Powerful Messages of Pride

There are a lot of books out these days that shine the light on the LGBTQ+ community. I am an ally and have been for as long as I can remember. My childhood piano teacher died of AIDS in the early phases of the disease and somehow that touched me deeply. In the last 6 months, I have managed to read a few titles that have really stuck with me as well.

I was thrilled to meet Alex Gino at ALA this summer and get a copy of Alice Austen Lived Here. I was actually part way through it on Libby at the time, but physical copies are so much better. AALH is a wonderful story that goes beyond then coming of age trope that many MG LGBTQ+ books follow. Not that it is a bad theme, it is just nice to read something different. I will admit that I would never buy this for my current school library, but that is only because they have already tried to ban Melissa and a book that confronts the fact that our history is very much written by and about dead white men would get me fired. I digress, as I often do. This story follows two nonbinary teens, Sam and TJ, who have been assigned a project to come up with a new statue in Staten Island. Sam’s downstairs neighbors, Jess & Val, are also queer and suggest Alice Austen, a photographer who lived on Staten Island in the 1800s with her partner. This book is about queer representation in all facets of life and the challenges of making that a reality. The story had a few moments where it struggled, but the idea itself and Gino’s unique way of looking at things made it well worth the read.

Earlier in the summer I had read The Civil War of Amos Abernathy by Michael Leali (thank you NetGalley). This intriguing look at queer history takes place at a living history park. The main concept of the book is how both queer and black history has been omitted from a lot of our history books, Amos is queer and his best friend Chloe is black. Amos, Chloe, and their new friend Ben, who is very closeted, become partners trying to come up with a new exhibit for the Living History Park. For this project, Amos delves into Civil War history to find examples of people who lived during that time who didn’t conform to society’s standards. One of the people he finds is Albert Cashier, a potentially trans man, born Jennie Hodgers, who changed their name to fight in the war and was so committed to it that they never changed it back. Interestingly, Amos writes letters to Albert throughout the book adding an interesting flavor. Leali did a great job at showing the kids’ efforts to find their representation, but also to show the push back that they received from the community. We have come a long way, but there is still an even longer way to go for many. The history and discussions over whether or not marginalized communities had a right to be seen at a historic center deal with a lot of the topics that communities are facing right now. Well worth the read.

The conversation that a lot of us are having to have these days concerns middle grade and YA fiction that deals with LGBTQ+ and/or racial themes. When I saw a new David Levithan book on NetGalley that dealt with all of that, I of course had to read it. Not only did I read it, but I gushed over it so much that when I had the ability to get an autographed copy at ALA, I jumped at the chance. The book in question is Answers in the Pages and part of me wants to drop off a few copies addressed to our local board of education. I won’t, but I want to. Anyway, the story focuses on the notion of parents over-thinking what their children and how it often leads to over-reaction. In this story, Donovan’s class has been assigned a book and his mother happens to look at it when he left it on the kitchen counter. He hadn’t even been past the first chapter, but his mother flipped to the end, read something out of context, and freaked out. Donovan sees the book as “just an adventure novel about two characters trying to stop an evil genius,” but his mom is convinced the main characters are gay and that the book needs to be banned. As the synopsis of the book says, “Donovan doesn’t really know if the two boys fall in love at the end or not—but he does know this: even if they do, it shouldn’t matter. The book should not be banned from school. Interweaving three connected storylines, David Levithan delivers a bold, fun, and timely story about taking action (whether it’s against book censors or deadly alligators…), being brave, and standing up for what’s right.” Takes the fictional notion of book challenges a step farther by actually addressing the gay elephant in the room. I think his notion of how the kids respond to the novel is pretty accurate. Check this one out!

On a lighter note, I really enjoyed reading Sir Callie and the Champions of Helston by Esme Symes-Smith thanks to Random House Kids and NetGalley. Found out about this one at ALA as well. This is the first in a series of fantasy books with a nonbinary main character. How to you argue with a book described as follows: “In a world where girls learn magic and boys train as knights, twelve-year-old nonbinary Callie doesn’t fit in anywhere. And you know what? That’s just fine. Callie has always known exactly what they want to be, and they’re not about to let a silly thing like gender rules stand in their way.” Needless to say, it was fabulous! Three cheers for Callie and their stubborn streak! While sometimes incredibly frustrating due to the behaviors of Lord Peran and the silent submission of the royal women, this was a powerful message about being yourself regardless of what others say. The most important message that I got is that repressing a side of yourself to fit in, be it your gender or magical abilities, only hurts you in the end. You can keep pushing down, but one day you are going to burst. I can’t wait to read more about this exciting group of kids and the family that they are creating.

A final book I feel the need to mention is We Deserve Monuments by Jas Hammonds. Now this book is definitely not middle grade. It is fully YA and has some salty language, but this is a beautiful book well deserving of all of the praise that it has been getting. I was able to read this book over the summer thanks to NetGalley, but then I didn’t write a review quickly enough to remember all of the details and so I just finished listening to the audiobook. They are both fabulous! This is a powerful story set in Bardell, Georgia in the present day as well as around the mid-1970s. There is generational trauma, racial violence, and fear of being LGBTQ in a small rural town during both time frames. Avery Anderson gets uprooted from life in DC to spend her senior year in Georgia with her terminally ill estranged grandmother. In DC there was a level of pressure and expectation that followed her everywhere she went. In Bardell, she planned to keep her head down and just make it through the year, but a special friendship develops with Simone, her next-door-neighbor, and Jade, the daughter of the most prominent white family in the town. Avery is openly gay and stands out in Bardell, but her friendship with Simone and Jade make it the most comfortable place she has ever been. Secrets of the past continue to come out from beneath the rocks and Avery struggles to keep her anger in check. Peeling back the layers of Mama Letty, Zora, and Avery, this is a family that must find a way to love again. An incredibly powerful debut novel that kept me wanting more during both of my reads.

I can’t purchase these for my school library, but I can continue to recommend them to everyone else. These are some great books that are well worth the read.

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