Luis G. Rendon

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“Our privilege don’t work like theirs,” says a young Black man in Jumata Emil’s second novel, Wander in the Dark (Delacorte, $19.99, 9780593651858). He’s one character of many trying to navigate a world and system that sets Black men up to fail. In this riveting mystery, Emil uses his pen like a jagged knife, cutting open painful truths of how racism seeps through class and politics, before sewing up the resulting wounds with the healing power of community. 

All Marcel wants to do is make things right with his half-brother Amir, even though their parents don’t get along and their lives are worlds apart. He’s shocked when Amir shows up to his swanky birthday party and even more shocked when Amir leaves with Marcel’s best friend, Chloe, a popular white girl with a penchant for making trouble. When Amir wakes up the next morning on Chloe’s sofa and finds her blood-soaked body in her bedroom, he panics. He knows what happens to young Black men in situations like this. Through chapters that alternate between the brothers’ perspectives, Emil slowly unravels a mystery that unmasks not only a killer but also a community built on lies. 

Emil’s tinderbox of a murder mystery is at its best when exploring the fractured family Marcel and Amir share. The gulf between the brothers’ lives—from their skin tones to financial status—and how they attempt to bridge that divide composes the bedrock of the novel. Queer readers will also appreciate how Marcel’s sexuality is explored matter-of-factly.

Emil is a seasoned journalist covering crime and politics in the American South, and his writing reflects that experience. Genuinely shocking acts of racism appear about halfway through the story, but in Emil’s hands, the pain and anger produced is also expertly excised by both love and justice to create a satisfying story. Truthful and twisted at the same time, Wander in the Dark is both a thrill and a delight.

In this riveting mystery, Jumata Emil uses his pen like a jagged knife, cutting open painful truths of how racism seeps through class and politics, before sewing up the resulting wounds with the healing power of community.
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Every day, thousands of young American citizens who live in Mexico cross the border into the U.S. to receive their education, from elementary school all the way to college. Their families endure early mornings, arduous commutes, long lines and stressful interactions with border agents, simply to make it to class on time. In his second novel, Brighter Than the Sun, author Daniel Aleman unpacks the consequences of splitting a life in two—and the joys of putting it back together. 

For years, Sol Martinez would wake before dawn to travel from Tijuana, Mexico, to attend school in San Diego. Sol desperately wants to embody the shortened form of her name, which means sun, and not her full name, Soledad, which means solitude, but lately it’s been difficult for her to feel anything but isolated. She just moved in with a friend in the U.S. so that she could get a part-time job to help her family, whose business is failing. 

Despite the money Sol earns at her warehouse job, and even with glimmers of hope like new friends and a connection with a kind, cute boy, the move seems to cause more problems than it solves. Sol feels cleaved from her family and pushed beyond exhaustion. She must endure racist behavior and her grades slip, threatening her dream of going to college. Increasingly, Sol wonders whether all her hard work and sacrifice will amount to nothing. “Deep down,” she thinks, “I wish I could return to a time when I could just let someone else carry all this weight for me. I wish I could be a child again, and not have to worry about anything.”

Aleman navigates Sol’s difficult experiences with nuance and a gentle touch. He imbues Sol with a steady resilience, even when she begins to feel guilt for enjoying her new life in the U.S. In his skilled hands, Sol bends but never breaks. After his acclaimed debut, Indivisible, Brighter Than the Sun affirms Aleman’s gift for telling the stories of Mexican and Mexican American teens with care and love.   

Many young people in situations like Sol’s grapple with false binaries: Are you one of us or one of them? Will you stay or will you leave? Will you pursue your dreams or sacrifice them to help those you love? These impossible questions have no right answers, but Aleman’s sophisticated writing and tender storytelling remind us that there are no wrong answers either. Brighter Than the Sun is a healing and joyous read.

