YA Review: Honestly Ben by Bill Konigsberg

TitleHonestly Ben by Bill Konigsberg

Rating: 4/5

Two-sentence summary: This sequel to Openly Straight follows Ben Carver during what should be the best year of his life: he’s captain of the baseball team, he won a prestegious scholarship, and he cut things off with his maybe-crush Rafe. But when his rekindled feelings for Rafe interfere with his straight identity, he must confront what it means to be authentic.

Portrayal of LGBTQ issues: This book features a protagonist who identifies as straight but falls in love with a gay cis man (Rafe). He feels that he’s physically attracted to women with Rafe being the only exception. It’s unclear whether Rafe really is the only exception or whether he’s in the process of understanding his sexual orientation.

Honestly Ben also has a side character who comes out as genderfluid and another character who’s implied to be asexual.

What I loved: Throughout the book, Ben explores what masculinity is and what it means to be a man. The crux of his internal conflict comes through his attraction to Rafe, but he also feels pressure from his position as the baseball team captain and the son of a conservative farmer. I liked how Ben’s ideology of what a man is shifts in a way that’s gradual but also helps him incorporate masculinity in a healthier way that seems natural for his character. And I thought it was important to note how ben calls out others who express toxic masculinity as Ben’s definition of manhood changes.

Also, the side plot about Ben and Rafe’s friend who comes out as genderfluid was an unexpected but also beautiful development! I almost wished that Bill Konigsberg had written an entire companion novel about them just because they seemed like such an interesting character. In general, it seems like so many more YA books feature genderfluid and non-binary characters and I love seeing greater diversity in queer representation.

Quote: “Anyway, my whole thing is, whatever path I’m on, I’m on. I’m not going to avoid it because it’s harder for the world, or even harder for me. I’m like, I gotta be me, you know?”

Recommended: I thought this was a sweet and wholesome follow-up to Openly Straight. To be honest, I actually enjoyed Honestly Ben a little more. But I would recommend that you read Openly Straight first because understanding the relationship between Ben and Rafe is important context for the sequel.

YA Review: Some Girls Bind by Rory James

TitleSome Girls Bind by Rory James

Rating: 3.5/5

Two-sentence summary: Jamie Henderson has a secret: they feel out-of-place in their body and bind their chest to relieve dysphoria. Told in a free verse style, this book follows Jamie during the year that they come out as genderqueer.

Portrayal of LGBT issues: Some Girls Bind features a protagonist who explores self-acceptance and how to come out as non-binary throughout the course of the novel. While some groups make a distinction, the author doesn’t specifically define non-binary vs genderqueer and uses both terms interchangeably. The book does make a distinction between gender non-conforming vs non-binary identity, which I feel is helpful for both trans and cisgender readers.

Although the book’s synopsis uses “she/her” for Jamie, they also discover gender-neutral pronouns as a way to reduce dysphoria. Beyond non-binary identities, this story features a subplot about a gay student who’s rejected by his community after he comes out.

What I loved: I’m a bit of a sucker for YA books in verse and am always happy to read LGBTQ poetry. The writing style works well and allows Jamie to reveal their thoughts and feelings in an authentic and often beautiful way. Some Girls Bind features a lot of difficult subjects; even beyond queer topics, it also discusses child abuse, alcoholism, and marginalized characters living in a conservative and homogenous community. And it does so in a concise, yet thought-provoking way that keeps the story overall hopeful.

One of my favorite subplots in the book was when Jamie comes out to their brother Steve. As Jamie prepares to come out and live authentically as themself, Steve helps them find the resources and binding materials they need while supporting them all the way. In so many books about transgender characters, they don’t have someone they can lean on in their family. I thought it was both well-written and powerful to give Jamie one person who may not fully understand their gender experience but tries to and loves them unconditionally.

I’m not a big fan of the title, though, since it seems pretty binary for a book about a genderqueer person. But that’s pretty nit-picky and still fits with Jamie’s changing sense of gender identity throughout the book.

While this doesn’t necessarily relate to the queer community, I think it’s important to note that this is a hi-lo novel. Hi-lo refers to books written in a simpler style than most YA but still explores challenging topics. The purpose of hi-lo is to bridge the gap between juvenile fiction and YA fiction written at a high reading level for reluctant readers. If you’re a student who struggles with reading or know someone who is, this could introduce LGBTQ themes in an accessible writing style.

Quote: “When I look in the mirror, / I don’t see a girl and / I don’t see a boy. I just see / my goofy glasses and Beatles-like hair.”

