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During the diversity panel discussion at KidLit Con I brought up a quandary I was facing with Beth Kephart's upcoming psychological thriller, You Are My Only. The book centers around two young women and what happens to them nearly a decade apart in time: Sophie who was kidnapped as a baby and is now, at fourteen, beginning to wonder why her life is so odd and her "mother" so secretive and Emmy, Sophie's true mother who suffered a breakdown after she was taken and was involuntarily committed to a state asylum. The action is all about whether or not Emmy will get out of the asylum or lose her mind and whether Sophie will uncover the truth in time to escape her captor (who has raised her as if she was her own daughter). But inside all of this tension there are secondary characters who gave me pause and prompted my question at the conference.

Sophie is supported in her search for the truth by the very cute boy next door and his two delightfully literary and extremely kind aunts. He lives with them because his parents were killed in an accident when he was young - Aunt Cloris, he explains, was his father's only living relative. Sophie ponders this and asks how that is possible, as he has two aunts. Helen is not his relative he explains and then, in a moment, Sophie grasps that the two women are a couple. She then processes the information, realizes the little clues she has missed that pointed in this direction and...carries on. The two women are not the point of the story, I told the conference attendees, Sophie & Emmy and their predicaments are what matters.

So, I asked the room, in terms of diversity but keeping in mind how to best serve this teen novel, do I mention that Cloris and Helen are lesbians in my review?

There were a lot of opinions - a lot of them. Mostly I threw this out there to make everyone think about a very specific example because while we all spend a lot of time saying diversity matters we don't get specific on what we do about diversity in our reviewing of individual titles. And honestly I wasn't sure what I was going to do at that point. If I mentioned Cloris and Helen being lesbians that might make some readers shy away but if I ignored it wasn't I losing an opportunity to show how GBLTQ characters can be present in a story in a supporting role where being gay is not the point of the plot - or even a tiny subplot?

Many people came up to me that evening with thoughts on what I should do and while I was interested in all of their thoughts what most impressed me was how different they were. Some folks said I had to mention it while others asked why go there if it would hurt the book's sales. Back and forth and back and forth it went. I certainly managed to get folks talking (and thinking) but no consensus emerged. I left the conference still unsure of what I would do and honestly, until I was writing the review itself I was on the fence.

And then I decided - if an author is going to create such cool characters then really, it was my job to celebrate them.

Beth Kephart guest posted at My Friend Amy last week and wrote about Cloris & Helen. Here is why I fell so hard for this couple:

Cloris and Helen belong to Sophie. She needs them and their kooky ways, their endless baking, their shiny Airstream, their Alice-in-Wonderland dioramas, their love for Willa Cather--to show her what is kind and good and right in this world. To show her a salvation version of normal.

I don't know if I have succeeded in best serving the book by mentioning Cloris and Helen are a lesbian couple in my review, but I do know I best served the characters. These are smart, funny, creative and fiercely protective women who adore their nephew and step up to the plate in a big way for the girl who lives next door. They show her not only what family can be, but more importantly, what family is. Anyone who cares about family values would love these women and someday, everyone will.

[Post pic: Phyllis Lyon, 79, left, and Del Martin, 83, embrace after being married at San Francisco City Hall in June 2008. SF Chronicle photo by Liz Mangelsdorf.]

comments

Yes! You rock! I love the idea of supporting the characters and the role they play in the overall themes of the book.

This was a great way to bring awareness to an issue that many of us have probably never thought about when writing a book review. I'm so glad that you chose to celebrate the characters of Helen and Cloris. They are such unique, wonderful ladies. No one writes supporting characters quite like Beth Kephart. :)

I am glad you decided to post about this. "if an author is going to create such cool characters then really, it was my job to celebrate them."--I totally agree with that!

Honestly, as long as characters are well drawn. I don't care what their sexual preferences are. They must be integral to the story -- that's all I ask.

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