Teen Librarian Toolbox
Inside Teen Librarian Toolbox

Out and Proud (On the Page and In Real Life): My Long and Not-Straight Journey to Self-Acceptance, a guest post by Amber Smith

Confession: When I was in eighth grade, I stole my public library’s copy of Nancy Garden’s Annie on My Mind because I was too afraid to check it out. I kept it hidden under my bed for years, its pages well-worn from reading it so many times.

I remember coming of age in the 90s and feeling very disconnected from a lot of the progress I saw happening on TV and in the media where queer people were out and proud and beginning to be more accepted, because in my little corner of the world, I didn’t know any gay people. My only references were conflicted at best, and harmful at worst.

I’m not entirely sure why these are the things that are branded in my memory as vivid as if they happened yesterday, but these are some of the earliest times I became aware that there were people who thought there was something deeply wrong and shameful about the existence of gay people:

1. Watching Melrose Place in 1994, and the shock and disgust and horror that erupted out of a potential/suggested kiss between two men that aired on the show.  

2. “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Being in a military family, I was very aware of the controversy surrounding this, and it absolutely boggled my mind. There were clearly plenty of people who thought LGBTQ people were not fit to serve in the military, and I couldn’t make sense of what one had to do with the other (because it made zero sense).

3. The token lesbian character on the show Friends: Ross’s ex-wife who had left him for another woman. Whenever she was mentioned, it was always accompanied with a roaring laugh track.

4. And then when Ellen’s sitcom was canceled after she came out on the show.

What I was learning slowly, one small instance at a time, was that visibility and being “out” (whatever the hell that meant; at the time I wasn’t sure) always came at a price.

When I looked around at my life, this is what I saw: There was not a single out student at my entire high school; though we were (of course) present. The gym teachers were rumored to be “dykes” and were either laughed at behind their backs or treated like predators to their faces. There were not LGBTQ-Straight Alliances back then; in fact, “LGBTQ” wasn’t even a thing yet. The word “queer” was still an insult, and it was not a word I wanted to be associated with in any way.

Still, I relished the rare book, movie, or TV show that featured any gay characters, which were few and far between. In high school I would discreetly stalk the video store, searching for movies that had any kind of gayness in them, and I would try to act casual as I brought my stack of VHS tapes to the checkout counter, watching the faces of the cashiers closely for signs of judgment or disapproval. (To this day, I don’t know if I imagined them or if they were real). I’d watch the movies in the middle of the night when no one in my house was awake, literally playing them on mute and reading the subtitles, desperate to find a connection to this world (which I both suspected and feared I was a part of) that was positive. Finding Annie on My Mind was life-changing because it was the first time I had found a story where there was love and hope and acceptance, with characters that felt real and whole, flawed and complex. I needed this book like I needed oxygen.

By the time I got to college, I was ready for some freedom. I found my first girlfriend and felt like I was alive for the first time in my life. I may have been emboldened by being able to be out around my fellow art students, but what I soon learned was that life in the real world was very different from strolling around campus holding hands with my girlfriend. It only took a few verbal attacks and threats of physical violence to put a quick end to PDAs altogether. It’s a very disorientating and confusing feeling to know with every fiber of your mind and heart and soul that you are living your life the way you need to be living it, and at the same time, to be deeply terrified of the consequences for doing so.

Amber in college, circa 2000

Each of these moments left marks and scars, both big and small, some more fully healed than others.

After the breakup with my first serious girlfriend, I went so far back into the closet I practically disowned my entire life. I gave away all my cherished Ani DiFranco and Melissa Etheridge CDs, my collection of VHS tapes, all of my gender studies textbooks, and even my stolen copy of Annie on My Mind. Trying to be in a committed relationship while being in the closet made my world feel microscopically small. This life was too hard, I decided; I would just stay single for the rest of my life and that way I’d never have to be fully out. I wouldn’t have to be subjected to hate or violence ever again. This whole gay thing would be a non-issue, right?

Wrong.

I was so deeply unhappy and unhealthy during that time. I was committing hate and violence against myself now. I felt like I was between two worlds and that I didn’t belong to either of them. With my family, I felt like I was living a lie. Alternately, since I was in the closet, I felt like I wasn’t “gay enough” to be a part of that community either. It would take me years to find my way back out into the light. I ultimately had to seek therapy and gradually work through a lot of that internalized homophobia I had lurking around in the cobwebs of my mind. I had to learn how to love and accept myself for who I was, to discover on my own terms that I didn’t have to try to cram myself into anyone else’s ideas about who I should be. And it would still be years before I could finally come out to my family.

