By Juliann Rich
Choosing a title is one of the hardest parts of writing a book for me. Seriously, I’d rather write thirty additional chapters than one word or a few words for a title. TOTAL AGONY.
A good title needs to communicate the core of the book, catch readers’ attention, and leave them wanting to dive in to see if the book fulfills its promise. Easy-peasy, right?
Wrong. It’s bloody hard to do well.
In fact, I thought I’d never figure out the title for the sequel to Caught in the Crossfire (originally titled in my mind as The Conviction of Jonathan Cooper – I know, I know…gag!). I waited for that magical moment when the perfect title would leap off the page and take a victory lap around my living room all through the year or so that it took me to write my second book, but that moment never arrived. So I decided to “pick” a title.
First, I tried on Fall Out. Nope. Too familiar. Too Schwarzenegger-y.
Then, Inside the Trenches. Better, but it still a titch too military.
After that I tried on Trial by Fire. I liked that…except the title seemed more fitting for book three (which was ultimately titled Taking the Stand and is coming out in April of 2015).
I tried on a few other titles and subsequently perma-erased them from my memory because they were so bad. I began to despair that electric shock of recognition, but the deadline to title the book was approaching and I needed to figure out what was tripping me up. I knew I wanted a phrase to keep with the sound of Caught in the Crossfire, but I was open to stepping away a bit from the military tone. So I spent some time analyzing my favorite young adult titles that are also phrases: The Impossible Knife of Memory, The Fault in Our Stars, Thirteen Reasons Why. The more I thought about these titles, the more I realized they succeed because they give readers glimpses not only into the books’ plots, but into the characters’ journeys.
My first attempts at titling the sequel had failed because they put the emphasis on the forces against which my main character, Jonathan Cooper, was fighting and not what he was fighting for. I realized I needed a title that would illuminate his heart’s desire, which had evolved since the first book.
In Caught in the Crossfire, Jonathan’s desire is to integrate what he believes are two conflicting parts of himself: being a Christian and being gay. He is able to explore the intersection of these identities with the help of two factors. The first is meeting Ian McGuire. With Ian’s support and strength Jonathan is able to face parts of himself that have previously been off-limits. Secondly, Jonathan is living in a bubble at camp. A Christian bubble, to be sure, but it is still time away from his family and friends which gives him the freedom to step out of the roles he plays in his day-to-day life. While there are external forces that come against him at camp, none are equal to the opposition he faces within himself.
But in the second book, all that has changed. The bubble of camp has burst. Jonathan has gone home and is now facing the challenge of integrating what he has learned about himself with his real life. The battle has moved from within Jonathan to the realities of his life: the home he shares with a silent mother and his private Christian high school where he has been outed and is facing social exile by his closest friends. I mis-stepped initially by focusing on the external battle in the sequel to Caught in the Crossfire where Jonathan is literally facing the fall out inside the trenches as he goes through a trial by fire. (Sorry. I couldn’t resist.) What I needed was a title that would strike at his heart’s deepest desire, which was finding a safe place in his real life where he could be himself.
But how to put all that in a title?
Luckily, I stumbled over a word rhyme one day when I was writing a blog post about the importance of creating space. Space to be real. Space to be different. Space to disagree.
Space…grace. Finally I experienced that moment of recognition, which was quickly followed by a moment of distinction. We occupy space, but we are given grace. And just like that the two threads of Jonathan’s journey merged in the magic of that word rhyme.
Over the length of two books now sixteen-year-old Jonathan Cooper, a gay Christian boy, has been seeking not only his identity but God’s love and acceptance of who he truly is. One day (quite near the title deadline) I envisioned Jonathan in the midst of his deepest desire and saw him on the battlefield of his life, pausing and praying for a safe space to be provided for him by God.
He was, I realized, Searching for Grace.
First it’s a rumor. Then it’s a fact. And then it’s on.
Camp is over and Jonathan Cooper returns home. To life with his mother whose silence is worse than anything she could say…to his varsity soccer teammates at East Bay Christian Academy…to the growing rumors about what he did with a boy last summer at bible camp.
All the important lines blur. Between truth and lies. Between friends and enemies. Between reality and illusion.
Just when Jonathan feels the most alone, help arrives from the unlikeliest of sources: Frances “Sketch” Mallory, the weird girl from his art class, and her equally eccentric friend, Mason. For a short while, thanks to Sketch and Mason, life is almost survivable. Then Ian McGuire comes to town on the night of the homecoming dance and tensions explode. Fists fly, blood flows, and Jonathan—powerless to stop it—does the only thing he believes might save them all: he prays for God’s grace.
Minnesota writer Juliann Rich spent her childhood in search of the perfect climbing tree. The taller the better! A branch thirty feet off the ground and surrounded by leaves, caterpillars, birds, and squirrels was a good perch for a young girl to find herself. Seeking truth in nature and finding a unique point of view remain crucial elements in her life as well as her writing.
Juliann is a PFLAG mom who can be found walking Pride parades with her son. She is also the daughter of evangelical Christian parents. As such she has been caught in the crossfire of the most heated topic to challenge our society and our churches today. She is drawn to stories that shed light on the conflicts that arise when sexual orientation, spirituality, family dynamics and peer relationships collide. You can read more about her journey as an author and as an affirming mom on her website, juliannrich.com.
Juliann is the author of three young adult novels: Caught in the Crossfire, Searching for Grace, and Taking the Stand. She is the 2014 recipient of the Emerging Writer Award from The Saints and Sinners Literary Festival and lives with her husband and their two dogs, Mr. Sherlock Holmes and Ms. Bella Moriarty, in the beautiful Minnesota River Valley.
Previous books by Juliann Rich:
Caught in the Crossfire, June 2014 (Bold Strokes Books)
In August of this year, we had the honor of interviewing Francesca Lia Block, author of numerous Gay YA novels including Weetzie Bat, first published in 1989, and our August Book of the Month, Love in the Time of Global Warming, and its companion, The Island of Excess Love.
The audio has already been released, and can be found HERE.
The interview below is between Francesca Lia Block and Victoria & Kathleen, admins of GayYA.org.
V: Hi everyone, I’m Victoria.
K: And I’m Kathleen. We’re going to be talking to Francesca Lia Block today about her book Love in the Time of Global Warming. Hey, Francesca. Thank you for joining us.
F: Thank you.
V: Before we start, we’d like to talk a little bit about this book, and why we chose it for our August Book of the Month. Love in the Time of Global Warming is a post-apocalyptic story that follows the arc of The Odyssey. It’s led by a female protagonist named Pen, who is one of my favourite characters.
