YA Review: The Meaning of Birds by Jaye Robin Brown

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TitleThe Meaning of Birds by Jaye Robin Brown

Rating: 3.5/5

Two-sentence summary: Vivi was the only person who understood Jess enough to make love blossom out of her anger and loneliness. But when Vivi passes away suddenly during their senior year, Jess must learn how to channel her loss into something beautiful.

Portrayal of LGBTQ issues: This book features a romantic relationship between two cis lesbian women. Because it’s mentioned in the main synopsis and not a spoiler, though, I will say that one of the women dies unexpectedly. It does follow the “bury your gays” narrative but is nuanced and meaningful enough that I don’t think it deserves the negative connotations of that trope.

The Meaning of Birds also mentions trans issues and features an aromatic minor character.

What I loved: First of all, even though this doesn’t have to do with the story itself, the cover illustration is gorgeous. If my rating was based on the cover alone, it would have easily gotten a 5/5. It’s a wholesome, pastel aesthetic that drew me to the book before I even knew what it was about. Based on other comments I’ve seen, other readers found the cover very visually appealing, too.

And the book reflects that beauty as well as the beauty of sorrow and healing from the sudden loss of a partner. When I began reading the book, I worried that this would just be another story where a gay character dies to show how hard being LGBTQ is. But it was more than that. Jess was a living, feeling character and her grief seemed so real. Coming to terms with Vivi’s death and all she left behind is a messy, difficult path, but it’s one that I feel would be cathartic for anyone who’s had to let go of someone they loved.

The main reason that I didn’t give it four or five stars, however, was because it had a few comments that I felt were unintentionally transphobic. Discussing how a trans woman was born male in a less-than-accepting way and talking about “gold star gays” prevented me from giving it a higher rating. Again, I don’t think this was on purpose exactly, but it was still prominent enough that it felt worth mentioning.

Quote: “My grief is part of me.”

Recommended: I’d recommend The Meaning of Birds for anyone who wants to read a raw and healing coming of age. If you’re looking for more of a sweet and uplifting queer love story, you might want to save this one for when you’re ready to read something more tragic (though still ultimately uplifting).

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

Queer YA Review: Quiver by Julia Watts

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TitleQuiver by Julia Watts

Rating: 3.5/5

Two-sentence summary: Libby, a teenager in rural Tennessee, is raised in a conservative Christian sect that views people as quivers in “God’s righteous army” and women as strictly homemakers. When she befriends a genderfluid teen named Zo, she struggles to reconcile her beliefs with her friend’s lifestyle and freedom.

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Portrayal of LGBTQ issues: This story features a genderfluid character named Zo who has two loving, pro-LGBTQ parents in a conservative, rural town. Quiver also discusses their sexual orientation and conflict between belonging in the lesbian community while feeling like something other than a cis woman. One of the secondary characters is also a POC trans girl.

What I loved: Quiver is told with a dual narrative between Libby and Zo, two teenagers who grow up in nearly opposite living environments. In this way, Quiver sends an overall message of compassion and understanding one’s upbringing, even if it’s not the same as your own. At times, I did feel like it leaned a little more sympathetic to Zo’s story than Libby’s and painted Christianity in a somewhat stereotypical light. But it also reflected the mindset of a lot of conservative religious groups and the difficulty groups on polarized social beliefs can have with befriending each other.

It feels like this book could be useful to help teens who grew up in strongly right- or left-leaning households understand people who don’t think in ways they’re used to. By having a narrator they can relate to and another with a possibly unfamiliar voice, it could expose them to other ways of thinking without pushing them far out of their comfort zone. Both Libby and Zo are incredibly sympathetic characters who help bridge anger and misconceptions their families have of each other, and I think that’s a beautiful message to send in such a politically fiery climate.

The only issue I had with this one is that I felt the writing style was a little stilted. Libby and Zo’s voices also weren’t as distinct as they could have been, so sometimes I’d forget that the chapter had changed and gotten confused about the narration. Because of that, I had a hard time really immersing myself in the story like I wanted to. But the concept itself is fascinating enough that becomes a compelling read, regardless.

Quote: “Sometimes I don’t even feel like I have a gender—that the body that contains my personality is no more significant than the jar that holds the peanut butter.”

Recommended: Quiver is one of those LGBTQ YA books that humanizes both left-wing and conservative right viewpoints in the idea that most people are just trying to do the right thing. If you want to cultivate empathy for a perspective different from your own, this could be a powerful read.

