In honor of Pride Month, five Epic Reads authors took to the StreamYard platform for a virtual panel last Tuesday, June 16. The conversation, simulcast on Facebook, brought together HarperCollins young adult authors Dean Atta (The Black Flamingo), Kacen Callender (Felix Ever After), Andrew Eliopulos (The Fascinators), Tobly McSmith (Stay Gold), and Ciara Smyth (The Falling in Love Montage) for a lively conversation moderated by fellow author Sam Maggs (The Unstoppable Wasp, Marvel; Con Quest!, Imprint).

Maggs began the panel by introducing the bookstore partners, a selection of indies from across the country: Blue Willow Bookshop in Houston; Brookline Booksmith in Brookline, Mass.; Hicklebee’s Children’s Books in San Jose, Calif.; and Politics & Prose Bookstore in Washington, D.C. Audience members were invited to share their Pride Month reads in the comments for a chance to earn a $100 gift card to one of the bookstores, and were also asked to submit questions for the closing q&a.

Each author subsequently introduced themselves, their pronouns, and a favorite queer character. Atta (he/him) shared his love for Willow from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, while McSmith (he/him) selected Theo Germaine, who narrated the audiobook for Stay Gold, in their role as James Sullivan on The Politician. The three other authors identified favorite book characters, with Smyth (she/her) choosing Cameron Post from The Miseducation of Cameron Post by emily m. danforth; Eliopulos (he/him) electing Duck from Francesca Lia Block’s Dangerous Angels; and Callender (they/them, sometimes he/him) going with Dante from Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz.

The authors followed up by presenting their books and inspirations. Callender’s sophomore YA novel, Felix Ever After (HarperCollins/Balzer + Bray, May), features 17-year-old Felix Love, who feels like he is “one marginalization too many” to be loved. The book was inspired by Callender’s own struggles with many of the same issues. In our society, Callender said, people with multiple marginalized identities are constantly told that “we’re just not worth the same level love and respect. I’ve been on my own journey of self-love, and I wanted to put that into the book.” Callender also shared that they discovered the label of demi-boy for themselves and wanted to see that representation on the page.

Eliopulos’s YA novel The Fascinators (Quill Tree, May) takes place in a small conservative Southern town, “not too unlike the one [he] grew up in in Georgia,” and follows a trio of teens who practice magic as an extracurricular. When out teen Sam begins to have feelings for James, their friendship dynamic is jeopardized, even as cult-like magickers threaten their safety. The book is inspired, Eliopulos related, by his own love for fantasy growing up, as well as those similarly complicated male friendships.

As for The Black Flamingo (HarperCollins/Balzer + Bray, May), Atta shared that his bildungsroman of a mixed race gay teenager living in London, who goes to university and discovers a love of drag and the eponymous drag persona, was inspired by seeing a real black flamingo and sharing a moment with his grandfather in Cyprus.

In The Falling in Love Montage (HarperTeen, June), Ciara Smyth relays a relationship between two teen girls based solely on the fun bits of rom-coms. Smyth confessed her “love-hate relationship” with rom-coms, and said the novel is actually her arguing in favor for each side.

Set in Texas, where McSmith grew up, Stay Gold (HarperTeen, May) stars trans boy Pony, who decides to “go stealth” at his new high school, and the “will they-won’t they” relationship that ensues with cheerleader Georgia. McSmith said much of his experiences are shared with Pony; he wanted to pen the story to give trans and nonbinary teens representation and to help allies see their stories.

Representation Matters

Maggs then asked the authors why the authentic, individual presentation of each of their teen protagonists was so important. McSmith explained why representation, which was lacking for him in media growing up, held so much significance, and expressed how inspired he was by kids today. Smyth, who works in mental health, described how avoiding feelings causes more distress. Atta shared his belief that there’s an absence of “one true self”; these books provide an opportunity for young people to explore their different selves. Eliopulos related that, as a closeted teen, he’d “lived the first 18 years of [his] life in a holding pattern,” and “a lot of people [he] grew up with didn’t see [him] fully,” so his novel gave him the chance to imagine himself into a more ideal environment and encourage teens to not wait to be their full selves. Callender agreed, saying that the concept of finding your true self dovetails with the themes of self-love and finding “the space you give yourself to just be—without judgment.”

