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.
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.
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).
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.
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