Let’s Get Graphic

Graphic novels for all ages are booming! For at least a decade, the number of graphic novels for youth has been growing, with increasingly diverse topics, characters, and storylines.

Until recently, though, graphic novels for youth with QUILTBAG characters and themes were few and far between. Despite all the awesome comics for kids and teens, graphic novels seemed to be lagging behind traditional novels in the QUILTBAG arena.

Thankfully that’s changing, and graphic novels for and about QUILTBAG youth are becoming more plentiful. In QUILTBAG #6 I talked about Drama by Raina Telgemeier, a groundbreaking middle grade graphic novel that’s been a massive hit ever since its release in 2012. In just the past year or two, a flood of other graphic novels for teens, tweens, and younger kids have joined Drama in the QUILTBAG graphic novel landscape.

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Check, Please! #Hockey by Ngozi Ukazu tells the sweet and funny tale of Eric “Bitty” Bittle, a former high school figure skater who applies his skating skills to hockey once he’s in college. Bitty loves baking for his friends, social networking (his tweets are compiled in the back of the book), and the camaraderie of his hockey team. The cute, cartoony art in this Morris Award finalist will appeal to younger readers, but this one is for older teens — the characters are all in college and the storylines are authentic to that. Some of Bitty’s teammates express themselves in the colorful ways you might expect from college hockey players, so fair warning. I loved this book and can’t wait for the next volume.

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In Bloom by Kevin Panetta and Savanna Ganucheau, Ari is eager to move to the big city with his bandmates, but his parents need his help running the family bakery in their sleepy beach town. Ari thinks if he can find someone to take his place, maybe his father will let him go. Enter Hector, an easy-going guy who loves to bake and answers the Help Wanted call. Ari and Hector become co-workers, then friends. This charming, slow-burn romance features older teens but will appeal to younger teens as well; it’s published by First Second, who can always be counted on to provide some of the very best graphic novels for youth.

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The Prince and the Dressmaker by Jen Wang, also from First Second, showed up on the 2019 Rainbow List (see QUILTBAG #2) and is also a Teens’ Top Ten 2019 nominee. After seamstress Frances is fired for creating a dress her boss finds too edgy, she’s hired by a mysterious client who is intrigued by her daring designs. Her new admirer turns out to be the Prince, who secretly likes wearing beautiful dresses. Together, the two of them are unstoppable. Using a lush color palette and clean, sweeping lines, Wang beautifully tells this charming tale of fashion and finding one’s identity. This is a sweet story suitable for tweens and older.

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A collection of connected short stories, The Cardboard Kingdom by Chad Sell tracks a neighborhood-full of kids who, over the course of one summer, create an increasingly elaborate fantasy world using cardboard boxes and their imaginations. Several characters display some sort of gender non-conformity in ordinary, childlike ways — the boy who wants to play the Empress; the girl who wants to be a mustache-wearing scientist; the boy who’d rather be rescued by the prince than slay the dragon. The art is colorful and energetic, and the text is spare and easy to read. This book is perfectly appealing for all ages.

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Kiss Number 8 by Colleen AF Venable and Ellen T. Crenshaw is a recent release from First Second for more mature teens. Mads attends Catholic high school where her friend group includes wild child Cat, goody-goody Laura, and Laura’s brother Adam, who has a crush on Mads. Venable has crafted a story rich with friend drama, family mystery and strife, and a main character who compellingly struggles to make sense of her family, friends, and feelings. Crenshaw’s drawings are lively; expressive body language and facial expressions help tell the story in tandem with the text.

There are plenty of other comics and graphic novels for youth with QUILTBAG characters, and also several with QUILTBAG vibes or appeal. Nimona, Fence, Witch Boy, Lumberjanes, Backstagers, Roller Girl, This One Summer, and Tomboy are just a few worth recommending.

What are your favorite graphic novels and comics for youth that have QUILTBAG characters or storylines? I’d love to hear your suggestions!

PS: I know some of you are educators, and if you’re still reluctant to read graphic novels or use them in your classroom, I recommend this essay-in-comic-form by Gene Yang, the author of the Printz-winning American Born Chinese and a huge advocate for comics for kids. A recent Edweek article weighs in, as well, on why graphic novels belong in your English classroom. And finally, Publishers Weekly explains why the graphic novel is a perfectly teachable format.

