Nova Scotia·Atlantic Voice

On telling diverse teen stories, with young adult fiction writer Tom Ryan

The award-winning author talks to Atlantic Voice about writing for and about queer teens, and how identities and storylines have changed over the years.

Award-winning writer speaks with Atlantic Voice about shifts in young adult literature

Writer Tom Ryan has won numerous awards for his young adult fiction, novels which all feature LGBTQ protaganists. (Submitted by Tom Ryan/Snickerdoodle Photography)

If you're looking to find the contemporary world reflected through fiction these days, your best bet might be to head to the young adult section.

It's a sector of the book world that has expanded rapidly in recent years, with subject matter stretching far beyond school halls to tackle issues challenging every aspect of society today, from systemic racism to climate change.

"It is a response to what is going on in the world, in the way that much great art is. It's a response to what authors and readers are experiencing in their everyday life," said Lisa Doucette, the co-manager of Woozles children's bookstore in Halifax.

As the topics of young adult literature shift, the identity of the characters is shifting as well, she said.

"One of the changes that I've really seen, and I've seen it most notably within probably the last, say five to 10 years, has been how young adult literature incorporates and deals with issues of diversity," Doucette said.

One author diversifying bookshelves is Tom Ryan. The Inverness-raised author has eight young adult novels to his name, all featuring LGBTQ lead characters.

With two of his latest books, he's branched out from everyday drama to a darker territory: one filled with serial killers and child abductions.

Keep This To Yourself and I Hope You're Listening each feature queer teens solving crimes and navigating traumatic pasts in their communities, and each has racked up awards for thriller and crime writing from organizations like the Crime Writers of Canada and Lambda Literary.

Tom Ryan's novel Keep This To Yourself won Best YA Crime Book from the Crime Writers of Canada, while I Hope You're Listening won a Lambda Literary Award for best LGBTQ mystery book. (Lindsay Bird/CBC)

Ryan, who now divides his time between Cape Breton and Halifax, spoke recently to CBC Radio's Atlantic Voice about his mystery work, telling a range of queer teen stories, and what his advice for his teenage self, decades later.

The discussion has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: How do you feel young adult literature has changed, even in the last 10 years or so since you've been steeped in it? 

A: It's changed a whole lot since I began. I think the biggest change, and the most positive change that I've noticed over the past decade, is that there's been an enormous emphasis placed on diversity, and an attempt on the behalf of at least some publishers and editors to acquire books that represent voices and communities and groups and characters who might not have been on the page as much in the past. And so, we've seen a lot of really popular books that come from traditionally more marginalized communities. And I mean, speaking personally as a gay male who has attempted to write about, and in some ways for, the LGBTQ audience, I think if I'd started writing for teens 20 years ago, I might have had a harder time selling a book about, for instance, a gay teen detective. But the landscape has opened up quite a bit. And so we're seeing all sorts of cool stories from all different backgrounds and interesting walks of life. And you know, there's still a long way to go, but I think that we're definitely on the right path.

Ryan, centre, speaks at Thrillerfest, a conference for thriller writers, in 2019, alongside R.L. Stein, left, and F. Paul Wilson. (Submitted by Tom Ryan)

Q: It does seem there's, like, a lot of excitement — that YA is really dynamic in how it's reflecting society back to not only teenagers, but anyone who's reading these books. Do you know why YA attracts that sort of sense of accelerated change?

A: I think it's because young people ... have always been on the cusp of things. I think young people recognize that when society is changing, they're at the forefront of it. I've been really lucky to get out into high schools and libraries and to youth groups,  and I've talked to a lot of teenagers over the past decade about books, about the lives that they're living, about the things that they want to see in the literature that they're reading. And young people are very, very savvy. Teenagers, high schoolers are a lot more aware and in tune with, you know, shifts in society than we often give them credit for. And they're also voracious readers... But I think that they also have kind of a sophisticated BS detector, in the sense that they want to read books that accurately reflect the world that they live in. 

Nova Scotia's Tom Ryan talks about filling his award-winning YA novels with the queer characters he never got to read growing up, and what the increasing diversity in YA means for readers and bookshelves everywhere.

Q:  All your all your books have queer leads in them, and in Keep This To Yourself and I Hope You're Listening, their sexuality is part of the plot, but it's not at the forefront.  I'm just wondering why you chose that route with your narrative to have their sexuality in there, but kind of as a secondary element. 

I think it's one of the most important things that I consider when I'm writing young adult fiction. It's really important for me to represent young queer teens in my books, and I have in all of YA, at least one of the main characters ... is queer. And in both of my mysteries, the main character, the detectives, if you will, they're both gay. And part of that is because that's my identity. I'm gay and I want to write about people that I can kind of relate to. But more importantly, I think, you know, I think a lot about when I was young and I was reading fiction nonstop there, I honestly, literally never read a book geared towards me that was about a young queer teenager. There were a few out there, but they were really hard to come by and they certainly weren't in my school library.  And that's changed a lot over the past decade. And for the better. There are so many more identities on the page, particularly in the LGBTQ landscape. And I think that's fantastic.

But something that I've learned, and I've heard from young people as I've been writing and going into high schools to talk to people about reading and writing, is that young people want to see themselves in books that aren't just about their identities, but where their identities take a back burner role to the stories that are playing out. So what I mean by that is, instead of just books that are about coming out or dealing with traumatic situations that have to do with, you know, homophobia or transphobia, young people want to see stories where gay or trans or bi young people are in space, having adventures in fantasy books, solving mysteries. 

...It's more important for me to have characters who just are out there living their lives, being themselves and getting caught up in exciting situations. That's what I wanted to write about.

Q: In the acknowledgements for your two mystery books, you thank your queer teen readers who write into you. I'm just wondering what it means to you as an author, as a person, to receive that feedback. 

I think above everything else the most gratifying experiences that I've had have come from talking to and hearing from young queer readers.

... I was at an event a few years ago and someone came up to me. I was signing and there was a line up and I was talking, talking to somebody, and somebody came up to me as I was speaking to someone else and they slid an envelope onto the desk. And then they left. And I took it and kind of didn't think much of it, shoved it into my bag.

And, you know, I got home later that day and I opened it up, and it was a letter from a young person. And they basically said, I wanted to write this note to you because I knew I saw that you were going to be doing this event. And I'm a young, gay teen, I live in a rural community outside of Halifax, and I'm very closeted. My family is very strict and religious, and I can't be open about who I am. And I found your books, and reading books from somebody from Nova Scotia who is writing about young teenagers who are like me has meant a whole lot to me, and I just wanted you to know that.

And I think it's really hard to explain what that kind of message does. It certainly touched me immensely. It was, you know, really amazing to hear that sort of feedback. But it also really reiterates to me how important it is for us to be writing books for people who might not see themselves, or might not be able to be themselves the way that they deserve to be. 

Q: As you write for teens today, do you ever kind of revisit the Tom Ryan teenager self and think of what a difference there is in literature between that time? 

Oh my gosh, yes. All the time. It's amazing. I mean, I think about it every time I sit down to write. Certainly every time I go into a school, and I see how, you know — it's not easy for everyone, but it is an easier landscape than it was when I was a teenager to grow up, you know, gay, for instance. And I think part of that, I really do believe, comes from the fact that the media landscape has changed. And TV and movies and books for sure are giving people a window into the lives that they could be living. And I think that's fantastic. And if I could go back and talk to 15-year-old me, I would say, you know, just hold tight because things are going to get a whole lot better. And someday you'll have a chance to write for people just like yourself.