YA Fiction Review: Two Boys Kissing by David Levithan

Note: Back from the post-finals hiatus with a new review! This is a book I actually read in high school, one of the few LGBTQ books my high school library had. Though this was before I came to terms with much of my own gender identity or sexual orientation, I remember enjoying it a lot and thought it only right to share the beautiful writing of David Levithan.

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Title: Two Boys Kissing

Author: David Levithan

Rating: 4.5/5

Two sentence summary: Two seventeen year-old boys, Harry and Craig, set out to break the record for longest kiss in a 32-hour marathon—the story of which is narrated by a Greek Chorus of LGBTQ men lost to AIDS in the former generation. While they tell this story and muse on their own lost lives, they also explore the lives of other teen boys coming out, establishing gender identity, and exploring long-term relationships.

What I loved: If everything was a satisfactory enough answer, I would say everything, but more explanation is probably needed. David Levithan’s writing style in Two Boys Kissing is both beautiful and lingering, perhaps because its voice is so unique. Using “we” as a narrator is difficult to pull off, but nobody could narrate this story quite so well as the chorus of AIDS victims. Their stories of love and devastating loss to illness paint so much history onto the voices of those in the present, both their joys and their own sadness. The experimental style pays off and really characterizes the book’s tone.

Although many characters are introduced within a short time, Levithan gives each of them a unique voice and story in a way that feels like it really grasps the queer community. Among Levithan’s characters are a trans man trying to navigate his sexuality, a teenager losing hope (and himself) on dating apps, and two boys who face both praise and discrimination to beat a Guinness World Record. Stories so different (especially when juxtaposed with such a unique narrator) make for a feeling of connection and that these stories, and the stories of all people, are more alike than different.

Quote: “Love is so painful, how could you ever wish it on anybody? And love is so essential, how could you ever stand in its way?”

Recommended: Yes. David Levithan is one of my staple for wonderful YA writers, especially when it comes to LGBTQ fiction. He never fails to disappoint when exploring the diverse relationships, emotions, and lives people lead in the queer community.

This novel is both sweet and sorrowful, and while mourning the past, it also leads to hope for the future. I’d recommend it to anyone from around young teen years and up.

Next week: Lies We Tell Ourselves by Robin Talley, who may have become one of my new queer YA staples as well

YA Review: Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan

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Title: Will Grayson, Will Grayson

Author: John Green and David Levithan

Rating: 4/5

One sentence summary: When they meet at an unlikely crossroad, teens Will Grayson and Will Grayson begin a turning point in love and all the confusion that goes with it.

What I loved: Two of my favorite YA authors in one! This book is wonderful because both John Green and David Levithan are blessed with wonderfully distinct voices, and they compliment each other well here. The two Will Graysons are only similar in name: their voices, internal conflicts, and perspectives on life are so opposite.

On one hand, we’ve got a nerdy, music-obsessed Will Grayson who’s trying to figure himself out just as much as he’s trying to figure out his love life. Then on the other, there is a snarky and cynical Will Grayson who has only admitted he is gay to a boyfriend he’s never actually met (the somewhat sketchy joys of online dating), not his mother and definitely not his quirky (only) friend. Had these Graysons never wandered into the same bar by mere happenstance, they likely would have never crossed paths. But they did. And both of their lives shift in unexpected ways because of it.

This novel is about love. One Will Grayson is self-deprecating but earnest, trying to make sense of his first love and blossoming relationship that should be familiar to anyone who’s gone to high school. The other Will Grayson, after significant heartbreak, begins a new relationship with the very-much out Tiny Cooper, a mutual friend of Will Grayson #1 who is much more familiar with queer dating than Will Grayson #2. Ultimately both Graysons are trying to cope with confusion, commitment, and heartbreak: in other words, love. It’s a light, fun little novel, two-parts sarcastic and one part sincere.

Quote: “When things break, it’s not the actual breaking that prevents them from getting back together again. It’s because a little piece gets lost – the two remaining ends couldn’t fit together even if they wanted to. The whole shape has changed.”

Recommended? Yes! Recommended for, of course, fans of John Green as well as those who just want a lighthearted LGBTQ YA novel. There are so many sad, somber ones out there, which is alright… but the happiness in this one is very refreshing.

