This Poison Heart by Kalynn Bayron

Cover image for This Poison Heart.

This Poison Heart by Kalynn Bayron (9781547603909)

Briseis has a magical gift that she works hard not to reveal. Plants respond to her touch and presence, growing more lush and leaning in towards her, sometimes with destructive force. When Briseis inherits an estate in rural New York, she and her mothers jump at the new opportunity. The home is dirty and needs attention, and it also holds a lot of secrets for Briseis to figure out. There is the apothecary shop that seemed to deal in more normal herbs, but also ones that are extremely poisonous and rare. Then there is a trail of clues that lead Briseis to a neglected garden on the property that has regular herbal plants but also hidden poison gardens that only Briseis can reach thanks to her newly discovered immunity to poisonous plants. As strangers arrive on the property to seek services from Briseis, she finds herself part of another mystery. What is behind the locked door in the garden, and could it have been why so many women in her family have died or disappeared?

There is just so much to love with this novel. It’s a mesmerizingly lovely look at contemporary Black life that is imbued with magic and mystery. Briseis’ talent with plants moves from being problematic to being celebrated, something that really shines at the center of the book as she gains confidence in her own powers. Against the green wonder of her magic is the danger of poison that darkens the entire story very effectively, and is steadily revealed as more characters appear in the story.

Bayron paces the mystery out very cleverly, allowing readers to both enjoy and doubt several characters who are close to Briseis. The inclusion of queer characters is done naturally and woven into the story. Briseis has lesbian mothers and is queer herself. Briseis herself is a great protagonist, richly drawn in both her self doubt, her initial friendlessness, and how that transforms into a dangerous dance of trust and betrayal.

Beautifully written, full of strong Black women and filled with magic, this teen novel is spellbinding. Appropriate for ages 13-18.

Reviewed from ARC provided by Bloomsbury.

The Power of Style by Christian Allaire

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The Power of Style by Christian Allaire (9781773214900)

This nonfiction book explores the importance of fashion as a way to pay homage to heritage, culture and identity. The book looks at the work of designers who are incorporating their own Indigenous heritage into their work, such as ribbon work. The book moves on to hair styles and the importance of embracing natural hair, keeping long hair as a connection to culture, and the art of braiding. Cosplay comes next focusing on size acceptance within the cosplay community and the people who are forcing more inclusivity. Modest fashion and hijabs and head scarves are explored next with a focus on style and individuality. Then the book moves on to talk about high heels for men and the importance of standing tall for LGBTQIA+ rights. The final section is about makeup, both as a way to express yourself and as a way to see yourself included as modern makeup embraces more skin tones.

Each turn of the page in this book shows people of color, different cultures and religions, various gender and sexual identities, a wide range of sizes, and it embraces all of them as valid and beautiful. Written by an Ojibwe author who is the Fashion and Style Writer for Vogue, this book represents so many movements in the fashion world to be seen and accepted. Allaire’s writing is friendly and fresh, inviting readers to explore the pages, showing what allyship looks like, and giving real space to these new ideas and designs.

The book is full of photographs, making it a visual delight to read. Allaire has clearly carefully selected the photographs to show the fashion and also the figures who make the fashion come alive. They are bright, beautiful and truly speak to the diversity he is highlighting.

A gorgeous and enticing book about fashion that will broaden definitions and embraces inclusion. Appropriate for ages 12-16.

Reviewed from ARC provided by Annick Press.

2021 Lambda Literary Award Winners

The winners of the Lambda Literary Awards were announced last week. These awards celebrate the best in LGBTQIA+ writing for a variety of ages. The categories include fiction and nonfiction as well. Here are the winners and finalists for the children’s and YA categories:

LGBTQ CHILDREN’S/MIDDLE GRADE

WINNER

King and the Dragonflies by Kacen Callender

FINALISTS

The Deep & Dark Blue by Niki Smith

From Archie to Zack by Vincent X. Kirsch

A High Five for Glenn Burke by Phil Bildner

Our Subway Baby by Peter Mercurio

LGBTQ YOUNG ADULT

WINNER

Flamer by Mike Curato

FINALISTS

Camp by L.C. Rosen

The Magic Fish by Trung Le Nguyen

Sasha Masha by Agnes Borinsky

You Should See Me in a Crown by Leah Johnson

All Our Hidden Gifts by Caroline O’Donoghue

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All Our Hidden Gifts by Caroline O’Donoghue (9781536213942)

