Guest Post: When Something is Wrong, Write

Jennifer Gennari. Photo by Dan Van Winkle, impressionoflight.com

Jennifer Gennari is the author of the new middle-grade book, My Mixed-Up Berry Blue Summer, about a girl living in Vermont with her mother and her mother’s soon-to-be fiancée, just after Vermont approved civil unions for same-sex couples. I reviewed it a few weeks back, and reached out to her to write a guest post for Mombian, which she kindly agreed to do. Below, she discusses the moment of homophobia against a teen in her community that led her to pen the book, and the personal experiences she wove into the tale. Thanks to her for sharing this with us.

When Something is Wrong, Write

Love won, I could clearly see, in the faces of the newly married gay couples in the latest round of legal wedded bliss. Even though gay marriage is legal in only nine states, the victories were sweet last November. My favorite shots were of children, happily watching their parents marry.

A lot has changed in a little over ten years. In 2002, I witnessed such a moment of homophobia in my small California town that I was moved to write my middle-grade novel, My Mixed-Up Berry Blue Summer.

When my daughters were in elementary school, I served on a school district diversity committee assigned to review material for a new anti-bullying curriculum. Up for discussion was “That’s a Family,” an award-winning video featuring six short stories of different kinds of families—kids talking proudly about their grandparents or their interracial, adoptive, solo, or gay parents. The committee members thought it was great, and we approved it. Who didn’t melt watching those kids talk about their loving homes?

Not everyone agreed. A faction of residents organized and stormed school board meetings, demanding the video be pulled. One trustee proclaimed that the members of the diversity committee were not “regular” people because they supported gay rights.

We (the regular people and a few brave out parents) were galvanized into action. Love makes a family, we argued, and children should not be bullied or harassed because of who makes them toast or packs their lunchbox. To bridge the division in our town, we organized a meeting in the local senior center.

Tables were set up for discussion. A panel of teachers, a few supportive school board trustees, and even the filmmaker spoke. The filmmaker invited Breauna, a fifteen-year-old from San Francisco with two dads to be the human face of her type of family. I remember standing in the back, listening to her talk—in her cheerful teenage way—about her dads and their everyday life.

And then, one man stood up and insinuated that her fathers could have AIDS, they were irresponsible, they could abandon her. The room went quiet. We were all in shock.

What grownup bullies a child in public? In my memory, Breauna left the stage near tears. For days, I faulted myself for not doing anything in the moment, replaying it, imagining a different dialogue, a different ending to that scene.

And then I knew. There was something I could do. I could write a story in which the bullies don’t win.

A freelance writer and editor for years, I had been writing and submitting picture books without success. Now, suddenly, I had a story I was driven to tell. Beginning with the emotional core, I set the scene in Vermont, where I’m from and the first Civil Union law was passed. I had been there that summer in 2000 and remembered seeing signs arguing to “Take Back Vermont” or “Keep Vermont Civil.” Twelve-year-old June evolved slowly, and my own experience with divorce and step-parenting further deepened my story.

From story idea to publication took ten years and many revisions. I could never have imagined that the political climate for gay marriage would change so much. In 2012, just days before my book was published, President Obama came out in support of gay marriage. Young children who read my book, I discovered, didn’t care about the gender of the step-parent—for them, it was about a family and how they come together in a time of stress.

And what of Breauna? I spoke with her dad when My Mixed-Up Berry Blue Summer came out. He said the incident didn’t loom large in her memory. I wondered if it was just one of many injustices she suffered by having two dads. For the next generation, let’s hope love triumphs and intolerance recedes.

Jennifer Gennari is the author of MY MIXED-UP BERRY BLUE SUMMER (Houghton Mifflin Books for Children, 2012), an American Booksellers Association ABC Spring 2012 New Voices title and an American Library Association Rainbow List title. A graduate of Vermont College of Fine Arts and a former reporter, she lives on a houseboat in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband and (occasionally) their four daughters. Learn more at jengennari.com.

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