A Notes from the Windowsill annotated bibliography by Wendy E. Betts. Copyright 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010
Click on the book covers for more publisher's information or to order from Powell's Books.
A note to our readers: We guarantee that absolutely no payment is accepted from any bookstore, publisher, author or any other agency, for inclusion of a review in Notes from the Windowsill or for any special notice given to any book.
Last Updated 09/02/10
King & King written and illustrated by Linda de Haan and Stern Nijland. Tricycle, 2002 (1-58246-061-2) $14.95
One day, a queen decides she's had enough of ruling, and it's time for her son to find a suitable princess and get married. "When I was your age, I'd been married twice already," she grumbles. The prince agrees, though he's never much cared for princesses... and none of the ones who show up manage to change his opinion. Then in walks the last princess, beautiful golden-haired Princess Madeleine--and her brother, Prince Lee. It's love at first sight, and the two princes, known as King & King, live happily ever after. The final panel shows the two Kings kissing, their lips hidden behind a red heart.
I like this book so much, I wish there weren't parts of it that made
me feel--to use the technical term--a little squicky. The
overbearing mom of the prince veers uncomfortable close to ugly
stereotype, as do some of the princesses the prince rejects. That
Americentricity aside, this is a charmer of a story, that any lover of
a happy-ever-after can enjoy. The mixed-media illustrations are bold
and comical, evoking a highly untidy Harlequinade. (3 & up)
King & King has been translated into several languages,
including Spanish. There is also a sequel, King & King &
Molly's Family by Nancy Garden. Illustrated by Hsaron Wooding. Farrar Straus Giroux, 20054 (0-374-35002-7) $16.00
Kindergartner Molly is upset when she draws a picture of her
family--Mommy, Mama Lu, and her puppy Sam--and is told by other
children that "you can't have a mommy and a mama." Even after her
mothers assure her that they are both her "real" parents, she decides
to leave her picture home instead of bringing it for Open School Night.
But thinking about the other kids in her classroom makes her realize
that Mama Lu was right when she said "there are lots of different
kinds of families," and the next day she brings her picture back.
The message is both realistic and positive; unfortunately the
blandly written and equally blandly illustrated story offers
little beyond that. (4-6)
Daddy, Papa, and Me by Leslea Newman. Illustrated by Carol Thompson. Tricycle, 2009 (978-1-58246-262-2) $7.99 board
This is advertised (along with its companion, Mommy, Mama, and Me, which I haven't seen) as being the first board book featuring gay parents; assuming that's true, I'm glad the first ones are so appropriately board-bookish, with a text in simple rhyme and mixed media illustrations that are bright and lively.
The story is about a (no specified gender) child playing with daddy and papa: daddy helps paint, papa helps bake; daddy strums on a guitar, papa drums; daddy shows how to sew, papa shows how to throw; "Daddy's plane goes zoom, zoom, zoom! Papa's car goes vroom vroom vroom!" Nothing all that special, but nothing that makes you feel like you're hit over the head with a hammer, either. (Except maybe the aprons. I'm all for the two dads modeling non-stereotypical behavior, but do we have to model 1950s t.v. mom?)
I'm hoping this won't stay a one-of-kind for long, but for now, it's
the go-to book for those looking for an enjoyable board book in which
gay parents are taken for granted. No trauma, no speeches, just a
normal day in a normal life. (1-4)
Too Far Away to Touch by Leslea Newman. Illustrated by Catherine Stock. Clarion, 1995 (0-395-68968-6) $14.95; 1998 (0-395-90018-2) $5.95 pb
This simply written story attempts to show AIDS through a child's eyes, as a little girl named Zoe observes the changes in her Uncle Leonard: he's tired a lot, and his hair has fallen out and--as Zoe instinctively realizes--he may die soon. But though many things about Uncle Leonard are different, their relationship will never totally change; as he tells Zoe, when he dies he'll be like the stars in the sky, "too far away to touch, but close enough to see."
Although many adults will respond to its poignant symbolism, I
don't think that Too Far Away to Touch succeeds that well
as a child's introduction to the subject of
AIDS--especially when compared to the similar but more successful
work, Tiger Flowers. (See below.) Except for a reference to
Uncle Leonard's "sad smile," the text is
almost totally lacking in explicit emotional context; adults can infer
what Zoe and her uncle are feeling, but I think many child readers
will bewildered by the subtlety of expression. There's
also not much narrative drive to keep the book interesting through
many scenes of vague sadness, and to encourage rereadings. The
illustrations are in keeping with the mood of the book, soft, delicate
watercolors that convey melancholy tenderness. (5-9)
The White Swan Express by Jean Davies Okimoto and Elaine M. Aoki. Illustrated by Meilo So. Clarion, 2002 (0-618-16453-7) $16.00
On one side of the world, four Chinese baby girls are snuggling, burping, smiling and yawning in their orphanage cribs. Meanwhile, in four different cities in the North America, four very different families, including a lesbian couple and a single woman, awake to the same wonderful realization: that this is the day they will travel to China to meet their new daughters.
This joyfully touching story describes the international adoption
in terms that are meaningful to both children and adults, showing the
immense amount of preparation made--"diapers and baby
carriers, knitted hats and blankets... bibs and baby food, and booties
and warm sweaters"--as well as the hopes and fears of the people who
will soon be new parents. So's watercolor illustrations have an
appropriately Chinese feel, while giving the families distinctly
Western personalities. (4 & up)
The Family Book written and illustrated by Todd Parr. Little, Brown, 2003 (0-316-73896-4) $15.95
This follow-up to The Mommy Book and The Daddy Book is
slightly more serious in tone and messages, reminding us that not only
do all families like to hug each other, but that "all families are sad
when they lose someone they love." But no Parr book could be
too serious, not when it's filled to brim with brightly colored
illustrations. Parr has extra fun this time by showing both human and
animal families: naturally, the big family is made up of
and a family in which everyone eats different things is a dog, a cat
a rabbit. There's also a mixed-race stepfamily, a multicolored group
of two mom/two dad families, and families as small as one dad with a
baby. I was especially tickled by the hilarious illustration of "some
families look alike," which shows a woman with purple hair and big
blue glasses with two identical purple-haired,
little girls. (2-6)
My Really Cool Baby Book written and illustrated by Todd Parr. Little, Brown, 2001 (0-316-60365-1) $14.95
A deliberate departure from the dreamily sentimental world of most
baby books, this book is meant for the baby too--when it's a bit
older. Boldly outlined and brightly colored board book-style pictures
surround fill-in boxes that let parents keep track of whether a baby
was born in a hospital, at home, in an elevator or even on another
planet; another page commemorates special occasions like first smile,
first tooth and first burp. Less traditional families will also
appreciate a page for adoption info and a page for family members that
includes stepfamily; you can also fill in multiple numbers of moms, dads
and other family members. The humor and simplicity of this book will
encourage parents to keep it filled, and someday delight its original
Tiger Flowers by Patricia Quinlan. Illustrated by Janet Wilson. Dial, 1994 (0-803-1407-6)
As AIDS begins to affect more and more lives, all parents, gay and straight, face a dilemma: how do we find the words to explain such a sad, frightening disease to our children? Tiger Flowers, a picture book for children 5 and up, is a tender, compassionate introduction to the tragedy of AIDS, showing it as it is most likely to touch a child's life--through the death of a loved one. By taking this approach Quinlan goes straight to the heart of the matter: AIDS takes people away from those who love them.
Narrated by a boy named Joel, Tiger Flowers describes his memories of his uncle, Michael, and the good times they had together before Michael's death from AIDS. Michael helped Joel build a tree house, took him to baseball games, and tended the garden with him; his favorite flowers were the tiger lilies that Tara, Joel's little sister, calls tiger flowers. Missing Michael makes Joel feel like "I'm in a cold, lonely place inside me." But in his tree house, watching the sun come up on the tiger flowers below, the cold place grows warmer. The book ends with Joel picking a tiger flower for his sister and telling her they will always be his favorite, too.
Told in a simple style, with a delicate symbolism that doesn't overpower the painful facts, Tiger Flowers is a very touching story. The realistically painted illustrations tenderly convey the caring relationships between all of the family members; particularly moving is a picture of a gaunt Michael in the hospital, gazing at a drawing of a tiger Joel made for him. Although the use of flashbacks and metaphor may not be developmentally appropriate for younger children, the concreteness of the language and action should keep the book understandable. Both the text and the pictures of the affectionate family offer reassurance to children that they can be close to people with AIDS without fear of catching it.
