YA Review: We Are Okay by Nina LaCour

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Title: We Are Okay

Author: Nina LaCour

Rating: 3.5/5

Two-sentence summary: Grief-stricken and alone, Marin plans to spend her winter break at her college in New York instead of her hometown in California. But when loved ones from her past come to visit, she is forced to face what happened between her and her best friend Mabel last summer.

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What I loved: There are so many unhappy LGBTQ YA books out there that you’d think there’d be nothing special about another sad, queer story. We Are Okay, however, manages to paint a fresh and distinct portrait of discovering yourself in the wake of grief. I especially loved how normalized the queer subplot was in this book. Although it was a key part of Marin’s identity and her past, she wasn’t reduced to her queerness nor was it portrayed as a “shock value” reveal. It’s much more about Marin confronting the loss of someone important in her life than it is coping with her sexuality. And I think that’s really beautiful that we’re getting to a point where a character can be queer without the story revolving around that.

Quote: “It’s a dark place, not knowing. It’s difficult to surrender to.  But I guess it’s where we live most of the time. I guess it’s where we all live, so maybe it doesn’t have to be so lonely. Maybe I can settle into it, make a home inside uncertainty.”

Recommended: This is a quick read so I’d recommend it for a weekend where you want to just spend a few hours in Marin’s head as she makes peace with her past. I like how this book features LGBTQ characters without making the plot revolve around their identities, so if you want a book with characters, We Are Okay is a good choice.

Next: The Inexplicable Logic of My Life by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

Over Raging Tides Review and Q&A with Jennifer Ellision

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Title: Over Raging Tides

Author: Jennifer Ellision

Release date: March 20, 2018 (Disclaimer: I received an e-ARC of this book in exchange for a fair review)

Rating: 4/5

Two sentence summary: Grace Porter, quartermaster to the all-female pirate crew aboard the Lady Luck, enlists the help of a young nobleman named Leo to destroy the Mogdris, malicious sea monsters who stole her mother. As Grace and Leo use the omniscient Map of Omna to find and kill the Mogdris, she must choose where her loyalty lies—with her kin or her crew.


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What I loved: As soon as I saw the description for Over Raging Tides, I was pumped to read it. An all-female crew of pirates? Is there anything more deserving of the word “BAMF” than that? There absolutely is not. It’s one of those things that you didn’t know that you needed in your life but you absolutely do. Grace Porter and the crew of the Lady Luck feel as though they stepped out of a sea shanty. They’re dynamic and larger-than-life in a way that every good pirate character is. Yet they also feel believable enough to empathize with, particularly the conflicted Grace as she struggles to resolve her tragic past at the potential cost of betrayal.

I also enjoyed the dialogue in this book. Good dialogue is pretty tough to pull off, especially for pirates, without sounding gimmicky. With pirates, you’ve got to balance the sharp wit and colorful slang with authentic-sounding phrasing. Over Raging Tides has got wit in droves. Sometimes the wit is humorous and sometimes it’s biting, but it’s always well-crafted. The dialogue drives the plot swiftly and feels as though it was pulled from an eighteenth-century ship log. It helps ground the reader in Grace and the Lady Luck‘s world without feeling too forced.

Without giving anything away, I will say that I appreciated the ending. It stops at a satisfying point while setting up a compelling story for when the series picks up again. As with many firsts in a series, it was a tad abrupt but I have faith that any unanswered questions will be pursued in the next book, Through Fathoms Dark and Deep.

Quote: “From the ship’s articles of the Lady Luckshe who attempts a mutiny will have her throat slit and be tossed overboard for the sea to feed upon. Unless, of course, she succeeds.”

Recommended: Oh, boy. This book is packed with so many good things—pirates, magic, sea monsters, sharp wit, and maybe even a little romance. If you, too, grew up in love with the Pirates of the Caribbean series but wished its female characters were more complex, you’ll love Over Raging Tides!

Next week: The Art of Being Normal by Lisa Williamson


Q&A with the Author, Jennifer Ellision


Jennifer Ellision is the author of the YA fantasy series Threats of Sea and Sky and the New Adult contemporary novel Now and Again. Over Raging Tides is the first book in her YA fantasy series, Lady Pirates. Check out her website to read her blog, discover upcoming release dates, and sign up for her newsletter!