Bad for You

Last week the American Library Association put out their annual list of the top ten most challenged books of the previous year (for 2018, it’s actually a top eleven). It’s notable — and not unusual — that more than half of them were challenged because of QUILTBAG content.

The ALA compiles statistics throughout the year whenever a parent or patron questions the appropriateness of a book in a school or public library’s collection and tries to have it removed. If you take a look at the most recent list you can see the rationale given for challenging each book; six of the eleven titles list LGBTQ characters or themes as a reason. The accompanying infographic includes a word cloud that also clearly shows LGBTQIA+ as the biggest concern during challenges, with additional entries for terms like “gender nonconformity,” “transgender characters,” and “same-sex married couple.”

Drama, a graphic novel for tweens by Raina Telgemeier, has shown up on this list for several years now, and comes in this year at #5. Callie, the main character, helps with set design in her middle school’s drama club, and the story focuses on, well, the DRAMA of middle school, including failures, embarrassments, and first crushes. One such romance is between two boys. This tame comic book is perfectly fine for (and very popular with) upper elementary students — but many of its detractors cite the gay content as inappropriate, while finding no issue with the many straight kisses and crushes that arise throughout the story.

A Day in the Life of Marlon Bundo by Jill Twiss and illustrated by E.G. Keller, #2 on this year’s list, got its start as a satirical jab at the Vice President. Mike Pence’s wife and daughter wrote a book about their pet bunny Marlon Bundo. As a response, comedian John Oliver presented this picture book in which Bundo falls in love with another boy bunny, while a villainous stinkbug (who looks suspiciously like the President) tries to thwart their relationship. A Day in the Life of Marlon Bundo is a surprisingly sweet picture book that stands on its own, apart from the political and social satire that spawned it. While some of the complaints about this book arose from its political viewpoint, it received more heat from the same-sex romance between Marlon and his bunny boyfriend.

Why are parents and community members so concerned about QUILTBAG characters and themes in books for children? Why do some citizens attempt to have books removed from libraries and schools, even going so far as to hide or destroy copies of the offending books?

I can’t answer those questions. As a school librarian, I encourage my students to self-select what they want to read, which includes what they don’t want to read. I remind them that their parents can guide what kinds of books they choose, and some families might opt to place certain books off limits. But I emphasize that students and parents don’t get to make those choices for other students and families. I tell my students: If something makes you uncomfortable, simply don’t check it out. Choose the books you like, and leave other books for other readers.

(Several years ago, a mother of one of our students informed me that our library had more “gay books” than other junior highs in our area. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t meant as a compliment. At the time we had about 30 such titles amid a fiction collection of over 5,000 books. I’m glad that we have more than that now.)

Sometimes things make us uncomfortable simply because they’re unfamiliar. Perhaps the key then is to read more QUILTBAG books, not banish them from our children’s experience. Science has shown that reading fiction increases emotional intelligence and empathy. Author Sunil Yapa has said, “Empathy is a profound act of imagination and human connection. In fiction, we imagine ourselves into other people’s experiences.” Kids and teens will be more accepting and inclusive if they have read diverse stories about others’ lives.

While some people seek to remove QUILTBAG titles from children’s shelves, lots of people think we don’t have enough QUILTBAG books for youth in libraries — especially stories about people of color, kids with disabilities or mental illness, or youth from other marginalized groups, who also happen to be queer. NBC News recently published a story about the rise of YA books with LGBTQ content. The article features many YA authors, including Amy Rose Capetta and Caleb Roehrig, whose Rainbow List-ed books Echo After Echo and White Rabbit I touted back in QUILTBAG #2 – The Rainbow List. The NBC article also mentions many other worthwhile authors and YA titles.

I’m tired of seeing so many QUILTBAG books on the banned, burned, and challenged lists. We need to move beyond the idea that QUILTBAG books are somehow bad for our kids. In fact, a recent study showed that having a gay friend makes you a better person. So strive to be better, and help the children and teens in your life be better too. Read more QUILTBAG books!

Pronouns and Prefixes

What are your preferred pronouns? This is a very modern question. Not so long ago, everyone was a he/him or a she/her. A character like Pat on the old Saturday Night Live skits who confounded people’s binary assumptions was a source for humor.

