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Book Review: The Art of Being Normal by Lisa Williamson, reviewed by teen reviewer Elliot

In the first day at his new school, Leo Denton has one goal: to be invisible. Attracting the attention of the most beautiful girl in his class is definitely not part of that plan- especially because Leo is a trans guy and isn’t out at his new school. Then Leo stands up for a classmate in a fight and they become friends. With Leo’s help and support, the classmate, who is a trans girl, prepares to come out and transition- and to find a new name, Kate. Though Kate and Leo are surrounded by bigots, they have each other, and they have hope in the future.


Elliot’s Thoughts

As someone with a trans experience I was delighted to find a book that followed the journey of not one, but two trans individuals. However, as I delved into this book I quickly realized that the trans representation seemed to be very cliche’ and it was difficult for me to be transported to another world because, for me, this book just seemed like fiction rather than a world that I could escape to.

To start, the characters in this book were not very fleshed out. Most of the characters did not have any backstory and thus lead to them being more like characters than actual people. Even Leo, the character who got the most of a background, still seemed to not be very connected to his past despite being driven by it. 

Characters were often introduced merely as plot devices rather than being used as actual people with connections to others in the story. One of the best examples of this is with Leo’s twin sister, Amber, and his younger sister, Tia. Both of his sisters are mentioned multiple times throughout the novel, but we never learn much about them, their personality, or their relationship to the other characters in the story.

My next biggest problem is how Kate’s identity was explored throughout the novel. The POV rotated between being from Leo’s POV and Kate’s POV and with each rotation, the title of the chapter was labeled as the character’s name to clarify who’s POV the audience was reading. However, instead of titling the chapters from Kate’s POV as “Kate,” author Lisa Williamson titled them as Kate’s birth name, “David.” Perhaps this was because Kate was not out about her gender identity and Williamson just wanted that to be clear to the audience, but to me it just seemed like sloppy trans representation especially because even after Kate came out, her chapters were still labeled as “David.”

One of my last major complaints is that the biggest turning point in the novel was completely spoiled for me…from the description that Williamson gave on the back of the book! Throughout the first half of the novel it is never mentioned that Leo is trans. He blends in and acts just like everybody else until he hooks up with a girl and has to reveal his identity before things get too intimate. If the back of the novel had not already told me that Leo was trans, I would have never suspected a thing and I would have been very pleasantly surprised at this point of the story, but, unfortunately, I did not get to enjoy the reveal and it made me feel disconnected with such an intimate part of Leo’s story arch.

Now that I’ve spent a lot of time harping on this novel, I’d like to take a second to express the things that I DID enjoy about Williamson’s novel. 

From the very beginning of the novel, Williamson made Leo a very mysterious character. His father left when he was a kid and he had a really dark history at his old school which, although he purposefully never talks about that experience, is the reason for his transfer to his new school. This mystery of what happened at Leo’s old school was one of the few things that made me want to keep reading. I wanted to know about Leo’s past- why his father left, where his father went, what happened at his old school, and why Leo is such a hard-shelled person. 

Williamson provided a similar scenario that needed to be answered about Kate’s life. From the very first chapter we learn about Kate’s trans identity and how she has been aware of her identity ever since she was a child. However, Kate never came out to anybody except for her two best friends, Felix and Essie. This leaves us wondering if she’s ever going to come out to her family and how that will change her experience at school and her relationship with her parents. These unanswered questions following Leo and Kate were what kept me reading until the very end, so I have to applaud Williamson for keeping the book interesting. 

In conclusion, I would give Williamson’s The Art of Being Normal a 2 out of 5 stars. It was interesting enough to keep me reading until the very end and I felt somewhat satisfied when I finished. However, there were so many things that I think could have been done better. I appreciate being able to read a story about trans individuals, but I think I set my expectations a little too high. Overall, this novel was good for exposure, and a good place for people to be introduced into the experiences of those with a trans identity; however, I hope that after someone reads this, that they don’t expect Leo and Kate’s stories to represent the whole trans community.