1) Over Raging Tides is the story of an all-female pirate crew who sail the Lady Luck. How did you get interested in pirate history, and what inspired you to write about an all-female ship?

I confess, a large part of my interest in pirate history came about because I was inspired to write this book. While I’d already had a scene jump into my head that sparked the idea for the book, the idea didn’t come to create an all-female crew until I was rewatching Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl one day. It struck me that Keira Knightley was the only central female character in that movie. I resolved to make a pirate story where there were plenty of women around.

2) Were you inspired by any (in)famous female pirates in history while writing Over Raging Tides? If so, which ones?

I was! In fact, my main character, Grace, is named after Grace O’Malley, the Irish “Pirate Queen.” If you keep an eye out in the novel, you may notice some minor characters named for a couple of other well-known lady pirates.

In my research, I also came across other, less well-known pirate women, some of whom have got me toying with the idea of extending the series past Grace’s duology… but that’s a story for another time.

3) What was the researching process like for this book? How did you include historical accuracy and the logistics of seafaring while retaining the novel’s adventitious, action-packed style?

The beauty of writing fantasy is that I had a little bit of flexibility because Over Raging Tides is set in a fictional world. However, I knew that I wanted it to feel like it could be real.

I spent a lot of time examining the layouts of different types of sailing vessels and familiarizing myself with different deck and mast names. I also read up a lot on the different roles of sailors and pirates on board ships during the “Golden Age of Piracy.” Likewise, I read about the democratic systems of pirate ships. (Did you know they functioned as early democracies? Because I didn’t.)

Research I did that didn’t wind up panning out (in this book at least) was making a point during my trip to London to visit The Royal Observatory; better known as the location of the Prime Meridian, where there is a museum documenting the history of maritime navigation (early drafts of Over Raging Tides included this element, but it didn’t ultimately make sense for the story). I also read a book documenting real pirate trials.

For lady pirates, in particular, I have a nice little stack of books devoted to the non-fiction subject of female pirates.

As for keeping the novel moving while including these elements, I think of much of the logistics as a backdrop. It’s important that they’re there to lend atmosphere to the story and make it engrossing, but I prefer to keep the story pace tight with setting details woven in.

4) This book is full of strong, powerful female characters. Who were your favorite fictional heroines growing up?

Oh, I love this question! So, first of all, I have to say Sailor Moon. I cut my writing teeth on Sailor Moon fanfiction. I’m a huge Sailor Moon fangirl to this day and think that a big reason incorporating female friendships into all of my novels comes from growing up with the Sailor Senshi as an example. Secondly, Tamora Pierce’s Alanna and Daine were heroines whose stories I reread again and again. I loved the fantasy world she created, with girls who got to save the day.

Thank you for having me!

Thanks so much, Jennifer Ellision, for your time and your thoughtful answers—it was a pleasure and an honor! Over Raging Tides made my heart happy from start to finish. If you want a story that speaks to your adventurous side, you can order it online or read it for free through Kindle Unlimited!

YA Review: A Study in Charlotte by Brittany Cavallaro

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Title: A Study in Charlotte

Author:  Brittany Cavallaro

Rating: 4/5

Two-sentence summary: When Jamie Watson and Charlotte Holmes, descendants of the legendary Holmes and Watson, are framed for a murder of their fellow classmate, they must rely on each other’s wit and intuition to solve this case. But as their time runs out, they find that their ancestors’ footsteps are hard shoes to fill.

What I loved: Although there are tons of modern-day Sherlock Holmes novels out there, it’s hard to find a really compelling one. I think that’s not necessarily because the authors behind them don’t write good stories but because they’re taking on quite the mantle. A Study in Charlotte is one of the good ones, though. What I think the book does right is not making itself a retelling of the Holmes and Watson stories so much as a continuation. Charotte Holmes is not Sherlock, nor is Jamie Dr. Watson, but they have a similar heart and mind dynamic going on as they work to clear their names. This helped them develop into their own personalities and throw a strong nod to the original characters without constantly living in their shadows.

