fiction · YA

Book Review: Jack of Hearts (and Other Parts) by Lev AC Rosen

There’s been a lot going around lately about censorship- parents getting their drawers in a twist about the books available to their kids, folks calling for book burnings (I wish I were exaggerating there). BookRiot has a great article on how to fight censorship; I’ve started virtually attending my library’s board meetings because of this, just so I can be up to date with everything that’s going on and be prepared to lend a hand if needed (because yup, this is in my area as well). It was in that BookRiot article that I learned about Jack of Hearts (and Other Parts) by Lev AC Rosen (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2018). The article’s description of how a Christian group challenged the book piqued my curiosity and I put a hold on it at my library that day.

Jack Rothman is seventeen and the resident sex expert of his friend group. He’s queer, confident, and not afraid to be himself, whether that’s sporting a new shade of eyeliner, suggesting a one-time hook-up with another guy, or putting his very active sex life out there for everyone to read about in his new advice column for a not-school-sponsored website published by one of his best friends. He’s unapologetically himself at all times, which often makes him fodder for the school gossip mill, and which doesn’t always sit well with him, but he never lets it stop him from being who he is.

But Jack is getting letters- secret admirer letters, it seems at first, but then they take on a creepier bent. The author of the letter claims to love Jack, but they want to change him and everything that makes him him…and that’s not okay. When the letters start threatening his mother and the emotional health of his friends, Jack knows he has to figure out who’s sending these, and fast.

It’s easy to see why more conservative parents are clutching their pearls over this book. Jack is openly gay, loves sex of all kinds, and bends gender norms in order to most fully express himself- all things that sort of people dislike. (Cry me a river, folks. How other people choose to express themselves has, quite literally, NOTHING to do with you.) To be fully honest, when I first started reading this book, I was a little surprised as well- Lev Rosen doesn’t hold back at all. There are open, frank discussions of sex of all sorts- gay, straight, group, oral, and more- and reading this with my 41-year-old-parent-of-a-7-year-old-and-a-19-year-old eyes, my first instinct was to go, “WHOA.”

And then I stopped and thought about it.

What was I doing when I was Jack’s age, after years of attending a religious school?

OH YEAH. Working in a video rental store that also had a room for adult videos.

At 17, I was listening to hallway gossip about who slept with whom at weekend parties, and what dating couples at my school did and didn’t do sexually (to be fair, this kind of stuff started when I was like 13, at my very small religious school). Between that and the titles of the adult movies I rented out to various customers (including one man who later turned out to be very religious- which I learned because I started dating his son. Awkward), there wasn’t much in this book that I hadn’t heard about as a teenager, the intended audience of this book. How much more is this true for today’s teens, who have grown up as digital natives, with the internet and all its various contents piped directly into their homes and sometimes bedrooms 24/7?

If anything, this book exists not only to give kids the message that it’s a good thing to be yourself, no matter what that is, but to give kids correct information. All the advice Jack gives in his column and to his friends is safe, medically sound, and ethical. He speaks a lot about consent, respect, and not doing things unless you truly want to. He’s there to empower his readers in order for them to make the best decisions for themselves, with as much information possible. Kids are going to be getting information about sexual topics- they’re coming from all angles at kids these ages: friends, movies, the internet, the media. This book is, at the very least, unbiased and accurate in its information, and that’s what teenagers deserve. Teenagers have questions about sex. In the best-case scenario, they’ll come to us as parents with these questions, but it’s no surprise if they feel they can’t (and it’s our fault for not fostering the kind of relationship with them in which they feel they can come to us with those questions). If your kids don’t come to you, where do you want them getting that information? Because, guaranteed, they’ll get it, and the source might not be accurate, putting your child at risk.

Jack is a great character. He doesn’t waver in who he is, though he is spooked into toning it down a bit when his stalker ramps up their game and gets really creepy. He’s supportive of his friends (and knows when he’s hogging the limelight and needs to allow them space to shine). He’s honest, both with himself and with the people around him, and he does his best to bridge that awkward gap that exists between teenage boys and their mothers, even though it’s tough.

My only complaint with the book is the ending felt a little anti-climactic. The identity of Jack’s stalker felt a little out-of-nowhere for me. It left me just the tiniest bit deflated, after what was a truly excellent book about a teenager who exists outside most of what’s considered the norm and is entirely comfortable with that.

