I went through with my daughter telling me for years. She felt like maybe she was ADHD and this is the reason why I feel this way. And I would say that’s completely normal. That’s how I am, that’s how I was when I was a kid. This is the way that things are.
And then when she actually got diagnosed and we realized oh, hey, neither of us are, quote normal, right? We’re both neurodivergent. And so I’ve noticed a lot of moms who get diagnosed as ADHD in adulthood because their children are. So if we are trying to write queer characters, you mentioned before about tropes. What kind of tropes should we look out for?
[00:22:10] Sam Cameron: Oh, that’s a good question. So this is, again, something, anytime you’re going to wade into writing about a marginalized community it’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with the tropes that have commonly been used to represent that community, especially the negative tropes so that you’re not accidentally falling back on them because tropes are a language that we’ve all kind of internalized. Some tropes are great, some of them we love. I think a lot of people love the fake dating trope. For example, I’m personally a fan of gender disguising as a trope. And, gender bending is a trope. So some tropes are great, but there are some tropes that are problematic.
So here’s a handful of what I think are the really common problematic tropes for LGBTQ representation. So the first one is the one that I see the most often, which is the Gay best friend. So the gay best friend typically is a character who would not pass the Vito Russo test because they’re usually defined pretty much entirely by their sexual orientation and don’t really serve much of a purpose beyond launching the protagonist. So, I think the traditional way of doing this is to have a straight cis female character who has a cis male gay best friend. And his job is to reflect back to the character and give her advice and a makeover and fashion advice, et cetera. And this is someone who doesn’t seem to really actually have any goals or aspirations of their own.
And, may very likely not have actually their own love interest or anything like that. They’re just, kind of there. And increasingly I’ve been seeing more gay best friends who are gay cis women or bisexual cis women rather than a cis gay male. But this is basically just a, a very two dimensional, stereotypical character.
Right on the heels of that is if you only have. One queer character in your entire story. That’s another, potential sort of tokenism. Like you only have one. And the reason this sort of stands out is that it makes it hard for your one queer character to be a fully realized person if they’re the only one.
And yes, it is true that if your book takes place somewhere where, LGBTQ identities are under attack or, queer people are less visible, it might make sense that there aren’t as many visible queer people. But something that, I definitely see in my work as a teacher is that queer kids are pretty good at finding each other.
You know, there’s an experience of knowing how to interact with people in covert ways to figure out, who else is queer. So the idea that there’s only one queer character one on the one hand, it sort of feels like tokenism. You’re just like checking a box. But on the other hand, also it makes it harder for that to be like a fully realized person.
And it’s also odd.
[00:24:40] Sharon Skinner: I think it makes it hard for you to have a fully realized setting and world if you don’t have representation beyond that, right?
It doesn’t make sense because look around you. Look at the world that we live in. Even if I port that into a fantasy realm, we’re going to see all sorts of representation.
It just makes sense.
[00:24:59] Sam Cameron: yeah, exactly. So I would say those are the top two that I see the most often are the gay best friend and then the tokenism of you just have one. So another then issue is focusing exclusively on harassment, bullying, or coming out. As the only queer experiences to get represented. And yes, those are all part of queer experiences, but they’re far from the only part.
So I’m not saying that you can’t write about these experiences, but I would encourage you that unless you have some compelling reason why it’s important to you to write about it, that you really don’t need to. The ground is pretty well trodden. There’s a lot of stories out there about those topics. I would also say we probably don’t really need more stories about like a straight kid who rescues a queer kid from being bullied or a straight kid who realizes that homophobia is wrong, or a homophobic bully who’s secretly gay.
That closeted bully trope is another one that I personally find really icky ’cause it’s frequently the way the closeted bully trope ends up working is that you have an openly queer character who is being bullied by a closeted queer character. And often the way that closeted.
Queer bully comes out is by initiating a relationship with the person they’ve been bullying, which is just ick gross. We don’t need that. It’s not a healthy thing to model. It’s also not very realistic that someone would actually want that.
[00:26:15] Christy Yaros: No. That kind of goes back even to when we were kids and it was when a boy was pulling your hair or annoying you, it’s, oh, he likes you. He likes you. And well, that’s abuse. Abuse is abuse.
