Interview with Meghan Boehman and Rachael Briner, creators of Dear Rosie

Meghan Boehman and Rachael Briner grew up together in Maryland where they attended the same elementary school and eventually became best friends. They live in Los Angeles where they work in TV animation designing and painting background art for Warner Bros Animation, Bento Box Entertainment and Starburns Industries. They have previously produced a 4-year long webcomic and several animated shorts. Dear Rosie draws from their experiences of losing a close friend while they were in high school.

I had the opportunity to interview Meghan and Rachael, which you can read below.

CW: Discussion of grief and friend passing.

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

Thanks for having us, we’re happy to be here! We both grew up in Frederick, MD and met in elementary school, though we weren’t fast friends at first. For years we engaged in silent competition and viewed each other as rivals, but over time we shared enough classes that we softened up, eventually becoming best friends in high school. After college where Meghan pursued Animation and Rachael pursued Sequential Art, we both moved to Los Angeles and found work as background artists in the animation industry. Outside of our art, Meghan loves to cook, Rachael loves to bake, and we both love animals! Rachael has a rescued cattle dog named Libby and Meghan and her husband (our co-writer/colorist!) Thomas volunteer at a cat rescue.

What can you tell us about your latest project, Dear Rosie? What was your inspiration for the book?

Dear Rosie is the story of four middle school girls navigating loss after one of their friends passes away unexpectedly, inspired by our own friends from that time period and our friend Annalee, who passed away during college. We wanted to create a world based on our hometown, filled with color, warmth, and using local wildlife to offer a vibrant, inviting tone despite the somber backdrop for the book.

What are you hoping readers will take away from Dear Rosie?

Grief is not a straightforward journey, one that we all must navigate in our own way. We hope that each girl’s personal path helps our readers come away with a better understanding of their own experiences of sadness, love, and friendship. If they are dealing with their own loss, we want them to feel camaraderie with the characters and know they aren’t alone, we have been there too and made it to the other side.

As creatives, how did you become drawn to the graphic novel/comics medium, especially those geared towards younger readers?

Meghan: I grew up both reading and drawing comics nearly every day. After college, Rachael and I made a few short films together and produced a webcomic in order to stay connected while living on opposite coasts. That project achieved its aims, but eventually we wanted to craft longer narratives. I was drawn to middle grade and young adult comics because a story you fall in love with as a child stays with you for your entire life. The characters and design sensibilities I find special to this day are rooted in my reading from that time and I want to do my best to resonate like that with the current generation of young readers!

Rachael: I fell in love with the diverse storytelling in the alternative/indie section of my local comic book store in high school. At that age, I was able to appreciate the sheer amount of work that goes into a single issue and knew that I wanted to make comics one day. Middle grade content didn’t come on my radar until we started pitching Dear Rosie and our editor recommended adjusting certain aspects for a younger demographic, but after working on the book and doing research into the field, I can now say it’s likely my favorite demographic to make art for. The stories are so sweet and genuine while still tackling complex emotions and there are many I’d recommend to people of all ages to read!

How would you describe your artistic/creative backgrounds?

Meghan: I studied 2D animation in college and initially wanted to move towards directing feature films, but after working in the industry for a while I discovered that I enjoyed designing backgrounds the most. Having found my niche in animation, but still wanting to tell stories of my own, I rekindled my interest in drawing comics.

Rachael: Before college I was interested in fine art and worked primarily in colored pencil and oil pants, but I gravitated back towards comics during my Sequential Art program. After school and thanks to Meghan, I was able to combine my comic knowledge and love of painting to the animation world, first in Background Paint and later Design.

How would you describe your illustration/writing/creative process?

Anyone who knows us would likely classify it as chaotic, but we’d more charitably like say we trade off to suit each other’s strengths! Meghan and her husband Thomas handled the writing of Dear Rosie. For illustration, Meghan designed the cast of main and supporting characters while Rachael began thumbnailing based off the script. The two of us split color script and sketching duties equally, then Rachael inked the characters while Meghan inked the backgrounds. All three of us worked on color to ensure we stayed on track! Like we said, a bit of chaos, but the division of labor works well and we beat every deadline.

Growing up, were there any stories in which you felt touched by/ or reflected in? Are there any like that now?

Meghan: The Brothers Lionheart by Astrid Lindgren and The Goose Girl by Shannon Hale are two childhood stories that I still think about and re-read often. Recent examples would be Virgil Wander by Leif Enger, Winter Wheat by Mildred Walker, and Witch Hat Atelier by Kamome Shirahama.

As creatives, who or what would you say are some of your greatest creative influences and/or sources of inspiration?

Meghan: My biggest inspiration is Hayao Miyazaki, specifically the film Princess Mononoke and film/manga Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. Bone and Elfquest were also very important when I was young.

Rachael: Craig Thompson’s Blankets changed the way I thought about visual storytelling and what was possible in the medium. Other notable artists are Emily Carroll, Rob Guillory, Becky Cloonan, Gabriel Ba, and James Gurney.

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

Why choose animals for your comic?

Dear Rosie tackles some difficult subjects and the story is very personal, so we wanted to create a little distance for ourselves and the people it is based on. Using animal characters allows both us and our young readers that space. Additionally, we simply enjoy designing their looks and the range of emotions you can express via ear and tail positioning; it can help communicate what’s going on to our youngest readers who may not always be able to articulate exactly what they are feeling. As mentioned before, using local Maryland wildlife was an additional nod to our hometown.

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

We’re currently working through the pitch process with our editor so unfortunately we cannot speak in detail about our current project, but we can say that it focuses on a new group of friends and tackles an important topic we feel is under-discussed amongst young people.

What advice would you give to other aspiring creatives, especially those hoping to work on their own graphic novels one day?

Draw, draw, draw! Don’t focus too hard on whether or not it came out exactly as you wanted it to, just focus on practice, repetition, and forming the habit of working creatively on a regular schedule. The next one, or the fifth, or even the twentieth might be the one you wanted and you’ll never find out without that perseverance. Read often and don’t be afraid to stretch the boundaries of what you consider to your kind of book.

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

Meghan: I would recommend Grow Up, Tahlia Wilkins! by Karina Evans, Frizzy by Claribel A. Ortega and Rose Bousamra, and The Accursed Vampire by Madeline McGrane.

Rachael: Stepping Stones by Lucy Knisley is one of my favorites. It shows the complex family dynamics of divorce from a kid’s perspective. The emotional experience was familiar in a bittersweet way and I think it’s a book older readers would also enjoy.

Header Photo Credit Tom Pickwood

Interview with Anna Sortino, Author of Give Me a Sign

Anna Sortino is a young adult author who writes stories about disabled characters living their lives and falling in love. She’s Deaf and passionate about diverse representation in media. Born and raised in the Chicagoland area, Anna has since lived in different cities from coast to coast, spending her free time exploring nature with her dog or reading on the couch with her cat. Give Me a Sign is her debut novel.

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

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

Thanks for having me! I’m Anna Sortino, and I’m the author of the upcoming YA novel Give Me a Sign. When I’m not writing, I love spending time outside, crafting, and obsessing over my pets. Originally from Chicago, I’ve since lived in DC, CA, and soon, NC.

What can you tell us about your debut book, Give Me a Sign? What was the inspiration for this story?

Give Me a Sign is a sweet YA contemporary romance novel set at a camp for deaf and blind kids. Lilah wears hearing aids and feels caught between deaf and hearing. She gets a job for the summer where she finds community, brushes up on her ASL skills, and falls for a cute Deaf counselor. It’s up to Lilah to find where she belongs, especially when the comfort of camp is no match for struggles in the real world.

The main inspiration for this novel was the setting. Growing up, I went to a similar camp. We were kids enjoying the summer, hanging out in the lake, getting mosquito bites and sunburn, and eating tons of s’mores. We were loud, animated, and eager for interactions in the Deaf community that many of us didn’t have access to back home. When it comes to disabilities, there are always a lot of stereotypes or assumptions at play. I wanted to use this setting to write a book full of disabled characters, showing a wide range of experiences, while centering joy.

How did you find yourself getting into storytelling, particularly young adult and romance? What drew you to those things?

Growing up, I was always a big reader, hiding away with a book whenever attempting conversation grew too taxing. After deciding upon the idea for Give Me a Sign, I realized summer camp was the perfect setting for a teen romance! Young Adult explores the time in our lives when we’re figuring out where we fit into the wider world and what things are most important to us. It’s a great age category to explore questions about identity and belonging.

How would you describe your creative process?

Bursts of frantic creativity and lulls of stalled frustration.

As a writer, who or what would you say are some of your greatest creative influences and/or sources of inspiration?

My greatest influences are some of the amazing disability advocates out there doing the work. Every time Imani Barbarin (@crutches_and_spice) comes across my newsfeed, or an incredible documentary like Crip Camp makes its way to Netflix, I’m reminded that our stories are important and deserve to be told.

As someone who is part of the d/Deaf/HOH community, disability seems to be a strong element in your work. How did you set about representation in your book, particularly representing a three-dimensional language like ASL, or general Deaf culture onto the page?

