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Book Review: Where We Go From Here by Lucas Rocha

Publisher’s description

An absorbing debut novel about three gay friends in Brazil whose lives become intertwined in the face of HIV, perfect for fans of Adam Silvera and Bill Konigsberg.

Ian has just been diagnosed with HIV.

Victor, to his great relief, has tested negative.

Henrique has been living with HIV for the past three years.

When Victor finds himself getting tested for HIV for the first time, he can’t help but question his entire relationship with Henrique, the guy he has — had — been dating. See, Henrique didn’t disclose his positive HIV status to Victor until after they had sex, and even though Henrique insisted on using every possible precaution, Victor is livid.

That’s when Victor meets Ian, a guy who’s also getting tested for HIV. But Ian’s test comes back positive, and his world is about to change forever. Though Victor is loath to think about Henrique, he offers to put the two of them in touch, hoping that perhaps Henrique can help Ian navigate his new life. In the process, the lives of Ian, Victor, and Henrique will become intertwined in a story of friendship, love, and self-acceptance.

Set in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, this utterly engrossing debut by Brazilian author Lucas Rocha calls back to Alex Sanchez’s Rainbow Boys series, bringing attention to how far we’ve come with HIV, while shining a harsh light on just how far we have yet to go.

Amanda’s thoughts

TL; DR: GET THIS BOOK ON YOUR ORDERS AND TBR LISTS.

Originally published in 2018 in Brazilian Portuguese, this powerful look at three young men and the different stages they are at in dealing with and accepting their own HIV statuses and those of people they love stands out because of the complicated feelings of its main characters.

Those feelings easily transfer to the reader. When Henrique and Victor get involved, Henrique doesn’t disclose his HIV positive status to Victor, even when they sleep together. Henrique justifies this choice because they have protected sex and because his viral load is undetectable at this point, meaning he can’t transmit the virus. Unsurprisingly, Victor is upset at this revelation, and still goes to get tested, to be on the safe side. It’s there at the clinic he meets Ian, who just found out he is HIV positive. He connects Ian with Henrique, knowing that even though he’s currently upset with Henrique, he will be a good shoulder to lean on as Ian grapples with his new status.

It’s reductive to say that this novel is just about processing feelings regarding HIV, but in this very character-driven story, it really is about learning, understanding, working through, sharing, and accepting these feelings. Ian feels guilty and stupid and scared. Henrique is still reeling from a horrible betrayal from a former boyfriend. Victor feels betrayed by Henrique and at one point has a melt down, telling Henrique that his HIV status is his fault, that it’s a consequence for his choices, for not being “careful.” Friends in the boys’ atmosphere are supportive, loving, reassuring, and accepting. Throughout the story, Ian and others are reminded that HIV is no longer necessarily a death sentence. Readers learn about the virus, with lots of talk about treatments (now generally much simpler than in the past), side effects, self-care, futures, and precautions. Though initially Ian encounters a medical practitioner who doesn’t exactly make him feel reassured about any of this, for the most part, doctors and therapists are great, providing information and hope. Even a very ugly incident regarding someone exposing one of the characters’ HIV status is handled in a way that emphasizes the love, support, and acceptance these characters are fortunate to have (despite not necessarily seeing that love from their families of origin or even sharing their status with them).

This emotional read shows that already complicated relationships can become more complicated when HIV is involved, but that that diagnosis doesn’t spell doom and gloom for the characters. Rocha lets his characters make mistakes, learn, fight, grow, change, accept, hurt, heal, and love. An educational, affirming story full of hope and love.

Review copy (ARC) courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9781338556247
Publisher: Scholastic, Inc.
Publication date: 06/02/2020
Age Range: 14 – 17 Years

Book Review: Pocket Change Collective books

Publisher’s descriptions

Beyond the Gender Binary by Alok Vaid-Menon, Ashley Lukashevsky (Illustrator) (ISBN-13: 9780593094655 Publisher: Penguin Young Readers Group Publication date: 06/02/2020)

Pocket Change Collective was born out of a need for space. Space to think. Space to connect. Space to be yourself. And this is your invitation to join us.

In Beyond the Gender Binary, poet, artist, and LGBTQIA+ rights advocate Alok Vaid-Menon deconstructs, demystifies, and reimagines the gender binary.