[00:26:26] Sam Cameron: We can move on from that abuse, narrative. Another common one is bisexual or pansexual erasure. And I would actually add to this asexual erasure because you really don’t see very many asexual characters. So the bisexual erasure in particular I’ll talk about because that’s one that drives me particularly crazy because I’m bisexual.
So this is an unwillingness to acknowledge that. Bisexual people exist and choosing to define their sexuality based on their current romantic partnerships. So I’ll give an example from a movie that will remain nameless, but I was watching a movie and there’s a twist in this movie where a cis female character who had previously been in a relationship with a man reveals that she’s in a relationship with a cis female character.
And some of the characters in this movie respond to this news by saying, wow, after all this time, she’s decided she’s a lesbian. And I was so mad because clearly based on all of the texts in this movie, this is a bisexual woman, right? Because there was nothing to indicate that she hadn’t actually been in love with the man she had been in a relationship with.
She had been, so she’s bisexual the whole time. So one last thing I’ll say about this one is, One of the other ways that people try to indicate that they have a bisexual character is by showing them in a lot of different relationships or showing them as having a lot of different crushes. And the problem with that is that there’s a stereotype about bisexual people being very promiscuous.
As if like by being bisexual you’re more sexually liberated than everybody else. And I would encourage you if you have bisexual characters, obviously you don’t want to go the bisexual erasure route, but I would encourage you to, find a little bit more of a creative way to show that your character is bisexual as opposed to just like having them be promiscuous.
[00:28:05] Sharon Skinner: Sam, you sent us this wonderful document that has a lot of information in it including some of the things you’ve talked about, and I understand that you do offer some of this material as part of your coaching package or as part of people signing up for your newsletter. Do you want to talk a little bit about that?
[00:28:22] Sam Cameron: Yeah, absolutely. So I do offer this material if you subscribe to my newsletter, which is also the best way to follow what I have to say and what’s going on with me. So if you go to my website, which is www.truantpen.com, and you go to www.truantpen.com/lgbtq, there is a free quiz that you can take that will walk you through the Vito Russo test and also help you test your manuscript for all of those tropes and some additional tropes as well. And that’ll sign you up for my newsletter. And once you’ve done that, you will get access to all of these notes that I sent Sharon and Christie when we were preparing for this podcast.
[00:28:59] Sharon Skinner: And we’ll put a link for that in the show notes as well.
[00:29:03] Sam Cameron: Oh, fabulous.
[00:29:04] Christy Yaros: So as we’re talking about how as writers we can try to avoid these things, we love to talk about mentor texts because obviously looking at writers who have done things well is a great way for us to learn how to emulate that. So I know we can probably point to a lot books and movies and stuff in our past that have gotten it wrong, but who’s getting it right?
Let’s start with picture books. What picture books would you recommend?
[00:29:28] Sam Cameron: So for picture books I think the best representations in picture books, they go beyond the idea of queer people exist and isn’t that dandy and they tell a story that’s going to be important to a kid regardless of their identity or what their family looks like.
So three books that I think do this really, really well are Uncle Bobby’s Wedding by Sarah Brennan. So this is a book about a girl whose favorite uncle is getting married. He’s getting married to a man, but the book is not about men can marry men. Isn’t that great? The book is about the fact that this kid is worried that her relationship with her uncle is going to change, which is something I think most kids can relate to, right?
If they’ve been through something like this. But it just happens that the uncle is gay. So Uncle Bobby’s Wedding another really good example of this is When Aiden Became a Brother by Kyle Lukoff. So. Aiden, the main character is transgender, and he knew this from a very young age, but the book is not about Aiden being transgender.
There’s a lot happening in the text about him being transgender and about his parents learning how to accommodate him and make life better for him. But what the book is really about is Aiden is going to be a brother and he wants to make sure that he’s a good older brother for his new sibling.
Again, I think that’s something a lot of kids can relate to, whether they are transgender or not. And then another recommendation I have is Julian is a Mermaid by Jessica Love which is about a kid who is questioning their gender, messing around with gender in a very, fun and innocent kind of way.
And Jessica Love’s a really good example of someone who’s writing outside of her lane, but in a very thoughtful way.
[00:30:59] Sharon Skinner: I also want to add that I think Granddad’s Camper by Harry Woodgate is a lovely, lovely picture book that falls into that because while it represents Two male characters who happen to be gay. One has passed. And so this is really about grieving and sorrow and sitting with someone through that and helping them through that dark time.
