Teen Librarian Toolbox
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Joy, Connection and Community: Finding Pride in Books During a Pandemic, a conversation between Robin Stevenson and Tom Ryan

Robin: Tom and I are excited to be finally launching our co-written YA novel, just in time for Pride month 2021! Of course, when we started writing this book a few years ago, we could never have guessed what 2021 would look like. I was living on the west coast of Canada, and Tom had moved back to the east coast, and we missed hanging out together in person. So I sent him a text…

Tom: I woke up one day and checked my phone (Nova Scotia is four hours ahead of B.C.) and there was a text from Robin that said something like: hey Tom I just had a great idea, we should a big queer Canadian YA novel together! I didn’t have to think it over, I just texted her back and said obviously! and things went from there. We had a few phone calls to figure out a rough plot, and then we started writing. I wrote the first chapter and sent it to Robin, who wrote one and sent it back to me, and so on and so forth. It was a lot of fun, and a really smooth and rewarding experience. The plot and the characters evolved as we wrote, but we both knew from the start that we wanted it to be really queer in an intergenerational way.

Robin: Over the last few years, I’ve had some wonderful opportunities to talk with teens about LGBTQ+ rights, identities and communities. At one event, a teen came up to me, visibly upset, and explained that they had not known anything about the queer history I had just shared. “It’s MY history,” they said. “It’s the history of MY community. And no one ever talks about this stuff.” It really brought it home to me that queer history isn’t usually passed on to kids by their parents and often isn’t taught in school either. In WYGTC, our teenage characters hear stories from people who came out forty years before them, and they also try to explain things to a much younger sibling–and in both cases, the learning flows in both directions. That very much fits with my experience: I have a huge amount of respect for the hard work done by the generations of queer people who came before me, and I have learned so much from the ideas and activism of today’s teens and kids as well.

Tom: I feel exactly the same way. It’s been such a joy and a privilege to meet and talk with LGBTQ teens since I first started writing YA, and I feel like I’ve learned so much from them. Queer people have always had to go out into the world to find family and community, which is what makes Pride such a central and important concept and event. We were actually supposed to launch this book last year, with appearances at Pride festivals and events around Canada and the U.S. and a launch at Toronto Pride, which has a very central role in the book. Because of Covid, we decided with our publisher to delay our launch by a year, and now we find ourselves in a similar situation. There’s light at the end of the tunnel, but we still can’t gather, and Pride festivals are being cancelled for the second year in a row. It’s a bit of a bummer, but we genuinely hope readers will find some of the joy and connection and community of Pride in our book!

Robin: Absolutely. I know a lot of people have felt very isolated during the pandemic, and I think this last year has been particularly hard for teens. They are at an age when many people want to be stepping out into wider worlds, having more freedom, meeting new people and exploring new places. Instead, most of them have seen their worlds shrink around them! And of course we all know that some LGBTQ+ teens are not able be out to their families and may not have a lot of support at home—so for many of them, not being able to gather with their friends and communities has been devastating. While books can’t replace other kinds of connection, they often do help many readers to feel less alone. Diverse queer representation is more important now than ever, and I am so grateful to everyone who is helping get these books into the hands of teen readers. One important part of Pride is how it makes LGBTQ+ identities and communities more visible, and Tom and I tried to do this within our novel. We wanted readers to feel seen, and we wanted to give them a glimpse of what Pride can be. We hope readers will enjoy going to Pride with Talia and Mark as much as Tom and I did! Happy Pride, everyone!

Tom: Happy Pride indeed! I know there’s a rainbow waiting for us all when these clouds lift, and I honestly can’t wait for the day when we can finally meet up in person and celebrate WYGTC the way we always meant to. It might not be the launch season we expected, but Pride is always worth celebrating.

Meet the authors

TOM RYAN is the award-winning author of six books for children and teens. His debut novel, Way To Go, was a nominee for the OLA White Pine Award, and made the 2013 ALA Rainbow List, as well as YALSA’s 2013 Quick Picks. Tom was born and raised in Inverness, Nova Scotia, and currently lives in Halifax with his husband Andrew and their awesome dog.

ROBIN STEVENSON is the author of more than twenty books for children and teens. Robin’s YA novel A Thousand Shades of Blue was a finalist for Canada’s highest literary honor, and her middle-grade novel Record Breaker won the Silver Birch Award, Canada’s largest reader’s choice award for young readers. Robin lives on the west coast of Canada with her partner and their son.

About When You Get the Chance

Follow cousins on a road trip to Pride as they dive into family secrets and friendships in this contemporary novel—perfect for fans of David Levithan and Becky Albertalli.
 
As kids, Mark and his cousin Talia spent many happy summers together at the family cottage in Ontario, but a fight between their parents put an end to the annual event. Living on opposite coasts—Mark in Halifax and Talia in Victoria—they haven’t seen each other in years. When their grandfather dies unexpectedly, Mark and Talia find themselves reunited at the cottage once again, cleaning it out while the family decides what to do with it.
 
