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Something to be Proud Of

Imogen Quinn is a chaotic bisexual with dreams of becoming a stand-up comedian, crushing stereotypes about autistic people. When she decides to put on a pride festival that’s accessible for everyone, she enlists the help of the openly gay captain of the football team, Ollie Armstrong.

Dealing with the fallout from his parents’ divorce, Ollie is initially hesitant. But it doesn’t take long for him to be swept up by Imogen’s passion, and he’s not the only one. Joined by the (infuriatingly perfect) head girl, musicians, an artist and a star baker – a dream team soon assembles to help plan pride and tackle injustices in their school and beyond. You’d better listen out – they’re getting ready to make some noise.

Packed full of fun, forever friendships and fighting back, this YA debut is perfect for fans of I Kissed Shara WheelerGwen and Art are Not in LoveFeel GoodHeartstopper and Not My Problem.

Little Tiger
Cover illustration by Lucía Gomez Alcaide

SOMETHING TO BE PROUD OF is Anna Zoe Quirke‘s debut novel and published TODAY! I really loved this book, it ticks most of my boxes: realistic teens, humour, friendship, angst (but not too much), romance (but not too much), positive disability rep, unashamedly LGBTQIA+ characters, present but imperfect families…and, a personal highlight: a non-US based author as I am often annoyed by the number of American titles published and highlighted in the UK when there is so much home-grown (or anywhere-else-on-the-globe-grown) talent we could be supporting. I got the chance to ask a few questions!

The book is own-voices but is it autobiographical at all?

Not really. Imogen is an own-voices character as I’m also a queer autistic person, but I definitely wasn’t brave enough in high school to get up to half the shenanigans that they do! (Although there was a photoshopping incident with my headteacher but that was less an act of protest and more a ‘teenager being a little sh*t’ thing.) 

I’ve always thought that I would have been more like Imogen had I known I was autistic and been able to unmask earlier. There are hints at what Imogen used to be like before they fully came into their own and felt comfortable in their identity and those experiences and feelings were definitely inspired by how I felt when I was younger.

If anything, Ollie’s story is the more autobiographical one for me. Nothing was taken directly from my life because, you know, boundaries, but my parents also got divorced when I was in high school, and I’ve had to navigate tricky dynamics with loved ones like he does. Plus, his journey with figuring out what his gender means to him was really special for me to write, as I’ve had to do a lot of figuring out what I wanted my gender to mean to me too.

Was the dual narrative there from the very first draft?

It was. I’m a very character-focused writer so when I’m coming up with a book idea I always know who the characters are first before I know exactly what the plot will be, and Something to be Proud Of was no exception. Both Imogen and Ollie burst into my head and demanded that I write about them, so yes, it was always going to be a dual narrative story – I always knew they both had really important things to say and I felt like they deserved to say them in their own voice. Plus – in my very unbiased opinion – I feel like it’s really lovely that we get to see what their friendship means to them from both their perspectives as it’s developing.

Which character was your favourite to write?

I loved writing all of the characters, but I think I do have to go with Imogen. Writing Imogen’s character was the most fun I’ve had writing ever. They’re funny, silly, unashamedly passionate and I’ll always have fond memories of sitting at my desk cackling out loud to myself and making my dog think I’d lost my marbles while I was writing certain chapters of Imogen’s. However, that being said, all of my absolute favourite moments to write were the ones that were between Imogen and Ollie. Their friendship was an utter joy to write and I’m so grateful that I had them to keep me company during the COVID lockdowns!

What advice would you give to a teen if you’ve inspired them to get involved in setting up an inclusive Pride event in their area?

I love this question and I really do encourage everyone to try and make all their Pride events as inclusive as they can! Here are some thoughts/questions you might want to consider:

–        Think about the specific community you want to do your event in – do you know of any particular needs there that you can take into consideration?

–        What’s been lacking from other pride events you’ve been to? Were they accessible for wheelchairs/people with other mobility aids? Did they cater to different sensory needs?

–        Don’t be afraid to do some research – no one’s expecting you to know absolutely everything straight away, in fact, it’s really important to recognise that you don’t know things. If you think you know everything then you’re closing off the possibility to continue learning. (Also, just as a reminder, when you’re doing research, reading the thoughts and opinions of the groups of people you’re trying to involve in your event is always best, rather than people without that lived experience.)

–        Imagine an environment where you are entirely comfortable, calm, and feel celebrated for who you are. What does that space look like? How can you take even just small steps towards creating that space?

–        If you can, try and gather an amazing team around you. Chances are you’re not the only person that cares about making things more inclusive and besides, everything’s easier with a great team around you so that you can support each other, brainstorm ideas, commiserate when things don’t go to plan and celebrate together when they do.

–        A last reminder: the fact that you’re trying is such a wonderful starting place. You have that softness and that ‘I just want everyone to feel safe’ part inside you, and that’s a really beautiful thing. Be gentle with yourself, and if you feel like you didn’t do something right or forgot something you feel like you should have included, then give yourself grace and just make a note to do that next time. There’s so much pressure to be the ‘perfect’ activist and it’s often really counterproductive. If people worry too much about being perfect, then they might become so anxious that they can’t do anything at all. But doing something is always better than nothing.

What are you reading at the moment and who would you recommend it to?

I’m currently rereading Jane Austen’s Emma. I’d recommend any of Jane’s work (Persuasion is my favourite!) to pretty much anyone. Jane’s stories are so warm, her characters feel so real, and she writes with such wit – she’s a huge writing inspiration of mine.

And then I’m also rereading the Northern Lights trilogy with the students in the ‘Book to Screen Club’ that I run in my library (alongside watching the BBC adaptation) and we’re having an excellent time with it. If you like magic, adventure and high stakes, whether you’re a teen or adult, I definitely recommend those books.

I’ve also just been sent an ARC of Not for the Faint of Heart by my friend, Lex Croucher, which is a historical queer romance/adventure inspired by the story of Robin Hood. Lex’s books are always super fun, laugh-out-loud reads, so I’m very excited to dig into this one.

Will we see more of Imogen or are you working on something different?

Both Imogen and Ollie will always occupy a big chunk of my brain. I have dozens of little snippets of scenes written in my phone notes because I’m always thinking about them and what might have happened in their lives after we leave them at the end of STBPO. Unfortunately though, sequels are pretty rare, so I doubt I’ll ever fully return to the world of STBPO in that way. 

But, I am currently working on edits for another book that’s coming out in 2025. It’s a queer rom-com this time, with similar found family vibes and hijinks to STBPO but alongside themes of mental health and figuring out (or not) the nuances of your sexuality. I feel like I’ve properly fallen in love with this book during the editing process and I can’t wait for people to read it next year!

Anna Zoe Quirke is a queer and autistic author and librarian from the North of England. She currently lives in Manchester with her partner, Rachael, and their very angry tortoise, Sheldon. They’re at their happiest writing stories about queer and neurodivergent people finding and claiming their place in the world, exploring the literary wonders of the UK, or making a big ol’ mess in the kitchen baking things for their loved ones.