Last month, I had the most meaningful experience of my life as a writer. It’s what I want to talk about now, several hours after learning that my first novel, Hold Still, has been taken out of classrooms and off the library shelves of a Kansas City area school.
At the beginning of their summer break, 3,000 students at Champlin Park High School were given a copy of Hold Still as their summer reading book. A group of dedicated, passionate teachers, led by a courageous and tireless librarian named Terri Evans made this possible. Hold Still is the story of a girl who has lost her best friend to suicide, a loss that was familiar to many CPHS students: eight teenagers in their school district have died by suicide in just two years.
I started receiving emails from the students of CHPS early in June, and they continued to trickle in as the summer wore on and the fall began, so that by the time of my visit to Minnesota, I already knew a lot about some of the students I was about to meet. I knew about their struggles at home, their worries about friends, the day-to-day challenges in their lives. I also heard from students who had not yet suffered from a great loss, but found that the book spoke to them anyway. One girl told me that my book helped her realize that when she does lose someone, she will eventually be okay.
After my morning presentations on the first day of my visit, I met with the members of the Gay Straight Alliance. The students, their two advisors, a group of librarians and I spent a little over an hour talking about life and art and friendship, love and discrimination and the challenges and joys of coming out. We told stories and asked questions and laughed a lot. And then our conversation became more serious. One after the next, young men and women talked about their own suicide attempts, about fears of being rejected by their family members, about months and years spent suffering under the weight of depression. And over and over, I was given the most amazing compliment an author could receive: that reading Hold Still saved their lives.
Though I appreciate what they told me, and will never forget it, and trust wholeheartedly that they believe what they said, I do not feel capable of accepting those statements at face value. I don’t think that my book saved their lives. I do think, however, that a combination of factors did. Talking to one another and hearing that they weren’t alone did. Sharing the novel with their parents and using it as an entry point to bigger conversations did. Terri Evans and her team of beautiful, driven educators who were willing to assign my book and invite me to Michele “Gays-Are-Part-of-Satan” Bachmann’s district to speak to 3,000 teenagers did.
Which brings me to the events of this morning. When my dad first sent me the article, I was stunned. After I watched this video from a Kansas City news station, I was trembling. Then I showed the footage to my class of high school juniors and seniors and they gasped and laughed and shook their heads in disbelief and put everything back into perspective.
This is how I’m feeling right now: the more time I get to spend in this glorious and frustrating pursuit of writing novels, the more I appreciate the librarians and teachers who care enough for their students to seek out and provide books that will speak to them. Perhaps there is a book or two out there that does that without acknowledging any controversial subject, that imagines a teen experience with no exposure to profanity or alcohol or drugs or sex. But, most often, that isn’t the case. Like Terri Evans and her fearless crew, librarians and teachers in Missouri selected my book to be an optional part of their curriculum. I’m sure they did so because they thought it was valuable. I’m sure they actually read the whole thing before making that decision. And though a part of me is honored to now share a place in the challenged book club with Salinger and Baldwin and Faulkner and Plath, the bigger part of me just wants the teenagers in Blue Springs to read books that could start conversations. Champlin Park High School taught me how vital those conversations can be.
 Though the character in my novel that commits suicide is not gay, suicide rates among LGBT kids are painfully high. Queer youth are four times more likely than their straight peers to take their own lives, and 1/3 of them report to have made suicide attempts.