Amber at her student art show, 2004

When my second book, The Last to Let Go was published, and featured a lesbian protagonist, I had a whole new and public coming out experience. While this one was very positive, it still brought up a lot of these old wounds and memories of what it was like to come of age in a time and place where there was such uncertainty of whether or not I would be accepted and loved, or even safe. That’s when I started thinking about the book that would become Something Like Gravity.

Writing is always therapeutic for me, and I found that I really needed a place to work through not only my own experiences, but also a place to address the recent backlash against the LGBTQ community and a lot of the transphobia ramping up over the last several years (because whenever there is progress, there is going to be backlash). But the thing that inspired me to turn Something Like Gravity into a love story is that my soul really needed to write about something that was equally as powerful as all of the difficult, painful experiences. In this case, that something became a story about falling in love, finding hope, and living your truth, against all odds.

I lived in fear and anger for a long time, and while I’m thankful that things are slowly changing and some of us in the LGBTQ community are beginning to find more equality, there are still so many fights to be won. In many respects I see history repeating itself in the plight of queer youth today—particularly individuals who identify as trans or nonbinary—and it makes my heart ache.

There is nothing I know of that opens minds and hearts better than sharing our stories, and I wrote Something Like Gravity in the hope that it can help in some small way to give young people who may be feeling some of what I felt at their age a space to be seen and validated and safe. And ultimately, it is my hope that readers will be able to find aspects of themselves in these characters; even if they aren’t transgender or queer. We are all perfectly imperfect, each of us a work in progress, and the one thing that connects us is love. I believe that love is powerful, transformative, and it is what gives us hope—something no one should ever be without.

Although I took a constantly twisting road to get here, I can say that today I am out, happy, loved, and incredibly proud of the life I’ve created.

P.S. I should add that I have since donated, with apologies and thanks, a new copy of Annie on My Mind to the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library.

Meet Amber Smith

Photo credit: Deborah Triplett

Amber Smith is the New York Times bestselling author of the young adult novels The Way I Used to BeThe Last to Let Go, and Something Like Gravity. An advocate for increased awareness of gendered violence, as well as LGBTQ equality, she writes in the hope that her books can help to foster change and spark dialogue surrounding these issues. She grew up in Buffalo, New York, and now lives in Charlotte, North Carolina, with her partner and their ever-growing family of rescued dogs and cats. Pronouns: she/her/hers.

Website: www.ambersmithauthor.com 

Twitter: @ASmithAuthor 

Instagram: @ambersmithauthor

Facebook: @AmberSmithAuthor

About SOMETHING LIKE GRAVITY

For fans of Love, Simon and Eleanor & Park, a romantic and sweet novel about a transgender boy who falls in love for the first time—and how first love changes us all—from New York Times bestselling author Amber Smith.

Chris and Maia aren’t off to a great start.

A near-fatal car accident first brings them together, and their next encounters don’t fare much better. Chris’s good intentions backfire. Maia’s temper gets the best of her.

But they’re neighbors, at least for the summer, and despite their best efforts, they just can’t seem to stay away from each other.

The path forward isn’t easy. Chris has come out as transgender, but he’s still processing a frightening assault he survived the year before. Maia is grieving the loss of her older sister and trying to find her place in the world without her. Falling in love was the last thing on either of their minds.

But would it be so bad if it happened anyway?

ISBN-13: 9781534437180
Publisher: Margaret K. McElderry Books
Publication date: 06/18/2019

Book Review: Brave Face: A Memoir by Shaun David Hutchinson

Publisher’s description

Critically acclaimed author of We Are the Ants—described as having “hints of Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five (School Library Journal)—opens up about what led to an attempted suicide in his teens, and his path back from the experience.

“I wasn’t depressed because I was gay. I was depressed and gay.”

Shaun David Hutchinson was nineteen. Confused. Struggling to find the vocabulary to understand and accept who he was and how he fit into a community in which he couldn’t see himself. The voice of depression told him that he would never be loved or wanted, while powerful and hurtful messages from society told him that being gay meant love and happiness weren’t for him.

A million moments large and small over the years all came together to convince Shaun that he couldn’t keep going, that he had no future. And so he followed through on trying to make that a reality.

Thankfully Shaun survived, and over time, came to embrace how grateful he is and how to find self-acceptance. In this courageous and deeply honest memoir, Shaun takes readers through the journey of what brought him to the edge, and what has helped him truly believe that it does get better.

Amanda’s thoughts

I’m a big fan of memoirs. While most of my reading is of children’s and YA books, when I do grab an adult book from the library, it is frequently a memoir. I like the deep dive into someone’s life. I like seeing them raw and unpacking their challenges and successes. So when a memoir comes out by one of my favorite YA authors, you can bet I will devour it.

