My debut graphic novel THE REAL RILEY MAYES is set in Oklahoma. See that tell-tale sky blue flag on the cover? I grew up there, and it was a joy to draw little slices of life from my home state into this book. There are Chevy Silverados in the drop-off circle, mullet haircuts with no irony whatsoever, and frito chili pie in the school cafeteria. There’s also LGBTQ+ characters in the book. Sometimes Oklahoma’s lawmakers are hostile to LGBTQ+ issues and rights, but Oklahomans in general are supportive, and there’s a lot of queer community to be found… in the book, and in real life. Last week I got to visit my home state for four stops on a quick book tour. Here’s the amazing people and places I got to visit:
First up- I spoke on a panel titled “Banning Queer Books” at UCO’s International Gender and Sexuality Studies Conference in Edmond, OK. There’s a lot of energy on campus. University of Central Oklahoma’s BGLTQ+ Student Center provides three times the support of most centers at similar colleges, with half the budget. The Center, as it’s affectionately dubbed by students, has a lending library, a food pantry, a health clinic, and free clothing for job interviews. The Center also scored an impressive grant to digitize a large collection of historic queer print publications from Oklahoma and beyond. At the panel, I shared pages from Chapter 8 of THE REAL RILEY MAYES, where a safe-search filter smothers Riley’s curiosity about her sexuality. OKC Councilman James Cooper described and explained how important it is for queer people to make and protect access to their own libraries. Tamya Cox Touré, director of ACLU Oklahoma, inspired our mostly 21-and-up audience to stand up for kids’ freedom to read.
It was a treat to connect with family members in each stop. In Edmond, I got to catch up with my aunt, uncle, and cousin’s family, including her son Eli. Eli told me his favorite parts of THE REAL RILEY MAYES, (where Aaron puts Riley on his bike and rides to his dads’ house) and I told him mine (where Riley tells her brother she has a celebrity crush on Joy Powers, and he crunches on a chip and says “duh.”)
Then we drove from Edmond to Stillwater, OK to meet with the students of OSTEM– “Out in STEM”- at Oklahoma State University. The orange cowboy boot cookies were very tasty. We talked about making books for young people, as well as representation, visibility, and mermaids. Helen, a retired OSU librarian, had some great words of wisdom regarding book bans – “this is America and everyone has the right to read what they want.”
My third stop, and the one closest to my heart, was my hometown. The Pryor Book Exchange is run by Chris Hardy (pictured in the gallery above rubbing his chin and possibly thinking about a joke.) Chris is a great guy. He knows all his Mayes County customers, and orders books with specific customers in mind. During the height of the pandemic, he delivered books by bicycle. He stocks an impressive amount of books by Native and Indigenous authors, for kids and adults. The weekend of my visit coincided with homecoming and class reunions, so the store was busy with former teachers and students. They took home free “Say Gay” postcards and LGBTQ+ book discussion guides. It was a joy to share this book with the people who taught me to draw and write stories. That night, my folks had a party in the yard with barbecue and banana pudding.
Finally, I was honored to be a guest at the Oklahoma Equality Center in Tulsa. The rainbow lights of the Lynn Riggs Theatre make any author look spectacular! Deana Stafford McCloud (a pro music historian and exhibit curator, btw) and first-grader Claudia asked compelling questions about THE REAL RILEY MAYES. Questions like: “Did you anticipate some amount of backlash to a book with these themes?” and “How long did it take to make?” and “Why are there hearts on the cover?” (I’ll let you guess who asked which questions.) The Oklahoma Equality Center is adding hundreds of books for kids and teens to their Rainbow Library. Click here to find out more, or donate!
I am very thankful for this trip, and grateful to everyone who came out to support the book. I saw some friends and family that I hadn’t gotten to connect with in years (darn covid!) I felt a lot of love, and I love y’all right back. Everywhere I went, I met folks of all backgrounds – city councilmen, librarians, booksellers, teachers, activists, students, kids, youth pastors – committed to making books accessible to their community. Right now, places like Oklahoma are described in the headlines as places where books are being banned. For every book that’s challenged in my home state, there’s hundreds of people determined to protect our freedom to read.