Charlotte lowkey makes fun of me for this, but if she let me, I probably would turn this blog into a shrine for Kayla. I’m just a big fan of her work, okay guys? And not without reasons, because everything she already published is amazing.
Anyway, I guess it comes as no surprise then that I asked her to write something for Reads Rainbow’s anniversary. And if you’ve read either of her books, you know that found family is a bit of a signature trope for her. So enjoy!
First, I would like to take the time to thank Anna for providing me with the opportunity to talk about one of my favorite topics. Being lucky enough to be in a position to create mainstream LGBT content is a huge responsibility and handling it with care and consideration is a large part of having this job. Getting to discuss the ways we achieve this is such a gift and I’m really happy to be featured here.
What I’ve selected to discuss is Found Family and LGBT characters in the periphery of YA books. As you may know, found family is a huge part of LGBT culture throughout a majority of the world. We find each other, in many ways and we huddle together for warmth. We feed each other in all our hungers, with touch, companionship and validation. In many cases, we often feed hungers for actual food, shelter, medical resource, parental guidance and mental healthcare. This network support is integral to the LGBT identity and survival—even with infighting and prejudices within our own communities. It is a thread that binds us and nurtures us when we cannot find these things easily and it truly is everything.
When creating work for children and teenagers, considering the needs of that group is by far the most important thing to me. We all know that that age range is a time for metamorphosis and that alone is stressful. But for many LGBT teens it’s also a time of extreme isolation and insecurity. While some teens build found families of their friends and have support systems that help them through this transitionary period, many seek out the community and support they need through the media they consume and bond with others through identifying with characters who share similar backgrounds. For those teens, seeing a world that mimics their experience isn’t as filling as the full three course meal that having found family in their real lives would be. But it’s a snack to someone starving and might just be enough to keep them going to the next day.
When I build the ensemble casts of my books, I do so with the understanding that they may also be stand-ins for perspectives that a real teen might need to have in their life. That doesn’t always mean they’re “well behaved and likable” characters, but more that—together—they have a full set of features that an isolated teenager would want to see in their own friend groups: They are a mix of poor and wealthy teens. They accept each other’s eccentricities instantly and unconditionally. They have parents that range from caring so much they’re overbearing and strict all the way down to neglectful parents or even missing parents. They are talented and they are talentless, but that is positioned to not matter and it’s always more important that they have hobbies and like to have fun! They make bad decisions and are punished for them, or just barely get away with them and they are always given the space to think about their actions and learn from them. They get to be themselves with each other and are shown trying to heal each other. Whether or not they are successful, value is always placed on the attempt to “do good things” not the success of the action. Regardless of what the general environment thinks about them, I always write one adult who sees through their mess to the good kid who deserves a hug inside. Even if the character is literally standing in the ashes of what they burned or lashing out wildly. Whether or not my readers are excited about my books because they’re finally getting a mirror, or consuming them just to survive, I want them to see people like themselves being handled with care or for there at least to be characters in righteous anger on their behalf if they are not.
Another facet of this same concept is having LGBT characters in the periphery of the world. The inclusion of background diversity is a concept that is rapidly gaining ground in YA and it has a huge role in the cultural environment these books are landing in—as well as providing teens starving for these circumstances with a world, they can actually relax in. Hostility narratives that mirror painful LGBT experiences suffused the marketplace for decades, and they definitely have their place in the tapestry of discussion of the LGBT experience in fiction. But, for a large quantity of YA authors creating work over the past three years, that was the only vision of themselves that they had. I’ve read dozens upon dozens of my peers talking about reading those stories in a mix of anguish and thankfulness that they existed, while making a pointed decision to create softer worlds for LGBT characters in their own fiction. Worlds where background characters are holding hands with their husbands, and background teens have LGBT parents. Offhanded throwaway lines like a classmate that’s not even an MC saying “Yeah sure I can go to the party, but my other mom is going to freak out if I’m not home by 10pm” hits with ruthless power. “Back when I was pretending to be a girl.” said by a trans teacher giving unrelated advice, could punch through the sun.
For a LGBT teen who has a strong found family and lives in a world that mirrors this, the experience of finally seeing their reality on the page is exciting and exhilarating. Seeing shades of their friends in these characters is so much fun and talking to other people on social media about their canon LGBT ships is a delightful new thing that they definitely deserve to have. But for LGBT teens without found families who live in hostile painful environments, contemporary books with worlds that include LGBT periphery are a safe haven to rest in. They also offer isolated LGBT teen readers the understanding that there are places outside their circumstances that they can escape to, where having an openly LGBT teacher is shrugged at and doesn’t end in bloodshed. That they could move from their town to a place where they can walk their dog holding hands with their partner and have giant gay brunches with all their new friends. That these places exist right now and seeing all their online friends talking about them makes them seem even more real than ever. Even those spaces aren’t perfect, and prejudice free, but by god at least they’re there. And, for a teen whose whole world might seem like a black pit, seeing pinpricks of light in the distance is sustenance. That shit saves lives.
It also has a huge role in normalizing diversity for teens who are not LGBT. We’re already seeing the cultural impact of media with reduced portrayal of diversity on what people think the world should “look like” and it’s not a pretty picture. Showcasing the diversity that exists around us in our fiction is integral to the health of the population. The number of authors from marginalized communities who have given painful interviews discussing how they never felt like they could be main characters in their own lives—much less in their own books—is overwhelming. However, the fact that they are even able to give these interviews, while they’re releasing books that center their identities, is such a massive step.
Of course, being in the position to build these worlds and write these characters is a limited perspective of the true cultural impact of this, because we are just adults writing the fantasies of what we wish we had, what we wanted and what we think today’s teens deserve. But the teens that are reading our wishes and eating our lovingly prepared snacks are experiencing this and will grow up to be creators in the same way that we did. I’m excited to see the fruits of this work and this consideration and this care, and I think about it all the time. How will the teens we are writing for today, seeing these characters like them surrounded by love and support, guide their choices as LGBT adults? What kind of interviews will they be giving as they release their own books? What texts will they be referencing as “impactful” when they’re talking about the stories that they themselves are writing? Did we feed them nourishing things or did we shove their mouths full of junk food? Will they remember us in the same way as we remember the authors we read—with wistfulness, pain and gratefulness? Will our trying—and we are definitely trying—be enough?
I don’t know, and none of us do.
But we’ll keep building, making mirrors, making snacks, making meals, designing friends, designing families, designing fantasy moms and dads and teachers and lovers and crushes. Watering the garden where we all live. Even if some patches of it see only rain and some patches see only sunshine, through our roots we’ll share it all, and we will survive.
K. Ancrum grew up in Chicago Illinois. She attended Dominican University to study Fashion Merchandizing, but was lured into getting an English degree after spending too many nights experimenting with hard literary criticism and hanging out with unsavory types, like poetry students. Currently, she lives in Andersonville and writes books at work when no one is looking.