Everyone had the movie series. Or the TV series. Or the video game series. Or the comic book series. Or the book series. The series that defined their adolescence, that shaped their personality, and locked-in what they value in life and art. And if you’re a creative, it’s the series that set the foundation for how you make what you make.
My book series was Kingdom Keepers by Ridley Pearson. I’ve got a great story to tell about writing fanfiction of a WLW pairing that wasn’t even in the books, how it fired up some fans, and forever changed the way I make what I make.
Kingdom Keepers is about tweens who are tasked with fighting the Disney villains who were trying to takeover the parks and eventually the universe. For a person who grew up on Disney movies, music, and merchandise, this sort of action-adventure story was perfect for someone who was both coming into her own and also finding ways to reconnect with the Disney baby I always was. I was also a writer since day one too, and I found Kingdom Keepers was such a neat way to extend the stories of the characters I knew and loved and create relationships with tweens like me. Plus, who didn’t always wonder what happened in the Disney parks once everyone went home and the lights went out?
I began reading these books in fifth grade, while the series was in progress. Throughout the next two years, I introduced myself to online KK fandom spaces like Tumblr, Twitter, and the most interactive and engaging one of all — fanfiction websites.
For all y’all who may not know, fanfiction is the art of writing stories about your favorite stories. These fanfictions are spread across online platforms of all kinds and loved by other members of fandom. These fanfictions can explore specific characters, events, and backstories: those that are emphasized in the source work, those that are clouded in mystery in the source work. And those that are written to be in complete contrast to the source work.
Since this is Matthew’s Place, I’ll go next by saying that for all these years, the queer community has really been the heart and soul of the body of fanfiction. Why? Well, what do we not have enough of in mainstream media? Queer representation. And who’s stopping a fanfiction-er from making that happen in their work? Nothing except a low battery on their computer and their charger being across the room.
By the time winter of eighth grade rolled around, I was a happy mother of several one-shots (translation: one chapter short stories), multi-chapters (translation: online novels), and several headcanons (translation: fan theories) that had garnered me a pretty loyal following on the Kingdom Keepers section of the fanfiction website. I kept in touch with several fanfictioners through the website’s online chatting platform. I even collaborated with a couple of them to write pieces. My specialty was character-driven fanfics, specifically the girl characters of KK.
It was a time in my life in which I was starting to understand why I had a such a thing for not only these girl characters but also girls in general…it’s because I was pretty gay. I was not out at the time but was avid in my “ally” identity, especially on Tumblr, reposting anything and everything that remotely smelled like gay rights. I imagined myself as the girlfriends of any of the KK girls, and even though their writing coded them as straight, my attitude as a fanfictioner also gave me the persistence to question what I saw as what was on the page and move more towards what was really in my heart.
While messaging with one of my fanfiction pals, we somehow found ourselves on the topic of which, if any, same-gender couple would come to be from the seven main characters of the series that had pretty much already set them all up for straight pairings. This was something I entered with caution, afraid my Catholic school teachers would somehow find this chat and confront me about it. But all things considered digitally, I was an ally, and when my friend suggested Charlene and Jess to be the couple…my first messages to her about it may not have reflected it, but I was already obsessed with it.
Charlene: the cheerleader, the gymnast, the tumbler, the girly-girl, the blue-eyed and blonde beauty. Jess: the artist, the teen-oracle, the snark, the gray-eyed and black-haired beauty. Char was femmey, Jess was stemmey, Char could most definitely be coded as bisexual and Jess was definitely giving off lesbian vibes. And was it this way because the text clued into any of this? Was it just because I wanted it to be this way? Was Jesslene something we could even dream of happening? Was it something we could make happen, at the very least for ourselves and our ideas of the KK universe?
No matter the case, I was the first to send my friend a Jesslene fanfiction, a couple lines long, a week later (which happened to be New Year’s Eve). It was innocent, it was just them giggling in the back seat of a car as the Keepers drove back from an epic battle against the villains. It was tame, but it was actually the first time ever that I, a WLW, wrote about WLW.
She loved the fanfiction. And we said goodbye to the year 2013 with a new pairing to occupy our generative fanfiction-er minds, fingers, and Microsoft Word documents. And we said hello to the year 2014 and a Jesslene fanfictioning spree.
