The Black Flamingo by Dean Atta (9780062990297)
This award-winning teen verse novel deals with gender, identity and fabulous drag performances. Michael’s father is entirely absent in his life, leaving the room when they are in the same house together. Michael does have a connection with his father’s Jamaican family, receiving gifts from them and time spent together. He lives with his Greek-Cypriot mother in London; she accepts Michael entirely, from the time he was a small boy wanting to play with Barbies to college as a gay man. Along the way, Michael must deal with racism, of not being black enough and assumptions being made about him by society. He doesn’t know any other gay black people, forging a path on his own that leads him to university and a club that does drag where he finds his voice and a stage persona too.
Atta is a poet and this is his debut YA novel which has already won the Stonewall Book Award. Just starting reading, it is clear that the poems are done by a master storyteller. They allow readers to deeply understand the struggles of Michael from his family life to friendships that come and go to coming out and then performing. There is a valuable evolution on the page where Michael comes out and yet doesn’t quite become himself fully for several years, until he finds a place to belong.
Atta’s writing is beautiful. He mixes his own poetry with that of Michael the character, moving gracefully between the two. Somehow they are distinct from one another, the voices similar and still separate. The use of poetry to tell such a personal and deeply-felt story makes this really work, as poetry and verse are a fast way to allow readers to see the heart and soul of a character.
Brave, beautiful and deep, this teen novel is masterful. Appropriate for ages 15-18.
Reviewed from e-galley provided by Balzer + Bray.
Astronauts: Women on the Final Frontier by Jim Ottaviani, illustrated by Maris Wicks (9781626728776)
The team who brought us the Primates graphic novel continue their focus on women in science. This time they tell the story of Mary Cleave and how women were finally able to enter NASA has astronauts. It is the story of hard work and dedication, of insistence on being heard and knowing when to push. It is a story of proving the worth of women, undergoing a battery of tests and still being told no. The tale is a compelling one, a story of politics and science, of women’s right to be seen as valid scientists, engineers and pilots.
There are so many heroines on these pages! Women who changed the course of NASA along the way. Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space, is also shown as the space race intensified between the United States and the Soviet Union. Throughout, Cleave narrates the history for the reader, as she floats in space herself, testimony to the progress that would eventually be made. Just as with any fight for equal rights, this one took a lot of time and a lot of women to enact. It is a story worth exploring.
The graphic novel format works particularly well with this subject as the story plays out almost as a documentary across the pages. Wicks makes each woman recognizable on the page as an individual, eventual side-by-side illustrated version and actual photograph show how deeply she connected the images to the actual women.
A stellar look at gender in space and science that is inspiring. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from copy provided by First Second.
What Riley Wore by Elana K. Arnold, illustrated by Linda Davick (9781481472609)
Riley loves to dress for every occasion. Riley wore a bunny costume on the first day of school, even though no one else worse a costume. At the dentist’s office Riley wore a superhero outfit for bravery. Riley wore a ballgown to dinner with Oma and Otto because they went to a fancy restaurant. Space pajamas were just right for Universe Day at school. A hard hat was ideal for a visit to the hardware store. Some days at home were perfect not to wear anything at all. When Riley wore a complicated outfit to the park, Riley was asked if they were a boy or a girl. Riley answered by talking about her outfit’s roles and joined in playing with everyone.
Arnold writes with such skill here that it is only partway through the book that readers may notice that there are no pronouns or genders shared about Riley. Every child can see themselves in Riley and be dazzled by Riley’s costumes and outfits along the way. There is a sense of merriment in all of the things Riley wears and a strong expression of identity as well.
Davick’s illustrations are filled with bright colors and a celebration of Riley’s sense of style. The mixed costumes are complicated and Davick captures them beautifully, showing exactly what Riley was trying to convey.
Ideal for kids of every gender and every way of expressing themselves through clothing. Appropriate for ages 2-5.
Reviewed from copy provided by Beach Lane.
The Downstairs Girl by Stacey Lee (9781524740955)
As a Chinese-American living in Atlanta in 1890, Jo veers between being invisible to being openly shunned. She even lives invisibly in an underground secret room with Old Gin, the man who has raised her. Fired from her millinery job due to her race, Jo returns to her previous job as a maid for the entitled daughter of one of the wealthiest men in town. From her underground chamber, Jo discovers that the newspaper publisher who lives in the house above is having difficulty. A competing paper has a new advice column that is getting a lot of attention. So Jo sets out to anonymously fill that role as Miss Sweetie. As her column gains attention and controversy due to her distinct take on race and women’s rights, Jo finds herself caught up in a mystery that may force her to reveal all of her secrets.