I grew up in a household with a mix of significant hearing and vision losses, so to me, accessibility can be commonplace, as simple as watching tv on a school night with closed captions while voicing aloud anything that might be hard to view on screen. My entire life I’ve been surrounded by disability. Since my hearing aids can be an obvious giveaway, many people have felt comfortable sharing their otherwise invisible disabilities with me. Some might consider the sheer volume of disabled characters in Give Me a Sign as extraordinary, but I know for a fact that a novel with an entirely able-bodied cast is not an accurate representation of the world we live in.

When it comes to depicting a visual language like ASL on the page, each Deaf author puts their own spin on it. Since Give Me a Sign is a first-person story told from Lilah’s perspective, it was important to me that the ASL read how she was internally interpreting it. As her comprehension progresses throughout the novel, so does the complexity of the signed translation.

What advice would you give for authors for portraying disability (whether that of their own or of others) within their own work?

For those wanting to write a novel with a more inclusive cast of characters, please do your research and utilize authenticity readers. So much of our disabilities make us who we are, therefore it’s not as simple as creating a character and sprinkling a disability on top. Also, consider whether you are the right person to tell a certain narrative—disabled people should first and foremost be the authors of our own stories, because for far too long, that hasn’t been the case.

For disabled authors, know that while infusing your experiences into fiction can be cathartic, don’t feel like you have to give every piece of yourself to the world. It’s okay to keep some distance so any negative comments that may come about your novel won’t shatter your self-worth. Also, support your fellow disabled authors since we’re in this together, and the world needs all our stories and perspectives.

What’s something about Deafness/disability you might want someone to take away from this interview?

Deafness is a spectrum, and every individual has their own experience with it. Kids with hearing loss aren’t born with an innate knowledge of ASL, so it’s important to foster community and shared learning so that children can flourish with the benefits of Deaf culture.

What are some of your favorite elements of writing? What are some of the most challenging?

I absolutely LOVE revising. The hard part of getting all those initial words down on the page is over, and I get to play around in this new world I’ve created. During drafting, I might struggle to write a hundred words, but during revising, I could blink and have accidentally written five thousand new ones. It’s like the pressure is off—this book is a real thing and now I can totally enjoy creating it.

Besides your work as an author, what are some things you would want readers to know about you?

Meet my writer’s assistants! I’ve got a mischievous Shiba Inu named Mika, and a daring little orange cat named Zuko. Both find it of the utmost importance to obstruct my keyboard and remind me to stand up every once and a while.

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

“Are you a hand model?” And the answer is, kind of!

To help my illustrator (the incredibly talented Christina Chung) get the positioning just right on the cover of Give Me a Sign, I took reference photos of my partner and I signing the words used. The result was such perfect and life-like signing!

Follow up question, “So what are the characters saying on the cover?”

Lilah is signing “right!” while Isaac signs “interesting.”

Are there any projects you are working on or thinking about that you are able to discuss?

Ah there’s much in the works that I wish I could discuss! I will say that my next YA project has been referred to as a “slightly older sibling to Give Me a Sign”, and I can’t wait to share more about that one soon.

What advice might you have to give to aspiring writers?

Find people who will help make your journey more bearable. It’s no secret that publishing is tumultuous, and you’ll want to make friends with fellow writers who understand the ins and outs of the querying and submission processes. Because no matter how many times you explain it to folks outside the industry, they won’t fully understand why some piece of news has you either dancing around the room or crying into your pillow. That’s what your writer friends are for.

Finally, what books/authors, including possibly those related to Deafness/disability, would you recommend to the readers of Geeks OUT?

I could rec books for daaaaays. To keep it short and sweet, here are some great reads by Deaf authors:

Middle Grade – Show Me a Sign by Ann Clare LeZotte

Young Adult – The Loudest Silence by Sydney Langford (summer 2024)

Adult – True Biz by Sara Nović

Interview with Ciera Burch

Ciera Burch is a lifelong writer and ice cream aficionado. She has a BA from American University and an MFA from Emerson College. Her fiction has appeared in The American Literary MagazineUnderground, the art and literary journal of Georgia State University, Stork, and Blackbird. Her work was also chosen as the 2019 One City One Story read for the Boston Book Festival. While she is originally from New Jersey, she currently resides in Washington, DC, with her stuffed animals, plants, and far too many books.

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

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

Hi! I’m Ciera Burch, a Black, queer children’s author with a huge fascination with ghosts in storytelling. I’m also a photography lover, amateur baker, and D&D enthusiast. 

What can you tell us about your debut book, Finch House? What was the inspiration for this story?

Finch House is a middle-grade horror novel about a headstrong young girl, Micah, whose curiosity leads to her grandfather’s disappearance in a haunted Victorian house that has a surprising connection to her and her family. There are haunted house shenanigans and ghosts and a couple of very brave kids, but at its heart, Finch House is a story about the things we do for and to the people we love and how change is a big part of the human experience but isn’t always bad.

I’ve found inspiration in so many things (the Victorian houses in a town near where I grew up, Rita’s water ice, time periods in American history) but, honestly, my main inspiration was the door to my Poppop’s basement. It’s in this cheery, bright yellow kitchen and that door, always open, is just a gaping mouth of darkness that you can’t see past. It’s terrified me since I was very little—and still does!

As a writer, what drew you to the art of storytelling, specifically middle grade fiction?

What a good question! I’ve always loved stories. I think we don’t think enough about oral storytelling but, in that sense, my family is full of storytellers—they can all turn the smallest interaction with another person into a hilarious or moving story. So, I very much grew up steeped in story, often emphasized with loud laughter. My mom was also a big reader and she read to me a ton before I could read to myself, so it was only natural that once I could, I started devouring any and all stories that I could get my hands on. When I was in about 5th grade, I realized I could write my own and I’ve been trying to do so ever since.

I was drawn to middle grade because it’s such a pivotal time in life, and it’s the time in my childhood that feels most real to think back on. It was when I was first truly felt like I was becoming my own person with very clearly defined interests and curiosities and questions—and when I started writing in earnest. Writing middle grade is lovely because it brings me back to those crossroads moments of childhood when “kid” doesn’t feel like it fits but “teenager” definitely doesn’t. It feels very other in a way that, as someone from multiple underrepresented communities, I was drawn to. 

As implied by the book’s description, the setting of the book, a haunted source, acts as a metaphor for intergenerational trauma. What inspired you to go with this theme?

As a person of color, and particularly as someone interested in the themes surrounding horror and what makes ghosts, intergenerational trauma is not far from the surface of my mind at any point. Especially with the idea of breaking generational curses and cycles being so prevalent online and in social media, I wanted to explore that in a way that was not only accessible to kids but that also puts intergenerational trauma in your face and surrounds you—to make it a space, essentially, so that it can be fully interacted with and explored outside of, well, therapy. 

How would you describe your writing process?

Oh, man. I’d love to say it’s pretty methodical and planned out, which it often is, but Finch House came at me fast and hard. I had no outline, a few characters, and the idea of a house that consumes people and then I just…started writing. This book was like a solo-NaNoWriMo for me, I got the first draft down in about 30 days.

When I’m not so consumed however, or just busy or trying to track down my muse, I usually have outlines, sometimes even character profiles. I always write in order but I also have plenty of half-baked scenes and scattered pieces of dialogue jotted down in the notes app of my phone. I can get very much in my head about word count and can be big into perfectionism (it’s the Virgo in me) so I try to block out actual time and space where I can just actually write without thinking too hard about what’s going on the page, and try to remember to have fun with my story and my characters and not stress too much if a certain description isn’t coming out how I wanted it to or if a big, planned scene is running in its own direction. I also no longer force myself to write at my desk. If I want to write on my couch or the giant bean bag chair I have or the courtyard of a museum, I try and let myself do that.

I love writing, even the messy, stressful, agonizing parts of it, and I try to keep that in mind when I get really frustrated or down on myself.

One of the hardest things about writing a book is finishing one. What strategies or advice might you have to say about accomplishing this?

I’m such an introvert but I’m going to have to say a strong support system. My friends and family have been so monumental in helping me actually finish Finch House. They were always there with encouraging words or distractions when I needed them, but they also let me bounce things off of them, just to get them off my chest. Sometimes they had great advice and sometimes they didn’t, but it was the act of having to think about the book as I talked through it and explained my thought process to other people that spurred me along.

Also breaks. Sometimes you just need to walk away or eat a snack or three.

As a writer, who or what would you say are some of your greatest creative influences and/or sources of inspiration in general? 

Life. Anything, really! It’s surprising how some of the simplest things can spark ideas. Music lyrics, a fascinating interaction on a bus, the way someone pronounces a word, anything. I do a lot of people-watching when I’m out and I really enjoy seeing how other people go through the same spaces I do in such unique ways.

In terms of actual people, Mildred D. Taylor hooked me on her portrayal of family, especially Black family, as a child and has stuck with me ever since whenever I’m writing interpersonal, and especially intergenerational, scenes.

