by Malinda Lo
Published by Little, Brown and Company, 2009
Awards: Andre Norton Award Nominee, William C. Morris YA Award Finalist, Kirkus Best Young Adult Novel, Lambda Literary Award Finalist
Everyone loves a Cinderella story, even (or especially) sports fans who never acquainted themselves with the Brothers Grimm. It’s an ancient tale, with early versions traceable as far back as the 1st century BC, and variations appearing in different cultures including Ancient Egypt, China, the Philippines, the Arab nations, and your usual line-up of European peoples. Today, the Cinderella theme shows up again and again in movies, television, sports legacies, and of course books.
Malinda Lo has unwoven the Cinderella story and re-knit it into the somberly beautiful Ash. Ash, or Aisling, is the requisite girl orphaned and left in the care of her cruel stepmother and thoughtless stepsisters. In this telling, Ash’s parents illustrated the transition between the older pagan beliefs of their land (magic and fairies, in which her mother believed) and the new scientific beliefs moving in (her father’s beliefs). Ash is caught in the rift, wondering why her parents loved each other so much but were unable to see eye to eye about the nature of their world.
Ash succumbs to a natural grief and denial after her mother’s death; the supernatural comes in to play when she tries to slip away with the fairies’ Wild Hunt in order to rejoin her mother beyond the veil. One of the fairies turns her back, though, and becomes a constant haunting presence in her dreams. As the story progresses, it becomes clear that there is some strange bond between the fairy, Sidhean (pronounced sheen), and Ash. Later, he will help Ash in the same way that Cinderella’s fairy godmother helped her. All the while, Ash begs Sidhean to take her away with him, to stay with her and take her away from the painful life she lives.
The plot breaks away from the familiar story with the introduction of the King’s Huntress, an office held by a series of women whose clothing, mannerisms, and relationships stand in stark contrast to the feminine finery of other women in the kingdom. As Ash reaches her late teens, she meets Kaisa (KY-suh), the King’s Huntress, and is fascinated. It’s a gently drawn fascination – is Ash envious of her freedom and confidence? Desirous of a friend and confidante? Admiring of a strong and kind female role model?
Ultimately, as familiar Cinderella plot points drip beautifully through Lo’s filter, the situation crystallizes. Ash is infatuated with Sidhean and with the idea of regaining what she has lost – or at least, of losing the pain. And just as Ash has within her grasp the power to join Sidhean forever, she discovers that she has a reason to live and love in the world of the living. It’s certainly true that this is, as fairy tale retellings go, a lesbian retelling – but it isn’t a (cue exaggerated broadcaster voice) “gay book”. It’s a story about the complexities of love, the process of navigating grief, and that all-important choice between holding on to the past and embracing the future.
This book hit all the right chords for me. I’m nuts for fairy tales, so it really had me at “retelling of Cinderella”. I loved the Irish names. I loved the idea of the King’s Huntress, the humanization of Sidhean, the light hand Lo has as she paints what turns out to be an intricate layer of symbolism. And after reading some considerably more heavy-handed approaches in LGBTQ literature, I loved that Lo didn’t make this a book about lesbianism. This is what I hoped to find: a book with characters that we care about, that we respect and root for, who incidentally happen to not be straight.
This is one of the books I checked out from the library that I’ll be looking to purchase – maybe a copy for home, too – and I’ll be looking for more books by Lo in the future. Apparently there’s a forthcoming book set in the same universe, about new characters, including some who are lesbian; maybe I’ll be able to review it in a 2011 LGBTQ book club! I enjoyed browsing her website, particularly her four-part article about avoiding LGBTQ stereotypes when writing YA fiction (link goes to part 1).
Empress of the World
by Sara Ryan
Published by Speak (Penguin Group), 2001
Awards: ALA Best Book for Young Adults, Lambda Book Award Finalist, Booklist Top Ten Teen Romance, Oregon Book Award
As I finish reading Empress of the World, I am wondering wherein lies the correlation. The majority of the books I’ve been reading for the LGBTQ Book Club feature teens who are not only LGBTQ, but also brilliant. Do authors feel uncomfortable writing average (or, heaven forbid, unintelligent) gay characters? Are the sort of authors with the guts to write about such things also the sort of authors who want to write smart characters? Or am I unconsciously selecting books that feature interesting, intelligent characters? I’m thinking all three ideas may be correct; goodness knows I’m often guilty of the last.
