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Believing, a guest post by Mark Oshiro

In many ways, I consider The Insiders— my middle grade debut—both the most magical and the happiest book I’ve ever written. That was deliberate; I wanted to challenge myself as a writer after having completed two (frankly) emotionally intense young adult novels. The joy was easy to find, too! At the center of this novel was a magical Room that allowed three queer and/or trans kids to not only find friendship in one another, but to gather the strength to face the problems they were having in their own lives.

Yet there’s a real-life event I experienced in seventh grade that informed the emotional core of Héctor Muñoz’s journey over the course of the novel. And I want to talk about what happens when adults don’t believe children.

Trigger Warning: For discussion of homophobia, bullying/abuse

Some context: The Insiders follows Héctor Muñoz as he is forced to move from the open-minded community of San Francisco to the suburbs of Orangevale, CA. There, he’s not just an outsider because of how he dresses or what he’s interested in, but he becomes the target of a trio of bullies who toe the line with homophobia. So, Héctor does as he is supposed to: He tells an adult (Ms. Heath, the head of security) that he’s being bullied.

Because Héctor’s bully is the ever-popular Mike, Ms. Heath refuses to believe Héctor.

I have no interest as an author in sanitizing the world for young readers. While The Insiders is certainly funnier than my YA novels, I also dig deep into some heavy themes. But I must admit that I did not exactly replicate the incident I went through within the pages of the book. I grew up in Riverside, CA during a time when homophobia had a firm grip on everyone around me. To say it was open and allowed doesn’t quite capture what it was like to be a kid then.

The bullying I was subjected to was consistent, intense, and highly specific. In particular, it was my tight clothing (this was the age of baggy pants and oversized shirts) that gained the most ire, and I came to school each day anticipating that I’d be called a homophobic slur.

One of my bullies escalated to physical attacks around Thanksgiving that year, and it continued until… well, I feel no need to recount what he did in detail here. It was bad enough that I had to go to the nurse, who then encouraged me to speak to our school’s counselor. At that point, I had, like many of my peers, been conditioned to believe that adults were there to protect you in these settings. If you see something, say something. So, as I had been taught, I told the counselor the truth. I explained (in great detail at the time) what this boy had been doing to me and how his actions had sent me to the nurse’s office.

Her response was to tell me that none of this would have happened if I didn’t invite it upon myself.

She proceeded to blame the bullying on me: on my soft voice, on my over-expressive hand gestures, on my “revealing” clothing, on a young boy who could not control who he was. She said I was exaggerating what he did to me; she said that I faked the trip to the nurse’s office.

I don’t think it’ll be surprising that for years afterward, I did not share a single vulnerable thing about me to another adult. Not my parents, not a teacher, not a counselor or administrator. Indeed, as things in my home life got worse, and I became homeless in high school, I more or less had to be FORCED to tell an adult what I was going through.

There are few things more isolating than not being believed. While Héctor’s journey is very different than my own, it was born from the same place. In his case, though, his initial solution is a hint of the speculative: a janitor’s closet that keeps appearing around campus to protect him. And while it serves a necessary role, I never wanted this to be the answer. Not for Héctor and certainly not for the larger story I was telling in The Insiders.

Why don’t we listen to children? Why don’t we believe them? I remember being constantly told that I’d understand something more when I got older, and here I am, not far from my 38th birthday, and you know what? That thing I didn’t like? That act that felt wrong? I STILL FEEL THE SAME WAY ABOUT IT! It was just easier for the adults in my life to refuse to actually listen to me rather than treat me like… well, a whole person with agency.

The Insiders has many other secrets and surprises in its story (including how Héctor resolves the issue with his bullies). But this aspect is one I’m open about right from the start: I want kids to be believed. I don’t want other people to grow up being afraid to tell the truth or to see vulnerability as a weakness, as something to be guarded against. I am very proud of this book, but I’m most proud of how I’ve written the version of myself I wish I was. If anything, I hope it inspires other queer youth to be more fully themselves so that we don’t need to have metaphorical closets to hide in.

Except the magic ones, of course!

Meet the author

Photo credit: Zoraida Cordova

Mark Oshiro is the Schneider Award-winning author of the YA books Anger Is a Gift and Each of Us a Desert. When they are not writing, they are busy trying to fulfill their lifelong goal: to pet every dog in the world. The Insiders is their middle grade debut. Visit them online at markoshiro.com

Buy link:

https://www.littleshopofstories.com/book/9780063008106

About The Insiders

Three kids who don’t belong. A room that shouldn’t exist. A year that will change everything.