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

I love dialogue. I often start off writing it without any tags or descriptions to get a feel for the flow of the conversation and whether each character’s voice feels true to them. My characters are very vocal in my head, so it’s always fun to get to put that to paper and let them have a little bit of free reign. Getting to a point that shaped the main idea for a story is also really fun, whether it’s a bit of description or a major plot point.

Endings are most difficult for me. I will prolong finishing a book or tv series for years because I don’t want them to end, so coming to the end of my own work is often difficult. Especially because, if I’m writing without an outline or veered pretty far from it, I don’t always know how a piece of writing will end and I’ll wonder if I’ve earned an ending I might have in mind or if the events of the book led me somewhere faithfully enough that my ending feels warranted. It’s the last thing a person reads and remembers and it can really make or break or a book, so it feels so pivotal to me.

Aside from writing, what are some things you would want others to know about you?

I’m very much into Dungeons and Dragons these days and I could fangirl about it for hours if anyone let me. I don’t know all the rules or classes or technicalities, but I make up for that with sheer enthusiasm, I hope.

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

Would you live in a haunted house? The answer is absolutely not, but I would admire it from afar and take plenty of pictures.

What advice might you have to give for aspiring writers?

Don’t give up! Really, truly. I know it’s hard and it can feel like literally everyone in the world is better than you at it, but they’re not! Only you can bring what you have to your writing (and the world) and so you should. It doesn’t exactly get easier, but I like to think we all get better at it as we go.

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

I have a YA coming out next year, Something Kindred, that deals with more ghosts and more generational trauma but in a very different way and with two sweet, queer girls in a small town. I’m also working on another middle grade that I’m not sure I can spill the beans on plot-wise, but it involves a New Jersey icon.

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

Oh man, there are so many books, past, present, and future! I’m going to say EPIC ELLISONS: COSMOS CAMP by Lamar Giles, IT’S BOBA TIME FOR PEARL LI! by Nicole Chen, and my forever favorite ROLL OF THUNDER, HEAR MY CRY by Mildred D. Taylor.

Interview with Creator of Dead End: Paranormal Park, Hamish Steele

Hamish Steele (he/they) is a freelance animation director and illustrator who grew up surrounded by legends, myths, and folktales. Since graduating from Kingston University in 2013, Hamish has worked for the BBC, Cartoon Network, Disney, Nickelodeon, among others. He is the creator of and showrunner for the Netflix series Dead End: Paranormal Park, based on his graphic novel series, DeadEndia, and the Eisner Award-winning creator of the graphic novel, Pantheon. Hamish currently lives in London.

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

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

Hey! I’m Hamish Steele. I’m a creator of comics and animation. I recently showran Netflix’s Dead End: Paranormal Park which was an adaptation of my webcomic series DeadEndia which has just been published by Union Square & Co. I’m gay and actually yes that is my whole personality. 

What can you tell us about your graphic novel series, DeadEndia? Where did the inspiration for this story come from?

It came from problem solving. I had these original characters, Barney and Norma, and I loved writing their dynamic but I didn’t really have a story. I also loved ghost stories and time travel plots and queer romantic comics… so I basically just threw it all together. I often tell people if they can’t decide which idea of theirs they should focus on, to throw them all together and see what happens. That’s essentially what I did. 

Speaking as a fan of your work, a few of the reasons why so many people love your work is because of its excellent queer sensibility (including awesome trans rep) and neurodivergent representation. Could you possible speak a bit as to what this type of representation means to you?

I mean, I sometimes feel like a bit of grinch when it comes to representation. I always see these meagre crumbs being applauded in giant blockbusters. Oh! Everybody clap! Spider-man swung past a pride flag. We’re so much further along than that! We deserve better! I’ve been in rooms where I’ve asked to be included in the story I’m writing, and they’ve said it’s not appropriate this time around but maybe next time! NO! Take up space! Demand to be seen! It’s so important, now more than ever, that we’re seen and our stories are told! If people aren’t seeing what’s happening in the world right now, the battles that are about to be fought, I don’t know what to tell you. I used to be thankful for the tiniest drip of rep. Now, I will never work on another project where the lead isn’t queer again.

How did you find yourself getting into storytelling, particularly comics/graphic novels? What drew you to the medium?

I just loved stories and I wanted to tell stories – big, bold adventures! And comics are so marvellous, because you only need a paper and pencil and you’re already there! With a paper and pencil you have actors, locations, costume departments, cinematographers, all the visual effects you could want! I never have to scale down my stories in comics. 

As a creative, who or what would you say are some of your greatest creative influences and/or sources of inspiration?

I have a special interest in Godzilla, Ultraman, Super Sentai… all those Japanese special effects shows and movies. I find their constant inventiveness so inspiring. They’re not scared of being laughed at – they just GO for it! I find that endlessly inspiring. 

Besides your work as a creative, what are some things you would want readers to know about you?

As I said before – I’m gay and that really is my whole personality. My hobbies include kissing my husband! And kissing my boyfriend! And watching gay things and reading gay things and hanging out with my gay friends. I really, really feel sorry for straight people, they all seem so miserable. 

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

Are you free for dinner later? And yes, if you’re paying. 

Are there any projects you are working on or thinking about that you are able to discuss?

I’ve just signed a deal for my next comic series! It’s my take on the aforementioned Godzilla type story, but really focussing on my experiences as a queer, autistic kid. I know it feels like that’s what DeadEndia is, but this is 10x more personal. It’s actually a project I’ve been wanting to do since before DeadEndia was a thing. 

What advice would you give to any aspiring creatives out there?

The “aspiring” word is always so weird to me. What I do now is no different than what I was doing 10 years ago, I just obviously have people paying me to do it now. But if you’re telling stories, making stuff – you’re IN the industry. So don’t change who you are, just find the people who wanna hear what you gotta say. 

Interview with Crystal Maldonado

Crystal Maldonado is a young adult author with a lot of feelings. She is the author of romcoms for fat, brown girls, including The Fall of Whit Rivera, which will be released Oct. 10, 2023; Fat Chance, Charlie Vega, which was a New England Book Award winner, a Cosmopolitan Best New Book, and a Kirkus Best YA Fiction of 2021; and No Filter and Other Lies, which was named a POPSUGAR and Seventeen Best New YA.

By day, Crystal works in higher ed marketing, and by night, she’s a writer who loves Beyoncé, glitter, shopping, and spending too much time on her phone. Her work has been published in Latina, BuzzFeed, and the Hartford Courant. She lives in western Massachusetts with her husband, daughter, and dog. Follow her everywhere @crystalwrote.

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

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

Hi, Geeks OUT! Thank you so much for having me. I’m a young adult author who writes inclusive stories for fat, brown girls that hopefully make you laugh and swoon at the same time. I’ve long been a huge fan of the YA genre, especially as a reader. Romcoms are the way to my heart! Outside of reading and writing, I love shopping (I’m obsessed with anything glitter and I collect quirky earrings), rewatching “Gilmore Girls,” playing Animal Crossing, boy bands, TikTok, and Beyoncé.

What can you tell us about your latest book, No Filter and Other Lies? What inspired the story?

“No Filter and Other Lies” follows 17-year-old Kat Sanchez, a fat, Puerto Rican photographer who’s obsessed with Instagram. While grappling with typical teenage insecurities and some difficult family dynamics, she becomes fixated on gaining clout on IG. When that doesn’t happen naturally, Kat takes matters into her own hands: she steals her friend and co-worker’s photos, makes a new identity on Instagram, and starts to catfish (or #katfish, in Kat’s case). Suddenly she gets that attention she’s always wanted, but it all comes crashing down when Kat meets a follower she develops feelings for and she has to decide whether to come clean or keep up the lie.

This story was my attempt at writing about a fat girl whose fatness wasn’t integral to the story, and who was, quite frankly, a little unlikeable. Kat’s decision to steal her friend’s photos is awful! But don’t we all sometimes do things we’re not proud of? I wanted to explore that imperfection through her story, and also shed some light on how immense the pressures of social media can sometimes feel, especially when you’re a teenager. I hope I accomplished that!

What drew you to writing, particularly young adult fiction? Were there any favorite writers or stories that sparked your own love and interest in storytelling?

Young adult fiction has always been my favorite, and I’ve been reading it for as long as I can remember. I was absolutely obsessed with the “Gossip Girl” (by Cecily von Ziegesar), “Making Waves” (by Katherine Applegate), and “California Diaries” (by Ann M. Martin) series when I was in high school. I also read a ton by Paula Danziger and Sarah Dessen. I would devour those types of books, finishing them in a day!

As a writer, I can’t help but be drawn to young adult fiction, especially contemporary romance. First, I’m such a sucker for those first feelings—the swooning, the loaded glances, the butterflies! I also think a lot of our teen experiences and the big, raw emotions that come with it are universal, and there is something very comforting reading about others who feel the same way you do. I also think YA allows you to explore important issues, like identity and sexuality, in meaningful and nuanced ways, which is important to me.