Empress takes place at a summer camp for brainy kids at a local college. The teens are taking a wide variety of college-level mini-courses, learning more about topics from music theory to computer programming. Our narrator and protagonist is Nicola, who has come to camp to study archeology and determine whether she wants to be an archeologist when she grows up.
Ultimately, the main thing Nicola seems to learn about archeology (since she’s already more savvy about the subject than most of the other kids in her class) is that it all depends on grants and fundraising. Instead of archeology, Nicola learns about her heart – specifically, that it can fall for, and be broken by, a girl.
This book is the story of the romance that blooms, explodes, collapses, and regenerates between Nicola and a female camp-mate, Battle. It’s a story about young love, and it’s – more directly so than some of the other books I’ve read – a story about lesbian love. Indirectly, it’s a story about (obviously) coming-of-age, exploring possibilities at that crucial pre-college transition point in our lives, and negotiating expectations. It is really well-written, and the language, story, and narrator’s voice kept me engaged to the end.
On the flip side, as a character-driven reader, I felt uneasy about the two central characters’ development. Battle is, in many ways, the more interesting character. Her father is a minister whose past life as an actor suggests a certain artificiality in his life, and her mother has an idealized vision for Battle that is seemingly devoid of interest in what Battle actually feels or wants. Battle’s absent brother is a dark shadow in her life, and all of the affection she would have focused on her brother and her distant parents is poured into her two corgis. Rejecting her mother’s autumn-in-the-Hamptons vision for her, Battle shaves her head bare and begins a passionate romance with Nicola. Frustratingly, the summary I’ve provided in this paragraph is almost as much insight as Ryan gives us about Battle. There is so much provocative material to work with, and yet Battle is still drawn in two dimensions – a caricature of a rebellious preacher’s daughter away at summer camp.
We have so much more insight into Nicola, as the book is written from her perspective – and we have the added benefit of glimpsing into her “field notes” that she keeps throughout the camp. And yet there’s a curious hole in all that remarkable character development. One moment, Nicola is thinking about her (male) crush from high school and being slightly surprised at how riveting she finds a female camp-mate, and the next moment she’s as comfortable in a physically-intimate lesbian relationship as if she had been in one her entire life. There’s never any fear or doubt, and despite being a painfully reflective person, she doesn’t really try to understand whether she is lesbian, straight, or bisexual until the book is nearly over. I kept wondering how realistic her almost thoughtless coming-out could be – does anyone just come out, to themselves and their friends, so seamlessly and quickly? (It’s a sincere question – I don’t know. But it struck me as being a little too tidy.)
I see, on Ryan’s website, that she’s written a sequel that apparently focuses on Battle and her estranged brother. I’m hoping to track it down and see Battle’s character rendered into 3D, even though I’m a little disappointed that the blurb seems to suggest that Nicola won’t be making a reappearance. She was a fun character, and I’d like to see what happens to her as she grows up, too.
Confession: This book pushes my comfort level a little bit; I would have to have a very good relationship with a student before I’d recommend it, and there’s a part of me that squirms when I imagine leaving it on the shelves for students to browse. There’s no graphic sexual details, but it’s very clear that Nicola and Battle shed clothing and are intimate, and there are some mildly crude (but wickedly funny and realistic) comments between the teens. Maybe it’s just because it’s late at night and I’ve been thinking about some of my more conservative students today, but… yeah. I’m squirmy. That being said, it will be on my shelves. It’s a good story, and it may be exactly what some of my students need to read.
by James Howe
Published by Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2005
Ages: Middle Level
Awards: ALA Notable Children’s Book, Lambda Literary Award Nominee (Children’s/Young Adult)
I’d like to think that there are precious few people out there who didn’t have the childhood joy of reading James Howe’s Bunnicula books. (I, myself, will never forget my embarrassment after discovering and sharing the titular pun in The Celery Stalks at Midnight with my trying-hard-not-to-laugh parents.) At the time that Howe first wrote about his vege-vampire rabbit, he was married to the first of his two wives. His writing career didn’t really take off until the early 1980s, about the same time that he came out as a gay man. Since then he has written more than seventy books, including the much-acclaimed Misfits and its stand-alone sequel, Totally Joe.
