YA Pride fiction 2020

June is Pride month. Here are some recent books for middle schoolers and high schoolers about LGBTQIA+ young people coming into their own identities. See also Elizabeth Acevedo’s Clap When You Land (a 2020 Boston Globe–Horn Book Fiction and Poetry honoree; read our review in the upcoming July/August Horn Book Magazine) and our Five Questions interview with the author; and Felix Ever After by Boston Globe–Horn Book Fiction and Poetry winner (for King and the Dragonflies) Kacen Callender, also reviewed in the July/August issue of the Magazine. For further reading, check out our recently updated Pride booklists for picture book, middle grade, and teen readers over at the Guide/Reviews Database.

The Black Flamingo
by Dean Atta
High School    Balzer + Bray/HarperCollins    409 pp.    g
5/20    978-0-06-299029-7    $18.99
e-book ed.  978-0-06-299031-0    $9.99

Winner of the 2020 Stonewall Book Award, this British verse novel by a poet and drag performer offers a welcome exploration of the intersections of race, gender, and sexuality. In first-person narration, Michael chronicles his journey through childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood. Michael is born to a Jamaican father and Greek-Cypriot mother; though his father is distant, he has support from his mother and uncle, as he figures out where he stands in terms of both ethnic identity and sexuality. His penchant for Barbies manifests itself by age six, and crushes on boys follow, but it’s a few years before he comes out to his best friend. And it’s not until university that he experiences his first sexual relationships and also develops his drag persona. (“When it’s time to go onstage, / know that you’re not ready but / this is not about being ready, / it’s not even about being fierce / or fearless, it’s about being free.”) The verse can be pedestrian, largely serving to advance the plot, but the development of the Black Flamingo, as a symbol of Michael’s queer identity (“I often feel / like a bad egg that was not meant to be…somehow / living and thriving”), is aptly woven throughout this memorable YA debut. JONATHAN HUNT

Redwood and Ponytail
by K. A. Holt
Middle School    Chronicle    417 pp.
10/19    978-1-4521-7288-0    $18.99

Seventh grader Kate’s (“Ponytail”) life is largely defined by pressure from her mom to become captain of the cheerleading squad and by her friends’ similar expectations; less popular, gangly girl Tam (“Redwood”) has had a freer upbringing. A friendship with a tinge of rebellion (Kate breaks cheerleader tradition by sitting with Tam at lunch) leads to their holding pinkies but not, for a while, being able to talk about what that means, as Kate struggles with whether or not to claim lesbian identity. The verse novel’s narration, with mostly short lines that emphasize the characters’ emotions, alternates between Kate and Tam, with some poems juxtaposing their concurrent thoughts or showing conversations between them. Interspersed observations from the gossipy Greek chorus of Alex, Alyx, and Alexx underscore the constant scrutiny Kate and Tam face from their fellow middle-schoolers — though a late exchange with cheerleader friend Becca suggests that their classmates might be more understanding than they’d thought. The format contributes to an air of drama; Holt takes the girls’ seemingly small-scale concerns, and their larger implications, seriously. SHOSHANA FLAX

In the Role of Brie Hutchens…
by Nicole Melleby
Middle School    Algonquin    265 pp.    g
4/20    978-1-61620-907-0    $16.95

When the novel opens, thirteen-year-old Brie’s mother almost stumbles upon Brie looking at a soap opera star’s Playboy photos online. Brie distracts her mom by claiming (falsely) that she’s been chosen to perform an important role at the May Crowning mass, an honor for an eighth grader in her Catholic school. Brie must then attempt to earn that honor (by winning an essay contest) and hopes that by doing so, she’ll come closer to the image Mom wants for her. But Brie’s own personality and interests diverge from what her family expects, from her impulsivity to her less-than-strong attachment to religion to her aspiration to attend a performing arts school next year; this last also brings up financial issues in a family where her father works as the school janitor. Her parents’ first hint that Brie is questioning her sexuality — more online searching, this time for “LGBTQ soap opera scenes” — comes in the novel’s first half, which leaves space for varied and evolving reactions and for acknowledgment that acceptance can take time, but shouldn’t take forever. Chapter openings describing events from soap operas — the one strong interest she shares with her mom — underscore how dramatic the events feel to Brie, as well as the fact that, though she’s realized something new about herself, she’s still the same person. SHOSHANA FLAX

The Midnight Lie
by Marie Rutkoski
High School    Farrar    358 pp.
3/20    978-0-374-30638-0    $18.99

As a member of the Half Kith (the lowest, most oppressed caste in society), Nirrim is focused on avoiding the notice of the militia, who extract tithes of blood, hair, and teeth from Half Kith they claim have broken laws. When a magical bird flies into the Ward, Nirrim is arrested trying to return it to the militia. She ends up in jail with a charismatic scofflaw named Sid, whom she mistakes for male. Sid gets her out of jail (at which point Nirrim realizes her mistake). Now no longer content with her unadventurous, risk-averse life, she forges herself a passport, goes along with Sid, and together they make a compact to discover the source of the magic the High Kith get to use. Soon, Nirrim falls for Sid. The mysterious connection between magic and the tithes is spun out with excellent suspense, which, along with the assured writing and wealth of fantasy invention, will keep readers avidly turning pages, while the romance (including Nirrim’s internalized homophobia) has enough twists to be both sensational and satisfying. Nirrim’s foster mother’s “love” will ring alarm bells for anyone who’s known an abusive relationship; meanwhile, Nirrim’s progression from timid victim to dogged activist unfolds powerfully. Don’t expect a happily-ever-after from Rutkoski (the Winner’s trilogy, set in this same world), but do grasp at the remaining loose ends in hope of a sequel. ANITA L. BURKAM

From the June 2020 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.

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