Mark and Talia are both queer, but they soon realize that’s about all they have in common, other than the fact that they’d both prefer to be in Toronto. Talia is desperate to see her high school sweetheart Erin, who’s barely been in touch since leaving to spend the summer working at a coffee shop in the Gay Village. Mark, on the other hand, is just looking for some fun, and Toronto Pride seems like the perfect place to find it.
 
When a series of complications throws everything up in the air, Mark and Talia—with Mark’s little sister Paige in tow—decide to hit the road for Toronto. With a bit of luck, and some help from a series of unexpected new friends, they might just make it to the big city and find what they’re looking for. That is, if they can figure out how to start seeing things through each other’s eyes.

ISBN-13: 9780762495009
Publisher: Running Press Book Publishers
Publication date: 05/04/2021
Age Range: 13 – 18 Years

The Queer Kids Are All Right, a guest post by James Sie

If I were to write down a story for you about what it was like to be gay in my solidly middle-class, suburban New Jersey high school, it wouldn’t take long. I wouldn’t have to do any fact-checking or hunting down of names or places, no consultation of old yearbooks. I’d need none of those things.

All I’d have to do is hand you a book of blank, white pages.  

There are no stories, because I didn’t have the words. I didn’t know what being young and gay meant, and there was nowhere to find that out. When I was growing up, the idea of teen gay visibility in my world was unimaginable, because the idea of a homosexual teenager was unimaginable (I use the words gay and homosexual because there were no other terms for queerness at that time; at least, terms that weren’t designed to hurt). I had only the barest knowledge of what being gay even was, only that it was something hidden, something wrong, and that it involved sex, and men. It certainly had nothing to do with normal teenagers. No one talked about being gay in high school; it would be like talking about extraterrestrial lizards in human disguise walking among us—it just didn’t exist.

(It’s been a long while since those years. Let’s put it this way: I grew up in the Time Before the Internet. Yes, hard to imagine, but I was already an adult before the advent of message boards and AOL—“You’ve got mail!”— and online images that took approximately seven hours to gradually reveal themselves on my tiny computer screen. To many YA readers, I am relatively (okay, empirically) ancient.)

Back then, there weren’t many options for learning more about being gay, no school assemblies to discuss the issue, no GSAs, no books in the library to confirm what I was feeling. What little I actually knew I observed with lowered eyes from the adult world: the TV show where the guy wears a dress and gets a laugh; the lisping characters everyone makes fun of in movies; those hairy, bare-chested men entwined and smoldering from the covers of magazines my local newsstand put on the top shelf in the way, way back. Was that me? Was that going to be me? Being gay belonged to the world out there; and until you graduated and grew up and then maybe found others like you out there, it meant being alone, hiding yourself even from yourself, being a blank page: unexamined, unwritten upon, empty.

So much has changed since then. Much of it has to do with the internet. As odious and toxic as the World Wide Web can be, it’s also be a place where the queer community can find each other, help each other, and make us feel we are not so alone, no matter where we live, no matter what our circumstances. There are YouTube vlogs and Reddit threads, pages and pages of Tumblr posts devoted to who you are and who you are becoming, thousands of beacons flaring bright: I am here! Are you there, too?

There also books. Books for queer teens. About queer teens. Books that can affirm lives, or even save them.

When I began writing my novel, All Kinds of Other, one of my main objectives was to create two queer high school boys, one cisgender and one transgender, who were authentic and relatable to teens today. Along with spending hours online, watching YouTube videos and reading blogs, the really invaluable information came from going out in the field and interviewing high schoolers, mostly from Los Angeles and Pittsburgh (where the book is set), via GSAs and LGBTQ Centers. What I discovered not only changed the trajectory of the book; it gave me such hope and admiration for this new generation of queer kids. The high schoolers I spoke to were articulate and self-aware; they weren’t waiting for someone to tell them who they were; they were discovering it on their own. They were resourceful and determined and outspoken. Most of the conflict in their life arose not from wrestling with who they were, but in getting the world to understand and accept that identity.

That understanding and acceptance is not a given, not even for those who are being raised in larger urban environments with more access to support. Conditions for LGBTQ youth vary wildly from state to state, from county to county. More visibility means more backlash, more hysteria from the Old Guard, more political posturing. When I started writing All Kinds of Other in 2015, I wondered if by the time I was published the issues of gender and sexuality raised in the book would be irrelevant (naive, I know). Now, I watch in alarm as a battalion of proposed laws across the country aimed squarely at stigmatizing and delegitimizing trans kids are being pushed through state governments. It brings me right back to the fear-mongering anti-gay efforts (No gay teachers! No gay marriage!) I’ve witnessed most of my adult life, all of them intent on legislating us right out of existence.

It won’t work, of course. Eventually, that arc of the moral universe will bend toward justice. But in this precarious moment, it’s more important than ever to support our queer kids, to stand with them and amplify their voices. It’s also important to provide them with positive images of themselves, reflecting back and validating their own experience. My book was written for them. Maybe, too, it was written for my younger self— a beacon of my own, flaring: You are not blank. Your stories are worth telling. You are seen. And you are loved.

