These Young Adult Novels Come With Back Stories: The Authors’ Own

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Atlanta — Allison Glock and T Cooper live behind a white picket fence, an enclosure so tidy and welcoming that it seems to grin at passers-by. Its cheer is a match for their house, warmed on the inside by an upright piano, a plump sofa facing the weathered wood fireplace, and family portraits lining the walls. This is home, you may imagine, to the quintessential American family, living contentedly behind its clapboard facade.

And you would be right, to a point.

“We are a family of difference — not that we make a big deal of it,” Ms. Glock said as she set out platters of biscuits for her husband; her teenage daughters, Dixie and Matilda; and a guest.

And not that it shows at a glance. To meet them, Mr. Cooper lean and bearded in a chambray work shirt, Ms. Glock showing off a russet bob that complemented her gray-speckled top, you would be hard-pressed to say just what sets them apart.

Still, differences announced themselves the other week as the family settled at the kitchen refectory table to talk, the conversation punctuated by the sounds of their pit bulls, Milton and Elvis, noisily lapping from a water bowl nearby.

Ms. Glock, 48, a poet, memoirist, screenwriter and a senior staff writer for ESPN, is the daughter of a stoutly conservative Southern family. Mr. Cooper, 44, a novelist, television writer and documentary filmmaker, is a transplanted New Yorker descended from Russian Jewish immigrants. He is also transgender.

Those distinctions, which bind but by no means define them, lie at the heart of their recent work. They are the married authors of “Changers,” a well-received series of young adult novels, each a nervy exploration of what it may be like for an adolescent to swap identities at the start of every school year.

“As an L.G.B.T. family, we are writing content for the kids we used to be,” said Ms. Glock, who signs the series as Allison Glock-Cooper. “Our main characters are diverse in every way: race, body type, gender, sexual orientation.”

She was describing in rough outlines the members of an ancient, enigmatic fictional race called Changers, teenagers required to spend each of their four years of high school outwardly transformed, having assumed a radically new identity.

In “Book One: Drew,” readers become briefly acquainted with 13-year-old Ethan, who has just moved from New York to Tennessee and wakes up on the first day of his freshman year in the alien body of a girl (the title character): a pretty, athletic blond cheerleader he may have lusted after in his former life.

Ethan-now-Drew must navigate the shoals of freshman year and find her place in the knotty high school hierarchy. In “Book Two,” Drew becomes Oryon, an African-American boy negotiating a truce between his former selves and his latest incarnation. He experiences not just thinly veiled racism, but also, like Drew before him, the uneasy sensation — one familiar to transgender and gender-fluid young people — of being in the wrong body.

By the start of “Book Three” he has morphed into the overweight, hence overlooked, thornily rebellious Kim.

Each character is given the task of chronicling his or her experiences before moving on to the next identity, and they are expected to settle by the end of four years on one of those identities, without the option of returning to the person they were at the start.

Bummer? Not really. “Choosing who you want to be — that’s the ultimate choice,” Ms. Glock said. “For most people that’s mind-blowing.”

The consciousness-altering prospect of radical transformation, explored in books like “In the Darkroom,” which details the author Susan Faludi’s discovery that her father had become a woman, and “The Argonauts,” Maggie Nelson’s gender-bending memoir; or in television fare like the Amazon series “Transparent,” promises to render the “Changers” series as marketable as it is topical, catnip to curiosity seekers and, not less, to the marginalized communities that often get short shrift in other young adult fiction.

“There was a moment in publishing where transgender literature went from being published quietly, almost like samizdat, to being pushed to the front of the bookstore,” said Todd Shuster, a literary agent in New York. Its appeal, like that of portrayals of other outsider groups, is becoming mainstream, Mr. Shuster suggested.

“As transgender and gender-fluid people have become comfortable in accepting themselves, publishing has embraced that,” he said. “And Hollywood has embraced it too, to the point where it may be seen as an advantage to have that kind of character front and center in the action.”

Ms. Glock said the books were not written with marketability in mind. “We honestly just set out to write books for kids we knew, kids we love and the kids we were,” she said.

In the Trump era, a period of escalating racial, ethnic and sexual strains, that objective is timely. “Those tensions didn’t seem unmanageable until recently,” Ms. Glock said. “The weeks leading up to and after the election have created an environment that has given people permission to be more hostile.”

A national survey of over 10,000 educators last fall by the Southern Poverty Law Center seems to reinforce that point. Ninety percent of respondents maintained that the election had a negative impact on their schools, and 40 percent had witnessed episodes in which minorities and other marginalized students were targeted, intimidated or harassed.

All the more reason, the Glock-Coopers say, to get on with their work. “Book Four,” in progress, examines the life of a Changer who misuses his power. And though the Glock-Coopers are reluctant to reveal much about it just yet, a Changers television series is in development.