If you’re reading this book as an adult, my suggestion is to put your adult eyes away and dig out your teenage eyes, the ones you used when you were full of questions about life and sex and identity. Read it with the eyes of a teenager constantly bombarded with messages about what they’re supposed to do and who they’re supposed to be, with people shaming them for who they are and what they feel. My guess is that there are a lot of kids who will feel validated by this book, who will see that having questions and feelings about sex doesn’t make them bad or disgusting or sinful, it makes them developmentally normal.

If your instinct is that this book doesn’t belong on the shelves at all, that no one’s kids should be reading it, that’s a you problem. If you don’t want YOUR kids reading it, that’s on you as a parent. BE A PARENT and monitor your kid’s reading materials- that’s your prerogative as a parent and I fully support your right to allow or not allow this book in your home. But your rights end there, and the availability of this book at local libraries has nothing to do with you. If you don’t like it, don’t check it out. If you don’t want your teenager reading it, monitor what they’re bringing home from the library. But parent your own child, not everyone else’s. That’s not your job, and you’re not making the world any safer by ensuring that other teens have less information.

I commend Lev Rosen for the bravery it took to write this book and put it out there, knowing the kind of stir it would cause. Thank you for being the voice teenagers need and answering the questions a lot of them have nowhere else to ask.

Visit Lev AC Rosen’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Book Review: How to Survive a Plague: The Inside Story of How Citizens and Science Tamed AIDS by David France

I was born in 1980; for people born in my generation, there’s never been a time where AIDS hasn’t existed. I remember first learning about the deadly virus in fifth grade, when my class watched a video featuring Magic Johnson, and my teacher (who was one of the best teachers I ever had) led a class discussion afterwards. In my life, AIDS has gone from an absolute death sentence to a chronic health condition that can be managed with one pill a day (for some folks). The implications of that are enormous. One of the books I recommend most is And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic by Randy Shilts; it was because I love that book so much that I wanted to read a more recently-written story about the people behind the long, painful journey to an effective treatment for AIDS. I knew as soon as I heard about How to Survive a Plague: The Inside Story of How Citizens and Science Tamed AIDS by David France (Knopf, 2013), I had to read it. At over 500 pages of narrative, it’s a dense, hefty read, but it’s well worth your time.

David France has chronicled the emotional odyssey of the late seventies through the mid-nineties for the New York gay community, from the first few deaths that rang alarm bells and alerted people that some terrible new illness was going around, to the final triumphant moments when an effective treatment was finally on the horizon. The path to that triumph is littered with dead bodies, pain, horrific suffering (both physical and emotional), ruined lives, and grief; it was also lined with friendship, camaraderie, infighting, broken friendships, and young adults coming into their own amidst terrible tragedy.

The government ignored them (“It only affects gay people, so just let it take them out”). Their families abandoned them. Their health providers often turned them away. Hospitals refused AIDS patients treatment. Funeral homes refused to care for their wasted bodies. Scientists didn’t see their suffering as a priority. But the gay community refused to face death sitting down; their voices rose to a fever pitch and remained there, even throughout their grief and suffering, until finally, finally, after so much loss and death, the people who could help began to listen. It would take over 100,000 American deaths for an effective treatment to finally arrive.

This is a moving, tragic, infuriating, and beautifully written narrative of a time in history that should never, ever have happened. It’s horrifying how easily the United States is willing to throw its own citizens away (and this happens in so, so many aspects); it was more than willing to write off the endless suffering of the gay community, telling them they had brought this on themselves and it was God’s punishment (in Judaism, there’s a term for this kind of behavior, which translates to ‘desecration of the name of God;’ I think it fits in this instance. Using God to justify someone else’s suffering, while you stand idly by and mock them? Yeah. It fits).

Author David France pops into the story now and then, as he was in the midst of it all, attending meetings and protests, caring for sick friends and lovers, and grieving many, many losses (people losing hundreds of friends wasn’t uncommon). This adds a personal touch to the story which gives it emotional depth; it’s not all protests, emotionally charged meetings, and observations from afar. This is a story observed up close; it’s personal to him, and he makes sure the reader knows it.

