When David Levithan’s Two Boys Kissing finally hit the UK shelves last month, it was met with significantly smaller media flurry than when it hit American shelves last year. It’s not hard to guess why it flirted with controversy across the pond – one has to look no further than the cover, which features two, actual, real life boyfriends kissing.
Why’s that a problem? you may ask, if you’re a British reader and the answer is – of course – there isn’t one. Except that it’s the first book in the United States to do so and we all know how the American Right would react. In modest Blighty, of course, such a cover wouldn’t really stir much controversy – apart from on the playground – so it’s interesting to note that Egmont, the UK publishers of Levithan’s most recent writing, have gone for something different. It left me wondering if the Americans can do it, why can’t we?
I managed to speak to Benjamin Hughes, the Deputy Art Director at Egmont who was responsible for designing both the UK cover of Two Boys Kissing and the short story collection How They Met, also by Levithan. “Playing it safe was never part of the brief for this cover”, he says; “the team had decided to build a look for the UK Levithan covers so I had to follow the design approach of Every Day” (Egmont’s first Levithan title), the design of which had been established by his predecessor, Emma Eldridge.
The notion that the US cover of Two Boys Kissing was controversial was entirely unfamiliar with Ben, who hadn’t considered it such at all until I mentioned the stir it caused in the predominantly American media. “The Picture of two boys kissing on the cover never shocked nor caused me to think that it was risky as I don’t think homosexuality is as much of a taboo amongst the current YA market, or in 2014 in the UK. So there was never a conscious decision to steer away from that image at all.” In many ways, Ben has tried to replicate the pose of the US cover.
ask Ben whether he thinks the US market is more sensitive than its British counterpart. He doesn’t think so, though adds that “cover trends do sometimes differ either side of the pond. We might go for a particular cover style that doesn’t work so well in the US and vice versa”, arguing that photographic covers have become quite overused in the UK YA market.
Finally, Ben remarks that “the title is so strong and blunt with regards to the story, that it’s difficult to steer away from that visually, trying to work up something that’s a little clever and subtle (as opposed to the obvious image of two boys kissing) may actually reduce the strength of the title.”
Ben argues that the American market isn’t more sensitive to homosexuality – but it’s certainly different in its treatment of gay characters. In the UK, their presence in YA isn’t heralded as something special or noteworthy, just as another part of the story. And equally, gay characters in British YA aren’t often the main characters – they’re supporting characters, their troubles and escapades on the sidelines, always given a nod of approval by the author.
American writers, in contrast, are still writing to convert, to engage, to wave in a new era of civil rights. Often, their messages are explicit: gay characters are characters too, just as gay people are people too and should be endowed with the same civil rights as their straight counterparts. Often, the authorial voice righteously denounces the unsupportive family of their characters and establishes, with perhaps more than a little obvious moralising.
Levithan writes in this tradition, and as a British reader, I was left a little stumped. Obviously, I agree with everything he’s saying – a world without LGBT rights is a world without rights at all – but I couldn’t help thinking that the way Two Boys Kissing (and some of his previous stuff) was a bit clunky in that respect – wasn’t it a bit last year, now that the Same Sex Marriage Bill has been approved and the first gay weddings are taking place in the UK? Didn’t I live in a society where being gay was for the most part, accepted?
All of that is true. But one thing I had neglected to realise is that Britain is not America and that Levithan is writing, primarily, to an American audience. My understanding of Two Boys Kissing deepened: elements may not have been entirely relevant to me, as a gay teenager, coming out to an incredibly receptive group of peers, but they were relevant and necessary to a whole swathe of boys and girls struggling with their sexual identity across the Pond. Levithan’s moralising wasn’t just a crass overtone; it was a political statement, challenging anyone who read it, just as its cover was a political statement challenging anyone who came across it. Sometimes we need to be reminded that some people, in other parts of the world, are not as privileged as we are.