When Maeve finds a deck of tarot cards while clearing out a closet at school during her suspension, she soon realizes that she has a talent for telling people’s fortunes. Maeve isn’t talented in general, not musical or good at school. As she starts to tell everyone’s fortunes secretly at school, she becomes friends with Fiona, perhaps her first real friend after she pushed Lili away. But when she tells Lili’s fortune reluctantly and wishes Lili would disappear, a frightening Housekeeper card appears and soon after, Lili vanishes. Considered a witch by all the students at school, Maeve tries to figure out what happened to Lili and if she is the one who made her leave. Meanwhile, Maeve is growing closer to Lili’s older brother, Roe, who is honest with Lili about being genderqueer. As they try to solve the mystery of Lili’s disappearance, a malevolent force emerges, one who is putting people Maeve loves in direct danger. With growing desperation, Maeve must decide how much she is willing to sacrifice to fix the imbalance she may have created.

Looking for a fantasy book for teens about witches and tarot that is legitimately creepy and not trite in the least? This is the book for you! Free of tropes that plague this sort of teen novel, this Irish read is a dark delight of a novel. Add in the modern issues of women’s rights, racism, hate crimes and the threats against LGBTQ people and this is also a book that looks deeply at our world and insists that Maeve acknowledges her own privilege and bias without scolding.

The three main characters are a marvel. Maeve is the best mixture of lack of self-esteem, witchcraft power and sarcasm. Roe is at first shy and near silent and steadily reveals himself to Maeve and to the reader. The hot kisses are marvelous, particularly as they involve an unapologetic and genderqueer character. Fiona is a talented actress with almost no friends, a huge extended family and a desire to be something more than what society is always assigning to her as a Filipina girl. This is not a cast you see often in teen novels about witchcraft.

Haunting witchcraft with social justice and feminism. Appropriate for ages 14-18.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Walker Books.

The Girl from the Sea by Molly Knox Ostertag

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The Girl from the Sea by Molly Knox Ostertag (9781338540581)

Fifteen-year-old Morgan has a plan. She just needs to survive high school and then she can leave her small island and become the real person she keeps secret from everyone. She has a group of friends, but she’s different from them. Her family has fallen apart with her father leaving, her mother sad and her little brother raging. Morgan is about to have another huge secret to keep. When Morgan meets Keltie, she rediscovers someone she met as a child. With a kiss, Morgan allows Keltie to take on a human form and leave her seal form behind. The two become close friends, but Morgan is worried about people seeing them touching or together at all. Keltie though has something she hasn’t told Morgan either. As the secrets pile up, Morgan has to see if she has the courage to live as the person she truly is before it’s too late.

From the author of The Witch Boy trilogy comes this magical sea breeze of a graphic novel that is just right for summer beach reading. The twist on a traditional selkie tale is lovingly created, offering moments of real connection, beauty and pain. Morgan is closeted and pretending to be everything she is not. It’s great to see that as she moves into her truth, she becomes better connected with her family as she shares things with them. The setting of the novel is a large part of the story with the seaside, the island and the seal nursery just offshore.

The illustrations show that setting with detail, inviting readers down to the beaches, out to the seals, deep underwater, and onto the rocks. They are drenched in summer sun, tantalizing moonlight, and the blue greens of the sea.

Beautiful, aching and full of LGBTQIA magical fantasy romance. Appropriate for ages 12-15.

Reviewed from ARC provided by Scholastic.

Can’t Take That Away by Steven Salvatore

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Can’t Take That Away by Steven Salvatore (9781547605309)

Carey has always been a singer, loving spending time with their grandmother belting out songs together. But being attacked by a homophobic bully made Carey quit voice lessons. Plus as their grandmother’s dementia worsens, Carey doesn’t have much reason to sing. Luckily, Carey has a very supportive mother and a good therapist to help them navigate being genderqueer in a binary world. Carey also knows that they messed up big time with one of their best friends, half of a pair of twins who have been friends forever. As Carey continues to face bigoted hatred from a teacher at school and a classmate, they also meet Cris, a boy who is very interested in Carey, their voice and becoming more than friends. Cris convinces Carey to try out for the school musical and to audition to be Elphaba in Wicked. As Carey grows in confidence, the voices of hate around them get louder and more intense, forcing them to find a way through the hatred to a place of self empowerment where Carey is allowed to sing and to fully be themselves.

Salvatore, who identifies as genderqueer themselves, has written a gripping story of homophobia and the power and activism it takes to regain control of our schools and communities from bigots. Added in are marvelous depictions of first love with all of the feels on the page. There are also strong depictions of what an ally looks like, how to be a great friend, and the importance of giving people a chance to change.

