Ice Capades & Identity: Caroline Huntoon’s “Skating on Mars” follows a nonbinary middle schooler trying to find their place in the world


Skating on Mars book on the left; author Caroline Huntoon on the right.

Author photo by Hannah Holland.

In the new middle-grade novel Skating on Mars by Ypsilanti writer and educator Caroline Huntoon, Mars is a nonbinary figure skater who is not only navigating how to be who they are but also grieving their father and experiencing the tumult of middle school friendships.

One of Mars’ challenges is to figure out how to express themselves in different aspects of their life, from revealing their preferred name and pronouns to their mom and sister to dealing with critical peers. Even though skating has always been a refuge for them, one of their coaches pushes them to bring their own style to their skating program. After demonstrating, Dmitri clarifies his request, which Mars questions: 

“See, that’s not you,” Dmitri says.

“What?” I ask.

“It was the same steps, but not what you did before. And not what you should do in your own program.”

“Okay…” I’m still not sure what he expects from me. 

“You have to find yourself. And the rest will come.”

“Yeah,” I say, my voice flat and low. In my head, I’m screaming, JUST TELL ME WHAT TO DO! And somewhere else altogether, I feel this horrible uncertainty about what Dmitri is telling me to do. Find myself? I’m not lost. That’s not the problem. Not really. 

This issue is one for which Mars must live their way into an answer. The book chronicles their journey in first-person narration by Mars, including their perspective on their sport, friends’ betrayals, a first crush, and emotional processing. 

Mars’ competitive nature sets the scene for a showdown with another skater and for pushing the gender boundaries on the ice. Whether they can manage the pressure, shift their family and friend’s understanding of who they are, and continue doing what they love become ongoing questions through the book. One thing is clear: Mars cannot chart their own path solely by themself. 

AADL’s Downtown Library is hosting Huntoon for a reading, Q&A, and signing Thursday, June 15, at 2 pm.

I caught up with Huntoon for an interview. 

Q: You wrote in your acknowledgments, “I didn’t know I was a writer until I was thirty-three. I didn’t know I was nonbinary until I was thirty-five.” Your new book combines these two identities as you authored a novel on a nonbinary skater. How did you become a writer? 
A: I’ve always been a storyteller. I started writing stories in college, but most of my storytelling energy went into theatrical productions. While working in theater, I learned a great deal about the creation of character, motivation, and tension. It was while I was at the Bread Loaf School of English that I started writing more seriously, particularly after taking a course on writing for children. From that point on, writing became a way for me to explore new stories.

Q: What brought you to live and work in Ypsilanti?
A: I’m from Ann Arbor originally, and I came back to Michigan after spending time in New York and Florida. I love the community in this area, and I adore that there is such a vibrant arts scene in the area.

Q: You work with students in schools and theaters. How does your work inform your writing, and how does your writing inform your work? 
A: Working with young people gives me a lot of hope, which is critical when living in this world. It helps me to see what the world can be, where we can go, and that there are wonderful people who will get us there. I also really appreciate the opportunity to connect with my audience on a regular basis in my classrooms and theaters.

Q: Of all the activities that the main character Mars could do in Skating on Mars, why did you choose skating? 
A: I was a figure skater as a kid—though not nearly as good as Mars!—and my interest in the sport has stuck around. When I started thinking about writing a story with a nonbinary character and their involvement in a sport, it felt like a natural fit. Figure skating takes a great deal of athleticism, but there are also a lot of elements in the performance aspect of the sport that ties into gender in interesting ways. Building on that allowed me to give Mars space to explore their own gender and gender presentation.

Q: Mars and their family members are experiencing grief from losing their father and husband. How did you approach this loss through writing? 
A: My mom died when I was a teen, so I tried to bring honesty and many layers into my portrayal of the family’s grief. I’ve obviously had more time to process my loss than Mars—and I’ve experienced other losses since then. I think writing about grief in this way gave me an opportunity to explore a deeply human experience.

Q: Identity and body image are themes throughout Skating on Mars. Your bio mentions “validating the messy and wonderful lives of young people.” In what ways do your books support that goal? 
A: Mars and their friends and family don’t always get things right. They mess up, they get angry, they flounder—all of that is part of life. I always want to give my characters space to make mistakes. The stakes always feel so high for young people, so I hope that by seeing a character they like make mistakes and bounce back from them can help diffuse some of those stakes.

Q: Mars is exploring their identity over the course of the book and has many moments of uncertainty, such as when they tell their sister about being nonbinary. Their sister, Heather, asks what to call them, and Mars reflects, “She asked. It should be easy. But it isn’t.” How might Mars’ experience make space for readers to also explore themselves? 
A: Some people are very certain about their identity throughout their whole life. Some peoples’ understanding shifts throughout their lifetime but feels very clear from moment to moment. For others, the journey to self-understanding is gradual and imprecise. I gave Mars something I wish I had as a young person—an understanding that they are nonbinary. But that understanding doesn’t mean that they have all the answers, especially when it comes to interacting with others around their identity. I hope that Mars’ exploration allows readers to see that exploring gender and coming out doesn’t have to happen all at once. You don’t need all of the answers right away.

Q: What is your writing process amidst work, family, and life?
A: I write when I’m able to carve out a block of time, which means that I don’t get to write every day! When my child has a playdate or is off at summer camp, I write. Beyond that, I keep a notebook on me and a Google Doc open on my phone to jot down ideas when they come to me. That way when I do have a block of time, there’s always some material to work with.

Q: What is on your nightstand to read? 
A: It’s summer, so my nightstand is very full! A few that I’m looking forward to are: Astrid Parker Doesn’t Fail by Ashley Herring Blake, You Don’t Have a Shot by Racquel Marie, Just As You Are by Camille Kellogg, The Beautiful Something Else by Ash Van Otterloo, and The Golden Frog Games by Claribel A. Ortega, which I’m reading with my child. I can’t wait to discover great new books during the break!

Q: Tell us about your next book, Linus and Etta Could Use a Win, which is slated to be published in 2024.
A: It’s another middle-grade contemporary story, this time about the 8th-grade odd-kid-out, Etta, who, after she makes a snarky comment, gets challenged by her ex-best friend to get the new boy at school elected student council president. Even though Etta initially befriends Linus because of the bet, a real friendship blooms between the two of them. Both Linus and Etta get to narrate the story, and they were super fun characters to write!

Martha Stuit is a former reporter and current librarian.