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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
Poppy’s family has a secret. It’s a secret so big that Poppy doesn’t even know what it is. She knows her family is on the run. From whom? Police. Bad guys. Everyone.
The Winslows barely exist. They leave only fake names, fake IDs and nary a digital trace behind. Schools come and go. Just when friendships take root, Poppy’s parents rip their family up and disappear, never to be seen again.
But something is different this time. Poppy’s parents have been arguing about their next stop, a beautiful house in California that seems familiar—almost lived in. Poppy is almost 18, and the end of her high school career convinces her parents to allow her to enroll in a summer school program where she finds not only romance but also crumbs that lead her to the truth of why she’s been forced to live like a fugitive for as long as she can remember.
Marit Weisenberg hits the ball out of the park in This Golden State, her fourth YA novel. She mines the depths of what a young adult novel can encompass, building to a catharsis so satisfying, you could end the drought in California with the tears you’ll cry. The book transforms as you read, revealing layers that include a twisting, high-wire crime thriller, a sensual teen romance and, most significantly, a story about finding your place in your family.
Weisenberg must unravel a truly scandalous yarn to explain what the Winslows did that led them to such an isolated life, but she never sensationalizes or romanticizes their circumstances. On the contrary, their life is awful. Poppy imagines her parents being swept away in a sting operation, leaving her and her little sister behind, abandoned, and her visions lead to panic attacks. What would she do if that happened? What could she do? If she could just know the truth . . .
Yes, a secret of epic proportions does lurk in Poppy’s family’s past, and it’s fun for the reader to find clues and untangle the mystery with her. But it’s the gentle and then brutal heartache that Weisenberg crafts perfectly alongside it that sets This Golden State apart. This is a story about human people, not true-crime caricatures.
“Life was better than any romance novel I’d ever read,” Poppy realizes as she begins living her own life, an unthinkable choice that violates every rule her parents ever made for her.
A Rapunzel-esque tale about breaking free, finding out who you are and where you can go, This Golden State shines.
A family secret of epic proportions lurks in This Golden State, a shining novel that encompasses elements of a thriller, a romance and a coming-of-age story.
As this queer space opera opens, Lu, a compassionate scientist who lives among a colony of peaceful refugees from across the universe, discovers Fassen, a young soldier in training who has sworn to resist an oppressive empire. Fassen is the only survivor of a rebel convoy that was fleeing imperial forces. They crash-landed on the planet where a group from Lu’s colony is setting up a temporary research site.
Lu offers Fassen not only a way back to the rebel base but also an offer of friendship and kindness that Fassen is unfamiliar with. Before they warp back to their own solar systems, Lu sciences up an interstellar cell phone so they can keep in touch. “No one should ever be alone the way you were,” Lu says. “Let’s stay friends, okay?” It’s perhaps the fastest meet cute in the galaxy, and it marks the beginning of Blue Delliquanti’s subversive take on the trope of star-crossed “lovers.”
To be clear, Across a Field of Starlight is not a romance. It is not the story of two ill-fated heroes who are destined to find each other again, fight a tyrannical regime and fall in love. Delliquanti, who has mined the stars for previous queer space epics, including their acclaimed webcomic “O Human Star,” has composed a gentle, loving story about friendship that is not only uninterested in romance but also actively pushes back against its familiar beats. Amid a story that can sometimes feel overloaded with sci-fi specifics, these moments of subversion are crystal-clear pearls of thoughtful provocation. Why do Fassen and Lu need to fall in love to make their relationship worthwhile? For that matter, why does art need a purpose? And is destruction the only way to win a war?
It’s Fassen whose story fits the classical hero’s journey in this tale, and their character arc—a young person in search of their own identity—is particularly moving, especially among the book’s heteronormatively transgressive cast of characters. Bellies are out, hair is long, and the line between feminine and masculine is tossed into the sun.
Readers who have been searching for something to fill the “Steven Universe”-shaped hole in their hearts will find comfort here. As in the beloved Cartoon Network program, characters are diverse in shape, color and size. They, too, are young, emotional and learning about themselves and the strange beings they meet during their adventures. Delliquanti’s colorful, expressive art is also perfect for cartoon lovers.
Warmhearted but challenging, full of love yet aromantic, Across a Field of Starlight is an ambitious queer take on what it means to be star-crossed.
Readers who have been searching for something to fill the “Steven Universe”-shaped hole in their hearts will find comfort in Across a Field of Starlight.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Looking for something to please a choosy teen reader? Look no further than these gripping graphic tales.
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