Pocket Change Collective is a series of small books with big ideas from today’s leading activists and artists. In this installment, Beyond the Gender Binary, Alok Vaid-Menon challenges the world to see gender not in black and white, but in full color. Taking from their own experiences as a gender-nonconforming artist, they show us that gender is a malleable and creative form of expression. The only limit is your imagination.

This Is What I Know About Art by Kimberly Drew, Ashley Lukashevsky (Illustrator) (ISBN-13: 9780593095188 Publisher: Penguin Young Readers Group Publication date: 06/02/2020)

In this powerful and hopeful account, arts writer, curator, and activist Kimberly Drew reminds us that the art world has space not just for the elite, but for everyon
e.

Pocket Change Collective is a series of small books with big ideas from today’s leading activists and artists. In this installment, arts writer and co-editor of Black Futures Kimberly Drew shows us that art and protest are inextricably linked. Drawing on her personal experience through art toward activism, Drew challenges us to create space for the change that we want to see in the world. Because there really is so much more space than we think.

The New Queer Conscience by Adam Eli, Ashley Lukashevsky (Illustrator) (ISBN-13: 9780593093689 Publisher: Penguin Young Readers Group Publication date: 06/02/2020)

In The New Queer Conscience, LGBTQIA+ activist Adam Eli argues the urgent need for queer responsibility — that queers anywhere are responsible for queers everywhere

Pocket Change Collective is a series of small books with big ideas from today’s leading activists and artists. In this installment, The New Queer Conscience, Voices4 Founder and LGBTQIA+ activist Adam Eli offers a candid and compassionate introduction to queer responsibility. Eli calls on his Jewish faith to underline how kindness and support within the queer community can lead to a stronger global consciousness. More importantly, he reassures us that we’re not alone. In fact, we never were. Because if you mess with one queer, you mess with us all.

Imaginary Borders by Xiuhtezcatl Martinez, Ashley Lukashevsky (Illustrator) (ISBN-13: 9780593094136 Publisher: Penguin Young Readers Group Publication date: 06/02/2020)


In this personal, moving essay, environmental activist and hip-hop artist Xiuhtezcatl Martinez uses his art and his activism to show that climate change is a human issue that can’t be ignored.

Pocket Change Collective is a series of small books with big ideas from today’s leading activists and artists. In this installment, Earth Guardians Youth Director and hip-hop artist Xiuhtezcatl Martinez shows us how his music feeds his environmental activism and vice versa. Martinez visualizes a future that allows us to direct our anger, fear, and passion toward creating change. Because, at the end of the day, we all have a part to play.

Amanda’s thoughts

I’ve said it before, but: Almost always, I read books in order of publication date. It’s really the only way I can keep track of everything I want to review and juggle the rest of life. These little books have sat on my shelf for months and I’ve been so looking forward to getting to them. They did not disappoint.

You know who these would be great for? All the great kids you know who are graduating right now. I love giving books as gifts (she preached to the choir) and these are perfect to hand to young readers. And old readers! These books read like really impassioned TED talks, interspersing personal histories and details with factual information and calls to action.

In Beyond the Gender Binary, Vaid-Menon explores the many ways the false idea of a binary hurts everyone and how harmful the disconnect between what people see (and comment on) and who you are can be. They discuss how an emphasis on a binary involves power, control, shame, repression, harassment, discrimination, and more. They look at the laws against people who don’t conform to the gender binary, the access denied, the targeted legislation, and point out how so much of this is all about gender non-conforming people but rarely actually engages with them.

Vaid-Menon shares their own story from growing up, full of shame, fear, and bullying. They also detail common arguments against gender non-conforming people and refutes them. They emphasize the importance for the narrative around nonbinary people to be one of reclamation, acceptance, peace, and celebration in this powerful look at the toxic notion of a binary and the harmony and creativity of embracing a spectrum of gender identities.

In The New Queer Conscience, Eli focuses on providing a hopeful, uplifting message of support and solidarity as he calls for a unified queer community. Drawing parallels to the support and collective sympathy, outrage, and action he finds within his Jewish community, he urges queer people anywhere to feel responsible for queer people everywhere. He writes about being young and feeling confused and uncomfortable and desperately needing the validation, assurance, and support of a community. He addresses the common feeling of being alone that so many queer kids may feel, a feeling that could be alleviated by a stronger and more active community. Eli explores the changes necessary for this kind of community and transformation, including policies of kindness and understanding, acknowledging uneven playing fields and issues of privilege, and the need for there to be solidarity with all oppressed people. A great reminder that there’s a huge, welcoming community that values you and that together it can be stronger and more effective.

