Pet by Akwaeke Emezi
In their debut YA novel, Pet, Akwaeke Emezi tells the tale of a teen seeking uncomfortable truths in the seemingly utopian city of Lucille. Set in the near future of “anyplace America,” Jam awakens a monster-hunting-monster from one of her mother’s paintings. This new “pet” warns her of danger lurking in her best friend, Redemption’s house. Jam is desperate to protect Redemption and his family, but how do you save the world from monsters if no one will admit they exist? When the adults in her life insist all monsters were destroyed years ago, Jam and Pet must discover the truth and save Redemption on their own.
Throughout the book, Emezi encourages readers, as Pet encourages Jam, to see things as they really are. This often means choosing to see things that make us uncomfortable, to seek truths even when they are painful. This message feels timely amidst a global pandemic and public disagreement about what is true and what is “fake news.”
While the plot of Pet does not focus explicitly on LGBTQ+ issues, Emezi (who themselves identifies as non-binary) subtly encourages readers to evaluate their own biases surrounding gender, sexual orientation, and family structure. While Jam is the only child of a heteronormative couple, Redemption and his siblings are raised by a mother, a father, and a third non-binary, loving parent. Several chapters in we learn Jam is transgender, but it’s mentioned more in passing than as a significant plot point. By creating a world where queer families and characters are treated like any other, Emezi has written a poignant book that queer young adults can see themselves in. While Pet is by no means an easy summer beach-reader, I highly recommend this award-winning novel to older teens and adults brave enough to look – even when the truth isn’t what we had hoped. -Kristen
Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe
Gender Queer, a graphic novel memoir by Maia Kobabe, shares the story of a young person struggling to find emselves* in traditional gender identities and sexual orientations. On eir* path to identifying and coming out as a non-binary asexual person, Kobabe explores themes of gender dysmorphia, queer friendship, and family. With a simple and expressive style, Kobabe illustrates the common experiences of middle school sex-education, first kisses, and leaving home for college through a non-binary lens, giving cis-gendered readers a different perspective of adolescence. As Kobabe ages throughout the graphic novel, e* strives to learn more about emselves*, gender roles, pro-nouns, neuroscience, and queerness. These stories in turn educate readers without feeling like a text book. Kobabe’s ability to share this knowledge makes Gender Queer just as much an empathetic guide for young queer people as it is a memoir. Equal parts funny, cute, heart-breaking, and enlightening, this book is a quick read I highly recommend for queer young adults and those who support them.
*The author Maia Kobabe uses the non-gendered Spivak pronouns e, em, and eir, as in “Ask em what e wants in eir tea.” Learn more about these pronouns and others by reading Gender Queer! -Kristen
They She He Me: Free to Be! By Maya and Matthew Smith-Gonzalez
This short picture book explores the pronouns he and she alongside non-gendered pronouns such as they and ze. As trans author Matthew Smith-Gonzales guides us through these words, vibrant illustrations from his wife Maya show there is no one way to be “he,” “she,” or “they” – people come in a variety of shapes, sizes, colors, and gender expressions, regardless of what pronouns they use. Towards the end of the book, Matthew and Maya explain in kid friendly terms how gendered pronouns are assigned to people at birth, but that not everyone feels those pronouns fit them as they grow up.
“Because there is only one you, only you can know you. That means there is never a right or a wrong way to be you, only your way. This is also why only you can know what pronouns express the spirit of who you are on the inside.” – They, She, He, Me, Free to Be!
The final few pages of the book, “for the Grown-Ups,” encourages parents to evaluate their own assumptions and stereotypes about gender. Matthew and Maya express the importance of being comfortable with the unknown and ambiguity, and reassure parents that it’s OK to make mistakes! They, She, He, Me, Free to Be! is a great book for parents and kids interested in learning more about gender norms, pronouns, and how to be our truest selves. -Kristen
Carry On: The Rise and Fall of Simon Snow by Rainbow Rowell
Rainbow Rowell's YA novel Carry On is a spinoff of the author's Fangirl where that protagonist (Cath) writes fanfiction about the Simon Snow series. Rainbow Rowell is so clever that way; to wind her books together into one continuous storyline. Carry On is a remix or fan fiction of the Harry Potter series but one where all magikal beings intermingle with others; there's no judgement or discrimination about who one loves. This is as much a ghost story as a love story.
Simon Snow is a magick, has been raised by "normals" (non magical people), an orphan, in his last year of school at Watford School of Magicks, aged 18, and the "chosen one." Sound familiar? Instead of saving the magical world (and being a clever wizard) like Harry Potter, however, Simon has been chosen to end it. He is the Greatest Mage; the Mage being like the purebloods.
There are so many good characters in this story: ghosts, the Humdrum, Penelope (Simon's best friend), Baz the vampire who is at first the "nemesis" but then becomes Simon's love interest. Simon's ex-girlfriend is cleverly named Agatha Wellbelove. This book has layers of rich personalities, and a story that is as fun to read as it is haunting. The next title in this series is "Wayward Son", and I'm so excited to check in with the hapless misfits and true friends in Simon's life! -Maura
On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong
Former director Ann Scott's review of On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous from June 2019 literally made me want to read the book. It's beautifully written (book & review). -Cathy
Excerpt from Ann Scott's Review: Ocean Vuong, who emigrated from Ho Chi Min City to Hartford, Connecticut as a child, sprang into mainstream literary consciousness in 2016 with Night Sky with Exit Wounds, a remarkable collection of poems on immigration, intergenerational trauma, and queerness. The work is one of the highest regarded contemporary collections on the market; Vuong’s honors include a Whiting Award and the T.S. Eliot Prize.
His first novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, also speaks of multi-generational PTSD, charting the fate of a Vietnamese-American family struggling to settle into working class life in 1990’s New England. Vuong frames his novel as a letter from Little Dog, a young gay writer in his late twenties, to his illiterate mother Rose.
There is a new avant-garde afoot, and Vuong claims his own form, making the kind of grand gestures few writers would dare. Sometimes it’s beautiful, sometimes pretentious, sometimes both at once. And as compelled as a reader might be by the gorgeous language, or the political force and wisdom of Vuong’s insights, the novel lacks a compelling structure and sometimes loses its voltage through repetition, with many of the better observations dulled by the presence of so many similar ones throughout. This is a work worthy of attention for its exploration of class, race, sexuality and generational trauma. The committed reader will find much of value, but others may give up before they reach the end.
Read Ann Scott's full review here.
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