Benjamin Dean | 'I did want to be able to write something that I could almost ‘give’ to my younger self'

Benjamin Dean | 'I did want to be able to write something that I could almost ‘give’ to my younger self'

When Benjamin Dean began to pursue his dream of writing fiction, he did not expect his début to be a novel for children. “I never really anticipated writing for children at that time,” he tells me, speaking on the phone from his London home. His middle-grade novel Me, My Dad and the End of the Rainbow will be published by Simon & Shuster Children’s Books in February, but it began life as a story for older teenagers.

A celebrity reporter for Buzzfeed by day, he entered a short story competition to win a spot in Juno Dawson’s Proud anthology of LGBTQ+ stories and art. “I had written a character who was 17, called Charlie. The bare bones of the concept are still there, but it looks completely different.” The story wasn’t selected, but the competition did put Dean in touch with agent Alice Sutherland-Hawes, who suggested that he might try writing for children. He was initially reluctant, “not for any real reason other than I didn’t know if I could do it,” but quickly proved himself wrong. “As soon as I put pen to paper, I don’t know how I thought that the book was anything else. I was told off when I was in Year 6 for being quite chatty and informal when I wrote, and I think that naturally leads into the kinds of books I like to write now!”

One of the most striking things about Dean’s début is the very strong, believable voice of his protagonist, 12-year-old Archie Albright. His parents have recently separated and his dad is coming out as gay, but Archie doesn’t know that yet. Sensing a secret, Archie finds a colourful, crumpled leaflet in his dad’s pocket and suspects he may have found the answer. Along with his two best friends Bell and Seb, Archie embarks on an unforgettable journey to London’s Pride celebration, in search of answers. It’s one of the most hopeful, joyful books I’ve read for a long time, written with buckets of heart and empathy, featuring a rich cast of diverse characters. Me, My Dad and the End of the Rainbow doesn’t preach and is by no means an “issues” book—it’s far too entertaining—but it is an important book. Many families will see themselves represented in children’s fiction, perhaps for the first time, and it offers a valuable starting point for conversations with children about LGBTQ+ issues.

Father figures
Dean grew up in a single-parent household with his mother— “we’re super close, she’s very happy to have the dedication in the book”— but didn’t have any relationship to speak of with his father. The book gave him the opportunity to write a healthy relationship between a father and son. “My mum, fantastically, took the role of both mum and dad in my life and I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. But I did want to be able to write something that I could almost ‘give’ to my younger self.” The relationship between Archie and his dad is, Dean says, the kind of bond he would have liked with his father. It’s Archie’s best friend Seb, however, who most closely resembles Dean as a child. “He’s not a rule-breaker in the slightest, he loves reading, he loves knowing things—things I was very into as a kid. He’s a massive worrier.” By contrast, Archie’s other friend, Bell, is the driving force behind their escapade. “She’s all about spontaneity and wanting to get out there and live life.”

Middle-grade books with LGBTQ+ themes are still a rarity, something Dean was very conscious of. Included in the bound proof, he explains, is an author letter that reads: “Our stories, meaning black stories, LGBTQ+ stories, need to be heard and celebrated. I’m all too aware that a lot of times those doors remain closed to us.” He was, he believes, “very lucky and fortunate” not to meet resistance in telling Archie’s story, praising both Sutherland-Hawes and his new agent Chloe Seager for their championing of minority voices. “The response when we went out on submission was greater than anything I could ever have asked for.” I ask him about the perception that gay relationships are not suitable for this age group, that they are in some way more “adult”. “It makes me laugh, but it also makes me very angry,” he tells me, exasperated, “because this is my life, and life and reality for many other people. Most often it’s shut away as if it’s something to be ashamed of, when it’s really not.”

Pride of place
Ending the book at Pride, he says, was deeply significant. “Pride for me is such a special place. I’ve been going since I was 18 and it’s honestly one of my favourite places. I wanted to replicate that feeling in the book.” Illustrator Sandhya Prabhat captures the exuberance and diversity in wonderfully rainbow-hued art that will feature on the book’s eye-catching die-cut cover. Dean is thrilled by it. “Sandhya did a fantastic job. That’s exactly what Pride is to me: an explosion of colour.” He is hopeful that readers, particularly children, will read Me, My Dad and the End of the Rainbow and feel represented in places they are sometimes not. That’s not, he is keen to stress, to disregard any books that have been written by black authors or LGBTQ+ authors which explore similar themes. “But there’s not enough of us, and I want children to be able to look in the pages of a book or on screen and be able to see themselves there. That’s something that I didn’t feel when I was growing up. And I really want people of all ages to take away some happiness, because that’s how I feel when I go to Pride myself, and that’s how I feel being a part of the community.”

Book extract 
Before I could gawk any more at the scene before us, a harsh whistle blew and everything came to life, wonderfully chaotic things happening in every direction. The band raised their instruments like they were weapons that meant business. On the sound of the next whistle, they all took a deep breath and began playing. The sound was enormous, notes of elation spiralling up above us and spilling over the crowd like an overflowing bathtub. It was met with a cheer so loud, I was sure that the Earth moved beneath my feet. Bell gripped my hand tightly, mirroring my amazement at what we were seeing. Then the band began to march forward and the parade lingering behind them started to proceed.

Behind the band was a large white truck. It had maybe seen better days, but it had been draped and decorated with spray paint and flags so it wouldn’t have looked out of place in one of our Mario Kart battles. A small collection of people, with faces that looked like they’d been painted with the rainbow itself, stood on a trailer connected to the back from which impossibly loud music was pumping. They held onto the rails of the truck as it began to creep forward, waving to the crowd and jumping up and down with more joy than I knew was possible.