For me, this had an added element of interest. I’m the same age as Hutchinson—we both graduated high school in 1996. We were both depressed and anxious teens, kept journals (and hung onto them all this time—I have a whole bin of my journals from elementary school through college), listened to a lot of the same music, wrote for the school paper, and so on. For me, as an adult reader, I really felt myself right there with Hutchinson because I really *saw* him. I would’ve been friends with him. My computer-programming, D&D-playing, fantasy-novel-reading husband would’ve been friends with him.

I spent the whole memoir really wanted two things for Hutchinson: for him to find his people and for him to get the mental health help he needed. And that’s really want this whole memoir is about. We follow Hutchinson through high school and a few years of college. We watch him go from an excited ninth grader positive about his future to a severely depressed and self-loathing older teen who can’t see anything good in his present or his future, feels like a failure, and grows increasingly reckless. We watch him participate in drama and debate, work various jobs, hang out with his close girl friend, play D&D, and half-heartedly date and make out with some girls. Meanwhile he’s feeling increasingly irritated, having meltdowns, lashing out while alone, and writing in his journal about his misery and his suicidal ideation.

We also see Hutchinson really struggle with being gay. He writes a lot about how his negative and limited idea of what it would mean to be gay came from the culture and stories around him at this time in the 90s. He wasn’t able to see beyond horrible stereotypes and miserable endings. He simply didn’t have any other examples. And he certainly didn’t have any kind of community to help him work through these thoughts. Even as he came to understand that he was gay, he still lacked examples of love or romance or happiness. His view of his life, already complicated by his untreated depression, grew darker.

Eventually, Hutchinson attempts suicide and ends up in a psychiatric treatment facility. There is a content warning for this part of the book to allow readers to skip over the details included here. He then summarizes life after this time—the ups and downs of both relationships and various treatments. He leaves readers with the important message that it can indeed get better, though it can take a while to get there. And, most importantly, it’s okay to ask for help—that struggling alone and putting on a brave face isn’t required.

This is a powerful and painfully honest look at surviving while finding your place, your people, and self-acceptance.

Review copy (e-ARC) courtesy of Edelweiss

ISBN-13: 9781534431515
Publisher: Simon Pulse
Publication date: 05/21/2019

Book Review: I Wish You All the Best by Mason Deaver

Publisher’s description

It’s just three words: I am nonbinary. But that’s all it takes to change everything.

When Ben De Backer comes out to their parents as nonbinary, they’re thrown out of their house and forced to move in with their estranged older sister, Hannah, and her husband, Thomas, whom Ben has never even met. Struggling with an anxiety disorder compounded by their parents’ rejection, they come out only to Hannah, Thomas, and their therapist and try to keep a low profile in a new school.

But Ben’s attempts to survive the last half of senior year unnoticed are thwarted when Nathan Allan, a funny and charismatic student, decides to take Ben under his wing. As Ben and Nathan’s friendship grows, their feelings for each other begin to change, and what started as a disastrous turn of events looks like it might just be a chance to start a happier new life.

At turns heartbreaking and joyous, I Wish You All the Best is both a celebration of life, friendship, and love, and a shining example of hope in the face of adversity.

Amanda’s thoughts

Go order this book now. Request it from your library, buy it from your local bookstore, order it FOR your library, email your media specialist to make sure they know about it, just go. I’ll wait.

Did you do it? I really hope you did, because this is an Important Book. There are not a ton of nonbinary teens yet in YA books. This fact alone makes this book noteworthy. But it’s the fact that Ben’s story is so complex and emotional and that the writing is SO GOOD that really makes this book one that you need.

This is not always an easy book to read, but just know that it gets easier and has a happy ending. And that’s not a spoiler—I think it’s important to know that this book about a nonbinary teen kicked out of their home isn’t a story just full of misery and betrayal. That’s certainly part of the story, and not an unimportant part, but Ben’s story is so much deeper than that. And, thankfully, it’s so much more joy-filled than just that.

Ben’s parents kick them out when they come out as nonbinary. Ben (they/them) feels like they are living a lie and that their parents don’t actually know them. Their parents’ reaction is, obviously, not positive. Ben’s mother says this isn’t what God wants and Ben’s father is totally unwilling to even entertain this as an idea that exists. Thankfully, Ben’s sister, Hannah, takes them in, but it’s been a decade since Ben saw her and, while so grateful to her and her husband, Thomas, Ben still has complicated feelings about how she left the family. Hannah and Thomas are great. They get Ben set up with school, new clothes, a supportive and affirming home, and do their best to use the right pronouns. They are learning, but they are working hard to do so. Hannah also gets Ben set up with a therapist, so they can talk about what went on at home. It is during these sessions that Ben also is able to address and start to understand their depression and anxiety with panic attacks. This system of support that is being built around Ben is SO important.

