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Welcome to the Shelf Care Interview, an occasional conversation series where Booklist talks to book people. This Shelf Care Interview is sponsored by Capstone.
In this episode of the Shelf Care Interview, Maggie Reagan talks to Alex Sanchez. Alex Sanchez has published nine novels, including the American Library Association’s Best Book for Young Adults Rainbow Boys and the Lambda Award–winning So Hard to Say. His novel Bait won the Tomás Rivera Mexican American Book Award and the Florida Book Award Gold Medal for young adult literature. An immigrant from Mexico, Alex received his master’s in guidance and counseling, and worked for many years as a youth and family counselor. When not writing, he tours the country talking with teens, librarians, and educators about books, diversity and acceptance. He lives in East Rochester, New York.
The Greatest Superpower comes out in February 2021 from Capstone.
You can listen to this Shelf Care Interview here. The transcript has been edited for clarity.
MAGGIE REAGAN: Thank you so much for joining me, Alex.
ALEX SANCHEZ: Thank you. It’s great to be here.
Can you tell us about your latest book?
The Greatest Superpower is a middle-grade novel. It’s about twin 13-year-old boys, eighth graders, whose Mexican American dad comes out as transgender. And it’s really about how the two very different boys deal with it very differently. I’d say, fundamentally, it’s a love story about the boys—their love for their dad—and acceptance, and grief and loss. And so it’s a combination of warmth and then also a lot of humor. There’s a side story, a romance plot between the main protagonist, Jorge, and a dog-whispering girl. And it’s also a story about Jorge and his best friends and their love of comics and superheroes. And thus the title, The Greatest Superpower.
These are topics that I think sometimes adults have difficulty processing. How did you approach them for a young adult audience?
I think part of that anguish that we’re going through when we’re recording this at election time is that there’s been this huge shift in our culture. And I think a lot of young people have been growing up during this time of cultural shift, which I think for a lot of youngsters, that makes them more adaptable to shifting attitudes towards gender, and sexual orientation, and sexuality, and a lot of issues that, when I was growing up, people just didn’t talk about. And now they’re not just talking about it, but saying they have a lot more choices in terms of being open about their identities and who they are. So a lot of my writing is about identity and it both taps into my own struggles and then also my inspiration, and that comes from so many young people, that they’re just so much more willing to be themselves than I was when I was growing up. So I get a lot of inspiration from young people.
So Jorge is a writer too. You have him and his friends working on a comic book, which is, I guess, also where the title of the book comes from. Can you talk about how you developed that idea, and how Jorge kind of discovered what this greatest superpower actually is?
I’ve always been intrigued by superheroes, I guess like a lot of people. I came out with my first graphic novel from DC Comics, You Brought Me the Ocean. And You Brought Me the Ocean is about the character who will become Aqualad. And so one of the things that I realized during that process was how superheroes are a wonderful metaphor for identity, because—especially LGBTQ, queer people—lots of times we have a secret identity. An identity that we can’t reveal to others because there’s this very real supervillain, which is homophobia, biphobia, transphobia, that bias and prejudice against queer people. And so that causes us to live this sort of double life. So, one of the things I explore in The Greatest Superpower is the boys coming to understand that how superheroes have that secret identity that translates into not just superpowers, but for all of us queer people, that secret identity. And “discovering our superpower” is when we can fully be ourselves and accept ourselves, and be true to who we are and speak the truth. So that’s where a lot of those themes came into play in terms of “the greatest superpower.”
Can you talk about what inspires your writing, overall?
When I said that young people inspire me, I write YA and I write middle grade because that’s really where my voice was when I was growing up— like for a lot of young people, it was a difficult time. It was a challenging time. I had a lot of struggles around my identity, not only because of my sexuality, but also because of being an immigrant from Mexico. And so, I think what happens is when we grow up with a source of difficulties, that a lot of those feelings get bottled up inside: the loneliness, the sadness, the grief, the anger, the hurt, a lot of that gets bottled up inside. And then it’s later in life that that’s coming out.
So, I like to say that my muse is my inner teenager. My younger self who says, “Okay, now I’m able to say all the things I wish I could have said when, when I was a young person.” That’s the voice that speaks through me, that writes my stories. I’ve tried to write about all the characters and if it doesn’t work, that’s not where my voice is. I’m speaking up now, I’m writing the books that I wish I could have read when I was a young person, books that would have told me, it’s okay to be who you are. And so it creates this circle of inspiration where I’m inspired by young people and then I write books that hopefully will go on to inspire them.
