My debut middle grade novel, Thanks A Lot, Universe, officially released on May 11, but I’ve been lucky enough to hear from some readers who enjoyed advance copies. Not long ago, someone said they wished they could have read this book in middle school, because Brian’s anxiety was a lot like their own, and they would have felt comforted to know it wasn’t just them who felt that way.
That comment meant a lot to me, because I could have used a book like Thanks A Lot, Universe too.
Growing up in the ‘80s and ‘90s, I spent a lot of time in books, and in my own imagination. I read and reread Gordon Korman and Judy Blume, the Hardy Boys and Encyclopedia Brown, the Chronicles of Narnia and the Babysitters Club. Sometimes I’d imagine myself as a dorm mate of Bruno and Boots in Korman’s hilarious Macdonald Hall series, or as an honorary Hardy brother helping Frank and Joe solve mysteries.
It took some imagination on my part, because the heroes in those books were mostly white. And as much as I loved those stories, those heroes didn’t experience the world the same way I did. I’m not saying there were zero books out there that reflected my experiences, but there weren’t a lot, and I wasn’t finding them as a kid.
I’ve forgotten who gave me The Autobiography of Malcolm X when I was thirteen, but it’s the first book I remember reading by a Black author, and it blew my mind. It was a different way of seeing the world than I had experienced before. I’m from an interracial family, but in my suburban community on Canada’s east coast, we attended a predominantly white church and I went to predominantly white schools where white teachers assigned books by white authors. Malcolm X started me thinking about representation. His words gave me permission to see the world differently—and myself differently. I remember having the same feelings the first time I read Ralph Ellison and Toni Morrison a few years later.
Sometimes we need those permissions from others to help us along. In Thanks A Lot, Universe, Brian struggles for valid reasons: a family crisis upends his life and causes his anxiety to become more intense. But he feels like he’s broken, until he’s able to hear from an older teenager that he grows to trust: “You’re not alone, and it’s OK not to be OK.”
Between the pandemic and the general state of the world, lots of young people are struggling right now, and some of them need to know it’s OK not to be OK. It’s not always easy to receive those messages from other people, and sometimes kids don’t have people in their lives who can reassure them in that way. Books aren’t a cure-all, but they can create space and permission for young readers to wrestle with big emotions and heavy feelings. Books can provide comfort that they’re not alone in whatever they’re going through.
Sometimes as writers we have to give ourselves permission before we can create those spaces for readers. I must admit it took me a while to let myself write my other main character, Ezra, the way he needed to be written: a biracial queer kid who wrestles with his identities and how the world will see him, but is ultimately comfortable in his own skin.
I didn’t meet kids like that in books growing up. As a boy I buried my own feelings for other boys, because my religious upbringing told me they were wrong. I was well into adulthood before I felt comfortable owning terms like bisexual and queer.
Allowing myself to write a character like Ezra was honestly liberating. But I still wasn’t prepared for how deeply moved I felt when I saw the cover of Thanks a Lot, Universe in full color for the first time, and one thought overwhelmed me: I wrote a book with a kid on the cover who looks and feels like I did at thirteen.
Thankfully, there are a growing number of great middle grade books with BIPOC and LGBTQ+ main characters, books that represent mental health and neurodiversity well, and books that do a few of those things at once. One thing I tried to do in Thanks A Lot, Universe is show that kids can contain multitudes—a sporty kid can also be anxious, or queer. A confident kid can have moments of emotion and grief. I’ll be thrilled if any kids who pick up this book feel like it gives them more permission to be fully themselves.
Chad Lucas has been in love with words since he attempted his first novel on a typewriter in the sixth grade. He has worked as a newspaper reporter, communications advisor, freelance writer, part-time journalism instructor, and parenting columnist. A proud descendant of the historic African Nova Scotian community of Lucasville, he lives with his family near Halifax, Nova Scotia. He enjoys coaching basketball and is rarely far from a cup of tea. Thanks a Lot, Universe is his debut novel.