No Filter and Other Lies is said to feature queer and Latinx representation. What does it mean to you as an author writing this into your work?

When I was a young reader, I rarely saw these parts of myself in books I was reading. There were so few queer characters; many Latinx characters were stereotypes; fat characters were never the love interest; and forget about characters that had one or more of those identities. You just didn’t see that. So, even though I loved books, the lack of representation often made me wonder if books loved me back. I knew as an author I wanted to try to fix that by creating characters that I’d have appreciated when I was a teenager in hopes that readers might pick up my books and feel less alone.  

How would you describe your writing process? What inspires you as a writer?

My writing process is definitely chaotic. I wish I could say I was one of those pragmatic authors who has a specific routine, who is great about creating outlines, who sits down and writes 1,000 words per day, but none of that is true. My writing is very much about feelings and daydreaming. I spend so much time imagining my characters, who they are, what scenarios they’ll find themselves in, and what might happen—all before I even write one word! Once I develop the characters, then I’m usually able to sit down and figure out a rough outline, but I very much change direction as I’m going.

Sometimes I’m inspired by other media I consume, like books, movies, music, or TV shows, but sometimes my inspiration comes from personal experience or even small things. The idea for my upcoming book, “The Fall of Whit Rivera,” came to me when I was sitting in a rainy parking lot waiting to get my daughter from daycare and drinking a pumpkin spice coffee. So, I never know when inspiration may strike, and I kind of love that!

What are some of your favorite elements of writing? What are some of the most challenging for you?

One of my favorite parts of writing is getting to know the characters. It sounds really silly to say since the characters aren’t real, but you get to a point where they feel real, you know? After a while, you start to know what your character would or wouldn’t do. I also love writing dialogue! For me, that’s how I build on the relationships between characters in an authentic way. But I’ll admit I find plotting and outlining to be challenging. I’m very much that person who sometimes thinks, “Can I forget the plot and just write on vibes and feelings?”

One of the hardest parts of writing a book is finishing one. Were there any techniques/ strategies/ advice that help you finish a first draft?

Don’t edit while you write! This used to be my biggest downfall. I would go back and re-read my book over and over and over and then get hung up on the editing, which would slow down the writing. Now I try to write a first draft as fast as I can and give myself permission for that draft to be messy. First drafts are supposed to be bad! It’s more important to get the story down on the page than it is to have a perfect first draft. Polishing your work comes in the editing. Just write! 

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

“Have you ever been catfished?” And the answer is… YES. Back in the days of America Online, when I was around 11 or 12, I made friends in Backstreet Boys chatrooms. I was young and naïve then, and I was catfished by this random person who pretended to be Nick Carter. We would talk all the time and I was so infatuated. We’d email and he’d be like, “I’ll be thinking of you at my concert tonight,” and I was like, “Wow, I can’t believe THE Nick Carter and I are in love!” Obviously, that person very much turned out not to be Nick Carter. That person’s mom emailed me and my friend to say he had been just pretending to be Nick. It was totally devastating at the time, but it’s hilarious when I look back on it. And also super embarrassing. I can’t believe I willingly shared that.

Besides your work, what are some things you would want readers to know about you?

I’m deeply passionate about trying to do my part to make the world better, however possible. I think empathy is one of the most important traits anyone can have, and I’m trying to teach my daughter to bring kindness into every interaction she has. Also: I have a very adorable dog named Obi!

What advice might you give to other aspiring writers?

Write your heart out, get that first draft done, and then be open to edits. It’s through the editing that your book will really come alive. And never read reviews for your own books on Goodreads!

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

I briefly mentioned my next book, “The Fall of Whit Rivera,” which will come out mid-2023. It tells the story of Whit Rivera is a Type A, office supply-obsessed, pumpkin spice latte-sipping, fat Puerto Rican girl, whose story is an ode to second-chance loves, bodies, family, being Puerto Rican, living life with chronic illness, and New England autumns. I can’t wait for people to meet this new character!

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

There are SO many amazing LGBTQ+ books and authors out right now. I love anything by Anna Marie McLemore (“Wild Beauty” is one of my all-time favorites), Adib Khorram, and Jonny Garza Villa. I also adored “The Summer of Jordi Perez” by Amy Spalding, “The Grief Keeper” by Alex Villasante, and “Cemetery Boys” by Aiden Thomas. Lastly—and not a YA rec—“Honey Girl” by Morgan Rogers was phenomenal. Happy reading!

Interview with Clarkisha Kent

Clarkisha Kent is a Nigerian-American writer, culture critic, former columnist, and up-and-coming author. Committed to telling inclusive stories via unique viewpoints from nigh-infancy, she is fascinated with using storytelling and cultural criticism not as a way to “overcome” or “transcend” her unique identities (as a FAT, bisexual, and disabled Black African woman), but as a way to explore them, celebrate them, affirm them, and most importantly, normalize them and make the world safe enough for people who share them to exist.

As a University of Chicago graduate with a B.A. in Cinema and Media Studies and English, she brings with her over seven years of pop culture analysis, four years of film theory training, and a healthy appetite for change.

Her writing has been featured in outlets like Entertainment Weekly, Essence, The Root, BET, PAPER, HuffPost, MTV News, Wear Your Voice Magazine, and more. She is also the creator of #TheKentTest, a media litmus test designed to evaluate the quality of representation that exists for women of color in film and other media.

Clarkisha Kent is the author of Fat Off, Fat On: A Big Bitch Manifesto (Feminist Press, March 2023).

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

CW: Discussion of fatphobia

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

I’d describe myself as an internet shit-talker (laughs)! But on a serious note, I’m a writer who’s been doing so online (and then professionally) for just under ten years. Before then, I attended the University of Chicago to study English and Film. When I’m not concerned with any of that, you can catch me watching BoJack Horseman (again) or playing some version of the Sims.

What can you tell us about your newest book, Fat Off, Fat On: A Big Bitch Manifesto? What was the inspiration for this project?

So Fat Off, Fat On is my first book and while it primarily deals with my life, I mainly use my life story to explain how insidious fatphobia is. And that, yes, it’s not about merely “name-calling”. It’s a systemic issue.

As a writer, what drew you to the art of storytelling?

My upbringing. It was rather oppressive and in order to escape (first mentally, and then physically, to Chicago), I used writing to tell the kind of stories I was into and wanted to see. Essentially, it was a way to imagine me being somewhere else.

How would you describe your writing process?

A little chaotic for the most part. I jot down ideas/random tidbits in my notes app and on my waterproof notepad in my shower. That’s usually the brainstorming part. But whenever a serious project is on the horizon, I’ll return to my desktop–in its special corner–and throw whatever I need to on the page. I usually also give myself a minimum time (1 – 2 hours) to write, depending on deadlines and etc.

Many authors would say one of the most challenging parts of writing a book is finishing one. What strategies would you say helped you accomplish this?

Some of y’all gonna roll your eyes, but…outlining. It sounds so cliché (it is kind of), but it’s true. If you have an idea of where your story is supposed to end, it’ll be much easier to finish it.

Growing up, were there any stories/books in which you felt touched by/ or reflected in? Are there any like that now?

The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, A Girl Named Disaster by Nancy Farmer, The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien, The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, (and so much more). Presently, I really fucked with Red Lip Theology by Candice Marie Benbow and Communion by bell hooks.

As a writer, who or what would you say are some of your greatest creative influences and/or sources of inspiration in general? 

Definitely bell hooks. Toni Morrison.

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

Getting paid for it (hahaha). But probably coming back to read the work. Sometimes I’ll wait years to read something I wrote in its entirety and then be like “damn. I really did that)!

Challenging elements would be the editing process. Either I do too little or too much. No in-between. That’s I consider a good editor a national treasure.

Aside from your work, what are some things you would want others to know about you?

Other than the obvious, I am a Pluto truther. #JusticeForPluto!!!

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

I can’t think of anything off-head.

What advice might you have to give for other aspiring writers?

Consider another profession. I kid, I kid! On a serious note, you need patience. And if you don’t have it, well, you’re gonna have to spend time cultivating it. And I’m so serious.

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

I’m working on a Western about a Black female outlaw and, possibly, another nonfiction project.

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

If you’re serious about fatphobia, and learning about its anti-Black origins, then you need to read Fearing the Black Body by Sabrina Strings.

Interview with Deborah Hopkinson and Paul O. Zelinsky, Creators of Cinderella and a Mouse Called Fred

Deborah Hopkinson is the author of many highly acclaimed picture books, including A Letter to My Teacher, which received two starred reviews, and the modern classic Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt, which the New York Times called “inspiring.” Her other books include Sky Boys: How They Built the Empire State Building, a Boston Globe-Horn Book Honor Book; and Abe Lincoln Crosses a Creek: A Tall, Thin Tale, an ALA-ALSC Notable Children’s Book. She lives in Oregon with her family.

