Author Mark Oshiro has published two young adult novels (Anger Is a Gift and Each of Us a Desert, both with Tor Teen) and contributed to anthologies about queer teens, vampires, and Star Wars. In their first middle grade novel, The Insiders, Héctor Muñoz escapes anti-gay bullying by hiding in a janitor’s closet that turns out to have magical properties. The author spoke with PW about safe spaces, unsafe adults, and making old ideas new.

What inspired The Insiders?

I wrote a book when I was a freshman or sophomore in college, and it was the first manuscript I’d written. It was a mess. But I’ve kept a version of it all these years; I always circle back to old ideas first. I had written this book about this gay Mexican teenager who finds a magic portal in his closet. I was interested in the idea of reclaiming the closet, especially having been in the closet up through high school and afterward. I liked the idea of it being a magical thing.

How did you approach creating the adult characters in the novel?

Abuela was the character I knew first. I wanted to have someone who was supportive and also mysterious. Around 10, 11, 12 is when you start realizing that the adults around have parts of their lives they’ve never talked to you about.

Ms. Heath [an administrator who doesn’t believe Héctor when he asks for help] is based on a counselor I had in junior high. Ms. Heath was hard to write. I wanted to dig into this idea that sometimes you do the right thing when it comes to bullying, and the thing I was told growing up was “find an adult you can trust and tell them.” When I was in seventh grade I was being bullied—I was in the closet, but they bullied me for being gay. There was a kid who did something very violent to me, and this counselor told me not to act [in a way that made me] a target. Ms. Heath is wrapped up in her own narrative rather than listening.

You often visit schools as part of your work as an author. What changes have you noticed in schools now vs. when you were in school? Especially for queer and trans kids.

I grew up in Riverside, California. There’s this sense that everything [in California] is an ocean paradise of progressive politics. But I grew up near the desert in a place that voted in favor of Prop 8 [the 2008 ballot proposition] to ban gay marriage in California. There’s a part of me that’s like, “We have so much more work to do,” but so much has functionally changed. At school visits, kids ask me what my pronouns are and correct other kids. I also see kids change their minds about things. They come in pretty hard with an opinion and then you explain it and they’re like, “Oh I didn’t think of it that way.” I think I was pretty stubborn as a kid! I really do think the kids are all right. It’s amazing and inspiring.

It’s not a coming out book. [The book asks,] “What if you come out and have to go back in? How do you deal with this reality, which is that you have to come out for the rest of your life and figure out who you can talk to or not?” There are more and more kids now who are out in junior high.

Eventually Hector and friends venture outside the Room to tackle their own problems. How did you conceptualize different types of spaces when writing this book?

It was a very intentional thing. The Room is a “safe space” that protects them, but they learn that’s complicated—it needs to protect them from each other at times. We have these spaces where we can be ourselves fully, and we wish the whole world could be like this one community. But all of us have to make the world our Room, and think about what we can do. That’s how I approached each of the kids’ dilemmas. They had to figure out how to take elements of the Room into the world and make it their own.

The Insiders by Mark Oshiro. HarperCollins, $16.99 Sept. 21 ISBN 978-0-06-300810-6