Luis G. Rendon

Two profound events change teenager Hope Cassidy’s life. First, she catches her dad jamming out to classic rock ’n’ roll, an explicit violation of her mother’s strict religious code of conduct. In that moment, Hope is introduced not only to rock music but also to rebellion.

Second, Hope’s older sister, Faith, runs away from home. After their younger sister, Charity, hears that Faith has been locking lips with the cute girl who works at the record shop, she tells their mom, who decides to send Faith to a camp that practices so-called conversion therapy. Faith’s disappearance paralyzes Hope’s entire family. As weeks turn into months and eventually an entire year without Faith, their home becomes a pit of despair.

Hope, who describes herself as “born full of swear words,” spews rage as she rebels in her sister’s absence, while remaining hopeful that she might be able to find Faith. She gets a questionable tattoo from a questionable but cute boy, finds catharsis in a private karaoke room where she hones her Janis Joplinesque pipes, and most consequently, invites her longtime crush, Danny, to move in after he is kicked out of his house for revealing to his family that he is gay. When Danny discovers that Hope can sing, he talks her into forming a rock band.

Read our Q&A with Preston Norton.

And that’s just the beginning. Alt-Rite, a hate-fueled band fronted by Danny’s twin brother, is favored to win the annual battle of the bands, but not if Hope Cassidy and the Sundance Kids have anything to say about it. Hope discovers a lesbian sci-fi novella that has been going viral online but seems very familiar. And at home, Hope’s mom accepts Danny with open arms in an effort to relearn what it means to be a “good Christian.”

Preston Norton’s Hopepunk is perhaps the most foulmouthed, punk rock book to ever be written about religion and forgiveness. It’s stellar. Jampacked with plot and overflowing with characters who turn from hilarious to downhearted on a dime, it is a wonder that instead of seeming dense and manic, Hopepunk is instead clever and precise.

Norton pulls off several impressive hat tricks. He tells a layered and complex story about forgiveness and family. They also write a surprisingly emotional sci-fi romance story-within-a-story and original songs that you can practically hear through the page. Hope is emotional, funny and crass, like a wounded insult comic who, instead of landing punchlines, wails melodies to speak her truth. Norton surrounds her with a cast of diverse and interesting friends and allies who want to help her find Faith and her own voice.

Hopepunk is both a balm and a call to action. “Art means nothing without the people who experience it,” says one of Hope’s bandmates. When it comes to reading Hopepunk, oh, what an experience!

Hopepunk is perhaps the most punk rock book ever to be written about religion and forgiveness. It’s a stellar read.

Preston Norton’s third YA novel is a profound and often profane exploration of family and forgiveness. Hopepunk is the story of Hope Cassidy, whose beloved sister, Faith, runs away after their mom tries to send her to a camp that practices so-called conversion therapy. While trying to track Faith down, Hope also discovers a love for forbidden rock music, forms a band, Hope Cassidy and the Sundance Kids, and enters her school’s Battle of the Bands. We chatted with Norton about his book’s nuanced depiction of religion and how they balance heavy themes with humor.

When did you begin to write Hopepunk?

In order to answer that, I feel like I need to address the elephant in the room, which is that the word hopepunk existed long before it became the title of my novel. I first heard it on Twitter, where a reader had compiled a list of their favorite “hopepunk” stories, and one of my previous novels, Neanderthal Opens the Door to the Universe, made the list.

The entire hopepunk genre is a reaction to the dystopia we were all living in—and in many ways, continue to live in to this day—and our desperate need to find hope and happiness in our speculative fiction. Hopepunk isn’t speculative fiction per se, but it is 100% a love letter to speculative fiction and the lifeline it provides us in super dark times.

Hope wears her heart on her sleeve. Where did her character originate?

Whenever I write in first person (which is pretty much all the time), I have a very difficult time not injecting a bit of myself into the main character. When you take a step back and look at my past three protagonists, you will find that they all wear their hearts on their sleeves, they cry a lot, and they have a bit of unchecked anger that could easily be resolved with counseling. All of these characters have someone they care about so much that it hurts—it almost becomes their entire identity—and when the people they love are hurt, the main characters sort of lose their minds. It’s by learning to care in the right way that they eventually find themselves. This is how you write a protagonist for a Preston Norton novel. Thank you for coming to my TED Talk.

