YA Review: Kiss Number 8 by Colleen A.F. Venable and Ellen T. Crenshaw

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TitleKiss Number 8 by Colleen A.F. Venable and Ellen T. Crenshaw

Rating: 4/5

Two-sentence summary: Mads never understood why people loved kissing so much. Until her eight kiss, which calls into question all she understood in her conservative upbringing.

Image result for Kiss Number 8 by Colleen A.F. Venable

Portrayal of LGBTQ issues: In case you couldn’t guess from that blurb, Mads is a cisgender lesbian who discovers and grapples with her identity as a teenager. Between hormones and internalized shame from her family and Catholic high school, Mads faces a lot of pressure to bury her sexuality. Mads is intuitive and skilled at self-introspective, and what she uncovers about herself and her family leads to powerful conversations about identity.

Homophobia in general, both internalized and external, is a major theme in Kiss Number 8. Although the title sounds more like a romantic comedy, this is an introspective story that doesn’t always offer easy choices for our protagonist Mads.

What I liked: This book reminded me a bit of a queer, contemporary take on The Scarlet Letter. Although I didn’t go to Catholic school like Mads, I did attend high school in a conservative community who mostly belonged to the same religious background. Not many students came out as openly LGBT, and those who did often faced social consequences.

Kiss Number 8 accurately portrays what it’s like to be outed as gay when you’re young and still figuring yourself out in a place where it’s not safe to do so. As soon as word gets out that she kissed another girl, gossip spreads through her high school and kicks her out of a social group she’d belonged to for her whole life. It can be devastating as a religious queer person to feel alienated from a community that defines how you understand the world and yourself, and that fear and uncertainty is portrayed excellently here.

Recommended: I’ve sung my praises towards queer graphic novels many times on this blog, and this book is an excellent example of the genre. If you’re interested in a story with family secrets, religious crises, and high school drama, Kiss Number 8 is worth checking out.

Note: I was given an ARC in exchange for a fair review.

YA Review: Birthday by Meredith Russo

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TitleBirthday by Meredith Russo

Rating: 4/5

Two-sentence summary: Morgan and Eric are two teenagers who were born on the same day. That makes them bonded for life, even if their journeys take them in very different (yet connected) directions.

Portrayal of LGBTQ issues: Morgan is a transgender girl whose identity develops over the course of the novel. We’re able to see these characters once a year (on their birthdays) and so we watch her as she discovers that her inherent femininity won’t just go away. But because she realizes these truths in her conservative community, it takes her some time to find a place in the world where she belongs.

What I liked: I already had a lot of faith in this book before I started reading it because Meredith Russo is one of the best writers I’ve read in queer YA. Not only does she write unique characters whose stories are important to hear, but her prose itself is so beautiful. Although we only get to experience Morgan and Eric’s worlds for six birthday, she crafts lives and emotions for these characters that feel real. It’s vulnerable and authentic, and it’s not just a story about queer identity – it’s a story about what it means to accept yourself and others in a world that sometimes teaches the opposite.

As far as the novel’s format goes, I usually have extreme reactions to experimental novels like this: I’m either crazy for them or I hate it. In this case, I loved that we follow Morgan and Eric throughout their birthdays over the course of the novel. What I think Birthday makes clear overall is that so much can change in a year. It’s powerful to see Morgan and Eric change and become more authentic versions of themselves over time, as well as how they influence each other to face who they are inside.

“Maybe that’s what life is about: surviving what you can’t control and clinging to the good things the winds whip up.”

Recommended: Meredith Russo is one of my favorite queer YA writers. Her book If I Was Your Girl is my go-to recommendation for transgender fiction because she portrays the emotional complexity of being trans so well. I’d recommend Birthday for similar reasons. Both Morgan and Eric face real and meaningful challenges as they come to terms with who they are, and I think that the author does an excellent job at writing a story with equal parts humanity and heart.

Note: I was given an ARC in exchange for a fair review.

YA Review: Deposing Nathan by Zack Smedley

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TitleDeposing Nathan by Zack Smedley

Rating: 4.5/5

Two-sentence summary: After Nate’s best friend Cam attacks him, he’s called to court to deliver a statement that would convict Cam. But their relationship had never been easy or simple, and Nate’s emotional conflict sends him spiraling to his limits.

Portrayal of LGBTQ issues: Nate is a cisgender queer guy whose relationship with Cam is messy. But so many things in life are, including those that matter most. As the two boys fall apart, their friendship unravels as they get to the heart of what happened between them. There are no easy answers as to why Nate ended up in the hospital and Cam in court, but Nate tries to analyze his questions anyways and find some sense of closure.

