By Alexandra Townsend
Coming out of the closet is tricky for anyone. It gets even worse when you're already dealing with terrible grades, your parents' decision to divorce, and a pregnancy scare with the guy you just dumped! That's the way things stand for Ash in best-selling author Liz Kessler's first young adult novel, Read Me Like a Book.
Ash, 17, is a tough girl who has never done well in school and doesn't see the point in trying. She's already got plenty to worry about as between the problems with her parents, her boyfriend, and her distant best friend, it feels like her life is falling apart. Then school suddenly becomes a lot more interesting when Ash gets a new English teacher, the lovely Miss Murray, and falls in love.
Miss Murray sees potential in Ash like no one ever has. She makes Ash think and listens to her worries. She helps Ash learn more about herself and realize what she really wants in life, even if a student/teacher love affair isn't actually on the menu.
Read Me Like a Book is a beautiful, insightful, and very realistic story. It shows the hurdles of first love and coming out while not just being a coming-out story. Ash's journey is especially touching because so many other things are going on in her life. She feels like a complete person and connects more with the reader.
Liz Kessler, a New York Times best-selling author of the popular Emily Windsnap series, steps outside her traditional middle-grade (ages 8-12) audience with this, her first novel for young adult readers. Kessler spoke to baystateparent about Read Me Like a Book and what its themes mean to her.
Read Me Like a Book is being largely discussed as a coming-out story, but Ash's orientation doesn't come into question until halfway through the story. Instead, she's more focused on things like her parents' divorce, trouble with friends, a pregnancy scare, and getting by in school. Do you think of your novel as a coming-out story or more of a slice-of-life/coming-of-age story? Is the distinction important to you?
I prefer not to think of it purely as a coming-out story. Young people who are going through a time of coming out (to themselves as well as to others, like Ash is) have all sorts of other things going on in their lives, too, and I wanted this book to reflect that. I see it as a year in the life of a young person going through all sorts of things, including coming out, and hopefully it is more realistic because of that. I am, of course, aware that the main thread is the coming-out story -- but, yes, I would love people to see it as a slice of life/coming-of-age story first and foremost.
What value do you think there is in kids reading LGBT-related stories? How is it important for LGBT kids versus straight/cis kids?
I think the value is enormous, to all of us. It's the "windows and mirrors" things. For young people going through any of the issues that are touched on in a book, it is enormously validating for them to be able to see themselves reflected in its pages -- especially if that experience is, or has been, rare. For everyone else, it opens a window for them to see issues beyond their own lives, which I hope helps to open their minds, too. Having said this, when I write, the story always comes first, not the issue -- and that is very important for me.
In Read Me Like a Book, Ash develops very strong feelings for her teacher, maybe even feeling in love with her. However, she also feels very infatuated with her boyfriend Dylan earlier in the novel. Why did you decide to characterize Ash strictly as a lesbian by the end of the story? No one seems to consider even for a moment that she might be bisexual or pansexual. I suspect this might be because the book was written years ago when bisexual people weren't given as much visibility in the LGBT community, but I've read that other parts of the book have been updated for modern times. I'm very curious as to why bisexuality has been excluded.
This is an interesting question, and one which -- I agree with you -- would probably not have come up in quite the same way had the book been published when I originally wrote it, back in 2000. I don't feel that the issue of bisexuality has been "excluded." More that this wasn't what was happening for Ash. I do get that the way we talk about sexuality is hugely different nowadays from how we talked about it 20 years ago and, yes, I agree, perhaps there could have been more discussion -- from others -- about whether Ash was bisexual. But for her, this wasn't a consideration. Her awareness of her sexuality is partly driven by the fact that she never felt "right" about the sexual side with Dylan (or any other boy). It wasn't that she is attracted to men and women. It was that she had always gone along a path that she assumed was the right one because that was the done thing -- but that she realizes it wasn't right for her at all -- and that she identifies as lesbian.
As the teacher, Miss Murray, takes such a strong interest in Ash and is only a few years older, there is a point in the novel where it really seems like they could have a romance. If it isn't right away, it could be a few years down the road when Ash is out of school. What made you decide that it was better to draw a very definite line against that?
I wanted the book to be very much about Ash and her emerging awareness of her sexuality, and not muddy the waters by going down a route that could have brought a different kind of attention to it. In the book's very early stages, I actually did have a kiss between Ash and Miss Murray! As the process went on, I realized that this wasn't a road I wanted to go down. It's not a book about crossing professional boundaries and the issues involved in that -- it's about a young person's growing awareness of her sexuality, and I wanted to keep the focus quite clearly on that.
Miss Murray really changes Ash's life in more ways than just romantically. What role do you feel teachers have in shaping kids' lives?
A good teacher can change everything. I was quite a badly behaved child at school, and then I had an English teacher who somehow made me realize that I might have more to offer to the world than my bad behavior! She made me think that I might have some talent and some ability, and in helping me to want to work hard and do better, she changed my life. This book is as much a thank you to teachers like that as it is anything else.
It seems like Ash could have had a much easier time realizing she was interested in women if she'd had a more supportive home environment. What advice do you have for parents who want to be supportive of their LGBT children (or even just children they suspect to be LGBT)?
I'm not sure that I agree with this. I think her journey would still have been hers to make, even if her parents hadn't been going through a tough time themselves. And I think her home environment ends up being very supportive -- especially her relationship with her mum! Having said this, it's always a good thing if anyone is asking how they can support LGBT children.
I am not a parent, so I wouldn't like to think I'm telling anyone what to do -- but I guess my advice would be quite simple. Just let your children know that you support them, whoever they are, and that whoever they love and whoever they turn out to be, you'll love them just the same.
If parents have any issues with it themselves, there are support groups for families and parents of LGBT children, so maybe get in touch with these -- but I think the main thing is just to let your children know that you support and love them for whoever they are. I'm pretty sure most good parents do this anyway!