Lee writes about an interesting moment in American history. After Chinese people were brought over to replace African-Americans as slaves on plantations, they also fled the hard work and disappeared into urban areas. These Chinese-Americans then had to figure out how to get by in a world that saw only black and white, not other races. Jo finds herself at the heart of these struggles as she navigates the world of the South in the late 1800’s. Laws were changing, and certainly not for the better around her. It’s a captivating look at an almost invisible group of people who should not be forgotten in the history of our nation.
Jo is a marvelous protagonist. Lee does an admirable job of making Jo’s more progressive views make sense and not be too modern. Bound by the society around her, Jo is regularly reminded of her status and that helps the reader also understand the restrictions that Jo finds herself living in. Still, Jo fights for what she needs and figures out ways to move ahead and help those she loves. She is undaunted, brave and fierce.
A superb historical novel that looks at race, gender and America. Appropriate for ages 13-16.
Reviewed from ARC provided by G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers.
Gender Queer: A Memoir by Maia Kobabe (9781549304002)
This memoir is done in a comic or graphic format. It’s the autobiography of Maia, who uses the pronouns e/em/eir. It tells the story of eir childhood growing up being assigned as a female gender at birth. From loving snakes to peeing outside to taking off eir shirt to go swimming along with the boys, Maia never conformed to gender stereotypes. Eir parents didn’t either, but Maia’s need to not be identified as female ran far deeper. Growing older, Maia had crushes on both boys and girls, and wondered if e was bisexual. Still, Maia had to continue to explore what dating, crushes, love, and sex meant to em until e realized what it meant to be nonbinary and asexual.
Kobabe shares so deeply in eir memoir. It is such a personal journey, filled with moments of deep connection and joy, the agony of pap smears, the constant questioning of identity, and then ending with incredible hope. This memoir was at first written to help eir family understand em, and it will work that way for those wanting to understand being gender nonbinary. It also aids in understanding asexuality and how that impacts relationships. Sex is handled with a refreshing frankness on the pages.
Kobabe’s art is very effective. E does full-page pieces that feature family members and other parts that read as fluid story telling in a more traditional way. These different approaches blend together into a dynamic format that invites readers into Kobabe’s life.
Vital and important, this memoir is tender and impactful. Appropriate for ages 16-adult.
Reviewed from library copy.
Operatic by Kyo Maclear, illustrated by Byron Eggenschwiler (9781554989720)
A middle grade graphic novel that focuses on the power of music and opera? Yes please! This innovative graphic novel tells the story of Charlie, who has an assignment to find her own personal perfect song. Her music class listens to all sorts of musical genres but the one that resonates with Charlie (and no one else in her class) is the music of opera singer Maria Callas. As Charlie searches for her song, she is thinking of two classmates. There is Emile, who is quiet and intriguing. Then there is the empty desk left by Luka, who was targeted and bullied for his gender nonconformity. As Charlie finds her song, she also discovers her inner diva and the ability to empower those around her.
Maclear’s story is all about the impact that music, specifically the right music at the right time, can have on one’s life. She writes with a deep empathy for young people finding their own way through middle school, focusing on the importance of friends but also on reaching out to others and helping them too. The book is filled with emotion and connection that exemplifies youth and hope.
Eggenschwiler’s art is exceptional. He creates images that perfectly capture the emotions of have a crush on someone, or feeling certain ways in your group of friends. The illustrations move through various single-colors as their main palette from yellows to blues to reds and back. Filled with individuality and creativity, the illustrations are interesting and unique.
A great graphic novel for middle grades, this one speaks to each person being both an individual and a member of the community. Appropriate for ages 11-14.
Reviewed from library copy.