Deposing Nathan deals heavily with themes of domestic abuse between Nate and his aunt. If that subject matter could potentially be triggering to you, I’d recommend researching the book a little further before reading it. It can be intense at times.

What I liked: Deposing Nathan is one of those books that takes you in a very different direction than you expect. One of the heaviest themes in this book is what makes a decision right or wrong. Nate knows that if he testifies against Cam, his best friend will serve a long jail sentence. The two boys are the only people who know the truth about what happened, and this burden weighs on Nate because he desperately wants to do good. But people don’t often fit into well-defined categories of “good” and “bad,” which heightens Nate’s problems all the more.

I also loved how well the author portrays Nate’s faith crisis. People whose religious beliefs and queer identity are equally important to them often have a hard time getting the two halves of who they are to coexist. Throughout Deposing Nathan, Nate grapples with his beliefs – his spiritual beliefs, his beliefs about his moral conscience, and his beliefs concerning his family. Challenging these beliefs is one of the hardest things for Nate to do but only through self-discovery is he able to reach peace.

“If you think you need to earn enough points on someone’s rubric for them to accept you, then either you’re wrong to assume they won’t love you for who you are, or they never loved you in the first place.”

Recommended: If you’re looking for a book that will just emotionally destroy you, here it is. But don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Note: I was given an ARC in exchange for a fair review.

YA Review: Destroy All Monsters by Sam J. Miller

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TitleDestroy All Monsters by Sam J. Miller

Rating: 4/5

Two-sentence summary: This genre-bending queer YA begins with two friends: Solomon and Ash. As Solomon slips into a nightmare realm called the Darkside, he and Ash have to finally confront a traumatic childhood event that changed their lives forever.

Portrayal of LGBTQ issues: Destroy All Monsters features a cisgender, gay protagonist. It also features themes of sexual assault, which is one of the major sources of trauma for Solomon and Ash. As the author (Sam J. Miller) is gay himself, this is also an #OwnVoices YA.

What I liked: Do you know what this reminded me of (in the best way possible)? Patrick Ness. It’s got the same darkly whimsical feel to it while using monsters to represent deep emotional turmoil. When I read “The Art of Starving” almost two years ago, I was struck by the author’s unconventional choice to discuss eating disorders through science fiction. Destroy All Monsters pushes the way we traditionally discuss serious issues like child abuse and post-traumatic stress disorder in what makes for a thought-provoking read.

At first, I wasn’t sure how I felt about the dual perspectives in this book. In my opinion, they have to be done carefully or else it’s hard to immerse the reader in either one. But in this case, both Solomon and Ash were able to establish distinct voices that added important things to the plot. I also felt like Solomon and Ash had an authentic connection as friends, which added even more emphasis to both the traumatic and healing parts of the book.

Recommended: I’d recommend this book for magical realism fans as well as anyone who’s interested in a fascinating psychological fantasy. But I would recommend looking into some of the heavier themes in the book if you think that any of them might trigger you.

Note: I was given an ARC in exchange for a fair review.

MG Guest Post: Zenobia July by Lisa Bunker

For today’s post, I am excited to feature a guest blog from Lisa Bunker, the author of the LGBT middle grade book Zenobia July (published on May 21st), as part of the “Hear My Roar” Blog Tour. Thank you so much for sharing your advice for young, LGBT readers as well as more about your book!

After the death of her last surviving birth parent, Zen has moved to live with her cool lesbian aunties in Portland Maine, and takes the opportunity to live and attend school as the girl she has always known herself to be. She’s living in stealth, so when someone posts hateful memes on the school website, she has to decide whether to offer her advanced cyber-skills in pursuit of the hacker, despite the risk of premature outing increased attention may bring.

Zenobia July has several characters in it who identify outside the traditional gender binary. What advice would you give to young readers in a similar situation?

Dear Young Human,

If you’ve started to feel that the traditional binaries are too simple to explain the you-ness of you, cool! Welcome to the Rainbow Family! And, may I step in for a second as your temporary Auntie of choice and offer some thoughts?

First and most importantly, in case no one else has said it to you yet (or even if they have): no matter what word(s) you end up using to describe yourself, you are a beautiful human, worthy to love and be loved, exactly as you are. No footnotes, no conditions, no provisos. That’s for always.  