With Brighter Than the Sun, Daniel Aleman affirms his gift for telling stories about Mexican and Mexican American teens with care and love.
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It’s the first day of senior year, and Euphemia “Effie” Galanos already wishes that high school were over. Effie has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair, and her last year of high school is not off to a good start. The accessible door openers at the building’s entrance don’t work, an obnoxious couple keeps using one of the hallway ramps as a makeout spot (“Swapping Spit Slope”) and the school’s incompetent student accommodations coordinator fails to log part of Effie’s accommodation plan, which results in her locker being emptied by a janitor and all her belongings being sent to the main office.

As the school year gets underway, Effie continues to struggle to speak up to the principal about her concerns with on-campus accessibility problems that should have been resolved a long time ago. Repeating her needs and bringing attention to what makes her different—over and over again—is embarrassing and exhausting. It feels like her friends and classmates get to do so much without even realizing it, and Effie longs for her own taste of freedom. She’s “ready to move on . . . to something bigger. Something that gives [her] that this is it feeling.” She thinks that Prospect University, a beautiful and prestigious college in New York City, might be the answer, but her mother isn’t sure that Effie is ready for such a big change. 

In Where You See Yourself, debut author Claire Forrest creates a moving portrait of a teenager finding her voice and developing the courage to advocate for herself and others. Like Effie, Forrest has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair, and she renders Effie in such sharp focus that readers will instantly connect with her experiences and dreams for the future. 

The novel’s frank depiction of a world that dismisses accessibility solutions as “too complicated” or “too much to ask for” and treats disabled people as “obstacles” may be eye-opening for some readers, and Forrest approaches such injustices with energy, determination and a spirit of hopefulness. She doesn’t skimp on fun, either, filling Effie’s final days of high school with parties, promposals and a sweet friends-to-lovers romance. Where You See Yourself is an effervescent, emotional story with all the makings of an instant YA classic.

‘Where You See Yourself’ author Claire Forrest reveals what she wishes she could have told herself on graduation day—and what she’d say to the class of 2023.

This debut novel follows a disabled teen as she develops the courage to advocate for herself and others. It has all the makings of an instant YA classic.
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Anthony “Ant” Stevenson has done everything on the list. First base, second base—heck, he’s hit a home run, rounded all the bases and done it all more than once for good measure. The question of whether he’s lost his virginity, however, remains unanswered. When does that actually happen for boys, he wonders. And who gets to decide? 

Meanwhile, at school, Ant and his two pals are reunited with their former friend turned drama geek, Jack, who definitely, probably is gay. Being gay is fine or whatever (right?), but Jack’s presence triggers a flickering response from Ant and his cohort, forcing them to confront the raw edges of their masculinity and reveal who’s been going around the bases with whom. 

A quick read with numerous emotional revelations that pack a hefty punch, Different for Boys is almost too intimate, like taking a peek into Ant’s private diary. He is at once brave but conflicted, romantic but still a teenage boy “with teenage hormones.” Acclaimed author Patrick Ness’ spare prose allows readers to fly through the story, hungry to dive deeper into Ant’s sexual reckoning. 

Teenagers have sex in this novella, but you won’t actually read anything about it in the pages. Ness deploys a fourth wall-breaking technique in which a majority of the sexual and/or profane words are not only redacted by black boxes but also commented on by the novel’s characters. “It’s that kind of story,” says Ant. “Certain words are necessary because this is real life, but you can’t actually show ’em because we’re too young to read about the stuff we actually do, right?” This narrative choice means readers can only imagine what’s being said or described behind these redactions, which simultaneously brings readers closer and holds them at a distance. It also inspires us to reflect on what words and ideas are considered acceptable to articulate, aloud or even just to ourselves, and how those limits reflect what we value as a society.

For all that is missing from Ness’ text, Tea Bendix’s thoughtfully rendered illustrations more than fill in the gaps. Their loose, unfinished style is reminiscent of sketches in a teenager’s notebook, perfect to enhance the intimacy and tension of Ness’ prose. Emotional and with just enough cheek, Different for Boys feels like the voice of a new queer generation. 