K: We chose this book for our August Book of the Month because having speculative fiction that has queer characters in it is extremely rare, and when they are there, they usually end up dying, and/or are very minor characters. Love in the Time of Global Warming is the complete reversal of this, in which, throughout the book, you come to realize that almost all of the survivors of the apocalyptic event they call ‘The Earthshaker’ are queer.
V: We thought that this was a really great contribution to Gay YA, and decided to choose it for our August Book of the Month.
So, Francesca, as you probably gathered from our Twitter, we’re both really huge fans of your work–
F: Thank you.
V: So if we break out into, like, dinosaur noises or anything, we’re very sorry.
F: [laughs] I appreciate those noises, believe me. I live for them.
K: Okay, cool.
K: Our first few questions are about your book Love in the Time of Global Warming. The first thing we’d like to ask is, how did this story come to you?
F: So, I was trying to think of a kind of epic fantasy idea, and the first epic that came to mind is the Odyssey, which my dad used to tell me as a bedtime story, which I joke is maybe why my brain turned out the way it did, a little odd, but…[laughs] it was a little scary, and very fascinating, too, and it taught me a lot about story.
And anyway, I decided that I wanted to write a female protagonist, but using the…sort of general storyline, a few ideas from the Odyssey, and set it in Los Angeles, and add in things that had happened in my own life. So, mixing those things together, the alchemy of that is what created this book.
V: So, I just finished one of the ARCs that was sent of The Island of Excess Love.
V: And I really enjoyed it. And I’m really curious: is there going to be a third book?
F: Well, there was definitely, I was planning on it when I ended that one, because I have an idea for a third book based on the Iliad.
I was actually gonna base the second book on the Iliad but the Iliad is so much about wars, and the Aeneid has some other interesting–the Aeneid which the sequel that you just read, Island of Excess Love, is based on–has other things going on in it that I found very inspiring, so I picked that second, planning on doing the Iliad third, cause I want it to kinda work up to the big war at the end of the trilogy. And I left some threads hanging, on purpose. And, now it’s just about, you know, waiting to see what my publisher says about doing a third one. But I do have an idea, it’s outlined.
K: Alright. We want to know, what is the timespan of Love in the Time of Global Warming?
F: So, you mean, the time that the book takes place during? In terms of–well, I hope this answers the question. It starts around Christmas and it ends in spring. So, it’s a pretty short timespan. Is that what you mean?
V: Cool. So, one of the things that we already kinda discussed in the introduction is that most of the characters who survive this apocalyptic event are queer.
V: And that was so great as a reader, like, going through it, because at first, I thought it was just the main character, and I was like, well, this is great, but, you know, it’s just so great having the company of other queer characters in the book.
F: I’m so glad.
V: Yeah. So, I was just wondering, did you, like, discover one by one that the characters were queer? Or, did you know that from the beginning? Or, how did that happen?
F: You know, I was trying to think back on it. It sort of was organic. Ez and Ash, the two–the couple, guy best-friends, they’re a couple–they, I knew from the beginning that they would be. And then, Hex’s sexuality kind of emerged as I wrote. And then, Pen’s emerged around that.
So, I didn’t consciously go out to–to necessarily make them all, but they became who they are. They just sort of were born that way, and Hex and Ez are based on real people, so that is part of it, too, who are queer, and, y’know, and I think that…it…but it just sort of unfolded naturally, and I’m so happy to hear what you’re saying because…the book was sent out to some high school students to review, and one said, you know, she really liked it, but it bothered her that all four characters were queer. I mean, cause it was too much–
F: Yeah. She’s a very conventional teenager, obviously. But I was like, well, wait! That’s not fair! I mean, in most books, all characters are straight! And maybe there’s one–you know? [laughs] So, what’s that about? You know? And I was really glad that my publisher was totally supportive of it, and it wasn’t even a question. It wasn’t even a discussion. So, I’m very happy about that.
V: That’s so awesome. I actually–okay, I wanna add in one thing. That I did not talk about before, but…your book actually sort of inspired me to start writing again.
F: Oh, I’m so glad.
V: Yeah, cause the book I’m working on right now, all the characters are queer.
V: And I was like, well, no one’s gonna wanna read this, or publish this, or anything.
F: No, I’m so happy to hear this, like, please write it. That, there…there needs to be that. And I think that publishers are much more open-minded about it now than when I started. When I started, I was lucky to have a publisher that understood, but it was rare. And now I think there’ll be a lot more acceptance for it. Plus, you know, the audience is there, certainly.
F: And–I’m sorry, I just wanna add one thing–
V: Yeah! Go for it.
F: Most important piece for you as a writer and for anyone listening who is a writer is to write that story no matter if you think anyone’s ever gonna read it or not, because you have to write it. It’s so important. If I could leave one message to you guys all, like, that is what I would give for you, write it for you.
And it’s certainly important to connect to other people, we don’t just write for our own expression, we write because we also wanna be connected to other people, and feel that we’re less alone in the world, I believe. On a very deep, primal level, I think that’s why we do it.
And I think that even if you don’t get published in the large-scale way that you might want, and maybe you will–you not meaning you specifically, anyone–there’s still ways to reach readers and to connect to people through it. So, you’ve gotta write it. And the way you wanna write.
V: [dinosaur noises]
V: Dinosaur noises. Okay.
K: That is a fabulous message, thank you.
V: Okay, so, the rest of our questions are more about your work in general, and your history with writing. So, in all the time that you’ve been writing, what have you learned about it?
F: Hmmm. That’s a good question, and I think one thing is what I just told you, to write what you have to write.
I have students that come up to me often–not often–I have some students that come up to me, and they have a certain look in their eye, and they say, ‘I have this story, and I really wanna write it, and I really need to write it. But I don’t know if I can do it, I don’t know if I’m a good writer, I don’t know if anyone will like it, I don’t know if anyone will read it.’ And when they give me that look, [laughs] I know that they have something there, and they have to do it, and that I can help them shape it and give them the tools.
But…if you have that burning desire, for wont of a better term, to tell a certain story, you’re way ahead of the game. Even if you don’t have the tools yet to make it the polished story you want. So, starting with that passion, and if you’re not sure yet what that is, but you have an inkling toward that, really explore the things in your life, do some freewriting to really find what it is that you’re passionate about. It’s probably not too far below the surface.
I’m working with one woman now who’s had a story in her–she’s in her thirties, late thirties, and she’s had a voice in her head her whole life that was a story she’s wanted to write. And she couldn’t do it. And I just had her doing twenty minutes a day, every day, and emailing them to me, and all of a sudden in a week, this voice is getting down on paper because she’s allowing it, she’s giving it the time and attention and the nurturing it needs, and it’s emerging. And then later she can go and she can redo it and all that.
