Children’s author Simon James Green: ‘I just wanted to show LGBT+ kids that it’s not all dark’ | Children and teenagers

A Weeks after being banned from visiting a London school by the Catholic Church, Simon James Green faced an array of protest paraphernalia. The author, whose stories for young adults have won acclaim for reflecting the benefits, as well as the angst, of gay teenage life, was at an awards ceremony in Bristol. Members of the LGBT+ society at a local school had made banners and leaflets proclaiming their solidarity and denouncing “the children of the Catholic school locked in the closet”.

“It was so moving, so impressive,” says Green. He neatly also sums up the central message of Gay Club!, his latest young adult novel, which follows chess geek Barney on his mission to shake up LGBT+ society at his own school. “Pinning rainbow flags on our club’s notice board won’t change anything,” Barney says. “We have to unite and fight. Country. To be visible.”

The cancellation of Green’s school event in March by the Catholic Archdiocese of Southwark sparked outrage from authors, parents and teachers’ unions, as well as warnings about growing censorship of diversity writing for young readers. Less publicized were the cards and letters Green received from young people across the country who wanted to support students who had been denied the opportunity to talk about his books. Barney’s passion for activism is an exact reflection of the young people Green meets every week, he explains.

“They’re passionate about building a better world, and they’re not going to stop,” he says. It’s a refreshingly simple ethic: “They recognize that people should be who they are and be free to live their lives and love who they love.” He contrasts the maturity with which today’s teenagers discuss gender and sexuality with his own coming of age in a rural Lincolnshire town “where ‘gay’ wasn’t even used as a slur. – I grew up completely ignorant of LGBT+ people, partly because of Article 28 [the legislation enacted in 1988 to “prohibit the promotion of homosexuality” by local authorities; it was abolished only in 2003].”

“The ban was heartbreaking because it completely distorts what I’m trying to achieve in the books”…Simon James Green. Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian

The ban was a brutal experience, he concedes, and “heartbreaking because it completely distorts what I’m trying to achieve in the books.”

Since Green’s 2017 debut, Noah Can’t Even – still the “most stolen” book from school libraries, he’s reliably informed – his formula of crazy humor, Technicolor characters and soap opera has redefined the LGBT+ children “like the heroes, having a happy ending”. “All I’ve ever wanted to do is show kids – especially LGBT+ kids – that it’s not all bleak. You can watch some media and feel like they always end up dead at the end of the day. End of story, there are homophobic attacks and it’s misery.These things happen unfortunately, but that’s not the only story.

All students benefit from recognizing that at the end of the day, “we’re all going through exactly the same thing,” he argues. “This whole process of wanting someone for the first time and falling in love. It’s a rollercoaster ride for everyone, and no matter how you identify.

Along with the overt hostility to the content of his books, Green points out, are the more insidious complaints about swearing or sexual content: “It’s the ‘Won’t somebody think about kids ?’ mentality [but it’s really] a convenient excuse for homophobia. The reality is that high school kids swear, that they talk about sex with their friends. If I don’t think about it, it won’t mean anything to them and that’s when they stop picking up pounds.

Green, who wrote her first story at age 12 on her grandmother’s typewriter, insists that a book provides a genuinely safe space to discuss scary or confusing content, compared to the “Wild West of nightmares” awaits young people online.

He notes the unprecedented number of book bans across the United States: “It appalls me that books are so often the target when there are really harmful things online for young people, which seem to be get out of it like that.”

There is “absolutely” a connection between growing homophobia and the culture war raging over transgender rights, he says. “To be fair, trans people were warning about it. [several years ago]. There is a part of society that is watching reluctantly as LGBT+ people gradually gain a few more rights. They were waiting for something to oppose it. Social media has helped amplify and embolden this cohort, he says. “And inevitably, when high-level people share some of those views, it also reinforces it.”

The solution is simply to trust those who know young readers best: “A book from a mainstream publisher will have gone through a very thorough editorial process by people who really care. And it’s stored in a school library, staffed by people who also really care. The school librarians he meets know their students “like the back of their hands,” he says warmly.

More than that, it is imperative to recognize that young people are “capable humans”. “They can make decisions and it’s important to allow them to do so, especially in the safe space of the library,” says Green.

“It’s a really worrying time,” he concludes. “I think back to the effect things like Article 28 have had on me, even though I wasn’t aware of it at the time, and I don’t want that to happen again. Many of these current discussions are about Section 28 through the backdoor. I cannot, in good conscience, sit back and say nothing when it is so damaging, especially for young people.

gay clubs! is published by Scholastic (£8.99). To support the Guardian and the Observer, buy a copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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