In Imaginary Borders, Martinez examines the climate change movement. His message is that we build the world together, especially when we understand that we are part of a larger system, that we need to claim space in the movements, and explores the need for a cultural shift. He details the ways climate change reaches across real and imagined borders and looks as the cascading effects of climate change, environmental racism, and social justice. Martinez focuses on the fact that there are many paths to activism, and that to inspire connection and action, we need to bring our imagination and creativity to the movement as well as diverse tactics.

In This Is What I Know About Art, Drew looks at art, activism, protest, and inclusion through the lens of her own path to a life in the art world. Emphasizing curiosity, engagement, and learning, she pushes for a collective voice and a shared community. Detailing her exploration of art in college and in internships and jobs, she encourages us to ask who is not in the room and how can we get them there.

Illuminating and inspiring, all four books encourage more thoughtful conversations around these topics. Really well done.

Review copies (ARC) courtesy of the publisher.

Book Review: The Henna Wars by Adiba Jaigirdar

Publisher’s description

Nishat doesn’t want to lose her family, but she also doesn’t want to hide who she is, and it only gets harder once a childhood friend walks back into her life. Flávia is beautiful and charismatic, and Nishat falls for her instantly. But when a school competition invites students to create their own businesses, both Flávia and Nishat decide to showcase their talent as henna artists. In a fight to prove who is the best, their lives become more tangled—but Nishat can’t quite get rid of her crush, especially since Flávia seems to like her back.

As the competition heats up, Nishat has a decision to make: stay in the closet for her family, or put aside her differences with Flávia and give their relationship a chance.

Amanda’s thoughts

(The content warning from the book, FYI: The Henna Wars contains instances of racism, homophobia, bullying, and a character being outed. All of these are challenged and dealt with on the page.)

Bangladeshi Irish Nishat, 16, has decided to come out to her parents. After all, they have a “love marriage” (versus an arranged marriage), so maybe they can accept this other form of love. Her parents acknowledge her telling them she’s a lesbian, then dismiss her. She later overhears them saying she’s confused, she will work it out, she will change her mind. Their intent is to carry on as though nothing is different.

But for Nishat, everything is different. She doesn’t want to be closeted anymore, or be anyone other than who she is. And her crush on her new classmate Flávia, who is Brazilian and white Irish, makes it even harder for her to ignore or dismiss who she is and how she feels. But that crush quickly grows more complicated when both Nishat and Flávia decide to create henna businesses for a class project. Nishat is outraged that Flávia thinks it’s okay to do henna; doesn’t she understand that’s cultural appropriation? Flávia says it’s just art, and no one can make boundaries about art. It doesn’t help that Flávia’s cousin in Chyna, the nastiest girl in their class, who is racist and started rumors about Nishat’s family years ago.

This story is equal parts about having a crush on someone who should probably be your enemy and coming out/being outed. The only people Nishat tells are in her family. Her younger sister has known for a while and is totally loving and supportive. Her parents tell a family friend and have her try to reason with Nishat—she’s young, she’s confused, she has a problem, “Muslims aren’t gay” (pg 123), she has a “sickness.” Meanwhile, her parents continue to act as though she never told them anything and this whole “problem” will just eventually resolve itself. After all, according to her parents’ logic, can’t she understand that she’s making a “choice” that is bringing shame to the family? This coming from parents who have made it clear to her that she can be anything she wants… except herself, apparently.

Both pieces of the story, the henna competition and the crush, have many believable and dramatic ups and downs. There are lots of conversations about racism, bullying, homophobia, cultural issues and appropriations, family, and more. The most challenging aspect of the book may be the part about Nishat being outed, which is traumatic and, of course, unacceptable. I do want to say that this has a happy ending, that characters in her life do learn and grow and ultimately support her and show love. The relationship between Nishat and her sister, Priti, is one of the shining points of the book. They are absolutely best friends and the support Priti provides Nishat while so many others turn their back on her is priceless. Though at times painful to read, this is exploration of identity, family, and self is well-written, honest, and, ultimately, empowering.

Review copy (ARC) courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9781624149689
Publisher: Page Street Publishing
Publication date: 05/12/2020
Age Range: 14 – 17 Years

Book Review: Verona Comics by Jennifer Dugan

Publisher’s description

From the author of Hot Dog Girl comes a fresh and funny queer YA contemporary novel about two teens who fall in love in an indie comic book shop.

