Queer Author Jason June on Creating LGBTQ Inclusive Youth Books

February 2, 2021

Anthony Ramos, GLAAD’s Head of Talent, spoke with author Jason June about their motivation to create diverse and inclusive kids and youth books, including the newest titles Mermicorn Island 1: Search for the Sparkle and Mermicorn Island 2: Narwhal Adventure.

Anthony Ramos: What motivated you to write these books?

Jason June: All my books, from my picture books like Porcupine Cupid to my young adult novels like Jay’s Gay Agenda, were written to help kids and teens feel seen and celebrated and loved. I’ve always been a firm believer that there’s magic in the world, magic that comes from our communities and connections with those around us. But—especially in outrageously trying times like this past year—it can be easy to forget that. Sometimes life gets too busy, sometimes our anxieties take center stage and push that magic aside, sometimes the world keeps us apart with a virus and makes it so we can’t be in the same room with friends and family to make those connections and that magic happen. So with my books, I try to let my readers know—especially queer readers—that there are people out there like them, and even if they can’t be in the same room together for whatever reason, we can make a connection through these words and these characters.

AR: Currently, you have a Valentine’s Day story, Porcupine Cupid, which is perfect for all kids right now. How would you describe this story? 

JJ: Porcupine Cupid (brilliantly illustrated by Lori Richmond) is all about how love can spring up on you so suddenly and unexpectedly. Porcupine is our little matchmaker who fancies himself Cupid and starts randomly poking his forest neighbors with his quills. When they come together to figure out the Pokey Porcupine Problem, the connections they form at the meeting lead to love. So, Porcupine the character serves as a metaphor for love, how it can seem to randomly poke you and leap into your heart when you least expect it, then lead you on a whole new path you might not have anticipated. We see through the couples representing all kinds of genders and sexualities that love is universal and it’s how we express our love and talk out our feelings with the person making us feel special that can lead to lasting bonds.

AR: Then you have Mermicorn Island 1: Search for the Sparkle and Mermicorn Island 2: Narwhal Adventure, both out this week! How would you describe this series?

JJ: This series is under-the-sea shenanigans with humor and heart! Lucky, our lead mermaid-unicorn hybrid, lives in a world where everyone has a special magical power called their Sparkle. But Lucky’s Sparkle never comes. So when he finds a treasure chest full of seashells with magical powers, he finally feels like part of the group, but soon learns that it’s what’s inside that counts. What I love about this series is that it has so many themes that I think are relevant to the queer experience. Things like feeling different or building a family around you that doesn’t necessarily need to be blood-related, but full of people who see you for you and love your heart. In the third book, coming out in July, we even have a pair of gay dolphin dads who I’m so in love with!

AR: Tell me about your younger years and road to coming out and self acceptance?

JJ: Like so many queer kids growing up, I always knew I was different from most of the kids around me, even from a young young age. It started with things like never seeing myself as the Prince Eric but always the Ariel (or even the Ursula), or wondering, “Why do I seem to be the only one titillated by David Bowie in Labyrinth?” And then getting into high school, I realized I wasn’t attracted to girls and wished I could be having all my romantic milestones with a guy. But I lived in a rural and conservative area, and dealt with that not knowing when or if it would ever be safe to come out. But I reached a point where I knew I needed to be myself and eventually came out my senior year in high school. Fortunately, I was embraced by my class and my family and friends. But for reasons that were not clear to me at the time, I still felt a lot of discontent. I was never happy with my body and tried so hard to look like the “perfect ripped guy”. But the more I tried to become that the unhappier I got, and it wasn’t until I reached 30 that I realized it was because I got caught in what society says it means to be the “right kind” of male and needing to look masculine when my whole being is anything but masculine. This is where I owe a ton of thanks to the generation younger than me who started making talk about being somewhere in between or outside of the gender binary way more mainstream. Thanks to them, I finally figured out why I still felt trapped even after I came out as gay. I came out as genderqueer a couple years ago and never looked back, and I finally feel like I can be my fully formed femme self.

AR: What would it have meant to you to have books like these when you were younger?

JJ: Oh wow, it would have meant the world. There were such limited options in the early to mid-aughts for gay teen literature, and I was so thankful for the books we did have (I’m looking at you Rainbow Boys). But it would have really made me feel safe and seen if we had the plethora of options we’re seeing get published today. As it was, I hid my copy of Rainbow Boys and bought it from a bookstore I never went to again. Today, most bookstores have an out and proud Pride section full of queer lit for kids, and it makes my little rainbow heart soar. What I’m most looking forward to is this new era where we’re seeing picture books being published with queer characters and themes, so that the littlest kids who know they’re different like I did all those years ago see themselves in books geared toward them too.

AR: You also have a gay-teen rom-com coming out later this year...what inspired that story?

JJ: It’s very loosely inspired by my time as the only out gay kid in rural Eastern Washington. Like me, Jay Collier (my main character in Jay’s Gay Agenda) is the only out queer student in his rural high school. While he watches all his heterosexual classmates have relationship and sexual milestones, he makes a list (that he calls his Gay Agenda) of all the things he wants to someday do when he finally meets another boy-who-likes-boys. Then in his senior year, his mom gets a job in Seattle, and he gets to go to a school with a thriving queer community. The story follows all the highs and lows of finally getting to cross items off his agenda, and shows all the love and lust and shenanigans and mistakes that come along with finally being seen as a romantic and sexual being.

AR: Who would you cast in a movie to play those stories?

JJ: I’m a firm believer in queer actors getting to play queer characters, so it would really be a dream come true if Jay’s Gay Agenda became a movie and it was used as a vehicle to introduce new gay and genderqueer actors to the masses. And it would fit so well into the theme of the book too, which is all about a gay kid finally getting introduced to other queer people for the first time in his life. Introducing queer actors to LGBTQ moviegoers would be the perfect way to translate that feel into the casting!

AR: What words of wisdom might you tell any LGBTQ youth who are having a hard time?

JJ: I’d tell them that I know it can feel like such a lonely island as a queer kid, but that someday that island is going to be far behind you, and you’ll be surrounded by a found family who sees and loves you. There are people out there who need you, who need your stories, to make this world a better place. Then I’d tell them, yes, I know this sounds like a cheesy after-school special and you have all the permission to playfully poke fun at me, but it’s totally true. It’s one of our strengths being queer, finding the things we can laugh along with even when we’re down. Another one of those strengths is getting to make our own rules, whether those are about how we love, who’s in our family, or how we express our gender and our hearts. While society’s rules or the rules of your parents or guardian may be weighing you down now, I promise that your day will come. Please have hope and hold on. We need you.

His book Porcupine Cupid is available now.