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When I was a kid I loved comics, but I didn’t really buy them or collect them myself – they didn’t really feel like they were for me. And they kinda weren’t – it’s still a male-dominated medium – but during my childhood, it was nearly impossible to find a comic series fronted by women that I could relate to. If there were women they were always too sexy, too femme, too stylish, too one dimensional, too focused on their love interest, too actually-a-man-reincarnated-into-a-woman’s-body (no, for real) for me to find my child self in them.* It’s important to point out that authentic representations of people of color, in particular women of color, were even harder for young readers to find. (After I sent this piece to editing I read about how a variant cover for Marvel’s new Iron Man series, featuring Riri Williams a 15 year old Black Girl as Iron Man, was released. The picture was hyper sexualized, and in no way looked like a 15 year old girl. Which is to say the the comic industry’s over sexualization of women and girls, in particular Black women and girls, is not a thing of the past.)
And it’s been a bit of a bummer as I’ve grown up to see that so many white boys and men have really taken nerdom’s marketing to straight white men to mean that they are the cultural gatekeepers. From video games and comic books to participation in nerd culture women and girls have to fight for their ability to critique and often times even just participate in the fandoms they love (not that white fanboys have taken comic franchises attempting to diversify their flagship characters any better).
So I bet you can imagine how excited I was to learn about Seattle’s GeekGirlCon! A Con that exists to “…create community to foster continued growth of women in geek culture through events”. I kinda feel like GeekGirlCon is what the world needs. I am heartbroken to tell you that I was unable to go this year (it’s not even for a good reason, I had too many errands… adulting is hard, ok?!), but I just had to do something in tribute to GeekGirlCon, and hope this blog post will suffice for this year.
So as this title says I’m going to recommend comics written for young audiences with girl heroes, and as the title further says these books would be great reads for girls, boys, and kids beyond the binary. #BooksHaveNoGender, yes girls need to see female heroes, SO DO BOYS, so do nonbinary kids! Plus these comics are just plain GOOD, all kids should like them, seriously #BooksHaveNoGender.
The Lunch Lady series has a perfect combination of classic comic corniness and absurd concepts to permanently wedge its way into your heart! By day Lunch Lady is, in fact, a lunch lady, serving nutritious meals to Hector, Terrace, Dee (the Brunch Bunch) and their schoolmates; but by night Lunch Lady is a baddass mystery-solving crime-fighting wielder-of-justice! Lunch Lady’s tools? Fish-stick nunchucks! Whisk Whackers! Sloppy Joes on the road, and honey mustard on the windshield! And of course, her sterile yellow rubber gloves! With her sidekick Betty (a fellow lunch lady) and the Brunch Bunch always close on their heels Lunch Lady foils even the most sinister capers, all while using a flawless amount of food puns. You may find yourself gasping “great spaghetti!” for days to come. And if that isn’t enough to sway you, the author Jarrett J. Krosoczka gave a heartwarming TED Talk about how he created the Lunch Lady books to sing the praises of unsung heroes in our school lunchrooms! A working-class superhero your kids will LOVE! I would say this book is well suited for mid-elementary to late-elementary school-aged kids.
The first awesome kid’s comic I found focused on around a great heroine was Zita The Spacegirl. I was visiting a friend in Western Massachusetts, I stopped into their radical bookstore and devoured the book in one sitting! Zita blew my mind! It’s the tale of a girl (Zita) and her how her life gets thrown into an adorably whimsical sci-fi adventure when she and her best friend (Joseph) press a red button they find at the bottom of a crater and are sucked into a world many galaxies away! Once in the new world Joseph is abducted by the Screed – a kid-appropriate alien doomsday cult – and Zita must try and find a way to save him. As Zita goes along on her journey she acquires a crew of misfits (probs a bit of a nod to The Wizard of Oz) who are loyal and endearing, and by working together they hope to get Joseph back! This book has just the right amount of complication, Zita is not perfect and in fact, may need to save Joseph for her own redemption as much as anything else to give the book weight and importance – but don’t worry it doesn’t get too heavy. AND if you, or a young person in your life, loves Zita she has a whole series you can read! I would say this book is geared for kids around late-elementary to early-Middle school.