Perfect for fans of Rebecca Stead and Meg Medina, this debut middle grade novel from award-winning author Mark Oshiro is a hopeful and heartfelt coming-of-age story for anyone who’s ever felt like they didn’t fit in.

San Francisco and Orangevale may be in the same state, but for Héctor Muñoz, they might as well be a million miles apart. Back home, being gay didn’t mean feeling different. At Héctor’s new school, he couldn’t feel more alone.

Most days, Héctor just wishes he could disappear. And he does. Right into the janitor’s closet. (Yes, he sees the irony.) But one day, when the door closes behind him, Héctor discovers he’s stumbled into a room that shouldn’t be possible. A room that connects him with two new friends from different corners of the country—and opens the door to a life-changing year full of friendship, adventure, and just a little bit of magic.

ISBN-13: 9780063008106
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 09/21/2021
Age Range: 8 – 12 Years

Book Review: Summer in the City of Roses by Michelle Ruiz Keil

Publisher’s description

Inspired by the Greek myth of Iphigenia and the Grimm fairy tale “Brother and Sister,” Michelle Ruiz Keil’s second novel follows two siblings torn apart and struggling to find each other in early ’90s Portland.

All her life, seventeen-year-old Iph has protected her sensitive younger brother, Orr. But this summer, with their mother gone at an artist residency, their father decides it’s time for fifteen-year-old Orr to toughen up at a wilderness boot camp. When their father brings Iph to a work gala in downtown Portland and breaks the news, Orr has already been sent away against his will. Furious at her father’s betrayal, Iph storms off and gets lost in the maze of Old Town. Enter George, a queer Robin Hood who swoops in on a bicycle, bow and arrow at the ready, offering Iph a place to hide out while she tracks down Orr. 

Orr, in the meantime, has escaped the camp and fallen in with The Furies, an all-girl punk band, and moves into the coat closet of their ramshackle pink house. In their first summer apart, Iph and Orr must learn to navigate their respective new spaces of music, romance, and sex-work activism—and find each other before a fantastical transformation fractures their family forever. 

Told through a lens of magical realism and steeped in myth, Summer in the City of Roses is a dazzling tale about the pain and beauty of growing up.

Amanda’s thoughts

Sometimes a book is so wonderful and lovely and alive that I almost feel angry. I feel angry that I will have to leave the world of the story eventually, that someone can write so breathtakingly beautifully, that someone’s brain was able to come up with such a strange and special story. I finished this book and thought, well, great—now what am I supposed to do with myself? I mean that in the best way. In the way that you just had a great experience, and will never experience it in that same new and amazing way, and what, I’m just supposed to pick up some other book and pretend I’m not thinking about Orr and Iph and all their new friends?!

You can read the summary up above my thoughts. I’m not going to talk about what happens other than to say I felt completely wrapped up and brought along on the adventures Orr and Iph have while apart (and eventually together) in Portland. It’s the 90s, in this book (you know–that time I was a music-obsessed punk teen, an era my brain INSISTS on thinking was maybe 10 years ago—don’t correct me). The story is full of feminism and punk rock and adventure and magic and love. There’s poetry, theater, sex workers, books, beautiful weirdos in crummy apartments, mythology, fairytales, animals, and love love love. It’s a weird, dark, happy, sad, real, fantastical story. It’s serious and upsetting and whimsical and hopeful. Just go read it. This is a standout book about runaways finding what they need in the strangest of ways. Just lovely.

Review copy (finished hardcover) courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9781641291712
Publisher: Soho Press, Incorporated
Publication date: 07/06/2021
Age Range: 14 – 17 Years

Book Review: Singled Out: The True Story of Glenn Burke by Andrew Maraniss


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.

Philomel. Mar. 2021. 320p. Tr $18.99. ISBN 9780593116722.