Book Review: You Be You!: The Kid’s Guide to Gender, Sexuality, and Family by Jonathan Branfman, Julie Benbassat (Illustrator)

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 an issue of School Library Journal

Gr 3–6—This conversational primer on gender, sexuality, and family supports and affirms all identities, urging readers to see and value all human experiences. The author posits that the narrow and conventional ideas many children are taught—born a boy or girl, marry someone of the “opposite” sex, have children, conform to gender roles—are untrue, and “that’s great news!” Instead, a world of possibility is open to all children. Full of joyful, bright, comic-style illustrations, this brief guide touches on assigned sexes, people who are intersex, stereotypes, and gender identity. The author clarifies that marriage and children are a choice, not an expectation, and explains discrimination (looking specifically at sexism, transphobia, homophobia, and biphobia), privilege, intersectionality, and what it means to be an ally. Readers learn definitions for identities and orientations like genderqueer, nonbinary, gender-fluid, transgender, cisgender, asexual, aromantic, bisexual, and pansexual. This supportive, educational look at identities offers constant reminders that no matter your chosen identity, whoever you love is great. A varied depiction of ethnicities, races, abilities, ages, and body shapes are shown in the vibrant illustrations. This guide could easily be read together with younger readers; certainly many older readers, including adults, could benefit from this quick and easy look at acceptance. 

VERDICT This inclusive and respectful guide should be part of all curricula about family, gender, and sexuality. Short, accessible, and important.

ISBN-13: 9781787750104
Publisher: Kingsley, Jessica Publishers
Publication date: 07/18/2019

Book Review: Let’s Call It a Doomsday by Katie Henry

Publisher’s description

An engrossing and thoughtful contemporary tale that tackles faith, friendship, family, anxiety, and the potential apocalypse from Katie Henry, the acclaimed author of Heretics Anonymous.

There are many ways the world could end. A fire. A catastrophic flood. A super eruption that spews lakes of lava. Ellis Kimball has made note of all possible scenarios, and she is prepared for each one.

What she doesn’t expect is meeting Hannah Marks in her therapist’s waiting room. Hannah calls their meeting fate. After all, Ellis is scared about the end of the world; Hannah knows when it’s going to happen.

Despite Ellis’s anxiety—about what others think of her, about what she’s doing wrong, about the safety of her loved ones—the two girls become friends. But time is ticking down, and as Ellis tries to help Hannah decipher the details of her doomsday premonition, their search for answers only raises more questions.

When does it happen? Who will believe them? And how do you prepare for the end of the world when it feels like your life is just getting started?

Amanda’s thoughts

I took July off from blogging for TLT so I could focus on some other projects. I read a lot of books too for all ages. Some of them I skimmed. Some of them I abandoned. A few I I burned through in a day or two. But this one I read every single word. I tried to not race through it because I didn’t want it to be done. I liked Henry’s other book, Heretics Anonymous, and think I loved this one even more.

Despite being an atheist, or, who knows, maybe because I’m an atheist, I read a lot of books, both fiction and nonfiction, about religion. I like novels that revolve around belief systems, that interrogate belief, that show me the inside of someone’s community, especially if that someone is grappling with what to believe and why. For Ellis, a Mormon, she’s working through reconciling what she feels/believes/who she is with her faith. She’s also facing some other really big issues, like an anxiety disorder that always makes her expect the worse, a certainty that the apocalypse is coming, and the fact that her new friend seems to be a doomsday prophet. It’s a lot for a 16-year-old to deal with.

Ellis feels like she’s spent her whole life disappointing her family and making everything worse. That’s not just her anxiety talking—that’s her mother. Her mom has NO TIME for Ellis’s anxiety, and, despite sending her to therapy for it, doesn’t seem interested in understanding at all what it means for Ellis. She’s just constantly exasperated by her. Her mother believes she has an attitude problem, not a mental illness. Ellis, who is super into disaster preparedness, thinks if she saves her family at the end of the world, they will appreciate her and finally understand all of her preparations. Her fixation on this grows more intense when she meets Hannah, who tells Ellis they were fated to meet. Hannah has visions of how the world will end, and though she does need help interpreting the visions, she does know that she and Ellis will be together when it happens. Ellis knows they have to warn everyone, but things go awry when she gets in trouble for her choices and may not be able to be with Hannah for the big event.

Ellis spends the duration of the book ruminating on belief, unbelief, love, understanding, prophecy, metaphor, and truth. Things are not always as they appear, and Ellis tries to understand that while also clinging tightly to the things she really needs to believe, no matter how true they are or not. She also begins to hang out with (and is possibly attracted to) Tal, a boy who has left the Mormon faith, and is bisexual. Conversations with and her attraction to him help her sort out of her own attraction to boys and girls (though she’s not ready to label that as anything yet). A really smart, thoughtful look at beliefs, anxiety, and survival. After two such great books from Henry, I will happily read anything else she writes.

Review copy courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9780062698902
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 08/06/2019

When Pride is Said and Done: Teen Contributor Elliott Shares Their Post Pride Thoughts

It’s been a couple of months because Teen Contributor Elliott was busy graduating from high school, but today Elliott is back to share their post-pride thoughts.