Paul O. Zelinsky is the acclaimed illustrator numerous children’s books. He received the Caldecott Medal for his illustrated retelling of Rapunzel, as well as three Caldecott Honors for Hansel and GretelRumpelstiltskind, and Swamp Angel, written by Anne Isaacs, along with countless other awards. He is also the illustrator of the New York Times bestselling movable book, The Wheels on the Bus. Most recently, he illustrated Emily Jenkins’s All-of-a-Kind Family Hanukkah, which received six starred reviews and was hailed as “dazzling” by The New York Times. Paul lives in New York with his wife.

I had the opportunity to interview Deborah and Paul, which you can read below.

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

DH: Thank you for having us!  I’m Deborah Hopkinson, author of Cinderella and a Mouse Called Fred, illustrated by the one and only Paul O. Zelinsky, winner of the Caldecott Medal.

I live near Portland, Oregon with my family and pets. I like to put my dogs and my cat into books. However, in this case, Fred is the much more adorable cousin of some recent unwanted visitors to our garden.

PZ: Thanks from me, too.  I am the illustrator of that book, and thank you Deborah for introducing me! I live in Brooklyn, New York, with my beautiful wife and no pets. And I’m glad to say, no mice.

What can you tell us about your most recent project, Cinderella and a Mouse Called Fred? Where did the inspiration for this story come from?

DH: I’m an avid gardener and also love history. The inspiration for the story came from my garden. I became curious about the beautiful French heirloom pumpkins nicknamed fairytale pumpkins since they look so much like Cinderella’s coach.  I decided to make up a fun story about how they got this nickname. At first, I tried telling it from the point of view of the pumpkin, but then Fred popped into my head one day.

PZ: I’m so happy that Fred popped into Deborah’s head! If you want to know about my inspiration, obviously it was Deborah’s Fred and his dilemmas first. Then I wanted to think about how all of that should look, to make it as funny as I could, and to keep some sense that the Cinderella story is classic, and sort of historical.

Deborah Hopkinson

How did you find yourself getting into storytelling, especially picture books? What drew you to the medium?

DH: I first decided to be a writer when I was ten. When I began reading picture books to my kids picture books seemed a more realistic goal than writing a huge long novel while working full time and raising a family. Over the years, I’ve written a number of picture books about history, but this is my first with talking animals.  I love picture books because I’m always astounded by all that an artist brings to the words.

PZ: As a child I had no idea of becoming a maker of children’s books, but I loved looking at them. When my mother took me shopping with her in the nearby mall, I’d hang out in the bookstore there and browse through the children’s books. And I never stopped doing that. So my career turns out to be no surprise.

How would you describe your creative process? And what went into collaborating with others for Cinderella and a Mouse Called Fred?

DH: The best way to describe my creative process is SLOGGING! And, as I often tell students at school author visits, not all my ideas become books. Failing (a lot) is part of the process.  For Cinderella I worked closely with my extraordinary editor Anne Schwartz. A couple of times she passed on some suggestions from Paul. It’s really such an honor to be paired with an illustrator of his caliber, and I couldn’t be happier with how the book turned out.

PZ: Well, that is high praise from Deborah, who is no slouch of an author herself!  Most of the collaborating on a picture book happens with an editor working first with the writer, and then (with art director joining in) with the illustrator, so there was a lot of collaboration here, including some between Deborah and me. I did a fair amount of flailing around at first, too, but it was our editor Anne’s suggestion  that put me right: I tried to make my pictures feel like one of my very first picture books, one that was inspired mostly by 18th century embroidery or crewel decoration on fabric. I created all of the art on my laptop, drawing on a digitizing tablet and watching the images on my screen.

As a creative, who or what would you say are some of your greatest creative influences and/or sources of inspiration?

DH: When I speak to students I tell them learning about ordinary and forgotten people and stories in history has always been my greatest inspiration. I also tell them how essential it is to tell their own stories and the stories of their families.

PZ: I love looking at art, and I think inspiration just comes when something really great bowls you over. My inspiration also came from my mother,  a medical illustrator—her very realistic drawings didn’t tell stories, they showed the insides of people— bones, muscles and organs. A surgeon who invents a new operation needs to show other surgeons how to perform it, and drawings can do that far better than photographs.

Besides your work, what are some things you would want readers to know about you?

DH: Well, as mentioned, I do love gardening and staying up late at night with a good book.

PZ: My work is making children’s books, but the world of children’s books is so wonderful that there aren’t many parts of my life now that have nothing to do with it.  But aside from books, I have two terrific daughters (one lives in Australia) and one amazing grandson, and if all goes well, there will be three grandchildren soon. Grandchildren have not yet appeared in my pictures, but their mothers have!

Paul Zelinsky

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

DH: Question: “Do you plan to retire?” 

Answer: “No. Writers write until they croak.”

PZ: Question: “Do you like to wear your books?”

Answer: “Yes, after I finish illustrating a book I like to create a repeating pattern from its art, and I have a shirt made for any events I can attend and talk about it. This is the pattern I’ll be wearing for Cinderella and a Mouse Called Fred: it includes tiny copies of thirteen of the book’s double-page spreads.”

Are there any other projects you are working on or thinking about that you are able to discuss?

DH: I’m excited about my next picture book with Knopf coming out in 2024 entitled Evidence! How Dr. John Snow Solved the Mystery of Cholera, illustrated by Nik Henderson. It’s very different from Cinderella! It tells the story of the 1854 London cholera epidemic and Dr. John Snow, the founder of modern epidemiology. That’s another great thing about picture books—they can be silly or serious.

PZ: I’m working on art for a picture book by Alex London, who mostly writes for older audiences, but “Still Life” is a very funny piece about what you will never, ever find in a still life painting.

What advice might you have to give to aspiring creatives, to both those interested in making their own picture book one day?

DH: My advice to people who love to create is pretty basic: Just keep trying, don’t give up, and immerse yourself in your field of interest.  Read widely, be a lifelong learner—and remember, no one can tell your story but you.

PZ: What Deborah said. Also, remember to take pleasure in the act of creating, and in the wonderful things you can create. A desire for recognition is natural, but don’t get trapped by it, especially by wishing for fame or wealth. Those things don’t bring happiness, nobody can count on them, and there are lots of other fields where you’d be more likely to get even partway there, if that’s what you really want. Also, if that’s what’s driving you, you won’t be doing your best work.

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

DH: I’m sure your readers are familiar with Heartstopper (We love it in our family!). They may be less familiar with the incredible David Levithan, an author I highly recommend. His novel Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist was made into a film, and you can find more of his wonderful books on his website.

PZ: There are so many good writers and good books, I hate to have to pick. I think I’ll recommend my upcoming author Alex London. For picture books, one brilliant inventor is writer Antoinette Portis, and one illustrator who should have won a Caldecott Medal many years ago is Barbara McClintock.

Queer Quills and Nerdy Thrills: Glimpses Through My Geeky Glasses – Science Fiction and Space Opera

Greetings, esteemed readers! As a 100% real human person and not a droid, I am thrilled to embark on this literary journey with you, delving into captivating books that traverse distant galaxies while shedding light on LGBTQIA+ and Queer-Coded experiences, all in the spirit of beloved geek culture. Strap on your seatbelts, and let us get a”byte” of adventure in the wonders of the following literary gems.

Busy Geek Breakdown (TL;DR): Check out these titles!

“Cinder” by Marissa Meyer

“The Disasters” by M.K. England

“The Darkness Outside Us” by Eliot Schrefer

“The Prey of Gods” by Nicky Drayden

“The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet” by Becky Chambers

And, for those of you still with me, on to why I recommended you put these stories into your brain!

5. “Cinder” by Marissa Meyer: 

Prepare to be enchanted by this imaginative retelling of the classic Cinderella tale with a sci-fi twist. In a futuristic world, cyborg mechanic Cinder, an LGBT+ character, is entangled in political intrigue while exploring her identity and desires. A narrative that challenges gender norms, “Cinder” blends futuristic tech and romance.

Within the pages of “Cinder,” Marissa Meyer gracefully introduces readers to the complexities of identity, love, and self-acceptance. Cinder’s journey of self-discovery unfolds seamlessly against a backdrop of futuristic technologies and social stratification. Through this futuristic retelling of the beloved fairy tale, Meyer empowers LGBT+ readers by presenting a cyborg protagonist who embraces her uniqueness and navigates her burgeoning feelings without restraint. By defying traditional norms and expectations, “Cinder” ignites a spark within us, urging us to embrace our authentic selves and champion those who dare to be different.

Meyer creates a cybernetic wonderland brimming with steampunk aesthetics and diverse characters, celebrating individuality and love in all its forms. “Cinder” stands as a beacon of hope, promoting acceptance and showcasing that our uniqueness is what makes us extraordinary.

4. “The Disasters” by M.K. England: 

In this fast-paced sci-fi adventure, a motley crew of cadets must band together to thwart a sinister plot. Geek culture takes center stage, entwining fandoms and pop-culture references with identity exploration and burgeoning romance.

