When I brought home Sara Farizan’s debut teen novel If You Could Be Mine, I peeked at the first sentence and got sucked in to the end. An hour after that first sentence, I lay on my belly in bed like a tween, my heart racing for the fate of my new best friend Sahar. An hour after that, I’d finished the book and fallen into a book hangover that lasted over two weeks. Other books seemed dull by comparison. My reading was suddenly limited to Sara Farizan’s Algonquin Young Adult Authors page. Life after If You Could Be Mine was as gut-wrenching as learning my new crush had switched schools. (more…)
Mary McKinley’s debut novel offers a unique point of view that most young adult authors shy away from, while at the same time employing a lot of comfortable clichés. Beau, Lee, The Bomb, and Me follows Rusty Winters, an obese teenager who is not only sorely unpopular but a self-proclaimed smart girl who spends much of the novel in her head. Rusty is incredibly sarcastic and clever for her age, but all of that goes ignored by the oh-so ethical-laws of a high school popularity system. Because of the general heckling she receives and lack of social settings Rusty finds herself in, large portions of the book are glued together with a constant internal brooding that sometimes reaches valuable points and other times becomes repetitive. The second page of the book sets the narrator’s tone as clear as a bell: “I’m sixteen years old and I reflect on death nearly every day. And the death that I reflect on is mine. Because I hate my life. Sometimes I actually daydream, for hours here in my room, about just what I’d do…about the stress and the mess and how to deal.”
Enter Leonie (or “Lee”), her inexplicably beautiful yet largely underdeveloped best friend who becomes an outcast for sleeping with a teacher and whose attitude offers a point of contention throughout the story.
Enter Beau, the new kid in school who is openly gay, and therefore, someone Rusty immediately sees as a new whipping boy for her bullies. Relieved to have someone who is lower on the caste system than her, she is, at first, quick to shirk him off.
Enter Bullies, who commit a rather shocking series of hate crimes to Beau that set the story in motion.
In a familiar band-of-misfits shtick, the three outcasts become friends and make pilgrimage in Rusty’s mother’s stolen car to San Francisco, where they will try to find Beau’s uncle and hide out until things cool down. They all find solace in each other and the community they’ve created on the road, and therein lies the thesis of the book, which presents itself early on:
The problem with withdrawing from the mean people is you never know who the mean people are going to be, so you shut down everyone. Which is also what I did. And from which, my friends, I suffered even more, upon recollection. I do not miss my depression. I do not miss being broken. I do not miss the void. I never knew how much I wanted to be a part of a gang till I had one. Even a gang of misfits.
The three misfits are cringingly unaware of gay culture and unique gay identity. Even though their knowledge of gay world scarcely differentiates from the common stereotype, they each take turns discovering that there’s more to it. They have a preconceived notion of San Francisco as a gay Mecca, and Uncle Frankie as a savior, even though he’s given them no reason to bank on him other than the fact that he is gay.
In that, the book raises a lot of questions about what kids in a modern age, even gay kids, think about gay culture in general and where they fit in along a stretch of different kinds of prejudices. Where Rusty tells a story of physical discrimination, Leonie, a story of sexual discrimination, and Beau, a story of LGBT discrimination, all seem to cohere. Each member takes turns building each other up and knocking each other down, presenting a valuable lesson and pointing out a problem we often find ourselves in when looking at human rights and our own social follies.
Along the way they are (of course) joined by a scrappy, mischief-making stray dog they call “The Bomb,” and set on an adventure that takes them through the Twilight tourist town of Forks, armed robbery, a rather one-dimensional portrayal of drag culture, a lawsuit, a commentary on the modern day AIDS crisis, and an epiphany on Christmas Eve.
What the book lacks in depth of character is made up for with heart. You will find yourself wanting to take flight on an ill-informed adventure, and gather your own misfits. Each character, somewhat predictably, takes a turn learning something about prejudice. Tables turn and turn until they realize that everyone falls victim to, and that no space is a safe space. The solace of friends, they’ve found, is just about all they need to move through life confidently and make this life more than worth living.
Beau, Lee, The Bomb, and Me
By Mary McKinley
Paperback, 9781617732553, 256 pp.