So, I think, write from that place, write from your heart and soul, and don’t be afraid–like, later in your career–so that’s how I would say as far as starting your writing. And also reading a lot, and finding a community to support you. Those are important. And then as you get farther into your career, I think, not to be afraid to grow and change. Because, for me, you know, I’ve been through so many, [laughs] this’ll be my third decade in this, you know, and I, I feel like I don’t wanna keep doing what I did before, I wanna grow, and change, and expand, and take risks. So I think that’s really important.
And the one-on-one relationships that I’ve developed with my readers are the most important thing that I’ve gained from this, and I think we have this idea that we’ll write this book and maybe we’ll get famous, and we’ll, you know, be known, and it’s not about being known on the big scale, or how many followers you have, or how many readers you have, or how much money. It’s the one-on-one relationships, and those will translate into success ultimately, but it’s more about the strong connection you make with someone else.
I have met so many amazing people through, through writing. So, you know, staying open to that, reaching out, making connections, working hard, it’s hard work, it’s exhausting. Don’t give up, never give up with it, you know, if you feel–we all feel at times like we wanna give up, that’s when you have to restore yourself, that’s when you have to find support, you have to find your people to hold you up, you have to find things that inspire and enrich you. Yeah. And those are some things [laughs] I’ve learned.
V & K: Thank you.
K: Our next question: Weetzie Bat was published in a time when Gay YA was not really a thing. What obstacles did you encounter with that, and did you get any backlash? How has that changed over the years?
F: So, I kind of snuck in the back door, it was like…YA at the time was such a small–really, smaller–field. There weren’t these giant contracts for a lot of money, and movies being made. So, you kinda got to do what you wanted, and I had a publisher that encouraged it, and I just kinda did my thing, in a small-scale way, and I was appreciated by the librarians, and by the sort of cult readership, but…there were some bannings in some places, but I didn’t really heard much about it, cause I was sort of sheltered from that, and I’m living in L.A., and doing my thing, and I just didn’t really feel it. Although I knew it was out there, and it has been on banned book lists.
But what’s really surprising, and sort of terrifying, is that that was in 1989. So in 2007–I don’t know if you know about this, I just posted today about it, cause I was remembering it–there was a big…fuss about Baby Be-Bop, which is the fifth book in the Weetzie Bat series, Dangerous Angels, it’s a tiny little very innocent coming-out story about Dirk, Weetzie’s best friend, who’s gay. And not only was it petitioned to be banned in a small town in Wisconsin, but they actually wanted to burn it.
F: So. Public burning. Yeah.
F: I mean, that’s how bad. And there were people ranting on YouTube about it, like, these very scary rants. And it was pretty…kind of…just…horrifying to me, really. Because, 2007? You know? So, it’s still there, but mostly, I’m pretty sheltered from it, and I ignore it and I keep writing. But it’s good to be aware that it’s out there, and what we’re up against.
K: Cool. Thank you.
F: Oh, and I will say one thing, too: The librarians are the reason that it survived, cause they fought for me. And they are my saviours, they are…I’ve found so much power from that community, it’s really great.
V: That’s awesome.
V: Okay, so, sort of on the subject of Weetzie Bat, this is a question we got from @queeryoga on Twitter.
V: Have you ever rethought having Weetzie wearing headdresses, as it is very culturally appropriative?
F: Yes. So, that question comes up, and it’s pretty…it’s painful to me when I hear it, because I certainly meant no disrespect, if anything the opposite, when I wrote that. I did write it in–it was published in ‘89, actually was writing it in 1986, and I had never–if I had heard questions about that from…anyone, really, I wouldn’t have put it in. I put it in, I guess, quite naively. Yeah, if I were to republish it and I had the choice to change that, would I maybe tweak it? Yeah, probably, if I had that ability.
If there’s a movie, which we’re working on, I’m certainly gonna make sure that that’s not anywhere in the movie. I’ve done Pinterests with some visuals, and I had one somebody posted with, you know, a feathered headdress, and someone else wrote me a very kind note, explaining why that was insulting to her, and to the community, and I removed it. So I’m certainly…the last thing I wanna do is offend or hurt or wound anybody in that way, that’s horrible to me. So, yeah, I…if anything, it came out of some naivete at the time.
K: Alright. The next question is, is there anything you have wanted to say to to your readers?
F: [laughs] I have a lot. I say it to you guys all the time on the Internet, but…I really…well, that thing I just said is, I think it’s important for anyone, [that question] about the cultural appropriation.
But on a bigger scale–I’m glad you gave me the opportunity–on a bigger scale, you know, this is gonna sound so corny, but I love–I love my readers. I love them. Everyone I meet, through my work, shares similar worldviews, and emotional…sort of, understandings of the world, and I just feel really lucky to have met these people, and I feel a lot of love for them, and they’ve…they’ve supported me in ways that I can’t even begin to thank them for. I mean, I have had such support on so many levels. So. That’s what I wanna say.
V: [laughs] Cool. So, what’s next for you?
F: I have, let’s see…so, a lot of things going on at once. I’m teaching, I’m waiting for two books to come out; one is The Island of Excess Love, which comes out this month, it’s actually out, I think. An adult book called Beyond the Pale Motel, which comes out next month, which I’m actually working on a screenplay of that as well. I’m working on another adult book called Pain: A Love Story, which is kind of working out some issues with it, but it’s the main thing I’m focusing on. And I’m also still working on a Weetzie Bat movie. And trying to take care of my kids and take care of myself in the spare time. [laughs]
V: A Weetzie Bat movie. That sounds amazing.
F: Yeah! Can I make a little plug for that?
F: So there’s a movie called Little Birds by a director named Elgin James, and I highly recommend it to anybody who’s interested in the Weetzie Bat movie and that’s all I’ll say right now.
V: [laughs] Cool.
K: Alright, our last question is, what would you like to see happen in Gay YA? Where should it go next?
F: Oh, I just think more! You know? Just more, more stories, no one hesitating to write their story because they’re concerned that there are too many gay characters, just a fearlessness and a acceptance, and a openness to it. You guys probably know much more than I do. What do you think is sort of missing in that field, in terms of what needs to be written about more? Or, what should writers be focusing on, do you think?
V: Do you wanna go first?
K: Sure, I’ll go.
K: I would personally say…well, quite a lot. I think just generally more. I read a study recently that said, I think about 1.4% of all books published in 2013 featured queer characters of any kind.
F: Oh my God!
F: That’s so–really?! Ugh!
F: That’s so shocking to me.
K: I know. And…yeah, that’s just last year.
K: And also, I guess, authors not being afraid to write diversely queer characters, if that makes sense?
F: Right. Yes.
K: I see a lot of gay characters and lesbian characters, which is cool, I identify as lesbian, but I would definitely like to see more…just other orientations, you know, bisexual people, transgender people, intersex, you know, everybody, everybody needs to get their share. So, that’s what I would say.
F: That’s great.
