Premise: Briseis has had power over plants for as long as she can remember: flowers bloom when she walks by, ivy tangles when she gets anxious, she can bring even the most shrivelled sprouts back to life with a touch, and she’s immune to poisonous weeds that should kill within minutes. It makes helping out in her mothers’ florist easy, but it’s also a struggle to keep the magic hidden. When Briseis finds out a long-lost biological relative has passed away and willed her a country house, she jumps at the opportunity to discover more about her power and her lineage, and finds herself quickly tangled in family secrets of mythological proportions.
Rainbow rep: a sapphic protagonist, a cool sapphic love interest, and the protagonist’s delightful two mothers
Content considerations: some gnarly descriptions of poison taking effect, brief discussions of systemic racism
Much of the joy of This Poison Heart is watching the mystery at its centre unfold. I like to keep these spotlight posts spoiler-free so they can intrigue and entice, so I’ll be saying very little about the deeper machinations of this book, but I do want you to know that I ate through it in two days because I got so swept up exploring this world and its secrets alongside Briseis. It’s a lot of fun, complete with spooky secret gardens, hidden compartments containing lost documents, and nefarious villains and twisty-twists. All that classic magic-adventure-mystery stuff, capping off with a glorious reveal about our protagonist’s Secret Legacy. It’s delightful to see some of these tried-and-true tropes given to a heroic Black, queer character. As author Kalynn Bayron herself discussed recently, these concepts are not “overdone” until everyone has had a turn, and there are still plenty of twists and takes on them to be tried before the well is dry.
Join my colleague Chloe and I for a brief introduction to the world of queer young adult fiction, from its historic beginnings in the 1960s all the way through to the new directions it’s taking now! Originally presented at the Great Writing Conference, 10th – 11th July 2021.
How might the liminal, mischievous, underdog figure of the Trickster lend itself to stories about queer teens?
Take a peek into one of my thesis chapters in this short video! Originally presented at the Fresh From the Fight: Heroes, Villains and Tricksters in Children’s and Young Adult Literature and Culture conference held virtually at the University of British Columbia, 2nd – 4th July 2021.
Premise: Saorise (and that’s “Seer-sha”, and she will fight you on this) has enough heartache to last her a lifetime. She doesn’t know how long her own lifetime will be, reeling from the knowledge that early onset dementia runs in her family, and she could end up forgetting who she is by age fifty. Her childhood best friend turned girlfriend broke up with her, fracturing their friend group and leaving Saorise angry and adrift. The path seems simple: no relationships, no close human connections, and no one gets hurt.
But then along comes Ruby. She suggests a relationship with a pre-arranged expiration date, and one that only involves all the fun parts: the cheesy falling in love montage from the middle of the movie, as it were. It’s no-strings-attached, Ruby’s cute, and as long as Saorise doesn’t open her heart and bear her feelings about anything serious it will all go off without a hitch. Right?
Rainbow rep: an f/f romance between two lesbian characters, queer background cast (mostly in the form of the ex-girlfriend)
Content considerations: depictions of parents in hospital, parents with deteriorating mental health, general existential dread
I will be 101% honest: I came for the self-aware, sapphic take on the classic clichés of romantic comedies. I came for the “oho, you say you’re not going to fall in love, but you totally are” romantic tension. And I did get both of those. But I also got hit upside the head with a narrative about how life’s impermanence is what makes it meaningful, and that we should always let ourselves live and be loved no matter the risks.
Premise: The Grays are a tight-knit coven of teen witches, until their most charismatic and talented member, Imogen, walks into the woods one night and comes back a shell of her former self. The Grays cast a spell to summon someone, anyone, who might be able to help, and into town wanders Danny, a girl with a strong sense of yearning but little sense of where it’s always been trying to take her. Danny is ecstatic to find the witches and win their approval, but as the mist thickens and the ancient redwood forest fills with dead boys and disappeared girls, time is running out to discover her inner magic and find what’s left of Imogen.
Rainbow rep: a queer ensemble cast, including a self-described queer lead, a bisexual witch, a non-binary ace witch, and multiple f/f romances; many explorations of queer themes like found family and the search for a place to belong.
Content considerations: discussions of homophobia, including a character being kicked out by her parents; brief discussions of terminal illness and parental death; brief (but often poetic rather than graphic) descriptions of dead bodies.
There is magic running through the heart of The Lost Coast. Every sentence feels like it was carefully crafted to create a certain atmosphere, sometimes warm and welcoming and sometimes otherworldly and haunting. Sometimes both. The words are woven like, well, a spell: light acts like liquid, silence falls like snow, and the settings—from scrappy rental cabins to the ancient looming haven of The Lost Coast’s redwood forests—come to life with such vibrancy you feel like you’re there.