Ben also finds unexpected support through new friends at school, including Nathan. Ben isn’t out as nonbinary at school and is worried what Nathan may think, especially as they grow closer. (Readers probably won’t worry what Nathan will think—he’s such a wonderful, sweet, charming character and it was nice to not feel like this is just someone else who will judge or hurt Ben.) Ben begins to thrive in their new life, painting, slowly making friends, feeling safer, and starting to think about the future. Used to being a loner and seen as “that weird kid,” Ben still has trouble trusting people and feeling secure, but they are surrounded by people who show them that this is okay.

Another wonderful source of support for Ben is Miriam, who is nonbinary and has a popular YouTube channel. From Bahrain, Miriam is Shi’a Muslim and immigrated to the US. Now in California (Ben is in North Carolina), the two connected online and have a strong bond. Miriam says they are Ben’s “enby mama” and helps to guide Ben through this time in their life. Miriam’s role as a mentor, friend, confidant, and example of a nonbinary person happy and successful is so important for Ben.

Could I use the word “important” more in this review? I’ll try.

The not easy to read parts include Ben constantly being misgendered. Remember, they are not out to anyone beyond their family, Miriam, and their therapist. An unknowing Nathan refers to Ben as he/him, boy, Mr, prince, and dude. These all hurt Ben, but they are not yet ready to come out. Ben’s parents are really just so awful, even when they allegedly try to make some amends. As a parent of an almost-teen myself, they are what most infuriated me and ate away at me while I read. I cannot imagine not accepting anything to do with my child’s identity. Of course, I know plenty of young people who have been exactly where Ben is—they come out and are kicked out. Thank goodness for Hannah and Thomas. Thank goodness for all the love, support, and kindness that surrounds Ben. This is such a shining example of the family that can form around you and hold you up when the people who SHOULD always be there for you refuse to. Shall I tell you that it’s an IMPORTANT message? Because it is.

This heartfelt story will empower readers. Ben’s journey is not always easy, but it is full of love, affirmation, and eventual happiness. And have I mentioned that all of this is so important? I can’t say that word enough (though you may argue otherwise at this point). This story, this representation, this example is so needed. Get this on your shelves and into readers’ hands.

Review copy courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9781338306125
Publisher: Scholastic, Inc.

Publication date: 05/14/2019

Book Review: One True Way by Shannon Hitchcock

Publisher’s description

one trueWelcome to Daniel Boone Middle School in the 1970s, where teachers and coaches must hide who they are, and girls who like girls are forced to question their own choices. Presented in the voice of a premier storyteller, One True Way sheds exquisite light on what it means to be different, while at the same time being wholly true to oneself. Through the lives and influences of two girls, readers come to see that love is love is love. Set against the backdrop of history and politics that surrounded gay rights in the 1970s South, this novel is a thoughtful, eye-opening look at tolerance, acceptance, and change, and will widen the hearts of all readers.

 

 

Amanda’s thoughts

It’s 1977 in North Carolina and new girl 12-year-old Allie is immediately taken under the wing of gregarious Sam, a star basketball player who moves easily between all the social groups. She helps Allie get a spot on the school newspaper, with her first assignment being a profile about Sam. As the girls get to know one another, it quickly becomes obvious that they like each other. Sam’s parents are very close-minded, and Sam knows they would never approve of her liking girls—she says they’d immediately get put on the prayer list at her church, One True Way. Her mother calls her basketball coach, who is a lesbian and dating a fellow teacher, a pervert and an abomination. Allie thinks maybe she can be open with her parents; after all, her uncle is gay and everyone seems okay with that. But telling her mom doesn’t go how she hopes it will—her mother tells her she’s too young to know if she likes girls, that maybe it’s just a phase. It all becomes very complicated as the girls try to stay away from each other and Allie tries to see if it really is a choice, if she can maybe make herself like boys instead. Thankfully, through this painful and confusing time the girls have some very open, smart, loving people looking out for them, including the reverend from Allie’s Methodist church, Coach Murphy and Miss Holt, and, eventually, Allie’s own parents.