 Gr 9 Up–A pioneering athlete’s life is examined through the intersection of gay rights, race, and Major League Baseball. Glenn Burke rose to acclaim in the 1970s as part of the L.A. Dodgers. Charismatic, popular, and phenomenally talented, Burke, who was Black and gay but not out, worked his way through the team’s farm system. He longed to reconcile his image with his true self, and in 1982 Burke, who is credited with inventing the cultural phenomenon of the high five, came out in a magazine article and a Today show interview. Burke struggled with drug addiction and eventually fell on devastatingly hard times, at times incarcerated, unhoused, and unemployed. He died of complications from AIDS in 1995. By looking at the social and political climates and incorporating the history of gay rights and activism, Maraniss shows what the world was like for gay people in the 1970s and 1980s, with no openly gay athletes, a homophobic sports world, and the AIDS crisis taking hold. Short sections, photographs, and quotes from Maraniss’s many interviews keep the deeply immersive story moving. Extensive back matter proves to be as essential reading as the main text. Detailed source notes provide more information on people quoted, events of the time, issues in MLB, and explanations of references. A bibliography, baseball statistics, a gay rights time line, selection of Black American LGBTQ people to know and study, and an index round out the work.

VERDICT This remarkable tribute to a trailblazer is narrative nonfiction at its finest.

Book Review: Perfectly Parvin by Olivia Abtahi

Publisher’s description

Fourteen-year-old Iranian-American Parvin Mohammadi sets out to win the ultimate date to homecoming in this heartfelt and outright hilarious debut.

Parvin Mohammadi has just been dumped—only days after receiving official girlfriend status. Not only is she heartbroken, she’s humiliated. Enter high school heartthrob Matty Fumero, who just might be the smoking-hot cure to all her boy problems. If Parvin can get Matty to ask her to Homecoming, she’s positive it will prove to herself and her ex that she’s girlfriend material after all. There’s just one problem: Matty is definitely too cool for bassoon-playing, frizzy-haired, Cheeto-eating Parvin. Since being herself hasn’t worked for her in the past (see aforementioned dumping), she decides to start acting like the women in her favorite rom-coms. Those women aren’t loud, they certainly don’t cackle when they laugh, and they smile much more than they talk.

But Parvin discovers that being a rom-com dream girl is much harder than it looks. Also hard? The parent-mandated Farsi lessons. A confusing friendship with a boy who’s definitely not supposed to like her. And hardest of all, the ramifications of the Muslim ban on her family in Iran. Suddenly, being herself has never been more important.

Olivia Abtahi’s debut is as hilarious as it is heartfelt—a delightful tale where, amid the turmoil of high school friendships and crushes, being yourself is always the perfect way to be.

Amanda’s thoughts

I started out just writing a little post-it note review for this book, then realized I wanted to be able to say more and make sure this book gets seen by more eyes. One of the best things this book has going for it is that it’s about a 9th grader and FEELS like it’s about a 9th grader. Sometimes it seems like there’s not much younger YA—and it’s entirely possible I’m just not reading the right things and missing these books—and it was really refreshing to read about a 9th grader. My son just finished 9th grade, and often while reading this book, watching Parvin make missteps and try to figure out who and how to be, I thought, YEP, this feels right.

The summary up there is very thorough. It hits the main plot points. And while the plot and the many issue it tackles was solid and compelling, what makes me really love this book is messy Parvin and her growing group of friends. Parvin’s best friends are pansexual, Korean American Ruth and gay, Mexican American Fabian. They all join the GSA at school, Parvin ostensibly to be a better friend/ally, but also because her crush Matty, who is bi, is in the group. Once Parvin gets it in her head that she needs to tone herself down to make boys like her (thanks, Wesley, you tool), things get complicated. She’s ignoring her friends, being completely inauthentic, and fixating on something she thinks she wants while overlooking other great, interesting people. It’s easy to read this as an adult and think, just be yourself! But in order to “just be yourself” you have to try on a lot of personalities, make a lot of mistakes, and figure out what really matters. And Parvin is well on her way to being that self by the time we leave her.

The fast-paced writing, wonderfully diverse cast, and very realistic and age-appropriate thoughts, choices, and realizations make this a solid read. Smart, funny, and full of heart.

Review copy (finished hardcover) courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9780593109427
Publisher: Penguin Young Readers Group
Publication date: 05/18/2021
Age Range: 12 – 17 Years

Book Review: Almost Flying by Jake Maia Arlow

Publisher’s description

In this unabashedly queer middle grade debut, a week-long amusement park road trip becomes a true roller coaster of emotion when Dalia realizes she has more-than-friend feelings for her new bestie.