I’m sure that trying to release a book in the midst of a pandemic is kind of a challenge, but has there been any kind of feedback you’ve gotten from readers about this book specifically, or any others that you’ve found inspiring?
I think you’re absolutely right that for all writers, releasing books during the pandemic is a challenge. And yet at the same time, the internet is such a wonderful thing. If we didn’t have the internet, how would anyone have access to books? With the closures of bookstores and restrictions on libraries, it’s thanks to the internet and this electronic age that the readers are still able to find books, that we’re able to have podcasts like this that let librarians and others know about books. So, I try to be optimistic and look at the glass half full. It’s been wonderful with You Brought Me The Ocean that just came out that we were able to do so much promotion and publicity and get the word out about it through the internet. And so I’m hoping the same will happen now with The Greatest Superpower.
How have libraries played a role in your reading or writing life?
Ever since I was a little boy at Pease Elementary School with Mrs. Eccles, the school librarian, reading stories to us, it awakened in me that love of books, love of stories. So, going back to them that, the children’s book that most inspired me was the story of Ferdinand the Bull, who loved to smell the flowers rather than fight in the bull ring. Later as I was learning to write—one of the things I often tell writing students—one of the things that helped me was, actually taking great works of literature and just transcribing them, copying passages by hand. Passages that really moved me and stirred me, whether they made me laugh, or cry, or made me passionate about the anger the characters were feeling. I’m really learning that way. A lot of that happened in libraries.
And then as my books started being published, I realized what free speech champions librarians are, and that it’s thanks to so many librarians who have put my books into the hands of young people and gotten the word out there and who have the courage to have books about controversial topics. Oftentimes it’s going out there and hearing the stories about how, when librarians find a misshelved LGBTQ book, they leave it there because they know some young person who’s afraid to take it out of the library has misshelved that so that they can go back and read it, which was something that I did not do in high school because those books were unavailable, but did later on, at college time even.
Now as a writer before the pandemic, I loved to go to libraries and write there, just to be able to get the inspiration of being around other books while I’m writing. And when those questions come up that the internet can’t answer, you go back to the shelf and get that library book. So libraries and librarians have played a huge, huge role in my life, and it’s in no small part thanks to librarians that I’ve had the success I have had in my writing career. So thank you. Thank all of you listening.
When you’re not writing, what do you like to read?
I have a very varied taste. I do read a lot of YA. I do like reading what other writers are writing and getting inspiration from them, and reading about young people. When I was a boy, I loved adventure stories and now I’m reading a couple—one is The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue, by Mackenzi Lee, a real swashbuckling story that is about characters who happen to be gay. That it’s not about them being gay so much as— well there is a love story in there—but it’s about characters who happen to be. And now I’m reading the sequel, The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy. But I love YA.
When I was writing You Brought Me the Ocean, I was reading a lot of graphic novels (since it was my first graphic novel) and learning how to write graphic novels. And I’ve just fallen in love with graphic novels and memoirs—I inhale them—and I love being able to see a story as well as read it. Mariko Tamaki and Rosemary Valero O’Connell’s Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me, I love that. And then in terms of “adult books,” I love quirky characters of different settings. And so anything written by Carl Hiaasen, I just love his quirky, fast-moving characters, stories. For years I’ve heard about the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, by Alexander McCall Smith, I just read it and love that. And actually when I say read, a lot of these books, I listen to the audiobooks.
And I love that. And I think of Mrs. Eccles, sitting on her carpet during story time, and of being read to. And I love being read to through audiobooks. I also teach, and in fact, again at a library here in Rochester—where I am, Rochester, New York—at the Central Library, I’m teaching a course on reading and writing about race and racism. And so I’ve been reading a lot of books like Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be an Antiracist. I love having my mind stimulated and I hope that’s part of what my books do for other people, whether they’re young people or older readers, to get their minds stimulated as well.
Thank you so much for chatting with me, Alex, and thank you everyone for listening to the Shelf Care Interview.
Well, thank you so much. It’s been a pleasure for me, and that anyone who wants to find out more, you can go to my website, AlexSanchez.com.
This Shelf Care Interview was sponsored by Capstone, publisher of The Greatest Superpower, which is available February 2021. Happy reading.
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