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The craft of a fantasy writer is building worlds, making the impossible possible. And when you land inside the worlds of writer T.J. Klune, you immediately encounter the wonderful possibilities of the genre. Maybe it’s when you meet Nick Bell, his YA superhero with ADHD (“my gay Spiderman,” as Klune cheerfully calls him). Or when the very uptight Wallace Price, recently deceased and still trying to control his surroundings with the power of his mind, tries to change the sweatsuit and flip-flops he died in—but finds himself in a string bikini instead. Perhaps it’s in the mystery of meeting “magical youth” like Talia, a juvenile gnome who’s a decade or so over 200, or her 6-year-old brother, Lucy, who likes to dance to “Dead People Music” (oldies)—and is also the orphaned son of Satan. Mostly, it’s about the quiet satisfaction that comes with realizing what’s missing: “In my books,” Klune told me, “there’s no homophobia.”
In the philosophy of nonviolence, what Klune does is called “prefigurative politics” or “constructive resistance.” We don’t just demand from others the world we ought to live in; we build and live it now, showing how that looks and feels. When it comes to literature, this kind of prefiguration has a dual effect: creating a vision of what can be, as well as offering a space within the novel where it already exists.
For Klune’s readers, it’s a safe space where we are invited to feel understood, celebrated, and whole: “I’m showing that queer people get to be happy. I’m showing that queer people get happy endings, get to be in love, get to be accepted by their friends, their families, their community, and they’re all the better for it.” And while it’s a self-imposed limitation in worlds where anything goes, he’s up for it: “Something I promise to my readers—and I’ve said this a lot, especially lately—is that I don’t care if it spoils the rest of the books I will write in my life. If there are queer characters in my books, they will get happy endings. And since I only write about queer people, my books will have happy endings for queer people, no matter what.”
This “defiance,” as Klune calls it, may be less than a form of activism. But his defiance is not your run-of-the-mill surly or rude kind; it’s of another, more radical order altogether: He defies hatred and fear with belonging and kindness. Folks familiar with his writing say his works feel like a hug. And let’s be honest: Who doesn’t need a hug right now?
As a kid growing up in the ’90s in a small town in Oregon, Klune, who is neurodiverse with ADHD, kept his queerness to himself. It was a form of self-preservation, not only with his peers but with his family. He was afraid of the violence of socially accepted homophobia and the pain of being othered.
Libraries gave him respite: “The one place where I felt comfortable looking up stuff about being gay, being queer, ‘homosexual,’ what that meant, was at the library. But I didn’t want to ask the librarians, because even though I loved them, I didn’t know how they’d react. I would be sneaking into the card catalog system and looking through the Dewey Decimal System trying to find books about what it means to be gay.”
Probably not many people born after 2000 know what the Dewey Decimal System even is, but they still know homophobia. They still know what it’s like to hide parts of themselves from their friends and family, to be called names by strangers on the street, no matter what size town you’re in. They know what it’s like to feel alone, even with the digital world at our fingertips. One of Klune’s fans wrote him a letter asking him to change the book jacket for his YA series, because it had two boys on the front, and he was afraid of being found out by his dad. Klune sent him a plain book cover so he could read it and feel safe. “That basically bummed me out,” he says.
These challenges faced by teenagers are in part why Klune wrote his YA series The Extraordinaries. It’s about four queer friends who have a lot of things to worry about other than being queer. These are not books about coming out. Even though Klune feels strongly that the coming-out trope has its place, he wants to go beyond it. These are kids who already have a sense of their self-worth and know who they are. Most importantly, they have plenty of support. They have parents, guardians, friends, and family who love them and support and celebrate their queerness instead of trying to change them or silence their experiences.
Klune, like so many of us, regrets that he didn’t have these tools—these stories—in abundance growing up. “If I had had a book about a queer neurodiverse kid who loves comic books. Do you know how life-changing that would have been for me growing up? To be able to have that, to be able to point to a book and say, ‘Here I am. Here I am.’”
Klune’s worlds show acceptance and mutual kindness as a protective force. That’s a sharp contrast to the parents and politicians who say they are trying to “protect children” through the removal and censorship of this kind of literature. As Klune says, “If you’re OK with a prince and a princess kissing but not two princes, that’s not protecting children. It’s just homophobia.” He told me that someone on the school board in the Virginia county where he lives even suggested a book burning. “We’re seeing all the anti-trans legislation, anti-LGBTQIA+ legislation. You’re seeing banned books where the books are by Black authors or queer authors, about the Black experience or the queer experience. Nothing else. They’re trying to remove tools. And these stories that can help kids.”
The storyteller in Klune is watching the book-banning plot thicken, and thinks people forcing these decisions are poking a hornet’s nest. “Here’s the thing—for the most part, there are two groups of people that you should never, ever tell who they can or cannot give books to: librarians and teachers.” With a serious look, he adds a word of caution. “I love librarians, and I love teachers. But I know that if you try to take away something from their students that can actively help them, oh Lord, you had better watch out.”
Stephanie Van Hook is the executive director of the Metta Center for Nonviolence, author of Gandhi Searches for Truth: A Practical Biography for Children, and host of Nonviolence Radio. Find all this at mettacenter.org.