Tiger Flowers is a universal story about love and loss, which should
not be reserved for children whose lives have been touched by AIDS or
other fatal illnesses. Parents who give or read Tiger Flowers to
their children should be prepared to answer their questions about
AIDS, however, as the book is not intended to cover many facts. It is
also not exactly forthright about how AIDS is transmitted; while
Joel's memories of Michael's grief over the
death from AIDS of his best friend Peter clearly indicate to the adult
reader that Michael and Peter were lovers, the exact nature of their
relationship is never made explicit. Quinlan must have had some
difficult decisions to make about how to create a gay character with
AIDS without perpetuating the stereotype of AIDS as a gay disease; her
oblique approach is a reasonable compromise for young children but
could leave them hanging, wondering why both Peter and Michael had
AIDS if it isn't contagious. Nevertheless, I commend the
author for not taking the lazy way out and simply giving Michael a
nice, noncontroversial transfusion. By including Michael and
Peter's relationship in the story, Quinlan gives parents
the opportunity to be as honest or as silent as they wish about the
connection between AIDS and sex; hopefully it will encourage more
honesty than silence. (5 & up)
And Tango Makes Three by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell. Illustrated by Henry Cole. Simon & Schuster, 2005 (0-689-87845-1) $14.95
We've long needed a picture book like this, a warm, charming and true story about two boys who fall in love and start a family. The two boys are penguins, Roy and Silo, and they do everything the other penguins do: "They bowed to each other. And walked together. They sang to each other. And swam together. Wherever Roy went, Silo went too." When the two try to hatch a baby penguin, devotedly sitting on a rock to warm it, their keeper gives them an egg to foster. "Roy and Silo knew just what to do. They moved the egg to the center of their nest. Every day they turned it, so each side stayed warm." And one day, "out came their very own baby!" Named Tango, "because it takes two to make a Tango," the chick is the very first penguin in the zoo to have two daddies.
Written with a simple, accessible rhythm, and never didactic, this story
makes the point that any loving parents can create a family with easy
grace. The light watercolor illustrations give lively expression
to the penguins' faces, without ever making them seem less than real.
* (4 & up)
Mom and Mum Are Getting Married! by Ken Setterington. Illustrated by Alice Priestley. Second Story, 2004 (1-896764-84-3) $11.95
The status of gay relationships has come a long way since Heather
first come out with her two mommies--and so have picture books, thank
goodness. When Rosie's mom and mum decide to get married, the main
conflict is whether Rosie will get to be a flower girl and whether she
and her brother Jack are responsible enough to take care of the wedding rings.
Narrated by Rosie herself, the book is totally matter-of-fact about
mom and mum's relationship, never even mentioning (why would she?)
what the actual biological connections in her family are. All ends well
and family and friends all join in the happy celebration, tenderly
illustrated with glowing watercolors. Perhaps this story is a bit
idealized, but why not celebrate a beautiful ideal? (4-10)
One Dad, Two Dads, Brown Dad, Blue Dads by Johnny Valentine. Illustrated by Melody Sarecky. Alyson Wonderland, 1994 (1-55583-253-9); 2004 (1-555-83848-0) $10.95 pb
If the title of this book makes you think of Dr. Seuss, you won't be disappointed by the text, a lively story with a familiar syncopated rhyme scheme and a goofy sense of humor. Lou, who is brown, has two dads--who are blue. Of course his friend has lots of questions about what it's like to have blue dads: "Do they work? Do they play? Do they cook? Do they cough? If they hug you too hard, does the color come off?" But as Lou explains, "Did you think that they simply would stop being dads, just because they are blue?" And no, they didn't drink too much blueberry juice as young boys, or play with too many blue toys: "They are blue because--well--because they are blue. And I think they're remarkable wonders--don't you?"
It's delightful to see a book about alternative families
that makes its point in such a playful, entertaining way. Young
children probably won't get the unspoken analogy between
blue dads and gay dads--unless they happen to have two dads
themselves--but the overall theme that dads can be
different and still be dads can be appreciated by anyone.
This book would definitely get a star rating if the illustrations were
above average: their exaggeratedly "normal,"
cartoony style complements the story nicely, but just isn't
distinctive. It's an awfully close call though. Highly
recommended either for read-alouds or as an easy reader. (3-8)
My Two Uncles by Judith Vigna. Albert Whitman, 1995 (0-8075-5507-X)
Elly's upset when her grandfather refuses to invite Uncle Ned's
"friend" Phil to his anniversary party. Her father explains that
some people don't think it's right to be gay, "but I don't think
it's wrong." This attempt to be helpful and informative just comes off as
didactic--it doesn't say anything any parent couldn't just say to
their child without a story. (5-10)
Red Ribbon by Sarah Weeks. Illustrated by Jeffrey Greene. HarperCollins, 1995 (0-06-025430-0) $15.95 (book, tape and ribbon)
This poignant introduction to the issue of AIDS focuses on the symbol of the red ribbon as a way of saying "I care." As a little girl named Jenny watches her neighbor get sicker every day, she wishes she could do something to help, so her mother gives her a red ribbon to wear: "Every day I'll wear my red ribbon. . . And I'll think of you." And as revealed in the illustrations, she also does something more for her neighbor, sending him a package of her favorite lucky treasures. This book version of a song doesn't work all that well as text--it's too disjointed to read aloud well--but luckily a tape of the song, sung in a light, feathery voice by the author, is included. Although neither the book nor the tape is all that memorable on their own, they work beautifully together: the tape makes the text more readable, and the book fills in missing parts of the story through its gently realistic, pastel illustrations. I particularly liked the illustrated ending, which shows that true caring involves giving, not just gestures.
Since the song doesn't actually say just why Jenny's neighbor is sick, parents should be prepared to answer questions about the disease. A short bibliography of reference books is included. (4-8)
Anna Day and the O-ring written and illustrated by Elaine Wickens. Alyson Wonderland, 1994 (1-55583-252-0) $6.95 pb
"Evan lives with his family, Mama Dee and Mama Gee and Anna Day, in apartment 2-D." The four of them--Evan, his two mommies and their dog--are preparing for Evan's birthday by putting up his new birthday tent. But one of the pieces, the O-ring, is missing and you can't put up a tent without it. Just when it looks hopeless, Anna Day rolls over--and there is the O-ring. Evan is so amused that he tells the story of Anna Day and the O-ring to everyone he knows, "every day for a long time."
Most notable for its matter-of-fact presentation of an alternative family, Anna Day and the O-ring also grabs attention with its expressive, spontaneous-looking photographs. The natural, everyday look of the family is intriguingly realistic--it's so rare to see ordinary looking people in children's books, particularly adults who aren't spick 'n' span. A pleasing touch of humor enlivens the book's ending: both children and adults will recognize and chuckle over the childish urge to repeat a good story over and over, "for a long time." (2-4)
The Skull of Truth by Bruce Coville. Illustrated by Gary A. Lippincott. Harcourt Brace, 1997 (0-15-275457-1) $17.00
Coville, who wrote the title story for the groundbreaking book Am I
Blue? (see below), continues his support in this likeable fantasy
about a boy
named Charlie, who finds a skull that compells people to tell the truth.
One of the truths revealed at an uncomfortable family dinner is that his
favorite uncle's "roomate" is actually his boyfriend, and Charlie is
uncomfortable until he realizes that nothing has really changed
between them. It's a fairly minor subplot, but that's actually rather
Antonio's Card/La Tarjeta de Antonio by Rigoberto Gonzalez. Illustrated by Cecilia Concepcion Alvarez. Children's Book Press, 2005 (0-89239-204-5) $16.95. Text in English and Spanish.
Antonio enjoys playing with letters, finding "Mami" in his alphabet cereal to please his mother, and spelling words for her in both Spanish and English. But when the other kids at school start making fun of his mother's partner Leslie, saying "that woman looks like a guy" and "She looks like a rodeo clown," word games don't seem fun anymore. "Words are more than letters. Words hurt feelings." Marco draws a mother's day card for Mami and Leslie, showing the three of them with the words "family/familia" above, but he's worried when he finds out it will be part of a school exhibit, and tries to keep Leslie away. Until he sees the mother's day surprise Leslie has painted for Mami, a beautiful scene of the three of them, just like the one on his card, and realizes how much "family/familia" really means.
This tender story in picture book format feels just right for its intended audience, neither too metaphorical nor too didactic. The large watercolors are a bit still and somber for my tastes, but I was moved to tears by the loving images of family, one as drawn in crayon by Antonio, the other as painted by Leslie. (5-8)
Real Heroes by Marilyn Kaye. Gulliver, 1993 (0-15-200563-3); Avon Camelot, 1994 (0-380-72283-6) $3.50 pb
After his mother leaves, eleven-year-old Kevin's love for his dad, Charley, takes on a fierce loyalty and admiration. His conviction that his father is the greatest guy in the world is strengthened when Charley (a cop) rescues a family from a gunman and becomes a television hero. But Kevin's hero worship is strained when Charley joins a campaign to get Kevin's gym teacher, Mr. Logan, fired, after learning he is HIV positive. Forced to realize that his brave, upright father can be both cowardly and unreasonable, Kevin must learn that obvious heroism is not always the best answer to a situation--and that just because you love someone, it doesn't mean they're always right.
