Interview with A.J. Irving, author of The Wishing Flower

A.J. IRVING once wished to be friends with her first crush. Her wish came true. She will always remember the little girl who made her feel like she could fly. Now A.J. writes picture books and poetry beneath an old elm tree in Salt Lake City. As a children’s author and former bookmobile librarian, she is passionate about inspiring kids to love books. A.J. received a BA in journalism and women’s and gender studies from the University of Oregon. She is also the author of Dance Like a Leaf.

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

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

Thank you so much for having me! I’m a mama, children’s author, and jail library assistant. I love my job! I check out a lot of kidlit in the jail, mostly YA and MG, but my heart bursts with joy every time I receive a picture book request. My first picture book, Dance Like a Leaf, published in English, French, and Spanish in 2020. I’m proud to be a mentor for picture book creators through the Queer Kidlit Mentorship Program. I am very passionate about queer rep for younger kids!

What can you tell us about your latest project, The Wishing Flower? Where did the inspiration for this story come from?

The Wishing Flower is the queer girl picture book of my heart. This story was inspired by my first crush in elementary school. I was a shy girl who felt different and alone. I remember spending a lot of time in the big field at recess watching the other kids play and longing for connection. Just like Birdie, my wish came true when I became friends with a girl who truly saw me.

How did you find yourself getting into storytelling and children’s books? What drew you to the medium?

I have fond memories of my grandma reading to me before bed. I visited her every summer in Montana when I was growing up. I rediscovered my love for children’s literature after I became a mother 15 years ago. I will never forget the way my son’s eyes lit up or how his little hands excitedly explored the pages of picture books. My desire to write for children deepened year after year as we read book after book.

How would you describe your creative process? And what went into collaborating with an artist for your book when you are a writer?

Nature has always been a big part of my creative process. I get my best ideas when I’m outdoors. The first lines of The Wishing Flower came to me on a hike in Wyoming. I always follow my muse. I’ve learned to trust that the words will come to me when I’m ready. Sometimes it feels like wordstrings are floating all around me and all I have to do is catch them and piece them together. I start every project with pen and paper. I feel more in tune with my memories and emotions this way. I think this connection goes back to all the journaling and poetry I wrote during my childhood.

Kip was my number one choice to illustrate The Wishing Flower. I’m grateful they brought Birdie and Sunny’s story to life. I could not imagine the art any other way. In most cases in traditional publishing, the author and illustrator do not collaborate. The illustrator works closely with the art director and the author words closely with the editor. My editor sent me Kip’s art at various stages and encouraged me to offer feedback. I had very few suggestions. Seeing art for the first time is my favorite part of the process. Kip’s art for The Wishing Flower took my breath away!

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

Most of my work is inspired by my life and my lyrical books always come from my heart. The first few drafts of The Wishing Flower didn’t include wishing flowers. I knew the story was missing something. My daughter has always called dandelions “wishing flowers.” She had been asking me for a few years to write a book about them. This was the missing piece that tied everything together. I also find inspiration in art, photography, other books, and things I observe in nature.

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

I only read kidlit. I used to drive a big blue bookmobile named Thomas. My family just got an English bulldog puppy! His name is Derwin. He loves his big brother Bosa, who is also an English bulldog, and he’s very curious about our cat, Ish. I’m obsessed with the sky. I adore clouds, sunsets, lightning, rainbows, and shooting stars. Looking up always fills me with hope and wonder.

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

My question would be: “What do you hope your readers get out of your books?” and my answer is: I hope my readers feel seen, safe, and loved. I hope they honor their wishes, spread their wings, and feel proud to be themselves.

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

My latest project is inspired by my job in the jail library. I also have an unannounced queer picture book that I am eager to share!

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

Read. Read thousands of picture books. Don’t try to follow trends. Write from your heart. Find exceptional critique partners and participate in the kidlit community. This community will celebrate your wins and lift you up when you’re feeling down. Kidlit folx are the absolute best!

