When young adult author Holden Sheppard was at high school in Geraldton, Western Australia, some 20 years ago, his emerging sexuality wasn’t something he felt he could talk about openly with his mates, parents or teachers. There certainly wasn’t a shelf of LGBTIQ+ literature in the school library. Instead, he’d sneakily watch British TV show Queer as Folk in his bedroom late at night with the sound turned right down.
“When I was about 14 or 15, I read the John Marsden Tomorrow series, and in the second book Ellie and Lee have sex,” he recalls. “I remember thinking, ‘So, that’s okay for a straight couple’, and I wanted to do the same for gay sex.”
Flash forward two decades and his big-hearted and rather sexy debut novel Invisible Boys, published by Fremantle Press, delivers on that promise. It traces the fraught negotiation of sexual identity for three very different boys only tangentially aware of one another at a country school. There’s loudmouth goth Charlie, who wants his band to hit the big time; arrogant jock Hammer, angling for the AFL draft; and shy, bookish Zeke, from a religious Italian family. Far from being basic tropes, each lad has his own emotional hurdles to deal with and their increasingly connected stories thrum with authenticity.
The novel is open and honest about puberty blues. “I see this a lot in my responses from people who read the book – that it’s not just gay men who feel seen,” Holden says. “It’s also straight people and those anywhere on the spectrum, male or female. Because I think we all have it, some instinctive level of shame around our developing sexuality.”
That openness meant that the book almost didn’t see the light of day. Several major publishers declined, praising the writing, but unsure how to market a YA book that is so open about sex. “I’ll forever be grateful to Fremantle Press for actually going, ‘We understand why this is important’,” Holden says.
The book quickly found a readership, being reprinted within the first week of publication. The Age reviewer said: “The characters leap off the page, warts and all, and Sheppard writes with complexity and realism about sexual discovery.” Invisible Boys has accrued multiple awards, including the WA Premier’s Prize for an Emerging Writer.
The book acknowledges that sexual discovery can still be fraught, even today, which is why it’s so important to have supportive teachers and school librarians. “It’s the weirdest thing, but when I do school talks, I feel a little bit of jealousy that I never had that,” Holden acknowledges. “I feel so happy for those students, of course. This is what we fought and marched on the streets for; why we wrote articles and books. We’ve done it so that we can get to the point where we have teenagers who are surrounded by adults who will say, ‘You are fine just as you are’.”
‘Having teachers spruik a book like this makes you know that that teacher is going to be safe to talk to.’
As Holden sees it, those conversations save lives. “That is going to make a massive difference to their headspace. If you can actually stop a heap of hidden shame and trauma, then they are going to grow up into much happier adults.”
Holden delivered a keynote speech at the English Teachers Association of WA’s conference last year. “That was pretty phenomenal. I was actually a little bit scared, because I didn’t know how it would be received. If I do a school talk, I know that teachers are supporters. When you do a keynote, they chose to come to the conference, but they don’t necessarily support you personally.”
Turns out he needn’t have worried. The reception was great, prompting excellent discussions. “English class is often where you have really interesting conversations about life, so that was a huge opportunity to get the message out that this is important for school-aged children, especially in years 10, 11 and 12.”
Everyone needs a guiding hand, says Holden. “The biggest hurdle is always within yourself. You have to come out to yourself first and be OK with it. That battle continues in silence, no matter how much public attitudes shift. So having a teacher spruik a book like this lets you know that that teacher is going to be safe to talk to.”
Invisible Boys is out now from Fremantle Press. More: www.holdensheppard.com