V & F: And–
V: Well, do you wanna–?
F: No, go ahead.
V: Mine’s sort of the same. I…first of all, I’m gonna agree with you on just saying ‘more’, because I think whatever books have queer characters, they have something to offer. And I think there’s going to be problems with all of them, and things that would be like, ‘Well, I just wanted to see this in that.’ So I just think the more we can get, the better it is.
V: But I also, I want to see more, like…diverse orientations. And well-done ones, too, like there’s so many books with like, bisexual characters, and they’re, you know, they’re seen as like, these manipulative, or, you know, just kind of…not great characters. And you’re like, why, why is that a thing?
F: That’s interesting. That’s a very fascinating topic, actually. Yeah. Like, what does that say about–I, um…I want to ask you guys one more thing, sorry to turn it on you guys but–
K: That’s cool.
F: I wonder if writers who are not queer are afraid to write queer characters because we don’t wanna get it wrong or offend anybody. And I just think that’s an interesting topic to open up, because, for instance, with Weetzie Bat, which–every character in Weetzie Bat is really a caricature. Weetzie Bat isn’t a fully three-dimensional…I always used to draw pictures of her, she’s like, one, you know, she’s…two-dimensional. She’s a little cartoon, almost, and sort of all of them are. And, other books of mine, it’s not that way at all.
But in that book, people said, you know, ‘Oh, you have this Native American character,’ and, you know, is that cultural appropriation, how you write that character? So then I think, ‘Maybe I better not write them.’ Now, it’s not true with the gay characters in that book, I’ve never heard any questions about that. But it’s never affected me. But I do wonder, like, what would you say to a straight writer who wants to write that but maybe feels a little afraid, even though it’s…like with me, it’s very much a part of my life. It’s not like I’m writing about someone I don’t have any connection to, these are people in my life. But, so…do you know what I’m saying?
V: Yeah, I would say, just…I would say, write it. Definitely write it, but…do your research, too. And not just research on like, GLAAD, or, you know, those kind of places. Although those are good places, I think you need to extend it to listening to what queer people are saying. I know especially, there’s a lot of that on Tumblr.
V: And there’s other places, too, but I think Tumblr is actually a great place to find that. And so, I don’t know if that’s like a ridiculous thing to ask of people?
F: No. I think that’s great.
F: Very concrete, cause it’s not just–when you say ‘research’, that can–as you say, that can be very cold and not–you know, but Tumblr, you’re getting the real opinions of people directly. And just encouraging people to talk to each other and understand each other, and…empathy. Which is really, I think, why we write. Cause we want other people to understand us, and we wanna understand other people. Ultimately.
K: Definitely. I would also add to that, as research: ask your friends. If you have queer friends, don’t be afraid to ask, and social media is great for that nowadays, too. Even, probably, if you messaged somebody, they’d be cool with it, as long as you’re respectful about it, cause…not everybody asks that kind of thing.
F: Right, that’s great, yeah. Thank you.
V: Well, I think that’s all the questions we have. Thank you for taking time to talk with us. We really appreciate it.
F: No, it’s my pleasure, you’re so delightful, in the true sense. [laughs]
F: It really made my day, thank you.
V: Thank you.
Francesca Lia Block is the author of more than twenty-five books of fiction, non-fiction, short stories and poetry. She received the Spectrum award, the Phoenix award, the ALA Rainbow Award and the 2005 Margaret A. Edwards Lifetime Achievement Award, as well as other citations from the American Library Association to the New York Times Book Review, School Library Journal and Publisher’s Weekly. You can find her on Twitter, Tumblr, and her website, FrancescaLiaBlock.com.
Love in the Time of Global Warming was GayYA.org’s August 2014 Book of the Month. You can find our guest review here.
A heart-stopping story of love, death, technology, and art set amid the tropics of a futuristic Brazil.
The lush city of Palmares Tres shimmers with tech and tradition, with screaming gossip casters and practiced politicians. In the midst of this vibrant metropolis, June Costa creates art that’s sure to make her legendary. But her dreams of fame become something more when she meets Enki, the bold new Summer King. The whole city falls in love with him (including June’s best friend, Gil). But June sees more to Enki than amber eyes and a lethal samba. She sees a fellow artist.
Together, June and Enki will stage explosive, dramatic projects that Palmares Tres will never forget. They will add fuel to a growing rebellion against the government’s strict limits on new tech. And June will fall deeply, unfortunately in love with Enki. Because like all Summer Kings before him, Enki is destined to die.
Pulsing with the beat of futuristic Brazil, burning with the passions of its characters, and overflowing with ideas, this fiery novel will leave you eager for more from Alaya Dawn Johnson.
The Summer Prince is an important new book in YA. Alaya Dawn Johnson presents a fascinating future society, unlike any other I’ve read. Rather than raising questions about the possibility of an all-powerful political regime, it looks into the social and cultural aspects of the potential future. It was an Earth-shaking novel for me, and I believe it will be for many others.
The story starts with the election for the Summer King, an event that takes place every five years. The Summer King is a politician who is more a figurehead and sex god than someone with any power. He serves one vital purpose, however: At the end of his year-long term, whoever is elected will be sacrificed in a ritual in which he chooses the next queen. During his short reign, he is showered with love and adoration, and given access to anything he could want. Enki, the contestant who is elected, is from the poorest class. He gives the Queen and “Aunties” (who are the other women in power) a little more than they bargained for: far from being just a sex god, he is an artist pushing against all the boundaries of what the Summer King should be, driven by the injustices the lower classes face.
A little ways in, you find out June has been chosen as one of the contestants in the competition for the Queen’s Choice Award, the most prestigious award available to people her age, granting whoever wins it renown in the city, and a free-ride to the most acclaimed art school. June, driven by her passion for her art, and her belief in the messages she includes in it, sees that Enki is of a similar make. She cleverly sets up a meeting with the man the whole city is salivating over, and they start a collaboration on a project that is sure to secure her the award.
The city of Palmares Tres is built as a giant pyramid, with the highest classes living at the top. The people in the poorest class live at the very bottom of the structure, where there is a perpetual stink coming from the algae vats that power the city, and they have very little access to the things the rest of the city has been granted. They have been forced to master illegal technology: The city, being automated, has biases against lower-class citizens literally installed into it. As June and Enki grow closer, June starts to see this ugly side of the city she so loves, which had previously been hidden from her by her privilege. The lower-class people, fed up with this treatment and emboldened by seeing one of their own in a position of power, begin pushing for more access. Others join the struggle for fewer regulations on the “mods” allowed into the city. The Queen and Aunties, are steadfast against moving their regulations. Eventually, this friction reaches a tipping point and protests break out, which become accidentally violent. Enki and June’s art projects have unintentionally elevated them as the icons of this revolution, which puts them both in a dangerous and incredibly powerful position.
