With a mission to make camps and schools “kinder, gentler places for everyone,” Elaine Wolf, author of Danny’s Mom, offers insight into homophobia and bullying in such institutions and “what really happens behind the closed gates and doors of our camps and schools,” Wolf told 429 Magazine.
For her anti-bullying novels CAMP and Danny’s Mom, she will receive the 2013 Community Upstander Award on May 1, presented by the Holocaust Memorial and Tolerance Center of Nassau County, New York. The ceremony is designed to in turn raise funds for educational programs “that inspire a community of Upstanders for tomorrow.”
With a background in teaching at a public middle school, and as a high school reading specialist and a K-12 director of reading/language arts, Wolf maintains a fluency in school systems, which she applied to her love for writing.
She described her transition into professional writing as if taking a plunge. After being offered more responsibilities at her year-end evaluation, Wolf considered moving on. She related back to a scene from The Truman Show, which she saw that weekend:
“Remember that scene at the end of the film when Truman is struggling to find an exit from the circumscribed world in which he has spent his life,” Wolf asked. “I realized I felt like Truman did: I needed to break out of the school world. I needed to write.”
Realizing that she no longer wanted to work in the school system, she submitted her letter of resignation that day, enrolled in writing classes, and attended seminars and writer’s workshops.
“And then I spent two years writing the manuscript that became Danny’s Mom,” Wolf said.
The novel, which reached the #1 Kindle book spot on Amazon in gay and lesbian fiction and literature, focuses on homophobia, bullying, and finding the strength and courage to do the right thing, as Wolf explained.
“It’s the story of a high school guidance counselor who risks her marriage and her career when she takes a stand against homophobia,” Wolf explained.
She goes on to explain how often she’d butt heads with principles and assistant principles, who clutched tightly to “don’t-rock-the-boat policies,” which caused more damage than good.
“I learned that sometimes the biggest bullies in our schools are actually the adults at the helm, those we charge with keeping our children safe,” Wolf said.
Wanting to shed light on the fact that not only students are bullies, Wolf includes administrators and teaching bullying as well as student-on-student bullying in Danny’s Mom.
The novel was set in 2000, two years after Matthew Shepard was “brutally beaten, tied to a fence post, and left to die.” This was before any state recognized civil unions, before LGBT equal rights became law, before the Supreme Court ruled that sodomy laws are unconstitutional, and before marriage equality became mainstream news.
“In Danny’s Mom, homophobia snakes through the hallways of Meadow Brook High School – because, sadly, that’s how it was 13 years ago,” Wolf explained.
Rooting from a personal experience, the first scene in Danny’s Mom takes into account her son’s car accident, which although did not cause him any major injuries, rocked her to her core.
“Although I was so lucky that my son’s accident damaged only the car, I played ‘what if’ for years,” she described.
Wolf explains that, despite the fact that her novels have garnered much acclaim, Danny’s Mom was set back a number of times as editors told her agent that they “loved the story, loved the writing—but no one [wanted]to read about homophobia and bullying.”
And, though she didn’t set out to become “the anti-bullying novelist” or an LGBTQ advocate and ally, Wolf said it was “impossible not to write about homophobia and bullying” as her novels take place in a summer camp and high school.
However, she feels as if she’s been an advocate for the LGBT community for as long as she can remember. She described several experiences through her life from her gay best friends and family members, to a lesbian couple who couldn’t publically display their love in public, to personally seeing bullying in a number of situations, to what happened to Matthew Shepard, which brought her to writing her novel.
“I will continue to speak out against homophobia and bullying at every author talk, at every meeting, and at every school presentation because, as Hillary Clinton says, ‘gay rights are human rights’,” Wolf said.
She goes on to explain that because she is the daughter of a German immigrant who lost family in the concentration camps, she cannot stay silent.
“I cannot be a bystander,” she said. “People stood by and watched as millions were killed by the Nazis. The victims of Nazi atrocities were targeted based on religion, sexual orientation, and appearance. Bullies today target their victims for those same reasons.”
Wolf points out that one of the highlights of her writing career was giving a keynote speech at a large teacher’s conference where she spoke about her novels and shared strategies “for creating kinder, gentler classroom communities that embrace diversity.”
She revealed that through her novels, she found her true mission: “to continue to make a difference by speaking out until our camps and schools are safer for all kids –– and our LGBTQ brothers and sisters are welcomed everywhere with the freedom and dignity that should be accorded to everyone.”
There is word that Danny’s Mom and CAMP may hit the big screen in the future. Wolf’s wildest dream at this point is to see that happen, and to generate more awareness about homophobia and bullying.
“The choices we make and the actions we take make a huge difference,” Wolf said. “So I speak out. I go to gay pride events. I write novels that explore homophobia and bullying.”
“Danny’s Mom gives me ongoing opportunities to be an upstander and to contribute to the well-being of others,” she explained.
“I feel so blessed to be able to make a difference.”