How to Survive a Plague is a heavy, emotional read, but it’s well worth your time.

Visit David France’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

fiction · YA

Book Review: The Henna Wars by Adiba Jaigirdar

A while back, there was an epic Twitter thread on all of (or at least, a LOT of) the books by South Asian authors coming out in 2020, and hoooooooooooooo boy, did a lot of books get added to my TBR that day! One of those books included The Henna Wars by Adiba Jaigirdar (Page Street Kids, 2020). This book has it all: South Asian characters. LGBT rep. Strong sister relationship. Drama with the parents. Set in…Ireland??? NEAT! It’s been a while since I read fiction set there. Anyway, I finally got to it on my TBR and enjoyed the long days of reading it on my backyard swing (while sweating half to death, of course, because it’s super gross out here right now).

Nishat has come out to her parents, with less-than-stellar results. While there’s no screaming, no threatening, no plans to send her away, they’re cool, chilly, unable to understand why she can’t just change everything about who she is. Unexpectedly, Flávia, a friend she hasn’t seen since early grade school, shows back up in her life, and suddenly, Nishat’s in love. Only there’s a slight problem: Flávia turns out to be the cousin of Nishat’s archenemy at school. Ugh. No worries, though. Nishat’s not even sure if Flávia likes her that way, although signs are pointing to yes…

A business class project has the students forming their own businesses and competing over whose is more successful. Nishat decides, as a nod to her culture, to begin doing henna (painting henna designs on hands). She’s horrified to learn that Flávia, who is not Bengali (she’s Brazilian and Irish), has planned to do the same. Holy cultural appropriation, folks! Sabotage. Theft. Underhandedness. Destruction. Things get a little out of control in this competition, and Nishat isn’t always the person she wants to be. Nishat and her classmates have a lot to learn about and from each other, and maybe Mom and Dad will learn a few things as well.

There’s a lot going on in this story- Nishat’s relationship with her sister Priti, the pressure of exams at school, trying to maintain a relationship with a grandparent over Skype, race-based bullying, fighting with a friend group, a strained relationship with parents over cultural issues, cultural appropriation- but somehow, it all works. Nishat is a typical teenager who doesn’t always make the best choices; she’s impulsive under pressure, a little selfish at times, and occasionally leaps to conclusions. But she’s also dedicated and optimistic, and all of this makes her a well-rounded character.

Her relationship with younger sister Priti, who is sometimes the more mature of the two, is the kind that will make you wish you had a younger sister (if you don’t. I do not). Priti stands by her side no matter what, is always there to support her and offer up whatever Nishat needs, and calls her on her selfish behavior when the situation warrants it. Priti is very much the voice of reason here, and I loved her.

The bullying is painful to read. There are obvious content warnings here for racism and homophobia, and one for a forced outing, which can be upsetting (kudos to Ms. Jaigirdar, who has this warning written into the opening pages. I love that these kinds of heads-ups are becoming the norm). When you’re able to handle these topics, this is a kaleidoscope of a novel, with all the issues moving and sliding around each other to become one colorful design that fits together perfectly.

Super fun YA with great multi-dimensional characters in an interesting setting. I’m looking forward to reading more from Ms. Jaigirdar.

Visit Adiba Jaigirdar’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Book Review: What’s Your Pronoun?: Beyond He and She by Dennis Baron

“What’s your pronoun?”

She/her/hers. They/them. He/them. Xie/hir.

Pronouns are popping up all over: in social media bios, in our screennames on our nine million daily Zoom calls, in applications and various forms we’re asked to fill out (I just wrote out my pronouns in a volunteer application about fifteen minutes ago. LOVE that they asked). Odds are you’ve come across at least one person who uses what is thought of as a non-traditional pronoun; I know several in person and many more online who do. But is this really a new phenomenon? Not at all, says Dennis Baron in his study of the subject, What’s Your Pronoun?: Beyond He and She (Liveright, 2020). This went on my list as soon as I learned about its existence; I’m a bit of a language nerd, so the subject interested me, but I’m also interested in being the best ally I can, so I knew I needed to learn more.

