The Deep Dark Blue by Niki Smith

The Deep Dark Blue by Niki Smith

The Deep Dark Blue by Niki Smith (9780316485982)

When their family is killed in front of them in a political coup, twin brothers Hawke and Grayson are forced into hiding. They become initiates into the Communion of Blue, a society of women who weave the blue thread of reality and can control the strings of power. Disguised as girls, the two must learn new ways of life, including battling unarmed rather than with swords and learning the spinning skills that girls are taught by their mothers. The siblings create their own plan to take back their royal home, using old and new skills. But Grayson, who has hidden as Grayce, is unwilling to leave the first place she’s been allowed to live as a girl.

Smith’s graphic novel has a wonderful edge to it in both story and imagery. The tale is timeless as is the need for vengeance. Yet Smith makes it modern with her art but also the inclusion of a transgender character as one of the main protagonists. Grayce’s identity is handled clearly and with sensitivity, allowing her to become fully herself as the story unfolds.

The art is spectacular, using a palette of blues, purples and pinks, this kingdom comes alive. The Communion of Blue is fascinating to learn more about, visually as well as in the story. The cast of characters is racially diverse as well.

A graphic novel full of magic, familial honor and LGBTQ representation. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from library copy.

Review: Stage Dreams by Melanie Gillman

Stage Dreams by Melanie Gillman

Stage Dreams by Melanie Gillman (9781512440003)

The author of As the Crow Flies returns with a queer western story that tells a different tale from the traditional male-focused guns-blazing westerns. This is the story of Flor, also known as the Ghost Hawk, a Latinx woman who steals from stagecoaches with the help of her trained hawk. On one of her heists, she takes a woman hostage looking for a ransom payout. But it turns out that Grace is not wealthy and many don’t understand that she is transgender. The two of them start talking and realize that Grace may be the key to one of Ghost Hawk’s biggest treasures, stealing some crucial documents from some rich confederates. Grace has a perfect Georgia accent, so all they need are some great dresses and plenty of courage.

I fell so hard for this thin graphic novel. I want to have the second book immediately so that I can continue to explore the West with these two amazing women. Gillman’s story is rich and masterful. She offers such empathy to her queer characters, many who are also secondary characters in the story and also pays homage to people of color in the West too. Her notes at the end of the book offer historical details for what she shows on the page, giving context to her characters.

Quite a ride! Appropriate for ages 13-17.

Reviewed from library copy.

Review: It Feels Good to Be Yourself: A Book about Gender Identity by Theresa Thorn

It Feels Good to Be Yourself A Book about Gender Identity by Theresa Thorn

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.

Review: When Aidan Became a Brother by Kyle Lukoff

When Aidan Became a Brother by Kyle Lukoff

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.

Review: Extraordinary Birds by Sandy Stark-McGinnis

Extraordinary Birds by Sandy Stark-McGinnis

Extraordinary Birds by Sandy Stark-McGinnis (9781547601004)

11-year-old December has moved from one foster family to another over the past several years. As she moves, she has learned not to have many possessions, enough that she can carry them in a couple of bags. One item she brings with her every move is her biography, a book that reminds her why she is special and different from those around her. With her large scar on her back, December believes that she was raised as partially a bird and will eventually have her wings and feathers and be able to take flight. But when she jumps from a tree, she is moved to another foster family. This time, she is taken in by Eleanor, a women with a large garden, bird feeders, bird baths, and who works in an animal rehabilitation center. Eleanor’s quiet and loving approach starts to work on December, much as it does on her wounded birds. As December starts to trust, her desire to be separate from humans and different from them ebbs away. But could she ever give up her desire to fly?

Stark-McGinnis has written a startling debut novel for middle graders. December’s belief that she is a bird is at first alarming as she jumps from a tree, then rather odd, but the author leads readers to deeply understand the injury and damage done to December by first her mother’s violence and then her foster parents. It is a slow and haunting journey as December begins to trust others. Tying her own personal journey to that of a wounded hawk relearning to fly, the book creates a path for December to come alive again.

The journey to trust also includes a wonderful secondary character, Cheryllynn, a transgender classmate of December’s. As both girls steadily learn to stand up to the class bullies, they also learn that doing it together is easier and has a bigger impact. The two girls accept one another exactly as they are, something one doesn’t see enough in books about young girls and their friendships.

A heart-wrenching novel of abuse, recovery and learning to fly. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from ARC provided by Bloomsbury.

Review: Kiss Number 8 by Colleen AF Venable and Ellen T. Crenshaw

Kiss Number 8 by Colleen AF Venable and Ellen T. Crenshaw

Kiss Number 8 by Colleen AF Venable and Ellen T. Crenshaw (9781250196934)

Mads has two best friends, Cat who drags her to hear bands that she’s never heard of, and her father. Every Sunday, Mads joins her father for minor league baseball games and other evenings they watch their favorite TV shows together. Mads’ mother is often left out of their father-daughter time together and as the book progresses, it looks like Mads may be headed for her parents divorcing. But it’s all about a secret that her father is keeping from her, something to do with a large check sent to Mads and a grandfather she never met. As the secrets start to be revealed, Mads begins to learn more about herself as well and just who she really wants to kiss.

This graphic novel is amazing, particularly when one sees it was written by one person and drawn by another. The entire book is one cohesive whole with art that is both playful but also emotionally rich when the story calls for it. The writing is strong and the story is complex. Venable includes religion throughout the book, allowing space for questioning beliefs, particularly around LGBTQ issues. Those themes enrich the entire graphic novel, creating tension in the family, offering honesty to replace secrets, and giving sources of pride rather than disdain. Venable doesn’t offer easy resolution to these issues and the way that they impact generations of a family.

