Picture drawn by Maggie Stiefvater, 2009. Header made by S.F. Robertson, 2010.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Guest Blog- Johanna Parkhurst

Wait, you want little ol’ me to write a guest blog?! Thank you SO MUCH, Book Chic! Especially because you knew I was going to get on a soapbox and you invited me anyway. Just give me a second here while I climb up on said soapbox…there we go. Let’s get started.

I’m a middle school teacher/curriculum writer who’s been a proponent of having more books with LGBT characters in schools for quite some time now. Then I wrote a young adult novel, Here’s to You, Zeb Pike, that stars two gay teenage boys. So I don’t think it’s too surprising to anyone that I’ve been writing and reading a lot lately about the importance of having LGBT literature in schools.

But let’s face it. While many great teachers are all about showcasing diverse literature in their classrooms, this subject gets teachers fired. Parents get angry. School boards get weird. Tennessee tries (over and over) to pass laws saying that you can’t even use the word gay in a classroom. As important as it is that teachers stand up for LGBT lit in their classrooms, it ain’t always easy.

I get it. I’ve been there. Lemme tell you a story about it.

My second year of teaching, I had this student. We’ll call him Drew. Drew was possibly one of the sweetest students I’ve ever taught. Kind, curious, open-minded. And apt to say things like this to me in passing:
“I don’t understand why all the other boys in 8th grade are always talking about girls’ butts and boobs. Don’t they understand it’s their minds that matter?”

“I have this amazing Karen Carpenter CD I’d love to bring in to share with Creative Writing class tomorrow. Do you know about Karen Carpenter? I think everyone should.”

Drew and I were pretty tight, for a teacher and a 13-year-old boy who kept espousing the virtues of a 70s pop star. I tried hard to give him space to be himself—and just to be clear, I wouldn’t even venture a guess as to exactly what Drew’s identity was or has turned out to be. But both Drew and I knew that he was different from the other boys in his class.

At the time (this was circa 2005) it didn’t even occur to me to stack my classroom library with books about kids who didn’t like girls’ boobs and were obsessed with “Close to You.” For one thing, there weren’t many YA books like that readily available then. For another, I didn’t feel super empowered to introduce more diverse literature into my school. I was working in a pretty conservative area of the world back then: Colorado Springs. Surely you’ve heard of it? Home of Focus on the Family?

I bet Drew turned out okay despite this lack of diverse literature in his middle school language arts classes. I lost track of him a few years ago, but I have a strong feeling he’s fine. Drew was always going to find a group of drummers to march with, no matter what beat he was stamping out at the moment.

Whether or not he’s okay isn’t really the point, though. Drew deserved to see his own ideas and feelings represented in the books I taught and put in his classroom. He needed me to go to bat for such books.

I’ve thought back on that year in my teaching career a lot. I’ve been very lucky since then, and for the last few years I’ve worked in schools where diverse literature is appreciated. My current students have phenomenal access to books with LGBT characters. But sometimes I wonder: what would I do if I was still back at that school, and Drew and I were still hanging out and discussing As Time Goes By?

Well, here’s what I think I’d do now.

For one thing, I’d start small—no need to start teaching Will Grayson, Will Grayson on the first day of school when James Dobson’s living down the street. I’d get the conversation started by walking up to my principal with a book order for items like Breaking Boxes by A.M. Jenkins, On the Right Track by Sam Kadence, and Almost Perfect by Brian Katcher. And if my principal had any of the following responses to my request, here’s what I like to think the new, more learn-ed me would say.

RESPONSE #1: Something along of the lines of “Kids this age are so young. We might be influencing them to believe they’re something that they’re really not.”

MORE LEARN-ED ME: “Do you ever worry that you’re convincing a girl to be straight when you give her a Sarah Dessen book? My girl Sarah sure isn’t worried about that.” (And by “my girl,” I mean that I follow her obsessively on Twitter.)

RESPONSE #2: The classic “Parents will complain.”

MORE LEARN-ED ME: “With all due respect, if a parent complained that they didn’t want a book about an Asian character in their kid’s library, how would you respond to that? Shouldn’t we keep the responses to discriminatory censorship requests the same across the board?”

RESPONSE #3: (Awkwardly, because it’s an awkward topic for middle school administrators) “Books about sexual orientations and gender generally involve sexual topics.”

MORE LEARN-ED ME: “Due respect stays the same, but that’s just not true. Plenty of picture books feature LGBT characters. This isn’t about introducing students to ideas about sex, it’s about introducing students to all different types of people. Heather has two mommies no matter what age she is.”

That’s pretty much the heart of it, you know? Tim Federle, author of Better Nate than Never, wrote this great article for the Huffington Post that puts it faaaar better than I ever could: “All kinds of people deserve all kinds of stories. When we support books that feature diverse kids, we're telling those kids that we support them too, that they are, more than anything, OK. The opposite is true when we shut those kinds of books down.”

Well said, Tim.

So Drew, wherever you are, I’m sorry I wasn’t learn-ed enough back then to give you all kinds of stories with all kinds of characters. I hope someday you come across a copy of Here’s to You, Zeb Pike and know that you, and every other student I ever taught who was “different,” inspired those characters.

And thanks for giving me an appreciation of Karen Carpenter that I might otherwise have missed out on. Though I have to admit that I still don’t get the fascination.

Johanna Parkhurst grew up on a small dairy farm in northern Vermont before relocating to the rocky mountains of Colorado. She spends her days helping teenagers learn to read and write and her evenings writing things she hopes they’ll like to read. She strives to share stories of young adults who are as determined, passionate, and complex as the ones she shares classrooms with.

Johanna holds degrees from Albertus Magnus College and Teachers College, Columbia University. She loves traveling, hiking, skiing, watching football, and spending time with her incredibly supportive husband. You can contact her at johannawriteson@gmail.com or find her on Twitter at https://twitter.com/johannawriteson.

Johanna's book Here's to You, Zeb Pike is in stores now and can be ordered online from Amazon and other online stores. You can find out more about Johanna at her Facebook page and you can add her book on Goodreads.


  1. I love this post. And yay for the idea that LGBT books aren't only for LGBT students. Everyone benefits when we can read a wider range of books.

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  3. Thanks, Jennifer. I hope this is a conversation a lot more teachers can start having in their schools, because you're so right--everyone benefits. No matter how hard the conversation might seem sometimes.

  4. Great post, Johanna. Keep 'em comin'!

  5. I so appreciate this post, Johanna: Firstly, as an elementary art teacher, I champion all kids but reserve a special place in my heart for difference, for the bits of my students which do not neatly fit.

    Secondly, I've written a YA novel: a coming of age love story about a young photographer girl who falls in love with another girl . Now that I have an agent, and my book may actually find its way into he world, I cannot help but feel nervous---maybe like a kid contemplating coming out---about how readers might accept my character's truths.

    I really like the soundness of your imaginary answers to fear. I look forward to checking out Zeb Pike. Best of luck!

  6. Thanks, Jocelyn! Best of luck with your novel. Try not to be nervous--your character's truths are so real for so many teenagers in this world; those teenagers will be so lucky to have access to your writing. :) I look forward to reading your book one day!