Meet the author

JAMES SIE (pronouns he/him) is the author of Still Life Las Vegas, his debut novel, which was a Lambda Literary Award nominee for Best Gay Fiction. An award-winning playwright, he has had productions performed in Chicago, Los Angeles, New York (Lincoln Center Institute) and across the country. He has contributed essays to The Rumpus and The Advocate

James is also a voiceover artist for many cartoons and games, including Stillwater, Jackie Chan Adventures, Kung Fu Panda: Legends of Awesomeness; Final Fantasy VII Remake, and Avatar: The Last Airbender, where his excessive love of cabbages has earned him immortal fame. 

Born in New Jersey to immigrant parents, James now lives in Los Angeles with his husband and son. 

Visit his website at www.sieworld.com

Twitter: @SieJames

Facebook: @OfficialJamesSie

Instagram: @sie_james

About All Kinds of Other

In this tender, nuanced coming-of-age love story, two boys—one who is cis, and one who is trans—have been guarding their hearts, until their feelings for each other give them a reason to stand up to their fears.

Two boys are starting over at a new high school.

Jules is still figuring out what it means to be gay…and just how out he wants to be.

Jack is reeling from a fall-out with his best friend…and isn’t ready to let anyone else in just yet.

When Jules and Jack meet, the sparks are undeniable. But when a video linking Jack to a pair of popular trans vloggers is leaked to the school, the revelations thrust both boys into the spotlight they’d tried to avoid.

Suddenly Jack and Jules must face a choice: to play it safe and stay under the radar, or claim their own space in the world—together.

ISBN-13: 9780062962492
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 05/04/2021
Age Range: 14 – 17 Years

Queer Joy, Pain, and the Other Side of Silence, a guest post by Steven Salvatore

Pen tips scratching the surface of notebook paper; fingers clacking against keyboards; ideas bursting into eager young minds like popping corn, unleashing sighs of relief as the clock ticks: these are the sounds of silence that fill a creative writing classroom.

I wasn’t planning on beginning a new book during a standard freewrite at the start of a creative writing class I taught Spring of 2018. But my students had a way of taking my prompts and creating magic, and that day, I couldn’t resist joining in on the exercise.

One image flashed in my mind: a red-haired teen standing in front of their high school locker staring at a pair of destroyed ruby red sequin heels.

Immediately the scene shifted; I saw this same teen in their therapist’s office. It was raining as they stared out the window, telling their therapist that the shoes had been destroyed, likely by a bully who had it out for them, and that they needed the heels as a good luck charm to audition for the school musical.

I didn’t know the plot yet, but in that twenty minutes freewrite, Carey Parker, the central character of CAN’T TAKE THAT AWAY, was born. Not yet by name, but in spirit. They were a voice in the back of my mind for a long time but until that day I wasn’t quite able to see them clearly. This scene still exists, making it past querying, submissions, editorial acquisitions, and multiple rounds of developmental edits once it sold to Bloomsbury YA. With some key differences, as readers will soon spot. That day in my classroom, whether my students at the time knew it or not, was the beginning of something life-changing for me. It was the beginning of me admitting to myself that I was genderqueer.

I wrote the first full draft CAN’T TAKE THAT AWAY, which was originally titled DIVA and sold under the title THE OTHER SIDE OF SILENCE, in forty-six days that summer. When I finished, I knew it would be the book that would lead to me realizing my dream of becoming a published author. How? Because it was the first time I was completely honest in my writing.

The best writing advice I’ve ever received was from a fellow writer who once told me that if something in a draft isn’t working, it’s because somewhere along the way in the writing process, you told a lie. Maybe it was a forced plot point, or uncharacteristic move by a character. Or maybe it was something you feared writing, so you avoided it entirely. I never knew how afraid I’d been.

My life has been weighed down by fear.

I’ve been writing since I was six years old when, after becoming obsessed with animated Disney films like Aladdin and The Lion King, I wrote what was essentially fan fiction of those stories. I created stories in my head for years but never thought I could turn writing into a career until I got to Ithaca College. I majored in writing and latched onto my professors, telling more than one of them that I wanted to become them one day. Thankfully, they encouraged me, and I did become a composition professor.

Years were spent honing my craft. I wrote my first novel as a sophomore in college at the age of twenty. That manuscript will never see the light of day, but the main character in that story will finally get a chance to shine with my sophomore novel AND THEY LIVED… publishes from Bloomsbury YA in March of 2022 (who, originally, was a hopelessly and delusionally straight character.)

I wrote six more manuscripts and queried more than three hundred agents over a nine-year period. Those manuscripts were all about characters who couldn’t quite confront their own queerness much the same way I couldn’t confront my own queerness: I was gay. I knew that. I came out as gay at twenty-three. But there was more to me that I couldn’t grapple with. And it took me years of enduring depression, suicidal ideations, and therapy to untangle that and accept all facets of my genderqueer identity.

In 2018, I signed with my first agent for a different manuscript that never sold and has since been shelved and stripped for parts. We eventually parted ways because we weren’t a good match. Meanwhile, I was writing and revising what would become CAN’T TAKE THAT AWAY as a way to work through my genderqueer identity. I was finally able to tell the truth. I was finally able to pierce through the silence, all the things I was afraid to say, and shout them for the world to see through Carey Parker’s voice. As Carey found their voice, I found mine. My current agent, Jessica Regel of Helm Literary, found Carey in the slush pile of her inbox and gave both of us a chance. She believed in my truth, and it sold two weeks after going on submission.

