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YA Writer and Activist Talks Identity, Social Reform, and Community Through Coming of Age Stories

In their debut novel, The Invincible Summer of Juniper Jones, writer Daven McQueen touches on lessons of ethnic identity, social reform, and the lasting power of friendship and community.

McQueen grew up in a Los Angeles suburb and graduated from Brown University with a bachelor’s degree in Literary Arts and Economics. They currently reside in Boston as a graduate student studying fiction writing.

Born to a Jamaican father and Filipina mother, McQueen enjoys studying their Black and Filipino histories and steadily grew a passion for organizing solidarity across Black and Asian communities.

“I very much see my identity as political, and I think that in the United States and our society, as it exists today, it’s kind of a given that ethnic identities are political,” they said.

During their formative years at five to six years old, McQueen had already developed a love for reading and writing. But it was in middle school that they began recognizing their interest in writing and teaching.

What began as a submission piece for the National Novel Writing Month contest hosted by Wattpad, an online literature platform where users can read and write original stories, became a 70,000-word sensation.

The Invincible Summer of Juniper Jones, a young adult story set during the Jim Crow era, follows the biracial character of Ethan Harper. While spending a summer with his aunt and uncle in small-town Alabama, Ethan is confronted for the first time by what it means to be Black in America. Unwelcomed and facing discrimination, Ethan embarks on a journey alongside the town’s free spirit, Juniper Jones. The two find beauty in the ugliest of situations and discover that an invincible summer can arise from even the darkest of moments.

“I purposely didn’t want to include a romantic relationship between the main characters because I wanted to focus on — especially for kids and young people — the importance of really strong friendships,” McQueen said.

In addition to the overarching theme of friendship, much of McQueen’s literary works center around what it means to be Black, Filipino, and queer. As a community organizer, McQueen explores the intersection of writing and political satire that speak to the liberation movements of the different identities they hold. The Invincible Summer of Juniper Jones intends to ignite in readers a better understanding of the political nature of identity and encourage audiences to engage with people of diverse cultures in good faith and fight for each other’s freedom.

Through their experience writing for Wattpad, McQueen also learned the invaluable lesson of building community with writers across the country.

“Having a writing community of friends with similar goals who are willing to hold each other accountable through virtual writing sessions, for example, is a huge factor in maintaining motivation. An important part of writing is having people read your stuff and give you feedback,” McQueen said.

Following the publication of their book, McQueen conducted multiple virtual classroom visits across the country, encouraging younger audiences to speak out on social issues like race in America. They emphasize the importance of utilizing young adult literature for social reform and a space for youth to challenge their identity and perceptions of the world.

“People have talked about children’s books needing to be very specific or sanitized. We still see that in many states, schools, and libraries who are banning books dealing with identity and political topics,” McQueen said. “We must have faith in young people that they’re able to engage with and want to engage with these topics. It’s important not to underestimate young people and give them material to help them form their own opinions.”

McQueen currently teaches rhetoric, composition, and research writing to first-year students at Emerson College and has aspirations to teach at the public school or community college level in the future. They are also working on a new writing project that centers on climate change, sea monsters, and the power of friendship.

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