Books·How I Wrote It

Why Kit Pearson's new YA novel explores sexual identity in the 1950s

The acclaimed children's novelist discusses her new novel, Be My Love, in which a teenager discovers she is attracted to the same sex in the mid-20th century.
Be My Love is a YA novel by Kit Pearson. (HarperCollins, Katherine Farris)

Kit Pearson is among Canada's most revered children's writers, celebrated by generations of young readers for her insightful historical novels and fantasy tales.

In her latest book, Be My Love, Pearson explores identity and sexuality at the dawn of adolescence through the eyes of 14-year-old Maisie. Set in 1951 on Kingfisher Island, where the teenager spends her summers, Maisie relishes another vacation with her best friend, Una. Their relationship gets complicated when Una develops a crush on a man and Maisie becomes jealous. Be My Love is a YA novel about the internal struggles of growing up.

Pearson spoke with CBC Books about how she wrote Be My Love.

New book, old idea

"Be My Love is mainly a love story. It could just as well have been a triangle between heterosexual kids. It's about that anguish when the person you love loves somebody else, which we've all been through.

"Since I first started writing, I thought I might one day write a novel about a young girl realizing she's a lesbian. This seemed like a suitable book. It's set in 1951 and attitudes towards homosexuality are really old fashioned, so I think today's kids will find it interesting. I couldn't believe it when I did my research. It was against the law for men to be gay and it was just completely different."

The importance of characters

"I don't think plot is that important. Well, it's important, but it's not what you remember. You remember characters. Sometimes they are real from the start, such as Maisie was in this book. She arrived fully formed. Sometimes characters like Una, the girl Maisie's in love with, take me a while to get a handle on. That is the hardest and the most satisfying, when I finally find the characters and they seem to be real.

"Maisie is amazingly brave and I hope young readers take that away. They might be comforted and entertained. Mostly I just want them to have fun. I just want them to sink into it, become the characters and enjoy a good story."

The slow process of writing

"I do a lot of research and doing the research really give me ideas for the plot. I have a notebook and while I'm making notes about the research I get ideas for the plot. I love doing research and, because I used to be a librarian, it's very hard to stop. It's a good way of procrastinating from actually writing. Eventually I make myself stop.

"When I start writing, which I do on the computer, I don't look at any of my notes and I don't make an outline. I just start in a chapter and whatever comes out, comes out. It's a scary way of writing, but it keeps it fresher. That first draft is very fast and awful. But then I read the first draft over really carefully and I look at all my notes. Eventually I make a very detailed outline, which is about 10 pages for each chapter and my second draft is really slow."

Why writers need patience

"You just do it over and over and over again. And I emphasize that because kids are often impatient and they don't like writing things again. You have to learn to do that if you want to be writer. I think I'm a better stylist, I've become tighter. What I'm about to do now is embark on an adult novel. That's like beginning all over again in many ways. I'm not going to run out of things to write for kids, but I just feel like a new challenge."

Kit Pearson's comments have been edited and condensed. 


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