And that book just made me cry. Because it is just so beautifully done. It’s beautifully handled. So what about middle grade? You mentioned Kyle Lukoff here in picture books, but Kyle also writes middle grade. Too Bright to See has representation for that transitioning and I thought that was handled Very nicely. And for me it was such a great window book because it’s something that I don’t have direct experience with and I was really appreciative of understanding that world.
So what other middle grade books do you think are good representations?
[00:31:57] Sam Cameron: So I have to admit, this is not a strong area for me. I haven’t read very much middle grade since I was a middle grade reader myself. And at that time, this type of representation really wasn’t done in middle grade, so I would actually have to defer to the ALA has a Rainbow book list and I can also share some other websites that have lists where you can browse by age, category and identity. But I actually personally could not think of any. The closest I could think of is actually a YA book that I think has some crossover appeal for middle grade which is The Prince and the Dress Maker, which is a graphic novel by Jen Wang.
It’s a retelling of Cinderella that I think is marketed to YA. But I definitely think there’s appeal there for middle grade readers.
[00:32:38] Christy Yaros: Oh, I love that book.
[00:32:40] Sam Cameron: It’s such a sweet book.
[00:32:41] Sharon Skinner: Since you started talking about YA and you’ve got this recommendation, The Prince and the Dressmaker, which by the way, I haven’t read, and so now I’m excited to go out and read this book. Please tell us some more about YA books that you think are really doing a great job.
[00:32:55] Sam Cameron: Yeah. So this is my genre. So I did narrow it down to just a few favorites, but there’s obviously a ton out there. I will add just one thing. If you are a YA author, YA has a reputation for being like, all about romance. And I’ve definitely talked to writers who are like, well, I want to write YA, but I don’t want to write romance.
That’s actually great because a lot of asexual and demisexual and aromantic, demi romantic people aren’t seeing themselves represented and just not having romance is a really very simple way to help that crowd feel seen. So some book recommendations for YA. Darius the Great is not Okay by Adib Khorram.
Darius’s sexual orientation is unspoken in the first book. It’s a much bigger deal in the second book. And so it plays a really tiny role, but it’s just one piece of who this kid is and it’s handled so well. And this is a really great story. If you want an example of good representation in background characters.
So if you are writing something and the main characters are straight, but you want to have some background characters. A really good example is Marissa Meyers, Gilded Duology. All of the deities in the universe of this book are non-binary. And there are several minor characters who are also queer.
And I felt that that was all handled really well. Going back into some more explicit main character representation. She Drives Me Crazy by Kelly Quindlen is a contemporary YA romance, which is very fun. And This Poison Heart by Kaylynn Bayron is not only a queer protagonist, but also her queer parents.
So it’s a level of representation. You don’t see that much in YA, the reminder that oh yes, some kids also have queer parents.
[00:34:23] Sharon Skinner: What a great list. I have now added to my TBR pile. So I’m really excited to hear your recommendations and also the rainbow list, at ALA again, that’s a great resource for people to check out for recommendations for these types of books. And then going back to the idea that these are both window and mirror books that, we are getting the opportunity to not only see ourselves represented as who we are, whomever we are in books, but also that we are getting to see other people represented so that we can better understand The human existence and how other people are in the world.
And I think that just is so critical. We all the time talk about how important it is to have great books for readers and great KidLit and that’s why we do this podcast. And I’m so grateful that you have been here to share your information and expertise with us and your personal journey. Is there anything else that you would like to share with our audience before we get on to our action items?
[00:35:28] Sam Cameron: Yeah. So I think one, one last thing that I think is worth emphasizing is that, again, regardless of what level of kids you’re writing for, there is a place to have LGBTQ representation. It’s not just for YA. I think the way in which that representation will show up is going to be a little bit different.
And I really just want to kind of leave with some encouragement for picture book and middle grade writers to really. Think about how, and if this is a representation that you might explore, because again, I think the younger kids are exposed to this, the better off it is for everybody.
And I think a lot of adults sort of shy away from talking about these identities with kids because to adults talking about this means talking about sex, but it absolutely does not need to be about that. Kids see straight couples in their media all the time without having to know about sex.
Kids are also introduced to gender norms and gender roles and gender stereotypes very early. So this is just a matter of adding to the conversation that kids are already having. And it can be done in such a way that doesn’t require having to have a conversation about sex if that’s not the conversation that you want to enter in with children.