Still, there was this voice in the back of my head telling me that I wasn’t genderqueer enough. That I would never be enough. That readers would scoff at it, or worse, hate me and Carey for who we are or because this story isn’t their story or because it isn’t a shiny bucket of rainbows, despite all the joy on the page. After it sold, I was told by an LGBTQ+ author that nobody wanted to read anything that wasn’t utopic queer joy, that “pain has no place on the page.”

So I asked myself: Is this joyful enough? Realistic enough? Too realistic? Too painful? Am I letting queer readers down somehow? Can joy and pain coexist?

Over the last five or six years there has been an explosion of new queer writers, and I’ve seen a shift in discourse about what queer books “need” to accomplish to satisfy readers. The discourse mainly centers around the shift from the “solely queer pain” narrative to the “necessary queer joy” narrative, and it’s inspiring to see more and more joy-filled queer books by #OwnVoices authors get published. There also exists in these conversations a didactic line of thought that posits new queer books as needing to only be about Queer Joy, and that queer books exist within a limiting binary of either Queer Pain or Queer Joy. Queer trauma should never be a selling point for queer narratives, and if pain is written as shock value or a central plot point for a straight character, it’s incredibly harmful. But not all pain on the page is harmful.

Without pain, how do we understand joy? Or triumph? How do we measure love? Maybe that’s a little “chicken or egg,” but as far as I know, true utopias don’t exist even in the fantasy genre, and the world I live in is one where LGBTQ+ persons continue to face discrimination, whether in small ways like microaggressions from “well-meaning” people (many of whom are relatives or friends) or actual physical pain.

With Can’t Take That Away, I wanted to highlight, emphasize, and showcase joy and all the ways in which Carey discovers their voice and shines in the spotlight they deserve. I wanted to depict supportive family and friends and underscore the love—self-love and otherwise—that surrounds Carey. How Carey got there matters.

There is so much queer joy in Can’t Take That Away. There are also moments of real pain. I detail my own struggles in the Author’s Note at the end of my book, and unfortunately these are persistent truths for too many queer youth. As an openly out college professor and a volunteer at my local LGBTQ+ center, I constantly hear hardships from queer youth. The reality is that, for queer folks, microaggressions are a near daily occurrence. Bullying is a major problem. Physical and emotional pain is unavoidable, regardless of who you are. To ignore reality would be disingenuous and do a disservice to myself, Carey, and queer youth.

The point is that there is life on the other side of pain.

And as a gay, genderqueer person, I shouldn’t have to remain silent or write around that. Nor should I have to fear the truth in my writing anymore. I also try to remember that one story does not represent all stories. My genderqueer experience is not the only one. But it is mine, and there’s power in that realization. Carey taught me that.

I wrote this book to heal myself and process my pain. I wrote this book for the queer teens who desperately need Carey’s story. Had I had a book like Can’t Take That Away in high school, I might have found inner peace—and my own joy—much, much sooner.

Can’t Take That Away no longer belongs to me, but it did for a short time. I’m grateful Carey came to me when they were ready.

I hope you find the joy.

Meet the author

Steven Salvatore is a gay, genderqueer author, educator, Mariah Carey lamb, and Star Wars fanatic who spends most days daydreaming and making up stories. They have an MFA in Creative Writing from The New School. They were formerly a full-time Assistant Professor of Composition and Director of the Writing Center at The College of New Rochelle. After the college permanently closed in 2019, they took a step back from teaching full-time to focus on their writing, though they do still teach at a few colleges while running a writing workshop at The LOFT, an LGBT resource center in White Plains, NY. Steven currently lives in Peekskill, NY, with their amazingly patient husband, whose name is also Steve. stevensalvatore.com • @StevenSSWrites

About Can’t Take That Away

An empowering and emotional debut about a genderqueer teen who finds the courage to stand up and speak out for equality when they are discriminated against by their high school administration.

Carey Parker dreams of being a diva, and bringing the house down with song. They can hit every note of all the top pop and Broadway hits. But despite their talent, emotional scars from an incident with a homophobic classmate and their grandmother’s spiraling dementia make it harder and harder for Carey to find their voice. 

Then Carey meets Cris, a singer/guitarist who makes Carey feel seen for the first time in their life. With the rush of a promising new romantic relationship, Carey finds the confidence to audition for the role of Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West, in the school musical, setting off a chain reaction of prejudice by Carey’s tormentor and others in the school. It’s up to Carey, Cris, and their friends to defend their rights—and they refuse to be silenced. 

Told in alternating chapters with identifying pronouns, debut author Steven Salvatore’s Can’t Take That Away conducts a powerful, uplifting anthem, a swoony romance, and an affirmation of self-identity that will ignite the activist in all of us.