Emotional and with just enough cheek, Different for Boys feels like the voice of a new queer generation.
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Author Abdi Nazemian won a Lambda Literary Award for his debut novel for adults, The Walk-In Closet. His debut novel for teens, Like a Love Story, received a Stonewall Honor and was recognized by Time magazine as one of the 100 greatest YA novels of all time. His fifth book, Only This Beautiful Moment, seems likely to continue Nazemian’s winning streak.

Moud is a gay Iranian American teen living in Los Angeles. He doesn’t remember his mother, who died when he was very young, and his father, Saeed, is like an indifferent zombie—tolerant but hardly accepting. When Moud and Saeed travel to Tehran to be with Moud’s grandfather, Babak, generations of trauma, secrets and love come spilling out. Contrary to what Moud’s know-it-all white boyfriend says, Iran is full of life, art, beauty and yes, even queerness. “I think Americans are so bored that they talk about things that don’t really matter,” Moud’s cousin Ava quips before whisking him away to a party. 

Of course, living an authentic life is rarely simple. Intolerance, government corruption, economic instability—neither the United States nor Iran are immune. The blurriness of identity, even as it eventually comes into focus, is what makes Only This Beautiful Moment such an engaging read.

Nazemian’s epic yarn comes together in long chapters that luxuriate in the novel’s settings as they hop between Los Angeles and Tehran in 1939, 1978 and 2019. The final product is nothing short of a masterpiece, tearing down the homophobic facade that separates queer people from their own history. “We exist. We always did. We always will,” says one of Babak’s mentors. “And wait until they all die and get to heaven and realize God was on our side the whole time.”

Fans of Javier Calvo and Javier Ambrossi’s docu-drama Veneno will appreciate how Nazemian recalls the joy and pain of ancestral legacy. The novel also recalls Tony Kushner’s call to action in Angels in America: to be a better ally, to be better stewards of queer history and, put simply, to keep living.

Only This Beautiful Moment is a queer epic, a defiant piece of art that transmutes the rallying cry of “we’re here, we’re queer, get used to it” into even more beautiful poetry that will almost certainly change the lives of those who read it.

Only This Beautiful Moment transmutes the rallying cry of “we’re here, we’re queer, get used to it” into even more beautiful poetry that will change lives.
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Finding the right words can be a challenge for anyone. Lilah, the deaf protagonist in Give Me a Sign (Putnam, $18.99, 9780593533796), is struggling not only with what to say but also how to say it. A sweet and thoughtful romp, Anna Sortino’s debut novel navigates the intricacies of Deaf culture and how one girl finds her place in it.

Consumed by doubts that she’s not “deaf enough” and irked by her hearing parents who are preoccupied with making sure she can pass as hearing, Lilah minimizes herself and what accommodations she needs. Her friends “forget” she can’t hear as well as them, inadvertently leaving her out of conversations or taking her to inaccessible activities.

At the end of her junior year, all Lilah wants is to feel understood like she did when she was at Camp Gray Wolf, a summer camp for blind, deaf and hard-of-hearing kids. Nervous about her rusty American Sign Language but excited to connect more with her Deaf identity, Lilah applies to become a counselor.

What ensues is a summer in the woods with cute boys, late-night shenanigans and more lessons about herself than she ever could have imagined. With lots of summer-ready fun, Give Me a Sign thoughtfully tackles a myriad of coming-of-age tropes through the lens of deaf characters. Sortino’s writing shines the brightest when the story takes a turn toward the harsh realities and traumas that deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals often endure through misunderstandings with the hearing world. Sortino doesn’t shy away from examining cruelty, but her narrative also remains informative, kind and steady. Give Me a Sign is not only a point of representation for folks looking for themselves in a fun read but also a reminder that just because someone can’t hear or speak doesn’t mean they don’t have a voice.

A sweet and thoughtful romp, Give Me a Sign deftly navigates the intricate nuances of Deaf culture and how one girl finds her place in it.
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Byron Graves’ debut novel is a slam dunk that joins stories like Friday Night Lights in depicting the alchemy of young people dreaming beyond their circumstances and working hard to change their lives.

