Forgive me while I commit an author taboo: I’m going to complain about reviews.
But this is so much less about what the reviews said—and so much more about what they mean. I know some of you (hi, author friends! hi, blogger friends!) are probably sitting in front of your computer shouting, “LAUREN, DON’T!”
I know, I know. I hope you’ll hear me out, though. Because this is really important.
First, some background:
Case Closed 4: Danger on the Dig is the first book in the Case Closed series with queer suspects in it. No, I didn’t do this to be trendy, as some of my detractors say. And I didn’t do this because the publishing industry expects it of me—another strange notion.
I’ve talked about this before, but there is an actual reason why the Case Closed series started out very white and straight: It’s because the idea behind the book was Knives Out-ish. I wanted a mystery where every single suspect was hiding some sordid secret because they are all terrible people. I didn’t want to villainize or stereotype anyone, so I went with a straight, white, cisgender suspect list. Because again:
Every suspect in Case Closed 1 is a terrible person. Guinevere, Ivy, Smythe, Patty, Otto, Maddock—not a single one of them is good.
As you can imagine, I quickly began to feel stuck when I moved to book 2. Because I still didn’t want to cause any harm with the suspect list, but I also didn’t want the Case Closed world to be completely white and straight and cisgender all the time. That’s not real life.
I figured out how to write suspects of color in Case Closed 2 and Case Closed 3 in a way I felt good about. However, I still couldn’t figure out how to incorporate queer suspects without feeling like I was doing harm.
Until Case Closed 4.
For further context about the writing of Case Closed 4: I wrote it in the spring of 2021, for a very quick release in 2022. At that point, I had already been out to myself for 2 years—and to my editor and agent for 1 year. I was ecstatic to include queer characters in a very casual way, where the characters are visible, three-dimensional, but nothing in the story is about them being queer.
The book has a nonbinary suspect and a lesbian suspect. The nonbinary suspect has facial hair and wears makeup. They have a nameplate on their desk with they/them pronouns—a nameplate that my detective trio sees right away and then respects the whole way through. No discussion on gender is had in the book. Meanwhile, the lesbian suspect has one mention of starting a business with her wife.
Honestly, it might not even feel like much to you! Especially compared to what some of my amazing colleagues are doing. But this type of representation is something I kept wishing I had as a kid. I often wonder—in hindsight—if I’d had casual, understated queer representation whether I would have felt like coming out was going to (as I once told my therapist) “blow up my whole life.”
So, about the reviews.
I’ve been accused of “going woke.” (Pause for a second to marvel at how folks somehow missed all the blatantly obvious progressive values that already existed in books 1, 2, and 3.) And I’ve been lambasted for “forced” inclusion.
First of all: What even is forced inclusion? Isn’t everything forced in storytelling? After all, there’s a storyteller who makes decisions—nothing is natural. Every sentence is deliberate. So why would an author’s decision to include a cis, straight character not be forced, while the decision to include a queer character be forced? Or does forced imply that I am coerced? Is someone worried that my publisher has been holding me hostage, demanding that I include queer characters?
Second of all: I’ve noticed a really strange pattern in reviews complaining that “the queer character isn’t plot-relevant.”
Can we unpack how harmful that is for a second?
In the case of my lesbian character, for example: it’s true that the fact that this character is lesbian (and has a wife) is not relevant to the plot of the mystery, but then again most characters’ spouses and relationships are not plot relevant. But I don’t see anyone complaining about my suspect who’s going through a messy divorce with her husband in that same book. Or that there was a husband and wife duo that ran the lodge in Haunting at the Hotel. Or that the young actress in Stolen from the Studio had an ex-boyfriend.
How many books have I read—and movies have I watched—where a character is straight for “no plot reason”? Almost every single book and movie of my childhood. Almost every single one of my adulthood too. Why do straight and cis people get to exist without a “reason” while queer people need a reason to be alive/included in a story?
If the only time queer characters can exist is when it’s baked into the plot of the book, then queerness becomes exactly the thing that scared me so much for so many years. The message it sends is: if/when you discover you’re queer, it becomes the ONLY thing about you. You can’t exist in stories that aren’t about your queerness. Straight kids and cis kids get to solve mysteries all the time in fiction, but not you, queer kid. Straight and cis kids get to go on adventures, slay dragons, and save the world, but not you, queer kid. Straight and cis kids are the Chosen Ones with prophecies and epic quests, but not you, queer kid. You exist to be queer only. Your queerness must be at the forefront. It must cause you pain. Or joy. But either way, your pain/joy/drive/purpose must come from being queer.
