We love Simon James Green and his rom-coms, such as Gay Club! and You’re the One That I Want. They are always incredibly fun and heartwarming. This time, however, Simon penned a more serious book — Boy Like Me. Set in the 90s when the section 28 legislation meant no mention of gay relationships in UK schools, Boy Like Me tells the story of how things unfolded when a kind librarian points protagonist Jamie to a disguised novel in the library. And Jamie realised he is not the only one who has checked this book out. With Simon’s usual humour and wit, plus an unflinchingly honest look at censorship and book bans, this is THE book to read to spark conversations.
We had the honour of chatting with Simon (again!) about censorship, supporting librarians and how the past is still affecting the present.
First of all, we love the writing style! Why did you choose to be chatty, and add footnotes in Boy Like Me? Will we see more of this style in the future or is it only for Boy Like Me?
It happened by accident actually – I was reworking the second draft, and I suddenly felt the urge to add some extra commentary to what was happening in the book. I think it came out of wanting to show readers that while some of the plot is traumatic, I came through the other end, writing to you from the present, as it were, and while life can hard, there is also hope. And then there’s also the legacy aspect, of course. The events of the book, and the section 28 legislation, sent ripples of hate down through the years and decades that followed. It’s easy to dismiss it – the legislation was repealed in 2003, and some might think that’s that, we can all move on. But that’s difficult. So I also wanted to show that the events of the 90s still impact people today, and that a lot of what is happening right now in 2023 can be traced back to what was going on back then. I felt adding an element of commentary from today was an important part of showing that.
This book is more serious than your previous books. When writing Boy Like Me, were there any differences in your writing approach?
The change in tone was mainly due to me looking at the state of the world, and particularly the threats LGBTQ+ people are currently facing, and just not wanting to write a rom-com. I love rom-coms, I’ve written several, but I simply wasn’t in the mood for it. We’re facing push back like I haven’t seen since I was a teenager. LGBT book bans. Protests outside of drag queen story time. Last year I was banned from visiting a school. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Violence against LGBTQ+ people (and especially trans people) is on the rise. The rhetoric and hate is something we’ve seen before and, like one of the characters in the book says, you can’t really fully understand your present unless you understand the past – so here it is.
What was your main mood when writing Boy Like Me? Anger? Hope? Do you think because society was more homophobic in 1994 than now, that we can forgive/excuse those who didn’t stand up to Section 28?
Fear, I think. I don’t ever want us to go back to those dark days, and yet there are people out there who would gladly have LGBT young people live in fear and shame and have to hide, and would gladly teach all other young people to hate them. These people thrive off ignorance and fear as a way if maintaining their power and control. I can forgive some people who didn’t stand up against section 28 – not everyone is in a place where they can be visible and able to put themselves out there like that. Some people are scared. But I will never forgive those who actively supported it. Bigotry is bigotry – educate yourselves and be better.
The book has multiple cultural references to the 90s, and you asked people on Twitter to help come up with band and song names. Tell us a bit about the process and how you picked the names eventually.
It was really fun revisiting things from the 90s, remembering them, and putting them in the book. With the band name and song and album title, I thought it would be even more fun to get everyone involved – and I have to say, it must be one of my tweets that’s had the most engagement – seems there’s a lot of love for the 90s out there! There’s a certain tone and style that, for me, sums up 90s Britpop bands – a kind of mundane domesticity, I guess, and that’s the vibe I was going for when I finally picked ‘Next Door’s Dog’ by ‘Speak No Monkey’ from the album ‘Songs from the Sofa’.
We hope Boy Like Me gets to be displayed in every school library. When writing Boy Like Me, was it difficult to balance between telling an impactful story and trying not to get censored / banned?
It shouldn’t be an issue, but sadly, these days, I find it’s on my mind more than it should be. It was sexual content that I was most careful of. Book banners love to accuse LGBT YA novels of being ‘pornographic’ – clearly demonstrating they have no idea what pornography really is, or the realities of being a young person today, or, indeed, back in the 90s. All of my books simply hold a mirror up to the world and reflect reality – if that reality makes you uncomfortable, don’t read about it, but don’t you dare stop other people from reading it if it suits them.
Last time when you were discussing Gay Club! with us, you already spoke of your admiration for school librarians. In Boy Like Me, librarian Mrs C. and teacher Ms Wilkins both did small acts of rebellion. How do you think we can support librarians and educators when they still face pressures from parents etc constantly?
Stand along side them, tweet your support, be a loud voice for the freedom to read, be actively against book bans and censorship – sign petitions, write to your MP if needed, show your support to the school or library being targeted, go along to a protest and hold a placard. These terrible people can think what they like, that’s their right, but we can’t let them get in the way of progress and creating an open, kind world. It’s the paradox of tolerance – to create a truly tolerant world, we can’t tolerate intolerance.
And finally, you gave Boy Like Me several one-star reviews in the book. Please give this Q&A a one-star review.
Haha! Well, I loved the interview, so I don’t mean any of this, but OK… A dull and predictable interview which completely failed to probe anything remotely interesting. One Star.