Note: I received an ARC copy in exchange for a fair review.

Queer YA Review: Pulp by Robin Talley

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TitlePulp by Robin Talley

Rating: 4/5

Two-sentence summary: Sixty-two years after Janet Jones publishes her first novel, high school student Abby Zimet bases her senior project on lesbian pulp fiction. Told using dual-narratives, this gay coming of age story ties two queer teens across generations.

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Portrayal of LGBTQ issues: Pulp is a one-half contemporary, one-half historical gay YA book that follows two cis lesbian teens in the 1950s and 2010s. It explores sexuality through the lens of pulp lesbian fiction, which was one of the first venues that queer women openly expressed themselves in the United States. As obscenity laws relaxed in the late ’50s, pulp writers were allowed for the first time to write uplifting and hopeful books about queer women. It’s an underground subculture that doesn’t often receive attention in LGBT books for teens but nevertheless foreshadowed the gay rights movement about a decade later. Pulp also features a non-binary character and briefly discusses gender identity and “they/them” pronouns.

What I Loved:  Robin Talley is one of my favorite LGBT YA writers, so I’d had high hopes for this one from the beginning. That being said, Pulp stands on its own even apart from Talley’s other novels. It immerses itself equally in the lesbian community during the 1950s and 2010s through the two vibrant protagonists. The two emotions that define this book are love and hope. Even through heartbreak, discrimination, internalized homophobia, and other challenges, Janet and Abby retain sight in a better, kinder tomorrow. They love fiercely and sometimes desperately while creating work that reflects their experiences, which I think is a meaningful message for queer teens in similarly tough situations.

The narrative switches between Janet and Abby was also really well done, especially as their stories intertwine later in the novel. Their experiences as queer teens are so similar in their hearts and desires, yet the way their generation reacts to who they are is incredibly different. It reminded me how fortunate we in the LGBTQ community to live in a more understanding culture while also feeling gratitude for those first people who openly expressed their sexual orientations. Pulp comments on how far we have come while spreading this message of hope to future strides in the queer acceptance movement.

Quote: “This is still a harsh world we live in, but you’re lucky you’ve found each other.”

Recommended: This is the second good LGBT historical YA novel by Robin Talley that I’ve read, the first being the civil rights-era romance Lies We Tell Ourselves. I’d recommend this one for anyone interested in queer American history as well as those interested in reading how far the gay rights movement has come since the ’50s.

Note: I received an ARC copy of this book in exchange for a fair review.

LGBTQ YA Review: Kissing Kate by Lauren Myracle

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(Note: Hello friends! You may have noticed I’ve been a little MIA here for the past week. It’s a little more than coincidental that this break conceded with finals week, but I also have some news. As of today, I will be exclusively posting LGBTQ YA reviews on this website, along with writing advice and updates on my personal/professional writing adventures! So if you’ve been reading my posts and thinking “hmm, this is pretty gay but I wish it were even gayer,” your lucky day has come.)

Title: Kissing Kate

Author: Lauren Myracle

Rating: 3.5/5

Two sentence summary: After an accidental, drunken kiss, best friends Kate and Lissa refuse to acknowledge each other’s existence. But Kate can’t keep her conflicted feelings bottled up, and she must rely on new friends to retrace what happened at that party and come to terms with her own identity.

Quote: “You can remove a tattoo; it’s just difficult. And supposedly it’s pretty painful. Some things, on the other hand, can’t be undone.”


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 Photos via Unsplash

What I loved: As someone who grew up loving Lauren Myracle’s ttyl series, I was pleasantly surprised to see that she’d written a queer YA novel early in her career. Like ttyl, Kissing Kate explores friendship and how who we connect with shapes who we are. Unlike some novels with a lesbian protagonist, Kate’s story isn’t dependent on a significant other or romantic subplot. Although she mourns what she had with Lissa and can’t quite let go of her unresolved feelings, she is a minor character and exists more in Kate’s conflicted memories. In the wake of her newly-broken relationship with Lissa, she explores who she is and what that means, eventually confronting her sexuality with tentative acceptance.