So I just wanted to encourage people that, even if you’re writing picture books for very young kids, there are opportunities to do this kind of representation.
[00:36:39] Christy Yaros: And we do see that even without the text, the illustrations oftentimes when there’s multiple families being depicted in a book, that we see different kinds of families, different kinds of couples, and without it being just as you said to, I don’t even really like that word, normalize, but this is the world we live in and these are the people that populate it.
[00:36:57] Sam Cameron: Yeah. And just, you know, that there’s nothing taboo about it. That it’s not something that we can’t talk about, that, we can talk about this and that, these are people who exist in the world and there’s nothing wrong, there’s nothing deviant, there’s nothing dangerous.
We’re just, people. There’s nothing to be afraid of.
[00:37:12] Christy Yaros: I think also as adults writing for children, that’s something that we need to keep in mind, is that the way that we might think the world looks to us is not the way that the world looks to children who are alive today, because they are growing up in a very different world where things maybe weren’t like this for us to speak openly about or to be surrounded by people who knew who they were at a young age, but our kids, that is the world that they live in.
So for them, we need to show them that what they see every day is okay. We’re not introducing them really to anything that they aren’t already seeing.
[00:37:46] Sam Cameron: yeah. And kids are way more open to the idea that, boys can marry boys and girls can marry girls. They have no reason to not think that. It’s only when they’re told that that’s not allowed. So to again, give the example of Uncle Bobby’s Wedding, that picture book, an adult looks at that book and says, oh, this book is going to be about saying it’s okay for men to marry men, but a kid’s not going to make that leap.
Like, that’s not something they have a hang-up about unless they’ve been taught to be hung up on it. And so you can go beyond that and just have a story in which these identities are acknowledged.
[00:38:15] Sharon Skinner: and to your point, Christie, and what you just said, Sam, we’re seeing that kids are a lot more gender fluid when I was a kid, because I. I played baseball, I was a tomboy. There was no allowance for that spectrum of us being who we are.
There’s allowance now for a lot more fluidity, which allows people to be who they are and to accept other people for being who they are more readily.
[00:38:38] Sam Cameron: Yeah, absolutely. Kids internalize gender norms really early, like sometimes even before they’re verbal, they can, internalize those gender norms. And I think giving them the space to be much more fluid and not being so rigid in.
This is who boys are and these are who girls are and focusing on there’s only boys and girls and not allowing for that binary. The earlier that kids have that space and that greater like expansiveness to express who they are. I think that’s going to make a world a more comfortable place for cisgender people too let’s be honest. It’s not just for people who are gender nonconforming.
[00:39:09] Sharon Skinner: Because we are all on the spectrum. That goes back to your point of why picture books are so important to have that kind of representation.
Sam. I want to talk a little bit real quickly about pronouns as part of this discussion, because there are a lot of people who feel like, pronouns can be awkward and they can be difficult, and all of that. And I just want to touch on that and make sure that people understand from your point of view, how does that work in the world of writing?
Because people get really uncomfortable with “how do I express that in my writing.”
[00:39:43] Sam Cameron: Oh, that’s a really good question. So if you go onto GLAAD’s website, they have a media guide essentially for representing transgender and gender nonconforming people. And that actually goes beyond pronouns and also talks about just generally, like what are the respectful ways to talk about, someone who is transgender.
So I think for example, people have a tendency to say oh, this person used to be a boy, but now they’re a woman. Instead of saying they were presenting as male, or they were assigned the gender male at birth. So GLAAD’s media guides are a good place to look for that.
But in terms of pronouns and like introducing the pronouns of your characters I think that will depend a little bit on the point of view that you’re writing from. So if you’re writing from first person point of view your narrator’s going to use I me pronouns, right? First person pronouns which are not gendered pronouns.
And so the ways in which you communicate the gender of your first person narrator is going to be dependent upon the pronouns other people use to describe them. The pronouns or the ways that they present, the ways they describe themselves. Do they describe themselves as a boy, a girl or something else?
If you’re writing in third person, that’s when you’re going to have your third person pronouns. So the gendered pronouns or she her for female and he/his for masculine. And then for people who don’t identify as either fitting into masculine or feminine you have a lot of options and it just depends on, which pronouns feel best to the person who this character is.