“It is really interesting to me to see the shape a person leaves when they are no longer there.”

The sisterhood between Faith and Hope is one of the relationships at the core of Hopepunk. What were the challenges of conveying their bond when one of them is literally missing for most of the novel?

To me, the trick was less about writing the relationship than writing the hole that forms when a relationship is broken. It doesn’t just break Hope’s heart. It breaks her entire family, and it breaks each of them in different ways.

It is really interesting to me to see the shape a person leaves when they are no longer there. Faith didn’t believe her presence made a difference, so it is very interesting and also very heartbreaking that when she runs away, all that seems to be left is her absence.

Initially it may seem like you’re pretty harsh on the subject of religion, but so much of Hopepunk is actually about forgiveness and faith. Why was exploring this duality important to you?

I have a very complex relationship with religion. On the one hand, I grew up in a religious community that I feel like represented the very worst when it came to homophobia and gaslighting and shame culture in Christianity. I am not religious anymore and have not been for a very long time.

I do see immense value in spirituality. I think we all need something to believe in that is bigger than ourselves sometimes. Not for any moral reason. I think we need it for our own happiness. To help us find equilibrium.

In that same sense, I feel like forgiveness—a concept that we often think of as “Christian” in nature—might be the most important ingredient to any one human being’s personal happiness. Even if it’s just yourself you need to forgive.

“I realize that not everyone in the world is an ally, but I like to believe it’s possible that everyone in the world could become one.”

Many characters in the book undergo transformations, but Hope’s mom’s journey is one of the most meaningful. How did you avoid extremes when creating her character?

If Hope was the easiest character to write (because she is very similar to me), Hope’s mom was maybe the most difficult, perhaps because I have never personally met a person who has undergone a transformation quite like hers. But I am very proud of where she ended up because, at the end of the day, she is 100% someone I would want to have on my team.

Christianity 101 is all about powerful transformations, villains becoming heroes (case in point, Saul becoming Paul), so it seems oddly appropriate that she undergoes such a metamorphosis. I realize that not everyone in the world is an ally, but I like to believe it’s possible that everyone in the world could become one.

Hopepunk is set in Wyoming. Why did you choose to tell this story in a conservative setting? Can you talk a little bit about the broader significance of telling queer stories in spaces like that?

I’ll be 100% honest. This story was almost set in Alabama, but then a conversation with my agent and editor drop-kicked it out of Appalachia and into the Rockies. We landed in Wyoming purely because of Sundance. (Yes, the band was called Hope Cassidy and the Sundance Kids before the setting had anything to do with Sundance.) When we finally pushed that puzzle piece into place, it just clicked.

Regardless of where the story could have been set, queer stories are needed everywhere because queer people are everywhere. I’m drawn to conservative settings because those are the places I’ve always lived. My hope is always to connect with just one reader in such a way that they feel seen, heard and understood. Maybe, if I’m lucky, I will have given them something that wasn’t there before.

Within Hopepunk is a second story, a lesbian sci-fi adventure called “Andromeda and Tanks Through Space and Time.” Was it challenging to incorporate this into the larger narrative?

I had so much fucking fun with this story! Maybe too much fun. There were many times when I was afraid that it wouldn’t make it into the final version of Hopepunk, and it is much more sliced and diced than it was in my original draft.

The greatest challenge was always selling my editors on this very weird little story within the story. When I try to explain it to people, I always bring up the “Carry On” story with Simon and Baz in Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl. It is very different, obviously, but on a spiritual level, I feel like it is very much the same thing.

“I think we all need something to believe in that is bigger than ourselves sometimes.”

How did you balance the weighty themes and emotions in Hopepunk with the fact that it’s also often extremely funny?

This is very easy for me, because life is simultaneously so very funny but also so very sad. I think humor is my way of dealing and coping with sad and difficult topics. Humor allows me a safe distance to be vulnerable, but not so vulnerable that it makes me depressed and anxious.

Hopepunk is also about rock ’n’ roll and how powerful it can be to make music. In your acknowledgments, you mention that the songs in the book were going to be covers, but one of your editors pushed you to write original songs, which you found a daunting prospect. How did you pull it off?

I honestly have no idea. I don’t necessarily believe in miracles, but I also cannot deny that it must be some sort of miracle because I am NOT a songwriter.

