In an article for Huffington Post, Howard shot back, "I’ve been accused of pushing my 'homosexual agenda' onto kids through my writing. So, I will confess: They got me. I’m guilty. I do have an agenda." That agenda? Giving LGBTQ+ kids representation in middle grade and young adult literature and shining lights on the social issues plaguing our kids into mental health crises.
Howard’s new book, The Visitors, which touches on the abuse many LGBTQ+ kids face, the prevalence of suicide among these youth, and racism and slavery, is sure to catch the ire of rightwing pundits like Ingraham. But it also provides much-needed representation for kids suffering every day in this country. And it provides a modicum of hope in a world increasingly bleak for our kids.
The week before his book release, Howard discussed the book and the social issues it delves into with me. We revisited some of the issues surrounding representation we had discussed when his books The Whispers and Middle School's A Drag, You Better Werk! were released, as well as how the political environment has shifted dramatically.
INTERVIEW WITH GREG HOWARD
Greg, can you tell us a little bit about it your new book, The Visitors?
Greg Howard: Well, The Visitors is set on a deserted rice plantation in the low country of South Carolina. It's the story of the spirit of a 12-year-old boy who is stuck there. He doesn't remember why he's stuck there, who he is, or even how long he's been there. And he doesn't know how to move on from this very sad and lonely place. Things change for him when a groups of modern-day, “living” kids show up. They're investigating a decades-old mystery for a school podcast and his memories get stirred up. He starts remembering things about his past that might help him move on.
So that's a pretty cool concept! True Crime podcasts are big right now. So having one in a school setting and having that be a story device seems really kind of contemporary and cool! The background of the rest of the story is more traditional—it's a ghost story, after all—with elements that some readers may potentially find problematic: LGBTQ+ issues, youth suicide, slavery in America, and more. Tell us a little bit about your decision to write about some very sensitive topics, especially now!
Greg Howard: The Visitors deals with some serious topics, yes. As in all my books, there are elements of humor and charm to couch or frame some of the more serious, and sometimes uncomfortable topics. The book touches on issues of physical abuse within a family, youth suicide, sexual orientation, gender identity, and slavery.
I have specific reasons why I wrote about those things. But overall, I feel they're issues that need to be addressed, like youth suicide. I was talking to some of my educator friends, and wondering, “why aren't we talking about this?” It’s not something you see discussed a lot in middle grade books, and I don't know why because it’s happening every day. I understand that some adults feel it's not age appropriate to address in middle-grade books, but if kids are living it, we need to talk about it. And I need to write about it.
Suicide is the second leading cause of death among young people ages ten to twenty-four, and it's growing at an exponential rate. LGBTQ+ youth are five times more likely to have attempted suicide than their non-LGBTQ+ youth peers. So, not addressing the problems isn’t helping. Unfortunately, the age of the victims of suicide, is skewing younger and younger. We have kids who are fourteen, thirteen, twelve, sometimes even younger, who are bullied for being queer or being perceived to be queer, dying of suicide.
Beyond the prevalence of the issue, I know your personal experience growing up, both having considered suicide as an option and having experience abuse, really influenced the character's backstory. Could you say a bit more about that?
Greg Howard: I was twelve when I first started thinking that death was the solution to my problems. I was queer, and I lived in the Deep South. I wasn’t shown and alternative for a life being myself and happy. I had to hide who I was. I went to church, where I was told from the pulpit that I was going to hell for being who I was. Of course, I didn't feel like I could talk to anybody about how I felt. And then I also had an abusive stepmother. My mom died when I was very young, and my dad remarried someone much younger than him. She was abusive to me and my brother, both physically and emotionally. Every time I would try to talk to my dad about it, he didn’t believe me. So that was something else that was weighing on me as a kid.
I was probably suffering from depression, as a lot of kids are, but back then you just weren't diagnosed with depression. You certainly weren't treated for it.
Because of all of these factors, I thought about suicide quite a bit when I was that age. That was another reason why I wanted to talk about it in this book, because again, I lived it. And I know kids out there now are living it.
I've had kids come up to me at events after reading Social Intercourse, for instance, or The Whispers and tell me that the book helped them out of a very dark place, when they were thinking about ending their own lives. Again, if kids are living it, we need to write about it, and we need to talk about it.
If by addressing this topic in a middle grade book I get pushback or challenged, it will be worth it if even one kid finds hope from this book. Ultimately, the book is a story of hope and redemption. I don't want anybody to think that I have a queer character whose existence is all horrible and without hope. The characters in my books always find hope in the end, as all kids should.
Representation is not just seeing the LGBTQ+ character on the page, but it's also seeing an LGBTQ+ character struggling with those experiences and prevailing. If all you see is happy LGBTQ+ characters and you are a person who's struggling with it, you're gonna feel just as far outside because of that character as you would from seeing only straight characters, right?