English is seriously lacking in a common-gender pronoun. What’s commonly used is they/them, but grammar fascists have long had their issues with that. (Insert eyeroll.) This isn’t a new problem. Dennis Baron points out that what we think of as ‘alternative’ pronoun use in the US goes back to the 1780’s, and that’s only how far back we’ve been able to dig up written sources. And singular ‘they,’ as in ‘I saw someone at your house, but they ran off when they saw me’ has been in use since 1376, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. If you’re looking for a book to convince a family member that your pronoun use isn’t just some modern-day fancy, this will help you clarify points and back up your argument. (Not that you should have to; your choices about your identity and how you want to be addressed are valid regardless.)

While at times this book is a bit of an information dump, it’s interesting and informative, and it’s written in a jaunty, fun style that doesn’t exhaust the brain to take it all in. The struggle to use English in a way that suits our needs in terms of identity has been going on for a long time, and it’s chock-full to the brim with whiny, tantrum-throwing men who gasped as though someone had kicked their puppy when it was suggested that maybe women didn’t enjoy being referred to as the generic he (as in, ‘If a guest doesn’t enjoy steamed fish, he is welcome to order something else off the menu’). “Men in power accepted the generic masculine only when it didn’t require them to give up too much,” Mr. Baron states, and then presents this to the reader in example after infuriating example (He meant men in terms of rights, like who could vote, but it meant men AND women in terms of punishment. SUPER CONVENIENT, RIGHT?!!?!?? *ragescream*).

Language changes. Uses change. New words crop up. If you don’t think that’s true, try explaining the sentence ‘I downloaded the browser extension, but then my modem disconnected and I bluescreened’ to someone from 1950. What is eternal is respect and how we treat each other, and though it may take some practice to use pronouns that you aren’t necessarily familiar with, if you can remember to use a woman’s new last name when she gets married and changes it to her husband’s, you can also remember to refer to your friend’s kid or your co-worker as ‘them’ or ‘hir’ when you speak about them. It’s not hard, and it’s not new.

Dennis Baron has really shed a lot of light on how far back the struggle for a gender-neutral pronoun goes. I had no idea that ze, for example, traces back to 1864. And one of the most fascinating quotes I found in the book refers to ‘em, as in “The dogs are missing! We need to find ‘em!”:

‘…the informal ‘em, so common in speech, is not a reduced form of them, but a holdover from the old plural object form hem, with unpronounced h.

Fascinating! I never knew that!

Lots of history and information and men throwing fits because they didn’t want to share society with women (seriously, dudes, get over it. Who raised you???), but you’ll learn a lot about the English language and its use throughout history. It’s really true that everything old is new again in terms of pronoun use. 😊

Visit Dennis Baron’s blog here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

fiction · science fiction · YA

Book Review: Chaos on CatNet (CatNet #2) by Naomi Kritzer

Imagine a world that seems pretty normal. It’s mostly like ours, with smart phones and computers and people enjoying coffee in cutesy little cafes…and then a drone whizzes by. And after that, a robot dog trots past you, careful to avoid the driverless taxi as it crosses the street. That robot dog is still new enough to the tech scene that a few people turn to stare. That’s the world Naomi Kritzer has created in her CatNet series and in which we find ourselves again in her second and latest book featuring Steph and friends, Chaos on CatNet (Tor Teen, 2021). I’ve gushed in the past about Naomi’s Catfishing on CatNet and Cat Pictures Please and Other Stories (which I read before I started blogging, but seriously, if you read *one* book I recommend, this is it, and I don’t even normally like short stories!), but man, she just keeps getting better and better.

Full disclosure: I’ve known Naomi since around 2002. We’ve been part of the same small online parenting group since then, but my reviews are entirely independent of that. I enjoyed but didn’t love her Fires of the Faithful, which was a little outside of my normal reading wheelhouse at the time- it’s well-written, but fantasy isn’t usually my thing. I’m telling you this so that you’re confident that my review is impartial enough to be trusted. These CatNet books are amazing.

Steph is back, finally settled down in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area with her mother, after a life on the run from her father. Her father is in prison, awaiting trial; things are going well, albeit long-distance, with her girlfriend Rachel; her friends from the CatNet Clowder, including sentient AI CheshireCat, are still supportive; and she’s starting a new school. There’s another new girl there as well. Nell has just left (somewhat unwillingly) the Christian cult she lived in with her mother, who has disappeared. She now lives with her father and his polyamorous wife and girlfriends- it’s a complicated situation, but Steph and Nell find a lot to bond over with their shared unconventional backgrounds.

