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Growing-up-gay story gets a sensitive telling

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``Absolutely, Positively Not'' by David LaRochelle; Arthur A. Levine Books/Scholastic ($16.95)


"I never in my life thought I would be writing for teenagers," David LaRochelle says of his first novel, "Absolutely, Positively Not."

"Picture books are my heart's desire," he says. "I love them. They are often beautiful to look at, and they tell a good story in just a few pages. A well-written picture book can be as engaging as a novel."

LaRochelle, who lives in White Bear Lake, Minn., has written or illustrated more than 25 books. His children's story about a dragon, "The Best Pet of All," won a 2005 Minnesota Book Award and was selected by independent bookstores as a Book Sense Top Ten selection. He's a contributor to several magazines for youngsters, and he has collaborated on eight craft/activities books with Minnesota author Donna Erickson.

So, how did this 44-year-old former schoolteacher come to write a funny/sweet novel about a teen from Beaver Lake, Minn., who's determined to prove he isn't gay?

LaRochelle, who came out when he was in his mid-20s, got the idea for the book when he was walking around St. Paul's Lake Como with a gay friend.

"We came around a bend, and there was a group of teenagers dressed in prom attire," he recalls. "My friend said, `I hate prom. Taking a girl you are not attracted to is an unpleasant situation.' I began to think about what a kid could do if he's forced to go to prom but would not admit he's gay. When I went to Irondale High School (in New Brighton), two kids took mannequins to the prom. So why couldn't a character take a dog?"

Those musings led LaRochelle to write "Taking Alice to the Prom," a humorous short story about a teen named Steven who escorts a golden retriever to the big dance. It was published in 2001 in Cicada, a magazine for teens.

At the time, LaRochelle was taking a writing class from the late St. Paul children's author Judy Delton, to whom "Absolutely, Positively Not" is dedicated. Delton demanded a new story every week, and LaRochelle decided to write more about Steven.

"I was used to writing 500-word picture books," he recalls. "It was a struggle for me to make that transition to a novel, slowing down and making the characters more rounded. I knew from the beginning that Steven was gay, but I didn't start out to write a `gay novel' or to teach people about what it's like to be a gay teenager. I set out to write a funny story that happened to center on a character who was gay and trying to prove he wasn't."

Steven, who's confused but wants to do the right thing, is an appealing character. Realizing he has feelings for male teachers, he tries following the advice in a book about male teen sexuality. The author suggests boys can straighten out by joining guy activities (Steven finds that doesn't help) and dating girls (that doesn't work, either). In one hilarious chapter, Steven escorts a dog named Kelly to the prom, much to the delight of his classmates. And amid all this worry, Steven keeps failing his driver's test and can't get his license.

When Steven finally comes out to his best friend, Rachel, and her mother, they aren't surprised. His own mother says he is "absolutely, positively" not gay. But when the boy admits his feelings to his dad, the older man recalls that gay men (he calls them "queers") who served with him in the military were the bravest he knew.

LaRochelle feels fortunate that his manuscript was acquired by Arthur Levine, editor of the U.S. editions of the Harry Potter books, who has his own imprint at Scholastic.

"Arthur was the perfect editor," LaRochelle says. "He's gay and very sensitive to issues in the book."

In an e-mail from his New York office, Levine says: "I was drawn to the idea that a book featuring a gay teenager could be funny and light; that it could playfully acknowledge the challenges facing a gay kid but resolve those challenges happily. David was able to accomplish this with style and substance, never stooping to caricature or playing to stereotype."

Like Steven, LaRochelle was a not-very-hip kid "scared to death" that somebody would discover he was attracted to men.

"I was not as brave as Steven," he admits. "I had same-sex attractions back in junior high, but I didn't come out until after I graduated from St. Olaf College (in Northfield). My parents were divorced, but they knew something was bothering me. My mom knew I was gay since I was young. Dad and I went for a walk, and when I told him I was gay, the first words out of his mouth were, `I love you.' Everyone should have parents as supportive."

LaRochelle majored in art and English at St. Olaf, hoping to work for Hallmark Cards as an illustrator. But when Hallmark told him his art wasn't good enough, he got a teaching degree and taught fourth grade in Coon Rapids.

"I think part of the reason I write for kids is that, in many ways, I haven't grown up," he says with amusement. "When I was teaching, my mother would say, `My son is still in fourth grade,' and there's truth to that. I love using my imagination, pretending."

LaRochelle ended his teaching career after his first book, "A Christmas Guest," was published in 1988. But he loved teaching, and he still visits classrooms as a guest writer, logging more than 200 school visits in 16 years.

LaRochelle also works with Donna Erickson, also a former teacher and now his friend.

Their collaboration began in the late 1980s, when Erickson's column was beginning in the St. Paul (Minn.) Pioneer Press. LaRochelle does illustrations for the column, now syndicated in newspapers around the country, as well as for Erickson's books.

LaRochelle will continue collaborating with Erickson, and he's ready to return to work on a new dragon-related picture book. He hasn't ruled out writing another novel about Steven, since "Absolutely, Positively Not" has received good reviews, and he sees a need for books that show gay youngsters they are not alone.

"It's still a struggle for gay teenagers coming to terms with their sexuality," he says. "One of my fears when I was writing was that the book would no longer be relevant because gay teens today have more role models. But I've heard from friends who have gay teenagers some of the awful things they go through. The word gay' has become pejorative again. A lot of people use it to mean stupid or dumb, as ina gay idea.' That's even more painful for the kids."

LaRochelle has handled only one bit of negative feedback. When he was on a radio call-in show talking about his novel, a male caller said he was angry at "these types of books" being published for kids because they would influence susceptible teens to become gay.

"My response was that you don't choose sexual orientation," LaRochelle recalls. "But other than that, I was surprised at how well received this book has been. All my worries were for nothing."


(c) 2005, St. Paul Pioneer Press (St. Paul, Minn.). Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

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