Casey McQuiston was sure their new book would get banned. They wrote it anyway.
Casey McQuiston knows what some people think about the South.
The last two titles from the New York Times best-selling author, "Red White and Royal Blue" and "One Last Stop," were set in the major metropolitan areas of New York and Washington D.C. Yes, the mainly queer cast of characters had problems to solve, but they did so with the help of their equally liberal and diverse friends, in communities that seemed handmade for them.
There's a tendency for literature that focuses on LGBTQ+ characters from religious upbringings to have a particular bent: Parents aren't understanding, religions are demonizing and small towns have nothing to offer but a satisfying glance in the rearview mirror. But in "I Kissed Shara Wheeler," their first young adult offering, McQuiston shows that real life, and real love, for LGBTQ+ teens and tweens can start long before they leave home.
McQuiston, a Louisiana native, grew up Catholic in a Southern Baptist high school and told CBS News that part of the inspiration for their newest romance book was writing for the teenager they used to be.
"I know when I was growing up, I never saw a school like mine portrayed in media unless it was reinforcing the same narratives that were taught to me at school," McQuiston said. "And so I thought it'd be really, really exciting for me at that age, if I could have read something that both reflected and challenged the kind of experience that I was having growing up. So I hope that this book will do that for someone."
Set in the fictional town of False Beach, Alabama, "I Kissed Shara Wheeler" tells the story of high school senior Chloe Green. She's roughly 100 days away from being named valedictorian, graduating and leaving the town she can't stand behind forever. There's only one problem. On prom night, her rival Shara Wheeler kisses her and then promptly disappears.
As Chloe begins discovering mysterious pink clues strewn all across town, she realizes that there may be more to Shara's disappearance than she originally thought. But to figure out where she is, she has to team up with an unlikely crew — Shara's longtime quarterback boyfriend and the pining kid next door — to decode Shara's mystery before they all say goodbye to False Beach forever.
Chloe knows there's much more out there than her small town. But as the book progresses, Chloe is forced to make major realizations about the people she grew up with, and reconcile her conception of who deserves "empathy, respect, or even the benefit of the doubt."
It's a discovery McQuiston says they felt was important to add to the book, not just to dismantle stereotypes, but also to directly address kids who are still growing up in spaces like Chloe's.
"It was important to me to write that, because I do think I have this kind of chip on my shoulder. It's so exhausting to see mainstream liberal media write red states off as a lost cause when there are so many people there who just need the opportunity to make their voices heard," McQuiston said.
"A lot of what's difficult about what you're told when you're growing up in that environment is that being queer, being trans is completely irreconcilable with being from the south or having any type of faith," they added. "And the last thing I want to do is tell kids, 'You have to reject where you're from in order to fit into the queer community, you know? I wanted there to be room for all of those sides of it, because identity is so big and so complicated and I want there to be room for all of those layers."
The book comes at a time when legislative attacks on LGBTQ+ children are at an all-time high, according to activist groups. Bills that discourage discussing sexuality and gender have been passed and promoted in states like Florida, while transgender rights have become a new wedge issue for Republican-led legislatures. Bans on gender-affirming healthcare are currently being discussed in legislative sessions across the U.S.
When McQuiston started writing "I Kissed Shara Wheeler" in 2020, they said they couldn't have predicted exactly where the state of LGBTQ+ rights would be. But the new landscape doesn't surprise them.
"Certain things aren't new. These laws are set up to make [these kids] feel so wrong that they need to be legislated out of existence. But none of its true and it's all based in people internalizing so much misinformation and hiding so much fear behind self righteous b***shit," McQuiston said.
"For teens facing that now, I just want to tell them, not only is there nothing wrong with you, but the parts of you that feel like they make you vulnerable, or put you in danger, those are going to be the parts of you that are coolest and most celebrated and find you the best community when you are an adult," they added.
"I Kissed Shara Wheeler" takes care to luxuriate in the small and great joys of growing up. A lesser novel could have been bogged down by the giants its characters are forced to tackle, but the lighthearted book treats those difficulties with a realistic reverence, managing to thread a line between painting a better future for its queer characters and allowing them to recognize the gorgeous and spiritual present they're currently in.
At a time where transgender and queer kids might feel decidedly under attack, McQuiston's new book isn't an escapist fantasy— it's a celebration.
As much as McQuiston wrote the book for the kids that need it most, they're not naive about what a tall order it might be for those kids to access it. According to the American Library Association, almost 1,600 books across the country have been banned or challenged in the past year. "LGBTQIA+ content," "anti-police messages," themes of race, "divisive language" and "sexually explicit language," were among the primary reasons books were banned, according to the ALA.
McQuiston knew from the get-go that if the lesbian love story at the center of the book didn't get the novel "mega-banned," its message of anti-racism and LGBTQ+ acceptance could. But they still wanted to give the book a fighting chance.
"A big point that I made when we were designing the packaging was that I didn't want it to be visibly gay from the cover because I didn't want any teenager in a vulnerable position to be outed by holding it," McQuiston said. "I just don't want to put any kid in that situation. So I hope it's in high school hands. I hope it can sneak past some censors and get into high school libraries. And I really, really, really hope that more than anything that teens love it. That's what matters most to me."
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