With that said, I will readily admit that the third and final song in the book, “Love Can See,” was the most difficult one for me to write—so much so that I feel like I kind of cheated and borrowed the tune, time signature and lyrical beats of a preexisting song as a model for it. (But there is no actual tune in my book, so good luck suing me, mwahaha!)

I will have to award some sort of prize to the first reader who calls me out on Twitter for which song I used as a crutch. Would you like to be a minor character in my next book? I feel like that’s the only thing of value I have to offer. The contest begins NOW!

Hope quite literally finds her voice while singing karaoke at a local haunt. Are you a karaoke person? If so, what’s your go-to song?

I will sing anything and everything. I am a karaoke monster. I am not good by any means, but what I lack in talent, I make up for in loudness and staggering enthusiasm. There is nothing I won’t sing.

Read our starred review of ‘Hopepunk.’


Author photo of Preston Norton courtesy of Erin Willmore.

Preston Norton offers a no-holds-barred tale of religion, rock 'n' roll and good ol' teen rebellion.

Delight the teenager on your holiday list with a fabulous graphic novel or gripping true story guaranteed to make them swoon, giggle or gasp.

The Girl From the Sea

For the reader who longs to be carried away on the waves of a fantastical story

In The Girl From the Sea, author-illustrator Molly Knox Ostertag blends myth and realism to create a story about the things we’d rather keep submerged—and what happens when they surface with a splash.

Morgan Kwon is 15 and part of a power clique at her high school that serves as a frothy diversion from her unhappy family life. She’s just biding her time until she can move away from her small island town and finally come out as gay. 

One rainy night at the rocky seaside cliffs that are her favorite place to sit and think, Morgan slips on the wet stones and falls into the water. She’s rescued by a mysterious girl named Keltie, who is kind of cute, really, and an awfully powerful swimmer, but the instant connection between them threatens all the secrets that Morgan’s been carefully concealing from her friends and family. 

Ostertag (The Witch Boy) is an expert at conveying complex emotions and subtly shifting the mood from one panel to the next. Morgan is part of a group text message thread with her friends, which  includes numerous invitations that Morgan declines, at first because of her feelings of loneliness and depression, and later because Keltie is clearly not welcome among the group, even as she and Morgan are tentatively falling for each other. Ostertag initially depicts Morgan’s home life with her stressed mom and angry little brother in stark, silent scenes, but as secrets come to light and Morgan’s family reach out to one another, there’s a warmth to their time together that lifts off the page.

This graphic novel’s narrative flows so smoothly that you might find yourself reading it in one big gulp, and its resolution is bittersweet but hopeful. The Girl From the Sea is a wistful romance that will catch readers by the heart.

—Heather Seggel

Passport

For the reader who has always suspected there was more to their parents than meets the eye

“¿Qué está pasando?” Early in her graphic memoir, Passport, author-illustrator Sophia Glock writes that this phrase—which means “what is going on?”—is her mantra at the Spanish-language immersion high school she attends in Central America. The phrase is a lifeline as Glock navigates the usual challenges of teenage life, but it takes on another meaning when Glock discovers that she is the daughter of CIA agents who have been keeping her in the dark. 

Growing up, Glock lived all over the world because of her parents’ ambiguous “work.” What work is that, exactly? She has no idea. The more questions she asks, the fewer answers she receives. Just keep your head down, her parents tell her. Stay safe, and if you can, why don’t you let us know what your friends’ parents do for a living?

When Glock reads a letter that her older sister, away at college, wrote to their parents, the blanks in her life begin to fill in, though she is too afraid to confront her parents directly. Instead, like any frustrated teen, she exercises her autonomy and starts telling lies of her own. Boys, girls, drinking and partying abound while Glock travels through the gauntlet of adolescence and the tension between her ever-accumulating little lies versus her parents’ one big lie threatens to boil over.

Glock’s depictions of quiet yet consequential moments, such as when she ponders the choices her parents have made, are especially spellbinding. Her sparse, restrained art style evokes the feeling of a memory play, a recollection both real and ethereal. She renders the entire book in only three colors: shades of a reddish pink, a cold blue and white. Her characters aren’t always easily distinguishable from one another, and while that can cause some confusion in the story, the overall effect is satisfying. After all, how much does Glock really know about the people around her? ¿Qué está pasando? In her author’s note, Glock concedes as much. ”These stories are as true as I remember them,” she writes. The CIA’s publication review board nixed some of the particulars of Passport before it was published, which makes the details that did end up in the book all the more dramatic.

