Award-winning author Julie Anne Peters, best known for her groundbreaking YA novels featuring complex LGBTQ+ characters navigating relationships and exploring issues of identity, died on March 21 following a long illness. She was 71.
Peters was born on January 16, 1952 in Jamestown, N.Y., and grew up in suburban Denver, Colo. In 1974 she received her B.A. from Colorado Women’s College, and following graduation, she spent a year working as a fifth-grade teacher and as an educational assistant to students with special needs.
By late 1975, Peters had changed her career course and began work as a computer programmer and systems analyst, which included earning a B.S. from Metropolitan State College of Denver in 1985 and an M.B.A. from the University of Colorado-Denver in 1989. During this period, she told Something About the Author, “After discovering a surprising aptitude for technical writing, I began work on a young adult novel. It never saw the light of publication, but it did illuminate hopes for a career in writing.”
This new game plan spurred Peters to devote two years “developing skills, learning the craft, and educating myself in the field of children’s literature,” she told SATA. She sold several short stories, nonfiction articles, and educational activities that appeared in children’s magazines before signing up her first middle-grade book, The Stinky Sneakers Contest, published by Little, Brown in 1992. Peters wrote several more humorous middle-grade novels in the 1990s before publishing her first YA title, Define “Normal” (Little, Brown, 2000), which Peters had said was inspired by the family difficulties often experienced by the kids she had worked with as a teacher.
Peters’s next YA project also was inspired by her lived experience. In a 2020 interview with Write or Die magazine, Peters recalled how it came to be. “One day I was talking to my editor, Megan Tingley at Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, about another book we were collaborating on, and out of nowhere she asked, ‘Why don’t you write a lesbian love story?,’ ” Peters said. “I may have fainted,” she added. “Long, long pause while I hyperventilated.” At that time, Peters, who was openly gay, was out only to family and friends, but not “OUT out,” she explained in Write or Die. In 2014, Peters married her partner Sherri Leggett, after being together for 40 years. Peters’s agent was equally encouraging about her pursuing this new storytelling tack.
The result was Keeping You a Secret (Little, Brown, 2003), centering the romantic relationship between two teenage girls. As the book was a rarity in its day, Peters braced herself for a negative reaction. But, as she told Write or Die, she was proven wrong. “What filled my inbox were letters from young readers. Love letters. Coming out stories. Horrible stories. Wonderful stories. Thank you letters,” Peters said, “They kept coming and coming. I printed every one. I answered every one. Yes, there were a few emails from mothers who accused me of turning their daughters into lesbians. Hell, if I knew it was that easy, I’d have written the book years before.” In addition to getting a warm reception from readers, the book was named a Stonewall Honor Book by the American Library Association and was a Lambda Literary Award finalist.
“It took time to absorb the significance and power of that book,” she told Write or Die. “Today I cherish the impact, and the fact that the success of Keeping You a Secret gave permission to other authors to write their stories. And for publishers to buy them. It gave me the confidence to write more young adult literature with lesbian characters and themes.” Among Peters’s other acclaimed YA novels are Between Mom and Jo (Little, Brown, 2006) and Luna (Little, Brown, 2004) one of the first books for young people focused on a transgender teen struggling with issues of identity and acceptance. Luna received many industry accolades including being selected as a National Book Award finalist. In all, Peters’s books have sold more than one million copies and have been published in numerous countries around the world.
Megan Tingley, president and publisher of Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, and Peters’s longtime editor, shared a personal remembrance. “Julie and I began working together in 1991,” she said. “I discovered The Stinky Sneakers Contest in the slush pile. It was my first fiction acquisition and her first publication. So, we grew up in publishing together. At the beginning of her career, she was focused on writing humorous stories with heart for middle readers, but it was when she sent me her first YA novel, Define “Normal,” that I thought she had found her true voice. LGBTQ+ readers needed their own Judy Blume and, to me, Julie was it. She explored issues of gender identity, sexual orientation, divorce, and depression with both humanity and humor. While Julie retired from writing in 2014, we remained friends and I last saw her in September, when she and Sherri came out to visit. After struggling with some health issues for a few years, she seemed to be doing much better and we laughed a lot. I’m grateful for that memory and to know that her books will continue providing a much-needed lifeline to young readers.”
Wendy Schmalz, Peters’s agent of long standing, offered this tribute: “Julie wasn’t just a talented writer. She was a courageous one. I hope that people understand just how gutsy it was to write an LGBQT+ novel in the early 2000s. What gave Julie the most satisfaction were the letters she received over the years from LGBTQ+ kids thanking her for making them feel less alone and helping them realize there was nothing wrong with them. Julie was smart, funny, sarcastic, and a joy to have as a client and a friend.”
And Stephanie Lurie, executive editor of the Rick Riordan Presents imprint at Disney-Hyperion, recalled, “I was fortunate enough to be able to do some finishing-up work on Julie’s YA novel By the Time You Read This, I’ll Be Dead (Disney-Hyperion, 2008), about one girl’s struggle with suicidal thoughts, and I was floored by Julie’s frank and courageous writing. I immediately knew her book would speak to and help many readers. Then I had the opportunity to experience Julie in person at a dinner party at her home, where I thoroughly enjoyed her big heart and sharp wit. I’m glad our paths crossed briefly, if only so I could tell her how much I admired and appreciated her work. May it live on for years to come.”