It looks like desire. It looks like fear. It looks like life beginning. It looks like the end. It looks like love. It looks like heartbreak.
Mike has just moved to a new town. A new school. Freshman year. Mike meets someone. Mike falls in love. With a boy. Mike’s conservative parents can’t know. Mike’s world is about to turn upside down. In a tragedy worthy of Romeo and Juliet, young love and family strife are center stage. A classic love story for our time. Whether you want the rush of young love, or the tears of that often come with it, this book is for you.
This love story explores how we fall, who we fall for, what it means to us and the world, and the family and friends who step in when our own family doesn’t step up. A beautifully written book in a unique minimalist style, It Looks Like This will not be a view you forget.
Rafi Mittlefehldt graciously agreed to an interview for me at bookclubadvisor.com. In the wake of recent (and current) political events, I’ve included some activities at the end for teachers and students to discuss how our country got here and how we can find a way forward in the small moments we have with each other that can have big consequences.
The relationship between Mike and his dad is one of the most difficult in the novel. Becoming more religious pushed Mike further away. What do you think motivated Mike’s dad to become an elder in the church? What was he looking for? At the end of the novel, when the readers have to say goodbye to the characters, do you think his dad will still pursue this?
Despite his considerable flaws, I always saw Mike’s dad as genuine in most of his motivations, at least on a conscious level. I think he wanted to be an elder because he really thought it would help him spiritually. He believed it was what God wanted of him.
But you do see little glimpses of pride below the surface. There’s a scene where he openly worries about what other people in the church will think, for example. But I don’t think he’s even aware he’s doing it, even when it’s obvious to everyone around him.
Organized religion can be a little funny like that: it’s a space where social climbing is thought to be tasteless at best, sacrilege at worst — but people still do it all the time, I think often without even realizing they are.
I do think he’ll still pursue it past the events of the It Looks Like This. His relationship with Mike is better, but still fragile at the end — they’re healing, but wary of one another. He wouldn’t at this point see being an elder as any kind of conflict; if anything, he’d still see it as a duty.
Talk about the difficulties in being part of a group that doesn’t accept people you love. What can belonging cost? What is the price of hiding parts of yourself? Any words of wisdom for teens who are in middle school or high school and making these decisions every day? For teachers and parents who are trying to create safe spaces for teens?
One of the most frustrating things I’ve heard non-gay people say about being gay is that, “at least you can hide it”. Usually someone will say this to negotiate down the degree to which gay people are marginalized.
Aside from not being true for a huge number of gay people who spent their teens wishing they could hide it, it ignores the psychological toll that hiding takes on a person. The awful thing about the closet is that, when you’re in it, it is so tempting and so easy to stay there. The longer you are, the more your regrets accumulate. Long enough, and you hit a point of no return: Do you come out now and face the awful fact that you’ve wasted decades of your life? Or stay in, knowing that while you’re unhappy, life probably won’t get worse?
I’ve never heard of someone regretting coming out. Maybe in the immediate, if things are rocky — and they can get rocky. But long-term, no one ever wishes they could go back in hiding. There’s a reason for that: there’s an upper limit to happiness when you deny such a fundamental thing as identity.
For teens, I would advise them to do what they need to do in the immediate future, but have an exit strategy. If your parents will kick you out of the house, or not pay for college, or hurt you, do what you have to the next few years to survive. But give yourself a deadline. At some point, their ability to tangibly hurt you will expire. From then on, the sooner you do it, the happier you will be. (And keep in mind, it’s easy to overestimate the negative consequences of coming out when you’re a teen!)
For parents and teachers, know that what these teens need most is to understand that they aren’t alone in their experiences, and that they have a reliable support system waiting for them out there. They need to know they can build a real life on this. Understand that when you’re a teen, and the only support you’ve ever known is your parents, the threat of that being removed looks like an abyss. Teens need to know the world is wider than they realize, full of people like them, and people who will step up and love them in the absence of their parents or who they thought were friends.
Mike has a set of friends at school and a friend at church. Talk about how you think teens often have to navigate more than one persona during high school. Do you think that is a good or bad thing?
I think teens are largely still trying to sort out their own identities and interests, often by trial and error. I don’t think it’s inherently bad. When I was that age, I had a choir persona, a nerd persona (somehow these were different), a synagogue persona, a bit of a stoner kid persona, and probably a few others. Looking back, I think I was just trying to figure out who I was, and the best way to do that is to jump in and see what sticks.
Where you have to be careful is in making sure you’re not giving anything of yourself up in trying to accommodate any particular group. A lot of teens think they need to reshape themselves to fit an environment, but really you just need to find the environment in which you already fit.
You’ve done work with I’m From Driftwood, a video site that helps lgbtqia youth find stories of people like them. What helped you growing up in conservative Clear Lake, Texas?