Next, I want to recommend a graphic novel author, Raina Telgemeier. She does really fun earnest graphic novels with a bright classic-cartoon style about tween girls. She got her start doing The Baby-Sitters Club graphic novels, a book series she brings to life perfectly as she was a fan of them as a child. She grew to great children’s-graphic-novel-writer’s fame when she wrote Smile. Smile is is a fantastic little book, it’s her memoir of her childhood, dealing with a long-term process of fixing a dental accident, earthquakes, boy interest, and other sixth-grade adventures. She followed up Smile with Sisters, which is another memoir about her relationship with – you guessed it – her sister! It’s told over the course of a multi-day road trip, staggered with flashbacks of their younger childhood, it’s about the difficulty, resentment, competition, and ultimately the love and real tangible need sisters have for each other. Finally I’d like to recommend Drama. The main character, Callie, develops crushes on twin brothers who both are also involved in the school play she is set designing for. It’s lovely and has a very diverse group of characters, and while it focuses on her crushes, Callie ending up with a boy at the end isn’t the point (or even what happens). I recommend Telgemeier’s books for later elementary school through middle school.**
I want to sing the praises of Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur. Lunella Lafayette is a nine-year-old genius (so smart in fact that Marvel has announced Lunella is the smartest person in the Marvel Universe – step aside Mr. Fantastic), she’s so smart that she has a really hard time fitting in. She’s too smart for her classes, her classmates DO NOT get her, and her parents pressure her to act more like everyone else so that she can blend in, make friends, be happy. But Lunella is not about that. Lunella has a secret lair underneath her school, more baddass inventions then you can shake a stick at, and a mission! You see Lunella has the inhuman gene, and she is terrified that the gene will transform her (as it is apt to do) into something else, so she is on a mission to save herself from the possibility of an inhuman transformation. So she hunts down a Kree Omni-Wave Generator convinced she can harness its power to prevent any inhuman changes, and when the Kree Omni-Wave Generator brings a bright red T-rex and a crew of evil cavemen who proceed to wreak havoc on New York City her mission gets a little sidestepped. Lunella initially is scared of Devil Dinosaur, but when they team up it is delightful, and they’re just a perfectly matched odd couple. Can I also just throw in there that Lunella’s fashion sense makes me LIVE? Her uniform in life is a tee shirt (often with a science graphic on it), khaki shorts, knee high socks, and her natural hair always up in in a pony or pigtails – it is TOO CUTE! I would recommend this book for late-elementary on through high-school-aged readers.
Lumberjanes is the comic book series I wish I had when I was a kid. It’s about a cabin of girls at Lumberjanes’ Camp for Hardcore Lady Types. It’s so lighthearted and fun, it’s a fantasy adventure that doesn’t take itself seriously, and packs on awesome punch of girl empowerment (they are constantly exclaiming “holy Joan Jett” or “holy Ida B. Wells” or “holy [insert awesome woman from history here]!”) and the importance of friendship (“FRIENDSHIP TO THE MAX” is a Lumberjanes saying). It shows a number of different girls, who express their girl-ness in different ways and shows great diversity in terms of race and ethnicity, sexual identity, and gender identity. Another thing I love about Lumberjanes is that each girl contributes to the team in different but equally important ways. It’s also a series I have no doubt they will just keep on printing, so if you and/or the kids in your life like it y’all can keep on reading it forever. I’d say middle-school on through high-school students (on through adults!) would enjoy Lumberjanes.
I also am a huge fan of the Princeless series. It’s about a princess (Adrienne) whose father puts her in a high tower guarded by a dragon to wait for a prince to save her, but Adrienne comes up with a better plan! She and her dragon go across the countryside freeing her sisters from the monsters that are guarding them! Making a half-dwarf-blacksmith friend, and running into all kinds of silly adventures on the side, the Princeless books are perfect for any kid who read a fairytale and found themselves wanting more. Princeless is a wonderfully diverse comic series, Adrienne and the entire royal family are Black, and in the second volume they meet up with an equally cool pirate princess (Raven) who is Asian. Raven actually gets her own spin off series, Princeless: Raven the Pirate Princess, which is also deeply wonderful. While Princeless is a goofy parody of fairy tales, Raven is a full an attack of anti-feminists and male cultural gatekeepers. As Raven tries to assemble a crew for her ship – to fight and destroy her brother’s who manipulated their father the pirate king into disinheriting her – the men of the pirate-laden port town she’s in throw every anti-woman insult we’ve heard over and over again at her during their interviews, the most memorable being one screaming “not all men!” Raven ends up putting together an all-women crew, which has great diversity in gender expression, race and ethnicity, and sexual orientation, and I cannot wait to see where this adventure goes! I would say that the Princeless series is good for readers in middle school, and Raven is good for high-school-aged readers.
