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: I Knew Him by Abigail de Niverville

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Title: I Knew Him by Abigail de Niverville

Rating: 4/5

Two-sentence summary: Julian’s main goals for his senior year are to graduate and avoid being outed for the rest of high school. But when he’s cast as Hamlet in his school play, he never expected to fall in love with his Horatio.

Portrayal of LGBTQ issues: Generations of queer historians and literature fans have speculated that there’s homoerotic tension between Hamlet and Horatio from Shakespeare’s Danish tragedy. While I Knew Him isn’t a retelling per se, it does feature a blossoming romance between the actors who play these two characters in their high school production. Both characters are cisgender men who are just starting to figure out their queer identity. Julian’s storyline in particular grapples with coming out to himself, let alone others, as well as how to deal with biphobia.

What I liked: Ugh, NineStar Press has some of the best queer YA books out there. It’s a small publishing house, but it deserves more recognition than it gets. I think that because they seek out authors who are themselves LGBTQ, the issues explored in their books feel quite nuanced. If you’re looking for some nice #OwnVoices LGBT YA, I’d recommend checking them out for sure.

This is going to sound silly, but I mean it in the best way possible: I Knew Him kind of reminded me of a queer High School Musical but without the singing and even more lovable characters. I feel like if the Bard was still around, he’d be happy to see that a book reimagined his characters into such a wholesome love story. Julian and Sky’s budding relationship doesn’t feel rushed or forced, and for theater students, they have a lot of natural chemistry (insert joke about how art gays don’t understand science here).

What I enjoyed most about this book was its exploration of what it means to come out as bisexual. Coming out as anything on the LGBTQ spectrum takes courage, but bisexual people (and bi men in particular) often face harassment from the straight and queer communities alike. Julian is no stranger to this conflict and experiences biphobia from another gay character who sees anything between gay and straight as invalid. As a bisexual person myself, I appreciated how Julian stood by his identity despite how easy it would have been to internalize the conflict he feels and put himself into either a “gay” or “straight” box.

Recommended: If you’re a Shakespeare nerd like me who’s always looking for a good romance I’d recommend I Knew Him wholeheartedly. Even if you know nothing about Hamlet, though, Julian and Sky’s love story explores a ton of complex issues within the queer community while ultimately still remaining hopeful.

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

YA Review: I Wish You All the Best by Mason Deaver

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Title: I Wish You All the Best by Mason Deaver

Rating: 4.5/5

Two-sentence summary: When Ben de Backer comes out as non-binary, they move in with their sister Hannah to escape their parents’ rejection. This #ownvoices queer romance follows Ben as they begin senior year with a fresh start and fall in love with their charismatic-yet-sweet classmate Nathan.

Portrayal of LGBTQ issues: I Wish You All the Best features a queer romance between a non-binary person and a cisgender man. After Ben is rejected by their parents for coming out, they struggle with anxiety issues as they come to terms with their identity and begin transitioning. As a binary trans person, I thought that this was excellent representation and think that this is thanks to the author themselves being non-binary.

What I liked: Holy cow. I haven’t read a YA book in such a long time that was so sweet, tragic, and beautiful all at once. Ben’s narrative voice is equally sweet and profound in a way that’s a little reminiscent of Perks of Being a Wallflower. Even though they’ve gone through so much because of their gender identity, they’re still able to find beauty in live through the love of those who do accept and understand them. It included both the joys and the challenges of being non-binary–I think a lot of LGBT YA novels just focus on the challenges but the hopeful parts are just as essential for enby teens to read about.

The way I Wish You All The Best handled mental illness was also well-done. A lot of Ben’s mental health issues stem from the way that others treat them because of their identity and, while Nathan helps them in many ways, their relationship doesn’t automatically make these issues go away. They’re going to therapy, they’re seeking treatment for their anxiety disorder, and they’re not 100% reliant on Nathan for emotional stability. I think that’s an important thing for a YA book to express: love can transform us in so many ways but ultimately, it’s still important to find other supports and professional treatment to overcome mental illness.

Also, the cover art is stunning. I saw a fellow Goodreads reviewer say, and I quote, “The Mona Lisa was found trembling in the Louvre Museum because of this cover.” Honestly, it’s so lovely that it’s kind of an understatement. If you’re worried that the book won’t live up to the cover art, don’t be–both are equally wonderful.

Recommended: I can’t recommend a queer YA book published this year harder than I do this one! Not only are you embarking on one of the most well-written LGBT romances out there but, by reading this book, you’re supporting an #OwnVoices non-binary writer. Definitely one of the best trans YA books out there.

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