ISBN-13: 9781547605309
Publisher: Bloomsbury USA
Publication date: 03/09/2021
Pages: 384
Age Range: 12 – 17 Years

There’s Something About Insta-Love, a guest post by Phil Stamper

Growing up in the late 90s and early 2000s, I was obsessed with rom coms. My mom and I had a habit of playing the same few VHS tapes on repeat for months at a time: While You Were Sleeping, Runaway Bride, Sleepless in Seattle, You’ve Got Mail—I couldn’t get enough. So, a couple decades later, it’s probably no surprise that my own brand of storytelling would rely heavily on the rom com format: memorable meet-cutes, fast-paced romance, a set of obstacles along the way.

But as an author of queer YA, I get to take it one step further. I can break the trope apart and put it back together the way I want—celebrating the similarities and differences of queer love in all its forms.

In The Gravity of Us, Cal’s entire life is uprooted when he’s thrown into the drama of the world’s first human mission to Mars. Meanwhile, cute-boy-next-door Leon struggles to live in the shadows of his astronaut mother’s greatness. When they find each other, sparks fly. This is partially because Leon’s bold sister assumes the role of instigator and matchmaker from day one, but it’s also because neither character struggles with their identity on the page.

As an avid reader of queer books for teens, I find that in a lot of queer romance stories, characters spend most of the page time coming to terms with their identity. Of course, this makes a lot of sense—YA books are coming of age stories, and for queer people, coming out and coming of age often go hand in hand. But while I love those stories, I kept hearing about queer teens who were confidently out, who’d been fully supported by their family and their community since they were kids.

When I wrote The Gravity of Us, I wanted to show what a queer teen relationship could look like between two boys who neither struggled with their identities nor experienced any homophobia on the page. It’s aspirational, sure, but that’s the point of a rom-com. I wrote this book during the 2016 election, which made this story feel even more radical and important. In this way, I got to lean into the idea of insta-love (or more accurately, insta-attraction plus a whirlwind romance) and give teens a queer love story they could fall for instantly.

Speaking of insta-love, this is probably a good time to note that as a teen, I fell for just about every boy I met in roughly thirty seconds. Sure, rom coms trained me to expect love to simply fall into my lap in incredible circumstances, but it wasn’t until I started writing As Far As You’ll Take Me—which, unlike Gravity, is a story steeped in identity—that I understood why I was so quick to fall.

I first realized I was gay when I was in first grade, which is… early. By the time I came out at age eighteen, I’d spent twelve years—two thirds of my life—trapped in the closet. At this time, there weren’t a ton of movies, books, or TV shows with queer characters, and the ones that did always ended in death or tragedy. (Thanks, Brokeback Mountain!) Like Marty, my rural farm town wasn’t exactly the most accepting place. Like Marty, I grappled with religion and family and self-hate and anxiety. And like Marty, once I started to move beyond my repressed past, I took risks, I made mistakes, and…I fell for the first guy who gave me a scrap of attention.

I couldn’t really parse my emotions then, but looking back, it makes so much sense. I had spent twelve years drowning in denial and fear, convinced I would never find love, but when I got to college, I met other queer people and found allies for the first time ever. Sure, movies had told me that gay people only experienced a tragic ending… but here I was, a functioning gay human having my own meet-cutes and rom-com moments. I started to feel hope for the very first time—and I was going to do anything to hold onto it.

This, too, is represented in As Far As You’ll Take Me, when Marty quickly falls for health-conscious Pierce and gets his first taste of love. As Pierce starts to pull away, Marty believes changing himself is the only way to hold onto his new boyfriend, and he experiences disordered eating as a result. This was something I had firsthand experience with too, so, I guess you could say Marty and I both had an insta-love problem.

Between both of my books, you’ll find themes of love at first sight, or insta-love, whatever you’d like to call it. That trope is certainly not everyone’s cup of tea, of course, but in both stories, I got the opportunity to pay homage to classic 90s love stories, break the trope apart, and share two distinct, but honest, experiences.

More than anything, I hope that honesty comes through on the page and speaks to every teen who falls in love too fast—or wishes they could.

Meet the author

Phil Stamper is the author of The Gravity of Us. He grew up in a rural village near Dayton, Ohio. He has a B.A. in Music and an M.A. in Publishing with Creative Writing. And, unsurprisingly, a lot of student debt. He works for a major book publisher in New York City and lives in Brooklyn with his husband and their dog. Visit him online at www.philstamper.com or @stampepk.

About As Far As You’ll Take Me

The author of The Gravity of Us crafts another heartfelt coming-of-age story about finding the people who become your home—perfect for fans of Becky Albertalli.

Marty arrives in London with nothing but his oboe and some savings from his summer job, but he’s excited to start his new life—where he’s no longer the closeted, shy kid who slips under the radar and is free to explore his sexuality without his parents’ disapproval. 

From the outside, Marty’s life looks like a perfect fantasy: in the span of a few weeks, he’s made new friends, he’s getting closer with his first ever boyfriend, and he’s even traveling around Europe. But Marty knows he can’t keep up the facade. He hasn’t spoken to his parents since he arrived, he’s tearing through his meager savings, his homesickness and anxiety are getting worse and worse, and he hasn’t even come close to landing the job of his dreams. Will Marty be able to find a place that feels like home?

