Rooms full of fifth-graders always want to know if I’m married.
As an author of books for children, I have visited hundreds of elementary schools and children’s libraries from Title I schools in Georgia to suburban prep schools in Connecticut to give presentations about my books, about being a writer, and about the joys of a reading life. For my career as a children’s book author, these school visits are not only a fun and inspiring way to connect directly with my readers, they’re an essential supplement to my income.
Children’s book writers tend to garner about half the real dollar-per-book royalties as their adult writer counterparts (because of lower rates and lower price points on the books). In order to keep writing, I spend about a third of my time on the road presenting to school kids. I’ve never had a New York Times best-seller or a movie deal. School visits make it possible to pay my bills.
Luckily, school visits are also one of the most fun parts of the job. There is nothing like the moment when a child connects with a book that feels like it was written just for them and then realizes the author is a flesh-and-blood person, ready to offer encouragement, answer their questions, and make them laugh.
The realization usually sparks all kinds of curiosity about the life of that flesh-and-blood person and there is always — no matter the school, no matter the region — a child who raises her hand and asks me, with an absolute un-self-conscious need-to-know, “Are you married?”
The easy answer, in the beginning, would’ve been a simple “no.” Well, not a simple “no,” but a true one. I wasn’t married. But I wasn’t married only because same-sex marriage wasn’t legal. I wasn’t married because the love of my life was another man.
The first time I was asked was at an elementary school in Houston. I’m not sure how long I paused after the question, standing silent in front of my PowerPoint staring at the gap-toothed child who’d asked me. I remember the thoughts that passed through my head at that moment, because they passed through my head again and again in visit after visit over the years.
What happens if I tell the truth about why I’m not married? What happens if I reveal this part of myself? Does my career in children's books end? Will teachers and parents look at me askance? Ban my books? Run me out of town as some kind of creep trying to “recruit” or pushing a “gay agenda”? Will I never be invited to another school again?
Already in our culture, men who work with young children are looked at with suspicion. Gay men perhaps doubly so. Anita Bryant’s 1978 campaign to ban LGBT people from teaching is not yet ancient history.
So I played the little girl’s question off with a joke, something like, “Why? Are you proposing to me? I’m a little old for you!”
The other kids laughed; the girl blushed and laughed, and I moved on to the next question about my favorite video game. That became my go-to deflection every time, and as the laughter subsided, I’d always be on to answering how I got the idea for one character or another, or how I handle “writer’s block,” and I’d hear no more about my marital status and the kids would quickly forget that I hadn’t actually answered that question at all.
My dodge always worked, but I dreaded being asked every time and I always regretted dodging the question afterward. My boyfriend and I might as well have been married. We’d lived together for years, shared furniture and a dog — I even showed kids pictures of the dog in my PowerPoint! — and we had big plans for our future. We would get married once the law allowed us to.
It wasn’t that complicated and a 10-year-old could certainly have understood it, but still I made it a joke and I moved on. Did I really want to "come out" in front of hundreds of fifth-graders? I did not. At every elementary and every middle school, in every presentation, for three to four presentations a day, I deflected — in a way I hadn’t since I was in high school — and stayed in the closet.
I told myself this wasn’t really a return to the closet. I was just keeping my gay identity and my work completely separate, as if being a novelist were like being an electrician. Who cares if your electrician brings his full and honest self to the rewiring of a breaker box?
But being a novelist isn’t the same.
In my books I carry my young readers through huge ranges of experience and emotion, adventure and danger, hope and loss, fear and bravery, giggles and tears. When I talk in schools about my process, I share the real-life inspiration behind the ideas in my books and I talk about honesty and clarity in storytelling. Yet I always kept this one thing walled off. It was my right to do so — writers do not owe their readers personal revelations — but still, it felt dishonest.
And then, shortly after same-sex marriage became legal around the country and my boyfriend became my husband, I was at an elementary school in New Jersey. The question came up:
“Are you married?”
I was wearing my wedding ring. I’d been married for a month. I was really excited about it. So I said, “Yes, I am.”
“What does your wife do for a job?” the girl asked.
“Well, I have a husband, not a wife, and he’s a teacher.”
One or two of the boys looked at each other puzzled and then not puzzled. A girl giggled and another girl elbowed her in the side.
And that was it. I’d just come out to a room full of kids and they didn’t really care. The next question was about whether I would ever write another military action book (I’d written six by then; they came with dog tags). I said I would and the boy who'd asked high-fived the boy next to him because they really liked my military action books.
After the talk, I signed books. Everyone was really excited to get a book signed by a “real author.” Kids wanted to know what breed my dog was and which football team I liked. Some of the boys told me I should be ashamed of myself...for liking the New York Jets. They weren't wrong.
From that day on, I always answered The Question when it was asked. Once in a while, a teacher would look up from grading papers in the back of the room with a quizzical expression, but that was the extent of it. In middle schools, there would be a louder gasp or two from the students, or a whispered “What’d he say?” from neighbor to neighbor. Sometimes, in those audiences, eyes would light up, tiny smiles creeping at the edges of a 13-year-old’s mouth. A nearly invisible nod. Sometimes my solutions to writer's block got bigger reactions.
