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From librarian to author, Lin Thompson explores gender identity in debut novel

When Lin Thompson was a middle schooler, they constantly sought book recommendations from their school librarian. Now their career has come full circle. First, they served as a children’s librarian at Boston Public Library’s Copley branch, where they specialized in middle grade books. Secondly, they are now an author themself, debuting as a middle grade author with their novel “The Best Liars in Riverview” (out now).

“I love writing for middle grade because that was the period of my life when I read more than any other time,” they say. “I have so many formative memories from things I read at that age that I will remember forever.” At 12 years old, Thompson read to live vicariously through stories they had never experienced. In contrast, their own novel is a relatable narrative they wished had been reflected in the books they read at that age. “The Best Liars in Riverview” is a story that retroactively helped them — and will help current tweens like them — navigate complex feelings about what gender identity exploration looks like at that age.

Lin Thompson (Courtesy Katherine Ouellette)
Lin Thompson (Courtesy Katherine Ouellette)

In “The Best Liars in Riverview,” sixth graders Aubrey and Joel have been best friends for so long, they can’t remember if they were drawn together because they’re “the same kind of weird,” or if they’re the same kind of weird because they’ve been friends so long. They’ve spent countless hours in the woods playing games like "secret agents,” “pirates” and “woodland elves.” “The Running-Away Game” started the same way — as a game. They built a raft and everything. But when Joel disappears after he and Aubrey have a fight, the raft disappears too, and Aubrey is the only one in town who knows where Joel might be. As Aubrey takes it upon themself to search for their runaway friend in the woods, they also go on a journey of self-exploration, piecing together clues about their own gender identity and Joel’s motivations for running away for real. “The Best Liars in Riverview” is a tender novel about growing up wrapped in a compelling mystery.

A family culture of reading

Thompson grew up in a household of readers with frequent library trips, bedtime story read-alouds, and two older sisters who read constantly. By 7th grade, Thompson was reading at an 11th grade level. But their voracious reading habits dropped off when their school reading program forbade students from reading books below their tested reading level. “I wanted to read ‘To Kill a Mockingbird,’ but even that was considered too ‘low,’” Thompson says. “I could read ‘Pride and Prejudice’ or ‘The Old Man and the Sea,’ but I was really disinterested. I ended up reading ‘Animal Farm’ quite literally.”

The school got rid of that rule the following year and Thompson’s love of reading came back with a vengeance. “I unlocked this ferocity with reading that I didn’t have before,” they say. “I was always a reader but I was never a fast reader. Suddenly I was reading a book every two days.” This personal anecdote later informed Thompson’s philosophy as a children’s librarian during the rise in popularity of graphic novels. While some parents and educators argue that graphic novels and comics don’t count as “real reading,” Thompson is part of the camp who believes “Kids should read whatever they want, otherwise they won’t read.”

Writing as a reader

From preschool onward, Thompson knew they wanted to be a writer. Some of their earliest writing projects from elementary school were modeled after the authors they read — rewrites of snippets from published books in their own voice. But even for someone who wanted to be an author since they were four years old, they didn’t let anyone actually read their writing before college. “I was very secretive,” Thompson says. To avoid their family reading the fantasy book they were writing in middle school, they titled the document on the family computer as “influenza report,” complete with a decoy first page about the flu copied over from Wikipedia. When they attended their first writing workshop at Emerson College, they came to the realization that writing could be a community. “This was my first time reading other people’s writing,” Thompson says. “I was amazed you could talk to people about what you wanted to write and vice versa, and those people would get excited about your story.” That environment helped them build their confidence as a writer.

The cover of Lin Thompson's "The Best Liars in Riverview." (Courtesy Hachette Book Group)

The first iteration of “The Best Liars in Riverview” came from one of their undergraduate writing classes. “From high school onward, I was fixated with the idea of moving away from everyone you knew, cutting ties, and starting fresh,” Thompson says. “At the time, I had no idea what was prompting it.” The original short story was about two friends who planned to run away on a raft they made together. It focused on the preparation and the anticipation of running away, rather than the action itself, or even the characters’ reasons for doing so. Thompson kept returning to this story again, and again, coinciding with their years-long journey of discovering their own identity.

“Looking back, my fascination with the idea of running away was very much tied up with complicated feelings about gender and queerness,” Thompson says. “When I was the age of these characters, I didn’t know what I was experiencing, but I can now recognize the questions I was trying to answer. What if I could disconnect from the picture of me that comes from people I grew up around? What if I changed my name and cut my hair and moved away so no one knew me any differently?” They never attempted to run away themself because they knew, on some level, that would not fix everything.

Although Thompson originally intended to work in publishing after college, their internship at 826 Boston and their work experience as a camp counselor made them realize they would rather work to put books in the hands of children directly. They pursued their master's in children's literature and library services at Simmons College and became a children’s librarian at the main branch of the Boston Public Library. “Part of what I loved most about being a children’s librarian was the chaos of it,” they say. Between storytimes, craft programs, baby dance parties and researching niche book topics for inquiring children, they say, “I had a good time of making a fool of myself…You’re here for the children, there isn’t time to be self-conscious.”

All the while, Thompson sought out communal support on their writing journey through Lambda Literary's Writer’s Retreat for Emerging LGBTQ Voices and Pitch Wars. Those communities had fellow writers who understood the complexities of discovering yourself on a personal level and portraying that experience on the page. Like protagonist Aubrey learns in “The Best Liars in Riverview,” Thompson found that life’s big milestones are a little less scary if you have friends to support you along the way.

Related:

Katherine Ouellette Twitter Literature Writer
Katherine Ouellette covers literature for WBUR.

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