And finally, I would just like to say for the record that Ms. Marvel (Kamala Khan) is EXCELLENT! Ms. Marvel is just a darn good superhero comic. Period. Kamala also is the first Pakistani-American and Muslim-American superhero in the Marvel Universe, and in times like these when Islamophobia doesn’t feel like it could be any worse, Ms. Marvel is the hero we so desperately need. We see her as part of a loving, caring and accepting family that puts no more rules or restrictions on Kamala then one would expect from involved parents of any religion. We see her participating in her mosque, and in one scene she goes to talk with her Imam when her parents are worried about her being out all the time (you know, because of the evil she’s thwarting!), and he doesn’t tell her to change her behavior or that she needs to act a certain way as a young woman, instead he tells her that if what she’s doing is so important to her then she needs to find a mentor to help her be the best at whatever it is she’s doing (then she teams up with Wolverine, it’s great)! And you don’t have to be a superhero fan to get these comics either, Ms. Marvel is also a lovely coming-of-age story about a teen girl trying to navigate high school, complicated friendships, family expectations, and superhero responsibilities. I think middle-school- through high-school students could read and love these comics.
And this isn’t even a comprehensive list. As I am wrapping this article up I am thinking of comics I could have included (I haven’t read Cleopatra in Space yet, but I know it would be a good fit! I ADORE the book Giants Beware, it’s a great fantasy adventure for tweens! Valiant Comics recently started a series about Faith a wonderfully nerdy fat/plus sized super hero! Also, Skim and This One Summer should be required reading for all tween and teen girls!). I remember the first time I rattled off the bulk of this list I came to a big realization. At the end of the year meeting of 2015 for all the Teen Services Librarians in the King County Library System, we were asked to list off any of our favorite books that year. When it was my turn I named many of the titles included in this article, and I realized as I was listing them that all of these comic books were about girls, many of which were girls of color, and how different the world of comics is today. It was then that I realized that if you grew up thinking that comics weren’t for you, you could never find yourself in your favorite superhero stories, but that isn’t the case anymore. You are in comics. And today’s kids can grow up seeing themselves and their friends as the heroes spread across glossy comic pages. And I cannot tell you how much that warms this former-girl’s / current-comic-lover’s heart!
*I feel that my list of things that women in comic books were implies that femme or sexy or stylish, even is a negative. Being femme and sexy is awesome! Any way that someone wants to express themselves is rad. My issue is/was more that the ONLY way women were portrayed in comics was as sexualized and femme.
**I am not recommending Telgemeier’s most recent book Ghosts, in part because I haven’t read it yet. But also because it has received criticism for exploring two Chicana girl’s relationship with the Day of the Dead in a very inauthentic way. I hope to explore this topic further in a future post, it’s a bit off topic for this post, but I wanted to acknowledge this issue and not ignore it.
adapted from South Seattle Emerald
More Happy Than Not is the single most underappreciated book of 2015. Silvera invites us into a perfectly described world, with an astoundingly complex and beautiful cast of characters, and a subject so contemporary and familiar that somehow manages to tell a completely unique story. How it didn’t rack up every YA award and prize imaginable, I cannot tell you.
More Happy Than Not is told from the perspective of Aaron Soto. A teen who was born and raised in the Bronx, on the same block, in the same housing projects his whole life. Silvera himself is from the Bronx and the realness he brings to Aaron’s world is pure perfection. This is the story of a neighborhood, a housing projects community. While so many YA novels tell stories of teens who can just up and leave for a joy ride or a soul searching trip, Aaron Soto lives just a subway ride away from all bright lights of New York City, and the farthest we see him travel is the ten-block walk to his girlfriend’s place.