Trigger Warning: Suicide, abuse

As Pride Month comes to an end, many people are hit with the realization that although they have a month where they can feel free and openly themselves, the world is still not a perfect place. Even just one day after pride month, corporations stop showing their support, harassment and attacks against the LGBT+ community continue to happen, and people are forced back into silence. I want to take this opportunity to shed light on some hardships AND prosperity in the LGBT+ community that often go overlooked.

Being in the closet during Pride Month can be extremely frustrating for some people who dream of being open about who they are. But for others, being in the closet can be the safest, yet most dangerous situation at the same time. Someone’s environment may not make it safe for them to come out for fear of abuse, abandonment, or death, but the closet can also be a prison that denies someone access to try to figure out their identity. This can make the person confused and insecure about whether or not they are truly part of the LGBT+ community. While I would never suggest for someone to force themselves out of the closet in the hopes of figuring themselves out, the situation they are in could be compared to being trapped on a bus in a zombie apocalypse. While that person is safe from the hoards of zombies outside, they are starving, confused, and left alone on the bus and either way death is imminent. So their options are to starve on the bus- be confused and drowning in self hatred in the closet, or risk it with the zombies in the hopes to find other survivors- come out of the closet and find other members of the LGBT+ community who can help them figure out their identity and help them live their life. There is also a third, and overlooked option- stay in the bus and wait for the zombies to leave and then learn to survive on your own. In other words, stay in the closet until you feel safe and instead of getting help, figure out your identity by yourself. All three of these options are completely valid; however, they often go overlooked because they don’t project the happy point of view that society likes to display.

The LGBT+ community may literally be full of rainbows, but it isn’t always the most happy, rainbow-filled community. Often times coming out to others and being part of the LGBT+ community can be dangerous, not because of homophobic people outside of the community, but because of gatekeepers who identify as LGBT+ themselves. A bisexual woman is accused of not being “bisexual enough” by a lesbian because she’s in a relationship with a man; a trans male is accused of not being “trans enough” by a gay man because he happens to like wearing makeup (despite the fact that the gay man wears makeup himself and is sternly asserts that he is indeed a male); an asexual nonbinary individual is accused of not being nonbinary by other trans folk because they’re too feminine and they can’t be asexual because they’ve kissed somebody. All of these stories are true stories and I would know because they’re stories from people I know…and the last story is mine. Gatekeeping in the LGBT+ community is so incredibly toxic. Dealing with homophobia and transphobia from cishet people is already difficult enough, but to face the same discrimination within the community can make it feel like there is no safe place. I know that for me, it made me question my identity and made me hate what I identified as for the longest time. The LGBT+ community should be just that, a community. A community where we are here to lift each other up and help fight against the oppression that all of us face instead of adding more fire to the flame. But right now, that’s simply not the reality.

I know I’ve spent a lot of time talking about the hidden darkness of the LGBT+ community. However, there are good things in the community that often go overlooked as well and I want to spend just as much time bringing those truths to light.

One of the most common coming out stories that I hear often goes unnoticed because there’s no drama or extreme message behind it. Someone who hasn’t had many struggles with their identity tells their parents casually in a normal conversation that they’re LGBT+ and their parent is simply okay with it. Nothing grand, nothing drastic, nothing dangerous- just stating a fact and the fact being accepted. I just want to say that there’s nothing wrong with this story! This story is just as beautiful and just as powerful as someone with a tragic backstory or a less than ideal coming out story. Sharing such an intimate part of yourself with the world is such a beautiful, powerful thing to do, even if there were no obstacles of hardships in the way.

Pride Month is beautiful and the fact that there is a month where LGBT+ identities, struggles, and victories are brought to light, this month is also a call-to-action. The community still faces hardships left and right. Identities and stories are still being hidden. And, although pride month is over, LGBT+ pride should never end. The steps we are taking to make the world a better place should not stop after June. Pride is forever and our fight is not over.