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

In the picture book space: Strong by Eric Rosswood, Rob Kearney, and Nidhi Chanani, Love, Violet by Charlotte Sullivan Wild and Charlene Chua, Hope for Ryan White by Dano Moreno and Hannah Abbo, Molly’s Tuxedo by Vicki Johnson and Gillian Reid, A Costume for Charly by CK Malone and Alejandra Barajas, and Door by Door by Meeg Pincu and Meridth McKean Gimbel.

For middle grade, I love Ellen Outside the Lines by A.J. Sass; Camp Quiltbag by A.J. Sass and Nicole Melleby, Dear Mothman by Robin Gow, and This is Our Rainbow edited by Katherine Locke and Nicole Melleby. For YA, I am wild about The Passing Playbook by Isaac Fitzsimons, A Million Quiet Revolutions by Robin Gow, Bianca Torre is Afraid of Everything by Justine Pucella Winans, and Things I’ll Never Say by Cassandra Newbould. I could go on and on!

Interview with Author & Illustrator Dominic Evans

Dominic Evans (he/they) is a freelance illustrator and merman based in London, from not-so-sunny Bolton, via Narnia. Growing up with a love of Buffy, short shorts, and Starlight Express, Dom, like many others, struggled to fit in at school, in life, and mainly with himself. However, he soon found his voice through his passion for illustration and stories. This led him on a path to illustrate for large brands, stores, clients, and agencies. He currently lives in East London and spends his time immersing himself in a graphic novel or an amazing book and then creating illustrations that he hopes will make your day and make you slay.

I had the opportunity to interview Dom, 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 on your site, I’m made up. My name is Dom, I’m an illustrator and author and I LOVE drawing and creating art around queer icons. If there’s an iconique moment or person that is slaying, hun, you bet I’ll be drawing them. 

What can you tell us about your latest book, QUEER POWER: Icons, Activists, & Game Changers From Across the Rainbow? What was the inspiration for this project?

QUEER POWER is ultimately, one super big love letter to the LGBTIQA+ community. It’s packed full of illustrated epic humans and information and is all about celebrating queer icons, whether they’re from the red carpet to organizing a local protest to doing their activism through social media. Each of these icons through their visibility and representation are doing something to help advance queer rights and I absolutely love that we managed to give everyone a double page spread and equal billing.

This may sound cringey but my inspiration really was my community. I love seeing queer people go out there and make a change in their respective industries and completely kick-ass. It’s a massive inspiration to me. 

As an author, what drew you to the art of writing/illustrating, specifically non-fiction?

I grew up loving comic books, fashion illustration and educational picture books, so in a weird way, QUEER POWER kind of pulls all of those together. I really enjoy drawing and writing stories but I also love creating art around people and their own personal stories. I’d illustrated and written non-fiction before but this book was so unique and a totally different process pulling together icons, researching them, and then writing about them. 

With non-fiction work especially, I feel at the moment, it’s so crucial to have those books and resources out there for queer youth growing up. It’s something, I especially didn’t have and I really get a buzz seeing so many educational LGBTQIA+ picture books and resources on bookshelves out there and seeing that category expand more and more each year. 

How would you describe your writing process?

I’ve realized over the years working on different projects that I’m very much someone who has to sit down and write all of it in one go. I can’t rest or do anything else until it’s all out of my brain onto a page, so I will hyper-focus on the task until it is done. With QUEER POWER, the writing stage actually came last as I wanted to get the visual language finalized first. I then sat down and wrote it all out, every icon, then went back over them again and again and then sent it to my lovely editor. 

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

There wasn’t really much representation around growing up for me. When I was younger, I definitely felt a huge pull to the X-Men comics and cartoon, as the idea of someone that didn’t fit in saving the world looking fabulous in a catsuit was something I could relate to! Growing older I, like many gays, fell in love with Buffy. As I came out at seventeen, Will & Grace had been airing in the UK for around a year so that really helped me in terms of representation on screen. 