“The Disasters” propels readers on an exhilarating rollercoaster of action, friendship, and geek culture, all while celebrating diverse identities. England creates a thrilling narrative filled with witty dialogue and pop-culture references that resonate with readers.

As they navigate a treacherous mission and their own identities, their experiences serve as a testament to the beauty of authenticity and the strength of unity. “The Disasters” is a vibrant testament to the power of found family, geek pride, and the courage to be true to oneself.

England captures the essence of geekdom, enveloping readers in an exhilarating escapade. Through witty banter, queer empowerment, and found family dynamics, “The Disasters” strikes a chord with those who revel in embracing their true selves.

3. “The Darkness Outside Us” by Eliot Schrefer: 

Amidst the interstellar void, two young astronauts find themselves in a gripping tale of mystery, betrayal, and unexpected alliances. Our main characters grapple with their identities as they embark on a high-stakes mission. The exploration of love and trust is central to the narrative, showing the intricacies of queer relationships.

In this gripping and psychologically charged narrative, Schrefer delves into the complexities of human relationships as our protagonists, set adrift in the vastness of space, must confront external threats and the internal struggles.

Schrefer’s deft storytelling prompts readers to question the barriers imposed by society and to embrace the fluidity of human connections. “The Darkness Outside Us” reminds us that love and acceptance can be beacons of light guiding us home in the darkest times.

Schrefer weaves a mesmerizing narrative, blending sci-fi and psychological drama elements. This absorbing read challenges the boundaries of human connection and explores the complexities of self-discovery.

2. “The Prey of Gods” by Nicky Drayden: 

Enter a fantastical South African world where mythology and technology converge. This genre-defying novel takes readers on a thrilling ride with a rich cast each on their own journey of empowerment. Fluid identities, extraordinary powers, and battles for acceptance create a vibrant tapestry in this unforgettable tale.

In a stunning tapestry of mythology, technology, and queer empowerment, Nicky Drayden weaves a tale that leaves an indelible mark on readers’ hearts. The vibrant characters challenge conventions and embody the power of self-discovery. In a world where the boundaries of identity are fluid, and the definition of heroism is reshaped, “The Prey of Gods” celebrates individuality and reminds us that our diverse identities are a wellspring of strength. Drayden’s exquisite portrayal of queerness and the embrace of nonconformity make this novel a dazzling gem in the constellation of inclusive sci-fi literature.

Drayden crafts a breathtaking universe that combines the best of speculative fiction with cultural depth. “The Prey of Gods” is a kaleidoscope of wonder, challenging norms and embracing the extraordinary.

1. “The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet” by Becky Chambers: 

A voyage awaits you in this enchanting space opera that unfolds on board the Wayfarer, a diverse crew of interstellar misfits. This heartwarming tale of camaraderie explores love, friendship, and gender identity among alien species. LGBT+ themes find a tender portrayal through the endearing romance between two characters as they navigate their emotions amidst the vastness of the cosmos.

In the heart of the Wayfarer’s crew, readers encounter an eclectic mix of personalities, each grappling with their pasts and embracing their true selves. Through this diverse ensemble, Chambers deftly explores the nuances of gender identity and sexual orientation, fostering an environment where acceptance and respect flourish. The interplay between cultures and species serves as a poignant mirror of our society, prompting us to cherish our differences and celebrate the beauty of inclusivity. A touching portrayal of LGBT+ love and camaraderie amidst the stars, “The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet” becomes a hopeful reminder that unity and empathy can conquer even the most daunting challenges.

Chambers skillfully crafts a universe where acceptance, inclusivity, and personal growth converge in a masterful symphony. This book transcends the boundaries of science fiction, resonating with readers on a deeply human level.

Another great thing about this entire series is something I’ll gladly go on a separate rant about later … pronouns and honorifics. In this series, in the Galactic Common Language, Kliptorigan frequently referred to as Klip, if a being’s gender is not known or stated, then ze/zir is understood to be appropriate, and the honorific M. is used for elders and formal settings, pronounced “Ehm”. Used like, “Good morning M. Johnson” or “I’d be happy to help you with that M.” It’s wonderful, it’s understated but it feels so right.

As we close this cosmic chapter, we celebrate these five exceptional works for their portrayal of LGBT+ and Queer Coded experiences alongside the captivating tapestry of geek culture. These books transport us to far-off realms and remind us that love, acceptance, and the exploration of identity are timeless quests that resonate across the galaxies. Until next time, may the force of understanding and inclusion be with you, dear readers!

Interview with Meeg Pincus and Meridth McKean Gimbel, creators of Door by Door: How Sarah McBride Became America’s First Openly Transgender Senator

Meeg Pincus (she/her), M.A., is the author of 26 picture books in the trade and school/library markets. She’s been a nonfiction writer, editor, educator & diverse books advocate for over 25 years. She lives, writes, sings & homeschools with her family in coastal Southern California. Meeg is represented by Jenna Pocius at Red Fox Literary.

Meridth McKean Gimbel is an illustrator, author, and world champion taco cruncher whose work has received several fancy schmancy awards such as the National SCBWI-LA Mentorship award. They are passionate about creating books that are like a snuggly blanket, an open window, and a very accessible door. (Meridth is also passionate about donuts, corgis, and ghost stories.)

I had the opportunity to interview Meeg and Meridth, which you can read below.

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

Meridth: Hello Geeks OUT! Thanks for having me! Believe it or not I used to be a competitive discus thrower and weightlifter. I had a serious injury in college, where I couldn’t walk for 6 months, that permanently took me out of competition. As a kid I had always wanted to be an illustrator or writer, but that type of career was highly discouraged. Losing the ability to pursuit one of my passions gave me the push I needed to pursuit the other. I’ve been illustrating as a freelancer for 15 years now and this is my debut as a children’s book illustrator.

Meeg: Thank you so much for inviting us, Geeks OUT, so happy to be here! I’m Meeg Pincus (she/her) and I write “solutionary stories” – nonfiction picture books for kids about solving problems for people, animals, and the planet. I’ve been a writer/educator for 25 years and I’ve had the joy and honor of publishing 27 picture books.

I also do lots of other things: sing with a women’s acoustic group, volunteer/advocate with LGBTQ+/trans-related nonprofits, cook plant-based food for my family, talk on the phone with my besties (yep, the actual phone!), read and share diverse books, make art, manage chronic illness (my own and my kids’) and my kids’ homeschool studies, eagerly await new seasons of Queer Eye and The Great Pottery Throwdown

What can you tell us about your most recent project, Door by Door: How Sarah McBride Became America’s First Openly Transgender Senator? What inspired you to create this book?

Meridth: Door by Door is a picture book biography about Senator Sarah McBride written by Meeg Pincus, illustrated by me. I get teary eyed every time I read it. In this biography we read that two things were very clear to Sarah, as a young child. She always wanted to change the world through her leadership and service, and that although she had been assigned male at birth, Sarah knew she was a girl. The story follows Sarah as she grows into her leadership roles, and as she embraces her gender identity, eventually sharing it with her loved ones and the world. Senator McBride became the first openly transgender person to address a national convention, to work at the White House, and to become a state senator. This story shows, as Senator McBride has said, “[that we] can grow up as [ourselves] and dream big dreams all at the same time.”

Senator McBride is such an inspiring, well spoken, and graceful person so it’s been neat to illustrate a book about her life. And I will say that as a non-binary kid growing up in the 80s and 90s, I didn’t have the privilege of reading about gender diverse characters who did great things. I’m delighted I get to be part of this team that created such an important book.

Meeg: Please see Meridth’s answer for a beautiful description of this picture book biography of Senator Sarah McBride. I was inspired to write it amidst a decade-long journey that began with reading Sarah’s coming out story in our college alumni magazine in 2012 and realizing with great emotion that, while I’d been working for gay rights for 20+ years, as a cis woman, I really didn’t know much about trans rights or trans experiences. So, Sarah’s story inspired me to dive in and learn from other trans stories, which then made a huge impact on my own life when a very close loved one came to me for support around their gender identity. I had such better understanding and resources to offer than I would have without those stories.

As I had the honor to walk alongside my trans loved one on their transition journey and to get involved in the trans advocacy community, I kept thinking back to Sarah’s story. As a children’s book author, I knew hers was an important story that kids could relate to, and I approached her about writing it – before she became a senator, actually! Fast forward five years, and we have Door by Door!

How did you find yourself getting into storytelling, especially picture books? What drew you to the medium?

Meridth: I have always loved stories and art. I went through a series of traumatic events in my childhood, and when I was in the thick of it, I didn’t really know who to turn to, so I turned to books. Books were my lifeline then. I know how important and powerful books can be. So, I find it really fulfilling to make books that can help kids feel loved, empowered, and seen.

Meeg: I’ve loved books and have been writing and illustrating stories since before I could even read! My parents were professors and I used to take their extra “Blue Books” – little lined booklets for written exams – and make stacks of my own books, first with scribbles and pictures and then with actual words. I have one in which I wrote my own author bio, at probably age six, that says “[Meeg] loves books. She can hardly stop making them.” (Ha!)