This book’s a quick read in a really good way. It’s got its gritty moments, sure, but A Study in Charlotte doesn’t take itself or its source material too seriously and has just as much humor as it does intensity. It’s just… fun. A little dark but overall, plenty of fun to read.

Quote: “I wanted the two of us to be complicated together, to be difficult and engrossing and blindingly brilliant.”

Recommended: I started my freshman year of high school right when the second season of BBC Sherlock came out and have been enamored with it ever since. If you love that series, this book will absolutely delight you. It has a similar feel but with just enough difference in their interpretations of Arthur Conan Doyle’s characters to make A Study in Charlotte stand out. And, considering that this is the first book in a series, you’ll probably get to read plenty more books in the Jamie and Charlotte universe before BBC Sherlock season five comes out! Which is one of those things that you’re not sure whether to laugh or cry about but, point being, this is a great read.

Next: Written in the Stars by Aisha Saeed

YA Review: Love Letters to the Dead

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Title: Love Letters to the Dead

Author: Ava Dellaira

Rating: 4/5

Two-sentence summary: When Laurel’s English teacher assigns her to write a letter to a dead person, Laurel chooses Kurt Cobain because her recently-deceased sister, Mary, loved him. As Laurel writes letters to famous people who died young (like Amelia Earhart, Heath Ledger, and Janis Joplin), she navigates love and friendships over her freshman year, mourns and comes to terms with Mary’s untimely death, and faces the trauma that Mary didn’t protect her from when she was still around.

What I loved: This book is so moving and a beautiful meditation on grief. Laurel’s character is open, and the emotions she experiences are real. She feels pain deeply, both in her life and in the lives of her loved ones, but she also sees beauty. It’s easy to relate to her as a protagonist because of her vulnerability. Those who love to immerse themselves in the protagonist’s emotions will find it easy to do in this novel. It’s steeped in both joy and sadness without being overdone or gimmicky.

I also loved the book’s format, which is told primarily in the form of letters. Most of the letters Laurel writes are to her sister, whose recent death is a heavy burden for her family to bear. Why Laurel writes to each historical figure when reveals a lot about both her and her relationship with her sister. As the novel progresses and the letters reveal just how complicated Laurel’s relationship with May was, you can’t help but hurt with her. I think that’s the sign of a good book: when you don’t just feel bad for the character but you feel with her. That’s exactly the kind of book Love Letters to the Dead is.

Quote: “I wish you could tell me where you are now. I mean, I know you’re dead, but I think there must be something in a human being that can’t just disappear. It’s dark out. You’re out there. Somewhere, somewhere. I’d like to let you in.”

Recommended: Recommended for anyone who enjoyed The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Stephen Chbosky mentored Dellaira as a budding writer and helped workshop Love Letters to the Dead. While the book stands well on its own, the influence is there. Perks and Love Letters to the Dead have a similarly honest, emotional feel.

Next: Rules for 50/50 Chances by Kate McGovern

YA Review: Highly Illogical Behavior by John Corey Whaley

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Title: Highly Illogical Behavior

Author: John Corey Whaley

Rating: 4/5

Two-sentence summary: Sixteen-year old Solomon developed agoraphobia after experiencing panic attacks every time he left the house, so eventually he just stopped leaving. His former high school peer Lisa befriends him to cure his anxiety and slowly learns that relationships involve more than just “fixing” people.

What I loved: Most of all, I loved the characters. The more you get into this book, the more these characters’ depths unfold. They’re more than just stock-character high school students, and they can’t really be pinned down to any of their labels. This is especially important in that (without spoiling anything), one of the characters identifies as gay. While their coming out is a strong focus of the story, Whaley doesn’t give the character any of the internalized guilt or non-accepting peers often found in YA novels.

Those stories are important to be told, too, but they are told often. This character’s journey was a lot more nuanced. They feared coming out because they feared changing family dynamics and also hesitated because they never thought their sexual orientation was important to share. But they learn that their identity does matter. Their sexual orientation matters. Their relationships matter. They inherently matter and, though they don’t often believe it, they belong.