June was an amazing protagonist. Pretentious, in possession of complete sexual freedom, passionate, and artistic, she was an unusual female protagonist, and I loved watching her deal with different things in her life. The other characters were well-formed too. ENKI. I loved Enki with all of my heart (I swear to god, whoever wrote the blurb isn’t joking about the fact that everyone falls in love with him). Gil, June’s best friend, was fabulous. Even the minor ones caught my attention, and I wish we could’ve seen more of them. I especially wanted June to develop a closer friendship with another female, but, alas. She did have a wonderfully complex relationship with her mother, which I enjoyed seeing.
Johnson defines her book as more of a work of science fiction than a dystopia, and I think that fits. Most dystopia is formed by an all-controlling political regime, and while The Summer Prince has a corrupted political system, it does not go to the extremity that dystopias do. Johnson instead delves completely into all aspects of the future, the new but very familiar conflicts of young vs. old (and how this changes in a world where lifespans are up to 200 or more years), those for and against technology, and the things that arise from living in a matriarchal society. I loved Johnson’s vision of art in the future, how it may evolve as more advanced technology comes along. I find the exploration of that so important, because as teens grow up, we face more and more scorn for the technology we use. It seems adults see only our faces turned down at our screens— but they have no context to grasp the enormity of what we may be doing, the things we can create that they couldn’t dream of (and sometimes still can’t!). To be sure, there are things to be lost as technology comes in, but art is not one of them. As much as this book delved into other things, however, it did have enough dystopian aspects to it that it sort of felt like the dystopia I’d been waiting to read— It wasn’t in the US, contact with other countries was a thing, all of the characters were people of color, and the world had evolved to a place where there was no longer an assumed sexual orientation. There is sort of a love triangle, but polyamory is so accepted that it’s almost not even a thing.
Although I loved the world Johnson created, I do have a few critiques of it. While I liked that it was set in a matriarchy, I disliked the fact that this meant there was still a large emphasis on the gender binary. I also would have loved to see, like, an asexual character or a transgender one. Although Enki makes a good point about how the matriarchy oppresses men, I have to think it would affect non-binary and trans people just as negatively. And although the sexual freedom of this world was fabulous to see in a YA, I think it would’ve been cool to see how asexual people dealt with it. I have also seen critiques of the representation of Brazilian culture, which I recommend to anyone planning to read this.
As I made my way through The Summer Prince, I found myself alternatively whizzing and crawling through the pages. It was all good, but at times there was too much of the good. Though only 289 pages, I felt at times that I was making my way through a book twice its size. It read a bit like an epic classic. The language was rich, the world well-structured, and it was teeming with the truths of humanity. I heard a quote recently that was something like: “the purpose of art is to take something unfathomable and present it simply.” That’s exactly what Johnson does every single page of The Summer Prince.
The story wasn’t exactly plot-driven, so the last quarter came as a surprise– it was not where I saw the book going at all, and instead of it being a nice break from predictability, I felt like I’d just suffered a case of whiplash. But the ending made up for it all, and I am so glad I stuck with it.
I think it’s a book older teens and adults will enjoy, and I hope that everyone will be exposed to it: It’s truly groundbreaking. I can’t speak for adult fiction, but I’ve never seen anything like it in YA. I seriously cannot cram everything I love about into this tiny little review. I could write a 20 page analysis and still not cover everything that is incredible and mind-boggling about it. Just— go out and read it, and love it, and then make all your friends read it, and then come back and freak out with me with me over how good it was.
Or, yanno, you could enter our Giveaway of THE SUMMER PRINCE (open to US residents only).
We’ll be interviewing Alaya Dawn Johnson on Friday– if you have something you’d like us to ask her, tweet it to us at @thegayya!
Review written by Vee Signorelli, co-admin of GayYA.org.
Editor’s Note: There are NSFW text and images in this post.
How did you learn about sex?
From health class? Your parents? Your first time? Porn?
It’s hard to learn about sex at all, even harder if you’re on the LGBTQ spectrum.
For that reason, many of us have to seek out info on our own, leading us to the internet or that more experienced friend. Sometimes that works out well. Other times, not so much.
As a reader, I looked for books, finding a dark corner of the library where I could surreptitiously flip through pages. I didn’t find much worth the effort. It’s hard to learn about sex from a book. The concepts may be well explained, but sex is such a kinesthetic, emotional, and visual experience, there’s only so much words alone can get across.
And while our (often pathetic) classroom sex-ed covers plumbing, it rarely considers pleasure, identity, and emotional connection. In other words, understanding only plumbing decontextualizes sex. It’s like learning about pipes without understanding cooking, bathing, cleaning, drinking, and the many other reasons why humans need and enjoy water.
Likewise, if we learn only about anatomy and procreation, we aren’t equipped to understand why we may want or not want sex. Nor are we prepared to become sexual investigators, exploring what makes us feel good, how we like to be touched, and what makes us feel safe– all of which are required for good sex. And without safe ways to learn about these things without actually having to try them out, a lot of us go into our first sexual experience confused or scared.
When I felt connected to characters, I understood their emotional journeys, taking sex out of the realm of “this is how babies are made” and into “this is how communities are strengthened, love is born, and fears triggered.” Stories made me understand sex not just as an exercise, but as a force. Like money or art, sex is an exchange of energy. Fiction helped me understand the many ways of negotiating that energy, and how to make my own choices around it.
In my new book, Girl Sex 101, I wanted to offer two tracks of sex-ed: one fact-based, mechanics of bodies and how they process pleasure, specifically aimed at queer women, and one story-based exploration of how sex and friendship are interrelated. Each chapter of Girl Sex 101 opens with a story of two ex-girlfriends on a road trip from Vancouver to San Diego. Along the way they get into sexy adventures that test their friendship, push their boundaries, and expand their minds. I want to give readers an access point for understanding not just the mechanics of sex, but how sex can impact the rest of our lives. It is sex in context.
Too often in my sex-ed workshops, I meet people who insist that getting consent or asking for preferences is clunky or “inorganic.” This is because we don’t have any role modeling of hot, organic sexual conversation! I decided to show my characters having consent conversations, safer sex negotiations, and speaking up about their preferences so readers can see how it can be done well:
<<<< excerpt from Girl Sex 101:
Dixie traces a fingertip from Layla’s ear, along her neck and chest, to circle her nipple. “You mean you have a hard time asking for what you want?”
Dixie leans in and kisses the path her finger traced, whispering into Layla’s clavicle, “Oh that’s easy. Lay back and relax. We’re going to play a game.”
Layla’s heart beats hard against her ribs. Dixie leans over her and strokes her face with light touch. Layla shivers.
“You like that?” Dixie asks.
