It's just weeks before graduation, and supersmart, beautiful Shara Wheeler—prom queen and daughter of the principal of Alabama's conservative Willowgrove Christian Academy—has disappeared. But not before kissing her academic rival, Chloe Green, a move that both shocks and intrigues Chloe. Casey McQuiston's young adult debut, I Kissed Shara Wheeler (9.5 hours), is both a mystery (of sorts) and an unconventional romance, as Chloe's hunt for Shara shakes up Willowgrove's senior class.
Readers who have fallen in love with McQuiston's thoughtful, funny queer romances for adults (Red, White & Royal Blue and One Last Stop) will be charmed to see how the author applies their storytelling skills to the teen milieu. Narrator Natalie Naudus admirably voices more than a half-dozen significant characters, imparting individuality and personality to teens embracing a variety of identities.
A fresh and cleverly conceived take on the beloved 1985 film The Breakfast Club, Invisible is a colorful and engaging tale written by first-time graphic novel author Christina Diaz Gonzalez and illustrated by Gabriela Epstein (Claudia and the New Girl).
Diaz writes in both English and Spanish, the languages spoken by her archetypal characters. There’s George Rivera, the brain; Sara Domínguez, the loner; Miguel Soto, the athlete; Dayara Gómez, the tough one; and Nico Piñeda, the rich kid. Their heritage is linked to different places, including Puerto Rico, Cuba, Mexico, the Dominican Republic and Venezuela, but since they all speak Spanish, the kids keep getting lumped together at Conrad Middle School by fellow students and school administrators alike.
As Invisible opens, it’s happened again: Principal Powell won’t earn a community service initiative trophy unless 100% of students participate, so he informs George that he’ll be spending mornings with “students like you” helping grouchy Mrs. Grouser in the school cafeteria. The five kids greet each other with wariness that soon becomes bickering as they resist the idea they could actually have anything in common. Sure, they’re all varying degrees of bilingual, and yes, they’ve all been stereotyped because of it. But otherwise? Pfft! But when an opportunity to really help someone arises—one that will require creative thinking plus significant subterfuge—the kids have to make a decision. Can they work together to achieve a meaningful goal?
Diaz Gonzalez’s previous novel, Concealed, won the 2022 Edgar Award for best juvenile title, and she builds wonderful suspense here as the students strive to find common ground. Meanwhile, Epstein’s art conveys the group’s swirling emotions, from Dayara’s frustration (ugh, homework!) to George’s embarrassment (oh, crushes!) to everyone’s wide-eyed worry that they’ll be caught breaking Mrs. Grouser’s rules.
In an author’s note, Diaz Gonzalez explains that she knows what it’s like to be a student learning English as a second language “who may feel a little lost . . . when surrounded by words that they don’t yet understand.” Her own experiences fueled her desire to create “a single book that could be read and enjoyed no matter which language you [speak].”
With Invisible, she and Epstein have done just that. The book’s visual context clues and helpful dialogue bubbles (with solid outlines to indicate speech and dashed outlines for translations) bolster an already meaningful coming-of-age tale. Invisible celebrates individuality and community while transcending language barriers.
★ Twin Cities
Must a border also be a barrier? In their first graphic novel for middle grade readers, Jose Pimienta compassionately explores this question through the eyes of 12-year-old twins Teresa and Fernando.
The twins live with their parents in Mexicali, Mexico, just over the border that runs between the U.S. and Mexico. For years, they’ve happily been classmates at school and BFFs at home. They spend the summer after sixth grade in a bonanza of togetherness, filling their days with basketball and movies and tree-climbing, all portrayed by Pimienta in a kinetic, wordless double-page spread that hums with the joy of a strong sibling bond.
But the twins’ paths diverge when seventh grade begins. Teresa goes to school in Calexico, California, while Fernando stays in Mexicali. Fernando has noticed that Teresa has begun to rebuff their joint nickname, but it’s not until the first day of class that he realizes she is also eager to put space between them, to try new things alone.
Pimienta uses evocative, parallel-panel sequences to illustrate the twins’ vastly different experiences, in different countries, just several miles apart. Fernando’s friends, Tony and Victor, join his sister at school in Calexico, leaving Fernando lonely and adrift—and excited to see Teresa when she gets home each day. Teresa, however, feels stifled by her brother’s attention. She has so much homework, and she wants to do well so that she can go to college and perhaps even work in America someday. Tension builds between the twins as they contend with new friends and chores-obsessed parents.