I couldn’t get hold of Misfits, but I found and quickly fell in love with Totally Joe. Finally, here was a laugh-out-loud funny book about a boy who liked other boys – no misery, doom, gloom, profanity, or allusions to sordid sex. It’s probably the gayest book I’ve read so far (if you measure gayness in terms of flamboyance, which is pretty unsuitable, but probably unavoidable) but at the same time, it is the most innocent and sweet.
The protagonist and narrator, Joe Bunch, is a twelve-year-old student who has been assigned to write an “alphabiography” of his life. The book, presented as his completed assignment, is broken into 26 abecedarian chapters, each representing some aspect of his life as it unfolds during his seventh grade year. B is for Boy, and what it means to be a boy, and how he can’t make himself fit within that mold. D is for Dating, and his musings about how his straight friends can publicly date while he and his boyfriend almost have to pretend not to know one another. Q is for Questions. S is for Surprises. X, predictably, is for Xylophone; unpredictably, it may be the funniest chapter (at least for this keyboard percussionist) of the book.
Even at the age of twelve, Joe is pretty comfortable with himself and the fact that he isn’t, as he puts it, a guy-guy. He sometimes wears nail polish, gets his ear pierced, and enthuses about weddings, fashion, Cher, and cooking. He’s precocious in that regard, but his maturity is realistically inconsistent as he expresses disgust at things like “exchanging saliva.” Perhaps the least realistic thing about him is his restraint and patience in interacting with his friend-turned-boyfriend-turned-nonfriend-turned-friend, who can’t yet be as comfortable with his sexual identity. Even so, Joe is vividly drawn, loveable, and so, so funny.
The silent counterpart to Joe is the teacher, Mr. Daly, for whom Joe is writing. Even though we never hear or see Mr. Daly, except for brief moments when Joe describes school events that include the teacher, he serves as a solid sounding board for Joe as he verbally explores his feelings. Structurally, this is like a younger, light-hearted version of Perks of Being a Wallflower; even though the “listeners” are invisible, they play a crucial role in the protagonist’s development. Joe’s trust in Mr. Daly is heartwarming, and I found myself envying him as he was placed in that position of trust.
One line in particular stood out to me. It is spoken about a school administrator who changes his mind about a proposed GSA club, and I think it’s something that all we teachers ought to bear in mind: “It’s nice to know that educators can be educated.” I’m going to try to talk more about that at the end of this whole reading experiment, but in short: I’m learning so much from these books, and it seems to me that other educators could do the same.
Oh, and I totally want my students to write alphabiographies now. 🙂
Fly on the Wall: How One Girl Saw Everything
by E. Lockhart
Published by Delacorte Books for Young Readers, 2006
English teacher’s ugly confession time: I’ve never read The Metamorphosis. I’m familiar with it, of course (one of my favorite childhood shows was Chip & Dale’s Rescue Rangers, after all) and so the reference in Lockhart’s book didn’t miss me – but even if you’re entirely ignorant of Kafka, you’ll still get your money’s worth out of this short novel.
The protagonist, Gretchen, is a sixteen-year-old student at a prestigious art school in New York. Even in a school full of extraordinary students, though, Gretchen struggles to fit in. Her comic book-style art isn’t the kind of art that her teachers want, and she worries excessively about what other people – especially boys – think about her. One day she wishes that she could be a fly on the wall of the boys’ locker room, so that she could find out what everyone says behind her back… and when she wakes up the following morning, the wish has come true.