 

One of the things I like best about this book is the conversations Allie has with the adults in her life, especially her mother. Her mother’s initial disappointment and fear change as Allie repeatedly discusses with her her feelings for Sam. Her dad’s reaction is wonderful and loving, the therapist they all go see (for many reasons, including the death of Allie’s brother and her parents’ impending divorce) is supportive and kind, and Sam’s sister reaches out to Allie to see how to best accept and support Sam. Though worried about being gay in a small town in this era, the girls get plenty of love and support, never forgetting for too long that the important thing is to be true to yourself. We desperately need more middle grade novels with LGBTQIA+ main characters, and Hitchcock’s book is a very welcome addition to the small but growing selection. An affirming look at discovering who you really are and finding love and support when you learn to speak your truth. 

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9781338181722
Publisher: Scholastic, Inc.
Publication date: 02/27/2018

Book Review: Whatever.: Or How Junior Year Became Totally F$@cked by S.J. Goslee

Publisher’s description 

whateverIt’s like the apocalypse came, only instead of nuclear bombs and zombies, Mike gets school participation, gay thoughts, and mother-effin’ cheerleaders.

Junior year is about to start. Here’s what Mike Tate knows:

His friends are awesome and their crappy garage band is a great excuse to drink cheap beer. Rook Wallace is the devil. The Lemonheads rock. And his girlfriend Lisa is the coolest. Then Lisa breaks up with him, which makes Mike only a little sad, because they’ll stay friends and he never knew what to do with her boobs anyway. But when Mike finds out why Lisa dumped him, it blows his mind. And worse—he gets elected to homecoming court.

With a standout voice, a hilariously honest view on sex and sexuality, and enough f-bombs to make your mom blush, this debut YA novel is a fresh, modern take on the coming-out story.

 

Amanda’s thoughts

Nothing I write about this book will be as attention-grabbing as that excellent first sentence up there describing Mike’s junior year.

 

I completely loved this book. It took me a little while to warm up to it (I think my problem is that I really wanted this to be written in first person, not third), but when I did, I couldn’t put it down. Many books are billed as being “hilarious” but totally miss the mark. This book is truly hilarious. As a person who enjoys sarcasm, trash-talking, swear words, and 90s music, this book spoke to me. Mike’s whole world gets rocked when Lisa, the girl he thought of as his girlfriend, tells him she wants to see other people. She points out to him that she’s not actually his girlfriend, but just a friend who he sometimes goes out with and makes out with. He’s not really broken up over her announcement. What does shock him, though, is her reasoning why he should be her student council running mate: they can sell him as gay—“it’ll be edgy.” Wait, Mike’s gay? This is news to him. Or is it? Turns out Lisa (and many others) were recently witness to him making out with a dude at a party, a fact that Mike himself doesn’t remember. Lisa tells him not to be so quick to dismiss the idea that he’s bi. Before long, Mike is accepting this (maybe) new truth about himself. He knows there’s nothing wrong with being bi, but he’s not so sure he’s ready for people to know yet when he’s just kind of figuring it all out for himself. It doesn’t talk long, though, for people in his life to start knowing—his mom, his grandma, his close group of friends, and Wallace, his sworn enemy.

 

Before long, Mike is doing all kinds of new things: serving as student council VP, organizing Homecoming, hanging out with cheerleaders, navigating uncomfortable silent periods with his lifelong friends, and making out with a hot (if completely surprisingly into him) guy.

 

Here’s an additional thing to love about this book: yeah, some things are a little bit weird for a while (and for different reasons) with some of his guy friends as he comes out, but for the most part, Mike is surrounded by so much matter-of-fact acceptance, love, and support. There were multiple coming out scenes that I just LOVED. His mom kind of nonchalantly mentions something about him finding a nice boy. His friend Cam barely blinks at his revelation. His grandmother initiates a conversation about his sexuality. Mike’s life is kind of complicated by coming out as bi, but that’s not a bad thing. Mike repeatedly corrects people that he’s bi, not gay. I can’t come up with a particularly long list of YA books with bi boy characters, so this is a nice addition to that list because it’s well-written, funny, sweet, romantic, and just GREAT. Definitely highly recommended. 

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9781626723993

Publisher: Roaring Brook Press

Publication date: 08/02/2016

Book Review: Draw the Line by Laurent Linn

Publisher’s description

draw the lineAfter a hate crime occurs in his small Texas town, Adrian Piper must discover his own power, decide how to use it, and know where to draw the line in this stunning debut novel exquisitely illustrated by the author.

Adrian Piper is used to blending into the background. He may be a talented artist, a sci-fi geek, and gay, but at his Texas high school those traits would only bring him the worst kind of attention.

In fact, the only place he feels free to express himself is at his drawing table, crafting a secret world through his own Renaissance-art-inspired superhero, Graphite.

But in real life, when a shocking hate crime flips his world upside down, Adrian must decide what kind of person he wants to be. Maybe it’s time to not be so invisible after all—no matter how dangerous the risk.