Tre Brun wants to burn just as brightly as his deceased older brother Jaxon, who was a basketball supernova. That’s hard under the weight of his parents’ grief and the close-knit Ojibwe rez community that has seen so many stars flame out. But Tre is determined to not only help Jaxon’s friends on the varsity team win their first state championship this year, but also be the first person from the rez to make the NBA.

Girls and peer pressure to party prove to be potent distractions, not to mention the external and internal voices telling Tre and his teammates they’ll never amount to anything. Rez Ball (Heartdrum, $19.99, 9780063160378) powerfully shows how our communities can lift us up, but they can also disappoint us. Based on the real-life Red Lake Warriors that Graves played for as a high schooler in Minnesota, the novel is unsparing in showing the harsh realities and racism faced by young Native Americans. “We’ve been losing to the white man for five hundred years,” one of Tre’s teammates says during a climactic game. “The battles, the stolen land, the broken treaties, the way their cops hunt us down. We can finally have a victory.”

Rez Ball reverberates with passionate prose, dramatic turns and easy-to-root-for characters. Graves uses his vast pop culture knowledge to round out Tre with nods to comic book and sci-fi nerdery.

Like any good basketball game, Rez Ball contains nail-biter moments, incredible clutch plays, a whole lot of swagger and, more than anything, love. The heartbeat of Tre’s Ojibwe community beats like a dribbling basketball page after page in this uplifting and raucous debut.

Like any good basketball game, Rez Ball contains nail-biter moments, incredible clutch plays, a whole lot of swagger and, more than anything, love.
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You don’t have to be a gambler to know the phrase “high risk, high reward.” Debut author Amanda DeWitt puts it all on the line in Aces Wild, a Las Vegas heist thriller. It’s a story about family, secrets and—you guessed it—taking risks.

Jack Shannon isn’t straight, in more ways than one. He’s the asexual (or “ace”) heir of a less-than-reputable casino mogul, and the triple cherries don’t fall far from the tree: Jack runs an illegal gambling ring out of the basement of his elite East Coast boarding school’s library. He likes playing Danny Ocean (minus the romantic entanglements) well enough, but his dusty blackjack tables and rich, straight patrons leave much to be desired. Jack finds real solace with his friends, a group of ace teens who connected via online message boards but have never met in person. 

When his mother is arrested for her ties to organized crime, Jack is pulled back to Las Vegas. There, he must find a way to save his family’s casino and exact revenge on Peter Carlevaro, a rival casino owner who also happens to be his mom’s ex and whom Jack is certain is behind his family’s troubles. With the swipe of a credit card, Jack flies his entire squad out to Vegas and assembles his very own Rat Pack. Together, they’ll rescue Jack’s mom, destroy a Vegas kingpin and secure Jack’s legacy on the Strip. 

Aces Wild shines brightest when it leans into its candy-coated noir sensibilities. With puzzles that lead the way to secret clubs, shadowy pink-haired figures, complicated plans for subterfuge and more, DeWitt creates a vibe that’s Spy Kids by way of Ocean’s Eleven in the best way possible. A few slightly too convenient deus ex machina moments, however, detract from some of the fun and prevent the novel from becoming an unqualified jackpot. 

Rat-a-tat dialogue and well-developed relationships between Jack and his friends offer more highlights. Lucky, a younger member of the group with an acid tongue and a NASA-level mind, is a particular joy to read. DeWitt seems wholly uninterested in big coming-out moments for Jack and his asexual crew, instead crafting a subplot centered on the mix of confusion and excitement that a crush on someone can bring. 

Aces Wild is a fast-paced exploration of the risks we take for the people we love. A gambler might even say that it’s a lesson in when to fold ’em and when to hold ’em.

This heist thriller shines with candy-coated noir sensibilities, rat-a-tat dialogue and a well-developed squad of friends.
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For many young queer people, life beyond “the now” exists only in the imagination. Imagine: a home where I’m loved. Imagine: feeling safe. Imagine: living on my own terms. Lio Min’s debut YA novel, Beating Heart Baby, is a story of high school band geeks, internet friends turned IRL besties and what it’s like when the life you imagined becomes a reality. 