Middle school is never easy, but it’s even harder when you think you might lose your best friend for reasons you don’t quite understand. In Twin Cities, Pimienta addresses this possibility from a place of sensitivity, sympathy and personal curiosity: In an author’s note, they reveal that they also grew up in Mexicali and were offered—but declined—the option to study in the U.S. “I still wonder what would have happened had I made a different choice,” they write.
That’s just one revelation among many to be found in Twin Cities’ notably substantive back matter, which also includes Pimienta’s musings on siblinghood and identity, character sketches, a map of both border towns and more. From start to finish, Twin Cities is a superbly crafted work of art and emotion that marks Pimienta as a creator to watch.
Will grumpy teachers, evolving friendships and mountains of homework spell disaster and doom for these heroes, or will lunchroom hijinks, video game extravaganzas and amazing discoveries prevail?
A soldier. A runaway. A barmaid. Mererid has played many roles, but beneath them all, she has always been a water diviner, blessed with the magical ability to control water in all its forms. Prince Garanhir secretly abused her power for years, until Mer discovered his treachery and fled. Now she longs for a peaceful home of her own, but when her mentor, Renfrew, asks her to join him for one final mission, Mer can't refuse.
The mission is simple: Break into the prince's castle to steal his gold and the source of his magic. Mer joins a crew that also includes a fighter, a scholar, a thief and a corgi. Along the way, she encounters old flames, uncovers kingdom-shattering secrets and realizes that carrying out the heist won't be nearly as straightforward as she thought.
Emily Lloyd-Jones‘ The Drowned Woods is based on the Welsh myth of Cantre'r Gwaelod, a sunken kingdom purported to lie beneath Cardigan Bay and sometimes called the Welsh Atlantis. Set in the same fantastical world as Lloyd-Jones' 2019 novel, The Bone Houses, The Drowned Woods introduces a large cast of new characters and stands easily on its own.
The novel has all the elements of a classic heist, including a band of experts who each have a specialized skill, a villain in a fortified stronghold and a seemingly impossible goal. Within this framework, however, Lloyd-Jones delves deeply into the psyches of each member of the crew to thoughtfully explore themes of morality and grief.
Outwardly, Mer seems fiercely independent, always prepared for every possible outcome, but she struggles with guilt over her time spent in the prince's service. She longs for freedom and meaningful connections with others, but her own self-loathing holds her back. The rest of the crew is just as well developed, and each member brings compelling personal histories, emotional demons and ulterior motives to the collective mission.
Thrilling and perceptive, The Drowned Woods blends the most-loved aspects of a heist narrative with meaningful, profound portraits of characters who satisfyingly defy archetypes and expectations alike.
Based on a myth sometimes known as the Welsh Atlantis, The Drowned Woods blends aspects of heist narratives with thoughtful explorations of morality and grief.
The best picture books tap honestly and unpatronizingly into children's emotions. These two books remind children that being human means appreciating the complex emotions we all experience.
Sometimes I Grumblesquinch
“I'm a really nice kid,” declares protagonist Katie Honors on the first page of author Rachel Vail and illustrator Hyewon Yum’s Sometimes I Grumblesquinch, a tale about the pitfalls of trying to tame emotions. Katie tries to be on her best behavior at all times. She's “a good sport” when she loses a soccer match: “‘Good game,’ I say. . . . I hardly frown.” Katie’s mom declares that her daughter is “such a pleasure,” and Katie takes pride in knowing that her parents are proud of her. But readers, privy to Katie's inner thoughts, know that she contains multitudes.
Katie's little brother, Chuck, annoys her, and she routinely bottles up how he makes her feel. “Sometimes I grumblesquinch,” Katie confesses. When this happens, her “insides tighten” and she has “mean thoughts,” such as wishing that she had “a trampoline or a tree house or a giraffe instead of a brother.” Vail captures Katie's feelings with an unequivocal, refreshing candor that's deeply respectful toward Katie's complicated interior life: “I wish I could pop [Chuck] like a balloon. . . . I wish he would disappear.” When Katie finally snaps, Yum's soft color palette and smooth linework are transformed: Intense colors and ragged, angular lines embody Katie's acute fear that her parents “won't think I am such a pleasure anymore.”
