Julie Anne Peters has been writing for young adults for nearly 15 years, and if anyone knows that's no path to fame and fortune, she does. So when the phone rang a few weeks ago, bringing career-boosting news, she was skeptical, at best.
"This is Harold Augenbraum, executive director of the National Book Foundation," the man on the other end of the line said.
"I went, 'What? Who is this?'"
The caller patiently repeated the information.
"I said, 'Can you prove who you are? Do you have an ID or something?'"
Augenbraum chuckled - then gave her the news: Her book had been short listed for the National Book Award, in the Young People's Literature category.
"The National Book Award? . . . I'm thinking, 'What? Of Croatia?'"
Peters laughs at her own folly, but for a woman who has more of a cult following than national acclaim, it was a bolt out of the blue. Next to the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award is one of the most prestigious book prizes in the country.
No wonder, seated recently in the Lakewood home she shares with her partner, Sherri Leggett, Peters had the look of someone just emerging from shell shock. There were travel plans to make (the award ceremony will be Wednesday in New York), clothes to buy ("They keep telling me, 'Julie, it's black tie, you know,' " she says with no small amount of trepidation) and speaking commitments to peruse.
It was all rather overwhelming for someone used to holing up at home with a pen and a Big Chief tablet. "I'm just such a mole," she says. "That's why I'm a writer."
Peters, 52, is the author of 11 novels for children and young adults. The last two have taken her into controversial territory, exploring gender identity and sexual orientation issues.Â Luna (Little, Brown $16.95), the nominated book, features a transgender character - a teenage boy named Liam who considers himself female in every way, except physically. Secretly, he dresses in women's clothes, transforming into his true self, a girl he calls Luna.
The story is written from his sister's point of view as she struggles to support him emotionally without letting his needs overwhelm her life.
I'm painfully aware that, in outline, the story sounds like something that would appeal to only the smallest niche of readers. But Peters' compelling storytelling and layered characters turn what could have been an exploitative spectacle into something real, honest and relevant to all.
"While Luna is about a transgender teen . . . it also speaks to any teen who has struggled with his or her own identity," says her longtime editor, Megan Tingley. " . . . Julie's readers recognize themselves in her. She respects her characters and speaks the truth about them."
Peters, who is openly gay, knew nothing about transsexuals before writing Luna. The idea for the story came to her in the form of a vision.
"This was the most distinct character that ever showed up in my head. It was this girl. She was blonde, with shoulder-length hair and bangs and freckles. She'd wake me up and say, 'Write about me.' . . . Finally, I just got so irritated with her and I said, 'Who ARE you?' She said, 'I'm Luna.'
"I thought, 'Luna. Oh boy.' I put her off and put her off and she would not go away . . . I said, 'What? Write what? What's your story?'
"She ran her hand down her hair, rested her elbow on her breast." Peters demonstrates the pose. "She said, 'I'm transsexual.' "
Peters eventually gave into her vision. She researched the subject online, interviewed men in various states of transition at the Gender Identity Center (which serendipitously happened to be 10 minutes from her home) - and often warred with herself on how she would give the story authenticity. Fearing she might unwittingly trivialize the subject, she nearly gave up.
Then she read a Rocky Mountain News article about Fred Martinez Jr. an American Indian transsexual teen murdered in Cortez in 2001.
"I said, 'All right, this feels like a signal. Maybe I have a voice for people who don't have a voice.' "
Like many gay people, Peters knows all too well what it feels like to stifle her own voice. She was a student at Colorado Women's College before she finally came out of the closet to her mother. She had fallen in love with Leggett, who also attended the school.
"I went home and said to my Mom, 'Mom, I really need to talk to you.' It's the scariest thing you ever do - even if you've had a near-death experience and everything else - telling your parents is the scariest thing you'll ever do. You just seem to be risking so much, your parents are so important to you.
"I said, 'You know Sherri? I'm in love with her and I'm going to spend the rest of my life with her.'"
Her mother said all the right things - and then she said the wrong thing. "She said, 'Don't ever tell anybody else.'
"That was the first time I knew this was unspeakable, that it must be bad . . . I said 'OK,' and that sent us into the closet for 20 years."
She didn't come out again until Colorado passed Amendment 2, the anti-gay amendment that was later struck down by the Supreme Court.
Talking with Peters, it's hard to imagine her as an activist. Far from aggressively outspoken, she's a quiet woman who speaks about her missteps in life as if still pained by them. She found her own niche in fits and starts.
After college, she worked for a year as a teacher ("I was a horrible, horrible teacher," she says, wincing at the memory), and 10 years as a computer systems analyst, before coming to an awakening.
"Sitting at my desk one day - I remember this clearly - I was doing systems analysis for General Motors, and I was looking at this work I was doing, and thinking, 'What am I doing? I'm actually counting widgets. I have actually reached the lowest of the low' . . .
"I came home that Friday, and when Sherri came home I said, 'I quit my job today. I'm going to be a writer.' And she said, 'Ookaaay. Have you ever written anything?'
"I said, 'No, but I can learn.' Really, naivete is one of my most endearing qualities. I soon learned how fast you can spiral into poverty," Peters says with a wry grin.
She wrote books for various age groups detailing the everyday traumas of school life, such as Revenge of the Snob Squad. Define 'Normal', the story of two opposites who become friends, won an American Library Association Best Book for Young Adults award.
Recently, Tingley persuaded Peters to step outside her comfort zone and write a lesbian love story for adolescents. Worried she would alienate parents and librarians, sabotaging a career she'd worked so hard to establish, Peters balked at the idea, but couldn't shake it. The result was Keeping You A Secret, the story of a high school girl awakening to her love for another girl.
"I was so afraid of doing that book. And then the letters started coming in. Hundreds and hundreds of letters. After a while, I thought, 'Why didn't I do this before?' "
They come from gay teens, thanking her for taking away a small slice of their loneliness and from straight kids, who now better understand their gay friends. They come from librarians and teachers - and adults who relate to her characters through their own pain.
"I am a 23-year-old woman, who also happens to be a transsexual," one reader recently wrote Peters. "Your bookÂ Luna touched me. It stirred memories from long ago and as I read it I relived my childhood. By the end of the book I was crying, and I cryed (sic) for a good two hours."
"I thought there would be hate mail," says Peters. "What I got were love letters."
Peters is comfortable with the niche she has carved out for herself in teen literature. "I feel, wow, my writing suddenly has this higher purpose, suddenly it has this kind of calling."
But it's been a long road, with too many macaroni and cheese dinners along the way. It's no surprise, then, that the red-carpet treatment of the National Book Award ceremony seems a bit surreal.
"This is so not me. This is so not me. I just rebel against all the pretentiousness."
On the other hand, the financial rewards that could come from a win would be nice.
Peters sighs. Like her character in Luna, she struggles with this new sort of coming out, then momentarily makes peace with it.
"Do you know anywhere I can get a women's tux?" she says.
The books of Julie Anne Peters.
All books published by Little, Brown unless noted otherwise:
Ages 12 and up
Ages 9 and up
Ages 6 and up
Patti Thorn is the book's editor.
thornp@RockyMountainNews.com (303) 892-5419.
Article by Patti Thorn
November 13, 2004
Rocky Mountain News, CO