Playing by the Book

Playing by the Book
by S. Chris Shirley

When seventeen-year-old high school newspaper editor Jake Powell, fresh from Alabama, lands in New York City to attend Columbia University's prestigious summer journalism program, it's a dream come true. But his father, a fundamentalist Christian preacher, smells trouble. And his father is rarely wrong. 

In Playing by the Book, Jake navigates new and unfamiliar ways "up North,” starting with his feelings for a handsome Jewish classmate named Sam. What Jake could keep hidden back home now rises to the surface in the Big Apple.


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Standing by his side are a gorgeous brunette with a Park Avenue attitude and the designer bags to match, a high school friend who has watched Jake grow up and isn't sure she's ready to let him go, and an outrageously flamboyant aunt who's determined to help Jake find the courage to accept love and avoid the pain that she has experienced. 

Provocative and moving, Playing by the Book is a feel-good novel about the joy and heartbreak we encounter in the search for our own truth.


S. Chris Shirley


S. Chris Shirley, author of the young adult novel,  Playing by the Book.

S. Chris Shirley is an award-winning writer/director and former President of the Board of Lambda Literary. His debut novel, Playing by the Book, was the first coming out novel to win a National IPPY Medal in religious fiction. He directed Roger Kuhn’s music video, “What’s Your Name,” which aired nationally in the US and made the annual MTV-Logo Top 10.  He also wrote/directed “Plus,” an award-winning short film that played at film festivals internationally.

Chris graduated from Auburn University where he served as photo editor of The Auburn Plainsman. He later received a graduate degree from Columbia University and studied filmmaking at New York University. He was born and raised in Greenville, Alabama and now resides in Manhattan.

Reviews and Press

The American Library Association writes of Playing by the Book: "An excellent story with an insightful message. LBGT Christian teens will devour both the story and the message."


Playing by the Book is a beautiful and profound story that asks readers to question their own beliefs and ability to look at people beyond labels, beyond what they “see.” LBGT Christian teens will devour both the story and the message.



In warm, empathetic prose, Shirley portrays the damage we inflict on ourselves, the allowances we make for those we love, and the dignity — and humor — that flourish when honesty encounters obstacle.

Kirkus writes of  Playing by the Book : "The picture-perfect moment when Jake realizes who he is despite all he’s done to pray the gay away is nothing short of priceless."


Despite the current gay-teen-novel canon that depicts worlds where two boys can kiss in public for hour upon hour or dystopias where teen heroes can just happen to be gay, it can be refreshing to find a good, ol’ coming-out novel

Rocco Staino of KidLit TV interviews interviews S. Chris Shirley, author of  Playing by the Book.


S. Chris Shirley joins Rocco Staino on KidLit TV to discuss his debut novel, Playing by the Book.

The Advocate chose  Playing by the Book  as one of 10 Great LGBT Summer Reads


In his debut novel, Shirley offers up an optimistic but not overly romanticized look at youth, becoming oneself, and the discomfort and joy that comes from finding out who you want to be in the world, whether your parents like it or not.

Chris Shirley is interviewed by Susan Larson, host of the Reading Life on New Orleans Public Radio


S. Chris Shirley tells us about his new young adult novel, Playing by the Book, as well as his work as president of the Lambda Literary Foundation.


Every novel has two stories:  the first is captured in the words on the page, and the second is how those words got there. Below, Chris shares the second story for Playing by the Book.


Inspiration:  A Hurtful Sermon

The inspiration for Playing by the Book came to me while sitting in church, listening to a pastor I respect very much say some awful things against homosexuals. It struck me that if he had a gay son, perhaps he might come around. When I started thinking about this fictitious son and how he’d survive growing up in such a household, I realized that the son's story was much more interesting than whether this preacher ever reached the point of acceptance. Thus, the seed was planted for what would eventually become Playing by the Book.


Original Format:  Screenplay

Readers often comment that Playing by the Book is "cinematic." Perhaps that's because it was originally a screenplay, but as I was shopping the "movie" around in Los Angeles and New York, I kept hearing that this screenplay would actually make a great book. So, I re-wrote it as a novel. 