Santiago Arboleda is overwhelmed the first time he arrives at his new high school in Los Angeles. The other students are way more outgoing than kids were at his old school, and they’re relentless about not letting Santi fade into the scenery. The Sunshowers marching band is also one of the best in California, so Santi has a lot of catching up to do—a fact that Suwa, a musical prodigy and trumpet section leader, makes abundantly clear. When Santi realizes that Suwa is transgender, Suwa becomes even more antagonistic. Miscommunication, pride and swirling hormones act like magnets between the two as Santi works to prove that he deserves his place in the Sunshowers. 

Meanwhile, Santi is also dealing with the ghost of a soured internet relationship with someone he knows only as Memo. The pair connected online over anime, music and queerness, but when Santi accidentally leaked a song Memo composed and it became a viral sensation, Memo lashed out and disappeared. Clues emerge about Memo’s real identity, but the search takes second chair to Santi’s growing sense of a found family with the Sunshowers—and an emerging romance between Santi and Suwa. 

That’s only scratching the surface of this remarkable novel, which is filled to the brim with reflections on the music industry, generational trauma, food, sex, anime and all manner of heartbreak and love. Min’s exploration of coming out and owning your story as an artist is particularly exhilarating and nuanced.  

Much of the book’s vernacular and aesthetic is informed by Min’s background as a seasoned music journalist with experience interviewing such acts as Japanese Breakfast, Mitski (who is quoted in the book) and Christine and the Queens. Like the music of these badass queer rock ‘n’ roll stars, Beating Heart Baby aches for a softer world. It’s an epic tale of queer validation, filtered through the light of the California sun and Sailor Moon, and an essential read for anyone searching for a blueprint of their soul.

Music journalist Lio Min’s debut is an epic tale of high school band geeks, queer validation and what it’s like when the life you imagined becomes a reality.
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We are in the midst of a golden age of gentle YA romantic comedies. There’s no shortage of reading material for anyone who loves swooning over winsome leads who just can’t seem to get it right until the excruciating final pages, or curling up with novels tailor-made for Netflix adaptations sure to launch the next wave of teen actors. From Jenny Han’s To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before to Alice Oseman’s Heartstopper, YA shelves are awash with feel-good rom-com vibes. Lucy Keating’s Ride With Me is a winning addition to this canon. It’s a perfect bubblegum pop of a read—light and sweet, but with plenty to chew on.  

Charlie Owens is anxious to escape her sleepy hometown of Chester Falls, Massachusetts, nestled deep in the Berkshires. The area’s charm has faded, and visions of a more exciting future in art, architecture and design fill her head. “I’ve lived here for seventeen years,” Charlie says. “I don’t want to get stuck here.” 

For now, though, when Charlie’s not fretting about her family’s historic farmhouse and her parents’ love lives, both of which are increasingly in disrepair, she’s driving for Backseat, a local ride-sharing app created by teens, for teens. Charlie drives as often as she can, saving her earnings for an epic road trip she hopes will help her discover where she’s meant to be. Charlie has a vision and the single-minded determination to achieve it. That is, until she rear-ends a parked car belonging to Andre Minasian, a cute but standoffish classmate. 

Keating could teach a master class in concocting a natural meet cute and keeping the sparks flying between her characters. Charlie begrudgingly agrees to become Andre’s personal driver; in exchange, Andre agrees not to report the fender bender to Backseat. To Charlie’s annoyance and intrigue, Andre is as enchanted by their hometown as she is jaded, and the more time they spend together, the more she begins to let her guard down. The tug of war between the two teens is paced within an inch of perfection.

Ride With Me also makes room for real depth amid all this delicious froth. Keating cleverly foregrounds questions of home via Charlie’s rundown house as well as through the small town she’s so desperate to leave. Can you change your home? Should you? Or is it better to cut and run and find a new home somewhere else? Watching Charlie and Andre grapple with these questions even as they fall for each other is pure pleasure. Ride With Me is well worth the trip.