Would-be amusement park aficionado Dalia only has two items on her summer bucket list: (1) finally ride a roller coaster and (2) figure out how to make a new best friend. But when her dad suddenly announces that he’s engaged, Dalia’s schemes come to a screeching halt. With Dalia’s future stepsister Alexa heading back to college soon, the grown-ups want the girls to spend the last weeks of summer bonding—meaning Alexa has to cancel the amusement park road trip she’s been planning for months. Luckily Dalia comes up with a new plan: If she joins Alexa on her trip and brings Rani, the new girl from her swim team, along maybe she can have the perfect summer after all. But what starts out as a week of funnel cakes and Lazy River rides goes off the rails when Dalia discovers that Alexa’s girlfriend is joining the trip. And keeping Alexa’s secret makes Dalia realize one of her own: She might have more-than-friend feelings for Rani.

Amanda’s thoughts

Let’s just all admit that I’m really overusing the word “delightful” these days. If it doesn’t actually make it into every review I post, it certainly makes it into my notes. I guess I’m only reading things I find, in some way, delightful. This is not a word I use much in my regular, not-review-writing life. But here we are. So. Guess what this book is? Yep. Delightful. A delight.

This book does such a great job showing Dalia really working through some things. She’s grappling with three main things this summer leading into 8th grade: being ditched by her former best friend, accepting her father’s new relationship, and understanding her feelings for Rani, a new girl on her swim team. Those are three really, really big things, but Arlow gives Dalia plenty of space to work through her feelings while also taking her on a fun amusement park adventure. And it’s actually directly because of this adventure that Dalia is able to figure out how she feels about all these things. She’s on this road trip with Alexa, her soon-to-be stepsister who just finished her first year of college, and Alexa’s BFF, Dhruv. When Dhruv references his boyfriend and then when Alexa’s girlfriend joins them for part of the trip, Dalia begins to hesitantly ask them questions about how you know if you like someone and how to know if that someone might like you back. The “someone” isn’t hypothetical—it’s Rani. But Dalia’s worried that if she tells Rani she likes her in that way, she may blow her one and only friendship. Dalia gets lots of great advice and support from her new, older friends. And you can probably guess that things turn out okay for Dalia, since I’m finding everything so delightful and all.

Readers will appreciate watching Dalia sort out her new feelings about just so many things (liking Rani, her dad’s announcement that he’s getting married, her old friendship with Abby, and more). This book is fun, sweet, and has such great characters. Definitely a must-have for middle school library collections.

Review copy (finished hardcover) courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9780593112939
Publisher: Penguin Young Readers Group
Publication date: 06/08/2021
Age Range: 10 – 14 Years

Book Review: Love & Other Natural Disasters by Misa Sugiura

Publisher’s description

This delightfully disastrous queer YA rom-com is a perfect read for fans of Jenny Han, Morgan Matson, and Sandhya Menon.

When Nozomi Nagai pictured the ideal summer romance, a fake one wasn’t what she had in mind.

That was before she met the perfect girl. Willow is gorgeous, glamorous, and…heartbroken? And when she enlists Nozomi to pose as her new girlfriend to make her ex jealous, Nozomi is a willing volunteer.

Because Nozomi has a master plan of her own: one to show Willow she’s better than a stand-in, and turn their fauxmance into something real. But as the lies pile up, it’s not long before Nozomi’s schemes take a turn toward disaster…and maybe a chance at love she didn’t plan for.

Amanda’s thoughts

Will I ever get sick of the “fake dating” trope? Nope. Never. There’s just so much room for so many things to go wrong with this probably pretty awful idea. And in this book, things both go as planned and hoped for and in completely surprising (to the characters) directions.

Nozomi, who is queer and Japanese American, is excited to leave Illinois for the summer and spend it with her uncles in San Francisco, helping out at the museum where one of her uncles works. It’s a chance for a summer of transformation, where no one knows her and she can be/become whoever she feels like being. And after she meets Willow, who’s devastated from a recent breakup, the person Nozomi decides to become is Willow’s fake girlfriend. Maybe they can make Willow’s ex, Arden, realize what she’s missing out on. Except, uh-oh, Nozomi actually super likes Willow and hopes that the fake dating will lead to real dating. Definitely a great plan when the girl you’re fake dating is obsessively sad about her ex, right? Right….

Meanwhile, there’s a lot of other things going on. Nozomi’s parents are divorcing and there’s a lot she doesn’t know and a lot she needs to process. Her grandmother, also in San Francisco, is dealing with increasingly bad dementia and the family is trying to convince her to move to an assisted living complex. Nozomi loves her grandma but also knows that her grandma has held incredibly homophobic views and Nozomi worries she will never be able to let her grandma know her full self. And then there’s Dela, a surly teenage artist who Nozomi ends up spending a lot of time with after she accidentally ruins some of Dela’s art installation. Oh, and Dela is now dating Arden, Willow’s ex. Got all that?