Emi is not your average SoCal teen. As a senior in high school, the ambitious Emi works for a film production company as a set design intern. With the glamour of a Hollywood hotshot tempered by her still-adolescent heedlessness, Emi embarks on an unforgettable summer journey that could only take place in Los Angeles. (more…)
I imagine it is bad form to start off talking about a book by bad-mouthing its genre, but I felt the need to disclose, if only to emphasize how damn good Everett Maroon’s new young adult novel is: I don’t much care for YA. Well, at least I thought I didn’t. Let me explain. (more…)
Sixteen-year-old Alex Nevus lives in the East Village with his family, attends Stuyvesant High School, and generally tries to keep his world from falling apart. Admirably, he has succeeded in doing so—until the morning his schizophrenic mother goes AWOL and misses her annual redetermination review with the Department of Social Services; unless he can find her, and convince the review board that she is at least minimally functional, both he and his younger sister Alice will be taken from her custody and placed back into foster care. Using the GPS on his cell phone, he tracks her to Fort Tyson, in the northernmost remote corner of Manhattan—and finds himself in another place altogether. And then Alex’s life really implodes. (more…)
Seventeen-year-old high school student Jake Powell is spending the summer at the prestigious Columbia School of Journalism. He’s the son of a preacher from Alabama and rather green around the edges—and he’s gay. Luckily, he’s smart and funny, and when he dodges preaching another failed sermon (a task at which he is apparently not good) at Vacation Bible School, his father hems, haws and finally relents. Hence, when Playing By the Book opens, our callow but very likable young protagonist is landing in New York by plane. (more…)
Transgender author Christopher Hawthorne Moss jokingly calls his new YA novel, the second edition of Beloved Pilgrim (Harmony Ink Press, 2014), a book that has undergone a “sex change”–then quickly follows-up by informing readers that “sex change” (now known as “gender reassignment surgery”) is an obsolete term used only with “tongue firmly in cheek.” (more…)
High school athlete Brendan wrestles with pronouns, his girlfriend Vanessa grapples to keep him from shutting her out, while Angel—a trans social worker and mentor—tackles her own demons in Kristen Elizabeth Clark’s beautifully crafted, often confessional, verse novel Freakboy. (more…)
If there were such a thing as the perfect YA novel, Alex As Well (Text Publishing) would be it.
Alex has stopped taking her medication. The other Alex–male Alex– lives in her mind, constantly jibing as fourteen-year-old Alex transitions. Born intersex and raised male, Alex changes schools without her parents’ knowledge so she can try to lead her life the way she needs to. At first she makes friends and gains admirers, even handling coming out as lesbian in the high school environment. But things get complicated when the school repeatedly asks for her birth certificate which states she’s male. Desperate not to be discovered, Alex seeks the advice of a lawyer to find out if she can legally reassign her gender on her birth certificate:
“Why does it matter whether I am a boy or a girl?”
“But it does. It really, really matters. People want to know which one you are.” (p15)
Alex tells her parents that she’s a girl and tensions at home mount as Alex’s father leaves, and her mother, Heather, despairs to her online cohort on a parental forum. Alex still has friends at school for now, though, and a crush on one particular friend – the school secretary’s daughter, Amina. With the question of the birth certificate still on her mind and the school persistently asking for it, Alex becomes increasingly worried and works for her new lawyer friend as an office painter in exchange for his help. Alex hides in the attic at home when things get too much, discovering reports from when she was in pre-school, detailing her aggressive behaviour and excessive crying:
“The medication that made me want to punch people. The medication my parents made me take to make me a boy.” (p70)
This is a revelation for Alex as she realizes exactly what has been going on all her life. Heather discovers Alex has stopped her medication and attributes this to Alex’s new identity, rather than accepting that Alex consciously wants to stop hormone therapy.
As Alex continues to hide the truth at school and negotiate her parents’ reactions, she is also asked to model, making money from shoots which allows her to plan her independence. At first this part of the story felt a little too dreamy, but then I thought, why not? A young trans person making it through their own hard work – yes, please. Despite it seeming like a typical teen novel fantasy, to be a model, Alex’s voice keeps it believable and typically hilarious and cynical. I was entirely convinced that Alex not only deserved everything good she worked for, but she was also conscious of when she was behaving like a total brat.
Just after I read Alex As Well, I found out about the recent German law to recognize babies born with ‘undetermined sex.’ Brugman highlights the issues surrounding choosing the gender of a child with undetermined sex, but also provokes thought on the matter of gender assignment in general. Alex’s parents realize the impact of choosing her gender for her: “We should have just waited and asked you.” (p134)
The only other books on the subject of intersex I can recall reading are the fantastic Intersex (For Lack of a Better Word) by Thea Hillman, an adult memoir, and Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides. In the YA world I haven’t read or seen anything like Alex before. The fact that it is one of only a small number of fiction books on the subject makes it a remarkable and important book, as do the writing and characterisation. What is so brilliant about this novel is not just Alex’s voice but the glimpses of parental perspective shown through Heather’s internet forum posts, with both insightful and outright crazy replies from other regular posters. Alex As Well is a treasure of a novel, with laugh out loud moments as well as unsettling scenes that will stay with you.
Alex as Well
By Alyssa Brugman
Paperback, 9781922079237, 244 pp.
In the vast sea of YA novels, there used to be a dearth of stories for the LGBTQ community. Slowly but surely, though, new young authors are penning fiction that reflects a more authentic, diverse world. Julia Watts’ Secret City is an important addition to the genre. (more…)