Gretchen-the-fly spends the next several days trapped in the boys’ locker room, witnessing – sometimes against her will, since flies lack eyelids – what happens in that inner sanctum of adolescent masculinity. She has her first, moderately traumatic look at male anatomy (followed, of course, by many more) and learns quite a little bit more about the boys and their opinions than she’d bargained for. Lockhart’s descriptions of what Gretchen sees are, well, descriptive, and conservative parents may be uncomfortable with some of the language.
Gretchen’s metamorphosis from insecure kid to confident young woman (by way of diptera) is aided by her voyeuristic discovery that other people have bigger problems with fitting in than she does – specifically when she observes boys launching, and being the target of, homophobic attacks. When she is returned to human form, Gretchen not only has a greater understanding of people outside her own head; she also has a cause that helps her find her place in the school community by securing a place for others.
Fly on the Wall isn’t a book about LGBTQ students, but the message and gay secondary characters certainly make it a good fit with a LGBTQ theme. The ideas that everyone has problems, that most young people are unhappy about some aspect of themselves, and that understanding one another is key to accepting and embracing one another, are the thematic bullet points to the story’s principle message: helping others will help you help yourself (or, for the cynical, stop obsessing so much about yourself and go do something productive!)
by Perry Moore
Published by Hyperion, 2007
Ages: YA (late teen)
Awards: Lambda Literary Award – Best LGBT Children’s/Young Adult Novel
Browsing the YA shelves of a bookstore, I came to the realization that there really wasn’t a lot of variety in terms of the sorts of books I was seeing. Without taking any sort of formal survey (I don’t have that much free time) I figured that I was seeing something along these lines:
Of course, I wasn’t just looking for any YA fiction – I was looking for YA fiction with LGBTQ characters or themes. I began thinking about it, and realized that the picture was even more grim for that “sub-genre”; with the exception of a couple of Levithan’s somewhat sci fi offerings, all of the LGBTQ books seemed to fall squarely in the argyle section of my pie chart.
A notable and refreshing exception is Perry Moore’s Hero – a debut novel by the executive producer of the Narnia films. It’s definitely a LGBTQ book, but don’t look for any argyle here – think spandex and capes instead.
Hero is the story of Thom, a talented high school athlete wrestling with two secrets. The first is that he has superpowers – a problem because his father is passionately opposed to the antics of heroes who use powers instead of mortal strength and gadgetry. Basically, Thom’s dad would decidedly prefer Batman to Superman – not too surprising, since he’d been a Batman-esque superpowerless hero during his prime.
Thom’s second secret is that he’s gay.
Hero chronicles a portion of Thom’s life as he gets involuntarily outed, recruited by the local superhero league, learns to use his powers, falls in love, and tries to make his father proud of him. Moore weaves in subplot about Thom’s fellow superheroes and their own problems, skillfully crafting a message about discovering and respecting the person beyond what circumstances have made of them. Ultimately, Hero isn’t about sexuality – it’s about treating one another as human beings, and taking care of one another.
There’s some strong language, including some fairly explicit sexual remarks, as well as your good ole-fashioned comic book violence; I’d recommend this book for mature teens and adult readers. Fans of the superhero genre will enjoy it as well. It’s been one of the more enjoyable reads I’ve had in recent history, and I truly believe that anyone who loves a good story could spend several pleasant hours between the covers of this novel. Word has it that a movie adaptation is in the works – here’s hoping they do a good job with it, because this would be a terrific film, too.
(Parts of this review were originally printed at Did You Have Juice?)
by Julie Anne Peters
Published by Little, Brown and Company, 2004
Ages: YA (probably suitable for mature middle level)
Awards: National Book Award Finalist, ALA Best Book for Young Adults, Stonewall Honor Book, Lambda Literary Award Finalist
The list of books written about transgender teens is a short one. The top spot on that list may very well be reserved for Luna, the story of a girl named Regan and her older brother, Liam, who wants nothing more than to be her older sister, Luna.
Luna is beautifully written, with an authentic voice and an ease of expression that make it – linguistically – very easy to read. Don’t get me wrong, though; it’s not easy to read once you get past the words and sentences. This is a tough story, because for all of the clarity and simplicity of language she employs, Peters brings a helluva emotional punch.