I told a couple friends I was gay junior year of high school. I didn’t know it would at the time, but it helped immediately. Suddenly there were two people who knew; it wasn’t a secret. They told sisters and boyfriends, and suddenly five people knew. I told a couple more friends, and it was up to eight. Each new person told was both a relief and a terrifying risk. But it helped me feel more grounded.
By the time I was a senior, I was ready to get out of Clear Lake. I was going to UT in Austin, and already knew it was a more liberal place to be. There were LGBT student groups, even gay bars. Separately, I had discovered chat rooms in whatever crazy 90s version of the internet we had, and was able to actually talk to other gay people my age around the country for the first time.
It was that exposure, and the promise of a new chapter, that helped most. Something like I’m From Driftwood would have helped a lot then, too. Just having that definitive proof that there were lots of others, and some from my area.
Mike is fourteen and a freshman in high school at the beginning of the novel. Did you pick the age for Mike or was that part of his character that was revealed to you as you wrote? Do you still wonder about him? Where do you think he is now? How did high school end up for him?
I chose freshman year because it’s an especially vulnerable time. High school is still an unknown quantity, and a lot of what you know about it comes in the form of wishful-thinking rumors or exaggerated horror stories. Add to that the fact that Mike is completely new to the town, so he doesn’t even have familiar faces from middle school with him; and it’s young enough to have zero experience with love.
I would say high school definitely got better for him. Certainly everything he went through gave him a sense of perspective that usually comes later for teens. He’d be able to see the smaller things for what they are, which would help him develop an early sense of self-assurance.
I’d think he still wouldn’t be too sad to see high school end. There are a number of painful memories, yes, but that’s not the main thing (he has some great memories, too!). It’s more that his newfound self-assurance might make him ready to move on earlier than his peers. I think he would be bored by the collective high school mindset by the end; I think college is where he will really thrive.
But he will really miss Ronald and Jared.
What do you think Victor gets out of how he treats Mike? There is always tension when Victor shows up, not just from Mike, but from Victor himself. Is there backstory there that you know as an author but chose not include? Why do you think Victor makes the choice he does when he returns to school?
This sounds weird, but one of my favorite things about Victor is how unsatisfying his motivations ended up being. There’s no backstory of abuse or being the victim of bullying; he’s not more insecure than an average teen; he’s not secretly gay himself. He bullies just because. Because he can, because he’s bored.
Of course there are a lot of times when a bully does have a backstory that produces that behavior, but many times bullies are just Victors. At that age not everyone has a fully developed sense of empathy, and sometimes that’s all it takes.
I think Victor’s choice at the end is the result of a crash course in empathy, which he develops when he sees the results of his bullying. I think for the first time he’s horrified by something he’s done, and is just beginning to think hard about who he wants to be as a person.
Ronald’s mom is an example of someone choosing not to be a bystander to violence and bigotry. How do her actions affect Mike?
Mike’s parents love him a lot, so he does know love from adults. But he’s never experienced advocacy. So his understanding of what a teen-adult relationship should be is based on this sort of semi-adversarial, dominant/submissive relationship he’s had with every adult in his life so far.
Ronald’s mom is the first adult Mike meets who shows him true advocacy. He suddenly understands that a relationship with an adult doesn’t have to be so one-sided, which slowly gets him to question what such a relationship should be like. It’s that line of thought that makes him finally realize that he should be getting this advocacy from his parents; that they are failing him in that respect. That’s what gives him the courage to stand up to them.
You mention in your author’s note that you and your husband were supported by your families. What can other concerned adults do to support kids who are not supported by their families?
The Trevor Project and PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) are perfect for this. Both have crisis and support hotlines, along with programs that let LGBT kids who aren’t getting support at home talk to allied adults. It’s a great way for adult allies to contribute and provide that missing support.
Thank you so much Rafi for your time and care with these answers. Thank your for this wonderful book. I hope it will be the lifeline or window that so many books were to me as a teen and as an adult as well.
Student activities after reading:
Research to find out what the cover of It Looks Like This means. (Hint: It’s not just colors) Then create your own cover for the book based on the scene that stuck with you the most. Why did you chose to illustrate the cover that way? Be prepared to justify your art.
Rafi said in an interview with http://yabookscentral.com that the title is about what it looks like to be bullied, what it looks like to be supported. Write about what those two things look like in your school/church/team/friend group right now. What do you think could be done to tip the balance towards inclusion rather than exclusion?
Take some time listening to the stories on I’m from Driftwood (an LGBTQ story archive). Then pick one of your classes. Look around for someone you don’t know or understand. What would it take to get there?
More about Rafi:
Rafi’s story on I’m From Driftwood
Rafi’s theater writing