A deceptively spare graphic novel chock-full of depth and beauty, Passport is an unusual coming-of-age memoir that’s totally worth the trip. 

—Luis G. Rendon

★ The Dire Days of Willowweep Manor

For the reader who loves spooky castles and fears no gothic terror, not even marauding zombie bunnies

Haley is so exuberantly dedicated to gothic romances that her exasperated teacher orders her to stop writing book reports on Wuthering Heights (and no, she cannot do an interpretive dance about it instead!). After school, Haley sets out for home in the rain, and lo! As she stands on a bridge, dramatically sighing, she sees a man struggling in the dark waters below. She dives in to rescue the floundering fellow, conks out after her exertions and awakens abed in Willowweep Manor, attended by a dour housekeeper named Wilhelmina. Have Haley’s period-piece dreams come true? 

Turns out, Haley has indeed been inadvertently catapulted into a world much like those in her beloved books. There’s a castle (complete with “baleful catacombs” and an on-site ghost) and verdant moors, as well as three handsome brothers—stoic Laurence, brooding Montague and vacuous Cuthbert—who took her in after she saved Montague from drowning.

But Haley soon discovers another side to Willowweep. It’s a gasket universe, a liminal space between Earth and an evil dimension laden with a substance called bile that destroys everything in its globby, neon green path. Can Haley help the brothers fend off the encroaching forces of darkness before it’s too late? 

The Dire Days of Willowweep Manor is a hoot right from the get-go, but when everyone bands together to defend the manor, author Shaenon K. Garrity’s tale becomes ever more hilarious and exciting. Humorous metafictional quips fly hither and yon as the characters take up arms, squabble over strategy and realize they’ve got to break a few rules (and defy a few tropes) if they want to prevail. 

Christopher Baldwin’s art is full-bore appealing. He has an excellent command of color: Brooding browns underlie characters’ stress while sky blues highlight Haley’s growing confidence. Facial expressions are little comedies unto themselves, including horses who side-eye Cuthbert’s silliness, and slack-faced bile-addled bunnies who adorably chant “Destroy.” 

The Dire Days of Willowweep Manor celebrates and satirizes a beloved genre while encouraging readers to defy the rules and become the heroes of their own stories.

—Linda M. Castellitto

Find more 2021 gift recommendations from BookPage.

Looking for something to please a choosy teen reader? Look no further than these gripping graphic tales.

In Bad Girls Never Say Die, author and teacher Jennifer Mathieu reimagines S.E. Hinton’s groundbreaking 1967 YA novel, The Outsiders. She spoke with BookPage about “good girls,” “bad girls” and writing stories that help teens see beyond those labels.

Tell us about your relationship to The Outsiders before you started working on Bad Girls Never Say Die.
It was the book of my heart as a young girl. I read it in one night in the sixth grade instead of studying for a science test. I did poorly on the test, but I’ve never regretted that life choice. I was captivated by this book that was all heart but also packed with action. The characters became so real in my mind. 

Many years later, I had the experience of teaching the novel to my middle schoolers, and I discovered the book still has enormous staying power. Kids today love the emotion and the story just as much as I did. 

Which elements of The Outsiders were you excited to explore and preserve in your book? Which elements did you hope to challenge or reenvision?
I wanted to preserve the intensity, emotion and fast-paced plot of the original novel. As a teacher, I have seen how The Outsiders works magic on young reluctant readers, and it’s my hope that Bad Girls Never Say Die will have the same effect. 

As for what I wanted to reenvision, by centering the female experience, I wanted to broaden the reader’s understanding of the unique challenges and obstacles facing young women of that time period. I wanted to push the reader to see that while some things have changed for the better, there are many parallels to be drawn between contemporary life and 1964, the year in which I’ve set my novel. Certainly this is true with a novel set in Texas, my home state, which continues to enact legislation that oppresses women and girls.

