Interview with author Jen Ferguson

Jen Ferguson (she/her) is Métis and white, an activist, a feminist, an auntie, and an accomplice with a PhD. She believes writing, teaching and beading are political acts. The Summer of Bitter and Sweet, her debut YA novel, is out now from Heartdrum/HarperCollins. She lives in Los Angeles.

I had the opportunity to interview Jen, which you can read below.

First of all, welcome to Geeks OUT! Could you tell us a little about yourself?

Hi, I’m Jen! I’m queer and totally geeked out. I have a PhD in English and Creative Writing but what that really means is I’m curious and love research. I’m Métis and white, an activist, a feminist, an auntie, and an accomplice who is down to protest and do the hard work. My favorite ice cream flavor is mint chocolate chip and I never say no to nachos. Never.

As a writer, what do you think drew you to young adult fiction?

In 2016, I had just finished my PhD and I was super disillusioned by books and writing. I’d been writing for a long time and kept getting my adult novels rejected by agents. Plus, after graduation, I couldn’t read. As someone who discovered reading for pleasure at Girl Guide sleepaway camp at the age of 12, and read voraciously every day afterward, this was a horror. 

What got me back into reading and writing were the young adult novels I checked out from the library in Wolfville, Nova Scotia that year. They introduced me to the wonderful, challenging world of teen fiction and I got really excited about what you could do as a writer when you wrote for teens. The rest, as they say, follows from there.

What can you tell us about your latest book, The Summer of Bitter and Sweet? Where did the inspiration for this story come from? Growing up, were there any books/media that inspired you as a creative and/or that you felt yourself personally reflected in?

The Summer of Bitter and Sweet is about 18-year-old Métis teen Lou, working at her family’s struggling organic dairy and ice cream business alongside her recently-exed boyfriend, her best friend who is going through mental health issues of her own, and her once friend, King Nathan, who has returned to town after a three-year absence. On top of all of this, Lou’s white biological father has been released from prison and he wants a relationship with her—something she does not want. At all. The book features many secrets and lies, and a teen discovering her sexuality and owning her identity alongside tones of ice cream. 

I’ve talked about inspiration a lot in the last few weeks and my inspiration is related to the lack of media where I saw myself reflected. What I’ll double down on here is that I’d never a read a book with a demisexual protagonist until Claire Kann’s Let’s Talk About Love in 2018, nor had I ever read a book with a Métis protagonist until Cherie Dimaline’s The Marrow Thieves in 2017. So I wrote one.

In a lot of ways, Lou’s story comes out of me finally being ready to write a Métis demisexual teen girl’s journey—so that teens who need stories like this, like I desperately did at that age but didn’t have, won’t miss this kind of representation.

As an Aspec reader, I’m always excited to see more asexual/demisexual representation in the world. Could you talk about what featuring this type of representation in The Summer of Bitter and Sweet means to you?

Oof. So much. 

Like many other marginalized identities, there aren’t enough stories out there about our experience written by us. But there’s something about asexual spec stories: we’re queer, but we’re not the right queer according to so many people.

So to have a book, published by one of the big publishers, that’s very much a story about one ace-spec teen’s experience, I’m completely and totally overjoyed. Wait, no. There is no such thing as overmuch joy. I’m simply thrilled. 

One thing I noticed about the (beautiful) cover was the protagonist’s earring, which I believe in other interviews you mentioned related to Indigenous beading and crafting. Would you mind elaborating on that?

Lou’s mother gets into beading as a way to reconnect to her culture and to find her own way through trauma. I also got into beading when I was processed a lot of the colonial trauma that comes from being Indigenous in Canada. So it was so important for me to include that in the book.

I’m also just totally geeked by the fact that my good friend Katherine Crocker beaded a replica pair of Lou’s earrings for me to wear!!! They are my favorite thing!!!

What are some things you hope readers take away from this book?

That even when life is hard, you have to remember there’s joy too. The bitter doesn’t exist without the sweet, nor does sweet exist without bitter. This can be really hard to remember.

Alongside this, I want readers to take away something about being supported by and supporting your community. That your kin and community are there for you. And that you have to be there for your kin and community too. I’m not saying to keep toxic family in your life. Kin can be those you’ve chosen. But it’s okay to need help, to trust others with the vulnerable parts of yourself. It’s important to learn how to hold the vulnerable parts of others and to keep them safe.