Jubilee has it all together. She’s an elite cellist, and when she’s not working in her stepmom’s indie comic shop, she’s prepping for the biggest audition of her life.

Ridley is barely holding it together. His parents own the biggest comic-store chain in the country, and Ridley can’t stop disappointing them—that is, when they’re even paying attention.

They meet one fateful night at a comic convention prom, and the two can’t help falling for each other. Too bad their parents are at each other’s throats every chance they get, making a relationship between them nearly impossible . . . unless they manage to keep it a secret.

Then again, the feud between their families may be the least of their problems. As Ridley’s anxiety spirals, Jubilee tries to help but finds her focus torn between her fast-approaching audition and their intensifying relationship. What if love can’t conquer all? What if each of them needs more than the other can give?

Amanda’s thoughts

When I’m writing this review it’s March 20, 2020 and I’ve just been diagnosed as “COVID-19 concern,” which I guess is what they diagnose those of us who are sick with all the symptoms in this world of no available tests. I’m really into feeling sorry for myself today. But you know what helped? This book. I read it all today. And loved it. And thank goodness I’ve stumbled into a pile of books keeping my attention because wow have I been in a reading slump lately.

This book is my favorite kind of book: small plot, lots of talking. It also has delightfully convoluted communication mainly due to the fact that we first see our characters meet at a con and know each other as Peak and Bats. Peak (Jubilee) assumes Bats (Ridley) goes back home to Seattle, but really, he stays in Connecticut to live with his terrible father. Also, while they initially know nothing about one another, Ridley figures out who Peak is (Jubilee, daughter of a famous indie comic artist and his father’s main rival) while she knows nothing about him. Even for many, many chapters while they are hanging out in IRL. And Riley may be spying on her family’s store to get intel to help his dad (who, did I mention? is terrible). And when the reveal comes that not only is Ridley Jubilee’s con-crush Bats but is the son of her mom’s rival, things grow even MORE complicated, because how can Jubilee possibly still like him? But she does.

Whew. Get all that? You will when you read it.

There’s also a lot going on here regarding both mental health and sexuality. Ridley is bi. Jubilee calls herself “flexible” and isn’t comfortable with any one label yet, but knows she’s into certain people regardless of their gender. Ridley worries what Jubilee will think about him being bi, and Jubilee worries that repeatedly liking boys somehow makes her less queer. Then there’s Ridley’s mental health. At one point he tells Jubilee that he doesn’t have a diagnosis—he has a laundry list. His main issue is anxiety with panic attacks. Given the amount of lies and secrets he juggles for much of the book, it’s no surprise that his anxiety is always in high gear. Things start to become dangerous when he begins to feel like he’d just like to get lost in Jubilee and forget everything else. A common statement at our house is that people don’t fix people. So wanting to get lost in his girlfriend isn’t exactly a doctor-approved way to treat his worsening anxiety. Some bad choices and instability lead to everything coming to a head.

While this is certainly a romance, it’s also so much more. It really asks the question of how do you survive the dark times and doesn’t offer any easy answers. It’s also a great look at two people getting maybe too wrapped up in each other and not helping them be their best selves (does that sound like a mom lecture? I may or may not have given it recently). This is much heavier than it may appear based on the cover and the summary. That said, those looking for a contemporary that successfully mixes romance with some rather serious issues (and some concerning choices regarding lies, truth, and mental health) will enjoy this. A character-driven book with wide appeal.

Review copy (ARC) courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9780525516286
Publisher: Penguin Young Readers Group
Publication date: 04/21/2020
Age Range: 12 – 17 Years

Book Review: Somebody Told Me by Mia Siegert

Publisher’s description

A novel of trauma, identity, and survival.

After an assault, bigender seventeen-year-old Aleks/Alexis is looking for a fresh start—so they voluntarily move in with their uncle, a Catholic priest. In their new bedroom, Aleks/Alexis discovers they can overhear parishioners in the church confessional. Moved by the struggles of these “sinners,” Aleks/Alexis decides to anonymously help them, finding solace in their secret identity: a guardian angel instead of a victim.


But then Aleks/Alexis overhears a confession of another priest admitting to sexually abusing a parishioner. As they try to uncover the priest’s identity before he hurts anyone again, Aleks/Alexis is also forced to confront their own abuser and come to terms with their past trauma.