Greg Howard: Yes, exactly. I have seen reader reviews on Amazon or Goodreads for The Whispers and received some emails from more progressive people saying, “this book is bad because this little boy is ashamed of liking other boys, and I had my son quit reading it because I don't want him to be ashamed of who he is.” And they’re missing the whole point. Real kids are having these emotions whether you acknowledge it or not. So, let them read something that's going to take them on a journey from feeling ashamed to loving themselves and feeling hopeful in the end.
Before we move on, let's not forget about the other sensitive issue this novel touches on—slavery.
Greg Howard: Yes. I felt it was important talk about slavery in the book, because first of all, the story is set on a rice plantation in the deep South. It would have been disrespectful, not to acknowledge and pay tribute to the black people who would have suffered and died there.
When I was growing up in South Carolina, in this area where the book is set, we weren't taught the real truth about slavery. We were given a whitewashed view of slavery—you know, how the enslaved people were “treated like family,” and, "Oh, look, this planter even built a chapel in the slave village!" It wasn't until I got older, and I started learning more about the world and having more experiences and broadening my friend base and reading, especially, that I learned that this is not really the way it was.
The other reason why I wanted to go there in this book and have characters who are the spirits of enslaved people, is to engage young, white readers with a part of our history that they don't have to talk or think about, if they don't want to. It doesn’t affect their lives. Slavery in our country is an ugly truth, but one that we need to keep telling. Hopefully, the book will encourage young white readers to reach out to people who are not like them and think critically about how slavery and racism have really shaped our country and our society.
So we have gender and sexuality, we have abuse and youth suicide, and we have a look into racial intolerance and oppression, all wrapped into one book! I think Laura Ingraham is going to think that you wrote this one just to spite her! But in all seriousness, it just seems so timely, especially in Tennessee right now! We've banned the teaching of so-called "critical race theory" in schools, we're discussing a ban on any LGBTQ+ content in schools, we're banning books like Maus because they don't want kids to know that kids were killed in the Holocaust. It's a rough time out there, and you've written a middle grade book that seems to touch on all of it.
Greg Howard: It's what's happening in the world. So, I feel like to ignore these topics or to take these books off the shelves doesn’t solve anything. It certainly doesn’t save kids.
Middle School's A Drag, You Better Werk! was recently panned on The Laura Ingraham Show on Fox News. The way it all came about was the book was on a teacher's class reading list for students at a middle school. Laura Ingraham got a hold of that list and was leading a discussion about what's being taught in schools. All of a sudden, there's the cover of my book up on Fox News, and she’s talking about how terrible it is that my book was included on this reading list. She and her panelists called it “sickening.”
Middle School's A Drag, You Better Werk! is also on a list of 850 titles that Texas state senator Matt Krause is "investigating" schools over, wanting to know if schools have them on their shelves. It's just so frightening because this kind of action is spreading like wildfire all over the country. When people who are trying to suppress find success of in their efforts, other people in other places feel emboldened and want to jump on the bandwagon.
When I was young, I didn't have access books like mine. That was quite a while ago, and while we've come a long way, especially in the young adult genre, there's still a lot of ground to be made up in books for younger readers. It's shocking to me that I still get emails in 2022 from kids who say, "I've never read a book that showed a kid like me!" By which they mean queer or othered—different. And I'm like, "Really?” Because I know the books are out there. They are many authors writing the kind of books I do, but access to those books is being limited.
I feel like, since the last time we talked about this lack of representation, we've seen a shift in the policy. Now it's not this quiet thing, it's like we literally want to erase your representation from our curriculum. It's actively anti-representation. So the more content that we put out there, the more likely it is to find its way into someone's hands. What are you working on now that the launch of The Visitors is getting underway?
Greg Howard: I’m working on a new middle grade book which involves time travel. All my books have bits and pieces of my life in them, and this new one does, too. The Visitors is set on the deserted rice plantation that I grew up just down the road from. My friends and I would ride our bikes there, and the place was supposedly haunted. The Whispers was about my family and my mom. Social Intercourse was inspired by my high school experience. Middle School's A Drag, You Better Werk! was about when I was trying to be a kid entrepreneur at twelve. People connect the most to books when the author leaves a bit of themselves on the page.
I also know that some of your projects are being developed for other media. What are the statuses of some of those projects?
Greg Howard: Middle School's A Drag, You Better Werk! is being developed for television by NBC Universal and Heyday Television. The producer is David Heyman, who produced the Harry Potter movies, the Paddington movies, Marriage Story and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. So, it has a really incredible team behind it. And The Whispers has been optioned for film by Peter Spears, the Oscar-winning producer of Nomadland, Call Me By Your Name, and others. These things take time, though. I'm really excited to see what happens.
Be sure to get your copy of The Visitors on February 1, 2022 or after, on Amazon or wherever books are sold.
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