Happy Pride Month, everyone! June is a time for celebrating LGBTQIA people and their history. The Reading into History Family Book Club has long wanted to feature a work of historical fiction about LGBTQIA history, but sadly there are not very many options for the 9–12 age group that we serve. Luckily for us, Jennifer Gennari wrote My Mixed-Up Berry Blue Summer, a novel that takes place in Vermont in the year 2000 just after the state recognized civil unions between people of the same sex. Young readers may not know that there was once a time before “marriage equality.” Why, and how, did people fight so hard to stop other people from getting married? Through the story of June—a 12-year-old girl whose mom and girlfriend want to get married—kids can explore this difficult history.
We look forward to talking about this book with any families who come to our meeting on Sunday, June 24. Those lucky attendees will get to meet author Jennifer Gennari in person! We asked her some questions about her book to prime readers for her appearance here. Check out what she has to say and join us on the Sunday, June 24.
DiMenna Children’s History Museum: What inspired you to set this novel during the fight for marriage equality, or same-sex civil unions, in Vermont in 2000?
Jennifer Gennari: Vermont has a special place in my heart (it’s where I grew up), yet June’s story began in California. In the community where I lived at the time, I witnessed an adult shaming—bullying—a teenager who had been invited to speak about her two-dad family. It shocked me that in our progressive city, in 2002, people held such close-minded, close-hearted views. That incident is the emotional core of My Mixed-Up Berry Blue Summer.
When I began to write the story, I remembered that Vermont had had a contentious fight over gay rights. Residents posted opposing “Take Back Vermont” and “Keep It Civil” signs, and my research uncovered hateful letters and editorials. I wanted to show what that must have felt like for a child of gay or lesbian parents, as if his or her family didn’t exist already.
In 2004, I was a newspaper editor when then-San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom married same-sex couples on the steps of City Hall on Valentine’s Day. One of the couples was from our town, and we featured them in the local paper—and oh, the love! It filled me with hope, the kind of hope I brought to June’s story, to Vermont, where it all began.
DHCM: There are a lot of vivid descriptions of food in this novel because 12-year-old protagonist June has a talent for baking pies! Why did you make food such a prominent part of the story?
JG: Once I chose Vermont as the setting, my next thought was—blueberries! Have you ever tasted a wild blueberry, the small kind found in the woods? Once you have blueberries, then you have pie, naturally! Making the best pie ever for the county fair gave June a mission—one she would fight for despite the prejudice facing her and her family.
June’s experience working in a marina shop is based on my summer job making cookies and sandwiches with homemade bread. I’m Italian on my father’s side, and my parents taught me to love good food and cooking, a love I’ve passed on to my children. We are all passionate about homemade piecrust. (Butter is the secret!)
DCHM: There are so few books about LGBTQ history for young people. Why do you think that is? Do you have any recommendations for young readers interested in learning more about this topic?
JG: Unfortunately, for far too long, conservative religious views have governed what is considered “appropriate” for younger readers. To this day, one vocal parent can ban a book from a school library. Publishers are taking note of this absence, and now you can find more contemporary stories for LGBTQ youth.
A great new picture book biography is Pride: The Story of Harvey Milk and the Rainbow Flag, which tells the history of the nation’s first openly gay elected official, social activism, and the symbol of equality we all recognize. You can also find an incredibly long list of rainbow titles on Lee Wind’s site.
DCHM: How do you think June, Eva, and MJ would react to same-sex marriage becoming legal in all 50 states in 2015?
JG: Within weeks of the book’s publication in May 2012, President Obama announced his support for same-sex marriage. (And that’s when I knew that my book should be rebranded as historical fiction!) It was a wonderful moment, followed by the Supreme Court ruling in 2015. We are closer now—but not there yet—to accepting that families are made by people who love each other.
MJ and Eva would feel like trailblazers, and to celebrate, they would serve rainbow berry pie every summer. For June, it would mean that her family is just hers—and love wins.
DCHM: What three words best describe My Mixed-Up Berry Blue Summer?
JG: Jump, love, and pie!
Accessing the Book:
My Mixed-Up Berry Blue Summer will be available from the NYHistory Store. If you have difficulty finding the book, be sure to check out your local library (NYPL, Brooklyn Public Library). There are also e-books on barnesandnoble.com and Kindle books available on amazon.com.
Written by Rachel Walman
Assisant Director, DiMenna Children’s History Museum