YA Review: Going Off Script by Jen Wilde

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TitleGoing Off Script by Jen Wilde

Rating: 4.5/5

Two-sentence summary: When seventeen-year-old Bex accepts an internship to work on beloved TV series Silver Falls, she is ecstatic. But when the writers changes her lesbian character straight, she fights for healthy queer representation.

Portrayal of LGBTQ issues: The LGBT rep in this book is kind of meta, in a way. How so? Bex’s script featuring a lesbian (like herself) is stolen by a senior writer, who changes the character to straight and tries to market it as their own idea. Going Off Script features tons of discussion about why on-screen LGBT representation matters and the challenges that come with being an openly queer artist in a heteronormative workplace. Especially if you’re a queer, femme-presenting person.

What I liked: This is the exact kind of book I would have loved to read in high school. The set-up is like an ode to LGBT fandom and the fight to move from “queerbaiting” to real gay representation. It made me equally nostalgic and fired up for Bex as she stands up for herself and her community. If you remember Ship It (a queer YA released last year that featured fandom community goodness), this is an excellent companion book.

I especially enjoyed the budding friendship (and maybe something more) between Bex and Shrupty Padwal, a fellow lesbian who works on-set. Shrupty is the first queer person that Bex meets in the same industry as her. That can be a powerful thing for young LGBT people to see – that they can be open and proud of who they are and use it as a strength in their careers. If I were to pinpoint an overall theme in Going Off Screen, I think it would be that everyone’s voice is worth hearing without being stifled by those who don’t understand them.

“Sometimes you need to fight to be heard, especially when you’re the only woman in a room full of men.”

Recommended: I enjoyed Going Off Script and feel like it has a lot to offer in discussions about queer characters in the media. If you’re in for geektastic references and queer protagonists who are so easy to cheer for, check this one out!

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

YA Review: The Stone Rainbow by Liane Shaw

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TitleThe Stone Rainbow by Liane Shaw

Rating: 3.5/5

Two-sentence summary: When seventeen-year-old Jack comes out to his mom, she’s supportive but he feels guilty for the grief she feels at losing what she thought she knew about her son. When Jack meets a new student who changes his life, he decides to organize a Pride parade in his small and conservative town.

Portrayal of LGBTQ issues: Jack is a cis gay teenager who’s navigating coming out for the first time in a community where queer issues aren’t openly discussed. Although this isn’t an #OwnVoices YA since the author herself isn’t LGBT, she’s a parent and ally of her LGBT children.

What I liked: Overall, I liked this one. It dealt with some heavy themes (including suicidal ideation and homophobia) but manages to stay hopeful in a way that isn’t easy to do. The love story between Jack and Benjamin is also cute, especially how it helps Jack come into his own with his gay identity. Although it’s more of a side story rather than the main plot, Jack’s friendship with Ryan (another student who has cerebral palsy) also gave the book more meaning and depth than just a simple coming-out story.

The one criticism I have is that Jack seemed like the only fleshed out character. That’s good for a protagonist, but it was hard for me to picture or understand the other people in his life. I would have liked the other characters to have a little more depth to give more meaning to Jack’s story and relationship with them.

“Nothing ever changes unless people are willing to try.”

Recommended: This is a companion to Caterpillars Can’t Swim, but the author has written both as able to stand on their own. I would recommend this one to fans of that book if you want to hear the story told from a different perspective.

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

12 LGBT YA Books with Transgender Protagonists

As an #OwnVoices trans YA writer, I get asked for recommendations of YA books about transgender characters. Over the past few years, I’ve been happy to see a significant increase of transgender characters in YA literature. And not only are these characters often protagonists, but they’re more likely than ever to have been written by trans or non-binary authors.

Read on to discover twelve transgender YA fiction books featuring trans/non-binary main characters. I have highlighted books written by transgender or non-binary authors with an asterisk (*).

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If I Was Your Girl by Meredith Russo * : Amanda Harvey moves in with her father after transitioning to female to start fresh at a new school. But when she meets Grant, all of her plans to lay low and avoid falling in love go out the window.

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Symptoms of Being Human by Jeff Garvin: Riley Cavanaugh is a genderfluid teenager who blogs about their identity to release some of the pressure of having a conservative congressman father. When their blog goes viral, Riley must make a decision to live authentically in a community that doesn’t always understand deviations from the norm.

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When the Moon was Ours by Anna-Marie McLemore: Sam and Miel are inseparable friends–roses grow from Miel’s wrists, and Sam hangs moons that he painted in the forest. But when the Bonner sisters threaten to take Miel’s roses for themselves, Sam must protect her while risking the exposure of his most personal secrets.

This is one of my favorite transgender YA books featuring a FTM character because the portrayal is so unique and well-written (maybe in part because the author’s husband is trans). I have a soft spot for magical realism YA so if you do as well, this is an excellent choice.

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The Prince and the Dressmaker by Jen Wang: Young Prince Sebastian has a secret: at night, he transforms into a Parisian fashion icon named Lady Crystallia. When he hires the seamstress Frances tot help him explore his gender expression and identity, what follows is a sweet and unconventional love story.

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Beautiful Music for Ugly Children by Kristin Cronn-Mills: Not everyone accepts Gabe’s identity as a transgender man, especially not his family. But as a radio DJ for the community radio channel “Beautiful Music for Ugly Children,” he’s able to find a safe outlet for him and others who don’t fit in neat boxes.

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I Wish You All the Best by Mason Deaver * : Ben de Backer’s parents kicked them out after they come out as non-binary, so they move in with their sister Hannah. This LGBT romance book follows Ben as they meet their classmate Nathan and learn what it means to be loved unconditionally.