Between the two of us and over the next two months, we wrote eighty Jesslene fanfictions. We sent them back and forth on the chat platform, barely edited, sometimes several pieces a day. Some pieces were throwaways, some pieces were prologues or epilogues of piece the other fanfiction-er wrote, some were about the same moments but from the perspective of the other girl in the couple. Some were the same story over and over again — basically every cuddling or sleepover drabble was a clone of the other (and it was all clean because my eighth grade mind couldn’t go any farther than that). We wrote about Jesslene’s wedding, first kiss, coming out, proposals, best dates, disagreements, battles with the villains, flipping back and forth between mutually-agreed storylines (and there were multiple) of the genesis of their relationship.
I woke up an hour before my alarm would normally go off in the morning to write a Jesslene. (That’s how the name became, like a noun that means the sort of piece we would write, or even a verb to describe the act of writing it: “I’m gonna Jesslene tonight.”) I wrote in the car on the way to dance lessons, to our winter ski vacation, to Target, to church. I wrote in the margins of my religion class notebook the things that I just couldn’t forget to turn into a whole fanfiction once I got home from school and got through Catholic Confirmation prep. Morning, noon, night, and the middle of the night, she and I Jesslened. It was exciting. It was new. No one else in the world that we knew of was doing it. And we became increasingly convinced that Jesslene could be the best thing to come out of the series.
And we often discussed the idea of taking Jesslene into the archive — that is to say, publicly post a Jesslene-centered piece on the archive. People had tried several non-canon couples in the archive, the only thing about Jesslene that brought us pause was that it was queer, and we were also both unspokeningly not as willing to associate queerness with our public profiles.
In the books, Charlene is actually paired with a boy called Maybeck. For the record, and after all of these years of first loving the series, I think they Charbeck great pairing. They’re perfect for each other, actually, and I totally love that they’re canon. But Jesslene, as a pairing, became about more than their compatibility. It became about queering the KK canon. It became about imagining Disney characters in ways that actually reflected the identities of those who were dedicated to their journeys. It became about proving that queer identity were not something the KK fandom had to forget about just because the series had already set up straight stories for these characters.
Someone actually got to it before us. One of my friend’s friends posted a Jesslene, inspired by a conversation she had with her. It was sort of a relief that we didn’t have to be the first ones to do it. Shortly afterwards both my friend and I posted pieces we had picked from our messaging thread. I preceded mine with a long author’s note, knowing on the inside that I would probably stop talking to a lot of my fanfiction friends after this got uploaded, and for the first time, being okay with that fact. Jesslene was something I was proud of. I didn’t realize it then, but it was so important that I could be proud of Jesslene’s WLW-ness so that I could be proud of my own.
Jesslenes starting popping up all over the archive, and it even started popping up on different websites where KK content was present. I called it The Jesslene Revolution to my friends, feeling triumphant and grateful for the thing we were able to create.
We didn’t know this about each other, but writing Jesslene was the first time my friend and I both not-out at the time, talked about sapphism. It was the first time we wrote things like “she loved her.” It’s the first time we imagined weddings with two dresses. It was the first time we talked about long black hair and long blonde hair shining underneath the stars. And even though this sapphism wasn’t about us, it was. It was about what we wanted for ourselves in relationships, and what we wanted for the characters that we deeply loved, that we grew up with.
What became of Jesslene after the initial boom? Eighth grade was wrapping up, high school was starting. I stayed fiercely dedicated to the couple in my own conceptualizing of the KK universe but also moved onto writing things like a KK/Walking Dead crossover multi-chapter. My friend I drifted apart, sending each other fanfictions every couple of months. I wrote Jesslenes that were supposed to be for her or other pals, but became just for me. When high school started, I basically had fallen away from my regular posting on the archive. I still thought about fanfiction, but I didn’t really write it.
After drifting apart for a couple of years, I’m happy to say this writer friend and I reconnected online around the time of when I started college. We chat on the daily, about a variety of things, and KK, and our headcanons for KK are many of those things. We still imagine Jesslene’s life together, our ideas much richer from living through high school and college experiences. We’re also sapphic to the world now, and that makes everything better.
I need to admit, my ability to create content longer and more advanced than a rambly text about how much this character loves this-or-that has been significantly reduced. I’ve fallen so far away from the source work that the only way I can really manage to relate to these characters is through my life experiences and asking what it would be like for them. Being years out from reading the books, I build mostly everything from the mountain of headcanons (especially those that entirely contrast canon and anything the new series may have declared about these character’s futures.) But I am forever grateful for Jesslene because my writing now is what it is because of the excitable, quick, passionate habit I developed with my friend for writing our dreams. I am forever grateful for these characters for saying the words “I like girls” before I could say them myself. Reading my oldest and most loved pieces, and after all of these years, going back in to edit and add to them, helps me honor my middle school self, and celebrate the ways in which I expressed myself through being my fandom-loving self.