Not all is well, though. The social media networks Steph and Nell are using are sending bizarre messages, asking them to complete strange tasks that increasingly cause Steph to suspect that these networks are being run by the other sentient AI out there- the one who isn’t her cat picture-loving friend, CheshireCat. CheshireCat shares her fears, and it’s starting to look like Nell’s former cult group (along with Nell’s mother) and Steph’s mother’s dangerous former business partner Rajiv may be involved as well. When the sentient AI-controlled networks begin causing riots and explosions in Minneapolist-St. Paul, will Steph, CheshireCat, and friends be able to intervene in time to stop the chaos from spreading across the country?

My synopsis doesn’t do this near-future YA thriller-with-excellent-queer-rep justice. This is serious edge-of-your-seat reading, one that I didn’t find stressful like I do most thrillers, just deeply intriguing. I blew through this book in less than twenty-four hours, and given my lack of reading time these days, you *know* that means it’s incredible. Steph is mature for her age- who wouldn’t be, after the life she’s led with her mother?- but she’s still subject to the longings of a teenager’s first experience with love. Nell shares in her awkwardness of having been raised in a deeply unconventional way, but hers is more acute, and she’s more wary than Steph. I really enjoyed watching the dynamics of their new friendship play out.

The Minneapolis-St.Paul area, or at least its weather, is as much of a character here as any human or sentient AI, as it features heavily during many of the book’s scenes. Steph and Nell are often out in brutally cold temperatures and this becomes a factor in a lot of their decisions. Nell’s former cult is also another huge part of the book that you know pulled me right in. I may have gasped when I got to that part (Naomi has a degree in religion, so various forms of this often appear in her stories. I love that I know this).

The sci-fi aspects of this aren’t over-the-top; I’m not a sci-fi person, but this was just straight-up interesting. It’s set in the near-future, where technology is just a little more advanced than what we have right now, and all that plays into the plot. It’s not so tech-y that I (who isn’t the most tech-y person out there) was confused, but the story was based in a reality that even I could imagine as stemming from the technology we have now. I never really saw myself as someone who would enjoy- actually LOVE- a series of books where a sentient AI is a main character, but CheshireCat is an utter delight, as is this book, and its companion.

You don’t need to have read Catfishing on CatNet to enjoy Chaos, but both books are so much fun and so enjoyable, why wouldn’t you? I highly recommend this whole series; you won’t regret it.

Visit Naomi Kritzer’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · YA

Book Review: Little & Lion by Brandy Colbert

I was scrolling through an email from Jewish Women’s Archive about upcoming Book Talks and nearly fell out of my chair to see that Brandy Colbert would be making an appearance at an upcoming talk. I read her Pointe last year and enjoyed it, and it’s always so fantastic when an author you know and have previously enjoyed shows up anywhere you can get to, right???  She’ll be discussing her book, Little and Lion (Little, Brown, 2017), and, wanting to be as prepared as possible, I immediately put the book on my TBR and picked it up on my next library trip. Success! I’m ready! Bring on the book talk!

Suzette is a Black Jewish teen girl who has made her way back to her California home after spending a year at a New England boarding school, and all is not well on either coast. She’s running from a relationship with her female roommate that ended- or didn’t quite end- not exactly in the way that Suzette had wanted. She has a lot of complicated feelings about this. But things are complicated at home, too. The whole reason Suzette had been sent out east in the first place was because of trouble with her stepbrother, Lionel. Lionel had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder before she left, something that had turned everyone’s world upside down. Unsure of how to relate to her brother, who seems to want to push everyone away, and unsure of how to deal with her sexual identity- especially now that she’s home and hello, Emil, childhood friend who has suddenly become super hot, along with Rafaela, the plant shop girl who is on the periphery of Suzette’s friend group- Suzette has a lot on her plate.

Soon after she arrives back home, Lionel confides in Suzette a dangerous secret. Keeping it means maintaining Lionel’s trust, but it also means that things could go bad, quickly, for a lot of people. Love, sexuality, religion, trust, mental health, Ms. Colbert explores how all these intersect to form teenage identity, and how delicate the balancing act is for Suzette, who will have to make a series of difficult decisions in order to decide what kind of person she is, and who she wants to be.

