Julie Anne Peters, Whose Young-Adult Books Caused a Stir, Dies at 71
Julie Anne Peters, whose 2004 book, “Luna,” is thought to have been the first young-adult novel with a transgender character to be released by a mainstream publisher, and whose books have been among those singled out by conservative groups in Texas and other states for removal from library shelves, died on March 21 at her home in Wheat Ridge, Colo. She was 71.
Her agent, Wendy Schmalz, did not give the cause but said the death came after a long illness.
Ms. Peters’s first novel for young readers, “The Stinky Sneaker Contest” (1992), is a humorous yarn aimed at 8- to 12-year-olds, and she stuck with relatively mild subjects for a few years. “How Do You Spell Geek?” (1997), for instance, centers on eighth graders and the National Spelling Bee.
But after Ms. Peters published “Define ‘Normal,’” a more ambitious novel about the unlikely friendship between an honor student and the punk girl for whom she serves as a peer counselor, her editor, Megan Tingley, urged her to consider pushing the envelope.
“There were very few books for young adults featuring L.G.B.T.Q.+ characters at the time,” Ms. Tingley, now president and publisher of Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, said by email, “so I asked her if she had ever thought of trying to write one. She responded very definitively that she would never write about that side of her life because she feared discrimination in her hometown,” in Colorado — even though she had been living openly as a lesbian for years.
But Ms. Tingley had apparently lit a fire, and not long after, the manuscript of Ms. Peters’s “Keeping You a Secret” arrived at her desk. Aimed at older teenagers, it is the story of a has-it-all high school girl who finds herself falling for an openly lesbian transfer student. The book was published in 2003, and the response from readers startled Ms. Peters.
“If the volume of mail is any indication, there’s a hunger for this, a yearning,” she told The Advocate, the L.G.B.T.Q. newsmagazine, shortly after the book appeared. “In the first month I must have gotten hundreds of letters. I’m amazed — and I could kick myself for not doing it earlier.”
And then, in 2004, came “Luna.” The novel’s narrator, Regan, tells the story of her older brother, Liam, who rejects his father’s urging that he try out for the school baseball team; has only girls, no boys, at his birthday party; and at night tries on makeup and wigs, becoming Luna.
“If Liam could wish for one thing in the world, one birthday present, he would ask to be born again,” Regan says. “Born right, in the body of a girl.”
“Luna” was a finalist for the National Book Award for young people’s literature. Ms. Peters followed it up with other books on contentious topics.
“Far From Xanadu” (2005) is about a butch teenage lesbian in Kansas who becomes smitten with a newcomer named Xanadu. “grl2grl” (2007) is a short-story collection about queer teenage girls. “By the Time You Read This, I’ll Be Dead” (2009) is about a teenager contemplating suicide.
Among those who have taken aim at Ms. Peters’s books is Matt Krause, a state representative in Texas who in 2021 issued a list of about 850 books he wanted investigated because, he said, they “might make students feel discomfort, guilt, anguish or any other form of psychological distress because of their race or sex.” According to news accounts, Ms. Peters had more books on that list than any other author: nine.
“This is so sad to me, because I know what a lifeline her novels have been for young readers struggling with sexual orientation, gender identity and depression,” Ms. Tingley said. “Why would you want to ban an author who has received thousands of letters from teens saying, ‘Your books saved my life’?”
Julie Anne Peters was born on Jan. 16, 1952, in Jamestown, N.Y., in the southwest corner of the state. Her mother, Doris Dehnert Peters, was an administrative assistant at a college, and her father, John, taught middle school.
Ms. Peters is survived by her partner of 40 years, Sheri Leggett, whom she married in 2014; a brother, John Peters; and two sisters, Jeanne Clark and Susan Clark.
Ms. Peters grew up in Denver and earned a bachelor’s degree in early education at Colorado Women’s College in 1974 and a master’s degree in computer science at the University of Colorado Denver in 1982.
After earning her bachelor’s degree, she tried teaching fifth grade. But, as The Denver Post noted in a 2003 article about her, “she now jokes that she can be found in the Guinness Book of World Records under ‘World’s Worst Teacher.’”
Ms. Peters had been working in computers for a decade when, as she told a student audience in Denver in 2003, she started writing after teenage characters kept materializing in her head.
“I really thought I was losing it,” she said. “I thought: ‘I have two options here. I could go into a mental institution and get some serious shock therapy, or I could write it down.’ I decided to become a writer, because going into an institution might go on my permanent record.”