ISBN-13: 9781547600175
Publisher: Bloomsbury USA
Publication date: 02/09/2021
Age Range: 13 – 17 Years

Book Review: The Love Curse of Melody McIntyre by Robin Talley

The Love Curse of Melody McIntyre

Publisher’s description

Perfect for fans of Becky Albertalli and Nina LaCour, this #ownvoices romantic comedy from New York Times bestselling author Robin Talley has something for everyone: backstage rendezvous, deadly props, and a seemingly insurmountable obstacle to True Love.

Melody McIntyre, stage manager extraordinaire, has a plan for everything.

What she doesn’t have? Success with love. Every time she falls for someone during a school performance, both the romance and the show end in catastrophe. So, Mel swears off any entanglements until their upcoming production of Les Mis is over.

Of course, Mel didn’t count on Odile Rose, rising star in the acting world, auditioning for the spring performance. And she definitely didn’t expect Odile to be sweet and funny, and care as much about the play’s success as Mel.

Which means that Melody McIntyre’s only plan now is trying desperately not to fall in love.

Amanda’s thoughts

Here’s the thing: there’s a lot going on in this great book, but ultimately, my review comes down to just simply saying THIS WAS ADORABLE. And while that statement may not have much depth, the book sure does. And I’ll talk about all that good stuff in a second, but for now, if this is all the further you read, know that the excellent romance as well as just the whole vibe of this book is ADORABLE. Goodness knows we could all use something this cute, sweet, real, and satisfying these days.

Mel, who is bi, LOVES theater. She takes her role as stage manager VERY seriously and hopes to go to college for stage management. I was never a theater person, but one of my high school BFFs was a stage manager and went to college for technical theater, and as a result so much of Melody’s taskmaster no-nonsense approach felt very real to me. Anyway. After Mel’s girlfriend, Rachel, breaks up with her at the worst possible moment, Mel’s crew team convinces her to maybe swear off relationships for the next play. They’re a very superstitious bunch and are worried that maybe Mel in a relationship is a curse (they are very big on curses and countercurses). Mel, who has dated a fair amount of people, agrees to this, figuring it can’t be that hard.

Obviously, enter someone she can’t help but fall for, right?

Suddenly, Mel is keeping secrets from her crew, hiding her relationship, not being totally honest with her new girlfriend, and wondering if the onslaught of accidents and mishaps are all because she’s in love.

Now, if you’re an adult reader, here’s what you need to do: remember being a teenager? Everything was always so intense, so significant, so meaningful. So you might read this and be like, wait, they’re really all taking this idea of a curse so seriously? Yes, they are. They’re teenagers. It makes sense. Everyone in this story really does get bent out of shape because of curses and their chaotic effects. Teen readers may just roll with this, but adults, we need to get past whatever issues we may have with that and remember wishing at 11:11, or pinning all your hopes on things like “if the next car that goes by is red, he totally likes me,” or feeling jinxed, etc.

I loved Melody’s dads and their support of her theater passion. I loved the relationship between Mel and Odile, her new girlfriend who is so much more than she seems (and is questioning what exactly her identity is–she knows she’s queer, but she’s figuring a lot out). And I loved the huge cast of diverse, interesting characters.

I read this book pretty quickly, as the countdown to the play format really keeps things moving. It was fun, cute, and completely satisfying. An excellent recommendation for all fans of contemporary fiction.

PS—Be ready to go down a Les Mis rabbit hole on YouTube once you finish the book. My poor family.

Review copy courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9780062409263
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 12/01/2020
Age Range: 14 – 17 Years

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

WRITING YOUR OWN STORY (SORT OF), a guest post by Greg Howard

whispersLet me start by clearly stating that THE WHISPERS is first and foremost, a work of fiction. I’m reluctant to even call it semi-autobiographical. With that said, there’s no doubt that I left a lot of me on the page. Sort of.

 

When I first had the idea for this story, I thought a lot about my childhood—colorful family members, small towns in South Carolina where I grew up, the woods I explored with my buddies, those early school friends and bullies who leave a lifelong, indelible mark one’s psyche and memory. But I kept circling back a central missing puzzle piece of my youth—my mother.

 

 

My mother was a conspicuous and fundamental figure in my childhood even though she was absent for most of it. Why she wasn’t around isn’t as important as the fact that she was there in a monumental way in the beginning—when your attachments and developmental influences take root and form who you are as a person. She was a local beauty queen beloved by everyone, a steadfast pillar of the church community, a faithful wife and nurturing mother revered by other wives and mothers for her beauty inside and out. She was practically an angelic presence temporarily on loan from God to the good citizens of Georgetown, South Carolina. Or at least that’s how I remember it.

Greg's mother

Greg’s mother

 

As I grew older and wiser (sort of), the more I realized that my memories of my mother were a mix of the authentic and the imagined—some created from faded Polaroids, others from family lore, but only a scattering from actual events and real-life moments. That’s why I consider the mother in THE WHISPERS to be a tribute to my mother, but also a fully fictionalized character.