Real Heroes is a sincere but rather limited book. Many of the
characters exist merely to serve as mouthpieces for attitudes or
information, giving the book a didactic feeling--and Mr.
Logan is simply a plot element, whose problems are trivialized, only
important because they affect Kevin. But Kevin and his father are
believable, sympathetic characters and their relationship--and what
Kevin learns about it--is the real core of this story. (8-12)
Living in Secret by Christina Salat. Bantam, 1993; Dell Yearling 1994 (0-440-40950-0) $4.99 pb
What do you do when the law won't recognize your right to be with the people you love? For Amelia and her mother, barely able to see each other since Amelia's father was awarded custody, there seems to be only one answer: running away together to start a new life. Amelia's mother is a lesbian and neither the judge nor Amelia's father wants her "to grow up around Mom's life-style. I'm still not exactly sure what they meant, but it has to do with mom being with Janey."
Living with her mom and and Janey in a sunshiney house in San Francisco seems like the right life-style to Amelia--not only do they love her, but they let her be herself. Only the secrecy is a terrible price to pay: always having to keep track of her story, never being able to share the truth, even with her best friend. Amelia can only hope that someday,"It'll be okay between my parents and I won't have to live in secret anymore."
When Amelia is finally discovered and forcibly taken back by her father, "to grow up in a normal household," she knows more than ever that her mother and Janey are her "real family." "They love me. People who love each other listen and try to work things out. Not like Daddy. He just wants things his way." And something else gnaws at her: the terrible injustice of their situation. "My mother never did anything wrong and she always wanted to be with me. It's not fair that my father can keep us apart for no good reason." Given a choice by her mother between staying with her father, running away again or trying to overturn the custody decision, Amelia decides for the legal battle, knowing it may be very difficult and painful but picturing herself finally getting to tell the judge what she wants, and then returning to her family without fear, to burn their fake ID's in a welcome-home marshmallow roast.
Well-crafted, gripping and involving, Living in Secret will capture readers with its tense plot and sympathetic narrator. Believable character relationships make the story very accessible, as Amelia and Janey learn to adjust to living with each other, just as any stepparent and child would. The gay characters are particularly well drawn, with no selfconscious, artificial efforts to avoid stereotyping; unlike many children's books which feature gay characters, Living in Secret conveys the feeling that the author is perfectly comfortable writing about them. Salat also seems unusually comfortable with taking a stand: although the book dramatically shows the difficult consequences of running away, it is firmly on the side of the right of Amelia and her mother to be together. As a work of literature Living in Secret is only about average, but these strong elements lift it above the level of most "problem novels."
For more YA suggestions, see YA writer Lee Wind's blog: "I'm Here. I'm Queer. What the Hell do I Read?"
Simon Says By Elaine Marie Alphin. Harcourt Brace, 2002 (0-15-216355-7) $17.00
As I searched my mind for ways to approach a review of Simon Says, I found myself thinking of Jules Feiffer's The Man in the Ceiling. Superficially they're not anything alike, but in the same way that The Man in the Ceiling is an expression of what it means to be an artist, wrapped in a children's book, Simon Says is an expression of what it means to be an artist, wrapped in a YA problem novel. That could be taken as either damning with faint praise or praising with faint damn--and truly, I'm not entirely sure which way I mean it.
Simon Says is an ambitious and ultimately fascinating book. It opens with a prologue which frames it as a thriller or a mystery, and in a sense both of those judgments are correct, but the mystery and thrills of this book are definitely not typical.
"Simon Says" is the name given by sixteen-year-old Charles to the rules by which he lives his life. "Simon says... be like the other kids." "Simon says...keep your art separate." Charles is a painter, but he has never found anyone capable of appreciating his work. And so, though he continues to paint, he hides both his art and himself from everyone, showing them only the Charles they want to see. (If he had had a copy of The Man in the Ceiling as a child, perhaps this whole story would be different.)
As the book opens, Charles is entering a prestigious high school for the arts--not really to be taught, but to meet Graeme Brandt, a seventeen-year-old student who has already published a successful novel Charles thinks he'll find in Graeme the secret he's looking for, "someone who could show you how to have it both ways--how to be who you are, and how to paint what you have inside you and be able to show everybody." But the Graeme he finds is not at all who he expected, and their world views will collide with devastating results.
I would hate to have Simon Says ghettoized as a "gay teen" book, but one of its most intriguing themes is the parallels Alphin draws between art and sexual identity. Three important male characters in Simon Says have some sexual feelings towards other boys, but while one is as intrinsically and openly gay as he is intrinsically and openly an artist, another serves expediency in his relationships just as he does in his art, and the third experiences sexual feelings where he feels emotional connection. It's a much more honest depiction of the variety of human sexuality than usually found in young adult literature--perhaps in most literature--and it serves as a very apt metaphor for artistic expression, because hiding ones sexuality is just another form of playing the game.
Overall, I think Simon Says is powerful and wonderfully imagined--and yet I can't quite get past the writing. Charles' narrative uses constant parenthetical asides as a device to express his raging thoughts; it makes the book feel rushed, and diminished my belief in Charles' integrity and maturity as an artist--it's hard to picture him slowing down for long enough to paint. And then, it is very difficult to describe powerful works of art in a meaningful way, a problem Alphin hasn't completely overcome. The reader has to take an awful lot on faith, because the author seems to be struggling towards something she can't entirely express in words.
Still, both what it attempts and for what it achieves, this is a very
rewarding book. (12 & up)
David Inside Out by Lee Bantle. Henry Holt, 2009 (978-0-8050-8122-0) $16.99
Trying to figure out how to put the moves on a girl for the first time can be hard. "Was I supposed to touch her knee now?... Should I just drop my hand on her? Were you supposed to squeeze?" wonders David. But David has an extra problem... Kick, the girl who pretty clearly wants to be his girlfriend, isn't nearly as attractive to him as someone else -- his track teammate, Sean.
David is determined not to give in to his feelings. "This wasn't me. It couldn't be. Not gay. Anything but that." He makes a list of ways to be more straight, correcting himself with a snap of a rubber band on his wrist whenever he has a wrong feeling. Then Sean invites him to fool around, throwing all his best straight intentions out the window. David is scared of being out to his friends, but ready to be in love--but Sean refuses to admit he likes anything but getting off. "I don't kiss or write love poems... I don't put it in my mouth." Sean, David will find, is far more determined not to be gay than he could ever be.
Fast-paced and plot-focused, this sympathetic coming out story will probably have the most appeal to readers who are also struggling with their sexual identities. I found myself most interested in the secndary characters, whose actions and motivations are something of a puzzle to David, complicating his life. Sean has the private sex rules designed to prove that he's not really gay. Kick betrays his confession to her and then deliberately seduces him, perhaps in a misguided attempt to "cure" him, only to wind up hurt. Only his oldest friend Eddie, who recently came out himself, is really straightforward about who he is and what he wants... an excellent role model for the newly self-aware David.
The story has a small amount of graphic language and quite a few
brief, non-explicit but not coy sex scenes. I was bothered that
condoms are only mentioned in a heterosexual context, though it would
have been quite narratively easy to have the person David talks to at
a gay hotline drop a word about safe sex -- considering Sean's
secretive, denial-filled approach to sex, he strikes me as a highly
risky person to have unprotected encounters with. Recommended for
mature readers. (15 & up)
Am I Blue? Coming Out from the Silence edited by Marion Dane Bauer. HarperCollins, 1994 (0-06-024253-1) $15.00; HarperTrophy, 1995 (0-064-40587-7) $6.99 pb
Like most collections of short stories for young adults, Am I Blue? is about the pains and pleasures of growing up: dealing with parents, falling in love, choosing a new life. But there's one significant difference between this book and other anthologies--the teenagers in it are dealing with gay parents, or falling in love with someone of the same sex, or choosing a life their friends and relatives violently disapprove of. Each of these honest, sensitively written stories--by some of the most respected and popular authors for young adults around--is about growing up while coming to terms, in some form or another, with homosexuality. The result is a powerful collection that can speak to almost any teenager.
