Nina Packebush's first novel, Girls Like Me, breaks new ground with the story of a pregnant queer teenager, Banjo. Recently named as a recommended title by the In the Margins 2018 Book Awards, Packebush says she wrote Girls Like Me "for myself, my friends, all of the queer teen parents out there, as well as anyone who has ever felt like they don't fit in." The book was also recently nominated for a Lambda Literary Award.
"Queer teen parents absolutely never appear in books, movies, or T.V. shows," Packebush told Windy City Times. As a prior teen mother herself, she felt a special commitment to create an authentic character that would resonate with a more marginalized readership. And surprisingly, Packebush says that her book is the first to explore the experience of pregnant, queer identified teens.
Banjo's story is a heartfelt narrative accurately reflecting a young person's struggle to begin to reconcile some serious life issues. These include grappling with her lover's recent suicide, her unexpected pregnancy, a complicated home life, and the condescending attitude of judgmental adults. "I was really passionate about writing a book that didn't shy away from the tough stuff," said Packebush. "I think these are all issues that teens are facing every day." Subsequently, she handles some difficult aspects of the storysuch as Banjo's mental-health hospitalization, and her self-harm tendencies, with a sensitive, youth oriented perspective. And although Packebush wrote this novel with a teen readership in mind, it has strong crossover appeal for adults.
Packebush stated "wanting to shed some light on how trauma impacts mental health." Yet her book is neither didactic nor a pity party. Girls Like Me is filled with light, life and hope, and if Banjo struggles, she is also clearly resilient, and determined to survive. As Banjo courageously looks inward, finding strength in her family, friends, and new therapist, she forges ahead in learning to use new coping skills benefiting herself and her unborn child. Banjo's emotional growth during the book also becomes the glue that unites and begins to heal her previously fractured family, consisting of an older sister, her nephew and lesbian mother.
"I am a grown-up queer teen mom and my oldest daughter was a teen mom," said Packebush. "I've experienced friends taking their own lives, poverty, and many of the other things that Banjo and her friends experience. I've taken bits and pieces from my own life, bits and pieces from the lives of my friends, and bits and pieces from the lives of some teenagers I know, and then filled in the rest with a large dose of fiction."
Packebush said she hopes readers take two messages away from Girls Like Me. She stated, "I want pregnant and parenting teenagers to realize that they are good enough parents. I want them to see that even if their lives aren't perfect, they can still parent if they want to." Secondly, she hopes that readers see that teens "don't need judgment and shame, they need celebration and support. Teens have the right to choose to parent, and if they do, we as a society need to be there for them."
Although Girls Like Me is a stand-alone novel, readers will definitely be rooting for Banjo by books' end, and wonder how she and her family fare in the future. Packebush confirms that she has been working on a sequel, which will provide a welcome opportunity for readers to follow Banjo's story further. For as mothers of any age know, in fiction and in life, pregnancy will only be the start of Banjo's journey.
Rachel Pepper is the author of several books about pregnancy and parenting, including Transitions of the Heart: Stories of Love, Struggle and Acceptance by Mothers of Transgender and Gender Variant Children. She can be reached at Rachel-Pepper.com.