A young Greg and his sister

A young Greg and his sister

To my main character, Riley, his mother is virtually his entire world and when she goes missing, he’s not only completely lost without her, but obsessive about finding her and bringing her home. The world as Riley knows it simply doesn’t work without her. His dad grows isolated and distant, his brother retreats from the family, his grandparents are despondent, and as a mama’s boy who finds himself suddenly without a mama, Riley feels as alone and acutely isolated as I did at his age.

 

Growing up a self-aware queer kid the rural deep South only added to my seclusion. It was time when you didn’t talk about such things, neither at home or at school, and certainly not at church. Preachers told me I was going to hell without even realizing (I hope) the oppressive guilt and shame they were imposing on an already sensitive, fragile kid. Authority figures seemed to know without question or a second thought that I was not normal. I never found myself in television, movies, or books, but only ever saw a romantic construct of love represented between a man and a woman. Even at that young age, I felt erased from society and reality. Compound that with the absence of my mother and you have one deeply confused, broken and lonely little boy.

 

That was my story, but through writing THE WHISPERS, it became Riley’s.

 

Sprinkling the seasoning of my life into THE WHISPERS was deeply satisfying, incredibly cathartic, and at times particularly painful. From Grandma’s fruit salad recipe, to the Pentecostal corn choir, to missing family photo albums and boyhood crushes, to camping trips in the woods, childhood trauma, a country market, nightmares so vivid I remember them to this day, and even to the greatest dog in the history of dogs, Tucker—I lent it all to Riley. And it was interesting to see with those same story ingredients borrowed from my life, how drastically his path diverged from my own.

 

I used to think of THE WHISPERS as my own story. But the longer I’m away from it, the more I consider it Riley’s story. Those are now his adventures, hopes, pains, dreams, struggles and triumphs. But I’m delighted that my real-life memories served Riley well and found a safe and evergreen place to land. Riley’s was a more fantastical journey than mine, but imagination was important to us both. Imagination was the vehicle of our escape to an alternate world. One full of hope. And in that small yet significant way, Riley and I share this story.

 

When writing fiction, I don’t believe you can truly write your own story. At some point the characters hijack it and make it their own, and that’s okay. So, now I can say with definitive clarity that THE WHISPERS is my own story. Sort of.

 

Meet Greg Howard

Photo credit: Jamie Wright Images

Photo credit: Jamie Wright Images

Greg Howard grew up near the coast of South Carolina. His hometown of Georgetown is known as the “Ghost Capital of the South” (seriously…there’s a sign), and was always a great source of material for his overactive imagination. Raised in a staunchly religious home, Greg escaped into the arts: singing, playing piano, acting, writing songs, and making up stories. Currently, Greg resides in Nashville, Tennessee, with his husband, Steve, and their three rescued fur babies Molly, Toby, and Riley.

 

 

 

 Connect with Greg online:

Twitter: @greghowardbooks

Instagram: @greghowardbooks

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/greghowardbooks/

 

About THE WHISPERS

whispersA middle grade debut that’s a heartrending coming-of-age tale, perfect for fans of Bridge to Terabithia and Counting By 7s.

Eleven-year-old Riley believes in the whispers, magical fairies that will grant you wishes if you leave them tributes. Riley has a lot of wishes. He wishes bullies at school would stop picking on him. He wishes Dylan, his 8th grade crush, liked him, and Riley wishes he would stop wetting the bed. But most of all, Riley wishes for his mom to come back home. She disappeared a few months ago, and Riley is determined to crack the case. He even meets with a detective, Frank, to go over his witness statement time and time again.

Frustrated with the lack of progress in the investigation, Riley decides to take matters into his own hands. So he goes on a camping trip with his friend Gary to find the whispers and ask them to bring his mom back home. But Riley doesn’t realize the trip will shake the foundation of everything that he believes in forever.

(ISBN-13: 9780525517498 Publisher: Penguin Young Readers Group Publication date: 01/15/2019)

CHECK BACK ON 1/15/2019 FOR AMANDA’S REVIEW OF THE WHISPERS

Book Review: Girls Like Me by Nina Packebush

When I’m reviewing books for professional publications, I stay quiet about them on social media. I’m always really excited once a review comes out to be able to talk about the book, finally! Here’s one of my most recent reviews, which originally appeared in the December 2017  School Library Journal Xpress Reviews.

 

girls likePACKEBUSH, Nina. Girls Like Me. 204p. Bedazzled Ink. Nov. 2017. pap. $14.95. ISBN 9781945805356.

Gr 9 Up –A pregnant queer teen finds true friendship and maybe a little hope during the worst time in her life. Sixteen-year-old Banjo is briefly hospitalized in a juvenile mental ward in the wake of her genderqueer boy-/girlfriend’s suicide. There, she meets Pru (Ethiopian and adopted by white parents), a cutter who also identifies as queer. The two befriend Dylan, a gay boy from a conservative family. Together, the three share their experiences and feelings, finding relief in understanding after years of isolation and frustration, though their friendship is not without complications. Banjo struggles with what to do with the baby once it is born (keep it or give it up for adoption) while also being mired in memories of Gray and the way they died. Though it ends on a slightly encouraging note, the story of Banjo and her friends is unrelentingly miserable. Horrible things happen to these characters, especially to Gray, Banjo’s boy-/girlfriend. Adults and treatment are generally unhelpful, with Banjo’s mother thinking medication is poison. The psychiatrist at the hospital is ignorant, dismissive, and uncaring, quickly diagnosing all three teens as bipolar and threatening to forcibly medicate Banjo. This bleak view of what life as a queer teen looks like feels dated. Though Banjo eventually ends up with effective and caring doctors in her life, they don’t erase the overall message that hospitalization, therapy, doctors, and medication are ineffective, punishing, and harmful. VERDICT An additional purchase.–Amanda MacGregor, Parkview Elementary School, Rosemount, MN