I’ve been working with words and books professionally my entire career, from journalism to academia to book editing, and eventually I found writing children’s nonfiction to be the perfect blend for me as a writer, artist, researcher, and educator.

How would you describe your creative process? And what went into collaborating with others for Door by Door?

Meridth: At my core, I love to research. I read Senator McBride’s memoir Tomorrow Will Be Different, which is so moving. I also read a lot of articles, watched documentaries, etc. on trans history for the spread that talked about trancestors. (I will say that one must research carefully. Trans history has not always been respectfully represented.)

I submitted rough sketches and then my final illustrations to my editor, Kelly Delaney at Crown Books for Young Readers to review. She then would share my art with Meeg Pincus, the author, and most importantly with Senator McBride. I think because of the personal nature of Senator McBride’s journey of embracing her gender identity and life aspirations, we could not have done this book without her feedback. Senator McBride was really generous with her time and an integral part of helping us create a respectful representation of her life, including her pre-transitional moments, which needed delicacy.

Meeg: When I get an idea for a nonfiction picture book, the first step is research, research, and more research! Reading books/articles, watching documentaries/video clips, interviewing people.

Once I have what I feel are enough facts on the subject, I dip into my creative mind and try to come up with an innovative approach to sharing it with kids. For some of my books, that means poetry, for others lyrical storytelling, some are more serious and some more lighthearted. I let the subject and the voices of the subjects guide me to how to write it – within the picture book structure that I’ve studied and practiced and is now second nature to me!

Again, Meredith gave a great answer about our collab on Door by Door. Every picture book takes a village to create, which is why I love writing picture books! I teach a workshop for picture book writers that compares it to writing stage plays, and a big part of that is that the writer is just one piece in a full visual production. All the pieces must work together cooperatively, and every piece is crucial, to create the final artwork. In picture books the main players are the author, illustrator, editor, and art director but also like a theatre, there are all the people on the business side that get the artwork to the public as well.

Meeg Pincus

As a creative, who or what would you say are some of your greatest creative influences and/or sources of inspiration?

Meridth: Oh goodness, there are too many to name. Here’s a very condensed list of some creatives that I love:

  • Author/Illustrators I adore: Vera Brosgol, Adam Rex, Isabelle Arsenault, Lorena Alvarez, Carson Ellis, Luke Pearson, Anoosha Syed, Wallace Tripp, Tomi Ungerer
  • Authors whose books I love to read:  Neil Gaiman, Charles Dickens, Angie Sage, Terry Pratchett, Kate DiCamillo, Kelly DiPucchio,
  •  Illustrators: Julia Sarda, Ivan Bilibin, JC Leyendecker, Kay Nielson, Eyvind Earle, Luisa Uribe, Maribel Lechuga
  • Animation: Cartoon Saloon (Studio that created Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea), Laika (Studio that created ParaNorman), Over the Garden Wall

… Hard to stop, there is so much to be inspired by.

Meeg: My first creative influence was children’s author/illustrator Richard Scarry, whose books I just loved. (I even wrote to him in Switzerland when I was five and was over the moon when he wrote me back!) Judy Blume was also a huge influence for me as a kid. My mom’s best friend was a fine artist, and she was a great influence and encouragement to me as a creative as well.

Later, influences include so many writers and fine artists I don’t even know where to begin! I’m drawn to art that gives me a visceral emotional response – that can be anything from joy to tenderness, grief, rage, existential wonder; and it can be any art from writing to sculpture to collage to theatre to music to cartoons.

Growing up, were there any stories in which you felt touched by/ or reflected in? Are there any like that now?

Meridth: When I was a kid, I was a mega fan of Roald Dahl. Mostly The Witches, Matilda, and The Twits. I loved the absurdly dark and twisted nature of the worlds he created. It really resonated with me, and it felt really empowering to read about how kids in his stories confronted the baddies. (I still love his books, but he has a complicated legacy that can’t be overlooked.)

A lot more stories have been published featuring gender diverse characters since I’ve reached adulthood, which is so exciting. Gender Queer: A Memoir by Maia Kobabe is one of those books I needed growing up. I feel like a lot of cis folks don’t understand what it means to be non-binary. It would have given me a lot of peace and validation in my youth.

Meeg: Two books I read many times over were The Diary of Anne Frank and Judy Blume’s Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself. I related so much to these Jewish girls who had so much emotion, so much to express, so much they were afraid of; they didn’t know where they fit into the world, but they wanted to be brave and make a difference somehow. Clearly, I saw myself in them, and I still relate to them!

These days, I love reading memoirs, particularly by people who may not “fit in” to the mainstream dominant culture – be that due to their race, religion, sexuality, gender identity, disability, body size, immigration or ­socioeconomic status, etc. – people grappling with these same kinds of struggles and finding their voices through telling their stories. I love getting to know different people’s life experiences, which I always find opens my eyes to new ways of seeing and reminds me how alike we all are in so many ways at heart.

Besides your work, what are some things you would want readers to know about you?

Meridth: If we’re going to be friends, I need you to know that I’m a big fan of sweets. One of my favorite tasty treats are alfajors. It’s a yummy chocolate covered cookie/sandwich that I discovered while living in Argentina. My husband makes pretty good homemade alfajors, which I am always happy to consume.

Meeg: Hmmm. I worked as a character at Disneyland as a teenager, and I cannot go a day without eating dark chocolate?!

Meridth McKean Gimbel

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

Meridth: The question, of course, is what superpower would I have if I could have just one? I would have the ability to stop time whenever I feel like it. And I would use my superpower in the most boring way. There would be no crime fighting for me, thank you very much. I would just be really productive and take a whole lot of naps.

Meeg: I guess a question about the current book bans of LGBTQ+ and race-related children’s books. Given my roles personally and professionally — in the queer, publishing, and education communities — these books bans are weighing heavily on me, and I’m extremely concerned about them. Cutting off children from seeing themselves reflected in books and learning about others with different experiences and identities than them in books, and from learning about important history and social movements, is cruel and dangerous to a healthy, inclusive, democratic society. It’s a very intentional step toward just the opposite.

What can we do to stop these book bans? Most are taking place locally, so showing up at school board, city council, or library board meetings to oppose book bans makes a huge difference. We can write letters to decision makers, purchase banned books to show publishers we want them, donate banned books in communities where access is cut off in public schools and libraries, and donate to organizations fighting book bans. What we can’t do is let the loud minority trying to ban these books and topics win just because they’re the ones showing up.

Are there any other projects you are working on or thinking about that you are able to discuss?

Meridth: Currently my projects under the radar, but I am finishing up a zany picture book proposal, and I have a dark graphic novel pitch coming down the pipeline too. I love to write and illustrate stories in a wide variety of genres. I want to make silly, dark, serious, nonfiction and fiction, picture book, middle grade, and graphic novel stories.

Meeg: I’m working with some theatre folks who are adapting a few of my books into stage plays for children, which is exciting. I’m teaching workshops with The Writing Barn to picture book writers, which is motivating. And I’ve got a picture book in the pipeline for 2024 (a collaboration with the Smithsonian’s wildlife conservation arm), a true story about a crane who doesn’t fit in with her species but must help save it, which I realize is fitting, given my other answers!

What advice might you have to give to aspiring creatives, to both those interested in making their own picture books one day?

Meridth: Who you are and all the experiences you have had, good and bad, have given you a specific point of view. We need your stories, told from your perspective. Believe in yourself, take your craft seriously, and do the hard work.

Meeg: I’d say immerse yourself in the picture books you love. Read them all, study them, figure out what works about them for you. Remember that creating picture books is a craft that takes study and practice, and dive into it. And, most of all, write and/or make art about what you are most passionate about, what’s deep within you, and that will shine through.

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

Meridth: Again, I’ll try and narrow it down;

Meeg: I curate all the book lists for the nonprofit Trans Family Support Services (TFSS), so I would encourage you to check out the TFSS Bookshop (which supports TFSS and indie bookstores) to find all kinds of books specifically about trans experiences and issues:

I also have my own Solutionary Stories Bookshop, and here’s my list of nonfiction picture books by and about LGBTQ+ solutionaries:

And I hope to be adding more and more books to these lists every year!

Interview with Carlyn Greenwald and Todd Milliner

Carlyn Greenwald writes romantic and thrilling page-turners for teens and adults. A film school graduate and former Hollywood lackey, she now works in publishing. She resides in Los Angeles, mourning the loss of ArcLight Cinemas and soaking in the sun with her dogs. Find her online on Twitter @CarlynGreenwald and Instagram @Carlyn_Gee.

Todd Milliner is an Emmy Award–winning producer and writer who cofounded Hazy Mills Productions with Sean Hayes in 2004. He has produced over 400 episodes of television, including hit NBC drama Grimm and the TV Land sitcom Hot in Cleveland. He lives with his husband, Michael Matthews, in Los Angeles.

I had the opportunity to interview Carlyn and Todd, which you can read below.