But Katie's mother gently validates Katie's feelings, telling her daughter that she understands how a person can hold both frustration and love for someone. A shocked Katie nods and tells readers, “This nod is true.” These four words convey so much about how children—especially girls—are encouraged to suppress their feelings and minimize their emotions. When Katie acknowledges that her nod is “true,” she's also suggesting that some of her smiles have been insincere, even forced.
It's moving to watch Katie begin to understand that attempting to ignore healthy but negative emotions, all in the name of being likable, still causes harm. Even after failing to grumblesquinch all her feelings, Katie still receives a loving hug from her mom, who has space for “the whole me” in her arms.
What Feelings Do When No One's Looking
Polish author Tina Oziewicz offers readers a whole host of emotions in What Feelings Do When No One's Looking, translated from the Polish by Jennifer Croft. (Kudos to Oziewicz’s American publisher, Elsewhere Editions, for placing the translator's name prominently on the cover.)
Because the book's title tells readers precisely what to expect, the first spread dives right in, introducing Curiosity, a creature with large ears who sits atop a tall chimney, eager to see what's beyond the horizon. Curiosity is followed by Joy, Gratitude, Calm, Envy, Insecurities, Shame, Courage, Bliss and more, each depicted on its own spread.
Illustrator Aleksandra Zając (making her picture book debut) introduces an endearing cast of characters, conveying these emotions as furry, amicable creatures who move about on clean, uncluttered backgrounds. Her crisp, fine lines and gray-tone palette (with subtle touches of coral, sky blue and sage) ensure that even the more volatile emotions, such as Anger, won't frighten the youngest readers.
This is a picture book filled with surprises. There are unexpected personifications (“Jitters sit in a rusty can in a dark corner under a wardrobe.” “Nostalgia sniffs a scarf.”), but Oziewicz also has a startlingly succinct and evocative way of capturing these feelings. “Anxiety juggles,” for one. These two words float amid ample white space next to an unhappy-looking creature atop a unicycle trying to keep five balls in the air, its mouth a thin, wavy line. A full-bleed illustration shows a wide-eyed creature attempting to blend in with patterned floral wallpaper: “Fear pretends it isn't there.” And what else would Hope do but pack “a sandwich for the road”?
Oziewicz and Zając link two spreads in an especially meaningful way: Readers learn that Hate “chews through links and cables. Can't connect! Can't connect!” But in the book's final spread, Love, who is an electrician, holds an oversize lightbulb aglow with amber hues. The bulb seems to run from the same rose-colored cable Hate tried so vehemently to destroy.
What Feelings Do When No One's Looking will prompt thoughtful conversations about the wide range of feelings a person can experience. It's exactly the sort of book that Katie Honors—and all children—need.
These children’s books put some of our most complex emotions into words (and pictures!).
Neil Kearney has never been in love. This becomes a major issue when Josh, his friend-with-benefits, confesses that he’s in love with Neil. Neil promptly rejects Josh but doesn’t understand why Josh is so upset. The two had agreed that their relationship wouldn’t go beyond simple hooking up, and now Neil is in exactly the messy situation he’d hoped to avoid: During their bougie boarding school's spring break, they're supposed to attend Neil's brother's fancy wedding together, but that's clearly a bad idea now that Josh has caught feelings. The solution? Neil’s roommate, Wyatt. Neil and Wyatt are far from friendly, but surely they can pull off a week of fake dating and convince Josh that Neil has moved on. Right?
Over a marathon week of wedding obligations with Neil’s wealthy family, Neil and Wyatt finally forge the close, intimate friendship they never had as roommates. Wyatt sees that Neil’s brash, confident exterior conceals turmoil caused by his unsupportive, emotionally distant family— especially Neil’s grandparents, who routinely make callously transphobic comments toward him. In turn, Neil opens his eyes to Wyatt’s reality as a scholarship student whose hardworking parents can’t provide a fraction of what Neil takes for granted.
The sense of ease that develops between Neil and Wyatt is unlike anything Neil ever thought possible. As their boyfriend act begins to feel real, Neil is thrown off balance. Is this what it feels like to fall in love? If so, how do you hold on to it? And scariest of all, how could Neil possibly deserve Wyatt’s love?