Next up:  Another David Levithan book (Two Boys Kissing)

YA Review: Openly Straight by Bill Konigsberg

Note: From here until the end of finals week (April 29th), I will only be posting on Tuesdays.

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Title: Openly Straight

Author: Bill Konigsberg

Rating: 3.5/5

One sentence summary: When sixteen year old Rafe transfers to a new boarding school, he decides to hide his sexuality to avoid becoming “the gay kid” like at his old school.

What I loved: Coming out stories are a dime a dozen in YA fiction, but rarely do you see “coming out again” stories. Konigsberg explores an interesting angle here because Rafe’s reasons for hiding his sexual orientation are unique and, for some LGBTQ people, even relatable. Nobody bullied him at school. He had friends who accepted him for him. His parents supported him so much that his mother ran the local PFLAG branch.

But he was tired of people taking his sexuality and making it his whole story. Ever since he came out, he’d given interviews and spoken at local high schools about LGBTQ acceptance. Everyone at his school knew his sexual orientation, and even though nobody discriminated against him, he felt uncomfortable. Because so many people reduced him to his sexuality, he no longer felt normal.

This feeling is understandable, and it likely is for others who come from accepting backgrounds. Konigsberg, however, doesn’t encourage teens in Rafe’s situation to follow his lead. Hiding who you are, if you replace yourself with a lie, can come with unforeseen consequences.

Rafe struggles to suppress his feelings while weaving stories of nonexistent girlfriends, writes to express emotions he doesn’t fully understand, and gets to know another student, Ben, who also represses his sexuality for harder reasons. Unlike Rafe, he hates his sexual orientation so much more deeply. Rafe wants to tell Ben he doesn’t have to be ashamed, but how can he say that when Rafe himself has gone back into the closet?

What Rafe ultimately comes to terms with is labeling: he eventually understands that he doesn’t have to be the gay kid just because he’s out. What other people see doesn’t matter as much as what he does to help them. Throughout the novel, Rafe struggles to help others in ways only he can without revealing his sexuality, a balance that wobbles so much he can’t help but crash. But when he does, he gets back up and achieves a new balance between an open sexual orientation and a multi-dimensional personality.

Quote: “You can be anything you want, but when you go against who you are inside, it doesn’t feel good.”

Recommended? Yes! This was a lot more lighthearted than some of the LGBTQ YA books I’ve read so far, and for that reason, I’d recommend it to younger teens and up.

Next up:  Almost Perfect by Brian Katcher

LGBTQ YA: The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily M. Danforth

Note: When I initially started reviewing books, I had assumed that I would never read a perfect 5/5 book. The Miseducation of Cameron Post proved me wrong.

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Title: The Miseducation of Cameron Post

Author: Emily M. Danforth

Rating: 5/5

One sentence summary: After coming to terms with her sexual orientation while living with her conservative relatives, Cameron Post is sent to a gay conversion therapy center in rural Montana.

What I loved: This book centers around two major milestones in Cameron’s life: first, her realization and path to self-acceptance of her sexual orientation, and then her time coping at a gay conversion therapy center for about a year. Both are important stories to here and, from what I can tell, both relatable and real.

Cameron discovers she is lesbian when she’s twelve years old, as she and her friend Irene kiss in a barn. Soon after, her parents die in a car crash. Because Cameron was raised in a heavily religious environment, she believes that her sexuality caused the car crash as a punishment from God. Queer teens who have been raised in a religious environment might relate to this misplaced guilt, though perhaps not in an overwhelming loss like Cameron. The first quarter of the novel is about her guilt process as she explores her faith and eventually finds peace with her sexual orientation.

But even though Cameron herself no longer feels like her sexuality is wrong, she still lives in a repressive place. Her issues are not over just because she feels no more internal pain, and once her conservative Aunt Ruth learns Cameron’s openly gay, she sends her to a gay conversion private school.

Having to deal with these two pains (first coming to terms with yourself, and then living in a hostile environment) is a feeling many queer teenagers can relate to, and I think the way Danforth handles it is important for teens in this situation to read. Personally, I’ve never been to a gay conversion therapy center, nor do I know anyone who has, so I can’t attest to the accuracy. Danforth herself grew up in Miles City, Montana (the setting of this book) and used some of her experiences to create this book’s environment, which creates a very realistic and fair depiction.