There are some dark and painful-to-read parts in this book, I’m not gonna sugar coat it, but the author balances those moments well with plenty of humor and truly happy moments. Overall, a quirky, heartwarming book on how a friendship can change both people for the better.

Quote: “We’re just floating in space trying to figure out what it means to be human.”

Recommended: Especially for Trekkies or sci-fi fans in general. They’ll especially enjoy the references in this one (and there are tons, my friends… it’s glorious). But this is also an honest and beautiful look at anxiety recovery.

Plenty of mental health YA books I’ve read don’t have happy moments. This one really pulls on all emotions: happiness, sorrow, panic, hope, love. The works. Whether you yourself struggle with anxiety or you want to understand what it’s like for those who do, this is a great and lighthearted book with surprising depth.

Next: Love Letters to the Dead by Ava Dellaira

YA Review: One Half from the East by Nadia Hashimi

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Title: One Half from the East

Author: Nadia Hashimi

Rating: 3.5/5

Two-sentence summary: After Obayda’s father is injured in a car explosion, her mother decides to have Obayda participate in the Afghan bacha posh tradition: she, the youngest of three girls, is dressed as a boy to bring her family luck. This brings Obayda (now Obayd) newfound freedom, but as she befriends an older bacha posh, she slowly realizes this transformation won’t last.

What I loved: Before reading this book, I’d heard about the bacha posh tradition before but knew very little about it. Hashimi’s novel does an excellent job at immersing the reader in the emotional elements of Obayd’s transformation. It became very clear to me while reading that being a bacha posh is not a variation being transgender, which is what I assumed from the description. It is a much more complex view of gender identity, one specific to Afghan and Pakistani culture.

The friendship between Obayd and Rahim (an older bacha posh) is both beautiful and heartbreaking. Rahim is more comfortable being seen as male than they ever were female and fights desperately to remain in this way of life. But this tradition usually only lasts until adolescence, and both know that their time is running out. One Half from the East meditates on courage and identity in an intimate way as it questions why certain gender identities can either limit or set someone free.

Quote: “‘Do you know what’s so special about you two?’ my mother asked softly. ‘You are the best of two worlds: one half from the east and one half from the west.'”

Recommended: Oh, for sure. Generally, I review young adult books but this one could be suited for a younger audience (perhaps even middle grade). The writing is beautiful and emotionally charged, which makes the humorous and emotionally painful moments all the more poignant.

Next: Highly Illogical Behavior by John Corey Whaley

YA Review: My Heart and Other Black Holes by Jasmine Warga

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Title: My Heart and Other Black Holes

Author: Jasmine Warga

Rating: 3.5/5

Two-sentence summary: High school students Aysel and Roman lose hope in life following separate family tragedies and plan to end their lives together on April 7th. But as their friendship begins to heal Aysel’s broken heart, she must find a way to convince Roman that life is still worth living.

What I loved: This book deals with loss and guilt that, though often painful to read, really delves into how isolating grief can feel. Aysel hates her father for committing horrible crimes, but she also still cares about and misses him. And she fears herself for missing him because she worries she’ll become like him. Roman blames himself for an accident that ultimately wasn’t his fault, but he can’t bear to live with himself without all his family lost.

Yet, even though these emotions are almost too much to bear, Warga also shows that through opening yourself to another person (along with seeking help), it’s possible to heal. Life doesn’t automatically become bright again once the Roman and Aysel have each other, but the love they receive from each other gives them hope that maybe they’re not the monsters their inner demons say they are. They also start to believe that, even though life hurts so much, they can still find happiness.

Quote: “But maybe meeting Roman has helped me to understand myself better. Yes, I’m broken. And yes, he’s broken. But the more we talk about it, the more we share our sadness, the more I start to believe that there could be a chance to fix us, a chance that we could save each other.

“Everything used to seem so final, inevitable, predestined. But now I’m starting to believe that life may have more surprises in store than I ever realized. Maybe it’s all relative, not just light and time like Einstein theorized, but everything. Like life can seem awful and unfixable until the universe shifts a little and the observation point is altered, and then suddenly, everything seems more bearable.”

Recommended: Yes! In my opinion, this was an honest portrayal of depression but also a hopeful one. Aysel and Roman’s path to overcoming depression has ups and downs, but their friendship gives them strength in dark times. I think, though, that it could be triggering for people who currently struggle with suicidal thoughts. It can get pretty vivid.

