By Sara Cassidy
I grew up in a series of large brick houses with room for my parents and four older siblings, and ample cushioned places to curl up with a book. More often than not, though, I was outside, climbing trees and drainpipes, biking secret trails through riverside woods, or collecting bottles to cash in at the local store. I was fully encouraged “to get out into the world, to see and touch and do” as my father would say. I am lucky my parents were yea-sayers who dove in, accepting all invitations. I could read anything that I wanted to, listen to any record that interested me, go anywhere in the neighborhood. As long was I was home in time, I was never questioned about where I had been.
So, my inner life was my own. The joyous privacy of forging, unfolding, mapping the world as I saw it, protected, honored. Once in a while, my mother, passing through the room where I sat reading or simply staring into space, would sing penny for your thoughts. In my memory I see her offering an actual penny! But she didn’t really expect anything, was only shining a light on the small copper door, the way in and out.
In A Boy Named Queen, Evelyn develops her inner life in a different set of circumstances. Instead of a respectful distance, her parents, without rich inner lives themselves, are unaware of hers, and this gives her the privacy to develop it. But her mother also warns her not to let her imagination get away from her; she certainly never points to the copper door.
A Boy Named Queen gently considers gender identity and gender expression, and bullying, but it is primarily about the friendship between Evelyn and Queen, both outwardly unalike, but intellectually robust. Evelyn is from a house that is routine bound, quiet, even depressed. Queen’s house is filled with music, candlelight, other creatures. His parents are artists and musicians. They cook interesting meals and let the dog eat at the table once a week. Meeting Queen’s family shows Evelyn that her imagination is viable: the world has plenty of room for such colors.
I realized after writing A Boy Named Queen that it has roots in my mother’s childhood and a story she often told about her friend Molly. My mother grew up in a stark, suburban house where conversation was thin, much like in Evelyn’s house. Down the block, though, Molly’s house had wide, open rooms, a piano, frequent parties, jazz music, laughter, women — and men — in flowing clothes! Molly’s house opened the world to my mother (who became a fierce intellect and writer).
When I was eight, only one child in my grade three class had divorced parents. My first sleepover was at her apartment (apartment!), where she lived with her mother. How different it was from my house. Yet it was happy. Full. It was only a different permutation of family. In grade four, another friend’s mother greeted me at the door in a housecoat, in the middle of the afternoon. I learned, from her mistimed embraces and the liquid tilt of her movements, that she drank. I worried about her, but mostly I got on with playing with my friend, bouncing for hours on her bed, perhaps dispelling darkness, restoring my friend’s rightful ball of fortune.
Some of my childhood friends’ families were more rollicking than ours, others strangely quiet. One friend’s father smoked cigarettes in the darkness of his office. Another friend’s parents never touched. I observed it all, felt and smelled it all.
The houses we step into as children reveal the world to us in the same way that novels do. And they show us, by contrast or familiarity, our own homes, and ourselves. For Evelyn in A Boy Named Queen, the colors of Queen’s house reflect and confirm her rich inner life. In the last scene of the book, she is emboldened to share it.
Evelyn is both aghast and fascinated when a new boy comes to grade five and tells everyone his name is Queen. Queen wears shiny gym shorts and wants to organize a chess/environment club. His father plays weird loud music and has tattoos.
How will the class react? How will Evelyn?
Evelyn is an only child with a strict routine and an even stricter mother. And yet in her quiet way she notices things. She takes particular notice of this boy named Queen. The way the bullies don’t seem to faze him. The way he seems to live by his own rules. When it turns out that they take the same route home from school, Evelyn and Queen become friends, almost against Evelyn’s better judgment. She even finds Queen irritating at times. Why doesn’t he just shut up and stop attracting so much attention to himself?
Yet he is the most interesting person she has ever met. So when she receives a last-minute invitation to his birthday party, she knows she must somehow persuade her mother to let her go, even if it means ignoring the No Gifts request and shopping for what her mother considers to be an appropriate gift, appropriately wrapped with “boy” wrapping paper.
Her visit to Queen’s house opens Evelyn’s eyes to a whole new world, including an unconventional goody bag (leftover potato latkes wrapped in waxed paper and a pair of barely used red sneakers). And when it comes time for her to take something to school for Hype and Share, Evelyn suddenly looks at her chosen offering — her mother’s antique cream jug — and sees new and marvelous possibilities.