Book Review: Stonewall Riots: Coming Out in the Streets by Gayle E Pitman

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 an issue of School Library Journal

Gr 6–9—A thorough if somewhat disjointed examination of the events before, during, and in the aftermath of the Stonewall Riots gives young readers an overview of the LGBTQ+ activism of the 1950s and 1960s. Pitman traces meeting places, social clubs, and the rise of organizations and activist groups as well as the many police raids of gay establishments, focusing on the June 28, 1969, raid on the mob-owned Stonewall Inn. Due to a lack of documented accounts, use of pseudonyms, and conflicting reports, controversies remain over the actuality of events at Stonewall. Post-Stonewall, readers learn about the increase in radical groups and visibility that challenged negative attitudes and discrimination. Pitman occasionally expands the narrative focus to examine what was happening in various places around the country and to consider other issues and movements of the time, including weaknesses and missteps in the movement for LGBTQ+ rights. The unique approach of using various objects (matchbooks, leaflets, buttons, arrest records, photographs, and more, with many reproductions too small or low resolution to read) to guide, inform, and reconstruct the story of the riots prevents a smooth narrative flow and makes the text feel repetitive as it moves back and forth in time. Back matter includes a time line, notes, bibliography, and an index. 

VERDICT An important look at a major moment in American history. Readers will come to understand why the iconic Stonewall Inn is now on the National Register of Historic Places, a National Historic Landmark, and a National Monument.

ISBN-13: 9781419737206
Publisher: ABRAMS
Publication date: 05/14/2019

Book Review: Technically, You Started It by Lana Wood Johnson

Publisher’s description

A hilarious, snarky, and utterly addicting #ownvoices debut that explores friendship, sexual orientation, mental health, and falling in love (even if things might be falling apart around you).

When a guy named Martin Nathaniel Munroe II texts you, it should be obvious who you’re talking to. Except there’s two of them (it’s a long story), and Haley thinks she’s talking to the one she doesn’t hate.

A question about a class project rapidly evolves into an all-consuming conversation. Haley finds that Martin is actually willing to listen to her weird facts and unusual obsessions, and Martin feels like Haley is the first person to really see who he is. Haley and Martin might be too awkward to hang out in real life, but over text, they’re becoming addicted to each other.

There’s just one problem: Haley doesn’t know who Martin is. And Martin doesn’t know that Haley doesn’t know. But they better figure it out fast before their meet-cute becomes an epic meet-disaster . . .

Amanda’s thoughts

You know how I’m always going on and on about how what I really want is just a book of endless dialogue because that’s what I like—strong characters just talking? Well, with this book, I get that. The entire novel is told through texts between Martin and Haley. It was supremely satisfying to me, a character-driven reader who always just really wants people plopped down in a space and talking. This review is going to be really short, which isn’t because I didn’t enjoy the book (I did! So much!), but because there isn’t a ton to say other than “I really liked this book!” I like that it’s people who get to know each other through texts and that we only see their story that way. I like that it’s about mistaken identity. I like that the characters have interesting, complicated families and friendships. I like that Martin is bi and Haley is demisexual. I like that the two develop a quick banter with instant little inside jokes. This is a cute and fun story that’s a perfect summer read (it’s also summer in the book). One of my very favorite hobbies is eavesdropping, and reading this book gave me that giddy feeling of getting to spy on someone and also knowing things they don’t know. Hand this to readers who like different formats and their romances more on the cerebral side. Good fun.

ISBN-13: 9781338335460
Publisher: Scholastic, Inc.
Publication date: 06/25/2019

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: Tell Me How You Really Feel by Aminah Mae Safi

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 an issue of School Library Journal

Gr 9 Up—Two high school seniors find their voices and first love in this enemies-to-lovers story told from dual perspectives. Brusque and controlling filmmaker Rachel Recht, a Jewish scholarship student at the prestigious Royce School, wants nothing to do with Sana Khan, cheerleading captain and model human being. But when a literal run-in forces them to work together on a film, their tense relationship morphs into something beautiful and unexpected. As they collaborate, they begin to share their most private feelings. Sana, who is Muslim, reveals that she’s been having a crisis about her future, hasn’t sent her down payment to Princeton, and has secretly applied to a fellowship. Rachel knows she’s NYU-bound if the scholarship funds come through, but her future is in jeopardy if she can’t get this last film finished. Working together on this project about a woman forging her own path could be transformative for both, if only they could stop arguing and misjudging each other’s intentions. Determined to find success on their own terms, the ambitious girls learn to stand up for themselves as they challenge, support, and infuriate each other. Immensely readable with strong characters and quick, clever dialogue, this romance has real depth. Though there is no question that the girls will end up together, it’s a joy to watch them fumble toward their eventual happy ending. As much about finding yourself as it is about finding love, this smart, feminist story shows that expectations shouldn’t dictate the future. 

VERDICT This well-written and supremely satisfying romance should be in all collections

ISBN-13: 9781250299482
Publisher: Feiwel & Friends
Publication date: 06/11/2019

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