A dreamy novel recalling Bridge to Terabithia, Greg Howard’s middle-grade debut The Whispers centers on Riley, an 11-year-old who’s lost his mother and is harboring a crush on an older boy. Set in the rural South, the novel was acquired in a heated auction between five publishing houses and now arrives as one of the year’s most anticipated middle-grade titles. Given the continued rarity of seeing LGBTQ protagonists lead these books, it marks something of a breakthrough moment.
Despite the ultimate, frenzied interest, Howard tells EW that he still faced resistance for centering queer themes in a novel for kids. EW caught up with the author, previously behind the YA novel Social Intercourse, on that and much more, including how his own lonely childhood inspired him to write the book and why he feels readers are connecting to it. The Whispers is now available for purchase.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What was the inspiration for this novel?
GREG HOWARD: The story was inspired by my mother. I grew up a gay kid in rural South Carolina, and my mother was my world. Being a momma’s boy and gay and knowing you’re gay — but you can’t talk about it — you already feel pretty lonely. My mother actually passed when I was very young. I was kind of lost without her. There weren’t any explanations from the adults around me. You didn’t talk about that kind of thing in the South. It was pretty traumatic for me. I retreated in my own little imaginative world and created answers to my questions on my own — and not realizing, until much later as an adult, that some of those memories I had weren’t actually memories at all. They were photographs or stories from adults; that kind of thing. I spent a lot of time by myself, exploring the words behind our house. In this story, I wanted to explore how that grief affected me as a child.
Would you say it’s autobiographical?
There’s a lot of my life on the page; it’s not autobiographical or anything, but many of the family members that the main character has, many of the experiences he has actually did happen to me. It was fun to get them down on paper and explore what I was going through back then.
This book was the subject of quite an auction. What was that experience like on your end?
It was exciting and crazy at the same time. I’ve been in the music business for years, in Nashville; I came to Nashville to be a song-writer. I didn’t really know I was going to end up in a publishing auction! [Laughs] That wasn’t in the plan. But I had one young-adult novel published called Social Intercourse and it was received pretty well; it’s a racier, teenage gay romance. So this is quite different. I didn’t know how it’d be received. It was initially rejected by a publisher a couple of times, and my agent said, “Hey, I think you’ve got a story tell here. I think you should finish this.” And I just did. I wrote it from my heart and poured everything into the story. Then when she started sending it out, we started getting this crazy interest. It was very exciting.
When did those initial rejections happen, and did you make any adjustments?
It was actually rejected on proposal so there were only a few chapters written. Maybe 100 pages. I just really felt like I needed to finish it for my own personal healing and exploration. So I just moved forward with it and finished it. And then that publisher was interested in it! [Laughs]
There’s not a ton of gay representation in middle-grade. This is certainly not the first, and there’s a lot in young-adult. But middle-grade is more of a touchy subject because you have to get past the gatekeepers — the educators, the teachers, the librarians — to reach the kids. Like I said, I’m not the first. There are other authors who have been including [queer] protagonists in their middle-grade work, like Tim Federle, Eric Bell, and Alex Gino. But there’s not been a lot of coverage of those kids in a Southern rural setting. I just remember how lonely that was as a kid, so I really want to reach those kids who I know are still out there. In those country-rural settings, they still feel alone and erased from society. They don’t see themselves a lot in books.
How important was that element for you in writing this, compared to channeling your own personal experiences?
Reaching those kids, to me, was the main reason why I wanted to write it. I could’ve gone on without putting my heart and soul into a book like this, exposing family secrets. [Laughs] I wanted to reach those kids. I talked to kids a lot that age. And I’m shocked that even how I felt and what I went through years and years ago, some kids in certain parts of the South are going through the same things, and feel like they have to hide themselves.
It’s one thing that I loved about the book, knowing that. Because you don’t see this kind of story told in middle-grade very often.
Right. And it did scare some of those publishers. Some of them were just like, “I’m a little too worried about how this will be received.” Luckily there were enough that really wanted to put it out there.
What kinds of things did you hear, along those lines?
Teachers themselves are fearful for their jobs. My husband is a third-grade teacher; of course this book is for an older kid, but he was telling me how he even [is] careful about what he puts in his classroom library for fear of what a parent will say. His job might be in jeopardy. There’s an author by the name of Brooks Benjamin who wrote My Seventh Grade Life in Tights who is also a middle-school teacher, and his book was banned [from several school libraries] just because there was a gay secondary character — the best friend of the main character was gay. It takes a brave publisher just to go, “No, we’re going to support this, we’re going to get it out there no matter what.” I will say I’ve found that librarians themselves are a pretty progressive group of people. They tend to rally around the more progressive books.
Why do you think this book has resonated for so many?
I think the book’s central theme of hope and believing in the impossible is what most resonates with readers. We live in such precarious times that not only are adults weary and desperate, but kids are too. And if young readers take away one message from the book, I’d love for it to be Riley’s recurring mantra to himself, taught to him by his mother — why not hope?