Acceptance meant very different things in the early 2000s when this book was written. Both Kate and Lissa have a strained relationship with their sexualities, with the latter rejecting it outright and the former still unable to shake the idea that being lesbian is “inferior” to heterosexuality. But I think that just highlights Kate’s bravery as she faces her identity for what it is and admits to herself that what she felt for Kate was more than friendship. Even though we’ve made so much progress in LGBTQ activism in the fifteen years since Kissing Kate was written, I think having stories where the protagonist works to accept their feelings as valid can be healing.

Recommended: This book was published back in 2003 and is one of the earliest healthy portrayals of LGBTQ relationships I’ve found in YA literature. The target demographic of contemporary YA fiction wasn’t likely alive when this book was published, but I think despite its more conservative portrayal of queer identities, Kissing Kate is still relevant. Whether you can relate to Kate’s unrequited, uncertain love or you want to see how much LGBTQ YA has changed in fifteen years, it’s a powerful story.

Next: As the Crow Flies by Melanie Gillman

YA Review: If I Tell You by Alicia Tuckerman

 

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Title: If I Tell You

Author: Alicia Tuckerman

Release Date: March 1, 2018 (Disclaimer: I received an e-ARC of this book in exchange for a fair review)

Rating: 3.5/5

Two-sentence summary: Closeted teenager Alex Summers doesn’t expect to find love in her rural Australian town but can’t help falling for Phoenix. As they navigate their budding romance in their close-minded community, they make choices that will irreversibly change them.

What I loved: As the recent release of Love, Simon suggests, it seems like the trend in LGBTQ YA media is moving from externalized homophobia to internalized conflict the protagonist faces while coming out. But If I Tell You handles homophobia in a way that’s still relevant in 2018. As a young lesbian, Alex fears that her loved ones won’t treat her kindly she comes out. This fear is confirmed when her friends and family treat the more openly queer Phoenix with disgust. Alex debates between coming out and remaining safe, but closeted for much of the novel, knowing that this is something she can’t take back.

Regardless of their family situation, I think a lot of queer readers can relate to the worry that those they care about won’t see them the same way after coming out. Coming out is a serious decision, especially if you’re not sure how your loved ones will react. Most of the time, relationships do change—for better or for worse. Alex’s story is one many LGBTQ teens experience when others reacts not as they hoped but as they expected. If a reader out there lives in a similarly homophobic community, this could help them feel heard and understood.

Quote: “I feel the anger deep inside of me as I begin to understand the notion—the idea of being proud of who you are in a world that tells you to be ashamed; brave enough to be seen when people wish you were invisible.”

Recommended: Yeah, this was a good, heavy novel. I will say that it includes a lot of LGBTQ YA stereotypes, including a specific stereotype I’m not always fond of (spoiler alert: “bury your gays”). It isn’t necessarily groundbreaking but still very heartfelt. If you’re triggered by homophobic slurs or verbal abuse, though, tread carefully with this one.

Next: Release by Patrick Ness

YA Review: Juliet Takes a Breath by Gabby Rivera

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Title: Juliet Takes a Breath

Author: Gabby Rivera

Rating: 3.5/5

Two-sentence summary: After a disastrous coming out experience with her family, Juliet Palante leaves for Portland with only the works of her favorite feminist author for guidance. As she works to make a place where she belongs, she grapples with her identity as a Puerto Rican lesbian.

What I loved: When it comes to the balance between characters and plot in a story, I prefer books that really delve into who a character is and who they become. This book was very character-heavy and I loved it. It’s very much a coming-of-age story that captures how one queer woman of color establishes and grows confident in her identity. It’s so vulnerable and doesn’t give any easy answers to any of the questions Juliet explores about herself. If anything, the more she meets others in the queer community and opens herself to the complexity of the human experience, the more messy and uncertain and beautiful her story becomes.

My only complaint with this book is that it felt a little heavy with LGBTQ jargon sometimes. Which is fine if you’re pretty familiar with the community but can get repetitive, and I feel like it might be information overload for non-queer people. But all in all, solid prose, characters, and story.

Quote: “My love for you is deeper than anything that happened between us. My love for you is the sun, the sky, and the moon. It’s the air I breathe. It lives in everything I do. It’s better than good. It’s everlasting.”

Recommended: As a trans guy, I can’t speak for the experiences of queer women but enjoyed the how much this book grounds you in Juliet’s mind. If you’re looking for a raw, authentic coming-of-age story, you might just love this book.

Next: If I Was Your Girl by Meredith Russo