One of the delights of Am I Blue? comes in seeing what different authors chose to do within a very general framework. It's fascinating to see so many "mainstream" writers, each going in their own distinct direction: M.E. Kerr writes about family misunderstandings and alienation; Bruce Coville tells a humorous fantasy about a "fairy godfather"; Jane Yolen writes a prequel to her "Sister Light, Sister Dark" series. Each writer seems to have been free to explore the subject as they chose, giving a variety and intellectual honesty to the stories that "written to spec" books can never have--Coville, for instance, was concerned that his campy fairy godfather could be read as "an easy stereotype" but decided to create him anyway, as "as accurate a portrayal I could offer of some of the funniest and most gallant men I have ever met." The book is mostly free of desperate attempts at counter-stereotyping and "balanced" portrayals, offering instead thoughtful, caring portraits of people. There are many explanations but no apologies.
As is true of most anthologies, some stories are better than others. There is a tinge of self-consciousness that's a minor flaw in the more earnest narratives; my own preference was for the more surprising pieces that didn't seem to be trying so hard. But there's enough variety here, and enough universality of feeling and experience, that almost all readers can find at least a few stories that speak to them. As a resource for schools and libraries, this book will be simply invaluable.
Published by a mainstream press, written by mainstream authors, and
accessible by a "mainstream" audience, Am I
Blue? is a groundbreaking book. It carries a message--not only to
readers, but also to writers and publishers--that it's time
to bring gay characters out of the ghetto of tragic problem novels and
specialty books, into the everyday world of YA fiction. The sixteen
authors of Am I Blue?--only a few of whom are gay or openly identify
themselves as gay--have proven that it can be done.
There's no longer any excuse for other writers not to join
Athletic Shorts by Chris Crutcher. William Morrow, 1991; HarperTempest, 2002 (0-06-050783-7) $6.99 pb
Aside from one story which first appeared in the anthology Connections, this is a collection of original stories with an interesting link: although complete in themselves, each one revisits a character from one of Crutcher's sports novels--and often not a character you'd expect to revisit. For example, Willie Weaver, the protagonist of The Crazy Horse Electric Game gets only minor mention by the narrator of "Telephone Man," a slow-witted, racist teen who is unexpectedly faced with the falsity of stereotypes.
The main characters in these stories are all boys, mostly athletes, trying to find courage as they deal with turning points in their lives. One boy is forced to try to forgive someone who grievously injured him; another boy struggles to hold onto his sense of right and wrong despite pressure from his friends and the power of his own prejudice. These stories pack quite a punch, and although the collection as a while suffers a bit from redundancy of phrases and jokes, and I was irked by the fact that every female athlete mentioned winds up giving up sports for the sake of her social life, I found that, as always, Crutcher not only makes reading about sports appealing to people who don't like them, but also makes us understand why people do.
The stories include "A Brief Moment in the Life of Angus Bethune," about a boy with two sets of gay parents and "In the Time I Get," in which Louie, the main character of Crutcher's Running Loose becomes friends with a gay man dying of AIDS. (12 & up)
Ironman by Chris Crutcher. Greenwillow, 1995; Laurel-Leaf, 1996 (0-440-21971-X)
In this rough but powerful novel, a boy learns to deal with his
feelings towards his controlling father with help from other kids in
an anger management class. A subplot concerns his discovery that
his coach (Lion, from Crutcher's Stotan) is gay. As usual,
Crutcher gives a strong depiction of what it means to be an athlete.
(12 & up)
The Year They Burned the Books by Nancy Garden. Farrar Straus Giroux, 1999 (0-374-38667-6) $17
The author of the ground-breaking Annie on My Mind fails to
break ground in this earnest, well-meaning story about a group of
high school reporters fighting censorship. The fight is particularly
personal for Jamie, who is in the process of figuring out whether
she's still Maybe a lesbian or Probably a lesbian. (13 & up)
Not the Only One: Lesbian & Gay Fiction for Teens edited by Tony Griman. Alyson, 1994 (1-55583-275-X) $7.95 trade pb
This collection of short stories focuses on some of the common experiences of teenagers in the process of discovering what being gay or lesbian means: a first crush on someone of the same sex; discovering that a friend or relative is gay; being ostracized or threatened by others; striving for family approval. Similar in many ways to last year's popular title, Am I Blue? (see above), Not the Only One takes more risks than that mainstream collection, with a few stories that are more overtly sexual and that touch on scarier issues like molestation and rape. Most of the stories are fairly upbeat, however, focusing on the joys of requited love or the exquisite relief of self-discovery and acceptance.
This is generally an absorbing and interesting collection, attractively designed and accessible to a wide audience. A little judicious editing would not have hurt it though: so many of the stories are written in the same straightforwardly reminiscent style that after a while they begin to blur together. Two stories, "Pas de Deux" and "Screaming," seem quite pointless and could have easily been dispensed with, making for a tighter, more focused work. Still, this is a valuable resource for gay or straight teenagers seeking to expand their understanding of themselves and others through fiction. (12 & up)
Who Framed Lorenzo Garcia? by R.J. Hamilton. Alycat, 1995 (1-55583-608-9) pb
Number one in a series called "The Pride Pack," this is something of an innovation in young adult books: a mystery series about gay teenagers. The first book tells how "the Pride Pack" forms: when Ramon Torres' foster father, a gay cop, is framed on drug charges, Ramon and his friends from the Gay and Lesbian Community Center band together to clear Lorenzo's name and return Ramon to the only real home he has.
Author Hamilton does an excellent job of being true to the mystery genre while writing authentically about the problems of gay teens. Although the result doesn't transcend the series format, it is both an extremely compelling suspense story and a heart-tugging "problem novel." Both gay and straight teens should find it accessible and entertaining. (12 & up)
Also available: The Pride Pack #2, The Case of the Missing Mother,
a story about a straight girl whose lesbian mothers are threatened by a
Geography Club by Brent Hartinger. HarperTempest, 2002 (0-06-0012218) $16.99; 2004 (0-06-001223-4) $6.99 pb
The social structure at Goodkind High is firmly established: the Jocks, The Girl Jocks, The Lefty Radicals, The Theater Crowd and the Nerdy Intellectuals all have their established tables. (And of course Brian Bund, the school outcast, sits alone.) So when five closeted students manage to find each other, they're stymied by their inability to cross the borders, until they find what seems to be the perfect cover: "We just choose a club that's so boring, nobody would ever in a million years join it!... We could call it the Geography Club."
For Russel, it's the first time in four years he hasn't felt lonely--especially when he finds more-than-friendship with another member of the club. But when a stroke of luck lands Russel "a visa to the Land of the Popular" (he usually resides in "the Borderlands of Respectability"), he discovers that the price of being popular may be even higher than the price of being closeted.
A fast-paced, fliply narrated but heartfelt story about the suffocating high
school caste system's effect on identity, loyalty and self-worth, and
about making the hard decisions. (13 & up)
The Order of the Poison Oak by Brent Hartinger. HarperTempest, 2005 (0-06-056730-9) $15.99
As the sequel to Geography Club (see above) opens, Russel is feeling somewhat battered by being openly gay in his small, conservative high school. He decides to join his two best friends as a summer camp counselor, looking forward to "two months of the peaceful, completely non-gay R&R that I so desperately needed." But though Russel does escape from gay activism, he can't get away from his own hormones--especially when one of the other counselors is a very attractive guy.
In between trying to get close to the capricious Web, making friends with another counselor who's a burn survivor, and trying to fix up his straight friend Gunnar, who has convinced himself that he's a romance disaster just waiting to happen, Russel just barely copes with being counselor to group of manic ten-year-olds, also burn survivors. When the kids get teased and Russel lets them down, he has to come up with a plan to win back their trust. And so the Order of the Poison Oak is born, a club for anyone who has been damaged and has had to grow a thicker skin as a result-- magic skin, Russel tells the boys, which will protect them from the cruel words of others.
As you might guess from the suggestive cover, The Order of the Poison
Oak is somewhat steamier than its predecessor, but not explicit,
and with an emphasis on responsible behavior.
Episodic and sentimental, it also lacks the narrative tension of the
previous book, and is most enjoyable as a summer romance. (14 & up)
Totally Joe by James Howe. Atheneum, 2005 (0-689-83957-X) $15.95
I have often found Howe's books sweet--in the best possible way--and this time he had me going "awww..." in various different tones practically through the entire book. This follow-up to The Misfits is narrated by Joe, aka Jodan, aka JoDan, who is writing an "alphabiography" for school. A is naturally for his good friend Addie, another of "the misfits," B is for boy, a concept he has always had some trouble with, and C, amazingly enough, is for Colin, his BOYFRIEND! (Being twelve and as yet unthrilled by the idea of "exchanging saliva," for Joe having a boyfriend is mostly about hanging out together and dressing up as Bert and Ernie for Halloween--after deciding it's too unnerving to be the lovers from "Titanic," on the driftwood.) As Joe works down the alphabet, he tells a story that is equal parts funny, touching and fabulous, as he comes to accept himself and fight for his right to be different.
