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).
Debut author Jetta Grace Martin joins forces with scholars Joshua Bloom and Waldo E. Martin Jr. to present the fascinating history of an iconic group of Americans in Freedom! The Story of the Black Panther Party. The result is a work of narrative nonfiction that will engage and challenge teen readers.
The book opens by introducing the party’s co-founders, Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, and depicting their early confrontations with police forces, in which they displayed independence that the Black community in the United States had not seen before. Engaging sections unfold in linear fashion and depict the formation, work and eventual fall of the party.
The authors expertly integrate pivotal moments for the organization, such as the Panthers’ early support of the family of Denzil Dowell, who was killed by Mel Brunkhorst, a sheriff’s deputy. Inclusion of events such as the Watts rebellion of 1965, a six-day period of unrest sparked by the police beating of the mother of a man arrested for a DUI in a mostly Black neighborhood in Los Angeles, enables readers to understand the circumstances that energized Black communities during the 1960s and set the stage for a group like the Black Panthers, who could direct such powerful frustrations into a movement.
Throughout the book, the authors incorporate drama and suspense without sacrificing accuracy or integrity. Freedom! makes full use of the authors’ extensive research and frequently incorporates both quotations and photographs. The book’s back matter includes a timeline, a glossary and 15 pages of endnotes to support the book’s notably positive depiction of the Panthers’ accomplishments.
The Black Panthers used a variety of methods and strategies to accomplish their goals, and their shifting tactics offer food for thought to a new generation of young people contemplating which coalitions, programs and techniques will help them become effective changemakers. Freedom! positions the Panthers within “the long freedom struggle” against not only all forms of racism also but imperialism and capitalism. It’s a thorough, thought-provoking and entertaining investigation into one of the most significant movements in 20th-century American history.
By incorporating drama and suspense without sacrificing accuracy or integrity, the authors of Freedom! have created a narrative history that engages and challenges.
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.
On June 1, 1921, a mob of white people descended on the Greenwood district of Tulsa, Oklahoma, known as “Black Wall Street.” They killed hundreds of Black residents and bombed, burned and otherwise laid waste to a neighborhood that spanned 35 blocks. In Black Birds in the Sky: The Story and Legacy of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, author Brandy Colbert recounts this history for teen readers and shows how its echoes continue to reverberate today.
As she does in her middle grade and young adult fiction, including the Stonewall Award-winning Little & Lion, Colbert draws readers in with richly detailed settings, and she describes Greenwood with vibrant imagery. Its Black residents built their own economy from the ground up. They could not freely choose where to spend their money in the wider region, but as it recirculated within Greenwood, it created a booming business community. Colbert captures a sense of lively growth that makes the neighborhood’s eventual destruction hit home with visceral impact.
Poor white Tulsans' feelings of grievance and jealousy were factors that led to the massacre, and some local media outlets escalated tensions through false, inflammatory reporting. As the violence spread, the police and the National Guard aided white vigilantes by imprisoning Black residents in internment camps. A grand jury investigation later blamed Black men for inciting violence when they had actually been trying to stop it.
Colbert’s meticulous research holds the book together. Informative sidebars add vital context and will help readers make sense of an almost incomprehensible crime that was driven by white supremacy. A chilling postscript explores efforts to bury this history and the ongoing resistance to its revival. Black Birds in the Sky tells the truth about an event that every American should know about. It’s a horrifying account told with great care.
Black Birds in the Sky tells the truth about an event that every American should know about. It’s a horrifying account told with great care.
Deborah Wiles was 16 years old on May 4, 1970, when she heard the news that the National Guard had opened fire on college students who had been protesting the Vietnam War at Kent State University in Ohio. Four students were killed and nine were wounded, one of whom was left paralyzed. Two of the students killed had simply been walking to class. Fifty years later, the award-winning author revisits the tragedy in Kent State, an extraordinary and passionate recounting written in free verse from multiple points of view. “The earthquake of its enormity has never left me,” Wiles reflects in an author’s note.
Like a meticulous theater director, Wiles opens by carefully setting the stage, then coming out from behind the curtain and addressing readers directly. “You are new here,” she writes, “and we don’t want to scare you away, / but we want you to know the truth.” She explains that the military draft provoked angst and uncertainty across Kent State’s campus, and describes mounting student anger at Nixon’s decision to bomb Cambodia.
Wiles’ decision to write in free verse, rather than prose, effectively harnesses her meticulous research and enables her to convey her four-day chronology of events through collective, often conflicting, voices. She captures the vigorous debates and frequent clashes that occurred between these voices, which include white and black students, townies and National Guard soldiers. The opinionated participants remain anonymous on the page, distinguished through careful and varied typography, but together, they form a diverse chorus that offers readers a mix of opinion, memory, fact and misinformation. Wiles also intersperses the lyrics of protest songs through the book, including Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s “Ohio,” which was written by Neil Young in the aftermath of what happened and, as Wiles explains, “helped change the national conversation about the war in Vietnam.”
Yet always at the forefront of this chorus are the victims, to whom Wiles dedicates Kent State. Allison Krause was “attractive in every way” and died in her boyfriend’s arms. She was 19 years old. Jeffrey Miller had recently chatted with his mother by phone, telling her, “Don’t worry. I’m not going to get hurt.” He was 20 years old. Bill Schroeder had just met with his ROTC advisor and eventually planned to help frontline solders as a military psychologist. He was 19 years old. Sandy Scheuer was a “delightful square” who loved Dinah Shore and Perry Como. She was 20 years old. Wiles doesn’t mince words when describing the circumstances of their deaths: “America turned on its unarmed children, in their schoolyard, and killed them.”
In Kent State, Deborah Wiles has created a powerful work of art that serves as both as a historical record of a national tragedy and a call to action for every American, but especially for young people. After all, as she writes, “It has always been the young / who are our champions / of justice. / Who stand at the vanguard / of change.”
Deborah Wiles was 16 years old on May 4, 1970, when she heard the news that the National Guard had opened fire on college students who had been protesting the Vietnam War at Kent State University in Ohio. Four students were killed and nine were wounded, one of whom was left paralyzed. Two of the […]
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