In today’s world many people, for many reasons, choose to use they/them pronouns. It can sound awkward at first, using they/them to refer to a single person, paired with a singular antecedent. While it might feel fairly normal to say something general like, “Each student should turn in their paper by Friday,” it’s more jarring to hear, “Chris would like to turn in their paper on Monday, instead.”

(For an excellent explanation of singular “they” and how it’s actually been a part of the English language for hundreds of years, I recommend listening to an episode of the Lexicon Valley podcast called “The Rise of They.” And no less an authority than the Oxford English Dictionary defends the practice with signature wit and style in their blog post “A Brief History of Singular They.”)

A Quick and Easy Guide to They/Them Pronouns by Archie Bongiovanni and Tristan Jimerson is exactly what it sounds like. In graphic novel format, comics-artist Archie — who uses they/them pronouns in their real life — helps their cisgender friend Tristan (a storyteller for The Moth, among other things) understand the purposes and potential pitfalls of using people’s preferred pronouns. In comfortable, conversational style, the two authors walk readers through all the questions and confusion that might arise if a friend says they prefer to use they/them pronouns.

Symptoms of Being Human by Jeff Garvin features Riley, a gender fluid teen who creates a blog in the midst of facing struggles at a new school. Garvin largely avoids pronoun challenges by writing from Riley’s point of view in first person. In Every Day by David Levithan, in which a sixteen-year-old wakes up every day in the body of a different person, the main character known simply as “A” uses masculine or feminine pronouns depending on the body A inhabits that day. The lead character Sal in the fantasy novel Mask of Shadows by Linsey Miller is genderfluid and expects people to use the pronouns that match Sal’s presentation from day to day.

These are smart work-arounds for an author, and also represent real pronoun choices for some people. But increasingly, people are choosing to use they/them pronouns for a variety of reasons and it’s important to adjust our ears and expectations accordingly. We shouldn’t have to manipulate our language to avoid pronouns just because someone doesn’t easily fit our standard choices. (If you like, you can explore gender-neutral options like ze/hir or e/em/eir.)  

The 57 Bus by Dashka Slater is a Stonewall-winning non-fiction book about a horrible event on a city bus in Oakland in 2013. Sasha, a gender-nonconforming teen, had their skirt set on fire while sleeping on the bus and suffered severe burns. In short easy-to-read chapters, the book tells the compelling story of Sasha and also of Richard, the boy with the lighter.

Aside from being a fascinating read, The 57 Bus also provides a thorough education on current terminology. This book helped me adjust to they and them as singular pronouns, while also expanding my understanding of identities such as genderfluid, cisgender, nonbinary (enby), biromantic, genderqueer, pansexual, and so many others.

I’m no expert (and this post is already running long) so I’m not going to attempt to explain or define all of these terms. There are plenty of good resources just an Internet search away — or starting on page 32 of The 57 Bus. And in today’s world, it makes sense to be up on the latest lingo. Here are just a few examples that are in common use today:

  • Cis is a prefix signifying that your gender identity matches your physical gender assigned at birth. You could think of it as the opposite of trans.
  • Some people feel they aren’t sexual at all and use Ace as shorthand for asexual.
  • Younger people, if they find themselves attracted to different genders, are less likely to say they’re bi (because it plays into the notion of gender as binary) and more inclined to say they’re pansexual — attracted to all gender identities.

In the book Ship It by Britta Lundin (see QUILTBAG #3 – Cons, Ships, and Fics), Tess says she’s a homoromantic pansexual. Thanks to my reading of The 57 Bus, I knew just what she was talking about, and it made total sense in the context of the story.

We live in rapidly changing times regarding how society views sexuality and gender, and books for young people are reflecting and leading these changes. I encourage you to delve into any of these books or the many others that shed light on this topic. If you have a gender nonconforming friend, co-worker, or student, they will thank you for it.

Picture This

Based on conversations with friends and acquaintances, it seems that many people think QUILTBAG books must all be for adults or teens. That somehow those themes and characters aren’t appropriate for younger readers, or that there’s no way to tell those stories in a way that works for children.

Nothing could be further from the truth. And if your QUILTBAG picture book knowledge begins and ends with Heather Has Two Mommies, you are in for a treat. Some of my favorite QUILTBAG books of the past year are picture books, written and illustrated for very young readers.