Layla grins. “Is this the game?” Dixie glides her light fingered touch down Layla’s cheek to her neck and chest.
“How do you like your nipples played with?”
Layla shrugs and mumbles, “You know, the usual way.”
“Oh honey.” Dixie chuckles. “All the ways are the usual ways.” Dixie licks the tip of Layla’s nipple and says, “I’m going to gently bite your nipple. I want you to slowly count up from one, and as you do, I’m going to increase the pressure on your nipple. Stop counting when it stops feeling good, okay?”
Layla smiles. “One. . .” she says.
“Two . . .”
“Three. . . ” She sighs.
“Four. . . ” “Five . . .” She moans.
Dixie relaxes and kisses Layla’s breast. “Six and a half then?” Dixie purrs. “I can work with that.”
There is no shortage of sexual information on the internet, but there is a shortage of fact-based, judgment-free, body-positive, and queer-positive role-modeling. Girl Sex 101 will add one voice to the conversation. My videos and other sex-ed content add more. But to create a truly queer-centric and sex-positive movement, we need many diverse voices willing to speak up about what turns them on. This can mean posting videos or participating in online chats, or it can mean being willing to tell your partner what you want or don’t want. Or it can be educating your friends with honest, shame-free, sex ed.
I’m passionate about making the world safer and more nurturing for LGBTQIA people, and this means providing real information about sex, not just the mechanics, but the bodies, spirits, and minds of people.
Who will you help learn good information about sexuality? Whose life will you change by giving them permission to be curious and engaged? How will your story of your own sexual life help influence the choices of others a few steps behind on their own journeys?
Allison Moon is the author of Girl Sex 101 and the Tales of the Pack series of novels about lesbian werewolves. Both books in the series, Lunatic Fringe and Hungry Ghost, were nominated for Goldie Awards for lesbian fiction. Allison was a 2011 Lambda Literary Emerging LGBT Authors Fellow. Allison is also a sex educator who has presented her workshops– on strap-on sex, polyamory, sexual self-expression, erotica writing, and more– to thousands of people around the US and Canada.
Keep up with Girl Sex 101 @girlsex101
Francesca Lia Block is the author of our August Book of the Month, Love in the Time of Global Warming! Hope you enjoy.
[Transcript to come.]
This is our first recorded interview– if you have comments or suggestions for us, tweet us @thegayya, or shoot me an email at email@example.com. (Our comments are STILL not working. Le sigh.)
Our September Book of the Month is The Summer Prince, by Alaya Dawn Johnson. Stay tuned for our interview with Alaya! If you have something you’d like us to ask her, hit us up on Twitter!
The unfortunate truth is that most mainstream YA centres around a boy-girl romance with maybe a bit of magic or tragedy or dystopian violence thrown in. That’s it. There’s very little room on the Teen Fiction shelves at Barnes & Noble for books about girls who kiss girls or boys that kiss boys simply because – apparently – the readership isn’t quite “ready” for those themes yet.
Now, obviously, I understand that Barnes & Noble (and other bookshops) can’t physically make their shops any bigger just to please the fairly minuscule percentage of their readers that are a) readers of YA and b) either queer or interested in queer stories, but at least bookshop chains have managed to find a happy medium which has worked, I think, to the advantage of both writers and readers: minor queer characters in YA novels.
On blogs like this one, I find there’s often a lot of criticism about these secondary characters – how the writer only included them to tick diversity off their checklist, how publishers are claiming to be pro-equality because of them, how they’re built up from stereotypes. And it’s true that, especially a few years back, finding a gay boy in a book usually meant that he was the female protagonist’s BFF and that they went shopping together and gossiped about hot celebrities. Lesbian characters were rarer and I don’t think I ever came across a book with a minor trans character as part of the plotline. Since then, either the books I’ve been reading have changed or the publishing industry has got a grip on itself, and I suspect it’s probably a combination of the two that has led to some richly drawn minor characters that are full of depth and motivation.
In particular I want to talk about the book that prompted me to write this post: Love Letters to the Dead by Ava Dellaira. In terms of form (and to a lesser extent, tone) it reminded me of Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower, since it’s written as a collection of letters written by a high school freshmen. (Incidentally, Chbosky read drafts of the novel as it was being written). It’s about a girl who has just lost her older sister and is tentatively exploring feelings that vary from misery to love, and is definitely worth reading. However, my favourite part of the novel was the sort of “sideline” romance that I personally found more compelling than the primary romance, probably just because the characters were so well created and seemed extremely real. It was between two girls who become the protagonist’s close friends, and is full of humour and tragedy in its own way. For me, this just proves how successful secondary romances and characters can be if the writer takes care to treat them as real people as opposed to just an orientation to be included.
There are numerous other books that are just as successful in this respect, and that seems like a step forward: we’ve got to the stage, finally, where teenagers are expected to not really care if one of the people they’re reading about is queer, and that’s a great place to be. Yes, it’s hard to find these stories when you’re browsing bookshelves, simply because there’s no special label that says “I’M ABOUT GAY PEOPLE!” on the spine in neon green – but that’s not such a bad thing. Queer people fitting in and not being classed as “unusual” is exactly the way it should be in real life and it’s therefore a great achievement that this has already happened in our bookshops.
So maybe go out this weekend and buy a few YA novels to see what you can find. Yes, it’ll probably be six or seven books before you find anyone who isn’t straight and cis, but that’s okay. A couple of years and the industry will shift its paradigm once again. For now, they’re hidden gems: so when you find them, enjoy them.
Georgie is a teen writer and bookworm from England. At the moment she’s working on a gay YA novel of her own and can be found procrastinating on Twitter (@missgeorgie) or else ranting on her blog (georgiepenney.weebly.com).
There are people who partially fit the stereotypes of their sexuality (butch lesbians, effeminate gay men, sex-repulsed asexuals, etc.) but in media they are often presented as caricatures. These negative portrayals in media lead to real-life queer people who fit these stereotypes being attacked by other queer people, mostly due to the fear of exposing the MOGII community as a whole to the negativity attached to those stereotypes. In both fiction and in real life, all members of the MOGII community deserve to be respected and respectfully represented, regardless of how they express themselves. Instead of telling MOGII people who have stereotypical characteristics to change themselves, we should destroy the negativity that’s been tacked onto those stereotypes.
There’s a balance between having a character whose story isn’t about being a queer person, and recognizing the lack of positive MOGII representation in media so the inclusion of the character isn’t just ticking off another diversity box for good press. According to Kaje on the Goodreads thread, “the key is to make the individual characters interesting, or give them some kind of roundedness mixed in,” but it’s also important to keep in mind that while sexuality/gender identity should only be one facet of a character, it does need to be fully acknowledged.
