Filled with tender moments and a remarkable family, Karelia Stetz-Waters’ YA novel Forgive Me If I’ve Told You This Before (Ooligan Press) is a queer coming of age story set against the political landscape of rural Oregon in 1992. What’s timeless about this novel is the familiar teenage struggle to find love, acceptance, and oneself. The story opens with Triinu and her best friend Isabel dealing with the aftermath of an incident at Christian summer camp, where an older camper has come onto Triinu, who then stabbed him with a pen. From the start, it’s clear that Triinu’s world includes adults who do not have her best interest at heart, like the sinister Principal Pinn, who dismisses death threats and belittles Triinu, leading to a dramatic confrontation by the story’s end. The violent language and sexual harassment Triinu experiences at school are raw and explicit, far from the land of after-school specials and textbook examples of bullying. When escape offers itself by way of cigarette-bumming Pru Ann, Triinu quickly abandons Isabel to hang out with the punks in the smoking yard. Soon after, she adopts a goth look and pretends to care about Pru Ann’s accelerated agenda for them to both lose their virginity.
Antidote to the smokers and the bullies are Triinu’s parents, a pair of loving, Estonian immigrants who recite Auden to one another, creating a household made of literature and poetry. It’s always refreshing in a YA novel to have parent figures who are not the enemy, but are rather nuanced, supportive adults. They serve as a touchstone for Triinu as her high school years unfold.
True to adolescence, although at times hard to keep up with, Triinu’s life is populated by a full cast of characters. After abandoning Isabel for Pru Ann, Pru Ann is sent away after her parents catch her smoking, and gone, too, are the awkward older boys Pru Ann had culled as boyfriend for her and Triinu. There’s Ursula, a girl from church camp that Triinu connects with, immediately drawn to Ursula’s warmth and boldness. There’s Deirdre, the goth senior who heckles Triinu’s worst bully, Pip Weston, enchanting Triinu with her cool disregard for authority. There’s Chloe, the corset-wearing friend Ursula complains about but who proves to be ultimately kind just when Triinu needs an ally. There’s Ava, the British pen pal of Chloe’s who appears one fateful night. Any narrative that spans a few years of high school will seem epic in the heart of the narrator, and Triinu’s story is no different. She fixates upon Ursula, who Triinu quickly falls in love with, then agonizes over when and how to tell her, as Ursula prepares for a year abroad in France. It’s a love that seems to seize Triinu, but in the confusion of first queer crushes, who could blame her?
Parallel to Triinu’s own self-discovery is the growing presence of the Oregon Citizens Alliance, an organization that wants to make it “illegal to be gay.” Part of Ursula’s charm is her supposive interest in the debate, and several scenes revolve around the political unrest and homophobia the organization provokes. Ursula and Triinu smoke pot in a park one day and discuss the ballot measure, while Triinu worries about when to kiss her:
I didn’t want to talk about politics. I wanted Ursula to lie down beside me, take my hand and clasp it to her chest. In my daydreams she said, “Oh, Triinu, I can’t bear to leave you. I’m staying in Oregon. Is that wrong?” In real life, she asked, “Have you heard of Bowers v. Hardwick?”
Of course I hadn’t. I felt small. “No,” I said sullenly.
“Michael Hardwick was this gay guy. He was going down on a guy in his own bedroom. The cops came in and arrested him because gay sex is illegal in georgia.”
“Yes, still! Right now. And the OCA wants to make it illegal in Oregon too.”
It’s heartbreaking to watch a queer teenager try to come out amongst so much hostility and anti-gay rhetoric. While Ursula proves to be more shallow than bold, Triinu befriends Chloe and Aaron, who take her to a gay dance club and introduce her to Ava. There are those aching moments that many readers will identify with—the thrill of seeing other queer people for the first time, as well as the relief of a repaired friendship. Isabel re-enters Triinu’s life, handing her a flyer for her band’s show like an olive branch. There’s a moving scene where Triinu sees Isabel perform, and can recognize how her childhood friend has grown into herself as Triinu does the same. Ursula returns from France, and the fissure between she and Triinu deepens, confused by hurt feelings and poor choices, until Triinu has enough confidence to put Ursula in her place.
Covering four years of high school, the novel takes some time to pick up speed, so that the most rewarding chapters happen around Triinu’s senior year, where the promise of college hangs on the horizon, she stands up for herself in more than one arena, and the Oregon Citizens Alliance’s campaign comes to a head. The novel includes an ambitious mix of politics, first loves, lost friends, family, grief, cultural heritage, and identity. Readers will be rewarded with a thoughtful narrator, whose bravery shines brighter with every page, and a touching portrait of family and true friends, who shower Triinu’s bravery with love.
Forgive Me If I’ve Told You This Before
by Karelia Stetz-Waters
Paperback, 9781932010732, 304 pp.
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.