Aaron’s social world is fairly small, he and his brother barely speak. His mom works two jobs to make ends meet, so he barely gets to see her – awake, anyways. And his relationship with both is pretty strained since his father committed suicide earlier in the year. He has had the same group of friends his whole life: Brendan (his sort-of best friend, who’s been kinda a dick lately), Nolan, Skinny-Dave, and Baby Freddy who are all around when you need someone to play a game with; and Me-Crazy, the kind of kid who you’re better off just avoiding. He also has a girlfriend, Genevieve, a sweet-tempered artist, who would probably fall into the manic-pixie-dream-girl category if this was a more generic story.
And all of that is turned on its head when he meets Thomas. They chance upon each other when Thomas is breaking up with his girlfriend as Aaron hides in the nearby alley (he’s playing “manhunt” with his friends, which is like a high-stakes version of “sardines”), Thomas helps Aaron squeeze through a gate, and they hit it off instantly. Aaron’s relationship with Thomas is totally different from anyone else he spends time with. They talk about their feelings and relationships, their dreams, they even reveal to each other their passions (for Aaron, it’s comic art and for Thomas, it’s film). It was a breath of fresh air for me as a reader that Aaron had such an emotionally honest relationship with Thomas, all the other young men in his life are distant, cold and constantly giving him shit (which, to my basic understanding, is fairly accurate as to how young male friendships work).
Aaron’s relationship with Thomas runs so deep that he begins to question whether he’s straight. When he starts to affirm these questions Aaron decides that he wants to go to the Leteo Institute to get a memory-alteration procedure. Oh, wait, did I forget to mention that there’s a place in this book that can 100% no bullshit erase unwanted memories, and they have a location in Aaron’s hood? Because yeah, that’s totally a thing. Which is to say this book is using science fiction to explore the human experience (why didn’t it win all the awards?! WHY?!).
And now I have to officially stop giving you plot points, because I am literally on the verge of spoiling this entire book for you, dear reader. But I can still talk about all the big picture things this book is about. This book is about relationships, how they’re good, and bad, how sometimes they’re unhealthy patterns, sometimes you don’t read them right, and sometimes they will surprise you by how rich and powerful they can be. This book is about toxic masculinity, and how devastating the costs of that culture can be for a young gay man. This book is about forgiveness, and unlike many YA books it draws the distinction between people who deserve our forgiveness and those who do not. This book uses science fiction as metaphor to condemn conversation therapy, heartbreakingly, and completely. But more than anything this book is about the the immense importance of finding happiness in who you really are, no matter how unideal that person might seem to be to you, and about the impossibility of finding happiness if you cannot accept yourself.
I would recommend this book for mature readers, both in reading level and emotionally. I would like to put a big trigger warning on this book for suicide of a family member, surviving a suicide attempt, description of an act of suicide, and homophobic violence. That said, I think this is a fantastic book for readers who love tender stories of self discovery. Who want to have more intentional friendships in their lives. Who are struggling with who they are, and need assurance that they are enough. Who want to read about a queer person of color growing up in the projects. Who think science fiction is at it’s best when it is a metaphor for real things people go through. Who want to read the best damn book published in 2015!
I think Adam Silvera is a voice we desperately need in YA literature. Obviously because he brought us this authentic story of a queer teen of color in the projects, and we need those stories to be out there, so the real life LGBTQI+ urban kids can find them, and so everyone else will know that they exist. But even beyond that really important achievement, I think Silvera has done something truly astonishing with More Happy Than Not. He is holding up a mirror, just different enough from the real world that we don’t have to see ourselves in it, so that we can see clearly how devastating the problems we create are.
adapted from South Seattle Emerald
The idea is so simple it’s perfect!
This is the story of a crayon in a Red wrapper, because he’s in a red wrapper everyone thinks he’s Red. So nobody can understand why he can’t draw strawberries correctly, and why the portrait he drew of himself isn’t red! All the crayons have an opinion about why he can’t be red well, and the other office supplies try and help, but this red crayon just can’t be red for the life of him. Then one day a violet crayon asked if he would draw the sea for the ship she was drawing, and he does it perfectly! Suddenly it all becomes clear to everyone, this Crayon is BLUE! He takes off his wrapper and lives very happily as a blue crayon for the rest of his days!
It’s very sweet, amazingly well written, and like I said: perfect. This metaphor is a great way to introduce trans identities to young children. And most importantly in a way they will really enjoy!
I cannot recommend it enough!