 

Amanda’s thoughts

About 3/4 of the way through this book, Adrian says, “I’m not going to let people put me in some stupid category anymore, be a blank canvas for them to put on me whatever they think I am or want me to be. I’m going to show them who I really am.” (Am I the only one who immediately thinks of Cameron’s similar speech in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off? “I’m not going to sit on my ass as the events that affect me unfold to determine the course of my life. I’m going to take a stand. I’m going to defend it. Right or wrong, I’m going to defend it.”) And he does. Adrian spends a lot of the story working himself up to this point where he feels like he has to not only reveal his real self but start standing up for himself and for others.

 

When we first meet Adrian, he’s anonymously publishing an online comic about gay superhero Graphite. He’s gay but not out to anyone but his two best friends, Trent and Audrey. He tries to steer clear of the school bullies, Doug and Buddy, who are constantly spewing homophobic slurs. When he witnesses Doug assault Kobe Saito, the school’s only out gay kid, he’s forced to stop hiding and being anonymous. He isn’t sure what he can possibly do to help, though. Doug’s dad is the sheriff and the cops aren’t interested in what the truth is—clearly Doug was provoked, according to them, and it was self-defense. The administration at school is just as unhelpful. Audrey urges Adrian to speak out about this, make a big deal about what happened, seek out justice. Trent thinks Adrian should just lie low so he doesn’t end up getting beaten unconscious too. Adrian doesn’t know what he can really do—but he’s starting to realize he needs to do something. When he begins dating a classmate (who he never even guessed was gay, much less into him), Adrian starts to feel a little more comfortable in his skin and begins to take his stand. Through his artwork, he sends the message that it’s okay to stand up and speak out. To his surprise, Adrian learns that not everything is as cut and dry as Doug just being a horrible bully. He goes from thinking about revenge to thinking about how villains can turn into heroes, maybe. He continues to use his art to push his message and seek change. Why destroy when you can create?

 

Peppered with pages from Adrian’s comic, this is a powerful story about discovering who you are and standing up for what’s right. The heart of the story centers on a hate crime, but there’s also a lot more going on. There’s a really sweet romance, interesting friendship dynamics, and family issues. Through a local LGBT center and his new boyfriend, Adrian begins to find more of a community and make more friends at school. Well-written and engaging, this is an important addition to all collections. 

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher and Edelweiss 

ISBN-13: 9781481452809

Publisher: Margaret K. McElderry Books

Publication date: 05/17/2016

Book Review: True Letters from a Fictional Life by Kenneth Logan

When I’m reviewing books for professional publications, I stay quiet about them on social media. I’m always really excited once a review comes out to be able to talk about the book, finally! Here’s one of my most recent reviews, which originally appeared in the May 2016 issue of School Library Journal.

 

true lettersGr 9 Up—Seventeen-year-old James reveals his true self only in letters he keeps locked away and never intends to send. As far as everyone knows, popular athlete James is happy with his sort-of girlfriend, Theresa. But James’s letters tell a different story: James is pretty sure he is gay. The only problem is that he is surrounded by people who seem like they might not react well to that news. His friends frequently use homophobic slurs, and his parents say things like they are glad he is “normal,” not like his gay classmate who had his skull cracked recently. James meets Topher, whom he secretly starts dating, and considers coming out to his friends and family. But before he can, someone steals some of his letters and starts the process for him. Logan shines at creating strong, nuanced characters who behave realistically and unpredictably. Despite their tendency to trash-talk and their reliance on horrible slurs, James and his friends have deep, meaningful, complex bonds. The protagonist’s story is about struggling to come to terms with his sexuality. While he knows who he really is, he is uncomfortable with facing this. In a letter to God, James asks him for “a cure for boys who like other boys.” Though readers may be turned off by the near-constant homophobia that permeates the story, Logan’s look at a boy reconciling his private and public selves is well written and affecting. VERDICT: A solid addition to the LGBTQIA+ field.

 

ISBN-13: 9780062380258

Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers

Publication date: 06/07/2016

Book Review: Jerkbait by Mia Siegert

Publisher’s description

jerkbaitEven though they’re identical, Tristan isn’t close to his twin Robbie at all—until Robbie tries to kill himself. Forced to share a room to prevent Robbie from hurting himself, the brothers begin to feel the weight of each other’s lives on the ice, and off. Tristan starts seeing his twin not as a hockey star whose shadow Tristan can’t escape, but a struggling gay teen terrified about coming out in the professional sports world.