The “natural disasters” part of this title is apt. So much of this book is like watching something bad coming from far away and being like, come on, you see this thing is going to come stir everything up or knock things over, get to safety! But instead of safety—making reasonable choices like not desperately hoping a girl hung up on her ex will like you—the characters just walk right into the oncoming storm. And you know what? That’s adolescence, right? And for a while things go okay. And even unexpectedly great. Maybe. Kind of. Because a weird thing that happens when you get excited because no one knows you and you can be anyone, the funny thing that you end up learning is that it’s always best to be yourself. That being who other people try to make you or pretending doesn’t feel good. Nozomi has to grapple with understanding what she actually wants. She has to think about how to be the best version of herself. And, most importantly, she learns that it’s okay to follow your heart, even when that path changes, and not to give up on people. Things don’t always go how you think they will and love doesn’t always solve everything. A great read with lots of depth, humor, and heart.

Review copy (ARC) courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9780062991232
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 06/08/2021
Age Range: 13 – 17 Years

Book Review: Jay’s Gay Agenda by Jason June

Publisher’s description

From debut novelist Jason June comes a moving and hilarious sex-positive teen rom-com about the complexities of first loves, first hookups, and first heartbreaks—and how to stay true to yourself while embracing what you never saw coming, that’s perfect for fans of Sandhya Menon and Becky Albertalli. 

There’s one thing Jay Collier knows for sure—he’s a statistical anomaly as the only out gay kid in his small rural Washington town. While all his friends can’t stop talking about their heterosexual hookups and relationships, Jay can only dream of his own firsts, compiling a romance to-do list of all the things he hopes to one day experience—his Gay Agenda.

Then, against all odds, Jay’s family moves to Seattle and he starts his senior year at a new high school with a thriving LGBTQIA+ community. For the first time ever, Jay feels like he’s found where he truly belongs. But as Jay begins crossing items off his list, he’ll soon be torn between his heart and his hormones, his old friends and his new ones . . . because after all, life and love don’t always go according to plan. 

Amanda’s thoughts

Life is fine if a little boring for Jay. He’s headed into his senior year and is the ONLY out gay kid in his entire small school. He came out in 9th grade and figured that, statistically, SOMEONE else had to eventually come out. Maybe he’d make some gay friends. Maybe he’d meet a cute boy. Or maybe he’d remain the only out kid through all of high school. When his parents announce they’re moving to Seattle, he’s psyched to leave rural Washington behind, even though it means leaving his best friend, Lu. But she has Chip, her boyfriend, and besides, it’s time for Jay to go from third wheel to the main character in his own story.

Jay, a huge fan of making lists, makes a Gay Agenda—stuff like make gay friends, hook up with a cute boy, go to a dance, etc. He figures that all of these things are maybe achievable now that he’s no longer in LGBTQuarantine (his term!). But guess what? It turns out that if you move to a much larger city and meet a lot more people who are queer, not only is that list achievable, it’s easy for that list to get really complicated and messy. He’s taken under the wing of genderqueer Max, a new friend who dubs himself a gay guide for Jay. Together, they begin to plan the homecoming dance, which, uh-oh, coincides with the dance back home that he promised Lu he’d come back for. But that’s a problem for Future Jay. Right Now Jay is busy juggling two boys he likes, college guy Tony and high school classmate Albert. What could go wrong?

Well… before long Jay isn’t being honest with Lu or Albert. Max isn’t being honest with Jay. And Tony isn’t being honest with Jay, either. Let downs, lies, backstabbing, reveals, and general catastrophes ensue, leading Jay to eventually understanding that maybe experiences and relationships should be something more than just an item to check off a list. Jay, like all teens, makes bad choices, mistakes, and hurts people. And that’s totally a normal part, unfortunately, of growing up. With a little help and deep thought, Jay learns that it’s what you do after the mistakes that really count. He begins to make amends and figure out who he really is and what he really wants, with the help of some new lists, like the Apology Agenda and the Jay Agenda.

A fun and messy look at what happens when things don’t go as planned when it comes to love, friendship, and finding yourself.

Review copy (ARC) courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9780063015159
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 06/01/2021
Age Range: 14 – 17 Years

Let’s Be Frank: Honest Conversations About Sex in YA, a guest post by Jason June

I get asked a lot what I’d like to see more of in the YA space, and my answer is always, “More frankness around the topic of sex.”