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

I think my greatest creative influence was and will always be comic books and graphic novels. I love that when you look at a comic shelf in a store there are so many stories all being told in a zillion different ways with a zillion different art styles and a zillion different characters. I always turn to comics for any sort of creative boost. They’re my happy place! 

I’d also say fashion illustration and costume. I really enjoy drawing outfits and lewks so QUEER POWER was a dream come true as so all of these icons look so fierce. I took so much pleasure in researching their fits or classic outfits to be worn in the book. 

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

This is such a good question! My favorite part of writing/illustrating is when a plan comes together. Kind of like a really good date – you know, that moment when the text and image have a great chemistry, it’s all looking good and BOOM, you have a cute visual moment and it all makes sense. 

The most frustrating bits are the days where my hands just cannot draw or my head cannot write, or both. That block can be a difficult space to navigate through and it’s times like that, that as a creative, you have to be very kind to yourself and go easy on yourself as if you try to force something, I’ve found personally, it will always end up getting redrawn again. 

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

That I love my sci-fi, my fantasy, my anime and manga. I live for a good comic con! I also love fashion and styling, I worked in the UK for fourteen years in womenswear fashion retail, with the final five in London and three of those being a personal shopper. The stories I could draw and write about those years helping people who were going through various life dramas whilst trying to zip them into a hot pink fitted jumpsuit for their divorce party that evening? SO many. 

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)?

What’s your favourite dinosaur? Because I really like dinosaurs. I don’t want a pet cat or a hamster, I want a feathered Velociraptor, they’re sassy and fierce but also cute and would eat anyone who tried to break into my house so I feel they’re a good investment. I grew up loving Jurassic Park so anything dinosaur-related I love and I don’t get enough dinosaur-related work. If anyone reads this please hire me to draw some dinosaurs, ok thank you! 

What advice might you have to give for aspiring writers?

Write for yourself first. You are your own reader and you know a good story or hook when you read it, so write for you. Don’t feed into comparing yourself to others, YOU are your own niche! Never be afraid to experiment and try something different. If it goes wrong, at least you tried it, and if it goes really right, even better! Also, Do Not Disturb and Airplane Mode are the best things ever if you struggle to focus hehe. 

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

At the moment, aside from the exciting QUEER POWER US release, which, has extra pages and new artwork too! Yas! I have some things that, at this stage I can’t speak but trust me, if they do happen, I will SCREAM because they have been years of hard work…

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

Oh wow, I really love questions like this!

Anything by Juno Dawson, Benjamin Dean writes beautiful queer stories, Dean Atta, Dr. Ronx, Jamie Windust, Charlie Craggs. There’s so many amazing queer authors out there and there’s also a great list of them at the back of QUEER POWER.

Header Photo Credit Buck Photography

Molly’s Tuxedo Interview with Vicki Johnson & Gillian Reid

Vicki Johnson is a children’s book author, a former band nerd, White House staffer, and a nonprofit director. Her debut picture book is Molly’s Tuxedo (Little Bee Books, June 27, 2023), illustrated by Gillian Reid. Born and raised in rural GA, she is a proud first-gen graduate of Smith College and Emory Law School, and an MFA student in Writing for Children & Young Adults at VCFA. Vicki is a 2022 Lambda Literary Fellow and the single parent of a college student. Her empty nest is a historic log cabin in Appalachia where she caters to the whims of five rescue animals. 

Gillian Reid is a children’s book illustrator, character designer, and life drawing teacher. Originally from the UK, she now lives in Canada with her partner and two cats. She loves to draw, go to the movies, and practice yoga. She likes to dress mostly in black and hopes to add a black tuxedo and bowtie to her wardrobe soon! 

I had the opportunity to interview Vicki and Gillian, which you can read below. 