Robbie’s future in the NHL is plagued by anxiety and the mounting pressure from their dad, coach, and scouts, while Tristan desperately fights to create his own future, not as a hockey player but a musical theatre performer. As their season progresses and friends turn out to be enemies, Robbie finds solace in an online stranger known only as “Jimmy2416.” Between keeping Robbie’s secret and saving him from taking his life, Tristan is given the final call: sacrifice his dream for a brother he barely knows, or pursue his own path.

How far is Robbie willing to go—and more importantly, how far is Tristan willing to go to help him?

 

Amanda’s thoughts

I overuse the phrase “rage blackout.” I’m sure I’ve claimed that 2/3 of all things in existence have given me a rage blackout. I’m easily annoyed. BUT. BUT. This book gave me a rage blackout. The parents are AWFUL. The way Robbie’s teammates treat him is AWFUL. And did I mention that the parents are AWFUL? Because they are. But we’ll talk about them later.

 

Tristan has always felt like he’s lived in Robbie’s shadow. Though they both play hockey (and their former hockey player father is their manager), Robbie’s the star, the one who will be drafted and go on to a huge career. But not if it gets out that he’s depressed. That he’s tried to kill himself three times. That he’s gay. At least, according to their monster of a father. All of that is bad press for Robbie, so the obvious thing to do is cover it up, not address any of the very serious issues, and focus on that goal: getting drafted. Sure. Great parenting. Your kid will be fine. You’re doing a good job. 

 

(You can come join me in my rage blackout—it’s kind of satisfying to get so mad.)

 

I could yell for paragraphs about their cruddy parenting and extreme denial, but I won’t. You get the idea already, I’m sure, that they suck. They pull him from the hospital early after attempt number one so he doesn’t miss a hockey game. They cover up the truth with lies, don’t do anything to help Robbie, and basically blame Tristan for what’s going on with Robbie AND make him responsible for watching over him to prevent future issues. Tristan, who quits hockey after some epic homophobic bullying, just wants to focus on his burgeoning theater career. He loves theater, has a knack for singing, dancing, and acting, and wants to grab the opportunities in front of him. But that’s hard to do when you’re supposed to be keeping your depressed wreck of a brother from committing suicide. Things become even more complicated and convoluted when Tristan learns Robbie is gay. Robbie is terrified of what coming out will mean for his life and his career—but not so terrified that he doesn’t out himself in an effort to save Tristan from some bullying. His teammates react just as terribly as you can possibly imagine. And when his parents find out? It’s a nightmare.

 

There’s a lot to talk about with this book. Siegert is tackling big topics: teenage sports careers; being not just a closeted gay teen but a closeted gay teen athlete; sibling/twin relationships; depression and suicide attempts; crappy parents; crappy friendships; homophobia; stigma with mental illness, and so much more. Plus, the book takes a big twist near the end when Robbie gets the brilliant idea that the answer to all of their problems is running away to go stay with this older dude he met online. That never turns out well, does it? And in this case, it REALLY, REALLY goes badly. Though it ends on a hopeful note, this is not a light read at all. It’s pretty much the worst case scenario for all things with the exception of the way Robbie and Tristan grow closer and more supportive of each other. It’s a dark, upsetting, frustrating, painful look at the pressure on teen athletes, at what happens when mental illness is ignored and untreated, and at how horribly scary coming out can be, especially for teens whose parents are hateful and unsupportive. Bleak but powerful. 

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9781631630668

Publisher: Jolly Fish Press

Publication date: 05/03/2016

Book Review: More Happy Than Not by Adam Silvera

more happy“Sometimes pain is so unmanageable that the idea of spending another day with it seems impossible. Other times pain acts as a compass to help you get through the messier tunnels of growing up. But the pain can only help you if you can remember it.” —More Happy Than Not

In Adam Silvera’s utterly fantastic More Happy Than Not, 16-year-old Aaron Soto grapples with what it means to be happy and if it’s possible to change who you really are.

 

Aaron and his friends live in a modern-day Bronx neighborhood with one major difference: it’s home to a Leteo institute, which offers a memory-relief procedure, which alters and suppresses painful or problematic memories. Aaron’s skeptical about it, but a kid from his block had it done and it seems legit. It seems like Aaron would have reason to undergo the procedure—when his dad committed suicide, Aaron was the one who found him. Aaron also survived his own recent attempt at suicide, something we’re reminded of every time he touches the smile-like scar on his wrist. His mother works two jobs to be able to pay the rent on their tiny one-bedroom apartment. Aaron has a job at the corner market and gives much of the money to his mom to help with the rent. He goes without a lot of things that he would like. But life isn’t all bad. He’s dating Genevieve, spends a lot of time playing games with his friends from the block, and has an intriguing new friend, Thomas.