Specifically, more frankness about the topic of queer sex. The need for more YA queer characters to be open about their hormones and horniness is to let LGBTQIA+ teens today know that their same-sex desires, or their nonbinary fantasies, or their sexual attraction to any consenting human are not only completely natural, but part of the beauty of being human.

When I was a gay and as-yet-to-discover genderqueer teen in the early-aughts, this was not the message I received. While my straight male classmates got to openly talk about how hard Stifler’s mom made them, there was no way in gay heaven I would have been able to do the same regarding hot TV daddies. Boners and hard-ons were not for me or queer kids to discuss, and for so many of us on the rainbow spectrum, we were forced to deal with the downward shame spiral of hearing the guys say how they’d like to bone (insert straight-cis-opposite-sex star here) and not relating at all. This was unsettling because whether or not said star wanted to be a part of the boning was rarely brought up, and because if we gay kids brought up our desires or even mentioned two boys kissing, it was met with slurs, sneers, or violence.

Sex-positivity in queer YA is about ending that shame. It’s about making safe, consensual sex for everyone regardless of gender or sexuality the norm so we can end that violence and stigma. IT’S THE AGE OF SEX-POSITIVITY!

Now, let’s not forget an important point: An aspect of sex-positivity that goes hand-in-hand with not shaming anyone for their sexual desires is also not shaming anyone who has no sexual desire. There can be a multitude of reasons for this including being asexual, not being ready yet, or being at different stages of body development. So while I’m all about being a hoorah cheerleader for young adults discovering their sexuality with consenting peers, it’s also important that we normalize the fact there is no “right” way or timeline to figure ourselves out, and no amount of sexual desire you must feel in order to be “normal.”

So what does sex-positivity in YA look like? First, it’s ending the cycle of naming books without sex as “clean.” When a reader or parent asks for a “clean” book meaning one with no sex, they’re implying books with sex are dirty, nasty, gross. Let’s all say it together, “Sex is not dirty.” Sex is so natural! It’s how we got here, it’s how we can show someone we trust them and connect with them on the most intimate level, or it’s how we can let off steam with another pent-up person hoping to let their hair (and/or pants) down. It also has health benefits including less stress, better heart health, glowing skin, and a more positive outlook on life. I totally get that a teen might not want or be ready for a book with sex in it, so when asking for a book without sex, let’s just say that. “Does this have sex in it?” or “I’m looking for a book without sex” work perfectly and don’t label books with sex as unclean in any way. Yay!

Next, let your characters name what’s happening to their body and the type of bodies they are curious about. Wanting to know what a penis or a vagina or both looks and acts like is part of our post-pubescent years for so many of us, so if we act like our sex-ready teen characters never think that, we’re doing a huge disservice to our sex-ready readers. It makes them feel that shame spiral, like these totally common thoughts popping into our head and making themselves clear in our pants are somehow wrong. In Jay’s Gay Agenda, my sex-positive queer rom-com, Jay lets us know regularly what he’s thinking and feeling. It’s really the whole purpose of the titular list! He wants to kiss a boy, get naked with one, see another penis besides his own IRL, and have sex. Jay’s not alone in wanting these things, and by letting our characters think about sex and talk about it in safe spaces, we’re saying bye bye to shame and hello to healthy conversations about how to have sex and how to ask if someone your body is reacting to is down to have sex too.

Delivery in all of this matters, both in how we share these books with readers and how we portray teen characters emotionally and physically expressing their sexual desire. We don’t have to whisper that a novel has sex anymore. Sex isn’t a secret, and by labeling a novel sex-positive, we’re acknowledging the humanity of the act, the gorgeousness of sharing your body with another human when you’re both ready. For writers, when getting into those sex scenes, remember you’re not writing erotica. You don’t have to go into every single nitty-gritty detail. This is for your teen audience, not to act as a turn on, but to acknowledge to those sex-ready readers that doing sexy things like they’re about to read is totally normal and exciting and nervous-making, all of it. Go ahead and make it clear what’s happening, but be sure to do it in a way that’s not gratuitous, that’s about acknowledging desire and curiosity and safe, consensual fun.

I know when I was sixteen, I needed books that had people like me getting to openly talk about their horniness and hormones. I needed to know I wasn’t alone, I needed to know how many teens just like me wanted to see what it was like to have sex with another guy. And I know now from stories of so many friends, every single letter of the rainbow spectrum needs those stories too. So write that sex so teens know they aren’t alone, share sex-positive books in libraries and bookstores so readers of all genders and sexualities can see themselves and understand others and know that even if our sexual partners look different, the need to be linked through our bodies is an experience so many of us share.