This book felt incredibly real. There are so many things going on at once, so many major problems that so many teenagers face- sexual identity (and the need, or not, to label what we are), relationships (romantic, family, friendships), mental health, trust between friends and family, planning for the future, religious identity…There’s a lot going on in this book, but Ms. Colbert manages to weave everything together so seamlessly that one issue melts right into the next, just as it happens in real life. Suzette is put in several terrible positions, the most jarring by her stepbrother, and while the answer to her dilemma is crystal-clear as an adult, it’s incredibly easy to see why it would be so difficult to keep Lionel’s secret as a teenager. I was deeply able to emphasize with her struggle over this.

This is a novel of the search and struggle for identity, but it also asks a lot of questions. Why do we insist on putting our identities into so many separate boxes? We shouldn’t have to be this but not that, when by now we should all realize that we can be this AND that, simultaneously, and that the overlap is beautiful and brings so much to the table. And why do we insist on concrete identities, when we’re all really works in progress? Why can’t we be this at one stage, until we grow and mature and realize that we’ve blossomed into that– maybe with a little of this coloring the edges? Little & Lion explores all of this; Suzette’s journey encourages brave exploration but also deep contemplation and full acceptance of the all things that make us who we are.

There are so many places where this book could have gone off the rails or gone too far, and it just never did. It’s a gorgeous tapestry of the search for self, of what it takes to forge a connection with someone who is struggling and how far we should let that go, of who we are and the kind of person we want to be. I’d be lying if I didn’t mention that I thought often of Marra B. Gad’s The Color of Love: The Story of a Mixed-Race Jewish Girl multiple times, since her memoir dealt with identity and intersection of a similar-yet-different type (and was also an amazing book that is never far from my mind).

There are content warnings for descriptions of untreated mental illness and a forced outing of sexual orientation; if these are uncomfortable subjects for you at this time, be kind to yourself and wait until you’re ready.

I’m so excited for JWA’s Book Talk featuring Ms. Colbert, and I can’t wait to hear what she has to say about this book (and, well, about everything, honestly!). Suzette and Lionel had such a deep friendship, and I felt Suzette’s distress as Lionel pulled away from her, and her urgency to cling to what they once had. I’m so looking forward to hearing about her thought processes as she wrote this, and hearing what’s next for her. What a fabulous book.

Visit Brandy Colbert’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

memoir · nonfiction

Book Review: What We Will Become: A Mother, a Son, and a Journey of Transformation by Mimi Lemay

I think I discovered What We Will Become: A Mother, a Son, and a Journey of Transformation by Mimi Lemay (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2019) from a book list last year. A letter she had written (and published) to her transgender son on his fifth birthday had gone viral, and this is the book that sprang out of that experience. I don’t remember seeing her letter when everyone was talking about it, but I knew that I had to read her and her family’s story once I read the premise of this book.

What We Will Become skips back and forth in time, detailing the struggles of parenting Em, Ms. Lemay’s middle child, and detailing her own life journey, growing up in a strict Orthodox home with an emotionally distant mother. Em is difficult to parent almost from the beginning, moody and temperamental, unhappy in her own skin. She’s two when she begins to insist she’s a boy; Mimi and husband Joe aren’t sure what to make of it, but they do their best to work with and around the challenges Em presents. Mimi’s childhood provides a similar story of struggle, of desperately trying to fit into a world who only had one role for her, of never feeling enough for her school or her mother.

As Em’s difficulties compound, Mimi realizes the meaning of everything she’s gone through in the past, of all the problems she’s dealt with and faced down, and how they’ve all lead her here, to be this child’s mother, to be the mother this child needs. And thus a boy named Jacob is born, confident where he never used to be, happy and giggly and authentically himself. It’s a story of transformation born from struggle, but one where everyone ends up exactly where they’re meant to.

This is a truly beautiful and extremely honest story of listening to your heart to know where you belong, and using the skills learned from there to listen to others’ hearts as well. It’s bravery, a story of having the courage to know when to walk away and when to stand and fight. Ms. Lemay took what she learned from her childhood- about the kind of person she wanted to be and the kind of parent she needed but didn’t have, and turned that into the kind of parent her son needed her to be. That’s extraordinary.