A stellar graphic novel for teens that is filled with LGBTQ pride. Appropriate for ages 13-17.

Reviewed from copy provided by First Second.

 

Jess, Chunk and the Road Trip to Infinity by Kristin Elizabeth Clark

jess-chunk-and-the-road-trip-to-infinity-by-kristin-elizabeth-clark

Jess, Chunk and the Road Trip to Infinity by Kristin Elizabeth Clark (InfoSoup)

Jess hasn’t spoken with her father for years, ever since he refused to support her in getting the hormones she needed to start to transition from the male body she was born in. Now her father is getting married to her mother’s ex-best friend halfway across the country in Chicago and Jess decides to attend the wedding and confront her father. It’s going to be a surprise for her father, since she had already responded rather negatively to the RSVP in the invitation. Happily, Jess’ best friend Chunk has both a car and time, so the two of them make the road trip together. As the trip unwinds, they visit roadside attractions, pick up a passenger, and discover things about themselves, their friendship and one another.

This book joins many others this year in providing strong transgender characters in teen novels. Clark does a great job of showing how safety is a huge concern for people who are transgender, particularly in more conservative parts of the country. She also shows what a long-standing friendship looks like as it leaves high school and heads into the future. There is little angst about the future here in terms of college or school, and more of a focus on the approaching wedding and Jess’ feelings.

Happily, Jess as a character is far from perfect. She is often self-absorbed and lacks interest in others, particularly her best friend. Readers will be shocked at times by how internally focused she is and will cheer when her best friend finally stands up to her. Jess also ignores how she makes other people feel, like the nickname bullies gave Chunk that she continues to use.

However, even as I understand that the nickname and Jess’ behavior is both condemned and indicative of a complicated look at a character, I do have issues with how larger people are viewed in the book and how much emphasis is placed on how people look. There is a focus on hair and clothes that is near obsessive. But it’s the fat shaming that is problematic, particularly when it’s in the title itself. The fat shaming happens both for Chuck, the best friend, and for others throughout the book. People are referred to by their size, their looks and then their personality comes later.

A complex look at friendship, being transgender, self esteem and acceptance, this book tackles a lot of issues and fails to handle a major one with enough grace and attention. Appropriate for ages 13-17.

Reviewed from e-galley received from Edelweiss and Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

 

When the Moon Was Ours by Anna-Marie McLemore

when-the-moon-was-ours-by-anna-marie-mclemore

When the Moon Was Ours by Anna-Marie McLemore (InfoSoup)

Best friends, Miel and Sam each have secrets that they wear both outside and inside themselves. Sam was the first person to approach Miel when she was dumped from the town’s water tower the day it was knocked down. She is a girl whose past is tied to the water, whose skirt hem is always damp. She fears pumpkins and was taken in by Aracely, a woman who can rescue people from their own heartache. Miel also has roses that grow out of one of her wrists, marking her a danger to her family. Sam has lived as a boy, serving as the son his mother never had even though his anatomy is that of a girl. At some point, he was expected to return to being a girl but Sam doesn’t know if he will ever be ready. Meanwhile the four sisters in town seek to control Miel and her roses and restore their power, but first they must discover the secret that will make her do their bidding.

Oh my word, this is a beautiful book. It is written in prose that is wildly lush, almost aromatic, so vivid that it remains in your head after you read it. From descriptions of pumpkins as a world of their own to the beautiful danger of the four redheaded sisters to the delicacy of the eggs and herbs that remove heartbreak from a person, each description is its own painting of magic. It creates a world that is ours and yet not, a world of moons and honey, roses and water, stained glass and blood.

To this beautiful and intense writing you add an understanding of the transgender experience and a willingness to write of sexuality and desire and lust for someone who is deciding how they will transition and what their terms will be. It is a book that captures that in-between moment, allows us to linger there with Miel and Sam as their love is just blooming and they are allowing themselves to explore each other in new ways.

Gorgeous, breathtaking and wise, this is one of the most magical and transcendent books I have ever experienced. Bravo for the courage it took to write this and the love that is expressed on each and every page. Appropriate for ages 14-17.

Reviewed from library copy.

 

Introducing Teddy by Jessica Walton

Introducing Teddy by Jessica Walton

Introducing Teddy by Jessica Walton, illustrated by Dougal MacPherson

Starting as a Kickstarter project, this picture book features Thomas the teddy and Errol who are best friends. They do everything together, riding bikes, playing in the garden, and eating in the tree house. But one day, Thomas doesn’t feel like playing. Even a visit to the park won’t cheer him up. When Errol asks what is wrong, Teddy says that he is worried that if he tells Errol that Errol won’t want to be his friend any more. After Errol reassures him, Teddy admits that he has always felt in his heart that he is a girl teddy, not a boy teddy. When the two meet Ava, she demonstrates that girls can be anything they want, including inventing robots and wearing their hair without a bow. It’s a gentle look at gender identity.

This is Walton’s first picture book and it is inspired by her father’s transition from male to female. In the picture book, she makes sure to keep everything at a level that small children can understand. It’s a book that speaks to gender and will also work for children who may not be transgender but feel that they don’t fit into the limits that society puts them into. It’s a book that celebrates being who you are and not being afraid to tell others what is in your heart.

MacPherson’s illustrations have a whimsical quality to them, filled with a zingy energy. The use of a bow to demonstrate gender works very nicely and subtly. The introduction of a girl character who is a lovely mix of long hair and skirts and then science and freedom makes for an excellent counterpoint to the bow and bow tie.

A strong addition to picture book about gender identity, this is a gentle way to speak about the issue with children. Appropriate for ages 4-6.

Reviewed from ARC received from Bloomsbury.