Neither by Airlie Anderson

In a land of yellow birds and blue rabbits, a green creature with bunny ears and a beak shows up. Claiming to be “both,” the green one is instead labelled as “neither” — neither this nor that, neither these nor those — and therefore unsuited for any of the birdy games or rabbity activities. After being banished and looking for Somewhere Else, the protagonist instead finds welcoming friends in The Land of All. Spare text, bright colors, and bold, simple drawings make this book perfect for even the youngest readers, and the message is clear: there are all different kinds of beings, and the best world is where everyone is welcome.

The Adventures of Honey and Leon by Alan Cumming, illustrated by Grant Shaffer

In a book inspired (very loosely) by real life, actor Alan Cumming and his illustrator husband Grant Shaffer tell the story of two sophisticated Manhattan dogs, Honey and Leon, and their two dads. The dogs worry whenever the dads leave on trips, so one day Honey and Leon decide to follow along in secret, just to keep an eye on their family. Jaunty, colorful illustrations perfectly capture the fabulous lifestyle and outsized attitude of these very cosmopolitan dogs and their dads.

A Church for All by Gayle E. Pitman, pictures by Laure Fournier

I’m a Methodist, and the actions of the United Methodist Church at the recent General Conference have been painful and divisive. Thankfully, my local church is much more like the one in this joyous, inclusive book: “Hands receiving / Hands connecting / Hearts believing / Hearts accepting / Feel the Spirit / Can you hear it? / It’s here at our church for all!” The pictures show a broad diversity of age, race, gender, disability, social and economic status, and fashion choice, all attending church together with love and grace.

Phoenix Goes to School by Michelle and Phoenix Finch, illustrated by Sharon Davey

This autobiographical picture book tells the story of Phoenix, a transgender girl who was AMAB (assigned male at birth), as she heads off for her first day at school. She is nervous to wear a dress, and worried that older kids might bully her or make fun of her. In fact, she has a great first day and makes some new friends. Supplemental material at the back of the book offers information and discussion questions for children and adults.

Julian is a Mermaid by Jessica Love

In this 2019 Stonewall Award winner, Julian and his grandmother see three women on the subway dressed as glamorous mermaids. Julian decides he wants to be a mermaid too, and improvises a costume with items found in his grandmother’s house. Luscious pictures and minimal text tell the sweet story of Julian’s emerging identity and his supportive abuela. Be sure to look up videos of the Coney Island Mermaid Parades that inspired this book.

Sewing the Rainbow by Gayle E. Pitman, illustrated by Holly Clifton-Brown

Harvey Milk has rightly gotten a lot of attention for his role in the gay rights movement in San Francisco in the 1970s. This book focuses instead on fellow activist and costume designer Gilbert Baker, the man who created the first rainbow flags for a march on City Hall. Gilbert grew up in Kansas where everything was “dull and gray and flat” but Gilbert was a boy “full of color and sparkle and glitter.” A Reader Note at the end of the book provides even more biographical detail and historical context.  

All of these titles and so many more are perfect introductions to QUILTBAG themes for early readers. And while it’s tempting to think of this as a fairly new trend in children’s picture books, the New York Times did a story recently on “The Gay History of America’s Classic Children’s Books”; it’s a fascinating read.

Whether or not you’ve got some little ones in your life to read with, I encourage you to pick up any of these delightful titles and explore the rainbow of stories picture books have to offer.

Cons, Ships, and Fics

Ah, fandom. The world of cosplay, slashfic, cons, and headcanon ships.

If most of that sounds like a foreign language, you owe it to yourself to dive into some of the latest YA novels that use the universe of fandom to tell compelling stories of identity in the 21st century. (And I’ve included a short glossary at the end of this post, just in case. Look for bolded words in the glossary.)

The Pros of Cons by Alison Cherry, Lindsay Ribar, and Michelle Schusterman

Three authors tell three interconnected stories of three girls, all at the same hotel and convention center for three different events. Callie is assisting her father at the World Taxidermy Championships. Phoebe is with her fellow high school band mates at the Indoor Percussion Association Convention. And Vanessa is at the We Treasure Fandom Convention, aka WTFcon, where she’s excited to finally meet IRL her online co-author and girlfriend Soleil.

Callie and her father are clashing over family dynamics; Phoebe is caught in a web of conflicting crushes and frenemies in her circle of band friends; and Vanessa discovers that Soleil may have misrepresented herself online in a variety of ways to further her own fanfic fanbase. (On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog, as they say.)

