After years of being unable to find books representing his experience as a queer Latinx trans person, nonbinary author Aiden Thomas, who uses the pronoun he or they, has burst onto the scene with a young adult novel that is a standout in a year of distinctive YA debuts. Cemetery Boys (Swoon Reads) tells of Yadriel, a trans boy seeking acceptance of his gender and magical ability from his brujx, or magical, family.
When Yadriel’s father denies him his magical confirmation after he comes out, Yadriel undertakes the ritual on his own, hoping to prove himself by summoning the spirit of his recently murdered cousin, but he inadvertently summons the spirit of a troubled, newly deceased teenage boy named Julian instead. What begins as a spellbinding mystery soon transforms into a wrenching love story as Yadriel realizes that finding out what became of Julian in life means letting him go in death.
With the publication of Boys, Thomas became the first openly trans author to reach the New York Times fiction bestsellers list with a trans-centered work. “People liked it so much, and I realized, oh, I can be a writer!” he says. “It’s been a lot more of a recent discovery. It’s incredible.”
It was at this point that Thomas realized that he could make a career of writing, rather than merely an unprofitable pastime. He’d been raised to believe writing “was something only white people got to do.”
Thomas’s journey to publication is atypical but not unheard of. After querying around 30 agents without success, he decided to post his first novel on the Swoon Reads writing platform, where aspiring writers share their work in the hope of being chosen for publication by the Macmillan imprint. “I didn’t think anything would come out of it,” he says, “so I just threw [my first novel] up there and I forgot about it”—until a month later, when a Swoon Reads editor contacted him with an offer for publication.
“The actual reality that I could be a writer didn’t occur until I submitted my first novel, which was Lost in the Never Woods,” which Swoon Reads will publish in 2021, Thomas says. It was only upon pitching Boys to his editor Holly West that it was decided it should be his debut instead.
Through contact with readers, Thomas recognized the impact of his work. Readers have confided to him that the book has helped them discover they are trans or nonbinary, and one reader even took the name of one of the book’s characters upon transitioning.
Reflecting on his journey to publication, Thomas offers this advice for other aspiring queer and trans writers hoping to emulate his success: “If you’re a marginalized writer having a hard time seeing yourself in the industry, the most important part is to find your community of fellow queer or trans writers [to band together with]. It makes the struggle a lot more bearable if you have people cheerleading you and on your team who are going through a similar process.”
Macmillan assembled an inclusive group to realize Thomas’s vision for Cemetery Boys. “I have the best team at Macmillan, in terms of supporting me and my book,” he says, “and making sure people with similar identities to myself and Yadriel were brought into this project.” Macmillan’s commitment to calling on diverse voices and talents during the publishing process, from soliciting POC and trans cover artists (including final cover artist Mars Lauderbaugh) to hiring Latinx trans nonbinary narrator Avi Roque for the audiobook sets a powerful example.
Following his critically acclaimed novel, Thomas has signed deals to publish three more books. Two compose a middle grade duology pitched, he says, as a story set “in a world ruled by a pantheon of Latinx-inspired gods, where a misfit demigod named Teo is unexpectedly selected for the Sunbearer Trials, a fierce competition of life and death between demigod heroes.” The third book he described simply as “gay Titanic in space.”
In keeping with his bold ideas, Thomas’s greatest hope is to eventually head up a YA imprint centering the stories of queer and POC writers. In the meantime, he wants to “hold the door open for other queer people to sneak into the industry.”
Considering the way Thomas has barnstormed onto bestsellers lists and best-of-2020 compilations, he may well get his wish.