Because after all, sex is all about connection.

Meet the author

Photo credit: Ryan Bilawsky

Jason June is a gay, genderqueer, list-making, Virgo Sun, Taurus Moon, Pokémon-playing writer living in Austin, TX. If he had a Gay Agenda, “marry the love of your life”, “be mom to two extremely pampered Pomeranians,” and “get accidentally kicked in the face by Kylie Minogue as an extra in her music video” would all be crossed off. Visit Jason June on social media @heyjasonjune, and on his website at www.heyjasonjune.com.

Twitter: @HeyJasonJune

Instagram: @HeyJasonJune

About Jay’s Gay Agenda

From debut novelist Jason June comes a moving and hilarious sex-positive teen rom-com about the complexities of first loves, first hookups, and first heartbreaks—and how to stay true to yourself while embracing what you never saw coming, that’s perfect for fans of Sandhya Menon and Becky Albertalli. 

There’s one thing Jay Collier knows for sure—he’s a statistical anomaly as the only out gay kid in his small rural Washington town. While all his friends can’t stop talking about their heterosexual hookups and relationships, Jay can only dream of his own firsts, compiling a romance to-do list of all the things he hopes to one day experience—his Gay Agenda.

Then, against all odds, Jay’s family moves to Seattle and he starts his senior year at a new high school with a thriving LGBTQIA+ community. For the first time ever, Jay feels like he’s found where he truly belongs. But as Jay begins crossing items off his list, he’ll soon be torn between his heart and his hormones, his old friends and his new ones . . . because after all, life and love don’t always go according to plan. 

ISBN-13: 9780063015159
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 06/01/2021
Age Range: 14 – 17 Years

Book Review: Cool for the Summer by Dahlia Adler

Publisher’s description

Dahlia Adler’s Cool for the Summer is a story of self-discovery and new love. It’s about the things we want and the things we need. And it’s about the people who will let us be who we are.

Lara’s had eyes for exactly one person throughout her three years of high school: Chase Harding. He’s tall, strong, sweet, a football star, and frankly, stupid hot. Oh, and he’s talking to her now. On purpose and everything. Maybe…flirting, even? No, wait, he’s definitely flirting, which is pretty much the sum of everything Lara’s wanted out of life.

Except she’s haunted by a memory. A memory of a confusing, romantic, strangely perfect summer spent with a girl named Jasmine. A memory that becomes a confusing, disorienting present when Jasmine herself walks through the front doors of the school to see Lara and Chase chatting it up in front of the lockers.

Lara has everything she ever wanted: a tight-knit group of friends, a job that borders on cool, and Chase, the boy of her literal dreams. But if she’s finally got the guy, why can’t she stop thinking about the girl?

Amanda’s thoughts

I’m the kind of human who has to have things done faaaar in advance to even begin to control my relatively uncontrolled anxiety. I’m typing this on April 16th. It has been weeks upon weeks of dogs dying, violent allergy reactions resulting in hives all over my face and eyes, worrying about getting a vaccine (first shot down yesterday!), and being just sick over the state of the world, particularly the state of things here in Minnesota. 13 months into the pandemic, 13 months into guiding my teen through distance learning, 13 months of having even MORE reasons to worry than I usually do. One of my adaptive behaviors has been to just seek out wholly enjoyable things. Endless International House Hunters? Check. Only reading books I find completely engaging and enjoyable? SUPER CHECK. Fiction, take me awayyyyyy!

That looong lead in is to say that I enjoyed the heck out of this book and it was totally what I needed as I sat here today swinging my arm around to hopefully stave off Covid arm. I had attempted to start this book earlier in the week, but my new enemy, hives, overtook my face and left me unable to do anything but sit quietly with ice on my face and listen to tv shows. But today! Today I read this book! All in one go! In the sun! With dogs! And for a few hours, I didn’t feel anxious or miserable or even part of reality. So thanks for that, Dahlia Adler!

The summary tells you exactly what you need to know. The plot may not seem big, but as I always harp on, what bigger plot is there than finding out who you are and what you want? Isn’t that so often THE plot of adolescence? Lara realizes that her group of best friends at school may not actually know the real her, especially as it kind of seems like her defining characteristic, according to them, has been that she’s been obsessed with Chase forever. Sort of one-dimensional. She knows she’s so much more than that. But once she starts dating Chase, and being known as “Chase’s girlfriend,” that characteristic seems to overpower everything. But you know who knows the real Lara? Jasmine, who Lara spent the summer hooking up with AND really getting close to.

