As a young-adult author, Nina LaCour wants her readers to know that "there are lots of different ways to love people." Through her inspiring novels, she aims to make a difference by challenging the "typical" depictions of love.
"Writing is so interesting because it teaches you to write," she tells me over coffee. "As you work, your own work is teaching you." LaCour started out as an English teacher with a passion for writing. Now, in 2018, she's been awarded the Michael L. Printz Award For Excellence in Young Adult Literature. With every new piece, she's inspiring young LGBTQ+ readers through her beautiful and honest stories about love, family, and friendship.
LaCour says her work in fiction is a constant learning process, and she sees the value in writing about what's in her heart at that very moment. In early parts of her career, this wasn't the case. "I've tried to write a certain story or tried to think, 'Oh, this is what my audience might want' or 'This is what I should be writing next,' instead of just trusting that there's something that will guide me to finding the right story," she said. "Trying to think in a more commercially driven way always fails for me. It's when I look inward and just kind of write for myself that the best work comes."
"I'm just interested in all of the different ways that we connect to one another as people. Sometimes that involves romance, and sometimes not."
This true-to-yourself attitude clearly proved to be an effective method for LaCour, as she independently wrote her first thriving book, Hold Still. "Hold Still was such an amazing experience because it was my first book. I was doing it in school instead of as a professional writer. I wrote whatever I wanted. It was just for the love of writing and for learning how to write a novel. That was a really magical experience."
After Hold Still, her writing thrived. Once she landed an agent and editor, many novels followed. "Everything Leads to You is very much a romance, and I went out to write that book because I wanted to write a depiction of two girls who fall in love," LaCour recalled. When it comes to subject matter, the focus of her novels varies from romance to friendship, which she occasionally opts to prioritize over love. "Friendships have always been really important to me. In the book that I wrote with David Levithan — You Know Me Well — there's a gay boy and a lesbian girl. They become friends and form this alliance to try to help each other out in romance and life. In my latest novel, We Are Okay, it's about two girls who have been friends and then were romantic. It's on the other side, where the friendship remains even though the romance is gone. I'm just interested in all of the different ways that we connect to one another as people. Sometimes that involves romance, and sometimes not."
When looking for inspiration for her romantic leads, LaCour often looks to her wife, Kristyn Stroble. "Whenever there are love interests, they often have some trait of my wife. Not only is she inspiring on the page, but she also helps me come up with ideas and brainstorm. She's always among my first readers of what I write. I'm really lucky to have her there to support me!"
The hard work and dedication that LaCour puts into her writing have clearly paid off. When she won the 2018 Printz Award for We Are Okay, she admits she was "shocked, honored, and mainly in disbelief." Even so, she's mainly excited that queer teens have access to her work. As an honor bestowed by the American Library Association, the Printz Award "carries a lot of clout in schools and libraries across the country. Queer teens will be able to see it, and it has characters that might be like them!"
Though LaCour wants to keep inspiring through her writing in the young-adult genre, she also hopes for more children's books to have LGBTQ+ representation. "I'm especially interested in looking at the representation of families in picture books because we read so many. When there are two parents depicted, it's always a dad and a mom. Obviously, that's the norm for the majority of kids, but there are tons of kids who are raised by two moms or two dads or one mom or one dad. I would love to just see more of that in picture books."
Image Source: Kristyn Stroble
Outside of her writing, LaCour believes strongly in celebrating LGBTQ+ Pride Month and finds that each year's celebration contains warm memories and new experiences. In fact, Pride coincides with some of the most important moments of her life. She remembers going to festivities just one month into dating her wife, Kristyn. Then, a full-circle moment: "We went again, years later, and broke off from the parade to go try on wedding dresses and wedding rings, and we were planning on getting married. Then we also went to Pride when our daughter was a baby and got to take her and be one of 'those moms' with our kids. It's been cool to have this . . . seeing how my life has developed and gone by in relation to what we're doing there has been really exciting."
Besides creating lasting memories in her personal life, LaCour says that Pride has been a key part of her professional life as well. You Know Me Well feels like a celebration of Pride in all different ways, and the collaboration with David Levithan wrapped at the perfect moment in time. "We wrote, 'Be proud' and signed our names . . . it was right when the Supreme Court voted to legalize gay marriage across the country and right before the Pride parade. David happened to be in San Francisco. We were able to meet up and celebrate all of that amazing news and toast to finishing the book at such an important time historically. That was really meaningful to me."
LaCour says representation and respect are key when writing queer content. "You can just see that there are lots of different ways to love people, and lots of different ways to define yourself — if you choose to define yourself," she said. "I think it's just what everybody deserves — to see themselves reflected in what media they consume. Being queer means being authentic and being comfortable in who I am."
If you've become inspired to write queer content, LaCour's advice is simple. "If you want to write about LGBTQ+ issues, there is absolutely an audience for it. That's something that I didn't realize when I was younger and have come to realize over time. And it's just really exciting to see how hungry readers are for LGBT stories, and the market is there for it. You're not going to be shelved in some obscure corner of the bookstore. You'll be celebrated for it."