October 12, 2023
By Lesléa Newman, writing for children and young adults faculty
My friend Tayari Jones, author of An American Marriage and several other beautifully written and groundbreaking novels, told me something I will always remember. Years ago, I was talking to her about how my newest book was doing, which was not as well as I had hoped. (Does any book ever meet any writer’s expectations?) In the middle of my complaining, Tayari looked me straight in the eye and straightened me out. “You know, it’s important for a book to do well,” she said, “but it’s more important for a book to do good.”
What an excellent reminder.
Let’s not kid ourselves: at the end of the day, sales figures, not to mention royalty checks, do count. But what counts more is the effect a book has on a reader. It sounds corny, but it’s true: if something I write touches at least one reader, then I have done my job.
Many of my books are about social justice and that is the case with my newest title, Always Matt: A Tribute to Matthew Shepard. Matt was a University of Wyoming student who, in 1998, was killed simply for being gay. His story made headlines around the world and became a watershed moment in the LGBTQ+ rights movement.
It was a shocking and brutal murder. Matt was kidnapped, robbed, beaten, and tied to a fence where he lay bruised and bleeding for eighteen hours through a cold Wyoming night before he was accidentally discovered by a mountain biker. He was taken to a hospital and remained in a coma for six days before his body finally gave out.
On October 12, 1998, the day that Matthew Shepard died, I flew out to Wyoming to give a talk at his school about LGBTQ+ rights. Months before he was attacked, I had been invited to be the keynote speaker for his school’s Gay Awareness Week. The title of my presentation was “Heather’s Mommy Speaks Out: Homophobia, Censorship, and Family Values,” Heather being a reference to my picture book, Heather Has Two Mommies. The irony and timeliness of my talk did not escape me.
Even though I never met Matt Shepard, he has been a very important person in my life for the past twenty-five years. I did meet some of his friends and teachers on October 12, 1998, and promised them I would do all I could to keep his name alive. To that end, on the plane ride home, I wrote an essay about my experience in Wyoming called “Imagine,” which appeared in dozens of regional LGBTQ+ newspapers over the next few months. And I continued giving talks on college campuses about LGBTQ+ rights, starting off every presentation by reading “Imagine” so that Matt would not be forgotten.
As the years passed, I realized that more and more people had no idea who Matthew Shepard was. The college students I was speaking to were in grade school when he died; they couldn’t be expected to know anything about him. And so I wrote October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard, a book-length series of poems that explores the impact his murder had upon the world, told from many points of view including the fence he was tied to, the moon and stars that watched over him, a deer that curled next to him for part of the night, and many others.
I spent the next ten years sharing October Mourning with readers of all ages. The book did well and won many awards, but more importantly, the book did good. A high school teacher wrote to tell me that she had a student who never paid attention and was in danger of flunking out. He was deeply affected by October Mourning and, after reading it, started writing poems of his own. I heard from a high school football player who told me after reading the book that he would never use an anti-gay slur again.
And now a quarter of a century has passed, and most college students weren’t even born when Matthew Shepard was killed. The time has come to share his story in a new way: instead of focusing on his death, it is time to focus on his life.
Matt was a person with a family who loved him, with hopes and dreams, and plans. In my new book, I tell the world that Matt loved his cat Clayton, he loved macaroni and cheese, and he loved Dolly Parton. I tell the world that he had planned on working for social justice; he wanted to make the world a better place. And I acknowledge the many people who have carried on this work in his memory: Judy and Dennis Shepard, who created the Matthew Shepard Foundation two months after their son was killed on what would have been his twenty-second birthday; Jim Osborn and ten other individuals, who started Angel Action, a group that challenges anti-gay protestors by dressing as angels and standing silently in front of them; and President Barack Obama, who signed into law the Matthew Shepard/James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, among others.
It is my hope that Always Matt: A Tribute to Matthew Shepard will inspire readers to take action and make the world a better place. In other words, while this is a book that I hope will do well, more importantly, I hope it is a book that will do good.
Lesléa Newman has created more than eighty books for readers of all ages. Her most recent title, Always Matt: A Tribute to Matthew Shepard is a book-length fully illustrated poem that celebrates Matthew Shepard’s life and legacy.