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

VJ: Thanks so much for having us! I’m a children’s author, and Molly’s Tuxedo is my debut picture book. My bio says I am a former band nerd, White House staffer, and nonprofit director which is my attempt to sum up a long life in a few words. I grew up in rural Georgia, and now, many schools, jobs, and cities later, I find myself once again in a rural place. I live and write in a 200-year-old log cabin on a hilltop in West Virginia. I’m the single lesbian parent of a college student. When we hang out we watch a lot of movies and talk incessantly to the dogs and cats who live with us.

GR: I am a children’s book illustrator, character designer and life drawing teacher. Originally, I’m from Belfast, Northern Ireland but my work has taken me around the world and now I have landed in Ottawa, Canada. Outside of illustration, I enjoy learning new things. At the moment teaching myself piano and taking pottery wheel classes. I also love to go to the cinema, practice yoga and read mostly nonfiction books about the brain!

What can you tell us about your most recent project, Molly’s Tuxedo? What was the inspiration for this story?

VJ: Molly is a kindergartener with big plans to wear her brother’s dashing tuxedo for picture day, but her mom has picked out a dress. Molly has a strong sense of self and her character arc is all about being true to that, even in the face of resistance. This resonates strongly with me. The inspiration for the story comes from my own experiences growing up gay and gender nonconforming in the very conservative world of the Deep South in the 70’s and 80’s. But the impetus for writing this when I did was that I saw a couple of recent news items where girls were being gender policed about their clothes, in one case by her school and in one case by her peers. This ongoing need to control kids’ clothing choices really struck a chord. I wanted to write about how that feels, because I remember it vividly from my own childhood after so many years.

GR: I loved Vicki’s story the minute I got the email from Little Bee Books with the synopsis. I wasn’t really taking on new work at the time, but I couldn’t NOT be part of this story. It hit my heart immediately and brought up so many feelings from my own childhood that I knew I had to illustrate Molly’s Tuxedo!

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

VJ: I was a voracious reader growing up, and when I had my daughter and began reading to her on a daily basis, I guess the idea just clicked in my head that I’d like to try to write for kids. I primarily wrote middle-grade fiction for a long time, but in January 2020 I wanted to take a break from my work in progress, so I decided to try picture books as a side-writing exercise. This is the very first picture book I wrote. Also, I’m a very visual person, and a huge fan of art in all forms, so the idea that I could write words that are interpreted by a (real, human) artist is the most incredible thing I could imagine. And with Gillian’s work, it all came true. Her art is full of joy and warmth and movement. I feel so lucky to have been paired with her by my editor!

GR: After working in the animation industry for over a decade as a character designer, I wanted to try storytelling through illustration to have more ownership of the whole visual of a project. In animation, we work in such big teams and it’s really the director’s aesthetic vision you are creating, not your own. Picture books allow me to have almost 100% of the say in how the illustrations look (with input and guidance from the publishing team of course!)

Vicki Johnson

How would you describe your creative process? 

VJ: I’m not sure I have a set process. I go in spurts doing morning pages and writing free hand, which inevitably works well for me to get into a more emotionally connected place. I discovered writing poetry late in life if you can call what I write poetry. But my ideas work best when I am plotless in the initial phase and just try to get a sentence down and then I just continue to write until I’m done with that idea for the moment. It might result in a verse or a paragraph or several pages. From there it may go nowhere, or I may decide to flesh it out more fully.

GR: When working with a manuscript, I read it several times, highlighting keywords throughout the text that jump out at me and generate images in my head. I particularly try to note the tone and emotion of the story as a whole as well as across each spread. Once I feel I have an understanding of the mood of the book, I create inspiration boards on Pinterest, saving anything that appeals to me that may or may not influence me later. Then I go to the drawing board! I work on loose pieces of printer paper and just bash out lots of small, rough thumbnails and doodles, not filtering ideas too much and just letting them come out. I do several passes of the rough sketches until I feel I’ve got something, then it’s taken into Photoshop to sketch out with more information and refinement. 