In rotating chapters, the three girls narrate their individual stories, which increasingly overlap until the different plotlines weave together in one satisfying climax. A podcast project for Creativity Corner, WTFcon’s culminating event, combines the talents and connections of all three girls, and hinges in part on the fact that they are unknown to each other’s con companions and can therefore interview them face to face in relative anonymity. The project also gives Vanessa a chance to further her budding friendship with fellow fanfic writer Merry (who uses they/them pronouns).

Chaotic Good by Whitney Gardner

Cameron designs costumes, often gender-flipping characters from comic books and video games as she reimagines their looks. After winning a recent cosplay contest she’s been suffering abuse from Internet trolls who are mad at how she’s altered their favorite characters, or simply can’t believe a girl could know anything about the world of comics and gaming.

Cameron hopes to finish her costume portfolio in peace, and since her family has recently moved to a new town, it’s easy to be a recluse. But as she’s browsing the local comic shop for inspiration, her ire is newly raised by a smug clerk who steers her to the “girl section” and quizzes her on obscure characters to test her cred.

On a suggestion from her gay twin brother Cooper, Cameron borrows some of his clothes and gender-swaps her own identity. She’s surprised to find how easy it is to be taken seriously when she’s back in the comics shop as boy-Cameron; she’s even more surprised when a good-looking guy invites her to join his D&D group that plays regularly at the shop.

Cameron develops a crush on the dashing DM but is in too deep to reveal that she’s a girl. Her brother Cooper is interested in Wyatt, another player, but Wyatt seems to only have eyes for Cam (who he thinks is a boy!). Meanwhile, the Internet bullies are coming after Cameron full-force, and it’s affecting her ability to finish her portfolio in time for her big college interview.

Filled with great social commentary on gender dynamics, Internet trolling, table-top gaming, comics, cosplay, and role-playing of all kinds, Chaotic Good delivers a delightful and timely story.

Ship It by Britta Lundin

Smokey is a demon hunter. Heart is a demon…with a heart. The two are sworn enemies, and yet…. When Claire writes slashfic starring the two main characters of her favorite tv show Demon Heart, the two hunky leads are in love.

Claire travels from her small Idaho town to a Comic-Con in Boise where the stars of Demon Heart are appearing, and she has the opportunity to ask them about the possibility of their smoldering attraction finally playing out on screen. It may not be canon, but it’s Claire’s headcanon. And she’s not alone. Fandom reacts with enthusiastic curiosity, but Forest Reed (who plays Smokey) does NOT like the idea that fans might see his character as gay.

After a clip of the Q&A goes viral, Claire is invited to follow the Con to Portland and Seattle, in part to pander to the show’s online and LGBTQ fans, but also in an attempt at damage control. Forest, and others involved with the show, just want Claire and her uncomfortable questions to go away.

Claire meets fellow Demon Heart fan Tess, a self-proclaimed “homoromantic pansexual,” and Claire begins to realize she may have feelings for Tess beyond fellow fan and potential friend. Meanwhile, Forest and his co-star Rico react differently to the fans who ship their characters, and Forest has to face some of his own issues.

All three of these books are on the American Library Association’s 2019 Rainbow List. All three titles have interesting things to say about the gender spectrum, gender roles, questioning, and attraction as well as the tricky navigation of public and private identities, the power of online communities, and the creativity of fandom. Still, they never feel preachy or teacher-y; each one is a fun adventure with fascinating characters. So whether the world of Cons, Fics, and Ships is familiar territory or completely new to you, dive on in!

Glossary

Canon – The facts of an original story, especially in contrast to what happens in fanfic. For example, plenty of fanfic has Harry and Hermione getting together romantically — even though that’s not canon. Or fanfic might have Harry on Safari in Africa, even though that’s not canon.

Con – Short for convention, often a fan convention of some kind. LeakyCon is a well-known Harry Potter convention.

Cosplay – Short for costume play. Often fans will attend cons or meet-ups in elaborate costumes, which could be careful replicas of well-known characters (storm troopers, Hobbits) or variations such as gender-flipped versions of characters or fanfic characters that are clearly from a certain fandom (“I’m a bisexual Slytherin with a thing for both Tonks and Ron.”)

D&D – Dungeons and Dragons, a popular tabletop role-playing game.