Secondly, please, if you possibly can, take your time. Identity is as much a journey as a destination, and exploration and experimentation are definitely part of that journey. Some versions of self you try won’t work out, at least not completely. Don’t worry about it! Breathe! Rest when you need to! It’s all part of the process.

That said, when you do feel sure of next steps, I encourage you to take them as soon as you can. I got through my own transition by neither forcing myself when I didn’t feel ready or holding back when I did. It worked out real-world fine.

One more thing about time: if someone in your life is struggling with understanding who you are, try to give them time too. First reactions don’t have to be final reactions, and if they love you, most humans will try to learn and re-connect. Keep yourself as safe as you can while they’re doing their work, and don’t give up on them too soon.

Third point: you are so not alone. I know it feels that way sometimes, but please, try to remember, there are literally millions of other people like you. They can be hard to find, and you won’t connect in a useful way with every single one you meet, but there are still plenty enough that you should always be able find the connection you need. Friend groups, community spaces (real world and online), family of choice…these are the ways the Rainbow Folk support and uplift each other.

And finally: no single identity-marker defines a human. Of course your gender and orientation are crucial facets of your total being, but they are only facets, and you have so many more: your loving heart, your quirky mind, your particular body, your talents and strengths, your blind spots, your knowledge, your humor, the experience of your life until now. All these and more make you who you are, a precious irreplaceable soul, unique and beautiful.

Hang in there, dear! It truly does get better!

Love,

Auntie Lisa

Lisa Bunker lives and writes in Exeter, NH. Zenobia July is her second book; her first, Felix Yz, about a boy fused with alien, came out in 2017. In 2018 she was elected to represent her town in the New Hampshire House of Representatives. She is married and has two grown children. Her geekeries include chess, piano, gender, storycraft, and language. You can learn more about her work at lisabunker.net.

The “Hear My Roar” Blog Tour is spreading the word about three brave and inspiring middle grade books being published this year! You can see previous stops in the tour and follow future posts below:

ZENOBIA JULY

WEEK ONE

May 20 – Reed Family Reads – Creative Instagram Picture

May 21 – Tucker the Reader – Review

May 22 – Four Violet Reviews – Craft + Creative Instagram Picture

May 23 – The Quirky Booknerd – Review

WEEK TWO

May 27 – LGBT YA Catalog – Author Guest Post

May 28 – Here’s to Happy Endings – Review + Moodboard

May 29 – The Nerdy Girl Express – Review

May 30 – thebookishfiiasco – Instagram Picture

MY CORNER OF THE RING

WEEK THREE

June 3 – Iwanicki Mom & Daughter Adventures in Teaching – Moodboard

June 4 – Bridget and the Books – Review + Why it’s important for girls to have books on girl power

June 5 – Babybibliophile – Creative Instagram Picture

June 6 – The Book Blondie – Playlist Recommendations + Creative Instagram Picture

WEEK FOUR

June 10 – That Reader Girl – Moodboard

June 11 – Eastern Sunset Reads – Listicle: Other books with Strong Females that come out swinging

June 12 – DJ Reads Books – Reflection + Instagram Picture

June 13 – Between the Shelves – Playlist

GIRL WHO SAILED THE STARS

WEEK FIVE

June 17 – 4dogsandanurse – Review + Playlist

June 18 – Two Points of Interest – Review

June 19 – Always in the Middle – Review

June 20 – Bookish Friends and Feline Fancies – Creative Instagram Picture

WEEK SIX

June 24 – trissinalovesbooks – Review + Creative Instagram Picture + Inspired by the Book: Piano Music

June 25 – Cozybooknook – Creative Instagram Picture

June 26 – Drop and Give Me Nerdy – Creative Instagram Picture

June 27 – DoodleMom’s Homeschooling Life – Review + Listicle

Middle Grade Review: Summer of a Thousand Pies by Margaret Dilloway

Image result for Summer of a Thousand Pies cover

TitleSummer of a Thousand Pies by Margaret Dilloway

Rating: 4.5/5

Two-sentence summary: Twelve-year-old Cady has never met her Aunt Shell but is sent to her countryside home for the summer. But can she, Aunt Shell, and her aunt’s partner Suzanne save their struggling pie shop from bankruptcy?

Portrayal of LGBTQ issues: Summer of a Thousand Pies features a lesbian couple, Aunt Shell and Suzanne, who care for Cady after Child Protective Services relocates her from her dad. For the most part, the aunts don’t face any backlash from their community as a same-sex couple raising a child. Their sexual orientation is less a conflict in the story as it is something that makes their characters feel more nuanced and human.

