On May 5, Kacen Callender, author of Hurricane Child (2018), This Is Kind of an Epic Love Story (2018), King and the Dragonflies (2020), and others, released Felix Ever After, a young adult novel that’s as deeply queer as it is sincere. Felix Ever After has many threads: This young, trans teen wants to find romantic love and parental acceptance, but is also being attacked online by an anonymous transphobe, who he tries to root out via catfishing. There’s a lot happening, but these moving parts flow so smoothly because the book never trips on itself or its plotline and doesn’t sacrifice character development in the process, resulting in a YA novel that’s just as memorable as it is fast-paced and energetic. Callender knows when to pause and shift their gaze as an author to allow us to linger in a small, electric moment, just as well as they know to pick up the pace and send us down a winding, anxiety-producing mystery.
The characterization in this book should serve as an example to others writing queer YA in 2020: Felix is obsessive and naive, thoughtful and loving. While older readers may find him unlikeable, Felix is a teenager enduring some hard shit. Felix and his friends engage with transphobia, racism, and classism in real time, but it’s always in ways that feel true to the book’s universe and of its characters. There’s no heavy-handed adult voice reaching in to offer small edits on the teenagers’ thoughts or opinions or seeking to sanitize their experiences. They smoke weed almost constantly, lie to their parents, and are just as consumed with thoughts of insecurity and a desire to fall in love as they are with nailing down their career paths and locking in their futures as artists. No one is a stereotype—not even the background characters. In the book’s first chapter, Felix and his best friend Ezra flirt on a subway to get at an older man who appears to be homophobic and watching them; he comments, “You know, I have a grandson who’s gay,” to the surprise of the pair. “You two seem like very nice, gay boys,” the man says, as Felix and Ezra laugh.
Too, there’s a larger, looming force that reminded me of Lindsay Sproul’s 2020 debut YA novel, We Were Promised Spotlights. Where Sproul’s Taylor yearns for more information about her disappeared father, Felix spends his time drafting emails—upwards of 472 emails, to be exact—to his mother, who hasn’t spoken to him since he came out as trans. This is a smart move on Callender’s part, as it provides a secondary source of energy and movement in the book as readers are greeted with email after email that Felix wishes to send to his mother. We get the emails on the page, and they never feel like ephemera; instead, they build the bones of Felix, and help justify the moments where he’s at his worst, from plotting to ruin his nemesis to being harsh with those closest to him, including his father and Ezra.
Callender spoke with Bitch about balancing these varied threads, writing teen characters who feel authentic, and showing a trans character struggling with his identity on the page.
Your book has so many threads, including Felix’s desire for love, Felix emailing his mother, and Felix fighting an anonymous troll. How did you manage to keep such a clean narrative while including so many moving pieces?
My main focus was making sure that no threads were dropped, and that they each moved forward steadily while always returning to the central theme: I had to make sure the different plot threads and subplots were organized by theme. Throughout the book, Felix struggles with the idea that he’s worthy of love—from others, and most importantly, from himself. Each conflict—Felix’s relationship with his mother, the anonymous troll, wanting to feel worthy of getting into an Ivy League, his past relation with Marisol, wanting to find love with Declan, and more—all return to Felix’s internal fear that he isn’t worthy or deserving of love. (I enjoyed proving him wrong throughout the novel.)
You write very real teenage characters. They smoke weed, cuss, and make irrational decisions. It seems like there’s a standard where YA characters are supposed to act as if they’re mature adults, but they aren’t. How did you approach character development?
Certainly one of my biggest frustrations with YA is the need to balance audiences. YA books are meant for teens, but there are many adults who enjoy reading YA also (rightfully!), along with adult gatekeepers like parents, librarians, teachers, and reviewers who need to be impressed to be able to get the books into many teen readers’ hands. I think that this is something a lot of authors keep in mind while writing YA, which I can’t fault or judge them for—but this sometimes creates an expectation that all authors should write teens who don’t cuss, don’t do drugs or drink, and are perfect angels to everyone around them. (This sometimes takes the form of readers’ reviews that will say something along the lines of, “I know this is YA, but I didn’t like that the characters were such teenagers.”)
I struggle most of all with the idea that it’s wrong to write characters who don’t make mistakes, aren’t mean at all, don’t need to learn and grow, because this helps to create the illusion that people are like this in real life. Teens and adults alike make mistakes and need to learn how to apologize and take accountability and move forward. It’s important to me to portray this.
When it comes to character development, the protagonist will always have at least one lesson they need to learn. This can take the form of learning that you’re worthy of love, that your friend’s feelings are valid and shouldn’t be cast aside, or learning that your father is trying his best. The more lessons a character needs to learn, no matter the age, the more realistic they are—aren’t we all constantly learning something new about ourselves, how we treat others, and how we want to be treated?—which, I think, makes for a better story.
We see Felix, on the page, researching his own identity. Why was it important to you to show Felix struggling with his identity?