DM – Dungeon Master. The person who plans and runs campaigns for D&D games.

Fandom – This can refer to all the fans of all the things; or a specific fandom, such as the Harry Potter fandom, the Lumberjanes fandom, or the High School Musical fandom.

Fanfic – Fiction written by fans and set in the world of an existing story. Fanfic could be about canon characters, new characters invented by the fanfic writer, or both.

Headcanon – A fact that isn’t canon, but a fan (or many fans) assume to be true, so it is part of their personal headcanon. Supposed queerness is a frequent topic of headcanon: Lady Elaine Fairchild is a lesbian; Ryan Evans (HSM) is gay. (See the brilliant essay in comic form, “Tell Me About Your Trans Headcanons,” by Sfe R. Monster in the anthology The Secret Loves of Geeks.)

IRL – In Real Life.

Ship – Short for relationship, but used as a verb. When a fan wants two characters to get together romantically, they ship them. So many Harry Potter fans ship Harry and Draco, it’s practically become headcanon for many of them.  

Slashfic – Fanfic that puts two characters in a relationship that isn’t canon, usually a queer relationship. For example, fanfic that pairs the Winchester brothers from Supernatural (“Wincest”) or stories about Meredith and Cristina from Gray’s Anatomy.

Trolling – Being intentionally inflammatory in online comments to provoke individuals or groups, incite anger, and disrupt online communication and communities.

The Rainbow List

Last week, thousands of librarians met in Seattle for the American Library Association’s Midwinter Meeting. Dozens of volunteer committees met for hours and hours all weekend, after reading stacks and stacks of books all year, to decide award winners and create book lists for the benefit of librarians and readers.

One of those committees chooses titles for the Rainbow List, “…a list of recommended books dealing with gay, lesbian, bisexual, trangendered and questioning issues and situations for children up to age 18” (in the words of the ALA website). This year’s committee, a delightful and dedicated group of ten librarians from all across the country, chose a record-setting 107 books for their list.*

The Top Ten includes picture books, middle grade, and YA titles. There’s a fantasy story, a nonfiction picture book, and a graphic novel; sweet stories and thought-provoking plot lines.

The full list is even more wide-ranging. Here are a few of my favorites:

Jerome By Heart by Thomas Scotto / grades Pre-K to 3

Raphael enjoys his friendship with Jerome: they hold hands, share snacks, and do everything together. Not everyone understands their relationship, but Raphael doesn’t mind because he knows how he feels about Jerome.

Ivy Aberdeen’s Letter to the World by Ashley Herring Blake / grades 5 to 8

Twelve-year-old Ivy’s house is destroyed by a tornado and her family life is thrown into turmoil, leaving her feeling neglected. She’s feeling especially unmoored when her notebook filled with pictures of girls holding hands goes missing just as she’s trying to navigate a possible crush on a new friend. By turns tragic and touching, this gentle story is filled with lovely descriptions of Ivy’s artwork and compelling characters who surround and support Ivy during her tender first steps into adolescence.

Nate Expectations by Tim Federle / grades 6 and up

When Nate’s Broadway show closes, he’s forced to go back to his boring hometown for his freshman year of high school. But where Nate goes, drama (by any definition) is never far behind. In this perfect conclusion to a delightful trilogy, Nate discovers new talents, unexpected family history, and a surprising new friend. Readers should start with Better Nate Than Ever (in which 13-year-old Nate runs away from home to audition for the role of Elliott in ET: The Musical) and savor every awkward, painful, joyous moment of Nate’s journey through to the satisfying, happy-tears conclusion in this final volume.

White Rabbit by Caleb Roehrig / grades 8 and up

Rufus runs around all night in a race-against-the-clock attempt to solve a mystery that will clear his sister’s name. Twist: his ex-boyfriend is the one with a car, so the ex is along for the ride. As the two boys uncover clues and interrogate classmates, they also have plenty of drive time to dissect their failed relationship and figure out if they have a future together.

Echo After Echo by Amy Rose Capetta / grades 9 and up

Zara moves to New York City, where she has the opportunity to play the role she’s always coveted. Unfortunately, cast and crew members begin to die under mysterious circumstances. It’s a behind-the-scenes theater tale; it’s a slow-burn murder-mystery; it’s a lesbian love story. The literary style and adult-world setting give this book the feel of an adult novel, but one that will appeal to high schoolers, especially those interested in theater arts.