Amanda’s thoughts

It’s not often that I run across a book where I think, wow, this setting and some of these characters are not like anything I’ve ever read before in YA. That’s not to say they don’t exist anywhere—try as I may, I can’t read all the YA books ever published—but they were new and unique to me. Given that I read hundreds of books a year, many of the particulars eventually get lost as they get buried under new things I’ve read, but Siegert’s characters and setting will stick with me.

It’s the summer before senior year and queer, bigender Alexis/Aleks moves into a rectory with their aunt and uncle. They have decided they won’t present as male while there because it will avoid drama and negativity with/from their aunt and uncle. Readers don’t know for a while what exactly has caused Alexis/Aleks to flee home, where they have supportive and loving parents, to seek a safer place. A nasty, shame-filled voice in their head constantly berates them and accuses them of being a fraud, of not being good enough, of being worthless. Eventually readers come to know what caused Alexis/Aleks to stop going to cons, to give up cosplaying, and to leave their home, and this information will inform the rest of what goes on in the story.

While living with their aunt and uncle, Alexis/Aleks makes new friends: Dima, who wants to attend seminary, Deacon Jameson, and Sister Bernadette. All of these characters are within a few years of Alexis/Aleks’s age and provide not just friendship but also conflict and confusion. And once Alexis/Aleks overhears the horrifying confession (from an unknown confessor) about a priest sexually abusing young boys, those conflicts and confusions (and friendships) grow even more important and uncertain.

Much of this story has to do with when Alexis/Aleks cosplayed as a beautiful boy character and was endlessly objectified and exploited (and eventually assaulted). They is a lot of thoughtful rumination on not only cosplay and roles but gender and faith/religion too. The last many chapters of the book take a very dark turn as the characters (and readers) work out who the abuser is and what to do about it.

Addressing and grappling with secrets, identity, trauma, lies, and survival, this story is not a light read. There is misgendering, homophobia, transphobia, abuse and assault, murder, kidnapping, and other difficult to read and possibly triggering events and ideas. While it’s not possible to say I “enjoyed” this story (that’s too nice of a word for such a trauma-filled book), I did find it suspenseful, unexpected, thoughtful, and compelling.

Review copy (ARC) courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9781541578197
Publisher: Lerner Publishing Group

Publication date: 04/07/2020
Age Range: 13 – 18 Years

Book Review: Felix Ever After by Kacen Callender

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, a STARRED review, which originally appeared in an issue of School Library Journal.

 Gr 9 Up–Black, queer, and trans Felix explores love, friendship, and possibly retribution in this powerful #OwnVoices story of identity and self-worth. Seventeen-year-old Felix Love hopes the summer art program he’s attending will help raise his grades and increase his chances of getting a full scholarship to attend Brown. Surrounded by a diverse and mostly queer group of artist friends, Felix navigates complicated relationships, including transphobia and harassment from his own friends, from his loving but still learning father, and from an anonymous bully. Bent on revenge, Felix begins catfishing his top suspect, only to encounter some uncomfortable and surprising revelations about not just his potential tormentor, but his own feelings. Coping with the abandonment of his mother and feeling like he isn’t worthy of love, Felix also grapples with the unsettling feeling that his identity still isn’t the best fit. It’s only after a lot of research that he discovers the label “demiboy” and begins to feel a sense of comfort that extends to how he works through and untangles his various complex relationships, both romantic and platonic. Immensely readable, the narration and the dialogue are honest, smart, and at times, bitingly vicious. Felix and friends are complicated characters, constantly fighting, messing up, and making up. Felix is achingly relatable, both vulnerable and guarded, often on the sidelines but wanting so much more. His explorations address privilege, marginalization, and intersectionality while he learns about what and who get to define a person.

VERDICT Full of warmth, love, and support, this is an important story and an essential purchase.

HarperCollins/Balzer + Bray. May 2020. 368p. Tr $18.99. ISBN 9780062820259

Book Review: Only Mostly Devastated by Sophie Gonzales

Publisher’s description

Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda meets Clueless in this boy-meets-boy spin on Grease.

