Local writer Greg Howard

Local writer Greg Howard has begun to make a name for himself in the world of Young Adult (YA) and, increasingly, Middle Grade literature—especially for LGBTQ+ and allied readers.

Last year, I talked with Howard about his then-new middle grade release, The Whispers, and just a little under a year later I sat down with him again to discuss his new book and some upcoming work. Middle School’s a Drag: You Better Werk hit the shelves on February 11, 2020, and if you haven’t seen it yet, look for it, especially if you have young readers around.

Boy and Girl peeking from behind curtains.

Middle Schools A Drag Book Cover

Greg Howard

James: So, last time we talked, you had just released The Whispers. How has the response been?

Greg: Well, it was interesting, because it was everything from getting letters and emails from parents and teachers and kids who just loved it, and parents who told me they were able to have conversations with their kids through it, to some very ugly emails and letters. Which is very interesting to me because The Whispers is such a sweet, innocuous story. I mean, it is gay lite, you know what I mean? that is not what the story is about, in a lot of senses. There is a kiss, and he has a crush. And it's a very chaste kiss...

I even got this one email that kind of broke my heart from this father who wrote me an email and just laid into me about how his 12-year-old son had picked up this book... I didn't even know that was still a thing but apparently it is: he laid into me about pushing my homosexual agenda on his son and how dare I ... blah blah blah. He even sent me a picture of The Whispers ripped up and in the trashcan.

And I thought to myself, "Oh my Lord, if that if that kid is gay, he just saw his dad throw him in the trash, basically." That thought just broke my heart. So heartbreaking letters like that but also some very heartfelt and beautiful letters too.

Also, I just found out this week, by the way, that The Whispers nominated for the Edger Award for Best Juvenile Fiction. That's an award given by the Mystery Writers of America so it's like the Oscar of mystery writers, so very excited about that.

James: Your new book is Middle School's a Drag. So you're doing something very different this time around...

Greg: Very different from The Whispers, yeah. This one took a more comedic route. Although The Whispers had some comedic elements to it... But, yeah, this one I just kind of went in a little different direction.

When I was a kid, I was a little bit of an entrepreneur. We had this storage room and laundry room off of our carport in South Carolina where I lived. My dad had a big oak desk in there, and I would go in there and start businesses, so to speak. I called it The Anything Shop. I started a little general store that my dad built for me out of cardboard, and I gave croquet lessons and charged kid money. You know, just a total rip off: I was making up the rules as I went. That's kind of what started the idea for this story, because Mikey, in the story, considers himself a kid entrepreneur. And he works out of his family's storage room laundry room off the carport like that.

James: So how did the drag kid element come into play?

Greg: I got inspired when I was watching Good Morning America... They had a special on drag kids, and one in particular whose name is Desmond Is Amazing, and it was really the first time that I had seen kids doing drag, very seriously, like this was their passion, this is something they wanted to do to express themselves and perform. And I was just amazed, in an incredibly good way... I felt very happy for these kids, and these parents that were supporting them. So that gave me the idea of bringing a drag kid into the story, which has not been done yet in Middle Grade.

So all this gave me the idea for one of Mikey's businesses to be a junior talent agency. His first client is this drag kid named Julian, who's an eighth grader, and his drag persona is Coco Caliente Mistress of Madness and Mayhem. That's where the idea started from. I'm really proud of it. People are liking it, which is always good, you know, and I'm hoping this will reach even more kids than I reached with The Whispers.

James: What would you say is the theme of Middle School’s a Drag?

Greg: This is a fun, uplifting comedy. It's about a boy, Mikey, who is gay and he knows he's gay and he's even out to his parents and his best friends. But he hasn't made like the big announcement to the middle school yet, and he's really worried about coming out that way. It's not about him not accepting he's gay because he does. He's just worried about how people are going to treat him when they find out, so that's kind of where this one's coming from.

Mikey learns from Julian, the drag kid, about being confident in who you are. The quote at the beginning of the book is by the drag kid that inspired me, Desmond: "Be yourself always." So I use that as the quote opening the book. So, this book, to me, is just pure joy; it's just fun. It's easy to read: people are telling me they read it in a day or weekend. I love that, there's lots of hijinks in it, lots of gay stuff, lots of queer stuff.

James: Have you heard from people? Are there any common thoughts or responses?

Greg: The thing that I'm hearing most is the pure joy people feel when they read it. When I write I don't think about making people feel a certain way, but I am hearing a lot of people saying that that's what they felt when they read it. And that made it left them feeling hopeful and triumphant. And I like it that they're using the word hopeful again, because that was a big word with The Whispers. It ended with a lot of hope, and the theme of the book was hope, and I love the fact that people are finding that similar theme in this book, even though it's so completely different from The Whispers.