Sometimes, authors try to include and acknowledge queer characters with good intentions, but end up with a mess. The Bermudez Triangle, republished as On the Count of Three by Maureen Johnson (Razorbill 2007, Penguin Young Readers Group 2013) follows three best friends Nina, Avery, and Mel. Nina goes away for the summer, and the other two girls start dating. When Nina comes back, awkward third-wheeling ensues. It sounds cute and fun, but having the bisexual girl (Avery) cheat on Mel with a guy and then dump her for that guy because “bi girls… go back and forth” (p. 152) isn’t okay. Neither is the way a minor character, Felicia, is referred to as: “the outspoken ‘if you have a pulse I’m interested’ bisexual sex-addict.” (p. 121) There’s so little bisexual representation in YA lit, and the messages quite a few of those books send are incredibly biphobic. Similarly, in The Ring & The Crown by Melissa de la Cruz, portrayal of gay characters takes a turn for the worse. There is a gay couple who only appears during balls and similar events to make comments about fashion and by one of the main character’s fabulous gay friends.
Thankfully, there are also books such as Far From You by Tess Sharpe (Indigo 2014) that hit the nail on the head. The main character, Sophie, was in a secret relationship with Mina. Mina is killed before the story begins, but the reader gets to meet her because the book alternates between flashbacks and present-day. When Sophie tells Trev that she and Mina were in love, he worries that she faked the romantic relationship between him and her. But she tells him, “I’m not gay, I’m bisexual. There’s a difference.” (p. 188)
There is good MOGII representation out there in YA lit, though it can be hard to find. Two examples are Adaptation by Malinda Lo, which I’ve mentioned here before, and Beauty Queens by Libba Bray. Adaptation features a bisexual protagonist in an awesome sci-fi story. Beauty Queens is a hilarious adventure/survival novel that has several main characters, one who is a trans woman and one who is a lesbian, and they both get their own stories and personalities. (Also there are lots of footnotes. I really love footnotes.)
One of the ways we’re going to disassociate the negativity from stereotypes is by fleshing out those characters beyond their personality traits that are stereotypes of their sexuality or gender identity. For me, it would mean so much to see an asexual character who isn’t seen as broken, doesn’t have any romantic relationships invalidated by others because they’re asexual, and isn’t constantly reassuring people that they definitely have sex just like “normal people.” Having more people know about and hopefully respect asexuality would make me feel safer when I happen to talk about my asexuality with others.
I’m Emily, an asexual kinda-girl/kinda-agender lesbian in an American high-school straight out of a TV teen drama. I’m also a sci-fi/fantasy book and comic enthusiast. I can be found in one of the three libraries I have a card for, my local bookstore, the awesome comic store in my town that has fluffy cats, or at my computer. My goal is to become an editor at a Young Adult fiction publishing imprint. Twitter: @captainbooknerd, tumblr: adventureswithinthepages.tumblr.com
I had something else I was going to write on representation. But then I heard about Robin Williams, and I thought of other things. About feeling alone. About depression, that horrendous, hideous beast that traps you and makes you feel like there’s no reason to get out of bed. I thought about my depression, which I still struggle with. What I struggled with during high school, particularly (I hesitate to say because of) my struggles with my sexuality, with not feeling like I belonged anywhere, especially when I was still in the closet.
It was lonely. God. I can’t speak for everyone but I felt so God damned lonely, all the time, like no one understood this fog that had taken over my brain. I wasn’t sad. I didn’t feel anything except loneliness and an acute desire not to get out of bed. I didn’t want to talk. I didn’t want to do anything.
But wading through the fog gets easier with help. For me, that help was friends and writing. Writing is what’s been there for me when I can’t get out of the slump. Sometimes it’s the only thing I do in a day, sometimes it’s just twenty words or a scene but some days that feels like enough, and when I want to just lay in bed and sleep it helps to immerse myself in this fictional world that I’ve created, replace the fog with words. Writing, it would seem, helped more than anything else has.
Reading helps, too. Reading, especially now, is my way of not feeling alone. It’s my way of connecting with characters who are feeling the same things I’m feeling, regardless of whether or not they’re fictional. And as books have become more diverse it’s been easier to find those characters, whether they suffer from mental illness or are queer or any number of things. They help me not feel alone.
And that, I think, is what it boils down to. At least for me–this issue of representation, of seeing yourself in literature. Because the worst part of depression, bar the not getting out of bed, bar the fog, bar the sadness, was the indescribably crushing loneliness. That’s why books helped, that’s why reading was so important to me, because of representation. Good, accurate, thoughtful representation where my issues and fears and doubts and feelings were important. Where I was important, where I could feel like I was, and because of that—because of those books where people like me were valued—I began to find value in myself, too.
Because when you can’t find yourself represented, not only in literature but in every type of media, you start to feel like you don’t exist. When all you read are straight protagonists, you begin to feel like your story isn’t worth telling. Where every YA has a cis-male love interest for the cis-female protagonist, where the only books with queer protagonists you can find involve the angst of coming out and how awful it is to live in a world and be queer, you start to think that people like you don’t get a happy ending, or even a story at all. You begin to feel like you don’t deserve a story, or your story has to end in angst and tears. And if you’re me, it means that, for awhile, you just stop looking for your story at all. You stop looking for queer protagonists, you stop hoping that maybe you’ll find yourself in the pages, that the girl will fall in love with her best friend rather than the boy next door. You give up. You just… you stop.
But I do exist. My story does have value. I can have a happy ending, even if I have to write it myself. And you, reading this, whoever you are—you have value too. You exist. You are so, so important to the world, and to me. Even if you don’t see it yet. You are important. Your story is important, and I won’t tell you it gets better, but there are things that haven’t happened to you yet that are going to be amazing. And you need to experience them.
You’re not alone. I promise. Even if it feels like it, even if you can’t find yourself in a book right now, there’s someone out there experiencing the same things with you. If you tell your story, I guarantee you’ll get someone agreeing with you, with your experiences. Just stick around to tell it.
Nita Tyndall is a tiny Southern queer with a penchant for sweet tea, cardigans, and words. She’s been writing since she was five, and her first piece was Scooby-Doo fanfiction in bright pink, all caps font—though now she prefers to write about sad teenagers. She’s currently in college attempting to get an English degree, and briefly was a college columnist for the lesbian webmagazine, Autostraddle. You can find her on tumblr at nitatyndall where she occasionally writes about YA and queer things, on Twitter at @NitaTyndall, or at her website nitatyndall.com.
Editors note: Part One of the We Are Not Just a Diversity Checkbox mini-series addressed background MOGII characters in media, and why there is no good excuse to leave out queer characters. In Part Two, Emily K, one of our Teen Voices, goes further into this, looking specifically at speculative fiction. This series updates every Friday, and will be wrapping up the first week of September.