A walking--or as he would insist, dancing--effeminate stereotype, Joe's
genuine emotions transcend his love of bridal magazines and Cher,
making him a hero anyone can relate to. * (10 & up)
Deliver Us From Evie by M.E. Kerr. HarperCollins, 1994 (0-06-024475-5); HarperTrophy (0-06-447128-4) $5.99 pb
Although it won much critical acclaim, this run-of-the-mill novel is
really only notable for its great title and the character of Evie, the
narrator's sister, an unashamedly butch lesbian. Unfortunately, Evie's
story is secondary to her brother Parr's, in yet another Kerr novel
about a straight boy getting shafted by his one true love. Evie may
actually be the first positive female character Kerr has created. (12 & up)
The Arizona Kid by Ron Koertge. 1988; Candlewick, 2005 (0-763-62542-6) $16.99; (0-763-62695-3) $6.99 pb
One of Koertge's most enjoyable "boy meets girl" stories, with an
attractive, unselfconscious portrait of the main character's gay
uncle. (12 & up)
Ten Out of Ten edited by Wendy Lamb. Laurel-Leaf, 1995 (0-440-21914-0)
A superb collection of plays by writers aged 18 and under. Several
include gay characters, including the sad and funny "Remedial
English," in which a brilliant student discovers that in order to stay
in love with the gorgeous boy of his dreams, love will have to be very
blind indeed. (14 & up)
Absoluteley, Positively Not by David Larochelle. Arthur Levine, 2005 (0-439-59109-0) $16.95
"Why are we so clueless? Why are we so slow? When it comes to coming out, why are we the last ones to know?" --Romanovsky and Phillips
Sixteen-year-old Steven has an ugly secret: he likes to square dance. But when a very cute new teacher named Mr. Bowman arrives at his school, Steven begins to wonder is being a closet square dancer might not be his only ugly secret. And so he begins a ridiculous journey of self-denial, as he attempts to convince himself he is absolutely, positively not gay.
Following the advice of a pathetically outdated library book, Steven first tries hanging out with the most macho clique in the cafeteria, but all it gets him is the nickname "Upchuck." Next comes aversion therapy with a rubber band, which only makes him realize how astonishingly often he thinks about things he shouldn't be thinking about: "Did other guys think about women as much as I thought about men?" Finally he tries dating, discovering that girls love the way he helps them clean their basements, shovels their walks, and listens to their problems... but attempting to make out with one winds up being something he absolutely, positively can't do.
Finally, in one of the funniest scenes of the book, Steven breaks down and comes out to his best friend Rachel--and just as Romanovsky and Phillips once wrote, she and everyone else in her family are utterly unsurprised. "To complete the family picture, Rachel's ten-year-old sister, Tracy, pushed her way through the door. 'DON'T SAY IT!' I cried. 'Don't you dare tell her anything!'... At last Rachel's little sister spoke. 'Did Steven finally tell Rachel he was gay?'"
Although generally screamingly over the top, there are moments of real
feeling in this story, as when Steven discovers that though the
teacher he idolized is probably gay too, he cowardly laughs at faggot
jokes. And Steven's desperate longing just to find someone he can
talk to about being gay is far from funny. But all ends
reasonably happily, after much, much laughter. (14 & up)
Boy Meets Boy by David Levithan. Knopf, 2003 (0-37-92400-0) $15.95; 2005 (0-37-583299-8) $8.95 trade
Novels about gay teenagers have certainly come a long way since every gay teen wound up dying in a car crash--and even since I started this bibliography. Levithan took on the challenge of writing the mainstream YA novel in which the characters are regular teens who are also gay; in doing so, he created a lovely and moving world that may not be quite reality, but gives an idea of what reality could be.
The narrator, Paul, starts his story with a description of his school life than many kids--gay or straight--would envy. From becoming third grade class president with the campaign slogan, "Vote for Me... I'm Gay!" to declining numerous pleas to run for student council president in order to direct the school musical ("I won't bore you with the details, but let me just say that Cody O'Brien was an Auntie Mame for the ages,") he has had no problem being a popular success in a high school and town so open and progressive, they make Santa Cruz look like Salt Lake City.
Into this perfect gay life comes the potential perfect boyfriend, Noah. But the course of true love never did run smooth, and Paul's romance is complicated by the problems of his friend Tony, whose gay life is far from perfect, the virtual disappearance of his friend Joni, who has been sucked into a boyfriend vortex, and the attentions--welcome or unwelcome?--of his ex, Kyle. When he finally realizes what he truly wants, Paul has to poetically navigate the "fine line between love and stalking" to win back the boy of his dreams.
Kind of like Gordon Korman's hilarious Don't Care High crossed with
a Romanovsky and Phillips song, Boy Meets Boy is romance as sweet
and tender as it gets, and high school almost as funny. * (12 & up)
No Big Deal by Ellen Jaffe McClain. Lodestar, 1994 (0-525-67483-7) $14.99; Puffin, 1997 (0-14-038046-9) $4.99 pb
Although gay characters are becoming more common in young adult fiction, they are still often limited to small, largely symbolic roles. No Big Deal is reminiscent of Marilyn Kaye's Real Heroes (see above) with a sex change: this time it's a girl dealing with her homophobic mother's attempts to get her favorite teacher fired, instead of a boy dealing with his homophobic father's attempts to get his favorite teacher fired. No Big Deal is the more powerful book of the two and at least gives it gay character some personality and background, but the Perfect Gay Teacher is still more of a type than a person, a new symbol of the old theme of children clashing with the values of their parents.
School is difficult for Janice, a plump "nerd" who is constantly harassed for being smart and different. Perhaps the only thing that makes it worthwhile is Mr. Padovano, "the best teacher I ever had, that's all." So Janice can't believe it when her own mother joins in a campaign to have Mr. P fired, based only on rumors that he's gay. Disgusted by the ignorance and bigotry of the campaigning parents, Janice knows she has to fight for her teacher--and perhaps even for herself.
Although there's nothing particularly new or profound expressed in
this book, it's a brisk, enjoyable story that presents its facts and
message without didacticism. One positive improvement over most books
with this theme is that the emphasis of the story doesn't
change from injustice to personal betrayal: Mr. P's decision to think
about getting a job where he doesn't have to be closeted is,
thankfully, not seen by Janice as either cowardly or selfish. Other
strong elements are an interesting plot twist in which one of Mr. P's
main enemies turns out to have a brother who is gay and dying of AIDS
("He isn't mad at me for being gay," Mr. P explains. "He's
mad at me for being gay and healthy") and an amusing
discussion between Janice and Mr. P about sexual identity. (At
thirteen she has not yet felt attracted to anyone of either sex; "Give
it a little more time," he advises. "You should know any minute now.")
But I was disappointed that the author's self-proclaimed
anti-prejudice message--"I wanted to show that
there's nothing wrong with being
'different' in any way"--
doesn't seem to extend to size acceptance: the way Janice
learns to trade fat insults with the boy who torments her may be
intended to be satisfying, but I would rather have seen her learn some
Earthshine by Theresa Nelson. Orchard, 1994 (0-531-06867-6) $15.95; Laurel-Leaf, 1996 (0-440-21989-2) $4.50 pb
Twelve-year-old Slim poignantly narrates the story of her life with
her father Mack and his lover Larry, during the last few months before
Mack's death from AIDS. Feeling both helpless and enraged,
Slim sees little point in the political activism or new age therapies
espoused by the other kids in her living-with-AIDS therapy group. But
when the group and their families embark on an arduous trip to see an
acclaimed "miracle man," Slim, Mack and Larry
find unexpected spiritual healing and renewed courage to face the
inevitable. This sensitively-written, believable story is an
important addition to the growing body of literature on this subject.
(10 & up)
Keeping You a Secret by Julia Anne Peters. Little, Brown, 2003; MT Books, 2005 (0-316-00985-7) $7.99
Student body president, good grades, member of the swim team, and dating an awesome guy: Holland seems to have sailed through high school doing everything just right. But now that she's a senior, her life's growing increasingly complicated. Her mother keeps pressuring her look into prestigious colleges... but all Holland wants to do is look at Cece, a new girl who's the first openly gay student at school.
When Holland discovers her feelings for Cece are reciprocated, she's stunned that Cece, so open about herself, wants Holland to stay in the closet. But to Holland, it starts to seem more like a prison. "Solitary confinement. I was locked inside, inside myself, dark and afraid and alone."