What are some of your favorite elements of writing? What do you consider some of the most frustrating and/or difficult?

Oh, I absolutely dread drafting and adore revising. So it’s always tough when I have to get a new story on the page—but when it’s time to revise and make it better, then I’m having fun. 

What’s a question you haven’t been asked yet, but wish you were asked (as well as the answer to that question)? 

If you could make any animal into a pocket-sized animal, which would you choose?

Ahhhh, thank you for asking me this!! I would totally miniaturize a buffalo and keep them with me at all times. I love them so much! I’d only buy shirts and dresses with pockets. But if I got to miniaturize a second pocket animal, it would totally be a raccoon. They just get into so much mischief. I do love mischief. 

What advice might you have to give for aspiring writers?

Stop calling yourself an aspiring writer. If you write, you’re a writer.

And bonus advice because I’m feeling it: this business is full of rejection. Even after you have big success, you’re still going to be told no a lot. So work on developing tools to help yourself navigate this. The more tools you have at your disposal, and the more you know how to use, the better on this ride that is called becoming a published writer. 

Are there any other projects you are working on and at liberty to speak about?

Yes! My second YA contemporary novel is out from Heartdrum in 2023.

The book stars Berlin, a depressed perfectionist bisexual Métis teen; Cameron, a Cree teen who laughs at everything, even the things that hurt; and Jessie, a white settler who is both utterly boy-and-girl crazy. Together they’re going to take down capitalism. Or at least save Pink Mountain Pizza, an independent shop where the ragtag band of teenaged employees are largely left to their own devices to serve up weirdly delicious flavors like peanut butter and jelly pizza, each slice garnished with sharp cheddar. As they try to organize the community, they start to piece together rumors and gossip hinting at a much bigger story: the disappearance of a local Cree teen girl, who Berlin thinks she may have seen, late one night, closing the store, the day before the franchising news was revealed.

Finally, what LGBTQ+ and/or Indigenous books/authors would you recommend to the readers of Geeks OUT?

The queer and trans books on my to-rec list: Laura Gao’s graphic memoir Messy Roots is awesome; I’m incredibly eager for Edward Underhill’s 2023 debut, Always the Almost; I’m in the middle of Racquel Marie’s Ophelia After All and am really excited for Anna Meriano’s It Sounds Like This. In terms of Indigenous writers, I’ll read anything Cherie Dimaline writes and the same goes hard for Alicia Elliott. For both Indigenous and queer/trans writers, my go-tos are Billy-Ray Belcourt and jaye simpson. Get to reading!

Interview with And Tango Makes Three Authors

Florida’s new law, to take effect in July, prohibits classroom “discussion” and “instruction” about “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” in grades K-3, as well as any discussion or instruction about these topics that would be considered not age appropriate in the eyes of the State in grades 4-12. And Tango Makes Three, a multiple award-winning picture book by authors Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell tells the simple and true story of two male penguins in the Central Park Zoo who pair-bonded, built a nest, and with the help of a kind zoo-keeper, together hatched an egg.

The book is written for children ages 4 to 8, but the new Florida law will prevent their teachers from sharing or discussing it with them. Teachers use And Tango Makes Three and books like it to help children with same-sex parents feel welcome in their school and to help their classmates understand the different family structure of their classmates. Lessons like these are invaluable to children of same-sex parents. Censorship of facts about gay families and lives, like that required by the new law, threatens the mental health of children with same-sex parents as well as that of LGBTQIA+ children themselves.

Since its initial publication, And Tango Makes Three has been challenged and banned countless times. The American Library Association has reported that it was the most frequently challenged book between 2006-2010, and the second most frequently challenged in 2009. It was also the fourth-most banned book between 2000 and 2009, and the sixth-most banned book between 2010 and 2019.

I had the opportunity to interview Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell, which you can read below.

First of all, welcome to Geeks OUT! Could you tell us a little about yourselves?

Hey there! Thanks for having us! We are a playwright (Peter) and a psychiatrist (Justin), married and living with our daughter and dog in Greenwich Village.

Justin Richardson (credit Peter Parnell)

The two of you are well-known for your collaboration on And Tango Makes Three, one of the first traditionally published children’s books to discuss LGBTQ+ themes and same-sex parents inspired by real life story of Roy and Silo, two penguins from New York’s Central Park Zoo? How did the two of you come together to work on this project, and what was the creative collaboration process like?