It Feels Good to Be Yourself: A Book about Gender Identity by Theresa Thorn, illustrated by Noah Grigni (9781250302953)
With a diverse cast of children, this picture book deftly explains gender identity. Ruthie, the first character we meet, is a transgender girl. Identified as a boy at birth, she explained to everyone that she was actually a girl. Her little brother is a cisgender boy, and the book explains that term as well. Transgender and cisgender are explained frankly with neither given extra weight in the text. The term non-binary is then explained with two of its variants shown by characters in the text. There is Alex, who is both a boy and a girl, and JJ, who is neither boy nor girl. The book goes on to explain that even with all of these terms, some people don’t feel they fit in any of them, and that feeling that way is just fine.
The emphasis here is on children being allowed to be themselves, no matter what that means. Feelings about gender are real and valid. Families shown in the book are accepting and supportive of their children, no matter what gender they may identify as. The tone of the text is frank and friendly, explaining the terms and offering immense support for all children. It is positive through and through.
The art is great with skies filled with watercolor washes of blue. The cast is diverse in many ways including race, faith, sexuality, and a person who uses a wheelchair. The art is filled with color, evoking the same positive feel as the text.
A great book to use to explore children’s own gender identity or introduce gender identity concepts to young children. Appropriate for ages 4-7.
Reviewed from copy provided by Henry Holt & Co.
When Aidan Became a Brother by Kyle Lukoff, illustrated by Kaylani Juanita (9781620148372)
At birth, everyone thought Aidan was a girl. But as Aidan grew up, he didn’t like his name, the way his room was decorated, or wearing girl clothes. Aidan cut his hair off, realizing that he was a boy. He told his parents, and they learned from other families what having a transgender child is all about. Aidan picked his new name, they changed his bedroom into one that felt right, and he liked his new clothes. Then Aidan’s mother got pregnant. Aidan loved helping pick clothes for the baby, paint colors for the nursery, and even the baby’s name. But when people asked Aidan if he wanted a little brother or little sister, Aidan didn’t know how to answer. As the big day approached, Aidan worried about being a good big brother. Happily, his mother was there to explain that no matter who the new baby turned out to be, they would be so lucky to have Aidan as a brother.
Lukoff has created an #ownvoices picture book that truly celebrates a child who deeply understands their gender identity to be different from the one they were assigned at birth. The reaction of the supportive parents is beautiful to see in a picture book format as they work with Aidan not only to be able to express himself fully but also to be able to work through natural fears with a new baby. Those fears and the inevitable discussions of gender of a baby are vital parts of the story and allow readers to realize how deeply ingrained gender is in so many parts of our lives.
The illustrations by Juanita are full of energy and show a child with a flair for fashion who expresses himself clearly as a boy. His facial expressions change from his deep unhappiness when he is being treated as a girl to delight at being able to express himself as the boy he truly is. The depiction of a loving family of color handling these intersectionality issues so lovingly is also great to see.
As the parent of a transgender person, this is exactly the sort of picture book our families need and other families must read. Appropriate for ages 4-7.
Reviewed from e-galley provided by Lee & Low Books.
I Love My Colorful Nails by Alicia Acosta and Luis Amavisca, illustrated by Gusti (9788417123598)
Ben loves to paint his nails in cheery colors. He loves looking at the bright colors on his hands. His mother shares her nail polish and so does his friend Margarita, they both have large collections of colors. One morning, as Ben headed to school with red nails, two boys started teasing him, telling him that nail polish is for girls. Ben felt very sad and a few days later, he told his parents about it. His father immediately asked for orange nail polish for his own nails. At school though, more boys started to tease him. Soon Ben was only wearing nail polish on the weekends, removing it for school. His dad though, wore bright nail polish every day, even when he picked Ben up from school. As Ben’s birthday arrives, he gets the best present ever! What could it be?
This picture book offers a very approachable way to talk about gender expectations and how even small expressions of difference are important. The parents in the book are both tremendously warm and encouraging of their son, but the book accurately shows how school can be very different for children who are not conforming to societal norms. The use of nail polish is clever, adding a colorful element to the tale as well as something that Ben’s father can embrace himself.
Gusti’s illustrations are marvelous. Filled with warmth and humor, they celebrate the bright colors of nail polish on each page. Ben’s emotions are shown through the set of his shoulders and his entire posture. When he is sad, he droops over and when he’s happy he bounces on the page.
A great book about gender nonconforming behavior in children and how a school can be a place of safety. Appropriate for ages 4-6.
Reviewed from copy provided by Nubeocho.