Working Title:  Jake's Dilemma

It took me nearly two years to adapt the screenplay to a novel, which I originally titled Jake's Dilemma. I workshopped this book diligently with beta readers and on Authonomy, a peer-to-peer review site for budding authors.


Big Break:  Signing with George Nicholson of Sterling Lord Literistic

My big break was signing with the late George Nicholson of Sterling Lord Literistic. George provided great notes on the book manuscript, including the need for a stronger title. I had several alternative titles at hand, and one really stood out for him: Playing by the Book

George sold the novel to Magnus Books, led by the legendary Don Weise, who has worked with luminary writers such as Gore Vidal, Edmund White, Christopher Bram and Edward Albee. Working with Don was a wonderful experience–he is a gifted editor with a great passion for storytelling.


Cover Design:  Capturing the book in a single image

Yes, people do judge a book by its cover and Tal Goretsky (right) is one of the best cover designers in the business. Based on Tal's original design, photographer Richard Gerst (left) captured the primary image for the cover.


Publication Date:  June 11, 2014

Eight years after that homophobic sermon, Playing by the Book was finally published. It was worth the wait for me to have readings at such prestigious venues as Books, Inc (San Francisco), Book Culture (NYC), Book Soup (West Hollywood), Calamus Books (Boston), Forbes Library (Northampton, MA), Giovanni's Room (Philadelphia) and Just Fabulous (Palm Springs). 

Playing by the Book also won a National IPPY Medal in Religious Fiction—the first gay "coming out" novel to win in this category. 

But the most gratifying part of this entire process has been when readers take the time to share what the book has meant to them. I'm so grateful to everyone who has reached out to me personally and posted reviews.

Get your copy

The award-winning gay religious novel  Playing by the Book , written by S. Chris Shirley.

Playing by the Book is available wherever books are sold. 

Praise for the Book

“In Playing by the Book, S. Chris Shirley tells a story I loved curling up with, featuring one of the most endearing teen protagonists I've read in years.” 

Alex Sanchez, Author of The God Box and Boyfriends with Girlfriends

"There's so much to admire in S. Chris Shirley's debut novel, but the most remarkable thing may be its voice. Jake Powell is both earnest and skeptical, curious and guarded, and he tells his story with an endearing humility that–somehow–avoids the sarcasm that has become the norm. Playing by the Book reminds us of how rewarding it can be to climb into someone else's head."

Patrick Ryan, author of The Dream Life of Astronauts and Send Me

"S. Chris Shirley's Playing by the Book is beautifully written and vividly conveys a journey of self-discovery. This moving, funny, and sexy young adult novel also illuminates how combining Christian fundamentalism and a gay love story can produce another very Good Book."

Bob Smith, author of Openly BobSelfish and Perverse, and Remembrance of Things I Forgot

S. Chris Shirley's Playing by the Book is winning, witty, touching, and full of life. Jake Powell's journey from wide-eyed innocence to self-actualization is a pleasure to witness. What's even more pleasurable is being in the hands of a writer who knows how to tell a story, who knows how to create complex characters, and who brings honesty and love to every page of his debut. Bravo!"

Martin Wilson, author of We Now Return to Regular Life and What They Always Tell Us

In Playing by the Book, Chris Shirley does something miraculous: he tells the moving and often funny story of a fundamentalist Christian minister's son coming to terms with his sexuality with refreshing candor and loving respect for all perspectives. The result is a debut novel that celebrates varied points of view without preaching to the converted. No matter where you stand, expect to be reached by this Son-of-a-Preacher Man.

Michael Zam, co-creator, writer and producer, Feud (TV); librettist, The Kid (musical) 

"In this heartfelt and moving coming-of-age story, Chris Shirley has given us a Holden Caulfield for a new generation." 

Geoffrey Nauffts, Tony-nominated playwright of Next Fall

"In his debut novel, Shirley—president of the Lambda Literary Foundation—offers up a optimistic but not overly romanticized look at youth, becoming oneself, and the discomfort and joy that comes from finding out who you want to be in the world, whether your parents like it or not."

 —The Advocate (10 Great LGBT Summer Reads)

“A thoroughly enjoyable read that should be on the shelves of every school library as well as the bed stands of anyone who wants to understand what it feels like to grow up gay."

Kevin Jennings, Founder, The Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN)