By Paulette Bogan
“Comics saved me as a reader. In middle school, I definitely fell off the reading wagon. When we started transitioning from Picture books and illustrated chapter books to full prose novels with no illustration, I thought, why did you get rid of the pictures. That’s why I like to open the book,” said Mike Curato, the author and illustrator of Flamer, his first graphic novel, and many wonderful picture books, including the Little Elliot series.
As a kid, he loved comics and was obsessed with the X-Men. He spent all his free time drawing the characters, reading comics, and collecting them.
Curato was a boy scout throughout his youth, and some of his best memories are from summer camp. This love of comics and his experiences in summer camp were part of what led to the eventual writing and illustrating of Flamer.
Some of Curato’s favorite comics and graphic novels:
One GF in particular, American Born Chinese, by Gene Luen Yang, struck a chord with Curato.
“This book had people that I could actually relate to. When I was growing up, I didn’t see myself in books or on screen. I was a chubby half Asian half white kid who was effeminate and didn’t like to play sports, and I’m reading American Born Chinese for the first time. It was so powerful to see a book that was about an Asian character. This is someone that I knew would get me. And that was incredibly powerful to feel seen in that way. And I just remember closing that book and being like, Oh my God. Where’s this been my whole life,” said Curato.
Another book Curato discussed was Fun Home, by Alison Bechdel. Fun Home is an autobiography about Alison’s life growing up as a closeted gay person and living with her father, who was also closeted.
“That’s a very powerful story,” said Curato. “There is some queer gay representation in literature. There’s a lot more now than there used to be. But I think as far as literature for youth; queer youth are really underserved, as well as youth of color.”
Curato says write the books that you wish you had as a kid. That is what he was hoping to do with Flamer. Flamer is the story of Aiden Navarro, a 14-year-old Filipino white kid who’s away at a Scout camp. It’s set in 1995, the summer before high school, and Aiden is navigating friendships and bullying and how those things can sometimes overlap. Aiden deals with racism, his body image, his religion, and his sexual identity.
“But there are also fart jokes. It’s not all doom and gloom,” said Curato.
In Flamer, Curato wanted to show an honest portrait of what it’s like for a queer youth of color. He didn’t write it just for himself, but also to support queer youth. Statistically, queer youth are at a much higher risk of homelessness, self-harm, and suicide than their straight peers. If that queer youth is trans or a person of color, the risks increase yet again.
He hopes that this book might provide a lifeline to young people who are too scared to come out or haven’t found their community yet.
Curato said, “I don’t think some people understand that when you are queer and closeted and young, and you haven’t seen the world, and you don’t know if there is a place, a safe place for you, there is a fear that if you don’t kill yourself maybe someone else will do it for you.”
He shared a tweet he received after Flamer was released.
“Even though the book is set in 1995,” said Curato, “these are things that are still happening today. And there are plenty of places in this world where it’s still 1995 in a lot of ways.”
Art by Paulette Bogan
When asked if he had any parting thoughts, Curato said, “Wherever you are in your publishing journey, give yourself whatever compassion you need right now. Being mad at yourself before the pandemic didn’t serve you, and it certainly won’t serve you now, so maybe reserve any judgment that you may have on where you’re at. And that goes for people who haven’t gotten published yet. That goes for people who have been published and are feeling stuck. That goes for people who are published and have a lot of work to do and don’t know how to do it right now. I mean, we’re all trying to find our way. So just remember why you’re doing this and focus on the joy of creating what you love.”
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Paulette Bogan is the author and or illustrator of over a dozen books for young readers, including Bossy Flossy, Virgil & Owen, and Virgil & Owen Stick Together. Her book, Lulu the Big Little Chick, was awarded the CBC Children’s Choice Book Award 2010. See her work at www.paulettebogan.com and Instagram: paulettebogan123