Writer Sarah Moon came out as gay when she was 14 years old. The experience, she says, left her hungry for community – and for stories from others who’d gone through what she had. “I just wanted to know that someone else had come before me, and they felt the way that I felt. That they survived it,” she says.
Now also working as a teacher in Brooklyn, Moon says her idea for The Letter Q: Queer Writers’ Notes to Their Younger Selves grew from wanting to give today’s teens connections like the ones she’d found with supportive mentors. And many other authors and artists were eager to contribute: The Letter Q includes entries from 64 writers and illustrators. Scholastic’s Arthur Levine, who published the book under his own imprint, says he is thrilled with the roster of contributors – award-winning children’s and young adult writers like David Levithan and Jacqueline Woodson, as well as authors of acclaimed works for adults, such as Armistead Maupin and Terrence McNally.
The anthology’s letters and artwork reflect different time periods, identities, and experiences. Levithan looks at his own bullying behavior growing up, advising his teen self to “make all the jokes you want. Make people laugh. But don’t do it at some else’s expense.” Cartoonist Jennifer Camper drew a comic of an older lioness returning to tell her younger self that she will not only discover sex with many women, but find love, too: “You and that crazy bad girl attitude is exactly what got us where we are today.” Brian Selznick contributed a real letter he had written to his future self when he was 13, asking a string of questions, including: “ How are you? What was it like growing up and getting older? Did you marry someone? Is she nice?” The author answers it from the present with warmth and reassurance: “How am I? I’m fine. Thanks for asking. And you will be too.”
Moon compares figuring out the flow of the stories to making a mix tape; she wanted them to work together, but also to highlight different points of view. “I didn’t want the only option to be, ‘Come out! It’s going to be fantastic. And if you don’t, you’re a coward.’ ” she says. “Because I don’t think that’s true and I don’t think that’s fair.”
That’s why she was pleased to include poet J.D. McClatchy’s piece about staying in the closet in high school. “For a lot of kids, they can’t come out – and it’s actually not a good idea to come out,” Moon says. “I was glad there was a piece that said [being in the closet] will actually make you a keen observer of human nature, and very happy with your internal life.”
The Letter Q also addresses romance gone right – and wrong. In Malinda Lo’s letter, the author remembers a date with a boy that went awry because, she tells her younger self, “the possibility of love terrifies you.... And maybe, right now, you’re not ready for it yet.”
Lo says she did not come out until college, and at 16, was most concerned with being alone throughout life. She wrote her letter to reassure her teen self that this would not be the case, and was touched to find similar lessons in many of the book’s other letters. “A lot of them are about struggling with homophobia and bullying, too,” she says. “But the overall theme that came out for me was that you will find love, which I found really moving and wonderful.”
Levine hopes that the letter he contributed – which details his parents’ initial resistance to but eventual acceptance of his identity as a gay man – will resonate with both queer and straight teens. “The substance of my letter really is saying, you can go through a hard time with your parents but they love you,” he says. “And you’ll get through it, all of you.”
On May 14, Levine, Moon, and contributing editor James Lecesne hosted a reading at Scholastic headquarters in New York City, which featured a number of the book’s contributors, including Armistead Maupin reading his work over Skype from his office in San Francisco. Maupin says he realized when he got to the end of reading his letter, which concludes with the words “Love, Amistead,” that he was tearing up. “I think it was just revisiting my terrified younger self, patting him on the back, and saying, ‘This is the best thing that ever happened, not the worst,’ ” he says of his emotional reaction. “And that’s absolutely the case.”
Moon says the book’s authors and artists have gone out of their way to support the project. There are readings scheduled in June at bookstores in San Francisco and Brooklyn, and many of the contributors also volunteered to help create a book trailer in which they narrate parts of their stories. Moon singles out author Rakesh Satyal for making a particularly notable effort to be in the video. “He said, ‘I am moving to San Francisco tomorrow afternoon, but I can come by and do it tomorrow morning,’ ” she recalls.
This kind of generosity makes sense to Levine. “We are a group of people who have felt the hurt of adolescence in a particularly keen way, perhaps,” he says. “And this is a group of authors saying, ‘Yeah, I wish someone had made it better for me. Let me see what I can do.”
Half of the book’s royalties are going to the Trevor Project, a nonprofit organization working to prevent suicide among gay, lesbian, transgender, queer, and questioning teens. But according to Lecesne, who is the Trevor Project’s co-founder, the collection is more than a fundraiser. In fact, he said, when Moon initially told him her idea, he saw it as a way to help answer a question the organization’s leadership was asking: “We were trying to think about how we could help young people really make it better – right now – for themselves. How could we give them tools to be able to get through this period?”
These sorts of tools are exactly what Moon would like the book to provide. “I hope it reaches kids – both in that it’s in their hands, and then that it reaches them and they feel seen,” she says. “I think that when you feel seen, it can help.”