Although Holland's narrative rarely rises above the pedestrian--"It wasn't
supposed to be like this." "...she made me feel alive in a way I'd
only ever imagined I could feel. Bells, whistles, music."--she does
have an interesting story to tell. The sometimes staggering reactions
and friends, the desperate longing for "a place," the confusion of
realizing that all expectations about wedding gowns and children have
to be seriously rethought--all are shown with a simple directness that both
gay and straight readers can appreciate. (14 & up)
grl2grl by Julie Anne Peters. Little, Brown, 2007 (978-0-316-01343-7) $11.99 pb
Ten short glimpses into the lives of young lesbians (and one transgendered girl to "boi") make up a thoughtful, compelling and sometimes harrowing book. From the seemingly mundane (daring to strike up a conversation with an intriguing stranger) to the unspeakably awful (living with the brutal sexual abuse of a father), these are sympathetic and emotionally vivid portraits of girls at significant moments in their lives. The level of pain revealed is sometimes intense; even a tender story about unspoken love has a surprise twist that punches the gut. By the time the last story ended happily, I was almost ready to cry with relief.
Peters writes with exquisite attention to language and detail, making
each first person narrative feel distinct and individual. The
different emotions each girl--and boi--experience all come to vivid
life, and it can be hard to let the characters go after just a few
pages, especially when some of them have hurt so much within those
pages. I would love to see Peters expand some of these stories,
especially "Stone Cold Butch" and "Boi," in order to give those
characters a chance to move beyond the events told here, and find some
happiness. (14 & up)
Something Terrible Happened by Barbara Ann Porte. Orchard, 1994 (0-531-96869-2)
An unusual, ambitious novel about a girl learning to be happy in her
new, all-white family after her West Indian mother dies from AIDS. No
gay characters, but some interesting insights into the grieving and
recovery process. The approach could be considered simplistic or
refreshing, depending on your point of view. (12 & up)
Empress of the World by Sara Ryan. Viking, 2001 (0-670-89688-8); Puffin, 2003 (0-142-50059-3) $7.99 pb
"Something I think the reason I like archaeology so much is that it's all over... Dealing with people is messier," writes Nicola (Nic). In her first summer at a program for "gifted youth," Nic is somewhat surprised to almost immediately find a group of friends; she's even more surprised when she develops a crush on one of them, the beautiful and reserved--and female--Battle. But when she discovers that Battle reciprocates her feelings, the confusion and messiness of dealing with people seems to be just beginning.
This is a refreshingly unusual first love story, in which the genders of the main characters are far less important than the clashes of their personalities. I enjoyed the setting and the diverse experiences of the characters; and although Ryan doesn't really manage distinct characterizations, she understands the background and vocabulary of a particular kind of bright teens: theatre work, outrageous clothes, music, and books from Madeleine L'Engle to Weetzie Bat. Falling in love, Nic and Battle "playact" with each other in a way very unfamiliar in the typical YA romance, but which I distinctly remember from my own adolescence.
The trials and pains as well as the pleasures of first love also ring
true, although the primary conflict, in which Battle is unable to deal
with Nic's need to anazlyze them and their relationship, never does:
we're clearly supposed to believe Battle's problem with Nic
is justified, but to me, she just comes off as having an
enormous stick up her butt. It left me a little uncertain as to how I
actually wanted the story to end. (13 & up)
Rainbow Road by Alex Sanchez. Simon & Schuster, 2005 (0-0689-86565-1) $16.95
Wow. Gay teen fiction has become so mainstream, there are finally
gay teen romances! Hey, everyone's entitled. The heart of this
story, a sequel to Rainbow Boys and Rainbow High is
certainly in the right place, showing a wide diversity of young gay
experience, as Kyle, his boyfriend Jason, and his best friend Nelson
go on an episodic road trip together. For readers big on sentimental
love (and some mildly explicit sex scenes.) (14 & up)
Face the Dragon by Joyce Sweeney. Delacorte, 1992
Eric's increasingly competitive feelings towards his best friend
Paul threaten their friendship, and Paul's confession that he is gay
seems to be the nail in the coffin. But when Paul is verbally
attacked by a malicious teacher, Eric realizes that his friend needs
him and forces himself to face his own fears to help him. A
complex and powerful story. (12 & up)
November Ever After by Laura Torres. Holiday House, 1989 (0-8234-1464-7) $16.95
I received an email a while ago, suggesting I should seek out and promote books which condemn homosexuality while teaching tolerance. I can't say that's high on my list of priorities, but should you be in the market for such a book, this story about a parson's daughter who discovers her best friend has been hiding the fact that she's a lesbian comes fairly close. It's also superficial, didactic and dull. To give the author credit, I think she was aiming for evenhandness, and the best friend character is sympathetic. (12 & up)
The Method by Paul Robery Walker. Harcourt Brace, 1990 (0-15-200528-5); 1996 (0-15-201260-5) $5.95 pb
This funny yet moving story about a straight boy involved in an
intensive acting class features a number of interestingly
drawn gay characters and a tender coming-out scene. (12 & up)
Pedro and Me written and illustrated by Judd Winick. Henry Holt, 2000 (0-8050-6403-6) $15.00 trade pb
I started reading this graphic novel less than thrilled with the heavily detailed, semi-realistic style of the drawings, but when I got to Judd's exquisitely grumpy portrayal of himself as "an unhappy kid," I was hooked. And though there continued to be elements of the artistic style that I found unattractive, overall it is a wonderful marriage of words and pictures, just what a graphic novel should be.
Pedro and Me is the story of how Judd Winick become involved in one of the most important relationships of his life: as a cast member of MTV's "The Real World," he found himself rooming with Pedro Zamora, a gay, HIV-positive AIDS educator, who did an excellent job of educating the tense and naive Judd about the realities of living with someone with HIV. Tragically, that reality also included Pedro's death at the age of 22.
I've never seen "The Real World" so I don't have much of a sense of
how "real" any of it actually felt to viewers. (Winick highlights the
falseness of the situation from the insider point of view by showing
his first meeting with Pam, who would later become his fiance, and
then showing the same scene from a further perspective which includes
three hovering cameramen.) But Pedro and Me is both joyfully
and painfully real. Winick skillfully uses cartooning technique to
drive home emotions, sometimes with humor, as in his nervous vision of
the AIDS virus walking around on two legs saying "Mornin,'" and
sometimes with extreme pathos, as in the final scene of Pedro's death,
a small white box against a background of blackness. Biographies of
himself and Pedro help us understand how the two of them got to that
particular place in time, with an especially germane depiction of the
adolescent Pedro willingly being used by older men for sex because he
so desperately longed for love. Finally, Judd shows how several
chance encounters with strangers helped him grieve for Pedro and
understand how important Pedro's short life had been. And he amply
fulfills the goal of making even people like me, who had never heard
of Pedro, understand and be touched by him as well. (12 & up)
Hard Love by Ellen Wittlinger. Simon & Schuster, 1999 (0-689-82134-4) $16.95; Pulse, 2001 (0-689-84154-X) $8 trade pb.
Wittlinger's Lombardo's Law was most memorable for lightly exploring a stereotype-defying teenage experience. Hard Love again looks at areas of teenage life which are generally either ignored or exploited by the mainstream, this time with far more depth and power.
"I am immune to emotion," John writes at the beginning of his story. He's had to be, since his parents' divorce left him with a father who won't talk to him and a mother who shies away from even accidentally touching him. But John's not as immune as he thinks he is; his need to communicate comes out, albeit inadvertently, in his zine Bananafish, and he connects to others through their zines--especially Marisol, a self-proclaimed "Puerto Rican Cuban Yankee Cambridge, Massachusetts, rich spoiled lesbian private-school gifted-and-talented writer virgin looking for love," whose writing makes him feel like "I'm looking down through layer after layer of her, until I'm looking more deeply inside this person I don't even know than I've ever looked inside myself."
After John tracks Marisol down--and manages to convince her that he's not looking for a girlfriend--their friendship quickly becomes something important to both of them; she is perhaps as lonely and suspicious of human contact as he is. But as John's protective shell against emotion begins to crack, he discovers that he wants more from Marisol than he realized... more than she will ever be able to give him.
Through John's narrative, and the writing of the other zine creators
he encounters--appropriately designed with distinctive fonts and
graphics--Hard Love authentically captures the feel of the
personal zine and the honesty, intelligence and unwitting innocence of
the young people who write them. The characters are just as familiar
and believable: John, who thinks he only writes his zine to be funny
and is almost aghast when people find it poignant; Marisol, whose
passionate belief in honesty doesn't stop her from being very
conscious of her ranking on the "exotic scale" and her role as a
lesbian; Diana Tree, author of the zine No Regrets, whom
Marisol writes off as "a granola-head," but who has learned a lot
about surviving pain. But the best thing about Hard Love is
that it never treats zine writing as the latest sexy topic; like its
subject, it feels sincere, touching, intelligent and hopeful.