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

Carlyn Greenwald: Hi! So happy to be here! My name is Carlyn Greenwald and I’m a YA and Adult romance and thriller writer from Los Angeles. I’ve been writing YA since I was a teenager myself, and after going through film school and attempting to break into Hollywood as a screenwriter, I returned to novel writing where I currently reside. My queer adult romcom debut, Sizzle Reel, hit shelves April 18th and with Time Out and other books on the horizon, hopefully this’ll be the start of an awesome career.

Otherwise, I’m Jewish and bi and spend my time outside of work gaming, scouring random pockets of pop culture YouTube, and hanging out with my incredible chihuahua mix, Phoebe.

Todd Milliner: Thanks for the invite. My name is Todd Milliner and I’m a television producer and writer in Hollywood (which sounds a lot more glamorous than it is). I’ve produced shows like Grimm (NBC), Hot in Cleveland (TVLAND), and QForce (Netflix) along with a bunch more. I’ve been doing this for about 20 years and before that I worked at a bunch of corporate jobs while trying to be an actor in Chicago. Sean and I went to college together at Illinois State University and we started our company years later in 2003. This is my first novel and this is Sean’s second book. We are so excited to be sharing this story.

What can you tell us about your latest novel, Time Out? Where did the inspiration for this story come from?

CG: Time Out is a YA Contemporary novel that’s kind of Heartstopper meets Friday Night Lights about the #1 ranked high school basketball player in Georgia who decides to come out to his whole town via a pep rally. When the town doesn’t react well, he ends up quitting the team, joining his friend’s underground voting rights group, and starts to fall for a school newspaper reporter.

I’m sure Todd will talk about this more, but it was inspired by him and Sean growing up in vastly different social circles (Todd was into athletics and Sean the arts) thinking about what it would’ve been like in high school if they’d had each other. From there, we wanted to involve high school sports as the backdrop since it remains one of the strongest pressure points for young men to conform to rigid ideas of masculinity, which only makes it more stressful for our main character Barclay to come out.

TM: Carlyn is right! The story is very loosely based on my friendship with Sean. I was an athlete growing up and played many sports. I settled on running after I broke my collarbone playing football. And, full disclosure, I was never as good as Barclay, so it was probably best to write this book! Sean wasn’t involved in the school paper, but he is a classically trained pianist and that took up most of his extracurricular time. So, we came from different worlds, but became great friends. We wanted to tell a little of that story. And after that jumping off point and a whole lot of help from Carlyn, we had Time Out.

How did you find yourself getting into storytelling, particularly the young adult medium?

CG: I think from when I was a teenager (like, we’re talking 13), YA was just where my story ideas came from. I’d been an avid reader all my life and like most middle schoolers, I was eager to read up at the time. YA was going through a particularly interesting era of what I like to call “weird YA” — where storylines were just wild and outlandish and kind of trippy but still so heartfelt and commercial. I wanted to write stories like that. There’s something so special about the high intensity of emotion and emotional stakes writing for teenagers. It creates this vivid energy that is infused into every genre that I loved when I was younger and never grew out of now.

TM: To us, storytelling is our entire life. We like to tell those stories from many different ages, experiences and points of view. The most important thing to us is to tell the right story at the right time. The YA medium felt especially important for this story. Coming out can be hard for people of any age, but we felt like that layered on top of all the other things young adults are dealing with made the story even more compelling.

Carlyn Greenwald – Photo Credit Molly Pan Photography

As Time Out was written between multiple authors, what could you tell us about your collaboration process together?

CG: The best way to describe it would be to compare it to somewhat of a writer’s room in television. Sean and Todd had originally written a TV pilot and worked with S&S to develop a full outline of a book version that I saw. So, I brought in my experience with contemporary YA to hammer out the first draft. Within even the first draft, I’d offer up suggestions as I saw opportunities, including changing some character backstories and motivations, suggesting tiny scene changes, that sort of thing. Sean, Todd, our editor and I then all collaborated on notes and revisions, eventually beefing up the voting rights storyline and really delving into where to start the novel and how to translate the humor and heart from the pilot into the book.

TM: What Carlyn said 🙂 I will add that it was about the easiest process I’ve ever been part of. It helps when your partners are talented, nice people.

As a creative, who or what would you say are some of your greatest creative influences and/or sources of inspiration?

CG: Hmm, with YA, from the really early days, I absolutely loved Libba Bray, Jennifer Brown, Barry Lyga, and Neal Shusterman. All totally different genres (with Libba, different genres among her career) but every one of these authors just created these super entertaining books with complex characters I rooted so hard for. But I still remember learning about absurdity and humor from Libba Bray’s books, how to write emotion and difficult topics from Jennifer Brown’s books, how to write commercial suspense from Barry Lyga, and finally mixing moral complexity and depth into speculative fiction from Neal Shusterman.

TM: For me, I find creative influences from many different disciplines. I’d say great television (in my opinion) like Beef or Succession or Hacks to great movies like Everything Everywhere All At Once, great plays like Good Night Oscar or Kimberly Akimbo, to great music like from The Lumineers or Coltrane, and great books like the OG YA To Kill a Mockingbird or my friend’s book Scream All Night. I find inspiration in many places. Sometimes even Chipotle.

Growing up, were there any stories in which you felt touched by/ or reflected in? Are there any like that now?

CG: Avatar: The Last Airbender will always be that seminal story that changed my life. I watched it when it was airing and I was around ten years old, glued to the TV when my older cousins were making fun of me for watching a cartoon. (Guess who then watched it and loved the show too?) It really captures what a masterpiece story can be, especially when you balance plot, tension, world-building, and just a stellar, stellar group of characters who are all given the love and attention they need. There’s something for every writer to take away from the show.

TM: I was always drawn to stories about growing up that were funny, but tinged with melancholy.  Things like The Body or The Outsiders touched me the most. Big Fish is another one that got me. Read the entire book on a flight, just amazed at the imagery.

Besides your work as a creative, what are some things you would want readers to know about you?

CG: Hmm…that I never feel like I’m done learning about my writing — what I like to write, what new challenges I could bring into future works, what my favorite book is. I try to take each new project and say “what new skill am I developing by writing this?” My answers have ranged from “new age category” to “new genre” to “new main character personality type” to “new multimedia aspect” etc. With that said, I still have so many dream projects and elements I want to work with — something historical, a main character who wants to go into STEM, stuff like that.

TM: I think I’m pretty fun to hang out with. I mean, not all the time. Who is fun all the time? But, I genuinely like people. I like learning about their stories, finding fun things to discuss and new adventures to embark upon. And I love mint chip ice cream.

Todd Milliner

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

CG: What’s the significance of Christopher (the love interest in Time Out) being Jewish?

When it came to the collaboration process of Time Out, I really wanted to make my mark on the book in some very obvious Carlyn sort of way. And I got thinking — there really is so little LGBTQ+ Jewish representation, and often it’s Jewish LGBTQ+ girls. So, I wanted to really advocate for our love interest to be Jewish, to show that there’s space for Judaism in love interests across sexuality. It became this really fun, silly challenge where right as I was about to send the email asking about the change, I realized that I was asking to make a character name Christopher Jewish. But I was determined to make it happen without changing his name. So, I thought — what if it was a family name? He could be half Jewish, like I am. And then the lore grew – it ended up being a bargain between Christopher’s mother and father and I think makes for a great little joke for any mixed faith readers.

TM: I guess I wish people would ask what I think is truly important. Like, “Todd, cut through the clutter and tell us one thing that’s really important”. And, the answer to that question from me is to always lead with kindness. It’s just so much easier than being mean. And a big bonus is that people will tend to lead with kindness back. Pretty easy stuff.

Are there any projects you are working on or thinking about that you are able to discuss?

CG: Not too much yet! I have a second adult romcom coming out summer 2024 that I’m revising right now! I can’t say too much, but it’s another sapphic book and takes place in film school. Beyond that, I have some irons in the fire that I am perpetually fingers crossed will turn into tomorrow’s news.

TM: We are working on a bunch of television and film and theatre projects and they are all pretty secret, but I am working on a comedy with Kevin Smith that I’m pretty excited about. Oh, and guess what? He leads with kindness.

What advice would you give to any aspiring creatives out there?

CG: Love your writing, but also expand the way you love your writing. There’s this idea that one book will be the book of your heart and I think that sets so many writers up for more mental strife than is necessary in an already difficult industry. Every book of mine is a book of my heart. Sure, some are more personal to me or have more of my favorite tropes or comp to my favorite TV shows. But find a reason to love every book you write, even if you have to hamfist it in just for you. It’ll make every step of the process easier and make you happier in the long run.

TM: If this is truly your dream, stick with it. There’s plenty of time, god willing, to do something you hate.

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


ALWAYS THE ALMOST by Edward Underhill

OUT OF CHARACTER by Jenna Miller


TM: Gosh there’s so much good stuff out there. I think you should start with Carlyn’s Sizzle Reel and mix in a great new book by Robbie Couch called If I See You Again Tomorrow. Then, before you fill your cart, grab Byron Lane’s Big Gay Wedding.