Month after month, year after year, I kept telling them about my husband. I didn’t have an agenda. I was just answering their questions honestly as they came up, the same way I answered their other questions about plot ideas or thinking of book titles or how to get published.
In many cases, I was the first “out” adult these kids had ever met. In Norman, Oklahoma, a little boy waited until after the presentation to talk to me. With nervous glances at the other kids still standing around us, he told me that he was gay and that he was happy to see how confident I was, how it made him feel like he could be confident. “Like I could have a good future too,” he said.
After a school talk in Connecticut, I got a note from a seventh-grade girl who told me she’d come out a few weeks before my visit, and kids who hadn’t spoken to her since then were talking to her again. “It wasn’t that you inspired me,” she explained. “It was that you inspired my straight friends to see me as more than just a queer kid.”
In Charleston, South Carolina, a sixth-grade boy got two books signed, one for himself and one for his friend who’d just told him he was gay. He thought his friend would think it was cool that he’d gotten his book signed by a famous author, who was just like him.
“Except for being a Jets fan," he added.
Every one of these kids was braver than I had been when I was their age and their revelations did not come without risk within their communities, within their own families. While I was never chased from a school after "coming out" during a Q&A, I have gotten letters from parents and seen book reviews online, enraged that I would foist "my agenda" into children's books, angered that I would presume to introduce children to such a “controversial” subject.
But I don’t think the existence of that boy in Norman, Oklahoma, or Charleston, South Carolina, or the girl in Connecticut is controversial at all. I don't think my existence is controversial.
I decided to take a cue from the brave kids I'd met and show a little more bravery in my own career. For my newest book, I changed my author bio on the back flap to read:
C. Alexander London is the author of the middle- grade series The Accidental Adventures, Dog Tags, and Tides of War, and of the young-adult novels Proxy and Guardian. His most recent novel is The Wild Ones. A former journalist and children’s librarian, he is now a full-time writer. He lives with his husband and dog in Brooklyn, New York.
I figured including my husband would save time during the Q&A, so I could focus more on the reading and writing questions that were the reason schools bring me to speak anyway. I have a lot more to say to kids about reading and writing than I do about being married, except that it’s helpful for a writer to be married to a teacher. They make excellent proofreaders.
Being out in children’s literature is not uncommon now. There are a wide array of LGBTQIA authors living and speaking and writing openly for upper-elementary students, from the heart-warming story of a transgender child in Alex’s Gino’s George to Brian Selznick’s The Marvels, which explores art, and family, and history, and AIDS; and authors like Jacqueline Woodson, writing powerful verse memoirs; or Tim Federle’s musical theater romp in Better Nate Than Ever. Phil Bildner publishes beloved and diverse books set around basketball and baseball. I’m writing about a talking raccoon’s adventures. Our stories are as unlimited as our selves.
But there are limited school budgets, and there are plenty of great speakers and writers who don't spark controversy. As the old librarian's saying goes, "It's not censorship; it’s selection.”
I don't know if the choice to “come out” on my book jacket has cost me school-visit invitations. I don't hear from the librarians who choose not to invite an author whose identity might be “controversial.” I don’t meet the kids whose schools don’t come calling.
I was signing books at an elementary school in Minnesota last fall and a young girl waiting in line to get her book signed flipped to the back and read my bio.
“Oh,” she said. “I’m glad I got my book before my dad saw this. I really want to read it — I love raccoons — but he doesn’t approve of gay people.” To her, my hero mattered far more than my husband.
I signed her book with a drawing of a raccoon, like I always did, and for a moment I wondered if I'd made a mistake, cost myself an unknown number of readers just by my back-flap biography. Kids — no matter how open-minded and inclusive they are — are not the ones buying their own books. If I alienate their parents, my ability to make a living withers.
But being out on the bookshelf between Jack London and Lois Lowry still makes an impact. Being open with young people creates opportunities for their world to grow a little bit. I recently had a fifth-grader at an international school urgently warn me of a typo on the back flap.
“It says you have a husband!” he announced.
I was about to explain that I do indeed have husband, when another fifth-grader cut him off. “He does,” she said.
"He's gay," another boy added with a shrug. “There's no problem with that.”
“No, I don’t have a problem with that,” the first boy explained himself. “I just thought it was a mistake.” He handed me his book to get signed.
“It wasn’t a mistake,” I confirmed as I signed his book, but he already had another concern, and it made his forehead wrinkle in worry.
“Will you draw a raccoon in my book too?” he asked. “But, like, make it really big?”
And I did, grateful that a new generation of readers have their priorities straight.
C. Alexander London’s latest novel for children, The Wild Ones, is a Junior Library Guild selection and is available from Penguin Books for Young Readers. He has written over 20 books for children, teens, and even a few adults. His young adult debut, Proxy, was an American Library Association Top Ten Quick Pick for Reluctant Young Readers, a 2014 Best Fiction For Young Adults selection, and a 2015 Texas Lone Star Reading List selection. You can find him on twitter @ca_london.
To learn more about The Wild Ones, click here.