So they, them is a really common, non-gendered pronoun. It’s one that we already have in our language. A lot of people think of this pronoun as plural because traditionally it was plural. And so there’s been some pushback, but. Language changes. And I want to give you an example of how pronouns have changed in English once already. We used to have formal and informal you in the English language. Thee/thou/thine is informal, you/yours is formal. We have adapted as a culture to speak English without the informal you. So we can do the same thing with they/them, and we can turn it into singular as we’ve been doing. So don’t get too hung up on that.
There are also what are known as neo pronouns which are things like xe/xyr, e/eir, and I would say if those are pronouns that speak to you personally. You probably already know a lot about how you would like to use them. And so I’m definitely not the person to tell you how to use them.
But if you’re trying to explore using neo pronouns for a character of yours and you yourself don’t use neo pronouns, you definitely are going to want to do a lot of research about the identities for which those feel meaningful to use.
[00:42:11] Sharon Skinner: It’s been such a great conversation. We could probably talk to you all day. This has been really, really fun and very informative. We so appreciate you, but we are at that point where we need to get to our action items. So, Sam, as our guest what action items would you like to share with our listeners?
[00:42:31] Sam Cameron: I have two. One is to read a book in your genre or age category that you write in that is about an LGBTQ character and is also by an LGBTQ creator. A lot of the books that we listed in our recommendation mentor texts fall into that category. Not all of them, but a lot of them.
And if you look at Rainbow Book List or Stonewall Book Awards, again, not all of them will fall in that category, but that’s a good place to look and just, see what that world is like. And then the other one is to take your work in progress and to run it through the Vito Russo test.
And just reflect on, what did you learn from exploring your manuscript in this way? What, if anything, might you change? And as I mentioned before, I posted a quiz on my website that you can take for free and it goes through the Vito Russo test and will also help you check for some common tropes.
And that again, will also subscribe you to my newsletter and you’ll get all of my notes.
[00:43:21] Christy Yaros: So Sharon, what is your action item?
[00:43:23] Sharon Skinner: well, you know, I’ve been thinking about all of this great material that Sam sent us and. How we need to know better to do better. And so my action item is to do some research, get out there, learn more so that you can do better with your writing. Sam has given us a whole lot of great resources for that.
The GLAAD Site in particular, is a place that I think you should explore. There are YouTubers out there who are doing great videos about who they are in the world and how they express themselves that you can listen to and watch and understand. So I’m just going to say my action item is do some research, dig in before you lay these characters out on page, get to know who they are as people just like you would any other character.
[00:44:14] Sam Cameron: And I’m going to actually jump on that real quick ’cause I have another recommendation of how you can do your research. If you have access to Hulu. There’s a really great documentary series and it’s from FX, it’s called Pride, and it’s six parts, six episodes. It’s a really great LGBTQ history, US history from the 1950s until now-ish.
And if you know nothing about LGBTQ experiences, that is a really good introduction.
[00:44:40] Sharon Skinner: Great. Okay. Christie, hit us with an action item.
[00:44:43] Christy Yaros: Okay. So we already have some great action items here, and like we said, Sam, this has been so informative and since you have this guide, On your website for our listeners. Then my action item is going to be to go to Sam’s website and grab this for yourself.
And that was www.truantpen.com/lgbtq. And also, I guess I’ll just reiterate what Sam said about reading books with LGBTQ characters because it’s important.
[00:45:16] Sharon Skinner: Sam, thank you again for being here. We just, can’t thank you enough. It’s been so fabulous.
[00:45:23] Sam Cameron: This was a total pleasure. Thanks for having me.
[00:45:25] Christy Yaros: Thank you so much and even though this is airing during pride month, that is sort of a coincidence, but we just want to remind everybody that. Pride month is a great time to read LGBTQ books, but so is every other month of the year, so keep going past that. And thank you again so much, Sam.
[00:45:41] Sharon Skinner: Thank you listeners for joining us again. We’ll see you next time. Bye for now.
[00:45:47] Christy Yaros: We hope you enjoyed this episode of Coaching KidLit, a writing and book coaching podcast for writers who want to level up their KidLit writing game.
[00:45:54] Sharon Skinner: For more about us and to discover what a book coach could do for you, check out coaching KidLit dot com and follow us on social media.
Follow us on Instagram and Twitter: @CoachingKidLit