Her story of growing up fascinated me. Her mother was extremely emotionally distant and very religious; Mimi did her best to fit in and succeeded for a while as a teenager but then realized there wasn’t a place for her in that world. She left, wounded by her relationship with her mother, but with enough tools to carve herself a place in the outside world, one where she’s built a beautiful life for herself and her children. This is a story of transformation, of parents and children, and what not to do, but how to learn and grow from that until you figure out what TO do. I admire Ms. Lemay so much for that.

Such a beautiful book and a testament to how children can grow and thrive, as Jacob has done, when allowed to be who they are. May we continue to bend and shape the world into one that will always love him as fully as his parents do.

Follow Mimi Lemay on Facebook here.

Follow her on Instagram here.

nonfiction

Book Review: Real Queer America: LGBT Stories from Red States by Samantha Allen

I ran across Real Queer America: LGBT Stories from Red States by Samantha Allen (Little, Brown and Company, 2019) in the library last year and thought, ‘Ooh, that looks good,’ but at the time, I didn’t know if I could handle more political talk (I don’t remember what was going on at the time, but whatever it was was taking up a lot of my emotional energy). After stumbling upon a discussion of the book again a few months later, I remembered how intriguing it sounded and plopped it onto my TBR, where it sat until I finally grabbed it in my last trip to the library. And boy, am I glad I did.

Samantha Allen, a transgender journalist and author, has lived most of her life in the places known as red states, politically conservative areas with a history of enacting harsh measures against their LGBT population and refusing to accept them as full citizens with the same rights as everyone else. After the 2016 election, she began travelling through these red states, searching out the LGBT communities and learning how their members survive and even thrive in the places they love that don’t necessarily love them back. What makes them stay? Why not flee to somewhere where every day isn’t a struggle?

In traveling and interviewing, Ms. Allen began to clarify the feelings she’s felt about these places. Community is often stronger in places where the fight to survive is at the forefront. Supportive chosen family becomes easier to find, and more cohesive. Nothing changes if no one fights for it, and these are the people who refuse to give up, who refuse to have the places they love taken from them. She makes an amazing case for staying in places that are oftentimes hard to live in (though not always!) and being the kind of person who fights for change.

This is a powerful book, filled with people who have grown strong and resilient out of necessity, and who are using that growth to affect much-needed change in places that have been resistant to it. Ms. Allen made me check my attitude toward those red states; having lived in several, I understand how difficult it can be, and the sometimes PTSD or PTSD-like reactions that can come from the maltreatment received there, but she helped me to understand what it takes to remain there and thrive, what it takes to live there and fight, and that these people should be commended for their determination, not pitied because they choose to remain. They deserve a place at the table where they choose to live, those places they live because they love it there, and they need to be supported in their oftentimes uphill battle to be respected and treated with dignity. I think I had fallen into the trap of wondering why so many people stay in places that don’t want them there, but this helped me to understand the why of it better. (I mean, I’ve long understood having ties to a place; no matter how many times I’ve left Illinois as an adult, I always come back because I love it here so much, but my ability to live here isn’t compromised or threatened because of who I am or who I’m attracted to. I have, however, lived in a town where people are regularly threatened or ostracized due to their political leanings and their sexuality; I’ve seen it happen to friends, and I’m aware of what it takes to stay in a place like that. But seeing it through the eyes of the LGBT+ folks who are on the front lines of this was a much-needed perspective for me.)

I can’t recommend this one highly enough. Ms. Allen shares the story of her own transition in such an open, honest way, not just the physical parts, but the emotional parts, the difficulties, the fears, the triumphs, and who and what helped her along the way. If you’re LGBT+ and in a red state, or the parent/family member/friend of someone who is, or if you’re wondering why people choose to stay in places where the politicians regularly sneer at their communities (often on a national stage), you need to read this book, because it’ll help you understand the why of it all and be supportive of their choices. And it’ll also help you understand that even if you live in a blue state or blue area, you still need to fight for these marginalized communities as though you don’t.

Seriously amazing, eye-opening book. It’s inspiring and hopeful in a way that I wasn’t expecting. Thank you, Ms. Allen. I needed that.

