Zarela Zalvidar is practically royalty in Santivilla, the capital city of Hispalia. Her mother was a celebrated flamenco dancer before she was killed by dragon fire, and her father is a respected Dragonador whose family has owned and run La Giralda, a dragon-fighting arena, for more than five centuries. After some dragons escape during a show at the arena, killing many spectators and gravely wounding Zarela’s father, she must find a way to save La Giralda from financial ruin and unmask a traitor who is sabotaging her family’s business.
In order to lure back La Giralda’s audience, Zarela must enter the ring herself, but she’ll need a trainer if she’s to leave the ring with her life. Arturo, a handsome former Dragonador turned trainer who scorns the Zalvidar family and their dragon-fighting legacy, seems like the perfect choice—if only Zarela can convince him to help. With only one chance to secure her family’s future, Zarela will do anything and risk everything to succeed.
Headstrong, resourceful and tenacious, Zarela is eager to emerge from the shadow of her mother’s fame. Arturo is a worthy foil who challenges Zarela to rethink her long-held beliefs regarding dragon fighting. He’s also one of only a few people in Zarela’s life who doesn’t underestimate her, and their crackling chemistry will please fans of the enemies-to-lovers trope.
In Together We Burn, author Isabel Ibañez (Woven in Moonlight) grounds her fantasy world in the culture of medieval Spain, including its food, art and language. Her depiction of the divisions between characters who believe that dragon-fighting is cruel versus those who defend it as a cultural tradition mirrors present-day debates in countries that practice bullfighting.
Packed with high stakes, a well-executed mystery and an appealingly swoony romance, Together We Burn has something to entertain a wide range of genre fiction fans.
In this medieval Spain-inspired fantasy tale, Zarela will do anything to save her family's dragon-fighting arena—even if it means entering the ring herself.
Miliani, Inez, Natalie and Jasmine are best friends bound by magic and love. When Jasmine is killed by a drunk driver, everything the four girls once shared is shattered. Mili, Inez and Nat try to support one another in the wake of the tragedy while also dealing with illness, addiction and the threat of deportation within their own families. But Mili, the last of the girls to see Jas alive, isn’t content to merely mourn. Drawing on the magical traditions of her Filipino heritage, she convinces her friends that they can bring Jas (or at least a version of her) back from the dead. Though Inez and Nat hesitate, they are spurred onward by Mili’s insistence that their efforts can succeed.
Soon, the girls are attending seances at Mili’s mysterious Aunt Lindy’s house, performing rituals of their own and testing the boundaries between the realms of the living and the dead. But magic always comes with a price, and as the trio descend deeper into spellwork, they uncover terrifying secrets about one another and their families that endanger the plan to resurrect Jas—and could break apart their lives completely. Can the three friends perform the final ritual before everything crashes down around them?
Riss M. Neilson’s ambitious debut novel, Deep in Providence, is a dense, meticulously plotted story. It sits at a curious crossroads, functioning both as a contemporary YA novel about grief and a fantasy rooted in magical practices from Filipino and Jamaican cultures. Remove the novel’s magic and you’d have an emotional yet often-told tale. But by incorporating elements of fantasy, a genre historically predisposed to whiteness and straightness, Deep in Providence becomes a boundary-pushing addition to the canon of teen witches.
Alternating between Mili’s, Inez’s and Nat’s perspectives enables Neilson to create a multifaceted portrait of their close-knit friend group, in which private hurts and joys are refracted and magnified by the girls’ constant proximity. The book’s magic system serves as a metaphor that provides an added layer to the book’s exploration of loss. As the girls’ desperation grows, so too do their powers—and what the trio is willing to do with them. Neilson doesn’t shy away from emotional intensity: The girls’ grief isn’t pretty or palatable, and the spirits answer in full force.
At almost 500 pages, Deep in Providence suffers a bit from too much table setting. Early chapters focus on the girls’ backgrounds without much rising tension, and not all readers will be hooked by the slow start. But once magic enters the scene, the story deepens and widens, eventually arriving at a satisfying emotional climax and denouement.
Deep in Providence is a beautiful, haunting novel about letting go and finding peace for yourself and for those who are gone.