Recommended: This book’s style reminded me a lot of Ellen Hopkins, another YA writer who explores challenging topics in free verse books. If you’re a fan of her books or hi-lo LGBTQ YA, Some Girls Bind could be a good book recommendation.

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

YA Review: Love & Other Curses

TitleLove and Other Curses by Michael Thomas Ford

Rating: 3.5/5

Two-sentence summary: Sam Weyward has purposefully never fallen in love due to a family curse that proclaims anyone he loves before his seventeenth birthday will die. But with only a few weeks left, will he make it through one last summer crush without falling dangerously head-over-heels?

Portrayal of LGBTQ issues: This book! Features an unrequited crush! Between a gay cis man and a straight trans man! Can you tell how excited I am for this?? Even though it’s not quite romance, it’s still important representation. I’m still waiting for the day the YA romance between a cis and trans guy will come out like my teenage self always wanted but baby steps. Love & Other Curses also discusses drag culture and the difference between gender identity and sexual orientation (i.e. being transgender vs gay).

What I loved: This is something I mentioned earlier, but I appreciated the trans representation in this book! AFAB guys especially don’t get much attention in gay romance books. I can think of a lot of YA fiction I’ve read where the trans guy expresses unrequited love but never one where he (or any other trans character, for that matter) is on the receiving end of it. It might not seem like much and maybe I’m just over-analyzing things, but this felt like a big step towards normalizing attraction between cis and trans characters.

And while Sam experiments with crossdressing and dives deep into the drag scene, he does so while remaining respectful of trans characters and noting a difference between the two– all simple but important things that really drive the novel’s nuance in portraying queer culture.

The writing style of Love & Other Curses also felt natural and conversational, like reading someone’s journal entry recollecting a summer crush that they’re still reeling from. Plus, the heavy musical themes almost give this book a built-in soundtrack, which was both fun and gave it a strong sense of presence.

Quote: “I’m pretty sure I’m the only guy in my school who can replace a faulty kick-down switch and also create the perfect smoky eye.”

Recommended: Out of all the new YA books releasing next year, should you read Love & Other Curses? Well, let me ask you the following questions:

  • Do you like your queer romance novels with unexpected twists and unrequited love and/or sudden death?
  • Are you excited about the aesthetic of family curses, drag nights at local LGBTQ bars, and mischievous magic?
  • Do you regularly say the phrase, “I wish YA authors were writing trans characters with more complexity”?

If the answer to any or all of the above is a resounding “yes,” this might just be one of your most anticipated YA books for 2019!

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

Queer YA Review: Quiver by Julia Watts

Image result for quiver julia watts

 

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.

LGBTQ YA Review: The Art of Being Normal by Lisa Williamson

Image result for art of being normal

Title: The Art of Being Normal

Author: Lisa Williamson

Rating: 4/5

Two sentence summary: Fourteen-year-old David Piper is hiding a secret: even though she was born male, she would give anything to be a normal girl like her sister. When her school’s new student Leo Denton stands up for her in a fight, she finds that “normal” is much more messy and complicated than she thought.


art
 Photos via Unsplash

What I loved: I thought that this novel did a great job handling heavy themes with grace and respect. Often, trans YA books deal only with gender identity and the consequences of coming out. That is a strong element of The Art of Being Normal, but Leo and David’s stories also deal with poverty, childhood neglect, absent parents, and bullying. I liked how the novel didn’t gravitate around gender because it made David’s trans identity seem less isolated. She’s not just this stock character who has nothing going for her besides her gender identity. She’s connected to Leo, her friends and family, and others in her life in a way that adds dimension to her personality. Her gender identity is important, but it’s not her defining feature. I think it’s important to broaden trans YA from “trans coming out stories” to “trans characters having rich, complex experiences” and this book does so very well.

The Art of Being Normal is written in a dual POV, with chapters switching off between David and Leo. I’m not always in love with this format because it can be difficult to make the two voices separate. In this book, though, it’s effective. Both Leo and David have distinct, well-developed voices and their POVs add important elements to the novel. If the story were told from just one POV, it wouldn’t feel as compelling.

Quote: “Besides, who wants to be normal anyway? Fancy that on your gravestone. ‘Here lies so-and-so. They were entirely normal.’”

Recommended: This is a book I’d recommend for people who want more insight into the trans experience if they’re not as familiar with the LGBTQ community. It’s a great “beginner” book for delving into trans YA. It’s insightful and offers a strong window into David’s story without bogging the text down with too many definitions. I love that it normalizes the trans experience while still voicing unique experiences that teens may face while coming out. Balanced, a little bittersweet, but ultimately a beautiful read.