Obviously, sexual identity is the major issue of this book. (It’s important to differentiate between sexual identity and sexual orientation; the former refers to how male or female we consider ourselves to be, whereas the latter refers to the gender to which we are emotionally, affectionately, and sexually attracted. A person whose sexual identity doesn’t match his or her anatomical gender may or may not have a homosexual orientation. In that handy-dandy acronym, LGBTQ, “T” is used as to stand in for a broad range of differences, including transsexuals, cross-dressers, intersexed/hermaphrodite/androgynous people, and other people who spend much of their lives privately or publicly expressing themselves in other than their anatomical gender.) Liam/Luna’s struggle to make a life for herself in the body she chooses is painful to witness as she encounters incredulity, harassment, mocking, and physical abuse. It leaves the reader wondering how any high school transgendered student successfully navigates this process.
Ultimately, however, the book isn’t so much about Luna as it is about her sister Regan. Regan is the only person who knows Luna, and her love for her sibling makes her Luna’s one ally. The weight of this responsibility is an awful lot for a sophomore to bear, though, and as the story unfolds Regan begins to be crushed beneath it. Regan is under an emotional onslaught from so many different directions: fear for Luna’s safety, fear for her own social life, frustration at her parents and their many issues, concern for the girl who believes she’ll one day marry Liam, guilt at not being a better ally, aggravation at her perceived constant inability to do anything right. Tack that on top of all the usual things a sophomore girl has to deal with emotionally, and it’s a wonder Regan doesn’t implode.
Peters has written a story about what it means to be a transgendered teen, but more importantly she’s crafted a beautifully sympathetic look at the hardships straight allies can withstand as they try to understand, support, and protect the ones they love. It’s not an entirely realistic story; Liam’s financial independence is all-too-convenient, their parents distractingly oblivious, and Regan’s acceptance almost too perfect. It would be a darker, but perhaps more lifelike, tale if Peters had delved more deeply into the depression and suicidal tendencies affecting Liam and, by association, his sister. Doing so, however, almost certainly would have shifted it out of the YA realm.
The story ends better than I’d hoped (I don’t much like sad endings) but felt a little abrupt – which is my critical way of saying that I wonder if Peters has considered writing a sequel. I really would like to find out what happens next for Regan and Luna.
What If Someone I Know is Gay?: Answers to Questions About What it Means to Be Gay and Lesbian
by Eric Marcus
Published by Simon Pulse, 2007
Ages: Grades 7 and up
It probably isn’t possible, at least in my part of the country, to introduce a book about sexual orientation into the required high school curriculum. That’s a pity, because if anything ought to be required reading for every teen, it’s Marcus’s excellent Q&A-style book.
What If Someone I Know is Gay? takes real questions and answers them with candor, honesty, and respect. The reader is never made to feel stupid or embarrassed not to know something. Marcus answers the questions simply, using scientific fact and personal anecdotes to illustrate his responses. His calm tone systematically dismantles misconceptions and mysteries, substituting understanding for fear.
As indicated by the title, this book’s professed target audience is straight teens who want to be better informed about their LGBTQ peers. That being said, I believe it would prove an invaluable resource for a reader who wants to better understand his or her own life. Popular culture promotes an exaggerated view of homosexuality, and Marcus peels that away to reveal a reality that is strikingly non-different from anyone else’s.
In 2005, Marcus wrote a similar book for adults (Is It a Choice?: Answers to the Most Frequently Asked Questions about Gay & Lesbian People) after being surprised at the things his straight friends didn’t know about being gay and lesbian. Afterward, he was asked to write a version of his book suitable for younger readers; What If is the result. I should mention that What If’s language and content are suitable for middle level readers and may seem a little too young to older readers; Is It a Choice would be entirely appropriate for high school students.
Ultimately, even if we can’t get this book to every student, it ought to be in front of every teacher. If, as scientists believe, 5% of all men and 2.5% of all women are homosexual, most secondary teachers will have at minimum half a dozen LGBTQ students each year – and for some of those students, a well-informed teacher may be the only adult ally they have. I found this book and its adult companion text enormously informative, and highly recommend it to everyone.