One Saturday morning back in 2004, we were sitting at the kitchen table reading The New York Times. Justin read aloud an article called “The Love That Dare Not Squeak Its Name”, about these two male penguins at the Central Park Zoo who pair bonded and tried to hatch a rock. There was something about hearing the story read aloud that made us think, this sounds like a children’s book. Justin – who is always more the optimist –said, “Let’s write it today!” We both sat down and wrote our versions of the story. Just to get it out of our system, we wrote one version that was more tongue-in-cheek: Roy and Silo were like two very small gay men in tuxedos (“Roy loved Sondheim. Silo enjoyed Jerry Herman.”) We chuckled and set it aside, resolving to write a version with as little anthropomorphizing as possible, sharpening it, simplifying it, pacing it, and pairing it down. We sent the first draft to our book agent fairly soon after, to see if there was any interest in an editor working with us. David Gale at Simon & Schuster was the perfect person to work on it with. 

And what made you specifically pick this story?

Justin saw the potential in the story as being a way for parents to talk to their kids about families with two moms, two dads, parents using reproductive technology, and adoptive parents. We knew that to really reach these kids, they would need a story that spoke to them and their interests, in their own language and without didactics. Justin knew of the need for this sort of book from his speaking about sexual orientation development to parents at schools across the country (he had co-authored a book with Mark Schuster MD on sexuality and parenting entitled Everything You Never Wanted Your Kids to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid They’d Ask)). And, closer to home, we were in the process of trying to have our own child. So, the story chose us, in a way. 

Since your book was published in 2005, it has been continually censored in countries around the world for “inappropriate” material, i.e. discussing LGBTQ+ families. How do you feel that in 2022 your book is still being challenged by the likes of  mandates, like Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” Bill (sigh)?

The old challenges suddenly seem almost quaint. In the early years after the book was published, as challenges to the book began, mostly  by parents whose kids had brought the book home from a school or public library, the cases would be referred to school boards whose lawyers advised them that the book could not be removed from the library, since this violated the Second Amendment of the Constitution. Today’s legislative efforts, for as long as they are allowed to stand, have skirted that process entirely. They are cynical attempts to stoke and play on the fears of some parents for the lawmakers’ political gain. And they may be quite effective at intimidating teachers so they avoid discussions of books like ours. That is, unless those of us who support LGBTQ+ families and children can find effective ways to stand up for the kids who need these books and their teachers.

If you could say anything directly to the legislators and educators hoping to ban your book, what would it be?

Please read our book. Just sit quietly and read it. Then meet a child with two moms or two dads and read it to them. And allow yourself to reconsider the effect on this child of eliminating our book from their classroom.

What are your thoughts on the presence of LGBTQ+ representation in all-ages media and literature?

It’s much better than 17 years ago when Tango came out. We’re especially heartened by the emergence of children’s and YA literature which includes LGBTQ characters even when their stories are not the focus of the work. Of course, in the decades since the premiere of “Will and Grace,” television has brought LGBTQ+ stories into homes across the country through the work of LGBTQ+ writers, producers, actors and allies. This sort of representation has led to a kind of openness and acceptance never seen before. And that, in turn, has been met with the backlash we are now seeing.

Peter Parnell (credit Justin Richardson)

What’s a question you haven’t been asked yet, but wish you were asked (as well as the answer to that question)? 

What’s it like inside the penguin enclosure at the Central Park Zoo? 

Loud and smelly, but thrilling.

What advice might you have to give for aspiring creatives, especially those who want to make their own picture books one day?

Find people who understand your work, and share with them, early and often. Ask for advice from many, accept it from some. 

Are there any other projects you are working on and at liberty to speak about?

Peter, whose most recent play, “Dada Woof Papa Hot” (our daughter’s first four words), was produced at Lincoln Center Theater, has two plays in development now, one of which deals directly with sexuality, censorship, and art.

Finally, what LGBTQ+ books/authors would you recommend to the readers of Geeks OUT?

The list is so long! But it would have to include (in no particular order) Brandon Taylor, Bryan Washington, James Baldwin, Ocean Vuong, Edmund White, Peter Cameron, Gore Vidal, Virginia Woolf, Michael Nava, Neel Mukherjee, David Leavitt, Patrick Gale, Jackie Kay, Jeanette Winterson, and Louise Welsh. Happy reading all!

For more from Justin and Peter, here is a link to a recent op-ed they wrote for the Washington Post.