Next: One Half from the East by Nadia Hashimi

YA Review: Almost Perfect by Brian Katcher

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Title: Almost Perfect

Author: Brian Katcher

Rating: 3/5

One sentence summary: Logan Witherspoon grapples with transphobia, internally and externally, when his high school crush Sage Hendricks reveals a secret: she is a transgender woman.

What I loved: This book presents a real depiction of trans students in unaccepting areas. Logan and Sage begin a relationship in a small and very LGBTQ-phobic town, and their relationship comes with serious pressures. Sage, who was homeschooled until her senior year, fights to hide her gender identity to avoid verbal and physical aggression. Logan, (who is until this point ignorant of queer issues) experiences anxiety over whether others would consider him gay for dating a trans woman, as he himself tries to define what his sexual orientation is.

Their relationship is complicated and not without flaws, but what relationship is? And watching Logan’s progression from confused and a little homophobic to someone who sees Sage as who she really is feels very authentic. In addition, Almost Perfect explores the conflict between a trans person comfortable with their gender identity in a world that isn’t quite ready. Sage’s parents love her a lot but very much mourn for a son they feel they’ve lost. The grey area between hostility and unwavering acceptance is an uncomfortable-but-necessary relationship to portray, as many trans people can relate.

What I didn’t love: Although a voice worth hearing, this book doesn’t go beyond the general “coming out” trope seen in many LGBTQ stories. A positive relationship between a cis man and a trans woman is important to see in fiction, but the characters do not progress beyond this initial concern to make their story unique.

In addition, our protagonist Logan is narrow minded when it comes to transgender issues. Even when dating Sage, he still refers to her for much of the novel as “a girl, but not a girl.” She is distinct from other women in that she is trans and, in Logan’s eyes, not quite female or male. Near the end of the novel, he finally begins to see and respect Sage as a woman, but it takes him a long time to get there. While this is likely accurate for his age and life experience, he does not treat Sage with the respect she deserves. I understand what the author was going for but feel that having a narrator like Logan could spread more misunderstanding than help for trans women.

Quote: “Sage would survive. I’d survive. We were better off apart. Painful and quick, just like ripping off a Band-Aid. Well, more like gouging a piece of shrapnel out of my stomach, pouring a bottle of gin into the wound, lighting it on fire, and sewing my guts up with a dirty bootlace. But the concept was the same.”

Recommended? Yes. This book is especially useful for teens unfamiliar with trans people and want to know more. It should be taken with a grain of salt, though, because Logan and his peers live in a very transphobic town. Some of the ways he refers to trans people earlier in the novel (as “a boy who wants to be a girl”) are not accurate nor okay to use.

Next up:  Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan

YA Review: Openly Straight by Bill Konigsberg

Note: From here until the end of finals week (April 29th), I will only be posting on Tuesdays.

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Title: Openly Straight

Author: Bill Konigsberg

Rating: 3.5/5

One sentence summary: When sixteen year old Rafe transfers to a new boarding school, he decides to hide his sexuality to avoid becoming “the gay kid” like at his old school.

What I loved: Coming out stories are a dime a dozen in YA fiction, but rarely do you see “coming out again” stories. Konigsberg explores an interesting angle here because Rafe’s reasons for hiding his sexual orientation are unique and, for some LGBTQ people, even relatable. Nobody bullied him at school. He had friends who accepted him for him. His parents supported him so much that his mother ran the local PFLAG branch.

But he was tired of people taking his sexuality and making it his whole story. Ever since he came out, he’d given interviews and spoken at local high schools about LGBTQ acceptance. Everyone at his school knew his sexual orientation, and even though nobody discriminated against him, he felt uncomfortable. Because so many people reduced him to his sexuality, he no longer felt normal.

This feeling is understandable, and it likely is for others who come from accepting backgrounds. Konigsberg, however, doesn’t encourage teens in Rafe’s situation to follow his lead. Hiding who you are, if you replace yourself with a lie, can come with unforeseen consequences.