Next, the authors speculated on the age they began to “start writing loudly” about queer themes. Eliopulos admitted it is “a question [he] reckon[s] with a lot,” since his journey as a gay man is separate from the type of fantasy novel journey in The Fascinators. “Seeing queer characters in genre stories like the ones I grew up reading” is still rare, Eliopulos said, so “the whole mechanism of the plot was ill-fitting for a while.” Even after feeling comfortable with his own identity, “it took years” for Eliopulos to feel ready to write it.

Coming to terms with gender identity took longer than coming to terms with queer identity for Callender. Degrassi, in the “seasons right after Drake,” showed Callender a character who explained what their trans identity meant to them, which led to Callender’s own lightbulb moment. In writing Felix Ever After, Callender sought to provide a similarly enlightening resource for teens, highlighting a trans experience different from the typically white trans or nonbinary media representation.

Despite writing musical parodies for years and working in publishing, McSmith said his realization only came about two years ago, when he witnessed a panel on #OwnVoices and recognized he had a story to tell. McSmith professed his belief in the present “empowering moment,” when it feels like “we can add to the conversation and dialogue.”

Smyth called her personal journey clichéd—she did not come out until she was 26 or 27, not realizing she was gay until she watched The L-Word. As soon as she came to terms with her identity, she knew that queer literature was what she would write.

Moderator Maggs empathized with Smyth, commenting that her own coming-out journey didn’t occur until later in her 20s; she felt bisexuality was not accurately represented as an option in media or in real life, and now feels “a responsibility” to write her identity for teens.

Atta, meanwhile, grew up sharing his experiences through slam poetry and said he used to be “very in-your-face about everything [he] thought.” He took a “subtler approach” with The Black Flamingo, believing that homophobic readers will still be swayed by the time they finish his novel.

Speaking on the dearth of queer pop cultural characters, Maggs asked the authors to identify characters in media growing up that influenced their respective journeys. While Callender did not see any canonical queer fiction, they participated in fanfiction spaces growing up. Gundam Wing, Card Captor Sakura, and another fandom “not named for sad reasons” were among their favorites. U.S. censorship, Callender added, led to their late realization of canonically queer anime characters, as relationships were often altered upon import for American audiences.

Eliopulos identified a gay kiss in Dawson’s Creek, as well as Christina Aguilera’s music video for “Beautiful” on VH1 as formative experiences. Lacking access to contemporary queer fiction, Eliopulos read Oscar Wilde until college, when he saw representation in YA.

Atta specified a movie called Beautiful Thing and the U.K. version of the television show Queer as Folk.

Smyth said she “read a lot of Baby-Sitters Club books” and is “pretty sure Kristy Thomas is a lesbian icon.” A Swedish movie called Show Me Love that she watched as a teenager “didn’t help her in any way,” but she really loved it. Looking back, she could not think of any definitive examples in the media, which she felt was part of the problem.

McSmith selected Boys Don’t Cry, even if he does not recommend it to contemporary audiences, as the representation “isn’t great.” McSmith also mentioned a trans character in The L Word.

The moderated questions concluded with Maggs’s request for books with queer themes. Maggs gave The Tiger’s Daughter by K. Arsenault Rivera as her example. Smyth shared her love for both the film and book versions of The Miseducation of Cameron Post. Even though the book is “super, super long,” she deemed it worthwhile. Atta said Abdi Nazemian’s Like a Love Story offers a “unique perspective.” Eliopulos called Julian Winters’s Running with Lions “balm for the soul,” and recommended All Boys Aren’t Blue by George M. Johnson. For fans of The Fascinators, Eliopulos suggested Wonders of the Invisible World by Christopher Barzak.

McSmith originally offered Rubyfruit Jungle by Rita Mae Brown, about a lesbian experience, but said it came with caveats; he ended by wholeheartedly recommending Thomas Page McBee’s Amateur and Jackson Bird’s Sordid. Callender named We Are Totally Normal by R.H. Kanakia as “one of the most validating and authentic portrayals of what it’s like to question your identity.”

The panel closed with audience questions collected by Epic Reads team members. The authors recounted their favorite author career moments, their reading and writing routines during the pandemic, character details that didn’t make it into their respective books, whether they would ever write a pandemic novel, and how to differentiate fiction from memoir.