Send in the Clowns*

• 7 min read

*I’m the clown. A Guest Feature by Mark Oshiro

Mark Oshiro is the award-winning author of the young adult books ANGER IS A GIFT (2019 Schneider Family Book Award), EACH OF US A DESERT, and INTO THE LIGHT, as well as their middle grade books THE INSIDERS and YOU ONLY LIVE ONCE, DAVID BRAVO. They are also the co-author (with Rick Riordan) of the upcoming PERCY JACKSON novel centered on Nico di Angelo and Will Solace. When not writing, they are trying to pet every dog in the world.


I wrote a book because I got roasted by fourteen-year-old.

I talk about school visits any chance I get to. For a lot of children’s literature authors — those who write picture books, chapter books, middle grade, young adult, etc. — they can be a staple of our careers. They often vary in terms of purpose and content, but in short: Authors visit individual classrooms, entire schools, or libraries to talk about their body of work, a specific book, and/or life as an author. Generally, school visits happen at elementary through high schools here in the States.

I’ve tweaked my presentations over the years, but the basic gist of a common visit is that I speak about my childhood, what inspired me to become a writer, and a little bit about my books. More important is the decision I made right from the start: I would not have an author “persona” for these visits or in public. I’m just… myself. I respect and admire people who have that sort of arrangement, but I frankly don’t think I have the skillset to pull it off. So, I’m pretty much myself whenever I’m in front of kids. I might swear a whole lot less, but I’m otherwise an outgoing, jokes-laden person who just likes talking to people.

Now, I had visited schools as a professional writer long before I released my debut novel, Anger is a Gift, and I made it clear to my agent and publicists that I wanted to continue to do work in school/library spaces. There’s an emotional reason for that: I never once had anyone like me–queer, Latinx, nonbinary–visit my school to talk about being an author. In fact, it took getting assigned The House on Mango Street by my freshman year English teacher for me to actually believe it was possible that I could one day write and publish a novel myself. (Shout out to you, Ms. Alford.)

There’s another reason, and it’s heavily influenced why I haven’t made much of an effort at publishing adult fiction:

Talking to kids is a million times more rewarding and entertaining than talking to adult readers.

They have a sincerity that often seems lost in adults. They can be a little jaded, especially if they’re in high school, but their awareness hasn’t dimmed their deep sense of possibility. And oh my god, they are so funny. I’ve told many stories over the years of students ripping my soul out of my body with a one-liner, or unintentionally giving me a therapy session with a question.

But I want to focus on one young girl who I met in late 2018, a few months after Anger is a Gift came out. Let me set the scene: I’m visiting a school deep in Brooklyn, the kind of place that doesn’t really get professionals visiting them, especially not those in the creative field. The 9th grade class I visit—the first of four, all with the same English teacher—is somehow vibrant, hilarious, and deeply attentive at 9:30 in the morning. I give my presentation, and it goes very well, and when we get to the interaction Q&A portion, there’s never a dearth of hands raised. I love this portion of a visit the most. It’s always where the true chaos is unleashed, and that visit was no exception. Yet near the end of it, a young Black girl raised her hand, and when I called on her, she changed my life.

“Yo, you’re mad funny,” she said. “Why is your book so sad?”

#

I tend to write some fairly serious books. Anger is a Gift is absolutely a devastating novel, as it was my attempt to cope with having C-PTSD derived from police violence. Each of Us a Desert was already in its third iteration when that girl stopped me in my tracks with her question, and it was pretty close to the final version that would come out two years later. And that book had an unexpected but poignant layer of grief over it all. So why was it that I am such a goofy person, prone to making jokes about everything, and yet none of that seemed to make its way into my work?

I stumbled through an answer for her that I barely remembered. I think I said something about liking really serious, intense movies, and how I tended to gravitate towards that in my own work. It was true, but what was also true was that I didn’t really have a good answer for her.

#

I made the jump to writing middle grade–generally accepted as fiction aimed at readers aged 8-12 years old–less than a year later. In the summer of 2019, I wrote a proposal for a wacky, Disney-esque parody about a young Latinx boy and his extremely annoying spiritual guide that was meant as an exploration of identity as a transracial adoptee. I was proud of that proposal, and then extremely gutted when it was rejected very, very quickly by the team that had sought it out. So I came back a couple weeks later with a second idea I’d attempted when I was younger that was just as funny and chaotic, about a middle-school-aged queer Latinx boy who found a magical closet that gave him fantastical powers.

That was also rejected in less than a day.

At the time, I internalized something I should not have: No one wanted a Mark Oshiro book that was funny. Was that the feedback I’d gotten? Oh, no, not at all. But after publishing a Very Serious Book and while deep in edits for Another Very Serious Book, I began to fear that I was never going to be able to explore this part of myself.

There’s a fear—an unfortunately justified one—that a lot of marginalized creators have: that any mainstream publishing entity only wants Very Serious work from us. It must be about Our Trauma and Our Lived Experiences. Which is a double-edged sword for a writer like me, who does want to create work from that place, but also struggles with feeling boxed in. And that’s what those rejections seemed to confirm for me: No one wanted a Mark Oshiro book that told jokes.

#

In just under two weeks, You Only Live Once, David Bravo will be released into the world. It’s actually my second middle grade book, but I had intended it to be my first. I wrote this book to make that girl in Brooklyn laugh. Not just her, though. Like most of my work, I wrote it for eleven-year-old Mark, who wished he could have been as funny as David, who wished he had been allowed to explore his identity and where he’d come from. I am thankful that The Insiders came first, as that allowed me to experiment with writing more humor into my fiction than I’d been used to. I am particularly proud of one character in that book: Taylor, my proto-himbo, Capri-Sun-obsessed agent of chaos. It felt so freeing to be able to write a wacky character just for the sake of it, and also because… well, have you met twelve-year-olds? Lots of them are like Taylor.

With David Bravo, however, I set out to write a book with a grumpy, sarcastic main character and his utterly annoying spiritual guide. I wanted there to be a joke every other page at least, sometimes more. And I also wanted it to still feel distinctly like a book that Mark Oshiro wrote. We’ll see if readers feel that way, but I’m proud of this deeply chaotic book about alternate timelines, spiritual guides who won’t go away, the ramifications of our decisions, and the power of just telling the truth to the people you care about.

And I hope that girl in Brooklyn reads it and knows what she inspired.


Middle school is the worst, especially for David Bravo. He doesn't have a single class with his best (okay, only) friend, Antoine. He has to give a class presentation about his heritage, but he's not sure how--or even if--he wants to explain to his new classmates that he's adopted. After he injures Antoine in an accident at cross-country practice, he just wishes he could do it all over.

He doesn't expect his wish to summon a talking, shapeshifting, annoying dog, Fea, who claims that a choice in David's past actually did put him on the wrong timeline... and she can take him back to fix it.

But when their first try (and the second, and the third) is a total disaster, David and Fea are left scrambling through timeline after timeline--on a quest that may lead them to answers in the most unexpected places.

Add You Only Live Once, David Bravo to your tbr here. Order it from your local independent bookseller, or order it via Bookshop.org to support independent booksellers throughout the US and the UK. For international shipping, you can try Barnes & Noble. If you prefer audiobooks, here’s a Libro.fm link. You can also request You Only Live Once, David Bravo from your local library — here’s how to get in touch with them. And if you need to order from the Bad River Website, here’s a link that will leverage your order for good.


In the meantime, care for yourself and the people around you. Believe that the world can be better than it is now. Never give up.

—Gailey

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