In this book, you explore themes that readers will recognize from your earlier work—especially, as the title suggests, what it means to be a “bad girl” versus a “good girl.” Can you introduce us to Evie and Diane and how these notions play out in and are challenged by their stories?
Evie, our main character, is a girl from a working-class neighborhood. Her father is absent from her life, and she has chosen to align herself with girls who wear too much makeup, cut class and hang out with boys. She is seen as a “bad girl” for all these reasons. Evie’s mother’s biggest hope is that Evie will find and marry a good man who will support her; she believes it’s the best chance for Evie to improve her life, even if Evie sees this as limiting. 

Diane is a stranger to Evie at the start of the novel. She’s recently moved to Evie’s neighborhood from the wealthiest part of Houston, and she’s keeping a secret. For much of her life, Diane has been considered a “good girl” because she dresses neatly, lives with both parents and is polite. That said, if Diane’s secret were to be revealed, she would be seen as transgressive and bad by most people. 

While Evie and Diane seem different at the start and on the surface—in fact, Evie is at first quite suspicious of Diane because of where she comes from—the girls soon discover that they are both “bad girls” because they want to follow their hearts, speak their mind, and stand up for themselves. 

Without giving too much away, it’s also my hope that through Diane’s story, we can understand how often girls and women are shamed for being sexual beings, and how this common practice is so devastating to women and girls. Ultimately, I hope the reader is able to reflect on how we continue to label women and girls as “bad” and “good” based on stereotypes and sexist thinking.

“When I was a teenager, I was beginning to quietly question much of what was happening around me and reflect on the expectations put on me as a young woman.”

You’ve mentioned that Evie is a character with whom you personally identify. How so?
In many ways, my life was very different from Evie’s. I grew up with both parents, I was the oldest sibling (Evie is the youngest), and I was a rule follower who earned excellent grades. That said, when I was a teenager, I was beginning to quietly question much of what was happening around me and reflect on the expectations put on me as a young woman. While I was seen as a “good girl,” my growing interest in feminism and women’s rights made me suspicious in the eyes of some adults in my life, including teachers at my very conservative high school. I sensed a growing inner conflict as I began to really question some of the rules and systems around me, even if I couldn’t always articulate my thoughts.

Much in the same way, Evie senses something is not right in her world. What has happened to Diane is not right. What has happened to Evie’s older sister is not right. Evie’s mother’s limited plans for her are not right. Through the events of the novel, Evie begins to question all of that. By the end of the story, I think she is primed to act and make change. I think I felt much the same way as I headed off to college, found myself liberated by the environment there and fully embraced the label of feminist.

In The Outsiders, rival gangs of young men are always raring to fight, spitting at one another, switchblades at the ready. Who or what occupies the role of the antagonist in Bad Girls Never Say Die? Why was this reframing important to you?
Oh, I love this question! While violence between the social classes is touched on in my book like it is in Hinton’s, I would say the antagonist in The Outsiders is the pressures the characters are under and the misconceptions they have about one another. In Bad Girls, I think the antagonist is, similarly, the sexist system in which the characters live, a system that oppresses and represses them. In addition, the misconceptions Evie and her friends have about girls like Diane at the start of the story reflect what often happens in contemporary life. Instead of seeking solidarity in order to fight back against a suffocating patriarchy, women fall victim to that same patriarchy’s message that we should judge and shame each other, which only limits our collective power.

One of the ways that Bad Girls Never Say Die departs from The Outsiders is how you not only highlight socioeconomic divisions between groups of teens but also touch on the history of integration and the unique challenges facing Mexican American students who, like Evie, live on the wrong side of town. The character and story of Juanita, one of Evie’s best friends, is a great example of how you did this. Can you talk about how and why you included this perspective in the novel?
I loved researching this novel, and I definitely felt my former reporter muscles kick in as I got to work on it. I spent the summer of 2019 taking several older people here in Houston out to lunch to discuss memories of their teenage years. I also spent hours in the downtown library paging through old yearbooks and newspaper clippings. (Shoutout to librarians!) As a proud Houstonian for over 20 years, I am grateful for the opportunity to live in one of the most racially and ethnically diverse cities in the nation. I teach at the most racially diverse high school in the city. We are not a perfect city, of course, and while I’m proud of many elements of my hometown, I also wanted to be honest about it in this book.