Book Review: Radio Silence by Alice Oseman

Publisher’s description

radioFrom critically acclaimed author Alice Oseman comes a smartly crafted contemporary YA novel, perfect for readers who love Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl. This is an utterly captivating and authentic new teen novel from the author of Solitaire, which VOYA said “could put her among the great young adult fiction authors.”

Frances Janvier spends most of her time studying.

Everyone knows Aled Last as that quiet boy who gets straight As.

You probably think that they are going to fall in love or something. Since he is a boy and she is a girl.

They don’t. They make a podcast.

In a world determined to shut them up, knock them down, and set them on a cookie cutter life path, Frances and Aled struggle to find their voices over the course of one life-changing year. Will they have the courage to show everyone who they really are? Or will they be met with radio silence?

 

Amanda’s thoughts

I’ll be honest: it took me a while to get into this story. I spent a few days picking it up and finding my mind wandering, so putting it down and working on something else instead. BUT, once I got roped in, I got ROPED IN. I wouldn’t necessarily call this a mystery, but it has elements of a mystery, and that’s what propelled me forward.

 

The summary up there doesn’t do the best job of making this sound appealing (although, yes please to more books about main character best friends who seem like they might fall in love but don’t, and yes please to stories about podcasts). It’s not just that Aled and Frances make a podcast together (think Welcome to Night Vale)—it’s that they make a VERY popular podcast, with a large fandom, and, as creators, stay shrouded in mystery for a long time. The premise of their podcast (which Aled starts and Frances joins eventually) is a student is sending out SOS messages from a futuristic university that they’re trapped inside of. The student goes by Radio Silence and is agender. The podcast grows in popularity, but when word gets out who is behind it, things really begin to fall apart quickly. Aled and Frances have an argument and drift apart (or rather, Aled bails on Frances and refuses to answer her calls etc). It becomes clear that something very troublesome is going on with Aled, and while Frances desperately wants to do SOMETHING to help him, she doesn’t know what to do. Until she does.

 

The small ensemble of characters feature a diversity of sexual identities, including gay, bi, lesbian, and demisexual. Frances is white and Ethiopian, Daniel is Korean, and Raine is Indian. There is also a lot of room for choices, or for rethinking choices, regarding what to do after school ends—namely, there are more options than just going to university and more options than just doing the thing you thought you were supposed to work toward. The story is about the podcast, but it’s also not. It’s about people desperately in need of friends. It’s about identities, desires, plans, expectations, and feeling lost. Frances and friends will easily appeal to teen readers who are also grappling with all these same feelings. 

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher and Edelweiss

ISBN-13: 9780062335715

Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers

Publication date: 03/28/2017

Book Review: The You I’ve Never Known by Ellen Hopkins

When I’m reviewing books for professional publications, I stay quiet about them on social media. I’m always really excited once a review comes out to be able to talk about the book, finally! Here’s one of my most recent reviews, which originally appeared in the January 2017 issue of School Library Journal.

 

Hop on over to the Rafflecopter to enter to win a copy of THE YOU I’VE NEVER KNOW. Contest ends January 27th. 

 

the-youHopkins, Ellen. The You I’ve Never Known

ISBN-13: 9781481442909 Publisher: Margaret K. McElderry Books Publication date: 01/24/2017

Gr 9 Up—Ariel and her father, an abusive, homophobic alcoholic, never stay in one place very long. Miraculously, though, they have spent Ariel’s entire junior year in Sonora, CA, and she hopes that, for once, they can stick around. Here, she has finally experienced a bit of stability and made friends. She has also begun to explore her sexuality with both new guy Gabe and Monica, her “queer Mexican American” best friend. Ariel keeps her feelings for Monica from her father, who never lets her forget that her mother left them when Ariel was two to “run off with her lesbian lover.” The teen longs to break free from her father’s control and be herself—whoever that is. Seventeen-year-old Maya, a Texan whose cold and abusive mother is increasingly involved in Scientology, seeks escape, too, and she finds it when she meets Jason, 10 years her senior; gets pregnant; and marries. But Jason has an escape plan of his own, one that will bring Ariel’s and Maya’s stories together in a startling way. Themes of identity, family, and truth are interrogated as readers slowly learn more about Ariel and Maya. Writing in verse (Ariel’s tale) and prose (Maya’s), Hopkins uses skillful pacing and carefully chosen words to conceal the most important truth of the novel. The reveal arrives just as readers may be putting the pieces together themselves. VERDICT A sharp, gripping read sure to please Hopkins’s legions of fans.—Amanda MacGregor