Three girls set out to raise their friend from the dead in Riss M. Neilson’s ambitious, haunting and boundary-pushing addition to the canon of teen witches.
This is what River McIntyre knows about who they are: They are a competitive swimmer. They were born and raised in Haley, Ohio, a town infamous for its failing marine park, SeaPlanet, and they feel a bitter kinship with the park’s captive-raised creatures. They have two parents and an older brother, and they’re Lebanese on their mom’s side. These are the facts River knows for certain.
River begins to realize that everything else is a lot more complicated after a run-in at SeaPlanet with Indigo Waits, an out and proud teenager from River’s past. Seeing Indy forces River to admit that they’ve been drowning under the tide of gender dysphoria and internalized homophobia for far too long. In the absence of the words to process their feelings, however, River jumps into SeaPlanet’s shark tank and sets off a chain of events that will forever link Indy’s and River’s lives.
In Man o’ War, author Cory McCarthy engages with every aspect of River’s life to create an extraordinary story with incredible depth. River’s experiences as a competitive swimmer enable McCarthy to explore the complex relationships that trans athletes have with their bodies, while River’s Arab American heritage raises discussions about biracial identity and passing in a world that’s prejudiced in favor of white, cisgender people.
McCarthy’s prose is suffused with emotion and often employs SeaPlanet’s sharks, orcas, Portuguese man-of-wars and other creatures as beautiful metaphors for River’s feelings. The jagged edges of dysphoria, the suffocating pressure of familial expectations and the all-encompassing need for love bleed through River’s internal monologue with biting clarity.
The novel’s exploration of queer identity ferociously resists the idea that coming out is a simple or straightforward process. River’s journey of self-discovery takes years, and Man o’ War follows them through high school and college. They try on different labels, experience both acceptance and rejection from their queer peers and navigate the joys and trials of medical transition. Along the way, McCarthy’s story provides space for every uncertain step, portraying River’s attempts to untangle the snarl of confusion and self-loathing inside themself with empathy and patience.
In Man o’ War, McCarthy validates how finding your name, accepting your name and telling others your name can all be separate, unique battles. Despite the pain those battles sometimes bring, River’s transition is driven by an irrepressible hope—a hope that will assure readers their true happiness is always worth the fight.
River's plunge into the shark tank at SeaPlanet sets off a journey of self-discovery and transition driven by an irrepressible hope for true happiness.
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).
Minah Okar is content with the home that she and her father have built in Brooklyn, New York. With her hilarious best friend, Nikki, and loving boyfriend, Mike, by her side, Minah feels that she has left her old life in Obsidian, Michigan, behind for good. But when Minah learns that her estranged mother has died, Minah is forced to reconcile memories she’d much rather forget. She returns to Obsidian for the first time in five years to confront the truth about her family’s deepest secrets.
Break This House, the second novel from National Book Award finalist Candice Iloh (Every Body Looking), explores Minah’s joys and heartaches through her immersive first-person narration. Minah is insightful as well as observant, offering vivid descriptions of everything from the smells on New York City subway cars to the cacophony of songs that play simultaneously from different speakers at a family party. Neither the humor nor the horrors of her family’s past escape the broad scope of her pensive reflections.
Iloh’s visceral depictions of Minah’s inner and outer worlds make Break This House’s themes of loss and grief all the more impactful. As Minah sifts through her muddled memories and her family’s fragmented recollections, she begins to determine what she really thinks about herself, her parents and her faith. Suspended between her past and her future, she must craft an identity that honors her family but gives her the agency to make her own choices.
Break This House is a tender, poetic story about what it’s like to experience loss and learn to continue living anyway. It’s heart-wrenching to follow Minah as she tries to answer impossible questions that everyone eventually faces: What must we leave in the past, and how can we move forward without it?
When Minah learns that her estranged mother has died, she travels back to her hometown to confront her family's secrets in this poetic, heart-wrenching novel.
Stay on top of new releases: Sign up for our enewsletters to receive reading recommendations in your favorite genres.
The Arcanum Training Institute, where students master fantastical abilities as they float high above the clouds, is the setting of bestselling author Dhonielle Clayton’s first middle grade novel, The Marvellers. Take a peek at some of the wonders that await as Clayton reveals her inspirations, Easter eggs and more.