Premise: in an alternate 1996 where magic and monsters are a fact of everyday life, fourteen-year-old Z has died in a car crash and awoken as a zombie. Orphaned and ostracised, Z searches for a cure to their state of decay, and along the way befriends Aysel, a fellow misfit who is keeping her lycanthropy under wraps. Secrecy becomes ever more important for these monster-kids as anti-werewolf sentiment builds in their town, following the mysterious murder of a doctor who was performing electroshock “therapy” to try and disconnect fey and monsters from their magic.
Rainbow rep: a non-binary protagonist, a lesbian werewolf (a girl werewolf! That on its own is exciting!), and a queer supporting cast including lesbian selkies, trans werewolves, and sort of gender-ambiguous shapeshifters.
Content considerations: depictions of police brutality, depictions of homophobic bullying, magical plot elements that are clear stand-ins for conversion therapy, intersections of fantasy bigotry and real-world bigotry.
Queerness and “monstrosity” have intertwined plenty over the years, both for good and ill. Monsters, after all, so often represent some sort of social Other, some sort of values or behaviours or appearances that does not suit the dominant norm and is thus frightening to people who do fit into that norm. Vampires, werewolves, shapeshifters, witches, the undead, are all liminal and transitory and odd in some way or another, so historically they have often been queer-coded as a shortcut to showing their villainy. However, many LGBTQIA+ folks have taken these queer monsters as their own, and felt a strange affinity for folklore, creature features, and the general landscape of the Gothic and the frightening. Out of Salem understands this connection with its whole heart, and it makes for a story that’s both harrowing and heartwarming.
I read—and watch—a lot of stories about people growing up. Late in 2019, I officially narrowed the focus of my PhD to specifically zero in on YA fiction, which I was reading and analysing an awful lot of anyway. I also write a lot about anime, and I can’t help but notice that the series that really seem to carve out a special place in my heart—and jog my thinking brain—are the ones that deal with coming-of-age stories, or other examinations of the weird pocket of time between “youth” and “adulthood”. And gosh, it’s a weird pocket of time, huh?
As I write lecture material, and find myself going off on tangents enthusiastically explaining the literary and entertainment value of YA to my students, I also find myself wondering… well, how did I get here? Why YA? That’s a tongue-twister, Alex, why’d you even make me read that? But more to the point, why do we—as writers, readers, audiences, and a massive publishing industry—return consistently to the coming-of-age story, to examinations of youth, to high schools and final-summers-before-graduations and that weird transitional space between childhood and adulthood?
Well, I could get all Joseph Campbell on you and suggest something about how stories of “leaving the nest”, experiencing a ritual quest of rites of passage, and coming out the other side a grown human, are embedded in prehistoric tradition and are some of the tales closest to our hearts culturally speaking. And you know I have my beef with Campbell (affectionately so), but I reckon there’s something to his suggestion that this is an archetype fundamental to storytelling as a form, and I reckon there’s also something to his fondness for patterns.
Premise: Freddy is dating the charismatic, enigmatic Laura Dean, and she couldn’t be happier… except that she could be much happier, because Laura Dean keeps finding ways to make her miserable. Yet, like magnets, Freddy and Laura keep getting back together. As Freddy becomes increasingly alienated from her friends, and not even seeking advice from columnists or back-room psychics seems to help, she’s going to have to find the power within herself to reassess her priorities and find her true happiness.
Rainbow rep: a lesbian protagonist, an almost entirely queer ensemble cast, focus on queer relationships.
Content considerations: centres on a crappy, bordering-on-emotionally-abusive relationship; age gap relationships, discussions of teenaged pregnancy.
He laughed again and hid his face under the blanket. “Why are you so nice to me?” “Because I’m an angel.” “You are.” He stretched out his arm and patted me on the head. “And I’m platonically in love with you.”
Alice Oseman, Radio Silence (2016) p.108
In 2017—somewhere on the stumbling journey to identifying myself proudly and loudly as asexual—I read Alice Oseman’s young adult (YA) novel Radio Silence. When I reached the passage quoted above, I stopped in my tracks. It was the first time I had seen those words put together to such an effect. Friends could say they loved each other, of course, in a fleeting and fluffy sort of way. But to imply that you could be in love with someone in a purely platonic way? That you could refer to something as a love story even if it was about characters who were “just” friends, who never even thought about dating one another? It was a little bit revolutionary.
But that, of course, is the revolutionary heart of aromanticism and asexuality—the quiet, but resonant, revolution inherent in the articulation of different kinds of love, in the deconstruction of the dominant social narratives of romance and sex. As I kept my eye on Oseman’s forthcoming novels, it transpired that this revolution sits at the heart of her writing, making them deeply resonant for aro/ace readers even when not featuring the identities directly. And when they do feature aro-ace identity directly, the quiet revolution is front and centre, and the results are incredible and incredibly important.