“These stories give readers permission to think about what it would be like to wake up as another gender or another race,” Mr. Cooper said. The work is a plea for empathy, he added, “an investigation of what it might mean literally to step into the shoes of another.”

One may learn, as Drew does, that being pretty and popular is no shield against the envy or predations of her nastier peers. One may encounter, with Oryon, the reserves of fear and bias that are only partly concealed by a veil of civility.

Oryon is compelled to sit in the school lunchroom exclusively with other black students and endure racial profiling at the hands of the local police; he is roughed up by members of a faction known as the Abiders, self-appointed keepers of the status quo. “If you learn anything as a Changer,” he observes in “Book Two,” “it’s that all the supposedly bygone stereotypes and prejudices are far from bygone.”

For Mr. Cooper, the book provides an opportunity as well to sort out and clear up misconceptions about what it is to be transgender. “That doesn’t entail just a change of name or surgery or clothes or haircut,” he said. “For so many people it is hard to understand that a man can be attracted to women but then also feel like a woman. Once he transitions into a female, that doesn’t mean he suddenly wants to be with men.”

That observation is reflected throughout the series. “Somebody who has to live through four different iterations,” Mr. Cooper said, “learns that gender doesn’t really affect what or whom he’s drawn to.”

Each book is a probe into effects of gender, race and body image on the formation of identity. Those externals, along with the experiences accrued in a lifetime, do little to alter that immutable bedrock known as character, the authors argue. “Each of the books is a meditation on the essentialness of humans,” Mr. Cooper said.

The rest, they maintain, is performance, the trying on and the subsequent discarding of masks, a process scarcely more affecting or permanent than experimenting with a new hairstyle, a pair of shredded jeans or, for that matter, a Snapchat persona. “We as humans are all in transition all of the time,” Mr. Cooper said.

It is a process familiar to perpetually shape-shifting teenagers, including the Coopers’ daughters.

“I’m still trying to find myself, to figure out who I am,” Dixie, 16, said. “But I also feel that through different experiences, and even the wearing of different clothes, I’m essentially the same person — that there is a difference between who you are and how you choose to present yourself.”

Raking her fingers through her mink-and-ermine-tinted hair, Matilda, 15, seemed less certain. “The way you present yourself changes the way people treat you,” she said, adding with mounting conviction, “The way people treat you changes who you are.”

Conversations with and about their daughters set the series in motion. “As they grew, it seemed like the girls woke up with different personalities day to day, minute to minute,” Mr. Cooper said. “We wondered, if you were entirely transforming for every year of school what that would do to a soul.”

They took a page as well from the playbook of their own lives, the series providing the Coopers a chance to exhume and examine a shared past. They were introduced, indirectly, by a New York Times book critic, who asked them to contribute to a writer’s playlist. “When I saw T’s list I thought, ‘Well, look there,’” Ms. Glock recalled. “There were a lot of artists on it that I love.”

“So I did my list and wrote you a line or two, like you do, writer to writer,” she added, darting a glance at her husband.

After that, she said, “we just started corresponding very sweetly, in an old-fashioned way.” They discovered what Mr. Cooper, who had begun his transition several years earlier, called “uncommon commonalities,” among them a shared admiration for Dolly Parton and an attachment to old artifacts, especially those connected with their own quirky family histories.

When Ms. Glock eventually traveled on assignment to New York, they met face to face. Though she is not typically moved by fairy tale fantasies or, as she put it, by the LMN movie of the week, “When I saw T in person, the air was literally moving around him,” she said. “It was bizarre. I felt super-drawn and connected.”

Mr. Cooper’s recollections were earthier. At the time, Ms. Glock was staying at the W hotel in Union Square. “We met in the coffee shop and talked,” he said. “Then we went back to the W.” The rest, as they say, is history.

After a peripatetic romance that took the couple to Jacksonville, Fla., to spend time with Ms. Glock’s family, and to what would become their farm near Hudson, N.Y., they married, the occasion commemorated with matching tattoos inscribed with the date Feb. 7, 2010.

Three years ago, they moved to Atlanta. “It’s one of the more progressive and integrated cities,” Mr. Cooper said. “At brunch, at the cinema, in the spa or on the street, there is always a wide range of folks inhabiting the same space.”

Ms. Glock said, “We find that diversity very comforting.”

There have nonetheless been hurdles. “This is still Georgia,” she said. “Atlanta doesn’t have its race problems figured out by any means.”

There is also the matter of an occasionally chilly reception to those perceived as different. “We’ve experienced anger,” Ms. Glock said. “It could be anything from the well-intentioned friend who, when we first got together, told me, ‘I’m worried about the kids,’ to being threatened in the subway. You find that kind of thing across the board.”

“It’s scary,” she added, “but we don’t want to be afraid, we don’t want to be ashamed. At the same time it’s hard to know what to do.”

The books may well provide a template, not just for their readers but also for the authors. “I just wish I’d had them when I was growing up,” Mr. Cooper said.