Rafe struggles to suppress his feelings while weaving stories of nonexistent girlfriends, writes to express emotions he doesn’t fully understand, and gets to know another student, Ben, who also represses his sexuality for harder reasons. Unlike Rafe, he hates his sexual orientation so much more deeply. Rafe wants to tell Ben he doesn’t have to be ashamed, but how can he say that when Rafe himself has gone back into the closet?

What Rafe ultimately comes to terms with is labeling: he eventually understands that he doesn’t have to be the gay kid just because he’s out. What other people see doesn’t matter as much as what he does to help them. Throughout the novel, Rafe struggles to help others in ways only he can without revealing his sexuality, a balance that wobbles so much he can’t help but crash. But when he does, he gets back up and achieves a new balance between an open sexual orientation and a multi-dimensional personality.

Quote: “You can be anything you want, but when you go against who you are inside, it doesn’t feel good.”

Recommended? Yes! This was a lot more lighthearted than some of the LGBTQ YA books I’ve read so far, and for that reason, I’d recommend it to younger teens and up.

Next up:  Almost Perfect by Brian Katcher

LGBTQ YA: The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily M. Danforth

Note: When I initially started reviewing books, I had assumed that I would never read a perfect 5/5 book. The Miseducation of Cameron Post proved me wrong.

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Title: The Miseducation of Cameron Post

Author: Emily M. Danforth

Rating: 5/5

One sentence summary: After coming to terms with her sexual orientation while living with her conservative relatives, Cameron Post is sent to a gay conversion therapy center in rural Montana.

What I loved: This book centers around two major milestones in Cameron’s life: first, her realization and path to self-acceptance of her sexual orientation, and then her time coping at a gay conversion therapy center for about a year. Both are important stories to here and, from what I can tell, both relatable and real.

Cameron discovers she is lesbian when she’s twelve years old, as she and her friend Irene kiss in a barn. Soon after, her parents die in a car crash. Because Cameron was raised in a heavily religious environment, she believes that her sexuality caused the car crash as a punishment from God. Queer teens who have been raised in a religious environment might relate to this misplaced guilt, though perhaps not in an overwhelming loss like Cameron. The first quarter of the novel is about her guilt process as she explores her faith and eventually finds peace with her sexual orientation.

But even though Cameron herself no longer feels like her sexuality is wrong, she still lives in a repressive place. Her issues are not over just because she feels no more internal pain, and once her conservative Aunt Ruth learns Cameron’s openly gay, she sends her to a gay conversion private school.

Having to deal with these two pains (first coming to terms with yourself, and then living in a hostile environment) is a feeling many queer teenagers can relate to, and I think the way Danforth handles it is important for teens in this situation to read. Personally, I’ve never been to a gay conversion therapy center, nor do I know anyone who has, so I can’t attest to the accuracy. Danforth herself grew up in Miles City, Montana (the setting of this book) and used some of her experiences to create this book’s environment, which creates a very realistic and fair depiction.

Nobody in this book is a “bad guy,” not Aunt Ruth, not the people at the conversion therapy center, not Cameron. That is the best part of this novel. Cameron, while our protagonist, doesn’t always make morally positive decisions. Aunt Ruth shows genuine concern for Cameron, even if a bit misguided. Even those who run the gay conversion center believe they’re doing the right thing, regardless of whether we as readers agree with them.

Sometimes in LGBTQ YA, it’s easy for authors to paint an “us vs. them” mentality with those who do or don’t support LGBTQ rights, but life isn’t that simple. Generally people aren’t trying to hurt others. We’re all going through life with unique perspectives, trying to understand others as well as ourselves. This book is wonderful because even though it could easily have made Cameron innocent and flawless, and it could have made those who don’t understand her cruel beyond understanding, it doesn’t. It makes them human. I feel like that is important for anyone to read and understand.

Quote: “Maybe I still haven’t become me. I don’t know how you tell for sure when you finally have.”

Recommended? Yes! Very much so. Everything about this book is well-done: the writing, the characters, the story itself. Like other recommends, I might advise this more for older teens (15-up) because this book does contain some mature themes (sex, self-harm, conversion therapy).

Next up:  Openly Straight by Bill Konigsberg