Jason June’s JAY’S GAY AGENDA is a new, delightfully queer YA about life after coming out. When teen Jay is officially known as the only gay student at his school, he’s overjoyed to find out he’s moving to super-queer Seattle. To finally get some gay notches under his belt, he decides to write his gay agenda: all the things he wants to do as a gay teen, including finally finding himself a boyfriend. But as he makes new friends and meets cute boys, trouble brews. As Jay feels the pull between his old life and his new one, love versus sex, and honoring friends versus chasing dreams, Jay must make some tough choices, forcing him to decide what kind of person he wants to be now that he can finally start living his life.
JAY’S GAY AGENDA debuts on June 1st. I was able to (virtually) sit down with JJ recently and have a wonderful discussion about his book. He’s a sweet and generous personality you don’t want to miss!
Milo Todd: Not to immediately jump to the personal, but it’s the first thing I saw when I started reading: your opening letter to the reader. Would you be comfortable talking a little more about how the diary from your earlier years eventually inspired Jay’s Gay Agenda? Did you always know you wanted to write a YA novel? At what point did you decide to take some of your own life and transform it into (not-so-fictional) fiction?
Jason June: The seed of this did come from this diary from high school. Entries mostly from being on such a lonely island and being the only gay person in my school. And not fully be myself around everyone else and have to play a role in my own life. I had girlfriends in high school because I felt like I had to. Had to act the role of Jason, sometimes not convincingly, and it was sad. And so I had this diary about being gay and coming out, which I finally did in my senior year, but I wrote a diary about having a boyfriend. Wanting to be able to be a more feminine energy in a relationship instead of the masculine persona that society told me people born male must be. I wanted to be the Ariel to the Prince Eric and have that balance with someone who had a more masculine energy. That was what it was all about, the diary. But I never imagined it’d be a book. Or that I’d be a writer even. I took lots of creative writing classes in high school, but I had it in my head that writing was such an unobtainable job.
I pursued journalism instead and just a few years of that realized that wasn’t where my heart was. First, I wanted to do entertainment news but it was all finding gossip and finding dirt in people’s lives, and then regular news also still finding dirt in regular people’s lives, and it was too icky. It was too much for my heart to handle. So, I started interning at a literary agency and seeing writers being writers and I realized yes, you should try to do this. First, I tried middle grade fantasy, which I loved, but after a few years trying that, I wanted to do something fresh and new. I started reading contemporary works in young adult and realized there’s magic in real life. I wanted to explore that and the magic within ourselves. And then I decided to go to my diaries and see what was in there. That was the starting point for Jay’s Gay Agenda!
MT: The voice of this book is very fun and distinct. Did that flow from you naturally or was it deliberately (and/or painstakingly) done?
JJ: For Jay, I would sit down and the observations would just come out. He’s high strung, he’s very type A, and I knew he’d have all these nit-picky observations about the world around him. What he thought was right or wrong around him, finding his equilibrium among those things. We share the same obsessive qualities about certain things, but I wanted to show that it’s okay if you’re a little bit neurotic about things. It’s a personality trait. Just be hardcore Virgo here, was what I went with.
MT: You also have very original chapter titles! What sort of thought process did you go through to come up with those?
JJ: That was one of the most fun aspects to come up with. I came up with them all after the fact. I knew I wanted the titles to read like a list, but I wanted them to follow Jay’s voice, who’s expected to have control of everything. I wanted these titles to be the opposite of that. They’re the milestones in his life that he can’t control, but they’re still important for growth. It’s the unexpected that are still what Jay realizes are life markers that he’s going to check off his life to-do list.
MT: What do you hope readers take away from your novel?
JJ: I hope that readers understand that it’s totally okay to make mistakes. We see couples around us in real life and think oh they have it made, especially when we haven’t ever been in a relationship before. But nobody knows how to connect more with a human than anybody else. So when Jay gets into a relationship for the first time, he really messes up. He gets so caught up in the excitement of it all, he forgets that he needs to make sure everyone in his life is on the same page, and that leads to people getting hurt. I feel that really reflects the teen experience. You’re so excited for your firsts, you’re feeling love and crushes stronger than you ever have before. You get so caught up in that you forget to take stock in other people’s lives. And that’s okay. It’s human. Most of the time, it’s unintentional. But it’s still important to own up to your mistakes and show how you’re going to do better in the future. And that’s Jay’s whole journey. And I hope readers see that it’s okay to be a Jay in a situation when you’ve made a mistake. And if you’ve made a mistake, there’s a way back. It doesn’t make you a person any less worthy of love when you screw up.
MT: What’s your favorite part of your novel?
JJ: That is so hard! In sort of a cheating way, I have two answers. My favorite thing is the bookends of the story: the prologue and the very ending. I love them both so much. The prologue really let me get into the origins of the gay agenda, the heart of what Jay was hoping for in terms of relationships in high school life, and getting to explore how the gay agenda came to be and what parts were priorities for them. And it was so much fun and let me get in touch with him even though he’s not a real person in real life. But it made me feel more connected to him and that we’d get to go on a journey together. And the final couple pages stayed the same from the first draft to the ending of publication. And no spoilers, but they’re just so happy to me and I love them. Just learning that you’ve done something wrong to someone, but how to bridge that gap after, and how to create an even stronger bond than there was before. And both people learning to be more vulnerable with each other; one vulnerable for saying they were wrong, and one vulnerable for having been hurt. And the opportunity to say I don’t want you in my life anymore, but if you choose to stay together, the bond can be stronger.