So, like my first gender fluid kids books blog post, most of these books explore femme trans identities. I’m not totally sure why femme trans narratives dominate the youth lit– lemme know if you have thoughts– but that seems to be where we’re at right now. I think it’s important to remember that we, right now today, are at the very beginning of trans/gender nonconforming representation in kid’s lit. So while there are some glaring holes–and it’s not just MOC kids getting left out, these books are also mostly about White kids– in what gender independent narratives that are getting told right now, one could be optimistic about the diverse gender representations that are going to be in kid’s books as more and more of them get published.
Which brings me to my first couple of reviews. Flamingo Rampant is an independent kid’s book publishing company, that focuses on stories of gender independent folks. (They are about to launch a book club which will be 6 new picture books over 2015; you can find out all about it on the main page of their website). Currently they have published two books, Backwards Day and The Adventures of Tulip, Birthday Wish Fairy.
Backwards Day has a really fun concept! On a far away planet called Tenalp a lot of things are different, one of which is that one day every year everything is the reverse of how things usually are. Day is night, upstream runs down, and binary genders switch! While there are a lot of things to enjoy on backwards day– ice cream for breakfast!– one kid named Andrea LOVES backwards day because it’s the one day of the year she [sic] feels like herself [sic]: a boy. The book looks at one particular Backwards Day where Andrea stays a girl – a particularly devastating day- and the following day when Andrea becomes (and ends up staying) a boy [sic]! While it’s confusing to his parents at first when a nice doctor explains that Andrea is actually boy, and sometimes the magic of backwards day lets folks permanently transform into who they really are, everyone ultimately gets on board, and Andy’s totally thrilled!
The Adventures of Tulip, Birthday Wish Fairy felt a little amateurish to me. It’s another super cute concept, but it’s just not executed as well as the other books on this list. My main issue is that it just has too many words jam packed onto every page; it feels too scrunched to be a picture book. I feel like it would have done better as an illustrated chapter book or a kid’s graphic novel. It tells the story of Tulip who, true to the title, is a fairy who grants birthday wishes. One day he gets a special birthday wish from a boy who wants to be a girl [sic]. After receiving guidance from the head wish granting fairy, Tulip gives this child luck and courage, and also gives the kid’s family open minds to see who their child really is. After the child’s birthday has passed, Tulip continues to work with this family giving them strength, resilience and the ability to advocate for their trans child after the rest of his birthday wish duties are done. Tulip is so dedicated to this child that he is given a new job as the fairy who helps gender nonconforming children with their transition wishes.
Be Who you Are is a realistic story about a young trans girl who goes through the process of transitioning. Everything goes the way you would hope it would. Her family is open to her identity and advocates for her at school, which allows her to be who she is. Her brother has a hard time with the concept, then they have a rather sweet conversation about it and he gets on board too. It’s a cute, light hearted book that one would hope could serve as a blueprint on how to handle kids transitioning in your community.
Like the two previous, this book initially uses the main character’s birth name and the gender pronouns she was coercively assigned at birth and switches to her real name and gender pronouns at the end. This isn’t my favorite; I am a much bigger fan of trans kids books that consistently use the kid’s real pronouns throughout the narration. However I included all three books in this review since, as I’m sure you already know, there isn’t a great variety of gender independent youth lit to choose from. For some kids and families it would make sense to have a more selective collection of picture books that uses the child’s real gender pronoun consistently; but for some kids and families it would make sense to have more books with trans narratives even if some use outdated and/or incorrect language. And I’m just hoping I give folks enough information to make those choices for themselves.
This book is really exciting because Jazz Jennings co-wrote it about her own experience being a trans girl! It starts off introducing Jazz, what she does, what she likes, and who her friends are. Then it goes back and talks about what it was like for her to be coercively assigned male as a young child and what transitioning was like for her. Her family is so sweet and supportive, and it’s delightful to read about the joy she experiences when they get it and she gets to start publicly being who she is. Her wider community does find it confusing. For a while they make her play on boy’s soccer teams, and some kids still tease her and use a boy name for her. But she has friends who love her, support her, and know who she is. It ends with Jazz proclaiming she doesn’t care if she’s different; she knows who she is, happy, fun, and proud. She is Jazz!
