It’s been a decade since David Levithan’s Boy Meets Boy was released, a young-adult novel set in a town where different was normal and a drag queen could be both quarterback and homecoming queen. It was clearly an ideal, a hope for Utopian acceptance and freedom of expression where two boys falling in love would be just as everyday as a morning cup of coffee. But whereas Boy Meets Boy is a love story with strong strokes of whimsy and optimism, Two Boys Kissing is a more pragmatic telling of the harsher reality served to both former and current generations of the LGBTQ community.
Centering on two teen ex-boyfriends who decide to kiss for 32 hours, 12 minutes and 9 seconds in order to break a world record and shatter prejudice, the chapterless book is told from several perspectives. Its fibers alternate among the points of view of the titular two boys, their friends and families, observing strangers and an omniscient voice of LGBTQ forefathers. Their commonality is simple: Make sure these two boys kiss, break a record and make a lasting statement to their community, their families and those who think of them as inferior abominations.
So is this a story of stark determination, a Norma Rae declaration via public snogging? Or is it meant to bring awareness to how challenging life used to be for the LGBTQ community and how now, even with societal and political advancements toward acceptance, it can still get pretty hairy? “Some people concern themselves with history,” Levithan writes by email. “Others don’t—at their own peril. That said, awareness is not the same as experience, and we can’t pretend that knowing what happened is at all the same thing as feeling it happen. Which is why it’s so important to give history a voice as well as a record. That was definitely on my mind with Two Boys Kissing.” It was also on his mind as he was writing Love Is the Higher Law, his 2009 novel about 9/11, “knowing that as the years pass, we know what happened on 9/11, but can easily lose the memory of what it was actually like to live through it, all the small details that add to the greater experience.”
Two young men who lock lips in the name of equality. A gay teen whose father beats him. A blue-haired boy who might mess up falling in love with a pink-haired transgendered boy due to his own anger about harrasment. A young gay man whose ribs and face and spirit are shattered in a violent attack. All of these personages in Two Boys are presided over by a voice of the past, an amalgam of the generation who protested at Stonewall, battled an epidemic head on (even when the president of the United States of America wouldn’t acknowledge it), and who want only the very best for current and future generations. These interpretations of harrassment, prejudice, and past and present travesties are far removed from Levithan’s more blithe book from 10 years ago. Is Two Boys meant to document how far the LGBTQ community has come? “I just wanted to be as truthful as possible to the characters and the story,” Levithan anwers. “I don’t think there’s an equal correlation—the enormity of what we’re up against is nothing compared to what the generation before mine was up against. There’s a line in the book—something like ‘Just because it gets better, it doesn’t mean it’s always good.’ That’s certainly true. But it’s also better.”
This year, Two Boys isn’t the solitary entry on the roster of LGBTQ-friendly YA books. There’s Aaron Hartzler’s Rapture Practice, Alexander London’s Proxy, Bill Konigsberg’s Openly Straight, Hannah Moskowitz’s Marco Impossible and Steven dos Santos’ The Culling, to name a few. Such a lineup is a feat that all the optimism in the world wouldn’t have conjured several years ago. To commemorate the moment and spread the word about their books, Hartzler, Konigsberg, Levithan and London joined forces for a whistle-stop tour of sorts earlier this summer during New York City’s gay pride week. “It was nothing short of awesome,” Levithan, who is also a respected editor at Scholastic, writes. “Aaron, Alex, Bill and I had a blast, and just the act of going out there with our four books (along with A.S. King at one point) was deeply powerful for all of us. We absolutely want to do more stops and involve more authors. For me, it was a perfect way to commemorate the 10th anniversary of Boy Meets Boy, because it certainly showed what a difference a decade has made.”
Anyone familiar with Levithan’s work knows that music plays a significant role both within his books and while he’s writing them. So what was on the old Victrola this time? “A lot of songs were swirling around as I was writing,” Levithan writes. “Some to be expected…and some less expected. The most intense musical moment for me came during a very intense scene toward the end—I had put on Hauschka, a Scandinavian instrumental artist, so I wouldn’t have any words getting in the way. But then, just as the scene was reaching its most intense, my playlist moved alphabetically from Hauschka to The Head and the Heart and their song “Lost in My Mind”—and it was absolutely the right song for the moment, and I did something that I’ve never done before, which was play the song on loop until the scene was over and I was sobbing.”
As someone who is generally about as stoic as Bea Arthur on a rainy Monday morning, even I can admit to a few tears when reading Two Boys Kissing—and I wasn’t even listening to The Head and the Heart. Part of it was Levithan’s writing. Part of it was the reminder of previous generations who withstood so much (even if their affection for younger generations is widely idealized here). Most of it was being called to remember my own youth as a gay teen in Texas and thinking there’s no way in hell kissing a boyfriend in public would have gone over well.
But wait: If the two boys kissing here are loosely based on Matty Daley and Bobby Cancielo (who broke the record for the longest kiss on Sept. 8, 2010), what record would Levithan likely want to break? “Most novels written with other authors,” he answers. “Because it’s so much fun.”
Gordon West is a writer, illustrator and, sometimes, photographer living in Brooklyn. He is admittedly addicted to horror films and French macaroons.