Julie Anne Peters, the critically-acclaimed, award-winning author of more than a dozen books for young adults and children died March 21 at the age of 71.
Peters first book, The Stinky Sneakers Contest (Little Brown, 1992), was plucked from the slushpile by Megan Tingley, her first fiction acquisition. They worked on several middle grade books together in the 1990s. Then, in the early 2000s Peters shifted to writing for young adults, “she found her true voice,” Tingley told Publishers Weekly.
Peters’ first YA novel was Define “Normal” (Little Brown, 2000), a “funny and heart-wrenching story about two girls from different crowds who find common ground.” It was well received, garnering ALA accolades including Best Books for YA, Popular Paperbacks for YA and Quick Pick for Reluctant YA Readers.
In 2003, Peters published Keeping You a Secret (Little Brown), a “moving, classic love story between two girls.” For context, less than a decade earlier, Nancy Garden’s Annie on My Mind had been banned and burned by demonstrators in Kansas City because it focused on two teen girls falling in love.
In a 2020 interview with Jessie Orcutt for Write or Die Magazine, Peters shared her journey in writing Keeping You a Secret, a topic suggested by her Little Brown editor, Tingley. Peters at first resisted the idea, though her family and close friends knew she was gay, she didn’t publicize it. She lived in Colorado, a very conservative, red state at the time.
“It’d take a year before I found the courage to sit down and write Keeping You a Secret. That book was the most fun I ever had writing. Of course, I wasn’t going to submit it or anything. For 18 months I immersed myself in the story and characters,” Peters told Write or Die. Then she mailed the manuscript to her agent. Fear consumed her while she waited for a reply, certain the book would be rejected by her agent and editor. “Who’d buy it? Who’d read it? There was no market for queer literature.”
But her agent and editor both loved it.
“LGBTQ+ readers needed their own Judy Blume and, to me, Julie was it. She explored issues of gender identity, sexual orientation, divorce, and depression with both humanity and humor,” Tingley said.
Wendy Schmalz, Peters’s agent shared this with Publishers Weekly, “Julie wasn’t just a talented writer. She was a courageous one. I hope that people understand just how gutsy it was to write an LGBQT+ novel in the early 2000s.”
Peters worried she’d get hate mail about Keeping You a Secret, but just the opposite happened. “What filled my inbox were letters from young readers. Love letters. Coming out stories. Horrible stories. Wonderful stories. Thank you letters,” she told Write or Die.
She also shared what the book meant to her: “I cherish the impact, and the fact that the success of KYAS gave permission to other authors to write their stories. And for publishers to buy them. It gave me the confidence to write more young adult literature with lesbian characters and themes.” Keeping You a Secret was named a Stonewall Honor Book and a Lambda Literary Award Finalist.
Her followup novel, Luna (Little Brown, 2004) became the first young adult novel to feature a transgender character. Luna, was a National Book Award Finalist, a Stonewall Honor Book and a Lambda Literary Award Finalist. It also won the Colorado Book Award and was nominated in four other states.
Peters shared her research process for Luna with Once Upon a Bookcase in 2013. After reaching out to the Gender Identity Center of Colorado, they invited her to a support group meeting.
“I explained that I was working on this novel and asked if anyone was willing to sit down and share their story with me. Were they willing? They were desperate. Desperate for people to know and understand them. Almost every person in that room volunteered to help,” Peters told Once Upon a Bookcase.
Peters wrote eight more YA books and according to Publishers Weekly, her books have sold more than a million copies and been published in numerous countries, including Korea, China, Croatia, Germany, France, Italy, Indonesia, Turkey, and Brazil.
Gayleen Rabakukk holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts and an undergraduate degree in Journalism from the University of Central Oklahoma. She has published numerous newspaper and magazine articles, and two regional interest books for adults. She is a board member of Lago Vista’s Friends of the Library and an Austin SCBWI volunteer. She loves inspiring curiosity in young readers through stories of hope and adventure.