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

VJ: I write about a combination of my own life experiences, things I have observed as a parent, animals I see outside my window, something I read in the news that sparks my interest or ire, and then I find myself typing out a sentence. I feel compelled to write about LGBTQIA+ kids because I was one, so that experience will always be a source of inspiration. I feel inspired to write about brave girls, because I was one, and I survived growing up in a particularly stifling time and place. These are the young people I want to create space for in my work.  I’m also drawn to authors of all stripes who write about animals and nature because growing up that was what I read constantly. Animals are so pure in their own existence, and in their relationship to you whether they are companion animals living with you or box turtles sharing the land you live on, or flying squirrels who sneak into your house. Animal stories saved me. They made sense to me and offered a respite. Stories at the edges of where humans and animals interact inspire me.

GR: Animation art is still a huge part of my life, so I frequently get inspiration from animated films and character designers. I’m also building a library of beautiful picture books to teach me new approaches, techniques, and execution. Currently, my favourite illustrators are Marta Altes, Rebecca Green, Matthew Forsythe, Julia Sarda, and Chris Chatterton. 

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

VJ: My favorite part of writing is the meditative effect it has on me when I’m in the zone. The most challenging part is getting there. Getting the flow started. Because once it does, it’s indescribable. But the space I need to get there, from the world around me, can be challenging to achieve, along with a day job, and other responsibilities. I like the generative work better than the editing work for sure!

GR: The best part of the illustration process is right at the beginning for me. Anything is possible at this point, the options are endless and I love doing the research, generating lots of ideas, and then boiling them down to what feels best in that moment. The most challenging part is probably the colouring stage. By the time the colour gets added, I’ve been looking at the illustrations for months and it can be hard to keep the excitement and energy that were present at the beginning all the way through to the end. 

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

VJ: I’m answering these questions in my Geeks OUT “Strong Female Character” shirt I bought at a con a few years ago. Also, I’ve been vegan or vegetarian for almost 40 years, and I’m a passionate advocate for animals and the environment. My stories often reflect that. I came out as a lesbian in my teens and have worked in or for our community in some capacity for a lot of the time since. The escalation of homophobic, transphobic, racist, and misogynistic rhetoric deeply concerns me and reminds me of how far we have come and how far we have to go. I have a deep well of hope though, and I know the strength of our community. 

GR: I am also a life drawing teacher! I spend a lot of time in the life drawing room working with young artists who hope to become storytellers themselves in the future. Teaching life drawing and gestures helps build my skills as an illustrator, so I can be playful with posing characters and building their worlds.

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

VJ: My question would be: “What is on your writer’s bucket list?” and my answer is: “I have many, but the top three at the moment are: I’d love to be on a panel at a comic con, I’d love to write a graphic novel, and I’d love to write for children’s television.”

GR: “What would my dream collaboration be?” I would love to do a book on the environment with Leonardo DiCaprio! 

Gillian Reid

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

VJ: Currently, I’m finishing up developmental edits from my agent on my middle-grade novel which I hope to be on sub for soon. It features a GNC queer main character and a cast of supporting characters – humans and animals – a camp and a fight for the environment.

GR: Currently I am working on developing my children’s book portfolio to push my style a little more and find out what possibilities lay within!

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

VJ: Find something you are passionate about – a memory, an issue, a moment. Take that spark and run with it. Don’t be afraid to be vulnerable, and let yourself feel what you are writing. That will come through and make it magic. Be as specific as you can in your language but always leave lots of room for the illustrator’s interpretation. It’s a PICTURE book, after all!

GR: Just start! Don’t wait until you have read all the books or done all the courses. If you have an idea just get it started, you don’t need to be great to begin, you just need an idea. 

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

VJ: Oh my gosh, there are so, so many, but I’ll mention just a tiny few. 