Nobody in this book is a “bad guy,” not Aunt Ruth, not the people at the conversion therapy center, not Cameron. That is the best part of this novel. Cameron, while our protagonist, doesn’t always make morally positive decisions. Aunt Ruth shows genuine concern for Cameron, even if a bit misguided. Even those who run the gay conversion center believe they’re doing the right thing, regardless of whether we as readers agree with them.

Sometimes in LGBTQ YA, it’s easy for authors to paint an “us vs. them” mentality with those who do or don’t support LGBTQ rights, but life isn’t that simple. Generally people aren’t trying to hurt others. We’re all going through life with unique perspectives, trying to understand others as well as ourselves. This book is wonderful because even though it could easily have made Cameron innocent and flawless, and it could have made those who don’t understand her cruel beyond understanding, it doesn’t. It makes them human. I feel like that is important for anyone to read and understand.

Quote: “Maybe I still haven’t become me. I don’t know how you tell for sure when you finally have.”

Recommended? Yes! Very much so. Everything about this book is well-done: the writing, the characters, the story itself. Like other recommends, I might advise this more for older teens (15-up) because this book does contain some mature themes (sex, self-harm, conversion therapy).

Next up:  Openly Straight by Bill Konigsberg

YA Review: All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven

Another Friday, another YA book review! Now that I have a good rhythm for these reviews, I’m hoping to add more content to this blog: as a tentative schedule, I’m planning on personal posts for every other Sundays and creative writing posts for every other Wednesday. Wednesday will be the first one. Ideally this will help make the content a little more varied and related to my own work as a writer.

Until then, enjoy this review of All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven!

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Title: All the Bright Places

Author: Jennifer Niven

Rating: 4/5

Two sentence summary: Finch and Violet meet on the ledge of a bell tower and team up on a school project to discover the “natural wonders” of their state, saving each other from their inner demons in the process. But some demons are harder to fight than others, and Finch struggles to keep from losing himself (and Violet) to the darkness inside his thoughts.

What I loved: This book is narrated from the perspectives of both Violet and Finch, alternating by chapter. Both characters have distinct voices, and it’s enjoyable to inhabit their perspective (if only for a little while). Though dealing with similar troubles, Violet’s voice is very different from Finch’s (and vice-versa). This can be a little hard to pull off when dealing with multiple POVs in a book without making one more interesting or combining both into an indistinguishable blob.

Many YA books deal with depression from a first-person perspective, but less focus on the effect depression can have on the friends of those dealing with it. Violet and Finch’s relationship is complicated, and although she loves him a lot, ultimately she can’t take what he’s dealing with away through dates or kind words. I think this is a good message to send, even if it’s hard to hear: depression is more than just a feeling. It’s serious, and treatment involves more than holding hands and wishing it away.

What Violet and Finch go through is so hard, and it’s hard as a reader to experience their struggles with them, but it’s real. While some themes in this book may be triggering (mentioned more later on), portraying painful situations in YA can be important because it helps those who experience them feel less alone. The way Niven writes them is respectful and done with a lot of taste. I especially appreciated that she listed resources for readers with the depression at the end of the book, too.

What I didn’t love: Although this book is beautifully-written and handles difficult topics well, I had a few concerns about its portrayal of depression. Sometimes it felt like the characters glorified mental illness as something that made you deep or quirky rather than a serious thing that needs treatment. Adults in the book are largely portrayed as clueless and unable to help, which seems like a bad message to send if a reader is struggling with depression.

Sometimes Finch felt more like a concept than an actual human being. Although his character was intriguing, his actions seemed more like a vehicle to talk about depression than a person with multiple dimensions. If he was a little more relatable, I think it would be easier for readers to understand him and see depression as a real concern rather than a quirk or romanticized illness. I still enjoyed his character but felt like he could have been more believable.

Quote: “We do not remember days, we remember moments.”

Recommended? Yes, but with some caveats. This book is definitely for older teens. Not only does this book include themes of death and suicide, but the way it handles these topics is a lot more open but also graphic than some YA books. If death and suicide are triggering subjects for you, this book might not be the best choice.

This book especially reminded me of The Fault in Our Stars by John Green (which I personally love a lot). Readers who also enjoyed this book might appreciate the similar ideas and feelings in this book, especially since All the Bright Places is strong enough to stand on its own.