MT: This is more of a comment than a question, though I’d love if you wanted to touch on it more: I appreciate how coming out isn’t the climax of this story, but rather happens within the first chapter—and largely without incident. This book, instead, is about everything after coming out and further gives an important message: it isn’t happily ever after once a queer person has come out. Then they have to actually start living their queer life out in the open, which comes with its own set of challenges and joys. Your plot seems to begin with something the mainstream world doesn’t talk about (or perhaps, doesn’t know about): the dry wells of queerness.
JJ: I think there is such an important role that coming out stories play and I’m so appreciative for them. Every generation of queer kids will have that moment of coming out. There are all these multitudes of being queer that you’re constantly explaining yourself. But after that, you have to start forming relationships with people as a queer person—if that’s something you want to have in your life—and that’s where all these complexities come into play. He spends his whole prepubescent life wondering what it’ll be like having a queer relationship. And so now, what’s it like to be with a guy? What’s it like to kiss him? What’s it like to have sex with him? And that’s the most fun part of the whole journey of being queer to me; finding the people you can build relationships with—romantic, friendship, all sorts of relationships. We have all the same stresses of the cishet romcoms you see. And I’m excited for this new time in romcoms where queer people get to show that same zaniness.
MT: I saw this is your first YA novel, but you’ve also written MG chapter books (the Mermicorn Island series) as well as picture books. How similar or different are those approaches from each other? Do you enjoy writing one type more than another?
JJ: It’s so hard for me to pick one more than the other. They’re such different parts of my brain. They’re all just such a joy to write, not to sound like a cheesy afterschool special. I love writing for all ages of children (whatever that means under the age of 18). And I think the one thing that ties it all together other than the differences of format and word count and all that, is specifically trying to find the magic in my readers’ lives based on their age range. For picture books, I want to explore certain emotions or vibes or energies that they’ll pick up on as a kid. (Or at least what I would pick up on when I was a kid.) And to explore that in a kid-friendly lens.
No matter what age range they are, kids know there is magic in their lives. And that’s what I write, exploring that energy. I hope to write for adults at some point, too, but I’m just having so much fun right now with picture books and MG and YA. And it’s a place where I can make some sense of the universe.
MT: Any other books you have planned for the future?
JJ: I do! The next couple of releases are going to be the third and fourth of the Mermicorn series. I’m really excited because the third book that comes out explores the concept of found family, which is a pivotal experience for queer people. And that book features two gay dolphin dads and I’m so excited and grateful that Scholastic was up for that. My second YA is coming out summer 2022 and is loosely inspired by the movie Splash. It’s a gay and queer retelling of a merperson coming on land, meeting a human, and some antics that they’ll get up to while that merperson is on land.
It also explores gender. The merperson is more genderqueer in human terms, but there’s no gender prescribed under the sea. So it’s a fun romcom lens through the merperson to see how constricted humans are by limiting themselves by gender rules. But the merperson will also realize that gender can be a key aspect for someone and will still acknowledge through the human that gender can be really key to how someone sees themselves and how they feel safe and act in the world and that there’s a place for that, too.
MT: If you could say only one thing to budding queer writers, what would it be?
JJ: I would tell budding queer writers just to keep at it. It can be such a long haul and no matter what stage of the process you’re in, you’re going to hear the word no. Constantly. You’ll hear no from readers, agents, editors. And once you finally get that yes, you’re going to then hear no from some readers out in the world because the book just wasn’t for them. And the no’s can be disheartening. But the yes’s make it so worthwhile. Especially from readers who say yes this made me feel seen, yes I get this. You have to power through and keep at it from all those no’s, because in the end you’re going to be so grateful that you did. And if it’s only one person’s life you’ve changed in the end, what an amazing experience that still is. So keep at it!
JAY’S GAY AGENDA debuts on June 1st. Jason June is a genderqueer writer mermaid who loves to create picture books that mix the flamboyantly whacky with the slightly dark, and young adult contemporary rom-coms full of love and lust and hijinks. When not writing, JJ zips about Austin, Texas. He loves dinosaurs, unicorns, Pomeranians, and anything magical that takes you to a different world or time. JJ is a tried and true Laura Dern stan, and he is actively looking for an Andalite friend. His picture books include WHOBERT WHOVER, OWL DETECTIVE, illustrated by Jess Pauwels, and PORCUPINE CUPID, a queer-inclusive Valentine’s Day story, illustrated by Lori Richmond, both from Margaret K. McElderry Books/Simon & Schuster. For under-the-sea whimsical adventures, check out the MERMICORN ISLAND chapter book series from Scholastic! You can learn more about JJ at www.heyjasonjune.com.