In young adult fiction, the book I’m most looking forward to reading this year is Jen St. Jude’s 2023 debut If Tomorrow Doesn’t Come. Jas Hammonds’ We Deserve Monuments is on top of my TBR pile. Two other YA debuts at the top of my list are Jenna Miller’s Out of Character and Edward Underhill’s Always the Almost. I loved Erik J. Brown’s All That’s Left in The World. My favorite YA graphic novel of 2022 was Hollow by Shannon Watters and Branden Boyer-White, art by Berenice Nelle. Add Tirzah Price to your must-follow list of YA authors. Also, obviously anything by Malinda Lo, including Last Night at the Telegraph Club! Mike Curato’s Flamer is a beautiful and powerful graphic novel that you all should have read by now. (I love his picture books, too!)

In middle-grade fiction, the 2022 debut graphic novel The Real Riley Mayes by Rachel Elliott blew me away and was my favorite read last year. I love Michael Leali’s work and Molly Ostertag’s middle-grade graphic novels. Anything written by Alex Gino or Kyle Lukoff should already be on your shelf. 

In picture books, I adored the ground-breaking picture book Love, Violet by Charlotte Sullivan Wild and Charlene Chua. I recommend the beautiful Grandad’s Camper by Harry Woodgate and look forward to their follow-up, Grandad’s Pride. I read and loved all of Kyle Lukoff’s picture books last year, and there is another on its way, just announced. Hannah Moushabeck has a debut picture book coming soon that I can’t wait to read. And look for AJ Irving and Kip Alizadeh’s The Wishing Flower, and in nonfiction, Sarah Prager and Cheryl ‘Ras’ Thuesday’s Kind Like Marsha.

I honestly hate to leave anyone out, so this is stressful because I definitely did. Okay, that’s all for now. I could list pages and pages of names!

GR: Dare I say my book with Queer Eye star Jonathan Van Ness, ‘Peanut Goes for the Gold’, featuring a non-binary guinea pig with big dreams of being a gymnast?! 

Interview with Author Ian Eagleton

Ian Eagleton is an education consultant, author, and elementary school teacher based in the UK. He is also the founder of The Reading Realm, an educational app for teachers. 

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

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

Hi! Thanks so much for having me! My name’s Ian. I was a primary school teacher for thirteen years and I now write children’s books which specialize in LGBTQ+ inclusivity and diversity. I also write educational resources for companies, enjoy going to the gym, swimming, reading, and films. Some of my previous books include Nen and the Lonely Fisherman (illustrated by James Mayhew) and Violet’s Tempest ((illustrated by Clara Anganuzzi).  

What can you tell us about your latest book, The Woodcutter and The Snow Prince? What was the inspiration for this story?

The Woodcutter and the Snow Prince is very superficially based on The Snow Queen. I suppose it links to the story in that the main character is called Kai, there’s a wicked Snow Prince and the setting is very wintry and magical. But the actual story is quite different to The Snow Queen and was inspired by a German fairy tale called “Jorinda and Joringel”.

In the story, there’s an evil witch who turns young maidens into birds and captures them and keeps them in cages in her castle. She transforms any young men she meets into statues. The story is quite dark and strange, and it got me thinking about why the witch was like this. What was it about these young, heterosexual couples that she hated so much? Could she even control her powers? Was she misunderstood in any way? 

When I sent the story to Sam at Owlet Press, there was something missing, however. The setting didn’t quite work and wasn’t quite magical enough and I couldn’t quite get to grips with the witch and her motivation. Sam suggested setting the story at Christmas time and I immediately thought of a Snow Prince. I was still interested in rumours and the stories we tell each other, so wanted there to be all these terrifying myths and tales about this supposedly wicked prince. 

Once I had hit on the idea that there might be more to his story and that he could be saved, the rest of the story came together! It’s a really exciting, thrilling story full of adventure, peril, strange creatures, love, and hope! 

