When I was young, I liked to hide. Literally in the closet. I felt safest there, with a flashlight, reading my books in peace. In the closet, I could be alone, my head filled with whatever adventure was on the page instead of the words I’d heard at school that day. To me, reading was a way to change the narrative of my day by replacing it with another one.
It only became a problem when books let me down.
I didn’t really understand how they were letting me down. But it happened, a lot more than I’d like to admit. It happened when I read stories that framed queerness as a joke, or something to be whispered about in mixed company. It happened when the lone sick character was coded as fragile or on death’s door — a chess piece to move the straight, able-bodied hero along to their victory. It happened when I saw characters with mental illness portrayed as violent or, at best, burdens.
I was unable to hide my illnesses for long: severe asthma, long-term stomach issues, anxiety, and depression. Panic attacks betrayed me, as did my frequent absences, side effects, and trips to the hospital. Being bisexual was the one thing I could hide, so I did. At the time, I thought that hiding was comforting. It’s only now that I realize how exhausting it was.
The thing is, my mainstay through this difficult time was books. They had a ton of power over my self-worth as a child and, in many ways, they weren’t reaching me. It was more than that; sometimes they scared me. (If characters facing illness always die at the end, won’t that be me?) Occasionally, there would be an exception. Although I didn't have diabetes, I found comfort in the portrayal of Stacey McGill in The Babysitter’s Club. For her, illness wasn’t a death sentence but something she had to deal with every day. It wasn’t easy, but it was also a part of her story. As for queerness, there was next to nothing. Being gay was frequently coded as someone’s horrifying secret.
So, I took the cue from books. I would stay hidden in the closet.
As I got older, I saw a shift in children’s books. As a bookseller and, later, a librarian, a new generation of queer-friendly books drew me in. Was it possible that middle grade and young adult books were just…letting gay kids be themselves? I read all that I could. Whatever power that books had over me was suddenly emboldening me to be myself. Of course, then the bans came. Drama by Raina Telgemeier was one of the most frequently challenged books when I was a school librarian. What really got me was this: parents wanted these books banned because they didn’t want gay kids to be themselves. They wanted them to hide, like I did.
Identity politics has become a hot button phrase when it comes to kidlit. “Just nothing political, please,” I see a lot. The thing is, “political” is now meant to indicate identity. Queer. Disabled. Neurodivergent. That’s all “identity politics.” But what happens when who you are is political? How can you simply be yourself when doing so is somehow pushing an agenda? Suddenly, coming out made a lot of sense. It didn’t matter that I was in a relationship with a man. I could have stayed hidden. It would have been easy. But what message would that send to my daughter? Queerness was associated with a sense of shame when I grew up. I didn’t want her to see it that way — as something to hide.
As I began to query manuscripts, I thought about the power books had over me as a child — good and bad. When I wrote Drew Leclair Gets a Clue, I realized I didn’t just want to talk about one issue. That wasn’t my reality. I’m not only bisexual, or chronically ill, or a cancer survivor, or a person living with anxiety. I’m all of those things. And…I actually kind of rock at it? So, I created Drew Leclair. Like me, she likes boys and girls. But she’s also apple-shaped, like me. And she deals with an irritable bowel and asthma. Drew wonders if, as a world-renowned criminal profiler, she’ll have to hold in farts at crime scenes, or bring an inhaler. She worries that this world isn’t built for her. But she keeps going anyway. I wrote Drew, in many ways, to reframe my own story. I wanted to give her the narrative I so desperately needed as a child. To be seen. To feel like being myself wouldn’t be a burden.
Drew Leclair can be all of these things, but that’s not even the story! She gets to be queer, sick, apple-shaped, anxious Drew — and still solve a funny, high-stakes mystery. I only hope that, with Drew Leclair Gets a Clue, I can help a kid feel the way I always needed to: loved, and confident enough to start that revolution by being themselves. Book by book, teachers and librarians have the power to reach those kids. And our world will be better for it.
About the Author
Katryn Bury works with middle grade readers as a youth library technician. A lifelong true crime nerd, she has a bachelor’s degree in sociology and criminology. Her short and serialized fiction can be found in Suspense Magazine and The Sleuth. She lives in Oakland, California with her family and a vast collection of Nancy Drew mysteries. Visit her online at katrynbury.com. You can also find her on Twitter and Instagram.
About the Book
In this modern take on Harriet the Spy, twelve-year-old Drew uses her true crime expertise to catch the cyberbully in her school—only to discover that family, friendship, and identity are the hardest mysteries to solve.
Drew Leclair knows what it takes to be a great detective. She’s pored over the cases solved by her hero, criminal profiler Lita Miyamoto. She tracked down the graffiti artist at school, and even solved the mystery of her neighbor’s missing rabbit. But when her mother runs off to Hawaii with the school guidance counselor, Drew is shocked. How did she miss all of the clues?
Drew is determined to keep her family life a secret, even from her best friend. But when a cyberbully starts posting embarrassing rumors about other students at school, it’s only a matter of time before Drew’s secret is out.
Armed with her notebooks full of observations about her classmates, Drew knows what she has to do: profile all of the bullies in her grade to find the culprit. But being a detective is more complicated when the suspects can be your friends. Will Drew crack the case if it means losing the people she cares about most?