Next up:  The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily M. Danforth

LGBTQ Representation in YA: More Happy Than Not by Adam Silvera

Note: As you can see, I skipped a week on blog posts and book reviews. Last Tuesday after staff meeting, my co-workers and I went on an impromptu adventure to IHOP in the wee hours of the night. I figure responsibilities are important, but what’s life if you can’t enjoy yourself every once in awhile?

So I took the week to read some YA books and prepare to start up reviews Tuesdays and Fridays from now onward. This one is another LGBTQ YA book that explores memory and the role it plays in defining us, as well as what causes us to love who we love.

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Title: More Happy Than Not

Author: Adam Silvera

Rating: 4/5

One sentence summary: In the near-future where memory erasure procedure Leteo provide relief from traumatic events, 16-year-old Aaron Soto contemplates undergoing the surgery to “straighten himself out” if it means he can find bliss in ignorance.

What I loved: This book deals with brutal themes: suicide, homophobia, and inner shame are all treated with respect but also a rawness that almost hurts to read. Aaron discovers his sexual orientation in a repressive environment. Through developing a close relationship with his friend Thomas, he unravels emotions that he fights so hard to understand even as he wants them to disappear. Readers who came to terms with their sexuality as a teenager may find Aaron’s fear and confusion relatable, albeit hard to swallow.

In a word, More Happy Than Not‘s writing style is “gut-wrenching.” Despite a near-future setting, the turmoil Aaron faces internally and also from his loved ones reads so vividly that the reader is thrust into his emotions and deals with them alongside him. If you’ve been in a situation like Aaron’s, struggling to understand a sexuality or gender identity you never asked for, you may find the writing style punches you in the stomach in a way you’ve felt before. It’s hurtful but almost healing.

More Happy Than Not deals with hard questions, both questions that Aaron faces as he unravels who he is as opposed to who he thought he was. I grew up in a religious community that has come a long way in how we treat our LGBT lay members. While compassion and acceptance is taught more often than not, I still remember as a young teen when my relatives swore that gay people can change their orientation and, as this protagonist longs to do, “straighten themselves out” via therapy or just flat-out denial. I used to think I could do this with my gender identity. It still hurts.

For that reason, I think I understood why Aaron wanted so desperately to erase his sexual orientation from his memory, if it meant he could live a “normal” life. His friends are less-than-supportive and even violently homophobic. Coming out, for him, was not only shameful but unsafe. If a procedure gives someone a chance of escaping such painful discrimination, even if it means no longer being you, who wouldn’t find it almost too good to be true?

In Aaron’s case, it is: meaning that not only does Leteo promise to erase his inner fears, but it is quite literally too good to be true. Memories define us, but there is so much more to us. Silvera explores their fragility and whether you can erase something so central to someone as their sexual orientation, as well as what consequences that may have. It’s dark, thought-provoking, and unafraid of shying from conflicted and painful emotions (both for his characters and his readers).

Quote: “Sometimes pain is so unmanageable that the idea of spending another day with it seems impossible. Other times pain acts as a compass to help you through the messier tunnels of growing up. But pain can only help you find happiness if you remember it.:

Recommended? Yes. Especially recommended for those who enjoyed Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, as this book explores similar connections of memory, personality, and what love is. Silvera gives the idea a unique spin by incorporating sexuality into the mix.

I would probably recommend this one for around 14-up because of how openly it discusses teenage sexuality, bullying, and suicide. Younger readers may not be ready to deal with these themes, which can get a little dark, but older teens could find their discussion cathartic if they have gone through similar challenges. If any of these themes are triggering, however, it might not be the best choice.

Because I enjoyed this book so much, I looked to see if Adam Silvera has written anything else, and he has: his novel History Is All You Left Me was published in January. Requested from the library and added to the list!

Next up:  All The Bright Places by Jennifer Niven

Trans Representation in YA: When the Moon was Ours by Anna-Marie McLemore

Note: After some thought, I have decided to post YA reviews on Tuesdays and Fridays. The idea behind this is two-fold. First, I feel that although I hope to review any contemporary YA book that holds a strong sense of meaning, it will be a good way to raise more visibility for LGBTQ YA in particular. When I was a teenager, I wish we had as much access to queer YA novels as queer teens do now. With all these amazing books out there, I feel a need to spotlight them in case there’s a LGBTQ teen out there who needs it.