In Other Lands by Sarah Rees Brennan / grades 9 and up

Elliot is recruited to a magical school in a magical land when he’s 13 years old. He is intelligent, impatient, sarcastic, and not very adept with social cues, which makes him both annoying and unintentionally hilarious. Throughout his teen years, he works to upend the fantasy world’s violent ways while navigating relationships with classmates and negotiating peace with the many fascinating citizens of the Borderlands.  This book, which began as an online story that just kept growing, sends up some familiar fantasy tropes and plays with gender expectations in delightful ways.

I’ll be talking about more of the Rainbow List titles in future blog posts. Visit the full 2019 Rainbow List to find the titles you’ll want to read and fall in love with.

 

*Full disclosure: I was lucky enough to be one of those ten librarians!

Defaults

Reading a book is an internal, personal experience. Even the most descriptive writing leaves so much to a reader’s imagination. It’s been said that reading a novel is a collaboration between the author and the reader; the writer creates what’s on the page while the reader uses personal experience and opinion to conjure mental images and bring meaning to the story.

So unless the author spells it out, every one of us imagines something different when we read a book. “House” might conjure up where you live now, or your childhood home, or a friend’s place — and if the author doesn’t give you more detail, it doesn’t really matter how you picture that character’s bedroom, or their high school, or their neighborhood.

It gets trickier when it comes to the characters themselves. Unless we’re told otherwise, most readers default to an image of characters who are white. And straight. After all, so many fictional characters we watch on tv and see in movies are white and straight and middle class, so it’s easy to assume that characters in books are also white and straight — even if we’re never told that explicitly.

Which brings me to Simon.

Love, Simon, which came out [heh] in March 2018, was the first major-studio teen gay romantic comedy released in the United States. The movie was based on the 2015 book Simon vs. the Homosapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli, which won the 2016 Morris Award for debut YA literature.

Simon, the title character, is white and middle class and as far as anyone knows when the story starts, straight. But he’s been trading emails with another gay guy at his high school for a while now. Simon doesn’t know who he is — they’ve been using code names — and neither one of them is out. When Simon fails to log off a computer in the school library, a classmate sees the emails and threatens to out Simon if he doesn’t help set him up with a girl he likes.

Simon vs. the Homosapiens Agenda is a delightful contemporary YA novel: funny, dramatic, and romantic. Filled with great friends, cool sisters, awkward parent conversations, and flirty emails with the mysterious Blue, it’s a feel-good book that anyone can enjoy.

And that’s plenty. But Simon is also bursting with little nuggets of wisdom about friendship, coming out, growing up, and finding your own identity. At one point Simon has an epiphany: “White shouldn’t be the default any more than straight should be the default. There shouldn’t even be a default.”

The cast of characters in Simon vs. the Homosapiens Agenda is perfect for the #weneeddiversebooks era, with a rainbow of race, gender, and sexuality represented. Albertalli definitely doesn’t give in to the defaults in her books!

But Simon is an amiable, good looking, straight-acting, white, male, middle class, reasonably fit, regular dude. And fair or not, that makes him the default in nearly every way — an accessible character perfectly suited to be the gay lead in an award-winning book or the main character in the first mainstream gay teen romantic comedy movie.

So if you haven’t read many QUILTBAG books, this might be your gateway novel. Or if you want to hand a book to a friend or family member who’s a little wary of QUILTBAG themes and characters, this could be a good one to start with. And if you’ve already read Simon, I recommend Albertalli’s Leah on the Offbeat (a sort-of sequel, set one year later, and from friend Leah’s point of view), and The Upside of Unrequited (a mega-diverse story with some small connections to the Simon-verse).

The movie, Love, Simon, while different from the book in a number of ways, is equally charming and accessible. The Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast did a great episode discussing the movie, which includes a nice story about a gay man seeing the movie with his mother, her reaction, and their long-overdue conversation that followed.

Just as we’re seeing more racially diverse characters on tv, in movies, and in books, QUILTBAG titles are also breaking down the defaults by putting characters of diverse gender roles and sexualities front and center. I encourage you to fight the defaults in your own reading habits. If you haven’t read Simon vs. the Homosapiens Agenda, it’s not a bad place to start.

image from tales for teens