Why a novel about coming out has itself taken over a decade to come out
Liz Kessler, bestselling author of the Emily Windsnap series, on why, with her 15th book, she is ready to stand up and be counted
Liz Kessler: “If I get just one email from a young person who tells me my book has helped them feel comfortable with who they are, feel less alone, feel able to be prouder – then I will have done a good job”
Over 25 years ago, a law known as Section 28 made it illegal for local authorities or schools in the UK to be seen to be “promoting homosexuality”. It was a nasty law that created an environment of homophobia, fear and self-censorship.
The law was repealed in 2003, but during the time that it was in effect, I wrote a book about a teenage girl learning about love and life – and coming out as gay. Unsurprisingly, at that time and in that climate, the book didn’t find a publisher. It was turned down by about 10 publishers and went into a drawer where it sat for over a decade.
As my publishing career developed and I carved a little niche in the world of Middle Grade books with stories about mermaids, fairies and time travel, the novel about a 17-year-old girl discovering her sexuality continued to gather dust, and felt more and more like a risk I would never know how to take.
But then, a couple of years ago, a few things happened that made me think again about the book, and start to feel that I had had enough of letting it languish in a drawer.
Incidents of gay youngsters taking their own lives after unbearable bullying hit the news in the US. Violence against gay people increased in Russia after anti-gay laws were passed.
Amongst the campaigning against homophobic bullying, a wonderful song was released last year by a group called the L Project which I played over and over again. It’s called It Does Get Better and from the moment I heard the song, I knew that I wanted to be part of a movement that was telling young people that it didn’t matter who or what they were. They were OK and they would get through it.
So I looked at my book again. I dusted it down, polished it up and sent it back to my agent. This time, when she sent it on to my publisher, the answer came back very quickly. “Times have changed, and we are ready to move with them,” was the reply. My publisher not only wanted to publish the book but the whole team was ready to support it, celebrate it and get it out into the world with enthusiasm.
And now, the day is here at last, and Read Me Like A Book is finally on the shelves. It’s been a long time coming and, in many ways, it feels like the most important book I’ve written. All of my books matter to me immensely. And whilst not always in an overt way, all of them cover themes and issues that I care about deeply. Those themes are the same, whether the subject matter is mermaids or time travel – or coming out. Again and again (and usually without actually realising I’m doing it until someone points it out to me) my books are about being comfortable in your own skin, being true to yourself, standing up for what you believe in and being loyal to your family and your friends. In that respect, there is a very strong through-line from my very first book to this one.
In fact, funnily enough, I recently spotted a line from my very first book, The Tail of Emily Windsnap, that someone had quoted on Tumblr.
“You can’t make people stop loving each other just because a law says it’s wrong,” Emily tells Neptune, who has decreed that merpeople and humans are not allowed to marry. She is fighting for him to overturn that law. (To avoid spoilers, I won’t say whether she succeeds or not!)
Just like Emily, Ashleigh – in Read Me Like a Book – comes to a point of self-recognition and pride in who she is. And by the end of both books, neither of these characters is afraid to stand up for who they are and what they believe in.
So although some may see this new book as a complete departure, I see it in fact as a logical progression, and I hope my readers will, too.
My book is coming out in a very different world from the one in which it was written, and I believe – and hope – that this is a world in which more people will be ready to welcome and champion its messages, just as my publisher was when she took a second look.
And if there are any people who aren’t ready for it, then I hope that my book will be part of a movement that will help us move towards a world where they will be. Where issues like this don’t even exist. Where tolerance is second nature. And where people are accepted and loved by each other regardless of gender, sexuality, race, creed or anything else which divides us.
If I get just one email from a young person who tells me my book has helped them feel comfortable with who they are, feel less alone, feel able to be prouder – then I will have done a good job. If one parent writes to me to tell me their daughter gave them this book to read and it helped them to understand their child better – then this will be a privilege. And if one person who reads my book, or one of my blogs, or even this article, finds themselves questioning their own beliefs for just one minute – then every bit of fear I feel about putting myself out there with this book will have been worth it.
Because now, on my 15th book, I am ready to stand up and put myself out there. I’m ready to stop letting fear dictate what I am prepared to do publicly. And I’m ready to tell anyone who needs to hear it, for whatever reason, that it is OK to love whoever you love.
After all, if my 17-year-old narrator Ashleigh can do it, then it’s about time I did, too.
Read Me Like a Book by Liz Kessler is published by Indigo on May 14th in hardcover (£10.99) and as an e-book (£5.99)