Lucy Keating’s Ride With Me is a winning addition to the YA rom-com canon. It’s a perfect bubblegum pop of a read—light and sweet, but with plenty to chew on.
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Eliot Schrefer is a two-time National Book Award finalist best known for novels that explore the relationships between humans and animals. In Queer Ducks (and Other Animals): The Natural World of Animal Sexuality, Schrefer turns to nonfiction to present cutting-edge research on a plethora of same-sex animal behaviors, from male doodlebugs observed “doing the dirty” by German scientists in the 1830s, to trios of greylag geese that care for nests and raise fledglings with higher success rates than pairs. The book incorporates personal anecdotes from the author, comics by illustrator Jules Zuckerberg, Q&As with working scientists and plenty of humor to create an absorbing, enlightening and entertaining read.

What inspired you to make the leap to nonfiction?
I’m in the animal studies M.A. program at New York University, and part of that coursework has been reading the long tradition of writers who have dared to question the assumption that humans are the pinnacle of creation. My fiction has long explored what bonds us with the natural world, but I hadn’t really considered working on a piece of nonfiction that would do the same. Then I happened across the burgeoning research into same-sex sexual behavior in animals and realized how much a young Eliot would have loved to have heard about that. That’s when I knew I had to write Queer Ducks.

How did you arrive at the book’s unique blend of formats?
For my young readers, there’s a good chance that the only science writing they’ve encountered is in their textbooks. There’s such a healthy amount of science nonfiction for adults (like Sy Montgomery’s The Soul of an Octopus or Helen MacDonald’s Vesper Flights) that allows the author to take some space on the page to give readers more of an intimate access point to the science, and I wanted to create a similar work for teens.

The comics were the idea of my editor, Ben Rosenthal. I loved it. I know how often kid-me flipped through a book before committing, and the comics are welcoming to readers who aren’t sure they want to commit to a whole book of nonfiction text that they haven’t been assigned in school.

Same-sex sexual behavior has been confirmed in more than 1,500 animal species. How did you begin to organize this breadth of scientific information?
I decided to focus on 10 representative animal species and to have each chapter tackle an important research question. The wrasse fish enabled me to look more generally at evolutionary explanations for sex change in animals, the Japanese macaques served as an introduction to feminist biology, the dolphins let us explore the question of whether sexual orientation is a relevant term for animals at all and so on.

”When I talk about ‘Queer Ducks’ in public, I go in thinking that I’ll just be rattling through really cool animal facts, but I wind up tearstruck.”

You examine many analogs for a wide swath of human gender identities and sexual orientations and behaviors, including asexuality, polyamory, intersexuality, gender fluidity and more. Why was it important to you to be so inclusive?
This was maybe the most freeing thing about my research: Thinking in terms of “gayness” sort of misses the point when it comes to the natural world. Without the need to self-identify, sexuality and sexual identity in animals can be really polymorphous. Only the rare animal could be said to have a persistent same-sex sexual orientation; instead it’s all a version of bisexuality. I didn’t have to look far to find analogs for all the various ways humans self-present, except for when it comes to the extreme binary identities of homosexuality and heterosexuality. Those seem to be human specialities.

You also include your own life experiences as a closeted queer teenager. These moments really anchor the book. How did you feel as you worked on these sections?
I’ve been watching “RuPaul’s Drag Race” for years, and my favorite moment each season is when the contestants speak directly to a photo of themselves as a baby, telling them the advice they most needed to hear. I had 11-year-old Eliot in my mind while I was writing Queer Ducks. I was terrified that someone would find out the feelings that had risen up inside me. I felt weird and unnatural.

I’m grown up now and doing fine, but the thought that I might be able to help another young person feel like they are a natural part of the world after all was a big part of my inspiration. When I talk about Queer Ducks in public, I go in thinking that I’ll just be rattling through really cool animal facts, but I wind up tearstruck.

