Carey Parker has a showstopping singing voice just like their idol and namesake, the legendary Mariah Carey. But as a genderqueer teenager who’s faced bullying at school from classmates and teachers alike, Carey has learned to avoid the spotlight and the negative attention it draws.
When Carey’s voice catches the ear of Cris, a cute and talented musician, Cris encourages Carey to try out for their school’s upcoming production of the musical Wicked. Carey should be a shoo-in for the lead role of Elphaba, the misunderstood Wicked Witch of the West, but they’re reluctant to audition, as their confidence still hasn’t recovered from their best friend Joey’s cold reaction to their coming out. Landing the role turns out to be only the beginning of the battle, as a bigoted teacher tries to force Carey and the director out of the musical entirely.
Though Carey takes center stage in Can’t Take That Away, debut author Steven Salvatore surrounds them with characters who demonstrate the vital role that support networks play in the lives of queer teens. From the book’s opening scene, in which Carey’s favorite teacher gives them color-coded bracelets to “express their gender identity on any given day,” Carey and their friends constantly help each other grow and fight together for what they believe in. Aspiring fashion designer Monroe crafts Carey the perfect audition outfit for maximum confidence, while Carey’s therapist patiently works with them to uncover the root of their fears. Although the book’s antagonists sometimes behave with almost cartoonish prejudice, it’s still satisfying when Carey and their friends band together to oppose them.
Music is also central in Can’t Take That Away, and Salvatore excels at describing how it grounds and connects Carey to the world. Sometimes music is a source of comfort for Carey, as when they recite Mariah Carey trivia to help them get through panic attacks. Other times, however, it’s a source of bittersweet pain. Carey shares their love of music with their grandmother, whose health has deteriorated and who can no longer sing along with the songs they used to perform together. The book is filled with big emotions that swell and crash with all the drama of the artists Salvatore frequently name-drops. Even readers unfamiliar with the musical references will be able to understand Carey’s emotional connections to them as they belt songs out with passion.
In the climactic confrontation with the school’s administration over its discriminatory behavior, Salvatore’s characters stand up for their rights with clarity and conviction. There’s an admirably practical emphasis on creating tangible, actionable change, rather than settling for empty promises or rhetoric. As empowering as it is entertaining, Salvatore’s debut novel hits all the right notes.