Last Friday I attended the Jane Addams Peace Award ceremony at the United Nations to see my friend and fellow VCFA’er Laura Atkins receive an honor book prize for Fred Korematsu Speaks Up. While there, I spoke with librarians, authors, and editors and found some new books to read, including award winning title The Enemy, a middle grade novel by Sara Holbrook set in Detroit during the McCarthy Era.
One of the editors, who was standing in for an author who couldn’t be there, expressed admiration for Heyday Books, the small California-based nonprofit press that published Fred Korematsu Speaks Up and will be publishing a book about the escape from slavery and activism of Biddy Mason in February.
We also talked about a self-published book that I reviewed for The Pirate Tree, Lee Wind’s YA novel Queer as a Five-Dollar Bill. Although she represents a large corporate publisher, she’s aware of the growing limitations that corporate publishers face in terms of publishing diverse and politically controversial books, especially at a time when a right-wing authoritarian government is seeking to entrench itself, in part through threatening and controlling the media. We agreed that courageous small presses and individual writers publishing themselves will be the source of most stories of resistance in the future, and that reviewers, educators, librarians, and book buyers need to take a far more open-minded attitude toward these upstarts.
Lee Wind approached me about reviewing Queer as a Five-Dollar Bill several months before the novel launched at the beginning of October. He said that the manuscript had made the rounds of commercial publishers with a handful of rejections and a whole lot of nonresponses. Basically, the subject matter — a closeted gay teenager’s discovery that 16th President of the United States may have had a male lover, information possibly supported by years of correspondence between Abraham Lincoln and Joshua Fry Speed — was deemed “too controversial.” Indeed, in 15-year-old Wyatt’s small town in Oregon, a town dedicated to Lincoln’s legacy, the teenager’s blog making his case generates both local and national controversy. In other words, the industry reaction to the book parallels the story. Spurned but undaunted, Wind initiated a Kickstarter campaign, and in six days raised enough money from 182 contributors to edit, design, and publish the book himself.
While many look down on self-published books as inferior in terms of writing and production quality, I found Queer as a Five-Dollar Bill to be superior on both counts. As I wrote in The Pirate Tree:
Wind’s debut YA novel is honest, powerful, and well-written and will be especially useful for young people living in similar communities to Wyatt’s. Given that teens cannot choose where they grow up, how can a queer teen survive in hostile territory? What are the costs of coming out, and of trying to open closed minds? These are all important questions that Wyatt faces as he tries to find solace and connection in Abraham Lincoln’s relationship with Joshua Fry Speed and to spread acceptance by blogging about his research. Wind has also done his research and has an extensive afterword in which he offers the same evidence that Wyatt uses, allowing readers to make up their own minds about Lincoln and Speed’s relationship. …I expect that countless teens and adults will appreciate Wind’s courage and the generosity of his supporters who made this book possible.
I had planned to ask Lee Wind to contribute a guest post, but having written dozens of guest posts for my own three traditionally published novels for young readers, I’ve come to see them in many cases as the equivalent of writing a review for one’s own book. Furthermore, we should not expect marginalized, #OwnVoices authors like Wind, who is gay and the founder of the informational and support site I’m Here. I’m Queer. What the Hell Do I Read? to do all the educating. One of the key tasks of allies is to amplify marginalized voices not only by broadcasting those voices on social media but also by creating original works such as reviews and blog posts in support. Amplification often has more effect when it comes from someone who can introduce own voices work to the outsider’s community. This is especially true when a marginalized author has been shut out of mainstream publishing and has had to go it alone to have their voice heard. And it is even more true today, when a would-be dictator and his collaborators seek to erase transgender people who have also lived in every society in every period of history. I hope that Queer as a Five-Dollar Bill becomes a bestseller and have been heartened by the reaction I’ve received so far to my review on The Pirate Tree. I hope it encourages others to explore the hidden histories and bring those stories to all of us.