Why was it important to you to include the voices and perspectives of the scientists and researchers you interview in the book?
I wanted to include a mix of identities as far as race and gender identity and sexuality, and also a mix of approaches to science. I spoke with a couple of field researchers, a science historian, a biologist and a primatologist. I wanted my young readers to learn about what these people were studying, but I also wanted them to see how science is done and the diversity in who “gets to” do science. We need all sorts of people in science. As one of my interviewees, Mounica Kota, put it: “We have great diversity of other beings, but if we have a very homogenous human voice speaking, that doesn’t make for a great conversation.”

“‘Queer Ducks’ makes a space to think about how expansive and diverse the natural world is, how many ways there are to love and to be.”

I laughed out loud a lot more than I expected to while reading Queer Ducks. What role does humor play in this book?
Lucky for me that you’re a fan of nerd humor! I think one of the risks with writing nonfiction is that a tonal sameness can set in. This can deaden a reader’s emotional responses, and humor is such a good way to shake things up. Your average high school student reads mostly dry or even reverential material about the natural world. But there’s room for non-seriousness in the natural world, too!

What do you think readers will be most surprised to learn about?
The cattle industry, which operates largely by artificial insemination, uses other males to get the bulls in the mood to ejaculate! It has done so for decades. Same-sex desire is part and parcel of one of the most typically macho fields of agriculture.

I think readers might also be surprised by the prevalence of three-bird nests in shorebirds. Polyamory is frequent among these birds, potentially as a way to have more guardians for the eggs and chicks.

Throughout the book, you often mention that it’s impossible to know what animals think about all this. If you could interview some members of one of the species in the book, which would you choose to talk to and why?
Ha! Love this question. I think I’d sit (or should I say float?) with a wrasse fish. They have a mostly female society, with one male at the top of the hierarchy. When that male dies, though, one of the females changes sex within an hour or two and assumes the patriarchal position.

I’d love to talk to a wrasse fish who transitioned. What did his body feel like while it was happening? Did he have any volition in it? How did the group know that she—this particular fish—would be the one to become male? Wrasse fish also swim into the jaws of moray eels to clean their teeth, so I’d be curious if this fish had any dentistry tips.

As you worked on this book that’s mostly about animals, what do you feel you learned about humans?
I think we underestimate how fixated our current cultural moment is on narrowly identifying sexuality. Homosexuality is a word and concept that didn’t exist before the second half of the 19th century. For the majority of human societies and for the vast majority of our history as a species, acts could be same-sex but there was no persistent identity attached to them. Without that need to define what a person is, someone would be much freer to have occasional same-sex sexual behavior—which is exactly what we see play out in species after species in the wild.

Read our starred review of ‘Queer Ducks (and Other Animals).’

You discuss a warning from biologist Marlene Zuk, who asserted that scientists should “avoid using animals to argue about human morality.” How did you work to do this throughout the book?
I love Zuk’s article, because she points out that we can’t cherry-pick our morality from the animal world—and that using animals as moral guides risks reducing them to metaphors. However, in Queer Ducks, I’m not trying to argue for human queerness from animals; instead I’m saying that humans aren’t alone in their queerness. That queer behaviors are part of the natural world. That much is irrefutable at this point.

In the book’s final chapter, you discuss possible reasons why much of the information in the book has remained largely unknown for decades, including unconscious or even intentional homophobia within the sciences, and you address readers who may feel that such information challenges “the natural order.” What would you say to an adult who thinks teens shouldn’t read this book?
Given the dishonest tactics that politicians are currently using to score points by smearing gay people, it’s worth repeating that sexuality is not something that can be locked out of your schools and your family. The feelings crop up within, and when a young person feels alone and unnatural because of who they are, it’s potentially deadly. Queer Ducks makes a space to think about how expansive and diverse the natural world is, how many ways there are to love and to be. Of course the majority of animal sex is heterosexual. No one’s trying to argue against that. But knowing that same-sex sexual behavior has its place in the natural world might save the life of a young person.

Author photo of Eliot Schrefer courtesy of Priya Patel.