Set in 1964, Bad Girls Never Say Die reflects the reality that Houston, like much of this country, has a history of segregation that is quite complicated and painful. The school system in Houston was still racially segregated until the late ’60s and early ’70s. Black Houstonians attended different schools and lived under a racist legal system that oppressed them and still has ripple effects today, even if certain laws regarding public transportation, schools and restaurants have changed.

Since it is relatively close to Mexico, Houston also has a large population of people with Mexican roots. As I researched, I learned that although Houstonians of Mexican heritage were classified as “legally white” and attended school with white Houstonians, they were often subjected to discrimination. For example, their names were often Anglicized without their consent. In one of my interviews, a man with Mexican heritage shared with me that his teacher suspected him of cheating because he was Mexican. This informed the character of Juanita, Evie’s neighbor and dear friend.

At the same time, in 1964, the world was changing rapidly. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed just a few months before the events of this novel. Evie is a white girl, but like most teenagers of her day, she is aware of the events going on around her and has thoughts about them. While I could not write a fully racially integrated school like the one I work at now because it would not have existed at the time of the novel, I wanted to make sure that I crafted a world that was authentic and reflected the reality of the city and the country at that time.

I would be remiss not to mention the book Houston Bound: Culture and Color in a Jim Crow City by Dr. Tyina Steptoe. Dr. Steptoe’s book about Houston’s complex racial and ethnic history was instrumental as I crafted this novel, and I’m grateful not just for her work but also for her time on the phone and via email.

Read our review of ‘Bad Girls Never Say Die.’

Did you learn anything about Houston’s history that surprised you or that made you see the place you live in a new way?
Something that made me laugh was the fact that so many of our city’s highways had not been built yet in 1964. Houston is a very freeway-centric city, and it sort of blew my mind to hear interviewees reminisce about a time when you went everywhere on surface roads. It’s almost hard to imagine!

You’re a high school English teacher. Do your students influence your work as a writer for teens? 
I am currently in my 17th year in the classroom. My job as a teacher keeps me around the rhythm of adolescence and reminds me daily that young people deserve good stories that treat them like the nuanced, complex human beings they are. My students sometimes want to know if they are in my novels, and I have to honestly tell them that the characters are fictional, but the energy, hope, rage, frustration, joy and confusion that surrounds me daily certainly makes its way into my work.

What’s the best or most rewarding thing about writing for teens?
The best part is how sincere teenagers are and how enthusiastic they are. If they like your work, they REALLY like your work, and they share that with you. There’s no artifice with teenagers. Young people are the best fans because what they love, they love deeply.

What kinds of teens do you hope find their way to Bad Girls Never Say Die? What do you hope the book offers them?
As an English teacher, I hope this book makes it into the hands of reluctant readers. Its short chapters and fast-paced plot will hopefully hook some of them. I’m a big believer that everyone is a reader, but sometimes we just haven’t discovered the books that work for us. 

I also hope this book empowers young women to make connections to their own lives and draw parallels between the past and the present in terms of how women and girls are treated. I think it offers them a way to understand that, to borrow a phrase from Faulkner, the past is never dead. Bad Girls is historical fiction, but I also hope it’s a call to arms for modern-day girls to stand up for themselves and follow their hearts.

If Vivian, the protagonist of your novel Moxie (which was set in the present day when it was published in 2017), and Evie somehow found themselves at the same lunch table, what do you think they’d talk about? Are there things you think they’d be surprised to hear the other say?
Another amazing question! Certainly there would be a few laughs as Evie learns about social media and modern music, and Vivian might be fascinated by Evie’s eye makeup and clothing, but I sense the girls would be fast friends because they would recognize in each other what I see in the young women I teach every day: a fighting spirit that seeks out joy, validation, love and liberation in a world that constantly wants to tell them they need to shut up, sit down and be quiet. Evie and Vivian refuse to listen to that message, and it’s my hope that the young women who read my work learn they can refuse it, too.

The author and teacher discusses her reinterpretation of S.E. Hinton's The Outsiders.

Jennifer Mathieu swings for the fences in Bad Girls Never Say Die, a feminist retelling of S.E. Hinton’s 1967 category-defining classic, The Outsiders. It’s not quite the equal of Hinton’s grand slam, but Mathieu’s fresh spin makes for a home run of a read.