Second, it will also help me keep up with my reading goal this year (as I am currently a little behind). I hope you find these reviews helpful and give you a good idea of what to check out next from your local bookstore or library. Let me know in the comments if you have any book suggestions!

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Title: When the Moon Was Ours

Author: Anna-Marie McLemore

Rating: 4.5/5

Two-sentence summary: In a tale of magical realism that stings of emotions strongly felt in our world, close friends Miel and Sam are as equally unique as they are mysterious: roses grow and blossom from Miel’s wrists, and Sam hangs moons that he painted in the trees. When the Bonner girls, four sisters rumored to be witches, want Miel’s roses for themselves, Sam and Miel must face hard questions about love, identity, and the secrets we keep.

Review: Initially, I was drawn to this book because I read that one of the protagonists (Sam) was a transgender man. Although luckily, queer representation in YA fantasy is on the rise, I had yet to read a fantasy novel with a trans character (let alone a trans protagonist).

Yet the most beautiful thing about this book is that being transgender is just one aspect of Sam: it is a vitally important aspect of him, and throughout the novel he explores how to reconcile his gender identity, but he is also an artist painting moons to make the forest brighter, a son seeking love and acceptance from his mother, and a kind-but-conflicted boyfriend to Miel.

Too often in queer YA, it feels like the protagonist’s story is reduced to coming out as gay or trans–and while those stories are important to tell, people are so much more than their gender identity or sexual orientation. Sam and Miel, as well as the other characters, felt human. Overall, this book was very character-driven. As a reader, I felt so strongly pulled into the characters’ world that the emotions they felt, I felt alongside them.

Overall, this novel is about self-exploration and reconciling who you wish you were with who you are. It doesn’t present any easy answers, nor was it meant to, as we don’t often get those in life. The way this book handles social issues such as queer identity and racism is subtly well-done, with respect for these issues in reality evident in the way the author handles them.

What I loved: When the Moon was Ours is a work of magical realism, just as whimsical and beautifully-written as books in this genre tend to be. Blurring the edges between fantasy and reality allows McLemore to present powerful thoughts. The prose was as magical as the plot itself and gave a sense of allure and true magic.

Much of the story is told through metaphor and allusion: for those who prefer plot over character development, this may be a little frustrating, but for me it painted a vivid and compelling picture.

In addition to queer representation, the author also brought in themes of cultural identity and racism. Sam grapples with his identity as an Italian-Pakistani trans boy, realizing that his identity as male is so much more than the cultural role of bacha posh he had initially assumed. Miel investigates her identity through her Latina heritage through legends, language, and Spanish tradition.

In the author’s note, McLemore talks about her husband’s transition and how they as a couple came to know so much about one another as they grappled with difficult things. She wrote about seeing her husband’s struggle in his eyes as a teenager and how, though transitioning has been difficult as any challenge is, she has seen him become free.

I try to be a pretty strong person, but admittedly, I got a little teary-eyed as I read it. Someday, I hope to find someone as caring and understanding as the author is with her husband.

Quote: “He would never let go of Samira, the girl his mother imagined when he was born. She would follow him, a blur he thought he saw out of the corner of his eye when he stood at the counter, making roti with his mother. Or he would see the silhouette of Samira crossing the woods, wearing the skirts that fit her but he could never make himself fit. Maybe one day he would see her shape, her dark hands setting the lantern of a hollow pumpkin into the water, candle lighting the carves shapes.

“But this was what she would be now, his shadow, an echo of what he once was and thought he would be again. She was less like someone he was supposed to become, and more like a sister who lived in places he could not map, a sister who kept a light but constant grip on both his hand and his grandmother’s.

“No one could make him be Samira. Not him. Not the Bonner sisters. Not the signatures on that paper.”

Recommended: Highly. While this book is of course excellent for trans or queer-identifying readers, the way it handles identity is pertinent for anyone who’s trying to discover themselves in a conflicting world.

With prose so beautiful and characters so nuanced as these, I have to recommend this for all lovers of magical realism and an emotionally-charged story. I may, however, recommend this more for older teens because it does have some sex scenes (although with minimal detail and tastefully-handled).