I think that a lot of stories show people who decide that they know their identity immediately, and while this can be realistic for some, it isn’t for others. It isn’t always so clean-cut. My own gender identity journey is similar to Felix’s: I initially came out as nonbinary, but I began to question my identity again when I would randomly feel like a binary guy. I, like Felix, found the term “demiboy” and felt like it was the perfect label. I wanted to show that it’s okay to question and requestion identity (and that you don’t even have to land on a label at all if you don’t want to), especially because this is a common, realistic experience that we don’t often get to see portrayed.
How did you decide how you wanted to engage with the internet and digital spaces in Felix Ever After? Instagram and search engines play such a role in Felix’s ability to better understand, build, and verbalize an identity.
I love finding different forms of communication, especially in books for teens. It’s [just] realistic to show teen characters communicating via DMs or text messages. But, besides the concept of catfishing making this basically a requirement for the story, I also wanted to explore the importance of the internet for gender identity, not only for research of different terms and labels, but for community. I see the internet the same way it was portrayed in the book: a potential tool for trolls, for strangers to hurt others—the way the anonymous transphobe hurts Felix—but it’s also a tool for community and for finding unexpected connection and joy, as Felix does with Declan.
You also engage a lot with wealth: Felix struggles with resenting wealthier friends, who may come from more money but still struggle to be happy. Why did you choose to spend time showing Felix coming to terms with the way that money shapes who we are and what we have access to?
One identity that affects us all, whether we talk openly about it or not, is our class and proximity to wealth, especially in a society that is so capitalistic. A lot of millennials like me are in one of the last age groups where we still feel a little uncomfortable talking about money. A lot of us were raised to believe that, as long as you work hard enough, you can achieve the Kardashian-sized manor. But, it’s also my generation where a lot of us are realizing that the dream of having a Kardashian-sized manor, when so many people in our community are houseless or struggling for food, is disgusting. I put some of this tension in Felix when it comes to money and class: He recognizes the ways his neighborhood has been gentrified, pushing him out, but he also admits his jealousy for the stability that his best friend Ezra feels as someone who is exceedingly wealthy, and a part of the problem of gentrification of his neighborhood.
These [factors] spark complicated feelings and conversations between Felix and Ezra. Felix also has to acknowledge that, though he isn’t as wealthy as Ezra, he’s privileged, too—he goes to a private arts school, has a parent who takes care of him, has the opportunity to go to college. He asks, at one point, if he is gentrifying the new neighborhood that he’s moved into, too. There aren’t any easy answers with this tension between privilege even as a person who faces discrimination, but it’s a realistic conflict many teen (and adult) readers struggle with, and especially in a city like New York, it felt necessary to portray and discuss.
You recently told The Nerd Daily that you felt freedom in this book: “Felix was different because it was a second book already under contract, so I felt a lot of freedom writing the book of my dreams instead of being bogged down by fear of the manuscript not selling to a publisher.” How do you think of your relationship with publishing, and its various unspoken rules?
#PublishingPaidMe, the Twitter hashtag created by fellow YA author L.L. McKinney [is] the perfect place to begin with the answer to this question. It’s complicated, because I at times feel indebted to publishing. I was given the chance to write several novels, which changed my life—but maybe this feeling of being indebted is a part of the problem. I wonder if white authors feel indebted to the industry, or if they see publishing as a fair business exchange. There were times, too, when working as an editor, that I felt indebted because I was given an opportunity as a Black person, when there are so few Black editors. I wonder if my white colleagues ever felt the same.
The disparities between Black authors and non-Black authors are truly mind-boggling. If you look at the hashtag on Twitter, there were multiple examples of renowned, esteemed, beloved Black authors receiving very little money in comparison to white authors who were debuts, or whose books hadn’t done well previously. Another piece of the conversation that I wonder about is how many white authors are given chances and opportunities to write multiple books, and how many Black authors can’t sell books after their debuts, or struggle to sell more novels midcareer. I feel blessed that this was a two-book contract, because I honestly don’t know if Felix Ever After would’ve sold after my YA debut, This Is Kind of an Epic Love Story. Even now, I have gone out on proposal with three projects, and only one has sold to a publisher.
Honestly, I wouldn’t normally say this, because it would probably be seen as taboo by many, but I think the fear of speaking the truth about our experiences in publishing is a part of the anti-Black problem a lot of authors face in the industry. Would the other proposals have sold if I were white, and writing about white, straight, cisgender characters? There isn’t any way to know, really. But the question, and the general fear of being a Black person who will have a harder time in this industry, does often get into my head and make it difficult to focus on writing.
You’ve been openly frustrated with reviewers who don’t understand or engage with trans identities, using the wrong pronouns for yourself and your characters. Last summer, I spoke with Mason Deaver, who ran into a similar problem with I Wish You All the Best, with readers misgendering both Deaver and their protagonist, Ben. What do you want readers to understand about trans characters and authors?
