Cheshire Schools’ Book Award 2023: Gay Club! by Simon James Green

Will you be voting for Barney Gay Club! as your winner in the older age category of the Cheshire Schools’ Book Award 2023? In our latest post spotlighting books on the CSBA23 shortlist, Rosie delves into the murky world of fake dating, political bribery, and dead (?) guinea pigs with Simon James Green‘s election-winning comedy.

Simon James Green’s Gay Club! (2022) is a heartfelt Young Adult novel centring around the LGBTQ+ Society of Greenacre Academy. Packed with political drama, petty squabbling and powerful activism, its success has led to it being nominated in the Older Age category in the Cheshire Schools’ Book Award 2023.

In Gay Club! politics is no less messy in high school societies than in Westminster. Scandals, shenanigans and outright sabotage characterise the experiences of Greenacre Academy’s LGBTQ+ Society, beginning in its leadership elections and escalating during the campaign to be ambassadors for queer teenagers on a global stage. The drama begins when Bronte, in an attempt to beat shoo-in Barney (the main character) to become President of the LGBTQ+ Society, manages to get the election opened up to the entire school. While she fairly argues LGBTQ+ kids outside the Society still deserve a say in it, Barney’s concern that including people with no stakes in the vote potentially poses a problem is valid. This turns out to be the case. After a campaign that is part popularity contest, complete with fanart, fake dating and fictional dead guinea pigs, the result is finally revealed in a twist that neither Barney or Bronte (or I) expected. Self-declared straight boy Danny Orlando is the new Club President, and its members are left wondering how their interests are meant to be represented.

Gay Club! is a good representation of the petty infighting that often plagues the queer community. Various characters bicker about which letters feature in the acronym and what they stand for – Pansexual or Bisexual, Queer or Questioning, whether including ‘Ally’ erases Asexuals and Aromantics. Danny fairly points out: “On Twitter, no-one agrees on anything. From what I can see, literally everything is problematic in some way.” [p.386] After all the fighting between Barney and Bronte, though, they come together through realising that to the rest of the school, the election that matters to them was little more than a joke. Regardless of their feelings on specific issues, LGBTQ+ students at Greenacre suddenly feel they have no voice, and this issue unites them. Even as the book continues, and the battle to become ambassadors escalates to full-blown war with Branscombe Boys’ school, ultimately all the characters face the same issues, and when it really matters, they realise their enemies are not within the community, and put their divides aside – “We’re together, we’re united, we’re family, and no-one is ever going to destroy that.” [p.427]

The characters are likeable despite – and because of – their flaws, and you’ll find yourself rooting for them as you follow their jealousy, anxiety, secret crushes and slowly blossoming relationships – both platonic and romantic. Barney is especially sympathetic as we experience the story from his point of view, living through his fears and disappointments during the campaigns, his tentative hopes of a new relationship, and the crushing shame of an unexpected betrayal. The characters all help each other develop, discovering themselves alongside each other; as Barney says, “We’re each a work in progress.” [p.410]

Gay Club! is funny, dramatic, and touchingly honest. A chaotic political battle tangles with the typical mess of teenage life, with drama ranging between the utterly insignificant and a fight that really matters in a story celebrating LGBTQ+ unity.

Gay Club! is one of ten books shortlisted for the Cheshire Schools’ Book Award 2023. All books are nominated, read, debated and voted for by secondary students across Cheshire, Warrington, Halton and surrounding areas. The winners of this year’s award will be announced at Winsford Academy on Tuesday 23rd May 2023.

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