When I was twelve years old, I didn’t know why I wanted so badly to run away; I just knew that I did. I had an easy, comfortable life, a family who I loved and who loved me—yet over and over, I imagined running away from all of that and starting my life over someplace new, someplace where no one knew me. I planned out how I would reinvent myself away from the expectations and assumptions around me. I thought about which door of my middle school I could most easily use to sneak outside; which class period I could time it during; which section of fence I would climb over to escape into my new life.
My debut novel, THE BEST LIARS IN RIVERVIEW, started from those memories of wanting to run away, even as it grew into something new. Best friends Aubrey and Joel make plan after plan to leave their hometown, until finally Joel does run away—but without Aubrey. As Aubrey sets out after him, they start to process everything that’s happened in their community that led up to Joel’s decision to leave. They also realize at last where their own restlessness is coming from—and that it’s something that won’t be solved by just running away.
Unlike Aubrey and Joel, I never physically ran away from home when I was a kid; instead, I used fiction as my escape. I probably read more in my middle-grade years than I have at any other time in my life. I tore through so many books so quickly that I can’t remember most of them now, but they left my mind filled with scraps of memories that aren’t mine—descriptions of things I’ve never seen and people I’ll never meet. The pieces of those stories that I absorbed helped me make sense of the people around me and the world I was a part of. They gave me something to hold onto as I was beginning to finally understand, in a deeper, truer way, that other people were living lives just as real as mine.
This is why I love writing middle-grade now. There’s something special about those transitional years—not quite a kid anymore, but also not quite a teenager. I’m forever grateful and humbled to get to write books for readers who are at such a formative age. The books we read as kids stick with us. They can help us figure out pieces of this complex, messy world we’re growing up in.
This is also why it’s so important to me as a nonbinary person to show characters in middle-grade stories questioning their genders. In all the books I read back then, I never encountered a character who was trans or nonbinary. I didn’t read any books with unambiguously queer characters until my late teens. Now, I feel so much hope every time I think of the quickly growing range of queer books available for middle-grade readers. So many kids are trying to figure out who they are and where they fit into the world. They deserve stories that give them the space to explore that.
For kids who are queer or questioning, I hope THE BEST LIARS IN RIVERVIEW can help them find words for some of their experiences, and that it can reassure them that they aren’t alone. For kids who may not feel the need to question their genders themselves, I hope Aubrey’s story can stick in their minds and help them better understand the experiences of their peers.
When I look back now, I can see where my own desire to run away came from. I can remember how uncomfortable I felt in my own skin, and how uncomfortable I felt with the way people saw me—always assuming a gender that didn’t feel right for me, although I couldn’t articulate it at the time. I like to imagine how, if I’d read some of the middle-grade books with queer and questioning characters now, they might have helped me make sense of those feelings sooner. I like to imagine how my book might help a reader now do just that.
In the woods of a small Kentucky town, Aubrey sets off on a journey about growing up, self-discovery, and acceptance while searching for their missing best friend—perfect for fans of King and the Dragonflies and Three Times Lucky.
Aubrey and Joel are like two tomato vines that grew along the same crooked fence—weird, yet the same kind of weird. But lately, even their shared weirdness seems weird. Then Joel disappears. Vanishes. Poof. The whole town is looking for him, and Aubrey was the last person to see Joel. Aubrey can’t say much, but since lies of omission are still lies, here’s what they know for sure:
- For the last two weeks of the school year, when sixth grade became too much, Aubrey and Joel have been building a raft in the woods.
- The raft was supposed to be just another part of their running away game.
- The raft is gone now too.