As a writer, what drew you to the art of storytelling, specifically children’s books?

I was very lucky that my Mum read to us every night. I used to love all the Alfie and Annie-Rose books and a book called Garth Pig and the Ice Cream Lady by Mary Raynor – I can still recite parts of it now. I also have very fond memories of being read Rebecca’s World by Terry Nation. I remember howling with laughter as I sat at my teacher’s feet and how we all begged her to read certain parts again and again. Never underestimate the power of being read to! I think I wanted to capture that magic and sense of hope in my own story writing.

What else drew me to writing children’s books with an LGBTQ+ theme? Possibly a sense of injustice. I never saw any gay men in the stories I read and always felt a bit excluded from the literary space. I have been with my husband for ten years now and we have a son. When we started thinking about having children, I desperately wanted to make sure that our child saw their family in the books they read. I think I was also writing for the little boy who felt different and never saw himself in fairy tales, and the gay teenager who was bullied and felt alone. 

For those curious about the process behind a picture book, how would you describe the process? What goes into writing one and collaborating with an artist to translate that into a book?

It’s a very long, often challenging, and arduous process! I often write very quickly and maybe have a finished version of a story in a day. At this stage, it’s just scribbles and thoughts and ideas. It’s also bloated and far too long. A picture book should be around 500-700 words, so I spend an awful lot of time editing and chipping away at the text. Very often a lot of my writing can actually be shown in the artwork by the illustrator so I just leave comments about what I’m visualising and seeing in my head. I spend a lot of time talking to my agent and editor about the direction I’d like the story to take, the atmosphere I’m trying to create if there are any themes that need picking up or anything I’ve left unsaid that might need to be explained in the artwork. Although, I don’t tend to work too closely with the illustrator – I’m a writer, not an artist! I might give feedback on how I thought a character might look but it’s usually best just to trust the illustrator and leave them to do their job. That way they feel uninhibited, completely free to develop and transform my words into something magical. Trust and letting go are very important parts of the job. 

What advice might you have to give young writers?

Keep a diary! As a child, I kept a diary from the age of 10 until I was in my twenties. I always urge young writers to keep a diary too. I used to write everything in it – stories about what had happened to my hamster, film reviews, lists of new words I’d found, favourite books, what I’d had for dinner, and so on! A diary is a very special thing as it allows us to write just for ourselves and not worry about other people or if we’ve spelt something incorrectly or that our handwriting is messy. Writing in a diary should be enjoyable too. Have fun – doodle in it and illustrate it!

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

Lots! As well as being a dad, working as an education resource writer, and generally trying to eat healthily, go to the gym, and not fall apart at how scary the world is right now, I’m also working on some new picture books. I can’t say too much about them, but one involves a little girl, some cute dogs, and adventures with her daddies, and the other is a celebration of a two-dad family and the great outdoors. I also have my debut middle-grade book Glitter Boy, which is being published by Scholastic, coming out in February 2023. It’s a joyful, hopeful story that tackles the effects of homophobic bullying and how damaging it can be. It also explores LGBTQ+ pride and history, the power of friendship, poetry, and dance, and the need to call upon our friends, neighbours, family, and community when times are tough. It’s a real celebration of being true to yourself!

Apart from all those exciting projects, I’m also working with my agent on some new picture books, so it’s a busy time. However, I feel very lucky to be able to write LGBTQ+ inclusive books for children which will hopefully spark a desire in them to make the world a happier, fairer place when everyone gets to see themselves in the books they read. 

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

I’m going to recommend some LGBTQ+ themed picture books I love if that’s OK! Perfect for sharing with your family or maybe just reading yourself as an adult – they’re a wonderful way to look back in time and heal that inner child! 

The Woodcutter and The Snow Prince by Ian Eagleton, illustrated by Davide Ortu, is published by Owlet Press. Out now, £7.99 paperback.

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.