I’m including this book, even though it’s not a trans narrative, because I want trans inclusive kids books to go beyond stories of transition, and What Makes a Baby does that. What Makes a Baby is a really great kids book about how babies get made that is inclusive to all families! When it talks about what you need to make a baby, it talks about sperm, eggs, and uteruses; what’s really exciting is it doesn’t assign any of those pieces to any kind of body or gender. What Makes a Baby also goes beyond trans inclusivity when it asks the reader “Who helped bring together the sperm and the egg that made you?” and “Who was happy that it was YOU who grew?” Making it inclusive to babies who who conceived not only by trans parent(s) but any parents using donor sperm or a surrogate womb, or parents who adopted their babies. And while I think it’s pretty awesome that as the cover says this is “a book for every kind of family and every kind of kid,” it is the first kids book about making babies that is inclusive to trans parents and trans kids which is pretty ground breaking.
So Mask Magazine is a “Reader Supported, Ad-free, Style + Culture for the Disappointed Generation” online publication. I know the editors, started subscribing and have really enjoyed it. I suggest you check it out as well. I was asked to write a buying guide of youth lit for it, and promptly and excitedly threw this thing together. Check it out, get some books to some kids or something!
So I’m doing a femme edition of gender fluid kid’s books because books about gender nonconforming kids exploring masculinity or androgyny have not been available through any of the library systems I’ve had cards at. I have every intention of creating a masculine and an androgynous edition of this blog post, if I can find and purchase relevant books, so please let me know about books that fit the bill!
My Princess Boy, by Cheryl Kilodavis
My Princess boy is an absolutely fantastic book! It’s a nonfiction picture book written by a mother of a feminine boy, and just gives you a snap shot of their lives. You see her Princess Boy play with his father and brother, go to parties with his friends, enjoy going to school; but you also see how strangers react to him with laughter, and hurts him and his mother. One of the best things about this books is how it challenges it’s readers to consider how they would treat a princess boy. It’s also exciting that it tells the story of an accepting and loving Black family, I just wish the artist had drawn their faces…
Jacob’s New Dress, by Ian Hoffman
Jacob’s New Dress is a lovely simple story of a boy who loves wearing dresses. He starts wearing them as he and his best friend find them in the costume box during free time in class; but he ultimately decides he want to wear one at school as just his outfit that day. The book feels like it could happen in real life: there’s a mean kid who tells him boys can’t wear dresses, his parents have to think about whether or not he should wear one to school. But his best friend and teacher always have his back, and his parents get behind him too, his mom even makes his dress. It’s a sweet validating little book.
10,000 Dresses, by Marcus Ewert
10,000 dresses is a book about Bailey, a little girl who dreams of beautiful dresses every night; when she wakes up and tries to get her family to help her makes them they tell her that she’s a boy and boys don’t wear dresses. While it is sad that Bailey’s identity and dreams are denied by her family, the reason I love this book is because she goes out and finds someone who won’t. She wanders a way from her house and finds a girl who just happens to be trying to make dresses, and is thrilled Bailey has many dreams worth of dress inspiration. While of course all queer children hope their families will love and accept them for who they are, a lot of us grew to understand if we wanted a family that would love and accept all of us we had to go out into the world and find it. I love that the happy ending of this book is that Bailey finds a friend who thinks she’s the coolest girl ever.
I was just talking to my friend yesterday about how this blog is ALL ORIGINAL CONTENT, and then this list was tweeted to me. It’s pretty comprehensive, and has more titles then I was going to include in my YA trans book list (I have been musing about for months). So, I figured I’d better link to it!
I am still going to make my own list, and still plan on having this blog be mostly original content. But there are some things a solo blogger can’t do as well as a publication with staff and free lancers. So sometimes I will reblog, for the benefit of you, dear reader.
I’m going to include a comment made by Sara D in the body of this post: “It’s probably worth mentioning that I’ve read at least two reviews of Brian Katcher’s Almost Perfect by trans* reviewers (Jack Radish via PrettyQueer and…I can’t find the other review right now, but I know it exists) who say it’s not recommended for trans readers. The narrator is the trans character’s shitty transphobic boyfriend/love-interest, and these particular readers found reading from his perspective to be gross and triggering.”