Throughout this entire novel, Carey is in the spotlight. Their emotions around being genderqueer, being targeted by hate, and also being in love are captured with care and real empathy. They are on a journey to self-acceptance even as they seek out the spotlight for their voice. It’s a fascinating look at performance, theater and the performer themselves.

This one will have you righteously angry and applauding by turns. Appropriate for ages 14-18.

Reviewed from copy provided by Bloomsbury.

Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo

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Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo (9780525555254)

Growing up in 1950s San Francisco isn’t simple for a Chinese-American girl who loves to dream of working on math that will send people into space. Even her best friend isn’t interested in the same things as Lily is. As Lily becomes more aware of her sexuality, she soon realizes that she is queer. She’s particularly intrigued by a male impersonator in San Francisco. As her love of math draws her closer to a white classmate at school, she realizes they may have even more in common. Soon the two teens are heading out to a club together to watch that same male impersonator that Lily was dreaming about. But remember, it is the 1950s and Chinese girls are not allowed to be gay, so Lily is risking a lot. It’s the time of McCarthyism too, so Lily’s family is threatened by the fear of Communism when her father’s papers are taken away. Lily must find a way to navigate the many dangers of being Chinese, queer and young.

Lo’s writing is so incredible. She creates a historical novel that makes the historical elements so crucial to the story that they flow effortlessly along. She avoids long sections of exposition about history by building it into the story in a natural and thoughtful way. That allows readers to feel Lily’s story all the more deeply while realizing the risks the Lily is taking with her family and friends. Lo also beautifully incorporates San Francisco into the book, allowing readers to walk Chinatown and visit other iconic parts and features of the city.

As well as telling Lily’s story, Lo shares the stories of Lily’s aunt and mother. They took different paths to the present time, making critical decisions about their careers and marriages. These experiences while straight and more historical speak to Lily’s own budding romance and finding of people who support her as she discovers who she is. They remove the simple look at who her mother could be been assumed to be and make her a more complex character.

Layered and remarkable, this book speaks to new, queer love and shows that intersectionality has been around forever. Appropriate for ages 15-18.

Reviewed from library copy.

2021 Lambda Literary Award Finalists

The finalists for the 2021 Lammy Awards have been announced. These awards celebrate the best in LGBTQ literature and have two categories that are focused on books for youth. Here are the finalists in those categories:

LGBTQ Children’s / Middle Grade

The Deep & Dark Blue by Niki Smith

From Archie to Zack by Vincent X. Kirsch

A High Five for Glenn Burke by Phil Bildner

King and the Dragonflies by Kacen Callender

Our Subway Baby by Peter Mercurio

LGBTQ Young Adult

Camp by L. C. Rosen

Flamer by Mike Curato

The Magic Fish by Trung Le Nguyen

Sasha Masha by Agnes Borinsky

You Should See Me in a Crown by Leah Johnson

The Girls I’ve Been by Tess Sharpe

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The Girls I’ve Been by Tess Sharpe (9780593353806)

Nora grew up with a con artist for a mother and quickly became an integral part of the cons she would pull, cheating wealthy men of their ill-gotten wealth. Nora became multiple girls to do this, one after another as each con ended, she would reinvent herself. She is now Nora, a girl who escaped her mother but not without having to make some terrible decisions along the way. Rescued by her older sister, she is trying to live a new life. Then she finds herself caught up in a bank robbery where the skills she built in her childhood may be the only thing that will save her. She knows how to read desperate people, how to get them what they want, and how to manipulate them. It might just be enough to keep the two people she loves alive too: her ex-boyfriend and her new girlfriend, who he just found out about.

Sharpe has created a feminist thriller that is a dynamite mix of survival, intelligence, bravery and pure nerve. She sets the thriller in a taut situation of its own, a bank robbery gone very wrong. Add in the character of Nora, already a survivor and not willing to ever be abused again, and you have a dangerous and explosive book that you won’t be able to put down. Nora is a unique protagonist, fascinating with her brilliant mind, unique approach to others, and what she learned in a lifetime of cons. Readers will love her throughout the book as she is alight with her newfound freedom and not ever going to lose.

Sharpe’s writing is stellar. She uses fabulous metaphors throughout, using fire, weaponry and explosions to express emotions, creating a ticking timebomb of a novel. She also writes real sparks between Nora and Iris while also demonstrating the deep feelings that Nora has for Wes. This is a book where readers can see Nora’s mind work, feel the evolving situation, but also laugh out loud with pure feminist joy at times.

A gripping, stunning thriller for teens, this one a sharp knife of a novel. Appropriate for ages 14-18.

Reviewed from copy provided by G. P. Putnam’s Sons.