 

Thomas and Aaron quickly become best friends. They have deep, honest, revealing conversations. There is an ease between them that makes it feel safe to be real. Aaron starts to wonder if maybe Thomas is gay, which, after some time, leads him to thinking that maybe he is gay (or, in Aaron’s parlance, a dude-liker). Before long, Aaron is torn between what to do, who he likes and loves, and what it all means. He comes out to Thomas, who is cool with it, but when Aaron makes a move on him, he’s rejected—Thomas says he is straight. Aaron is embarrassed and confused. He feels like he’s already lost so many people, and it seems certain he will now lose Thomas and Genevieve, not to mention who he might stand to lose if he came out to more than just Thomas. Aaron knows how to fix this, though: Leteo. He hopes Leteo will be able to make him straight, even though he knows that will mean that he’ll never really be able to be himself.

 

But before Aaron can undergo the procedure, his own friends start to get suspicious about his relationship with Thomas and attack him, brutally beating him. When Me-Crazy throws him through the door to their building, Aaron hits his head so hard that—much to his surprise—it loosens all of his memories, leading to a series of startling realizations for both Aaron and the reader. To say more would give away too much.

 

I absolutely could not put this novel down. The very first page grabbed me and pulled me right into Aaron’s world. The vivid setting, larger-than-life characters, and powerful narrative voice all stand out as some of the best writing I have read in a long time. The kids on the block (who have memorable names like Me-Crazy, Baby Freddy, and Skinny-Dave) are selling weed, getting in fights, and worrying over dead friends all while still playing childish games like Manhunt, a glorified hide and seek. They are a racially diverse group—we know Aaron’s Puerto Rican, Genevieve is Dominican, and Thomas was “the only brown” kid dressed up at a midnight showing of a movie. Their families vary, too—Aaron’s dad is dead, Gen’s mom is dead, and Brendan’s parents are in jail. Silvera does a great job of creating this extremely vivid little world in the Bronx, then making readers reconsider everything we think we know once Aaron hits his head. This powerful and complicated look at identity, memory, grief, happiness, and honesty will speak to a wide audience of readers who will find themselves unable to put down Aaron’s gripping story (even when it’s almost too painful to keep reading). 

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher and Edelweiss

ISBN-13: 9781616955601

Publisher: Soho Press, Incorporated

Publication date: 6/2/2015

Book Review: Anything Could Happen by Will Walton

anythingIn Will Walton’s Anything Could Happen, 15-year-old Tretch realizes he is in love with Matt, his straight best friend, while sitting together in church and hearing the message “hold fast to that which is good.” Tretch isn’t out yet, even though he suspects that Matt, who has two gay dads (and is often assumed to be gay himself because of this fact—weird logic, right?), would be fine with it, as would his family. His mom is “uneasy” about Matt’s dads, but Tretch knows his family would still love him and stand by him if he came out, though he can’t imagine it. Their town is tiny and he thinks that his family would become ostracized if he came out and they supported him.

 

But coming out doesn’t feel really pressing to Tretch. He nurses his crush on Matt all through their semi-eventful winter break. They hang out and have sleepovers (where they sleep together in the same bed), Matt kind of starts to date a girl named Amy, another girl has a crush on Will, and Tretch starts to think more about coming out. This book is light on plot but heavy on interpersonal dynamics, which is just fine by me.

 

Anything Could Happen is a great addition to the younger side of LGBTQIA+ books. The whole story is sweet, warm, and happy. It’s all very wholesome (if you know me well, you know I usually accompany that word with a retching noise, but I mean it in kindest and best sense of the word here), full of gosh, heck, and freakin’. The friendships are all happy and loving, as are the family relationships. Tretch spends a lot of time with his grandparents and parents. The first person he comes out to is his older brother, who just says “cool” and then tells him a story about his girlfriend’s brother coming out to their preacher dad and how that went fine, too.

 

The whole thing sort of feels like it’s from another time, which I think is because of the setting in a very small town. If it weren’t for references to contemporary music and electronic devices, it could be set anytime in the past. The ending packs a lot in—Tretch busts out his amazing moves on the dance floor, has a heart-to-heart with Matt, and comes out to a few more people. He even comes to some kind of understanding with Bobby, the son of his dad’s business partner and his longtime bully.

 

The message at the end is that things are going to get better, but they’re already good. Will really takes to heart the lesson from the beginning, to hold fast to that which is good, surrounding himself with good and kind people throughout the book. Great for the 12 and up crew.

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9780545709545

Publisher: Scholastic, Inc.

Publication date: 5/26/2015