Next: The Weekend Bucket List by Mia Kerick

YA Review: If I Was Your Girl by Meredith Russo

Image result for if i was your girl meredith russo

Title: If I Was Your Girl

Author: Meredith Russo

Rating: 5/5

Two-sentence summary: When Amanda Hardy moves to live with her father after transitioning to female, she just wants a peaceful and low-profile high school experience. But when she falls in love with her kind, complicated classmate Grant, she wonders how deeply you can love someone while hiding so much of yourself.

What I loved: For a novel that deals with some heavy topics (including suicide, sexual assault, and drug abuse), this is a wholesome story. I enjoyed how the chapters alternated between Amanda’s senior year and her memories realizing, coming to terms with, and finding confidence in her trans identity. It felt like If I Was Your Girl explored the complexities that come with transitioning well… which makes sense, since the author is a trans woman herself and has lived it.

At the beginning of the novel, Amanda considers herself “fully transitioned”—she socially transitioned, takes hormone therapy, and received gender confirmation surgery. Unless she wants to tell others, nobody would ever have to know that she’s trans. Yet she questions to what extent her trans identity is part of her story and, if it is, whether telling others is worth her safety. None of the questions have easy answers, but Amanda works through them in a way that gives her comfort.

Also, side note that has nothing to do with the story, but not only is this written by a trans woman (the first trans YA book I’ve read by a transgender author, by the way), but the model on the cover is also a trans woman. Not to speak for trans women but as a trans guy, that feels like positive and much-needed progress in YA publishing.

Quote: “Either way, I realized, I wasn’t sorry I existed anymore. I deserved to live. I deserved to find love. I knew now—I believed now—that I deserved to be loved.”

Recommended: One hundred times yes! I almost hesitate to say this just because there are so many good queer books but, if you choose to only read one transgender YA novel, I think it should be this one. We need more books about trans/non-binary people written by trans/non-binary authors. You can feel the authenticity of this experience in a way that I haven’t felt in other trans YA books before. The author doesn’t just feel sympathy for trans people but genuine empathy, and I think you can pick up on that.

That being said, I would love to read more books by trans and non-binary authors. If anyone has recommendations, be sure to leave a comment!

Next: If I Tell You by Alicia Tuckerman

YA Review: Tomboy by Liz Prince

Title: Tomboy: A Graphic Memoir 

Author: Liz Prince

Rating: 4.5/5

Two-sentence summary: Adventure Time artist and webcomic writer Liz Prince explores what being a girl meant for her growing up as a staunch tomboy, which she saw as someplace in between masculine and feminine. As Prince navigates her adolescence as a middle and high schooler, she pushes gender expectations aside and finds meaning in her tomboy identity.

What I loved: As a trans guy, this novel was fascinating for me to read. So many of Prince’s growing up experiences matched my own—like me, she also would consider it a compliment when strangers saw her as male, she felt most comfortable while wearing men’s clothes, and as a child, she hoped that she would eventually become a man. Yet she does not seem to identify as transgender but instead as a woman who defies gender expectations. I thought about this, wondering if I could have found solace as a “tomboy” in the same way, but I don’t think I could have.

But you know, that’s okay. I think both of our perspectives are valid. It goes to show how diverse and personal gender identity can be and how important it is to define that for yourself. Gender can be as complex or as simple as you make it to be, and there’s enough room in this world for cis men and women, tomboys, trans folk, and everyone else on that spectrum to find self-actualization. If you want to think a little more about your own relationship with gender, you might find this book a good starting point.

I’ll have to keep an eye out for more of Liz Prince’s books. She’s got a perspective that I can relate to but how she processes it is different enough that I’m able to learn from her. Her take on gender goes beyond both traditionalist and more liberal perspectives, and she defines her gender identity in an individualistic way that everyone could learn from.

Quote: In lieu of a quote, I thought a little snippet from the graphic novel would be more appropriate:

Image result for tomboy liz prince

Recommended: If you like graphic memoirs, which I am personally a big fan of, you might find this one both humorous and heartfelt. I haven’t read Prince’s book on her long-term relationship, Will You Still Love Me if I Wet the Bed?, but sure want to now. And, y’know, if you were a tomboy growing up (or still are) … this one might be a little cathartic for ya. All in all, highly recommended!

Next: They Both Die at the End by Adam Silvera