A queer teen’s “promposal” plans end up being a devastating bust in “The Sky Blues,” Robbie Couch’s debut novel. The heartbreak that ensues, however, sets the character on a coming-of-age journey that has a life-changing impact as he steps into adulthood.
The book, released April 6, follows a string of queer-inclusive titles for young adults. Its best-known precursor is Becky Albertalli’s “Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda,” which was adapted into the 2018 film “Love, Simon” and the Hulu spinoff series “Love, Victor.”
Unlike Albertalli’s novel, “The Sky Blues” isn’t a coming-out story. The plot centers on 17-year-old Sky Baker, who happens to be the only openly gay student at his Michigan high school. Living as his true self, however, has presented some challenges. He has moved into the basement of a classmate’s home after being kicked out by his conservative mother, and he’s self-conscious about his clothing and mannerisms when he’s with friends.
After plans to ask a longtime crush to the prom are thwarted by an anonymous hacker, Sky rebounds by looking inward and learning about the power of chosen family. The book is at its most poignant in cross-generational moments, many of which take place between Sky and an unexpected mentor. Allusions to pop culture milestones like Ava DuVernay films and Ariana Grande songs keep the narrative grounded in youthful exuberance.
Couch, who is based in Los Angeles, drew on his own experience as a gay man raised in the Midwest when he began writing “The Sky Blues.” Still, the 32-year-old and his protagonist aren’t exactly alike.
“I felt myself writing a lot of my own anxieties into Sky without knowing I was doing so, and it was cathartic, seeing it on paper,” said Couch, who cites authors Patrick Dennis and David Levithan as influences. “[But] Sky is more courageous than I was when I was in high school, because I wasn’t out in high school. I was too afraid of what folks would think of me, how I would be treated.”
“Looking back at my hometown, I’m able to see the good and the bad, the things I benefited from, and the things that held me back now,” he added. “I think Sky is able to be more aware of those things than I was when I was in high school.”
In many respects, “The Sky Blues” is a full-circle moment for Couch. An early knack for storytelling led him to pursue a degree in journalism, which was followed by writing stints at several outlets, including HuffPost, Upworthy and O, The Oprah Magazine. Over time, he gravitated toward fiction “because it felt like the best way I could tell the stories I wanted to tell.” (Couch worked for HuffPost from 2014 to 2015.)
Couch began brainstorming ideas for “The Sky Blues” in early 2016, but it wasn’t until former President Donald Trump’s election victory that he felt compelled to finally those words to paper. “The politics of 2016 ... motivated me to tell a story from the perspective of a young queer person in a town that felt isolating and suffocating,” he said.
I think it’s incredibly important for young people to know they have the power to choose the people they consider family. Robbie Couch
There’s been talk of a film adaptation for “The Sky Blues,” and Couch is wrapping up work on his second novel. “Blaine for the Win” will follow a queer character who is loosely inspired by Reese Witherspoon in “Legally Blonde” and Ben Platt in “The Politician,” and is set to be released next year.
Couch said his mission as an author is to depict a world where “young kids can truly be themselves and have that be celebrated.”
“I’m not suggesting we’re in a post-homophobia world,” he said. “Clearly that’s not the overall queer experience today. [But] I think my stories reflect more and more young people who come out in school and to a family, to a community that embraces them.”
“I think it’s incredibly important for young people to know they have the power to choose the people they consider family,” he added.