Behind You by Jacqueline Woodson. Putnam, 2004 (0-399-23988-X) $15.99
Miah Roselind was many things--black, rich, smart, athletic. But most of all, he was beloved. By his estranged mother and father; by his best friend Carlton, who never got a chance to tell Miah what he suspects about himself; by Ellie, the white girl he fell in love with in If You Come Softly. Now Miah is dead, but somehow still nearby, looking on as the people who loved him try to face a world without him.
As the grieving characters bring each other strength and comfort, their lives begin to take new forms: Miah's mother begins to write again, his father reaches out to offer her friendship, Ellie helps Carlton come out to himself and others, and both find a new friend in Kennedy, another black, athletic boy who is somewhat haunted by Miah's memory. And Miah, finally feeling that every person who needed him has moved on into that world without him, is about to begin his long walk into his new world.
Told from numerous points of view, this story is deeply poignant but
perhaps a bit overextended. It will come as a gift to those who
who already love the characters from If You Come Softly, but
may not stand well alone. (13 & up)
From the Notebooks of Melanin Sun by Jacqueline Woodson. Blue Sky, 1995 (0-590-45880-9) $14.95
"The world turns upside-down when you are thirteen-going-on-fourteen. I want to ask someone right now--when will it right itself again?"
Melanin Sun--named for his ebony black skin and for "the sun right there in the center of him, shining through"--has never had a father nor missed one. He and his mother have always been so close, they rarely even bother to close the door that separates their rooms, and her occasional dates have never hung around long enough to disturb their harmony. But when Mama reveals that there's somebody important in her life--and that it is a white woman named Kristin--Melanin's anger, disgust and fear slams a door shut between them. Everything in his life seems suddenly threatened--their comfortable, gossipy neighborhood, his friendship with Sean and Ralph, his crush on Angie. And worst of all is the thought: "if she was a dyke, then what did that make me?"
Unable to let go of his anger or to share the secret with anyone else, Melanin pours out his doubts and questions in his journals: "These are the only things I have that are mine, all mine. The only things I have that won't mess my life up by being gay. The only things that won't stop calling me if they find out." But they're not enough. Somehow he must find a way to accept his mother and Kristin, or lose the only family he has.
Written in a vivid but economical prose that is very lucid and
readable, this is an honest, insightful look at the thoughts of a
bright and sensitive black teenager, suddenly forced to question the
basic assumptions of his world. More than a single issue novel, it is
a fascinating portrait of a boy struggling to reconcile many mixed
messages as he forms his identity. Woodson's believable ending does
not attempt to resolve every problem facing Melanin and his
mother--after all, life doesn't resolve itself--but shows us that he
has achieved the inner peace necessary to face what lies ahead. * (12
The House You Pass on the Way by Jacqueline Woodson. Delacorte, 1997 (0-385-32189-9) $19.95; Laurel-Leaf, 1998 (0-440-22797-6) $4.50 pb
The author of the superb young adult novels I Hadn't Meant to Tell You This and From the Notebooks of Melanin Sun (see above) again explores the themes of racial identity, sexual identity, and friendship, in a novel that is thoughtful and stirring but not entirely satisfying.
Ever since she kissed her friend Hazel, Staggerlee has known that she is different, and different in a way she mustn't talk about. Of course, as the granddaughter of two famous civil rights martyrs, and the daughter of a black father and white mother in an almost all-black town, she's used to feeling different--and confused. That's why she changed her name from Evangeline, choosing her new name from a song about "someone struggling to break out of all the gates life had built up around them."
Then she meets her cousin Trout, who had also changed her name: "I wanted to learn how to fight like that... Be a fighter like a trout. You give yourself a name, you have to live up to it, though." Trout is a kindred spirit, and for the first time, Staggerlee is able to share her secret with someone who feels the same way. But while Staggerlee doesn't fear being different, Trout is very afraid of it--and so she may not be able to live up to her name, after all.
This book is most interesting for its insight into the sometimes ambiguous, amorphous nature of sexuality. At fourteen, Staggerlee isn't positive that she's gay, but she knows that "if I loved someone enough, I would go anywhere in the world with them." While Trout, who appears more certain of who she is, is actually far more afraid of what life as a lesbian would mean. The close of the story is intriguingly open-ended, leaving it unclear what really motivates Trout to choose the path she eventually takes.
Woodson's spare, subtle prose, usually so effective and
evocative, seems overpowered by the sheer number of plot points in
this story; there's just too much going on for the short
narrative to support. Still, its delicate revelations of complicated
truths leave the reader with a deeper understanding of the search for
courage, identity, and love.
AIDS: Examining the Crisis by Tom Flynn and Karen Lound. Lerner, 1995 (0-8225-2625-5)
Written in a direct yet restrained tone, this text provides an
excellent overview of the history, biology and social implications of
the AIDS epidemic. Although it does not attempt to examine the more
complex issues in-depth, the technical information is clear and
accessible, the discussion of transmission and safe sex is
straightforward and thorough, and the uglier facts about our societal
response to AIDS and people with AIDS are not glossed over. Charts, a
glossary and color photographs of significant public figures round out
the information. Recommended for schools and libraries. * (12 &
100 Questions and Answers About AIDS: What You Need to Know Now by Michael Thomas Ford. New Discovery Books, 1992; Beech Tree, 1993 (0-688-12697-9) $4.95 (Statistics updated for paperback edition.)
An extremely unfortunate, condescending opening gets this book off to a bad start but once past the explanations of the "long words" it is a readable, non-judgmental and easy to use reference, using a question and answer format to cover just about everything a young adult might want to know about AIDS. The tone is open and straightforward, almost entirely avoiding slang terms but not shying away from any subjects; the only value judgements made are in favor of safer activities over risky ones and compassion over fear and hatred. A resource guide includes phone numbers of organizations for people with AIDS, gays and lesbian teens, and runaways (an increasingly high-risk group); an index and glossary are also included, but are too conservatively worded to be as useful as they could be.
Although the information given in in this book is certainly necessary and important, its real power lies not in its facts but in four interviews, one after each question and answer section, in which young adults infected with HIV talk about their experiences. The honesty, strength and self-awareness that these interviews convey is remarkable, inspiring respect rather than pity or dread. Each of the four became infected through risky behavior and all have gained an acute insight into the forces--insecurity, loneliness, sexual confusion, denial--that caused them to take those risks; their stories have more impact than any mere statement of facts could, and may well encourage other teens to examine their own choices.
This is a must-buy for libraries; I'd also highly recommend
making it available in any home with adolescent kids. (12 & up)
Outspoken by Michael Thomas Ford. Beech Tree, 1998 (0-688-14897-2) $4.95
A collection of interviews with gay people from an interesting mix of
careers, including Mark Leduc, an Olympic medalist in boxing, Rabbi Lisa
Edwards and Dan Butler, one of the stars of the t.v. show "Frasier."
Lively and informative reading that encouragingly defies stereotypes.
(12 & up)
The Voices of AIDS by Michael Thomas Ford. Morrow 1995 (0-688-05322-X; Beech Tree, 1995 (0-688-05323-8)
The highlight of Ford's previous book, 100 Questions and Answers About AIDS (see above), were four remarkable interviews with young adults who are HIV-positive. For this book of interviews Ford expanded his focus, talking with a cross-section of people: teen and adult, positive and negative, male and female, gay and straight. What they have in common is that all have been personally touched by HIV or AIDS, and all are actively working to help others and to fight the disease. As one woman, whose daughter died of AIDS, puts it: "I lost the battle. And I don't intend to lose the war."
This is a powerful collection, with each unique voice offering mind-expanding insights into the many things AIDS can mean to a person. They paint an inspiring portrait of how much can be done to fight the disease by perfectly ordinary people, who never expected to become activists. Whether talking in schools, founding organizations or even writing novels, each person found a way to express their strong conviction that something had to be done. And in doing so, each was able to bring something positive out of an inherently tragic experience.
Perhaps the strongest part of the book is that it really gets to the heart of why people continue to be infected with HIV, despite all we now know about the risks. Education didn't keep nineteen-year-old Gabriel Morales from being infected, because it didn't address the realities of his situation as a lonely gay teenager: "my low self-esteem made it impossible for me to tell someone who was ten to twenty years older than myself that he should be using condoms when he had sex with me." Now a peer educator, Gabriel tries to teach other young gay men to take pride in themselves. "I know that I'm not HIV-positive because I'm gay. I'm HIV-positive because I had so little education about how to empower myself and protect myself." Seventeen-year-old Kyle Craney, whose sister was infected despite the fact that "she was always the kind of person who stayed out of trouble," concludes: "young people still don't understand that it doesn't matter what you look like or how you think or how you act. They don't understand that the virus wants to get inside the body. It won't grow on the outside. So they look at other people and at themselves and they look at the outside."
