The Art of Being Uncomfortable And Still Inspiring Hope In YA & Middle Grade Lit by e.E. Charlton-Trujillo
It was a few weeks before Thanksgiving in rural south Texas when my parents’ bubble gum pink, wall rotary phone rang. It’s the ringing I remember more than the homework I’d been rushing to finish. It was a vivid, piercing sound I can hear to this day. My cousin had committed suicide. Too much drugs. Too much drinking. Too much living lost in his own mind. He was the only person in my adopted family that I had been close to, and then, he was just … gone.
His funeral was punctuated by a series of awkward, fill-in-the the blanks sentences that felt forced and disconnected. Of people not saying the words “suicide, depression or addiction.” Of family and friends of his making ill-timed jokes near the closed casket. None of this behavior made sense to me. No one was willing to be uncomfortable — to say what was real and what was hard. How was that loss? How was that grief?
I felt so alone in the reality of death and the facade of it.
What I knew about grief — about loss — came from a handful of movies, not books. Books were not written for me – a closeted, gender non-conforming, queer, neurodiverse kid growing up in Mathis, Texas population 5,239. A Mexican American adopted into a largely racist extended family, I was always a second class citizen who had borrowed a White last name. I was a “Messycan” instead of a Mexican in conversations I wasn’t meant to hear. There were no books available to me that reflected who I was or the grief I was feeling.
This is what I think about when I write books. I imagine the kid who doesn’t have access to stories that reflect their experience. The kid who needs to laugh, who sometimes needs to cry and who hungers for hope. Sometimes the safest place that can happen is in a book.
A few weeks ago my novel Fat Angie: Rebel Girl Revolution, the sequel to the Stonewall Winning Fat Angie, released. A word that came up in an online review was “uncomfortable.” There is a negative connotation often associated with the idea of being uncomfortable, but being uncomfortable is not necessarily a bad thing. Rarely, do we grow from a place of comfort. As much as this book, like my others, are about humor and hope, they are also about those moments that make us uncomfortable, and what we do with them.
In Fat Angie: Rebel Girl Revolution, it’s the beginning of sophomore year. Angie’s girlfriend has moved away, her best friend, Jake, is keeping his distance; and a bully has ramped up an increasingly vicious campaign to humiliate her. An over-the-top statue dedication planned for her sister who died in Iraq is unbearable, and it doesn’t help that Angie’s mother has placed a symbolic empty urn on their mantel.
At the ceremony, Angie is given a letter from her sister, including a list of places she wanted them to go when she returned from the war. But things go from bad to worse when a bullying incident against Angie threatens her with expulsion from school and being sent to conversion therapy by her mother.
Fearing the “what’s next,” Angie enlists the help of an estranged childhood friend, Jamboree Memphis Jordan. Angie along with three other teens pack into an RV and road trip across Ohio to visit all of the places on Angie’s sister’s list. And so begins a revolution that Angie never imagined.
For me, the art of being uncomfortable and still inspiring hope in YA and middle grade literature has everything to do with not veering from what’s hard. To approach it with integrity, authenticity and respect. Young readers are smart readers. Even the most reluctant can be drawn in by portrayals that reflect their experience or an experience of someone they know.
Young people also want to be validated. They want a place where they can be seen and for many of them, that is within the pages of a book. And yeah, they like their Xbox and cell phones too, but you get the point.
I talk a lot about the creative revolution with the kids I meet in schools, libraries, juvenile detention centers and homeless programs across America. It is a revolution to be heard with their words, their images – whatever form their creativity takes shape. I want them to recognize, as I am sure you do, that they not only have something to say, but what they say has power.
The kids in your classrooms are revolutionaries – they are the engineers of the thoughts that will continue to shape our collective story. While they face hurdles I couldn’t have fathomed as a kid, there are universal experiences that continue to connect over time: the need to be heard, to be loved, to belong.
That’s why there is a book about a revolution that ignites in a fat, smart, awkward, beautiful, athletic, gay-girl-gay teenager named Angie. A story about her revolution of feeling uncomfortable emotions, of harnessing her voice and learning how to grieve.
And that kind of revolution is as much for the young people I write for now as the kid I was years ago. The queer, Mexican American teen who sat at a funeral, in the midst of deep grief, with people who were too uncomfortable or didn’t know how to tell the truth about what was real.
Mexican American writer, filmmaker and Texas native, e.E. Charlton-Trujillo is the Stonewall Award-Winning author of Fat Angie and other books for teens and children. Kirkus Reviews celebrated her as a “force of nature” for her activism with youth as seen in the documentary At-Risk Summer. A film that chronicles her unorthodox book tour across America to empower youth on the fringe via writing and raw discussion. She is the co-founder of the non-profit, Never Counted Out, which empowers at-risk youth via free book donations and artists mentorship. Her highly anticipated novel Fat Angie: Rebel Girl Revolution released March 5, 2019.