“It’s that gay kid in Minnesota, surrounded by people who practice intolerance, who needs to know that there are adults out there rooting for him or her. That was a big motivator for me in writing a gay coming of age story, feeling like there are kids out there who need help…”
Laura Goode never really thought of herself as a novelist, having been trained as a poet and playwright in the writers’ workshops where she honed her skills. But when she was approached by an agent about considering writing a young adult novel, she pitched what was on her mind: “I’m thinking ‘lesbians, hip-hop, Minnesota.” The result was her buoyantly energetic debut Sister Mischief(Candlewick Press), which follows the fierce friendship of four conservative small-town good girls with bad attitudes, trying to change the world with their feminist beats and rhymes while navigating at the edges of conservative high school life. Galvanized by a school policy disallowing hip-hop music, the girls form a combination rap discussion group and gay-straight alliance called Hip-Hop for Heteros and Homos (4H), and take on the administration and their conservative peers in the pursuit of free speech and queer identity.
But underneath it all, each of the girls is also navigating their own path to growing up. Protagonist Esme’s coming out process is complicated not only by the absence of her mother and the homophobia of her peers, but by the conflicted behavior of her first love, beautiful Indian verse-writer Rowie, who is reluctant to identify as gay or bisexual and who insists on keeping their late-night exploratory tree house romance a secret from both Rowie’s family and their hip-hop crew. Butch, tough girl Marcy deals with the challenge of being straight but looking queer enough to be taunted, and Tess bridges two worlds by valuing her religion while rejecting the homophobia and meanness of the conservative faction of students led by her ex-best friend.
Goode’s poetic heritage comes through clearly in the bold, emotional lyrics that Esme and Rowie create, which almost demand to be read out loud. “I would be in my pajamas, rapping to the mirror,” Goode says. “Does that sound legit? Does that sound 16-year old enough? I wanted the girls to be willing to be a bit like caricatures of themselves, the way only teenagers can be, that deep fervency of belief.”
Got a girl army comin’ that’s all armed in belief in/A Technicolor dream of a country that leans in/To hear what we’re sayin’ when we’re young and we’re feelin’/Like there’s gotta be hope and be change and belief in/ A system of government that speaks out for freedom.
Goode also gets the multilayered flow of modern teen communication right, while adding to the emotional complexity of her characters, by building a constant undercurrent of footnotes that fill the bottoms of the novel’s pages: bits of lyrics that Esme scribbles in her notebooks, text messages between the girls that bring out different aspects of their personal relationships, and Twitter posts that show how they build connection with the media and the community. “There are different tones to the communications you have, there’s a different level of stuff that comes out when you are emailing and texting. I wanted to create the level of communication that’s happening on the surface with each of the characters and then I wanted to create the subterranean level of communication, under the surface.” It’s also a style of communication that her fans prefer: “There’s a lot happening on Twitter, under the hashtag #gayYA.”
Although Candlewick Press has definitely marketed Sister Mischief to gay teens (“We knew this was going to be seen as a GLBT book no matter what we did, so we took that as an opportunity and ran with it”, says Goode), the appeal of a good story can be much broader, as Goode realized when connecting to her old Minnesota peers while visiting her hometown on her book tour. Feedback like this was common: “I picked it up, and there was this beautiful coming of age story, a story about being loyal to your friends, about feeling like you don’t fit in, in a much greater sense than just being gay.” Goode also loves her connection with other genre authors, and finds that some of her best feedback has been from mainstream romance writers. She isn’t surprised: “Everyone has had the experience of having their heart broken for the first time, or finding someone with whom they have magic chemistry. Even though the story is done through a queer lens, it’s very universal.” For male readers who might find the pink-and-neon cover a bit much to read on the bus, Goode notes that an e-book version is available.
Nevertheless, Goode feels that gay kids really do need these stories the most, citing the nine teen suicides in the last two years in the Anoka-Hennepin school district, twenty minutes away from where she grew up, and the district’s response of a “neutrality clause” that effectively muzzles a teacher who wants to interfere to help a kid who is gay (or just perceived as gay) and being bullied. “It’s that gay kid in Minnesota, surrounded by people who practice intolerance, who needs to know that there are adults out there rooting for him or her. That was a big motivator for me in writing a gay coming of age story, feeling like there are kids out there who need help, that there’s a mental health crisis going on out there in the GLBT youth community.”
Goode hopes her young readers will find her characters’ strength inspirational. But she also hopes that they will find their reality reflected in Esme and her friends’ struggles. “There’s been so much chatter recently about the darkness in YA, like the article recently in the Wall Street Journal, that YA authors are all about cutting and suicide and eating disorders. But we live in 2012, and I think that what teens need to see is something authentic, that reflects their experiences. Fantasy is alive and well in literature, but authenticity is a new gambit for young people.”