But then again, I’m no so obtuse or naive as to not be able to read between the lines of a comment like that. Because here’s what it really means: “I want queerness to be plot-relevant, so that I can accurately steer my kids away from books that have it and shelter them from queer people.” Because if queerness only exists in books about being queer, the spread (I write this with maximum sarcasm) is easier to contain. The so-called “gay agenda” can be corralled.
Personally, my only gay agenda is to normalize. Queer people are here, and we’re not going anywhere. And queer characters don’t exist only to be in queer books, for an audience of only queer kids. In the same way that I love some aggressively straight franchises (hi, Hunger Games) with my whole soul, there’s nothing wrong or inappropriate about straight kids loving books with queer characters in them. In my own writing, straight and cis kids can see how positively regular queer people are. And queer kids can see it too: how it’s just a facet of life. Nothing scary, nothing negative. As normal as eye color or height.
Queer characters are appropriate for kids. Because to deem some humans “appropriate for children” and other humans “taboo until children are older,” is to cause kids to feel shame about themselves or to cause kids to inflict shame upon others. It hurts everyone. And to say queer characters are inappropriate for children is to reinforce the notion that kids are straight/cis until proven otherwise. When really: we shouldn’t be assuming anything about anyone. We should let kids discover themselves and/or their friends, understand the world, and see reality reflected back at them without weighing on their hearts or governing their minds.
If that’s woke, so be it. If that’s forced, I’m forcing it. In a profession where every decision is conscious, I want my readers to know that I am doing everything in my power to make the right ones. The inclusive ones.
I stand by my choices. <3
What I’m writing
The Mythics series (books 1 and 2 out now): Speaking of conscious choices… I deliberately made this series inclusive and warm and loving. I’m super proud of these girls!!! If what I said about casual inclusivity resonates, please consider picking up a copy of these books too.
*Bonus perk is that you get 60+ fantastic interior illustrations by Mirelle Ortega in each one:
The Mythics 3 (May 14, 2024): HOUSTON, A COVER HAS LANDED.
I’m over the mooooooon!!! And this cover is a STAR!!!!
The Mythics 4 (Fall 2024): I’ve just returned a revision to my editor, and I love how it’s coming together… even stronger than before. This book has themes of how to unpack and heal from anger, shouldering the burden of wanting to protect the people we love, forgiveness (who deserves it, how we give it). It’s been so fun and challenging to tackle these BIG topics. But I think it’s working so well. As you can imagine, Marina, Hailey, Kit, Pippa, and Ember have a lot of thoughts.
I also saw a cover sketch, and OH MY GORGEOUS.
Case Closed series (out now): Escape room in book form, video game in book form, my hands-down most popular books:
What I’m reading
Currently in the middle of Fright Watch: The Stitchers by Lorien Lawrence, and it is EVERYTHING I need from a spooky season book!!! So creepy, so heartwrenching… and I’m devouring it hungrily. I adore the characters, the writing, the tension, the conflict (don’t want to say too much—horror is best, in my opinion, when you go in knowing nothing). It’s one of those books where you know right away that you’re in good storytelling hands.
If you’re looking for that perfect horror read for middle grade readers, TRUST ME (and Stephen King, who blurbed it!!) and run to your local bookstore immediately!
Where to find me
Sept 30, 2023: Chappaqua Book Festival in New York from 10 am to 4 pm.
Oct 1, 2023: Oxford Valley B&N in Fairless Hills, Pennsylvania for a reading, greeting, and signing at 11:30 am.
Oct 7, 2023: Warwick Book Festival in New York from 11 am to 4 pm.
Please come say hi! And get your book signed with a doodle from me! Pictured here at last week’s book festival in Rye:
I’ll leave you with words that really speak to me from the essay Windows, Mirrors, and Sliding Glass Doors:
“When there are enough books available that can act as both mirrors and windows for all our children, they will see that we can celebrate both our differences and our similarities, because together they are what make us all human.”
—Rudine Sims Bishop