Children’s author Simon James Green: ‘I just wanted to show LGBT+ kids that it’s not all doom and gloom’

A few weeks after he was banned from visiting a London school by the Catholic church, Simon James Green was confronted with an array of protest paraphernalia. Die skrywer, whose stories for young adults have been applauded for reflecting the upside, as well as the angst, of queer teen lives, was at an awards ceremony in Bristol. Members of a local school’s LGBT+ society had made banners and leaflets proclaiming their solidarity, and denouncing “kids in Catholic school locked in the closet”.

“It was so touching, so all-round impressive,” Green says. Neatly, it also encapsulates the core message of Gay Club!, his latest novel for young adults, which follows chess geek Barney on his mission to shake up his own school’s LGBT+ society. “Pinning some rainbow flags to our club noticeboard won’t change anything,” says Barney. “We need to unite and fight. Campaign. Be visible.”

The cancellation of Green’s school event in March by the Catholic archdiocese of Southwark prompted a wave of outrage from authors, parents and teaching unions, as well as warnings about a growing censorship of writing about diversity for younger readers. Less widely reported were the cards and letters Green received from young people across the country who wanted to support the students who had been denied their opportunity to talk about his books. Barney’s activist passion is a thoroughly accurate reflection of the young people Green meets on a weekly basis, verduidelik hy.

“They are passionate about building a world that is better, and they’re not going to stop," hy sê. It’s a refreshingly simple ethic: “They recognise that people should be who they are and be free to live their lives and love who they love.” He contrasts the maturity with which today’s teenagers discuss gender and sexuality with his own coming-of-age in a rural town in Lincolnshire “where ‘gay’ wasn’t even used as a slur – I grew up in total ignorance of LGBT+ people, partly because of section 28 [the legislation enacted in 1988 to “prohibit the promotion of homosexuality” by local authorities; dit was abolished only in 2003].”

The banning was a brutal experience, he concedes, and “heartbreaking because it completely misrepresents what I’m trying to achieve in the books”.

Since Green’s 2017 debuut, Noah Can’t Even – still the “most stolen” book from school libraries, he is reliably informed – his formula of madcap humour, Technicolor characters and soap-opera plotting has redrafted LGBT+ kids “as the heroes, having a happy ending”. “All I ever set out to do was show kids – particularly LGBT+ kids – that it’s not all doom and gloom. You can watch certain media and get the impression that they always end up dead at the end of the story, there’s homophobic attacks and it’s all misery. Those things sadly do happen, but it’s not the only story.”

All students benefit from recognising that, uiteindelik, “we’re all going through exactly the same thing”, redeneer hy. “That whole process of fancying someone for the first time and falling in love. It’s a rollercoaster for everybody, and it doesn’t matter how you identify.”

Alongside the overt hostility to his books’ content, Green points out, are the more insidious complaints about swearing or sexual content: “It’s the ‘Won’t someone think of the children?’ mentality [but it’s really] a convenient excuse for homophobia. The reality is, young people at secondary school do swear, they do talk about sexual things with their friends. If I don’t reflect that, it won’t mean anything to them and that’s when they stop picking up books.”

Groen, who wrote his first story at the age of 12 on his gran’s typewriter, insists that a book offers a genuinely safe space to discuss scary or confusing content, compared with the “wild west of nightmares” awaiting young people online.

He notes the unprecedented swathe of book bans across the US: “It dismays me that books so often are the target when there are genuinely harmful things online for young people, which seemingly just get away with it.”

There is “absolutely” a link between growing homophobia and the raging culture war around transgender rights, hy sê. “To be fair, trans people were warning about this [several years ago]. There’s a section of society that has been watching grudgingly as LGBT+ people gradually get a few more rights. They’ve been waiting for something to push back against it.” Social media has helped to amplify and embolden this cohort, hy sê. “And inevitably, when you have higher-profile people sharing some of those views, that furthers it as well.”

The solution is simply to trust those who know young readers best: “A book from a mainstream publisher will have been through a very thorough editorial process by people who genuinely care. And it’s being stocked in a school library, staffed by people who also genuinely care.” The school librarians he meets know their students “inside out”, he says warmly.

More than this, it is imperative to recognise that young people are “humans with agency”. “They can make decisions and it’s important to allow them to do that, especially within the safe space of the library,” Green says.

“It’s a really worrying time,” he concludes. “I look back to the effect things such as section 28 had on me, even though I wasn’t aware of it at the time, and I don’t want that to happen again. A lot of these current discussions are section 28 by the back door. I can’t in all good conscience just sit back and not speak out when it’s so damaging, particularly for young people.”

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