In The Feeling of Falling in Love, Mason Deaver (I Wish You All the Best) delivers a satisfying romance right out of the rom-com playbook. Though there are plenty of these-two-are-obviously-in-love moments and heaps of witty banter, other details are what make this book truly exceptional: While some characters don’t treat Neil with respect, the novel always does. And when Wyatt’s own questions about gender identity arise, Neil adjusts supportively. Deaver gives characters chances to reflect on and address harm they’ve caused, but provides no abrupt or trite conclusions. The Feeling of Falling in Love is a delightfully nuanced queer rom-com that fans of contemporary YA romances will love.
Mason Deaver delivers a satisfying, nuanced queer romance right out of the rom-com playbook.
Sometimes our hearts can be so clueless. Neil Kearney finds this out the hard way when his friend-with-benefits catches feelings. Neil doesn't reciprocate, so now he's lost not only a steady hookup but also a date to his brother's wedding.
The solution? Neil ropes his obnoxiously earnest, annoyingly hardworking, aggravatingly kind boarding school roommate, Wyatt Fowler, into pretending to be boyfriends for the weeklong nuptial festivities. Sure, Neil and Wyatt can hardly stand each other (Wyatt wears Crocs, for goodness sake!), but what's the worst that can happen in a week?
Acclaimed author Mason Deaver's third YA novel, The Feeling of Falling in Love, is a rom-com romp about finding love and yourself when you least expect it.
In the novel's acknowledgments, you mention that it took years to crack this story. What turned out to be the key to unlocking it? The book has been through so many iterations. It was originally a road trip novel in which Neil enlisted Wyatt to help him get revenge on a boy who cheated on him, and along the way, Neil and Wyatt would fall in love but deny their feelings. So, different, but not that different. Neil and Wyatt largely stayed the same since those original drafts, but I could never really figure out how to connect myself to that plot. And if I can't do that, then I can't write something; that's just how my brain is.
Then I watched My Best Friend's Wedding at the suggestion of another writer-friend, and everything that I wasn't getting clicked in an instant: a wedding instead of a road trip, fake dating while also actually falling in love slowly over the week, family drama.
How would you describe Neil and Wyatt when we first meet them? Neil and Wyatt start the book in very opposite places. Neil begins the book in (what I think he'd believe is) a time of contentment. He has friends, he has his thing with Josh, he's away from his family. Wyatt really is the only thing that concerns him, simply because Wyatt is Wyatt.
Wyatt, however, is frustrated, a fish out of water in a school full of people who make them feel unwelcome, away from their family when they'd love to be back home, doing double the work just to make sure they can maintain their place at a prestigious school they'd probably rather not be at.
But as we move along to the wedding, Neil feels more unwelcome because of who his family is and how they treat him, and while Wyatt might not feel at home around Neil's family, they're able to handle the situation better than Neil. It's a chance for Wyatt to understand where Neil is coming from and what he's gone through, while Neil comes to understand how his actions have made Wyatt feel.
I think that's what makes them both perfect for each other: They're missing what the other has, and they're never afraid to challenge each other.
The Feeling of Falling in Love has such great tropes, including a time-constrained plot, fake dating, a wedding and an enemies-to-lovers romance. What do you love about these tropes? This book has some of my favorite tropes, even ones you didn't mention, like a grumpy/sunshine dynamic and a height difference. But enemies-to-lovers (or enemies-to-friends-to-lovers, rather) is an absolute favorite of mine. I love exploring just why these characters dislike each other—sometimes for valid reasons, other times for something shallow and silly—and watching as they slowly find common ground, a connection.
What elements of the tropes did you want to preserve in this book versus what elements did you want to upend or subvert? I wanted to subvert something you might not think of as a trope—but sometimes tropes can be a bad thing—which is the idea of a trans/cis romance. It's so common in stories about a transgender person falling in love for them to find a relationship with a cisgender person. Even my own work includes it. Wyatt's character was trying to tell me something about themselves I hadn't cracked yet. And now the book gets to be a sweet romance between two trans teens, something even more rare than the trans rom-com.
Neil's reflection on his relationship to his body after gender-confirmation surgery is so powerful and complex. Why was it important to you to include these moments in the story? Neil's relationship to his body is a story that mirrors mine and many other trans people's stories. There's this idea that surgery is a magical fix for trans people, or that it's this necessary party of transitioning, and that once you've gotten it, all your dysphoria vanishes—when that couldn't be further from the truth. Some trans people want surgery, and nothing can be more affirming. Others are fine with just having one surgery over the other. Some might not want surgery at all or even to undergo hormone replacement therapy. There's no one singular way to be trans, and so long as you're comfortable with where you are in your journey, nothing else has to matter.