Only she keeps what happened a secret from her friends. She tries to write it off even to herself as just something they did for fun, constantly coming up with excuses (even in the moment) for why things happened or what they meant or didn’t mean. But she kind of can’t ignore her complicated feelings now that Jasmine goes to her school. They manage to pretend like they don’t know each other, remain relatively distant, AND have soooo much miscommunication. So much. Good lord, girls. TALK TO EACH OTHER. BE HONEST. (I know, I know—easier said than done and also would eliminate the need for most of the story).

I enjoyed getting sucked into Lara’s world and watching her try to figure out what it all means with Jasmine and Chase as well as what being honest with herself might reveal. Lots of undeveloped and unnecessary side characters kind of only crop up when useful, and I really deeply disliked Lara’s best friend (who, I would argue from the vantage point of adulthood, is maybe not even really her friend at all), but this fun, light look at questioning your identity while not necessarily wanting any labels will surely find many readers.

Review copy (ARC) courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9781250765826
Publisher: St. Martin’s Publishing Group
Publication date: 05/11/2021
Age Range: 14 – 18 Years

Book Review: Thanks a Lot, Universe by Chad Lucas

Publisher’s description

A moving middle-grade debut for anyone who’s ever felt like they don’t belong

Brian has always been anxious, whether at home, or in class, or on the basketball court. His dad tries to get him to stand up for himself and his mom helps as much as she can, but after he and his brother are placed in foster care, Brian starts having panic attacks. And he doesn’t know if things will ever be “normal” again . . . Ezra’s always been popular. He’s friends with most of the kids on his basketball team—even Brian, who usually keeps to himself. But now, some of his friends have been acting differently, and Brian seems to be pulling away. Ezra wants to help, but he worries if he’s too nice to Brian, his friends will realize that he has a crush on him . . .
But when Brian and his brother run away, Ezra has no choice but to take the leap and reach out. Both boys have to decide if they’re willing to risk sharing parts of themselves they’d rather hide. But if they can be brave, they might just find the best in themselves—and each other.

Amanda’s thoughts

As you know, I get a lot of book mail here. I spend a lot of time sorting it, reading summaries, paging through to read a bit, and deciding what I want to read for potential review. I usually have a pile of “for sure read” among all my other piles, but sometimes those books sit for along time before I get to them, and then their summaries get buried under hundreds of others in my head. All of this is to say, this book has been in my “for sure read” for a while, but by the time I got to it, I didn’t remember much about why I’d pulled it. I’m so glad I DID pull it to read. It’s a really well done middle grade book about boys, friendship, families, emotions, vulnerability, trust, mistakes, coming out, and so much more. It also felt really fresh and unique, which is difficult for a book to achieve!

13-year-old Brian is quiet and anxious. He has social anxiety and, over the course of the story, also begins having panic attacks. He’s a really complicated and quietly funny kid who has some rough stuff going on at home. When we meet him, his dad has fled into hiding from the police and his mother attempts suicide with her stockpile of pills for mental health issues. She ends up in the hospital, which leaves Brian and his 9-year-old brother alone. They get put into foster care and Brian, who has been holding back so much, finally snaps. He punches his bully at school and takes off with his brother, running away and going on a small adventure while he processes what is happening in his life.

It’s from here, after these moments, that his life, while still immensely difficult and unfair, starts to be filled with love and support from all directions. One of his teachers takes in Brian and his brother, and her teenage son begins to bring Brian out of his shell as they bond over basketball, grief, loss, and more. Ezra, the other main character in this book (who also shares narration duties) has always been friendly with Brian, but makes a real effort to be there for him, standing up to the other kids who are being mean to Brian or talking trash about him, helping find him when he’s missing, and truly making Brian feel seen and supported. Ezra also has a crush on Brian and eventually confesses this to him and comes out to his friends and his sister.

The overwhelming message of this book is that it’s okay to be a mess and to cry. It’s okay to tell people you are going through hard things. It’s okay to rely on others to help you and support you. Themes of love, support, and acceptance are strong, as is the message that you are not your mistakes or bad choices. An emotional book full of heart.

Review copy (ARC) courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9781419751028
Publisher: Amulet Books
Publication date: 05/11/2021
Age Range: 10 – 14 Years