Teens will see ducks and doodlebugs in a whole new way after reading Queer Ducks (and Other Animals).
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Two-time National Book Award finalist Eliot Schrefer is best known for YA and middle grade novels that depict environmentalist themes and relationships between people and animals. Endangered followed a teen girl and a young bonobo on a trek for survival through the Congolese jungle, and Schrefer was also selected to write an authorized sequel to the classic 1938 novel Mr. Popper’s Penguins. He shifts to nonfiction in Queer Ducks (and Other Animals): The Natural World of Animal Sexuality, a fun, refreshing book that will have dry biology textbooks shaking in their book covers.

Part research-based science writing and part memoir, Queer Ducks unfolds in 10 chapters that each look at a different type of same-sex behavior in the animal kingdom. From the nonreproductive intersex white-tailed deer known as “velvet-horns” to a number of bird species that raise chicks in same-sex pairs or polyamorous trios, Schrefer offers nature-based analogs for many types of human sexual orientation and gender identity. The chapter on doodlebugs investigates homosexual behavior between male animals, while Japanese macaques serve as the launching point for examples of sexual activity between female animals.

Discover why Eliot Schrefer turned to nonfiction to write ‘Queer Ducks (and Other Animals).’

Charming comics-style illustrations by Jules Zuckerberg open every chapter, serving as perfect little amuse-bouches before Schrefer dives into the hard science. Interspersed throughout the book are personal anecdotes from Schrefer that reveal how science saved him when he was a young queer person.

Schrefer gives readers glimpses into the scientific field as well, offering tales of data obscured or observations omitted from final reports and illuminating the closeting of this important knowledge. Q&A-style interviews with contemporary queer scientists provide a hopeful view of the path ahead.

“It’s humbling and freeing to know that humans aren’t the only creatures with complicated sexual feelings,” Schrefer writes, connecting the dots between the human and animal worlds. Readers will finish Queer Ducks having learned much about animals, but even more about humankind.

Read our Q&A with Eliot Schrefer.

A fun exploration of same-sex behavior across the animal kingdom, Queer Ducks (and Other Animals) will have dry biology textbooks shaking in their book covers.
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Set against the backdrop of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, Katherine Locke’s This Rebel Heart is a queer, fabulist novel about a girl navigating her complicated feelings toward the place she calls home—a place where magic and horror live side by side.

Csilla Tisza, whose hair is as silver as the Danube River, has lost almost everything. Her Jewish family survived the Holocaust only for her parents to be declared enemies of the state and executed four years ago. Now Csilla lives with her aunt, Ilona, her last living relative. The secret police watch their every move, their family’s home has been nationalized and subdivided into smaller apartments, and they are constantly surrounded by antisemitism. Together, Csilla and Ilona are plotting to escape Soviet-controlled Hungary. Yet when Csilla meets two young men—one a mysterious figure who rescues her from the police, the other a student who asks her for a dangerous favor—her plan to abandon Hungary transforms into a resolution to save it.

“Whoever can protest and does not is responsible for what happens without protest.” Csilla recalls her mother sharing this line from the Talmud, a collection of writings about Jewish theology and law. The energy behind this idea fuels This Rebel Heart. In an author’s note included with advance editions of the book, Locke frames their novel as a story about why “showing up matters” in any fight for the future.

This Rebel Heart is a story with grim, heavy stakes, filled with characters who grapple with the answers to impossible questions. How do you love a country that has killed your family? How do you love a family member with blood on their hands? Locke’s prose often has a circular quality to it, repeating phrases and images like refrains or even mantras. Though this technique may, at times, grate on some readers, the repetition also draws attention, again and again, to what these characters have experienced and how these experiences still echo in their lives. A 2020 survey of Americans ages 18 to 39 revealed that almost 1 in 4 believed the Holocaust was either a myth or had been exaggerated, and every day, fewer survivors remain to tell their stories. A friend drives it home to Csilla: “You survived. You survived. You survived.”

Any reader who has ever felt unsure of their place in history will find solace in This Rebel Heart.

In this novel about why showing up matters, Csilla must navigate her complicated feelings toward her Hungarian home, where magic lives alongside horror.

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