Will Tavares is the dream summer fling—he’s fun, affectionate, kind—but just when Ollie thinks he’s found his Happily Ever After, summer vacation ends and Will stops texting Ollie back. Now Ollie is one prince short of his fairytale ending, and to complicate the fairytale further, a family emergency sees Ollie uprooted and enrolled at a new school across the country. Which he minds a little less when he realizes it’s the same school Will goes to…except Ollie finds that the sweet, comfortably queer guy he knew from summer isn’t the same one attending Collinswood High. This Will is a class clown, closeted—and, to be honest, a bit of a jerk.

Ollie has no intention of pining after a guy who clearly isn’t ready for a relationship, especially since this new, bro-y jock version of Will seems to go from hot to cold every other week. But then Will starts “coincidentally” popping up in every area of Ollie’s life, from music class to the lunch table, and Ollie finds his resolve weakening.

The last time he gave Will his heart, Will handed it back to him trampled and battered. Ollie would have to be an idiot to trust him with it again.

Right? Right.

Amanda’s thoughts

Let’s just start with this: Ollie deserves way better than Will. Sure, Will’s life is complicated because his summer fling with Ollie wasn’t meant to ever affect his “real life” at home once summer is over. He’s not out to anyone, so when Ollie shows up at his school as a new student, panic ensues. But Ollie spends the whole book pining for someone who so often treats him terribly. I don’t think literature should be handbooks for how to behave full of nothing but “good” choices and positive outcomes. Life is messy. Stories get to be full of messy people, too. But oooh did I want to holler at Ollie to move on with his life!

Ollie is immediately befriend by three girls at his new school, all of whom are interesting and complicated. He’s juggling trying to figure out what is going on with Will with finding his footing in this new school all while sometimes taking care of his aunt’s kids and dealing with the fact that she’s dying from cancer. Ollie’s cool and weird new girl friends inexplicably hang out with Will’s crew of basketball guys (inexplicably because, well, I’ve been in high school, and they hardly seem like a natural or even particularly friendly friend group). Summer Will was sweet and thoughtful. School Will is insufferable and smug. I guess those facts, combined with the whole summer fling who shows up at school aspect, are what make this story like Grease. If no one had planted this thought in mind, I never would seen it.

Of course, it’s not as straightforward as Will is a jerk to Ollie and that’s that. If it were, not only would there be no story—whatever story would be left would be boring. Again, life is messy, so while it’s sometimes infuriating to watch characters behave in really frustrating ways, they get to be inconsistent and complicated just we real humans are. Will still likes Ollie. Ollie still likes Will, despite the many crappy ways Will behaves toward him. Will starts be nicer to him, then freaks out, then is nicer, then freaks out, etc. until they finally (it’s hardly a spoiler to reveal this) figure out that they want to be together more than anything else.

Coming out often isn’t easy. It feels very real that Will would panic and behave differently toward Ollie in the setting of his school versus when it was just the two of them over the summer. Though Will is so often hurtful toward Ollie, I hope readers will remember that we need to see the whole spectrum of stories and experiences and representations. Confusion is okay. Being mildly terrible to people because of your own fears and insecurities is okay only in the sense that it’s very, very real. And while Will isn’t perfect, he’s VERY real. It was a real nice surprise to see everyone in Will’s life be supportive and loving when he does finally come out as bi.

In the end, sweet with a HEA, but the path there is rough and at times painful. Those who want swoon-worthy perfection in their relationships will be disappointed, but those who are deep in their own messy lives will totally get where both Will and Ollie are coming from.

Review copy (ARC) courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9781250315892
Publisher: St. Martin”s Publishing Group
Publication date: 03/03/2020

My Agenda for Middle Grade Books, a guest post by Greg Howard

“Never before have I thrown a book away, yours is the first.”

That’s how the email began.

It was last summer, about eight months after the release of my debut middle grade novel, The Whispers. I’d been riding pretty high on positive reviews from the likes of The New York Times Book Review, The Guardian, The Washington Post, Entertainment Weekly, and others. I’d received a number of emails from kids and parents the world over telling me how much they loved the book and how the story touched them deeply. But all that was momentarily overshadowed by this new website contact submission form in my inbox.

If you haven’t read The Whispers, trust me, it’s a sweet and pretty innocuous story. Riley, the eleven-year-old protagonist, is struggling to come to terms with the fact that he likes boys instead of girls (there is a crush on an older boy and chaste – even comical – kiss between two boys). But that’s not the main story, not even close. It just happens to be who Riley is and what he’s going through at that moment in his life.