When reading the description of this book it always hit me as WEIRD and problematic sounding. But a queer teen I know recommended it and it won all those awards, so I thought I’d read it to see what I thought. Another reason NOT to reblog, you can’t vouch for everything on a list you don’t make. Please be aware of issues with that title before reading or using it.
FINALLY dystopian YA fiction that takes place somewhere besides the united states! The entire story of The Summer Prince takes place in Brazil a few generations from now. In a world that has been ravaged by nuclear fall out, and Palmares Três is one of the last cosmopolitan cities.
The main character of The Summer Prince is June Castro a 17 year old student and artist in one of the more privileged sectors (sector 8). At the beginning of the story she and her best friend Gil, are religiously following the the Summer prince competition as they are desperately in love with the candidate from Verde (the poorest sector) Enki. Despite the fact that Enki toes the line of what is acceptable for Summer princes– by bringing the plight of the Verde into the city’s consciousness– he is elected Summer King of Palmares Três!
Palmares Três is run by a brutal matriarchy, the government is made up of Aunties and a Queen, who follow a doctrine created by the first queen who survived the fall out. The doctrine mixes Catholicism and Indigenous South American religion, and the long and the short of it is: every year a new king is elected by the people and every winter he will be sacrificed to save the city (as the first queen sacrificed her husband during the fall out).
First thing that I love about this book (I already mentioned) is that it takes place in Latin America. Something that should be evident because of that, but often times isn’t: all of the characters in this story are of color. ALL OF THEM. this is a beautiful and complex story about people of color. Sorry to repeat myself, it’s just such a rarity I want to be sure I drive the point home. Enki, who is considered the most beautiful character by June (and all of Palmares Três for that matter), is a black man with dreadlocks. June herself is not particularly beautiful, and also has some of the lightest skin tones the Aunties allow. Which is a pretty dramatic reversal of the racialized construction of beauty, and one I enjoyed quite a lot.
At the celebration of Enki’s kingship June and Gil are dancing together, Gil is such a good dancer that as soon as Enki enters the room Gil is all that he sees, Gil goes to Enki and falls to his knees, and then Enki and Gil kiss. I didn’t have my queer reading glasses on so it took me a second to realize that Enki and Gil were being gay together. And once I realized that was happening other things came into queer focus (I’m just so used to heteronormativity that I was painting everyone as straight), June’s mother is married to an Auntie! Also none of these characters are “gay” or “lesbian,” Gil has been involved with women, June’s mother was in love with June’s father, Enki and June fall in love and have sex later on in the book: sexual orientation is fluid and nameless. And as a queer reader is was really cool to see.
Also June and Enki become romantically involved not after Gil and Enki’s relationship but during, not like Enki is cheating on Gil, like Enki is getting into multiple consensual relationships. Uh huh, that’s right, this book also features polyamorous relationships! Before Enki and June start being intimate they are artistic collaborators and as they become closer Gil tells June that if they become romantic it would be ok with him. When June, still nervous that Gil might be upset, tells him that the she and Enki have kissed it’s not that Gil doesn’t mind, he’s excited! He’s worried about Enik and believes that June can help keep an eye out for him when Gil cannot. And in a similar situation June is comforted that Gil can be with Enik when she cannot. They have joyous overlapping relationships void of jealousy, if only it was that easy in real life…
Another aspect of this book I enjoyed was it’s exploration of defiance and rebellion. June is an artist, she explores many mediums throughout the book, but one of her first artistic expressions (and the one that’s discussed the most) is graffiti. June goes through great lengths to sneak to do graffiti without getting caught. Enki is constantly toeing or straight up pushing the line of is acceptable King behavior to expose inequalities and corruption in Palmares Três. And June struggles with how much she is willing to give up to do that same. I thought it was really honest and interesting to have a character wrestle with the risks of fighting against the government. June is a person of privilege who has the opportunity to rise to a position of influence, and instead of instantly and easily joining the good fight, she wants desperately to succeed within the institutions that exist. I think a lot of young people will relate to June’s journey to resistance, because she’s so attached to the status quo, it’s a lovely story arch for young people to travel.
Also, I couldn’t find a way to seamlessly incorporate this, but June masterbates and it’s not odd or shameful: she just has a good time, topless in the sun, it’s great. All in all I thought this book well written, compelling, exciting, and covered a lot of worth wild ground. I highly recommend it!