It doesn’t stop at just a lack of queer characters. Many YA speculative fiction books take place in worlds where the existence of MOGII people isn’t even considered. The possibilities in world-building for speculative fiction is limitless. We already live in a heteronormative and cissexist world; it doesn’t need to carry over into science fiction and fantasy stories.
It’s worthwhile to note that it is possible to set a story in a society that ignores same-gender couples in order to point out the heteronormativity. For example, the novel Acid by Emma Pass (Delacorte Press, March 2014) is set in dystopian London, and the main character, Jenna, meets an explicitly stated f/f couple. It leads Jenna to wonder about other same-gender romantic relationships and how they had to live with the heteronormative government-mandated match-making. This is a positive example also because it doesn’t use the pain of MOGII characters to further the growth of a main character, both girls in the couple are named, and they have multiple conversations with Jenna in the chapters they appear in. While this is better than what most books in the genre have done, there’s no need to take such baby steps when there are books with, ya’ know, canon queer protagonists.
Minor characters who are MOGII are important, though. In the words of Rainbowheart, another contributor to the Goodreads thread, “side characters are as important as main characters because it reflects the diversity of our world. So teens can read these books and see that parents, siblings, friends, teachers and so on are not necessarily straight by default.” While that’s important for cishet teens to realize, “queer characters do not and should not have to ‘make straight people see how normal we are’…Queer characters should first and foremost be for queer people. If straight people get anything out it, then that is a neat perk.” (Sarah Stumpf)
Some authors try to pass off subtext, allegories, “undefined relationships,” and “love that’s open to interpretation” as equal to blatant textual evidence that a character is MOGII-identified. While that was really the most people could hope for in terms of representation 50, 40, or 30 years ago, that’s not the case anymore. For example, Malinda Lo has written four novels picked up by mainstream publishers, none of which feature cishet protagonists. Ash (Little, Brown 2009) is a lesbian retelling of Cinderella with more fantasy elements, Huntress (Little, Brown 2011) is a prequel to Ash that features two queer female protagonists, and her duology Adaptation (Little, Brown 2012) is a science-fiction story with a bisexual female protagonist. Lo has been a guest at speaking events, book panels, book conferences, and signing tours since first being published in 2009; her books have sold well and all four of them are either already published or soon to be published in the U.K. and Australia.
Despite the success of Adaptation and other Young Adult sci-fi books with one or more canon bisexual major characters such as Otherbound by Corrine Duyvis, Saga by Brian K. Vaughan (which is a graphic novel series, but still worth noting in this list), The Summer Prince by Alaya Dawn Johnson, and Love In The Time of Global Warming by Francesca Lia Block, people are spending time writing articles about whether Divergent is the science fiction genre’s first bisexual allegory. It seems backwards to congratulate books for having possible queer interpretations of characters when books with canon queer characters, many of which are written by MOGII-identified authors, exist and are going unnoticed (which is also due to the fact that the books with MOGII characters are given less press and are allotted less money for marketing than their cishet-palooza counterparts).
Drop a comment to let me know what you thought of this week’s post, or talk to me on Twitter @captainbooknerd.
I’m Emily, an asexual kinda-girl/kinda-agender lesbian in an American high-school straight out of a TV teen drama. I’m also a sci-fi/fantasy book and comic enthusiast. I can be found in one of the three libraries I have a card for, my local bookstore, the awesome comic store in my town that has fluffy cats, or at my computer. My goal is to become an editor at a Young Adult fiction publishing imprint. Twitter: @captainbooknerd, tumblr: adventureswithinthepages.tumblr.com
Mama doesn’t like boys, but Jack’s not like most boys.
Born a girl during the Civil War, Jack has been passing as a boy in the slums of Five Points, Manhattan, since running away from an orphans’ home at age eight. He makes his living at petty thievery, surviving pocket watch-to-pocket watch until he discovers a talent for gambling.
Lucy is a bright girl trapped in a dreary life with her widowed mother. When she meets Jack on the street, her days are happier than they have ever been. But her heart is broken when mother takes her far from New York, perhaps never to see Jack again. Her new home in a rowdy Arizona mining town is as dismal as ever, but she finds a glimmer of hope in dreams of a career on stage.
Now, to find their way to the life they promised each other, Jack and Lucy will have to dodge dangers and take risks they never dreamed of as childhood sweethearts.
Jack tells the story of a cross-dressing, biracial teenager in 1800s America, when tolerance was low and society was largely male dominated. Cate not only addresses the perils of being transgender in a historical context, but focuses on the corruption of a male dominated society and racial tension in the civil war era. But aside from all that, Jack is much more than a story that has the intention to educate. It is a novel which stems from romance; Jack, the titular character, strives to reunite with his childhood sweetheart, Lucy, after she and her mother leave New York to live in Arizona. And as Jack and Lucy inch towards their happy ending, they encounter adventure and heartbreak.
This novel, as a whole, was a breath of fresh air. The characters were a little two-dimensional, but I felt as if Cate’s intention was to focus more on the story-line than character development. The plot was fast paced, edgy for a historical novel, and, therefore, some of the development was a little too convenient for me, however, I enjoyed the mystery behind some of the characters, their schemes and foibles; there was parts in the story where I became breathless with excitement; parts where I swooned at the romance and particular parts where I couldn’t help cringing with disgust (as the author surely intended). Cate knows how to write a fast-paced adventure.
Perhaps this is me as a reader, but I love to know more detail. Yes, I love me some juicy imagery and slow, sensual description. Jack seemed to lack some depth where the writing was concerned. And although the short free prequel, Jump, gives the reader insight about Jack’s background, I still felt as if there was something holding me back from indulging in the character’s emotions; the love between Jack and Lucy was a little under-developed, very sudden and slightly rushed.
A particular racy scene between Jack and Lucy was much needed. The physical intimacy between the characters, not just Jack and Lucy, but Bill and Shanna gave the story a more mature angle, made their love slightly more believable and interesting, and developed the relationship, giving it a more realistic, grittier edge. Hats off to Cate for not blurring out the scene or eschewing it completely, but instead, telling her story exactly the way she desires it to be told.
Jack’s plot line and ingenuity was brilliant. I thought Cate pulled off the motif of gambling throughout her story well; Jack’s propensity towards gambling and the palm reading went well together, giving the book a mystical edge. The novel was well executed and I felt as if Cate had put as much thought into the character’s back-story and endgame as she did with the plot.
Overall, the novel itself is not unique because it features a transgender protagonist, but because it succeeds in creating a well written plot filled with a great romance and even greater adventure. I will definitely be reading more from this author.
Simren is an 18 year old student with a passion for reading and a glutton for romance, adventure and wit. She writes as much as possible in her free time, be it journalism, fiction or reviews.
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Read our interview with Shannon LC Cate here!