This is a bit of a love letter.
Not to a single person, though if it was, it’d be to A.S. King who remains one of those authors I’d like to be when I grow up into a big author person. (Others include Steve Brezenoff, Nina Lacour, Patrick Ness, and Maggie Stiefvater, in case you’re interested.)
It’s a love letter to a high school, to a librarian, to students I’ve never met, to a book I wish I had when I was a high schooler, and to people who touch lives they never see.
My high school was, and remains, mid-sized and conservative.
Though my parents had one or two gay friends, I didn’t have many people in my life who were openly gay, bi, lesbian, queer, trans, anything. I don’t remember another student being out. I don’t remember any teachers being out. I didn’t know that it was even a possibility. Being queer was about as likely as flying.
The only time I heard about homosexuality in high school was when classes, mostly health classes, talked about AIDS.
Think about that.
How can you come out in a place where the only context for who you are is a deadly, frightening disease?
I don’t remember what made me pick up ASK THE PASSENGERS by A.S. King. I don’t even remember where I got my first copy. I don’t remember where I was when I first read it. I do remember thinking that it was the first time that any author, any book, any character, at any time, had looked at me and said, “This is what you needed. This is what you need. You are okay. You are normal. You are loved. And you can love.”
And it didn’t matter how many times I have, and how many times I will, revise the labels I use to define myself, because all that matters as Astrid Jones says in the book is:
“Dude, what matters is if you’re happy. What matters is your future. What matters is that we get out of here in one piece. What matters is finding the truth of our own lives, not caring about what other people think is the truth of us.”
Last night I went to an A.S. King signing at Children’s Book World of Haverford. Yes, I know. They get the best authors there and also going there tends to make me write lovey sappy things about how awesome YA books are. You know. As one is wont to do after meeting inspirational amazing authors.
Surprise of all surprises, my HS librarian was there, along with the book club and the GSA of my high school. Let me repeat. The GSA of my high school. Gay. Straight. Alliance. That means that someone in my high school a) said the word gay in a non derogatory manner and b) said it was OK for kids to belong to a club that suggests that people should love whoever the hell they want to love.
I’m expecting to obtain the ability to fly at any moment now, given this information. It’s the only logical conclusion to that high school doing something as bold and progressive and awesome as that. (Yes. My standards are low for them. I’m meeting them where they are.)
I often say that ASK THE PASSENGERS would have saved me at least seven years of boxing myself up into labels and spaces where I didn’t fit, and where, on a less metaphorical level, I tried to starve myself into fitting. (Spoiler alert: impossible. 0/10, do not try, not recommended, skip that.)
I thought I was going to cry last night. All of these kids from my little high school on the hill in a little town where race and money are canyons between people sitting there, listening to this author who had made my life better. All these kids who might have no one else in their life, in school where they spend a majority of their waking hours, listening to this amazing woman tell them that they are OK, that they are equal, that they have power and truths and magic in them.
That matters. It matters to see yourself in a book. It matters to be told, either by the author in person or through a character, that you are okay. That not having a label doesn’t make you less worthy of love or a community. That you are defined more by what you love than what you hate. That you, you, you matter, no matter what the rest of the world tells you.
Books save lives. Books make life easier. The people who write these books become heroes. The characters become best friends. These are what build your lifeboat. These are the people who carry your lantern and your blanket and your emergency supply of food and your flares when you’re stuck out there on the ocean alone in the dark.
These lifeboats are magical. Contrary to popular belief, the more characters and authors and safe people you add to your lifeboat, the easier it floats. The sooner day will come. The closer the shore gets.
When I read ASK THE PASSENGERS, I didn’t know how I had gone my whole life without Astrid Jones. I think of her every time I see an airplane now, and I live not far from the airport. I see them every day. I think about Astrid and her parents and her classmates and her girlfriend and Abracadabra every day. I’m a better person because Astrid’s in my life boat. I’m a safer person because Astrid’s in my lifeboat.
And now all of those kids in my little backwards high school, kids who still probably deal with an incredible amount of hate and prejudice and ignorance, have Astrid, and Glory, and Gerald, and Lucky, and Vera, and Emer in their lifeboats.
All it takes is one person, fictional or otherwise, to say, “You’re okay. I get you. I’m here. I believe in you. You’re awesome. We’re in this together.” So those students, they’ll make it. I know they will.
(A.S. King was signing her new book GLORY O’BRIEN’S HISTORY OF THE FUTURE last night. I have it, haven’t read it, am bound to love it, and you can find it here, so buy it. That’s an Indiebound link!)
(this rambled and I hope I made sense because I have a lot of emotions right now I feel like that girl in mean girls because I don’t even go there anymore.)