James: With the book tour starting, are there festivals or events you are looking forward to?

Greg: I love doing SE-YA Book Fest in Murfreesboro. It's one of the bigger YA book festivals, and it has Middle Grade. It has all the big writers in YA and Middle Grade. I think the big name this year is gonna be Angie Thomas who wrote The Hate You Give and On the Come Up. I love going to that one.

What I love about those festivals is that a lot of them have student days, so there's one day that they bussed in kids from schools, and those are the best. It is amazing to see this big open room full of writers giving autographs, and these middle school and high school kids acting like they're rock stars. That's so friggin’ cool, because I never met an author when I was that age. They are just enamored, and we all love it. We just love seeing their excitement about books.

James: Tell me about what you're working on now: Do you have anything in the works?

Greg: Well, I just actually turned in my latest book called The Visitors. It will be out next summer, 2021, and it's a ghost story. I've always wanted to write a ghost story, again based on my childhood. We grew up next to this old deserted haunted rice plantation in Georgetown, South Carolina, and we had our own little ghosty experiences there.

I wrote this story kind of harkening back to my times there, and it's about the spirit of an 11-year-old boy who had died mysteriously on the plantation. These present-day kids come and befriend him, and they help him figure out how he died, so he can be free of the place, because he's stuck there. That was fun to write, I loved writing that one, and of course my life was a little more settled, so it was easier to get it out and on the page.

James: What motivates you?

Greg: I mean, this is my dream for the rest of my life! It makes it all worth it, talking to the kids and ... we talked about this, but here's just not enough yet in Middle Grade literature for [LGBTQ] kids. I mean, YA [Young Adult] is great! There's tons of stuff, but not enough a middle grade, so I'm kind of making that my focus right now. I did write a YA novel, Social Intercourse when I first started, but I have kind of found my niche in Middle Grade writing about queer kids. It seems to be working, and it seems to be resonating with parents, with teachers, and with kids. My goal is to give queer kids their happily ever after, one story at a time—that's my mission.

James: So, with The Visitors that will make three Middle Grade books. We talked last time about the challenges, about the gatekeepers and things like that. As a writer, what do you enjoy about writing for those kids?

Greg: I think one is I just enjoy the voice of that age group... Somehow I'm able to tap into it… And I love the fact that I can write these books that are getting into the hands of kids who are seeing themselves represented, you know? There was another review, I think on Amazon, where somebody said about The Whispers something like "this would have been a great story. But why did the kid have to be gay? That just ruined it."

I just want to shake that person and say, "Because there are kids out there that they need to see themselves in the books they read!" I don't know about you, but I never saw myself in books, except by imagining something is going on [behind the scenes].

I love that I had this one parent at my Parnassus event for The Whispers... She picked it up and read the back to her son, who was like 11 or 12. When she said the kid has a crush on this older boy, he looked up at her and said, "Mom, it's like he knows my life!" And I'm thinking, "Yes, I see you, I see you kid!"

James: So, what are your longer-term goals?

Greg: I'd love to keep writing books for Penguin; they've been amazing. And I would like to do more school visits, which is something that I just started doing this past year with The Whispers.

In Chattanooga, I spoke with this rural middle school in front of 300 sixth graders. And then I spent a period a classroom and did a writing workshop. And that was amazing and inspired me to do more of that. In that writing workshop there were about 30 kids. I had at least four of them come up to me and come out to me after, in tears.

I'm not talking just flippantly saying, "Oh, hey I'm gay." These kids were terrified. They came up to me separately at the little book signing after the writing workshop. They would tell me then, and they would speak very quietly, and they were crying. And I just want to help these kids and tell them it's gonna be okay. What I usually end up saying is, “Thank you for telling me that. I want you to know that you're not alone, and you are loved.” And I always ask them if they have support at home, and luckily, so far, they've all said yes, which I think is wonderful and amazing. So I want to I want to do more of that.

NOTE! Since the publication of this article, it has become widely known that Once Upon A Time…in Hollywood and Marriage Story producer David Heyman’s Heyday Television is adapting Middle School’s A Drag for television, with its joint venture partner NBCUniversal International Studios.

You can find Middle School Is a Drag most anywhere books are sold. It can also be purchased online from Amazon in print or for Kindle. For more on Greg Howard, check out his website!

Photo courtesy of Rumble Boxing Gulch Nashville

Rumble Boxing Gulch, Nashville

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