What I liked: When I saw the cover for Summer of a Thousand Pies, I thought I’d be settling into a fun and lighthearted middle grade contemporary. I was wrong. This is a beautiful, important book, but it doesn’t deal with easy themes. Cady’s mother has died and her grief-stricken father descends into alcoholism to the point where she has to live with her Aunt Shell. Her aunt’s pie shop is run with equal amounts of passion and joy, but it isn’t easy to thrive as a small bakery. And Cady’s new friend Jay, whose parents are undocumented and works at Aunt Shell’s bakery, depends on the pie shop staying open to keep from going homeless.

But that doesn’t mean that this book is free of uplifting moments. Thanks to her aunts and her new friends, Cady’s is able to let down her guard and trust the people she loves the most for the first time in her life. Through baking and immersing herself in life with Aunt Shell, Cady is able to heal from the loss of her mother and her father’s mental health issues. Summer of a Thousand Pies is an example of how middle grade can delve into just as real and heartbreaking issues as YA, as well as queer representation, in a way that’s appropriate and helpful for its young readers.

Recommended: This is hands-down one of the best and (no pun intended) sweetest LGBT middle grade books I’ve read. I’d recommend it to elementary and middle school students in particular but also teachers who are looking for a way to introduce LGBT characters to their students in a compassionate and normalizing light

Note: I was given an ARC in exchange for a fair review.

Springtime Book Haul and Life Update

Haven’t done a book haul for a while so figured that since we’re approaching mid-spring, now is the perfect time. Here are a few noteworthy non-LGBTQ YA books that I’ve read over the past few months and my thoughts on each of them:

  • Haikyu! Volume One: I’ve been channeling sports manga for my YA bake-off romance WIP because I feel like they’re good at making competitions character-driven and investing readers in the stakes of losing games. This is one of my favorites so far–it’s so wholesome! Yuri On Ice! is still my favorite but this one does comes close.
  • Waiting for Fitz: One of my favorite non-LGBTQ YA reads this spring–Waiting for Fitz follows Addy, a teenager who has OCD and loves absurdist plays, as she falls in love with a schizophrenic boy named Fitz at their teen psych ward. Such a beautiful and heartbreaking story and explores themes of purpose, mental illness, and the human experience in a way that resonated for me. And for what it’s worth as someone with OCD, this was one of the most realistic portrayals of the condition I’ve ever read (perhaps because the author himself is also an OCD sufferer).
  • Educated: Tara Westover’s memoir wasn’t easy to read, but her wisdom and strength despite everything she had to deal with during her upbringing was inspiring.
  • The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time: I’ve been meaning to read this one for years so when I saw it for $6 at a thrift store, I couldn’t pass it up. And it didn’t disappoint! Not what I expected from a murder-mystery but defied my expectations in the best way possible.
  • The Love Letters of Abelard and Lily: Did I expect to find a YA retelling of the forbidden romance between a French monk and a nun during the thirteenth-century featuring neurodivergent protagonists? No, but I am so glad that I did.
  • Twenty-One Truths About Love: Hmm. This one I won from a Goodreads giveaway and I’m not sure how to feel about it. Enjoyed the list format but some aspects of the plot were a bit too unbelievable. Overall, though, a fun read.

And because I haven’t done many life updates this year, here’s what I’ve been up to this spring:

  • My presentation on transgender spirituality in the Latter-Day Saint Church got approved for the Sunstone Summer Symposium! This will be my first conference panel and I am equally nervous and excited to present it.
  • Been doing a deep dive on research for my queer Hamlet retelling WIP–which involves both studying interpretations of Hamlet throughout the ages and Denmark/Germany in the sixteenth-century. It’s been wild!
  • Started counseling with an OCD specialist a few months ago and so far, so good–one of the upsides of leaving full-time freelancing is that having mental health insurance is such a blessing.
  • Got to talk about my experience as a transgender Mormon in the “Mormon Land” podcast (and my only complaint is that they used an incredibly dorky-looking pic from my junior year in college in the post adgjkhdhgh)
  • Been focusing on self-care as it relates to maintaining good mental, physical, and emotional health. This has mostly involved signing up for a few Coursera classes, practicing mindfulness meditation, and letting myself wind down with a video game every once in a while.
  • Got two beautiful art history books from a thrift store–one of the Uffizi Florence and a Frank Lloyd Wright pop-up book!