Adib Khorram’s YA debut, Darius the Great Is Not Okay, earned several awards, including the William C. Morris Debut Award, the Asian/Pacific American Award for Young Adult Literature, and a Boston Globe-Horn Book Honor. He is also the author of Darius the Great Deserves Better, Kiss and Tell, and the picture book Seven Special Somethings: A Nowruz Story. Here, Khorram reflects on his new picture book, Bijan Always Wins, illustrated by Michelle Tran, and the early seeds of toxic masculinity that are planted in childhood.

“I play winner!”

That phrase still gets a visceral reaction out of me.

As a child, I was terrible at sports. Actually, I still am. And we didn’t have any video games at home, so I didn’t get any practice at Tetris or Super Mario Bros. (And wow did I just date myself.) Even board games and cards games could be a challenge, honestly, especially since five-year-olds aren’t necessarily known for being able to succinctly explain the rules without devolving into Calvinball.

And so, I’d get my single turn at a game of Dr. Mario, or a round of air hockey, or at the lever of a Hungry Hungry Hippo, promptly lose, and then go back to waiting, while the kids who were good, or experienced, or just lucky, got to spend uninterrupted hours playing.

Suffice it to say, watching others have fun while I sat on the sidelines was less than ideal. More than that, though, it was my first real exposure to the idea of winning (and losing).

Winning meant you had more fun. Winning meant you got more turns. Winning meant everyone wanted to be your friend. Winning meant the adults in the room praised you. In short, winning was everything.

I don’t think my experience is particularly unique. The games might have changed, but the impulse to win is still there, imprinted on so many young hearts. Boys who are taught that winning is everything grow up into young men who think that everything in life is a prize to be won. That other young men are rivals to be dominated. That by virtue of their prowess (and it always is prowess, never luck), they deserve what they want from the world.

I’ve spent most of my life living in some iteration of this system—from the frustrations of daycare, to the horrors of middle school, to the darkly comical mishaps of a modern workplace. I’ve tried to play along. I’ve tried to escape. But the older I’ve gotten, the more I’ve been inclined to push back.

My first novel, Darius the Great Is Not Okay, asks what it means to be a teenage boy. It explores how Darius relates to his peers, to his sister, to his parents and grandparents, to his friends. Woven throughout is an interrogation of how toxic masculinity affects Darius, whether it be in bullying by his peers, or his grandfather’s stoicism, or his father’s misguided attempts to shield Darius from his own mental illness. And that interrogation has continued through all my work, expanding to explore how it affects queer people (like me) and brown people (again, like me). How the desire to win, to dominate, shapes us and those around us in ways we don’t always realize.

Yet those stories were all, in some way, examining the symptoms of toxic masculinity. What about the root cause?

I suppose, in a way, I’ve come full circle.

In my new picture book, Bijan is a boy obsessed with winning, even at things one cannot win at: tying one’s shoes, eating vegetables, playing with dinosaurs. And that’s funny! Kids and adults alike can laugh at the absurdity of Bijan insisting he’s won at falling asleep. But Bijan Always Wins also tells a story of a boy whose actions and attitudes are harming those around him—and how, when he realizes it, he wants to do better.

Because deep down, I’m still that same boy, waiting for my turn to play, and imagining a world where all of us can.

Bijan Always Wins by Adib Khorram, illus. by Michelle Tran. Dial, $18.99 July 9 ISBN 978-0-593-32530-8