I was Riley—a lonely kid growing up in the deep South knowing that I wasn’t like the other boys around me. I never saw myself represented in the books I read, or on the TV shows I watched and that made me feel like I was the only boy in the whole world who was desperately attracted to other boys. The glaring lack of representation in books, television, and movies only compounded my sense of isolation and loneliness, making me feel even more like a freak than I already did. I can’t imagine the anguish I would have been saved if I’d had access to even one book at that age in which I saw another boy like me. It would have given me something I severely lacked at that point in my life—hope.

The email I received last summer was from a father whose son was reading The Whispers. Apparently when he asked his son to talk about was going on in the book, the boy’s response sparked his curiosity, so he read “a chapter or two” only to find, in his words, “references that project your own sexuality onto the lives of others,” and “you couldn’t resist having this projected onto my boy.”

The man went on to say, “…the moment you cross into my world and suggest to my kids your sexuality – you are pushing your own homosexual agenda. Your story didn’t need this. Your story didn’t need to mention that the character was straight, or gay. Just tell your story and have kids enjoy it.”

To emphasize his disgust, he was also kind enough to send me a picture of my book in the trash.

A picture containing indoor, bed, white, sitting

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The first thing I thought when I saw this picture was, if this man’s son is gay, he just saw his father reject him and throw him in the trash, and the mere possibility of that breaks my heart.

But what this father was clearly saying in his email was that the mere suggestion of my existence, and the existence of kids like Riley, was and affront to him, his family, and his beliefs. And that in simply living my truth and even “mentioning” that Riley was attracted to other boys, I was pushing my “homosexual agenda.” I suppose all those books I read as a kid in which the boys were attracted only to girls and girls were attracted only to boys were pushing a heterosexual agenda on me. No one asked me how I felt about that, or if I was offended to have to read about such things, but I digress.

After the initial shock and deflation from reading the man’s email, I became more motivated than ever to write stories for and about queer kids. I was in the process of writing my new book when I received the email. Middle School’s a Drag: You Better Werk! is a contemporary story set in Charleston, South Carolina, in which twelve-year-old Mikey—gay but not out publicly yet—starts a junior talent agency and signs a thirteen-year-old drag queen, Coco Caliente, Mistress of Madness and Mayhem, as his first client. (Drag kids exist, too! Google it.) The man’s email also motivated me to make Mikey’s parents overwhelmingly accepting and supportive—sometimes annoyingly so, in Mikey’s opinion. Mikey has a crush on another boy at school, but as in The Whispers, that’s not what the story is about it. It’s just a part of who Mikey is. Queer kids exist and (News Alert!) they have crushes just like straight, or cishet, kids do.

Other than a handful of homophobic bully characters in Middle School’s a Drag: You Better Werk! Mikey’s world is somewhat of a middle school gaytopia. I wrote it that way on purpose. Because even if that’s not the norm in some parts of the South or in other parts of the country, don’t queer kids deserve that kind of hope too? The hope that one day they can be themselves openly and without fear of backlash for simply existing. The hope that they won’t be marginalized and othered in their daily lives. And the hope that they’ll have access to a plethora of books in which they see themselves represented, accepted, and celebrated.

Having been gay for some time now (read: always), I have yet to discover this elusive and seemingly subversive “homosexual agenda” that I’ve heard so much about over the years and have been accused of “pushing” onto kids in my books. But this man’s email inspired me to create my own, simple as it is. So, I thank him for that.

GREG HOWARD’S HOMOSEXUAL AGENDA FOR MIDDLE GRADE NOVELS

Write good books in which queer kids feel seen and represented.

Give queer kids their happily ever afters.

And most importantly, give them hope.

That’s it.

Meet Greg Howard

Photo credit: Jamie Wright Images

Born and raised in the South Carolina Lowcountry, Greg Howard’s love of words and story blossomed at a young age. Originally set on becoming a famous songwriter and following that dream to the bright lights of Nashville, Tennessee, Greg spent years producing the music of others before eventually returning to his childhood passion of writing stories. Greg writes young adult and middle grade novels focusing on LGBTQ characters and issues. He has an unhealthy obsession with Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups and currently resides in Nashville with his three rescued fur babies–Molly, Toby, and Riley. Connect with Greg at www.greghowardbooks.com or on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter: @greghowardbooks

About Middle School’s a Drag, You Better Werk!

In this heartfelt and hilarious new novel from Greg Howard, an enterprising boy starts his own junior talent agency and signs a thirteen-year-old aspiring drag queen as his first client.