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The Art of Being Normal by Lisa Williamson: Fourteen-year-old David’s biggest secret? Although she was born male, she wishes she was born a girl like her sister. When her school’s aggressive new student Leo stands up for her in a fight, she’s challenged to determine whether anyone is normal, really, and if that’s even a goal worth pursuing.

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Lily and Dunkin by Donna Gephart: Lily Jo is a thirteen-year-old girl who’s struggling to transition in a home where one parent is accepting and the other refuses to acknowledge his daughter’s identity. But when Lily meets Duncan, a new neighbor who struggles with bipolar disorder, both of their lives change for the better through their unconventional friendship.

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Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out by Susan Kuklin: Discovering that your gender identity doesn’t align with your body can be a journey equally full of beauty and challenges. This non-fiction YA book follows the stories of transgender youth as they come to terms with their identities.

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I am J by Cris Beam: J always felt different from the moment he was born, but he wasn’t able to give it a name until he was a teenager: transgender. This is one of the best-known books about a trans guy, and I think it’s a useful read for both those within and outside of the queer community.

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What We Left Behind by Robin Talley: Toni and Gretchen fell in love the moment that they met in high school and, when they’re accepted to different universities, they thought that their relationship could survive the long distance. But when Toni’s shifting gender identity puts a strain on their relationship, they discover how love can change over time in unexpected ways.

* = written by a transgender or non-binary author

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.

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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: Like a Love Story

TitleLike a Love Story by Abdi Nazemian

Rating: 4/5

Two-sentence summary: In 1989, the AIDS crisis brings three teens together: Reza, Judy, and Art. Between love, loss, and meaningful friendship, they learn how the people we care about can bring out the best in us.

Portrayal of LGBTQ issues: This book follows Iranian-American Reza as he comes to terms with being gay and falls in love for the first time. Set in New York City during the late 80’s, the AIDS crisis is in full-swing. Most of the coverage surrounding gay men during this time were of them dying, which Reza is all too aware of. The only out person he knows is Art, who documents the AIDS crisis through photographs in a way that is tender and compassionate. As Reza starts to fall for Art, he has to confront his gay identity even though he knows it could destroy his relationship with his family, his culture, and his girlfriend Judy.

What I liked: This is going to sound kind of specific and silly, but I really like 80’s queer YA books for some reason. Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, The Music of What Happens… the list goes on. It obviously wasn’t an easy time to be LGBTQ, and I think that this book portrays the painful side of it, but that decade still fascinates me. It seems like those years were a turning point moment for the LGBTQ rights movement, although they were certainly years of sorrow because of the AIDS crisis.

Like a Love Story had so much heart. As a reader, it was so easy to feel for Reza and how hard it was for him to reconcile his conflicting identities. Not only does he have to consider tough questions about his future but also how to tell his girlfriend Judy that he’s fallen in love with a man and cares about her very much, but never in a romantic way. It gave me a lot of compassion and respect for what previous generations of queer teens had to go through. It’s never been easy to be queer but even more so thirty years ago.

Recommended: I would recommend this to anyone who wants to understand more about the AIDS crisis from an intimate and humanizing level. Because we’ve come such a long way in the past few decades, we often forget just how challenging this time was for LGBTQ people. While Reza may be fictional, his story mirrors the reality of those who struggled to understand their gay identity in a time where so many people in their community were dying.

Blog Tour Review: Small Town Hearts by Lillie Vale

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Title: Small Town Hearts by Lillie Vale

Rating: 4/5

Two-sentence summary: Babe Vogel is happy to disappear into her work as a barista after a rough break-up with her ex-girlfriend. But when a cute artist named Levi starts frequenting her coffee shop, she might just have to break her rule to never date the customers.

Portrayal of LGBTQ issues: For those who call bi people who date the opposite sex “faking it” in some way, I’d like to point them to this YA contemporary romance. Babe is an openly bi girl who recently broke up with a girl and falls in love with a boy. Just because she’s interested in a guy, though, doesn’t make this any less of a queer YA novel. If anything, I think it shows just how nuanced the LGBT community is and how important it is for everyone’s voices to be heard–especially when bi erasure is so common no matter who they decide to date.

What I liked: Like most meet cute books, this one was adorable from start to finish. Even though Babe’s going through a rough break-up and trying to keep herself from falling in love, she spends just as much time discovering more about herself and growing as a result. She becomes more comfortable with her sexuality and herself in general, and she finds ways to have confidence whether she’s in a relationship or not. I think it’s important to show that kind of personal growth in YA romance books to show that partners can make our lives happier, but they should never be how you define your self worth.

Levi and Babe also had excellent chemistry. I’ve heard before that the sign of a good love story is that the characters learn from each other and become better people. In this case, it’s true. Babe learns to trust in the people around her again and take risks when it comes to opening up. And Levi starts to discover what his purpose is in the world as an artist and a human being. It’s a healthy and sweet relationship, and the discussions about sexuality and unconditional love make it even more vulnerable.

I think it’s important to mention that while on the whole this is a light read, there are a few difficult subject in this book as well. Alcohol and drugs are mentioned a few times, and it’s implied that Babe’s ex and her old friends were manipulative (if not abusive). If those are triggering topics for you, check out a few more reviews before opening this book up but know that even in the darker scenes, the story does end happily.

Recommended: This was a cute read that felt very much like a romantic comedy. And the best YA romance book to start spring with–it’s unique, sweet, and (most importantly) super duper queer. Plus, who doesn’t love a meet cute that turns into a coffee shop romance?

Note: I’m happy to have participated in the blog tour for Small Town Hearts! To check out more stops on this tour, visit Xpresso Book Tours’ website.