Evie Barnes is a self-described bad girl living in Houston in 1964. She wears heavy eyeliner and joins her “tuff” group of girlfriends in skipping school, smoking and drinking. When Evie is attacked and almost raped by a drunk boy at a drive-in movie, she believes her bad-girl status has been cemented. No good girl would put herself in a position where she could get hurt by a boy, right?

Wrong. Diane, the epitome of a good girl from the nice side of town (Evie calls her a “tea sipper”), stops the assault but unintentionally kills the boy in the process. This sends Evie and Diane on a police-dodging odyssey of unexpected friendship as they discover what it really means to be a bad girl.

Read our Q&A with Jennifer Mathieu.

In The Outsiders, characters regularly have the snot beat out of them for being part of the wrong crew, but the threat to the young women in Mathieu’s novel feels more existential. Yes, a young man attacks a young woman, but Mathieu doubles and then triples down on the horrors that women face every day. In a stunning moment of catharsis, Evie reflects, “It seems like if you want to really love and feel and breathe in this city, you’re labeled trash. Or bad. Especially if you’re a girl.”

Of course, that existential threat, which is the true antagonist of the story, has a name: It’s patriarchy. And Mathieu knows it. It’s why every female character in the book (and there are quite a few) is imbued with depth and purpose, no matter what side of town they’re from or how old they are. They’re all fighting the same cultural force that is determined to keep them down.

Best known for Moxie, another YA novel about young women fighting “the man,” Mathieu offers another rallying cry in Bad Girls Never Say Die and proves it’s good to go bad.

Moxie author Jennifer Mathieu swings for the fences in this feminist retelling of S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders.

After writing four YA novels featuring contemporary realism and romance, Robyn Schneider is throwing her outsiders-in-love antics back—way back. In The Other Merlin, Schneider makes her first foray into fantasy, retelling the legend of King Arthur for today’s teens. The first book in a planned trilogy, it contains enough mystery, sex, mistaken identities and scandalous clashes of class and nobility that it could be titled Bridgerton: Knights of the Round Table.

The titular “other” Merlin is Emry, a highly skilled teenage wizard who spends her days performing special-effects illusions on the sly at her local theater while her father, the O.G. Merlin, trains her less talented twin brother, Emmett. After Merlin vanishes, the king sends a request for Emmett to take Merlin’s place at court. But when Emmett is incapacitated by a spell that backfires, Emry decides to fill in for her brother, chopping off her hair and binding her chest to look the part. She wants to ensure that her family stays in the king’s good graces, but she also sees an opportunity to nurture her talents, since girls aren’t allowed to learn or practice magic.

Meanwhile, Prince Arthur has just pulled that silly sword out of the stone. This stuns his family, who don’t think much of Arthur’s love for books and gardening, not to mention his buddy-buddy relationship with an unfairly dishonored Lancelot. When Emry arrives, the three become fast friends. They form a team of outsiders who are trying to grow into the best versions of themselves, fate be damned. Can Arthur be a good king if he defies his father’s wishes? Can Lancelot be a knight if he loves another man? Can Emry be a great wizard like her father even though she’s a woman? As she explores the answers to these questions, Schneider reworks the classical hero’s journey through an unapologetically feminist lens.

Though her author’s note mentions working on The Other Merlin in 17th-century libraries, Schneider is hardly precious with her source material. She maneuvers deftly through conversations about gender, sexuality and equity in a medieval setting that feels grounded and relatable. Is any of it canonical? Probably not, but who cares! In a world filled with wizards, spells and glowing magical swords, why can’t everyone be bisexual? It certainly makes for more interesting love triangles, which are plentiful. Arthurian legend, after all, is basically a centuries-old soap opera, so why not make it extra soapy?

Funny, thrilling, brave and bold, The Other Merlin is the perfect way to pass the time until the next Renaissance Faire. Schneider’s Arthurian tale stands out amid a crowd of old, dusty duplicates.

Funny, thrilling, brave and bold, The Other Merlin the perfect way to pass the time until the next Renaissance Faire. Schneider’s Arthurian tale stands out amid a crowd of old, dusty duplicates.

Sign Up

Stay on top of new releases: Sign up for our enewsletters to receive reading recommendations in your favorite genres.

Trending Features

Sign Up

Sign up to receive reading recommendations in your favorite genres!