It's great that books are now available that give the facts
about AIDS--and incidentally, this one also includes all the
basic information about transmission and safe sex. But perhaps
it's even more important to have books which help us feel
in our hearts the facts we know in our heads. The Voices of AIDS is
one of those books. * (12 & up)
It's Perfectly Normal by Robie H. Harris. Illustrated by Michael Emberly. Candlewick, 1994 (1-56402-199-8); 2004 (0-76362-433-0) $10.99 trade pb
The information in sex education books goes rapidly out of date, so I sincerely hope that It's Perfectly Normal will be available in a revised and updated edition by the time it would be useful in my family. (Note: it has been updated for its tenth anniversary, but I haven't yet seen the revised version.) Or perhaps by then there will be dozens of books around that are as fun, honest and informative as this one. For now, though, It's Perfectly Normal is probably the best of its kind.
This cleverly designed book is a happy combination of straightforward text, enjoyable pictures, and a cartoon-style commentary appropriately delivered by a bird and a bee. These characters--the bird eager and curious, the bee timid and squeamish--are an amusing Greek Chorus for child readers, who can empathize with both the bird's "Gr-r-reat" and the bee's "Gr-r-ross!" The illustrations, also, are very fun. A few are simply informative; I particularly admired cross-sections that show where different birth control devices fit inside a woman's body. Others, like a cartoon history of how the sperm meets the egg, are absolutely hilarious. Nervous readers can happily browse through the pictures alone, yet the solid facts are right there whenever they want them. Best of all, most of the illustrations show a beautiful and still quite rare diversity: one marvelous two-page spread shows a bunch of naked people of all ages, colors, sizes and physical abilities,'their ordinary curves, hairs and lumps all drawn with honest, friendly detail. Throughout the book, couples and families are illustrated in many different ways, including same-sex pairs (although oddly, no interracial families).
Although the pictures are gems, the text is also very well done: carefully factual and mostly non-judgmental, with an emphasis on feeling good about bodies and sexual feelings. I appreciate that it doesn't try to cover up normal reality: for example, sections on disease prevention stress, "If you have your ears pierced or get a tattoo, you must make sure that the needle used is brand-new, germfree, and disposable." How many books are willing to admit that adolescents sometimes get tattoos? (It might have been even better if they'd mentioned body-piercing in a more general way, as that is becoming quite common.) Similarly, the section on sexual abuse is one of the best I've seen, including information that is often neglected (such as that children, including siblings, can abuse other children) and ending on a very important note: "You should also never abuse anyone in any way. It's not fair. It's not your right. When someone says no to you, you must believe that person and honor that person's wishes." How many other books would be willing to tacitly admit that their reader might be capable of abuse?
This book certainly won't please everyone. It is
openminded and accepting about homosexuality and masturbation,
non-judgmental about abortion, and although it by no means encourages
premarital sex, it stresses personal responsibility and careful
decision-making, instead of demanding that kids "just say
no." Even readers who approve of these aspects may be a
little shocked by some of the illustrations of sex and
masturbation--although not really graphic, they are a bit
startling in a children's book. I believe, however, that
it was wise to include these pictures: you may say something is
"perfectly normal" but kids will pick up on the
real message if you can't show it. For its useful and
necessary information and for fostering a healthy attitude towards
puberty, sexuality and reproduction, this book is a winner. * (10 & up)
The Journey Out by Rachel Pollack and Cheryl Schwartz. Viking, 1995 (0-670-85845-5) $14.99; Puffin, 1995 (0-14-037254-7) $6.99 pb
Covering much of the same material as Young, Gay and Proud (see
below), The Journey
Out has a more balanced, comprehensive and authoritative tone, which
may make it a more popular choice with schools and libraries, as well
as with some readers. Although strongly and completely gay-positive,
it also feels more accessible to straight readers, which makes it an
excellent choice for classroom use. I found it generally the more
appealing book, in terms of both text and design, but both
have their merits. (12 & up)
Young, Gay and Proud edited by Fon Romesburg. Illustrated by Michael Willhoite. AlyCat, 1995 (1-55583-279-2) pb
Originally published as a groundbreaking pamphlet for gay teens,
Young, Gay and Proud has now been revised for the fourth time, to
address the needs of gay teens in the 90's. Combining
factual chapters on myths, safe sex, coming out and so forth with
personal essays by gay teenagers, it's an outspoken and
thorough handbook designed to help answer the many questions young
people have when they first begin to realize they're
"not like everybody else." In fact, as these
statistics and personal accounts show, although they may not be like
everybody else, they're certainly not alone. Although it
is no longer the only book of its kind (see The Journey Out above)
Young, Gay and Proud has the advantage of being
written mostly by young people and being published by a small press;
consequently, its narrative voices feel comradely--even more
so when they're occasionally a bit naive--and
it's not afraid to be quite blunt about sex. This may make
it vulnerable to censorship, but with the suicide rate for gay teens
still shockingly high, this is a book that every school and library
with young adult patrons should try to make available. (14 & up)
Hearing Us Out: Voices from the Gay and Lesbian Community by Roger Sutton. Photographs by Lisa Ebright. Little Brown, 1994 (0-316-82326-0) $16.95; 1997 (0-316-82313-9) $7.95 pb
Until very recently, growing up gay has often meant growing up with a terrifying lack of information and cultural context. Even now, writes Sutton in his introduction, "much of the nonfiction [for young adults] I've seen is either directed towards straight readers (and all those references to 'them' can really get on a gay person's nerves) or is strictly psychological or health-related, with little discussion of gays and lesbians as a group, united in history, culture, political goals, and perpetual disagreement." Hearing Us Out is designed to fill this very real need for gay young adults--but it is also more than that. As popular young adult writer M. E. Kerr writes in the forward: "So formed by what others thought, so in thrall to convention and conformity, both my parents missed the chance to know my warm and loving friends--as well as to know me better. .. I feel sorry for all the people who miss the chance to know us." Hearing Us Out offers a chance for any reader to get to know some interesting people and their community.
Told in fifteen first-person interviews, Hearing Us Out includes many widely diverse voices, with stories that both acknowledge their difficulties and celebrate their triumphs. Dorothy Knudsen, possibly the first openly lesbian police officer on the Chicago force, talks with insight and humor about her work and the positive aspects of being out of the closet: being able to stand up to other cops making "fag" jokes, to mention her girlfriend in everyday conversation, to have no doubts about who's to be notified in case of an emergency. Fifteen-year-old Dannel Mitchell and his father Fred reveal their family's ongoing struggle to overcome negative conditioning and accept that Dannel is gay. Long-time civil and gay rights activist Renee Hanover almost whimsically describes what being lesbian was like in the fifties: "It wasn't so much that the butches wore pants and the femmes wore dresses--it was the hairdos. The femmes were wearing bouffants." Other unique voices include the very funny Terrence Smith (aka drag queen Joan Jett Blakk), a Finnish exchange student living with AIDS, a Presbyterian minister, and a pair of dedicated lesbian mothers--as well as many others. Most of the interviews are accompanied by casual portrait photographs, which adds to the sense that we are listening to real, likeable people.
Glowing with warmth and sincerity, Hearing Us Out is also notable for
its openness about all aspects of what it means to be gay, including
different kinds of sexuality, ideological conflicts within the gay
community, and the feelings of "difference" many
of the interview subjects have always had which weren't based just on
their sexual feelings. Although the book deliberately aims to cover a
lot of ground, it does not try desperately to avoid stereotypes.
"When I told my dad, he said he always knew, too, because
even though I don't act real flamboyant, I had different ways as a
child and all," says Dannel. Marta knew at the age of four
that she liked girls, "but they always teased me about the
fact that I never liked dresses." I admire Sutton for not
feeling the need to editorialize, to point out that lots of little
girls don't like dresses. Indeed, that is one of the goals he
mentions in his introduction--to avoid the common view that
"gay people are just like everybody else; they 'just
happen' to 'prefer' sexual relations
with their own sex. That's all that's different." Hearing Us Out
shows us people who are at one and the same time individuals, part of
the gay community, and part of the world; people who are
"just like everybody else," in the sense that
they are all uniquely themselves. Winner of the 1995 Hungry Mind Review
award for young adult nonfiction. * (12 & up)
Back to the Notes from the Windowsill Home Page.