Visit Samantha Allen’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

graphic novel

Book Review: Bingo Love by Tee Franklin and Jenn St-Onge

I think Bingo Love by Tee Franklin, Jenn St-Onge, Joy San, and Cardinal Rae (Inclusive Press, 2017) came to my TBR via a suggestion from a reading challenge that I’m no longer participating in, but it looked so sweet that I couldn’t pass it up! Plus I’m always up for a good love story, and in graphic novel form? LOVE IT. My library had a copy on the teen shelves, so I bustled on over and added it to my stack of books during my latest trip (the library is now open for regular browsing, though the number of people allowed in at one time is limited and you can only stay an hour. Not a problem for me, as I always go in with a list and am usually out by the time 30 minutes has passed).

Hazel Johnson’s life changes the day Mari McCray moves to town. Quickly becoming best friends, Hazel soon realizes she feels more than friendship for Mari, but it’s 1963 and these things just aren’t talked about, especially in their Black community. It doesn’t take long after their first shared kisses before their secret is discovered and their families tear them apart. Years later, after both women have spent a lifetime being married and raising families, a chance reunification brings them right back to the love they discovered years ago, forcing them and everyone they know to examine what they believe love really is.

SWEEEEEEEEEET story with an awful, awful lot of heartbreak in it. Bingo Love tells the story of (I believe) the authors’ grandmothers, how they found, lost, then found each other again. At 92 pages, it’s a quick read, but it’s the kind of story that sticks with you, of love that never forgets, never dies, no matter who tries to snuff it out. It’s the story of the kind of courage it takes to upend your life in order to be true to who you are and to live with conviction and purpose. It’s history, the kind that we’re, hopefully, beginning to move past, with the hope that Hazel and Mari’s pain doesn’t need to be repeated again and again among other couples. What should be repeated, however, is their joy in one another.

Utterly lovely read.

Follow Tee Franklin on Twitter and visit her website here.

Follow Jenn St-Onge on Twitter and visit her website here.

memoir

Book Review: How We Fight For Our Lives by Saeed Jones

One more book down from the 2020 PopSugar Reading Challenge, and also one off my TBR (no worries, though, I’ve added like five more books since then, so it’s in no danger of getting smaller…). For this particular prompt, I needed a book with only words on the cover, no images or graphics, and the Goodreads group for this challenge pointed out that How We Fight For Our Lives by Saeed Jones (Simon & Schuster, 2019) both fit the bill and was on my TBR. Magic!

Saeed Jones, the son of a single mother, grew up in Texas. Growing up Black and gay in the South is no easy feat, and as he begins his own adult life, he struggles deeply with identity: who he is, where his sense of identity comes from, who his mother expected him to be, who his grandmother tried to force him to be, who he really wants to be. For too long, he uses sex as an escape mechanism, one that allows him to ignore the question about the things that define him, but always, always, he’s pulled back to the love his mother gave him, even through the pain of losing her.

This memoir is difficult to sum up. Saeed Jones writes about the struggle of living at the intersection of being Black and gay, but it’s more than that. His memoir is about identity, the difficulty in defining our images of ourselves amidst all the conflicting messages we receive from our families and the many cultures that surround us. Case in point: while Saeed’s mother raised him as a Buddhist, he spent summers with his very Christian grandmother, who had a very different idea of who her grandson should be than her own daughter did. His resulting search for identity, one we all go through to some degree as we transition from adolescence to adulthood, is fraught with challenges, ones that cause pain to both himself and others. Perhaps some of this is inevitable, but Saeed’s story makes it clear that it doesn’t have to be, that accepting people for who they are and allowing them to be themselves would lessen a lot of that pain considerably.

There’s strong sexual content in this book, along with multiple scenes of homophobia, and the serious illness and death of a parent. Go easy on yourself if these are things that will be difficult to read about right now.

How We Fight For Our Lives is a quick read, since Saeed Jones’s writing flows like water, but it will leave the reader with a lot to think about concerning who we are and how easily we’re able to define ourselves. If your transition from childhood to adulthood was a smooth one, where everyone accepted you at face value and allowed you to be who you needed to be, read this to learn how privileged you were and expand your sense of empathy.

Visit Saeed Jones’s website here and here.

Follow him on Twitter here.