I very much wanted to explore how different trans experiences can be. Neil is at a place in his journey where he wanted top surgery but not bottom surgery, where he was offered the chance to cover his scars but decided they're a point of pride for him. He's very proud of his trans body, and he likes who he is, for the most part.
I also really love that you explore how deeply class differences impact how Neil and Wyatt have been perceiving each other. How did you craft this aspect of the novel, and what do you hope readers take from it? On the surface, it was such an easy way to make Neil unlikable. He's a spoiled rich kid with no regard for anyone but himself. He dresses in expensive brands, throws money at his problems and doesn't seem to have a care in the world. I love characters like that, the irredeemable jerks you aren't meant to like.
But beyond the surface of Neil's character, I wanted to explore this idea that money hasn't really gotten him anywhere. He afforded the surgeries and his expensive school, but at the cost of any real connections in his life, both to his friends and to his family.
Neil and Wyatt rhyme with each other. They have what the other doesn't, both literally and metaphorically. Neil's money would solve so many of Wyatt's issues at home, allow their parents to take a break and pay off loans or buy new clothing. But Wyatt's family have these rich connections with one another, and they're an actual family who love and care for one another. So Neil has something Wyatt wants, and Wyatt has something that Neil wants. The two of them go together in that sense.
There are two incredibly rich scenes in this book that both involve suits. What kinds of research did you do to create these scenes? Why are these scenes so meaningful for Neil and for Wyatt, and how did you create that richness of meaning? Just as reaffirming as surgery can be, fashion for trans people is instrumental in our ability to represent ourselves. Sure, clothing has no gender and anyone should be able to wear whatever they want, but for trans people, that euphoria of searching through the men's or women's section can mean so much as we find cuts and styles that make us feel welcome in our bodies.
I spent way too much time researching the brands in the book, even the ones that aren't named, scoping their websites and using their catalogs to give Neil his knowledge and love of fashion. Neil loves the feeling of a suit and that euphoria it gives him to dress exactly how he feels, while Wyatt has never had access to these kinds of clothes before. Wyatt becomes uncomfortable when presented with clothes that could put groceries on his family's dinner table, whereas Neil doesn't bat an eye as he swipes his mother's credit card without even asking Wyatt how he feels.
The novel includes a number of what I'd call near kisses—moments when it seems like Neil and Wyatt are definitely going to kiss, but don't. Be honest: Did you ever laugh an evil laugh while writing these? Absolutely I evil laugh. I love these fake-out moments, these just misses. It adds so much to the characters, gives them so much to reflect on, these fleeting moments when something could've happened, but didn't.
Toward the end of the novel, a few different characters offer Neil some pretty similar pieces of advice. My favorite is when Neil's cousin tells him, “Love is a risk, okay? Every single person in love takes a risk every single day of their lives.” What advice would you give someone who, like Neil, finds love absolutely terrifying? That entire ending is a conversation with myself, I think. Being trans and wanting love are two things that always seem at odds with each other. Wanting a relationship with someone means outing myself and having that conversation, something that could potentially go very badly and end things. Or, possibly worse, they just don't understand your identity.
It's a scary thing, asking someone to love you, and it's never just once. Love is a risk you take every single day, and it's never one of those things that gets less scary, you just learn how to deal with it on a day-to-day basis.
That's what Neil is struggling with: letting someone in who could possibly hurt him, letting someone see the uglier side of him, working on himself to keep this relationship alive. It's the lesson he learns in the book, that love is a risk worth taking.
I'm ending at the beginning: This book is dedicated to “every trans person who ever believed they were too complicated for a love story.” Why are stories of trans love and trans joy so important? I grew up never seeing stories about queer love. The first time I ever read a book where a queer character got a happy ending, got the boy and the kiss, was Becky Albertalli‘s Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda. Steadily, year by year, we've been opening ourselves up to so many different stories by so many different kinds of writers, and it's amazing to see.
But there's still such a lack of romance stories centered on trans characters, on trans joy, trans happiness and trans characters finding love in both themselves and each other. It makes me sad that we don't have more. But that just means that we need to foster trans writers, uplift their work and convince them that their stories are worth being told and worth being put on shelves.
Author photo of Mason Deaver courtesy of Mason Deaver.
Acclaimed author Mason Deaver's third YA novel, The Feeling of Falling in Love, is a rom-com romp about finding love and yourself when you least expect it.
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