Twelve-year-old Mikey Pruitt—president, founder, and CEO of Anything, Inc.—has always been an entrepreneur at heart. Inspired by his grandfather Pap Pruitt, who successfully ran all sorts of businesses from a car wash to a roadside peanut stand, Mikey is still looking for his million-dollar idea. Unfortunately, most of his ideas so far have failed. A baby tornado ran off with his general store, and the kids in his neighborhood never did come back for their second croquet lesson. But Mikey is determined to keep at it.

It isn’t until kid drag queen Coco Caliente, Mistress of Madness and Mayhem (aka eighth grader Julian Vasquez) walks into his office (aka his family’s storage/laundry room) looking for an agent that Mikey thinks he’s finally found his million-dollar idea, and the Anything Talent and Pizzazz Agency is born!

Soon, Mikey has a whole roster of kid clients looking to hit it big or at least win the middle school talent show’s hundred-dollar prize. As newly out Mikey prepares Julian for the gig of a lifetime, he realizes there’s no rulebook for being gay—and if Julian can be openly gay at school, maybe Mikey can, too, and tell his crush, dreamy Colton Sanford, how he feels.

Full of laughs, sass, and hijinks, this hilarious, heartfelt story shows that with a little effort and a lot of love, anything is possible.

ISBN-13: 9780525517528
Publisher: Penguin Young Readers Group
Publication date: 02/11/2020
Age Range: 10 – 12 Years

Book Review: Pride: The Celebration and the Struggle by Robin Stevenson

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, a STARRED review, which originally appeared in an issue of School Library Journal.

Gr 6-9–Stevenson’s joyful celebration of self, community, existence, and activism examines Pride parades, how they came to be, and what they celebrate. This updated edition contains an added focus on necessary and continuing activism as well as the role of young people in the movement. The text chronicles a brief history of LGBTQ+ advocacy, major issues, differing political goals, and inequality within the movement. Chapters explore the rise of Queer Nation (an activist group founded in NYC), marriage equality, PFLAG, community and subgroups, coming out, and definitions of various acronyms and identities. As the title promises, the main focus is Pride parades, the politics of Pride, intersectional activism and considerations, symbols commonly seen at Pride, and alternative Pride marches and demonstrations. While primarily focused on North America, there is a chapter on Pride as a symbol of freedom and hope around the world as well as the social climates, ongoing struggles, and laws of many countries. The eye-catching layout features large, vibrant pictures from celebrations, parades, and marches all over the world. Pull-out quotes, smaller pictures on the sides, and text boxes with “Queer Facts” adorn the pages and help break up longer sections.

VERDICT An indispensable and celebratory primer on the ongoing fight for LGBTQ+ rights. An excellent resource that is as thorough as it is visually appealing.

ISBN-13: 9781459821248
Publisher: Orca Book Publishers
Publication date: 03/24/2020
Edition description: 2nd Revised and Expanded ed.

Book Review: We Were Promised Spotlights by Lindsay Sproul

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–A reluctant queen bee stumbles toward discovering her true self as she contends with expectations and her sexuality in a small town at the end of the 1990s. With high school almost over, Taylor Garland only wants two things: for her best friend Susan to reciprocate her (hidden) romantic feelings and to leave tiny Hopuonk, MA, where she’s bored by everything. Her future feels predictable and depressing, but pursuing a different path seems impossible. At one point, Taylor says that she “keeps meaning to be a different person” but doesn’t know how to become one. Revealing her real self—whoever that is—may bring satisfaction but may potentially throw her whole life in disarray. Much of the story hinges on Taylor accepting that she’s a lesbian. She carries a wealth of internalized homophobia as well as cliched ideas about what it may mean to be gay. Taylor’s crowd is fickle and callous, casually bullying their peers, being cruel to each other, and incessantly tossing around offensive slurs. The writing is at times lovely, and the setting of a tiny, ramshackle town casts a fittingly depressing vibe over an already bleak story. Taylor is compellingly flawed and unpredictable, and her path to growth, while rocky and cringe-inducing, is frank and honest. A hopeful if out-of-nowhere ending allows readers to think that maybe Taylor can indeed become the different person she means to be.

VERDICT Hand this grim coming-of-age story to readers who don’t mind characters who can be difficult to like.

Putnam. Mar. 2020. 288p. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9781524738532.