This is a difficult question to answer, because there have been, and probably will continue to be, so many different layers to each problem trans and nonbinary characters and authors have to face. The Associated Press misgendered me, and the story was picked up by the Washington Post; and even beyond media, I’m misgendered pretty consistently, from the “she/hers” used in my mentions, to the lists of “Black women to read.” When it comes to misgendering, that’s simple: Don’t misgender. If you do, apologize without centering your feelings or embarrassment.
But when it comes to something like the Kirkus review, which had incorrect, inappropriate, and offensive and transphobic language and terminology throughout, and subversive transphobia about the book, there’s really a lot to unpack. (I wrote more about the issue here.) Overall, I want readers and reviewers to understand that, though there are fewer stories that have been written and told about transgender and nonbinary people, I am not the monolith. My experience is not going to be the same as Mason’s, or Alex Gino’s, or any other trans or nonbinary author. I want them to understand how my intersecting identities will impact my experience as a Black person, and a queer person, and a trans person. I want readers to know that I am allowed to write about joy in one book, pain in another, and sometimes a mixture of both.
It often seems like readers, both outside and within my identities’ communities, will try to control what I and others are allowed to write about, declaring what I should write about, because it’s a story that’s rarely been told before. I want them to understand that the problem with Felix Ever After isn’t that you were disappointed that the story was too happy, or that the problem was that the story had a conflict mired in transphobia; the problem is that there aren’t enough books like Felix Ever After, and the focus should be on making space for more novels with trans and enby [nonbinary] teens, so that the pressure and expectation to be everything all at once to all readers doesn’t fall on one author’s shoulders
“I wanted to show that it’s okay to question and requestion identity (and that you don’t even have to land on a label at all if you don’t want to), especially because this is a common, realistic experience that we don’t often get to see portrayed.”
I love that Felix is just as invested in his art and career (and figuring out what that all looks like, even when he’s avoiding it) as he is in finding love. It seems so rare for a YA protagonist to be given time to separate themselves from others and really spend time alone. Felix is more than his relationships with others. How did you decide on what moments of solitude to show on the page?
Art has always been important to me, too—I’d studied it in college, and had always dreamed of being a graphic novelist when I was young, so it was easy to filter that same passion into Felix. Like Felix, I also had moments when I would work on self-portraits and would feel at times uncomfortable as I had to recognize faults—but I’d feel empowered as well, finding the beauty in the self-portrait, and having an opportunity to portray myself the way I wanted to be seen with my faults and my strengths. In a way, I feel like Felix Ever After is a self-portrait as well. It’s the one time I’ve had the power to portray each of my intersecting identities as a Black, queer demiboy—the one time I’ve had the power to declare so publicly that I am valid, that I affirm myself, and that I am worthy of love. I realized this power as I was writing the book, and I wanted Felix to feel that power as well as he worked on his self-portrait series, and especially at the end, when his self-portraits were hung in the gallery and he had the opportunity to speak of his love for himself.
What writers inspire your work?
So many! Especially as someone who writes for all genres and multiple age ranges, there are a lot of people I look up to. For specifically a YA contemporary romance like this, I’m inspired by people like Mason Deaver, Julian Winters, Camryn Garrett, Rahul Kanakia, Adib Khorram, Adiba Jaigirdar, Leah Johnson, Nic Stone, Benjamin Sáenz, Becky Albertalli, and others. I’m also very excited for the upcoming YA books featuring trans and nonbinary protagonists, including Emery Lee’s Meet-Cute Diary, Ray Stoeve’s Between Perfect and Real, Z.R. Ellor’s May the Best Man Win, and more. Check out Ray’s Masterlist for upcoming MG and YA novels featuring trans and nonbinary protagonists.
What do cis and straight readers need to bring to the table when reading trans narratives? For example, it seems wrong for readers to give themselves a pat on the back for reading about a nonbinary character, or a demiboy like Felix, and then walk away and warp the characters’ identities.
As we’ve seen with the most recent Black Lives Matter protests, it isn’t enough to put up a black square on your Instagram and call it a day. It isn’t enough to pick up The Hate U Give and say, “Okay, I understand Black people now.” It’s the same with Felix Ever After and any book featuring a trans and/or nonbinary protagonist.
If a cis and het person is really committed to being an ally, I want them to read multiple books by multiple authors. Ray Stoeve’s Masterlist of Trans and Nonbinary YA/MG books is an excellent place to start, along with Dahlia Adler’s LGBTQReads.com, which allows consumers to search for books by identity. Commit to reading multiple stories and understanding that even if you have read 1,000 books by trans and nonbinary authors, we still wouldn’t fully portray what our identities mean to every trans and/or nonbinary person in the world.
And please—if you enjoy the books, support us! The support is needed if we’re going to continue to open the space for more trans and nonbinary stories, and more—especially ones with intersecting identities, and right now, especially stories featuring trans women of color—are very much so needed. Leave a positive review on a consumer website like Amazon or Barnes & Noble or Goodreads. Recommend the books to friends, gift our novels to others, put us into book clubs and reading lists…anything that you can do would really make a huge difference. I’m really grateful to everyone who has been out there, shouting about their love for Felix.