Monday, December 29, 2008

Fat Hoochie Prom Queen

Nico Medina, May 2008. Madge Diaz is a fat and fabulous high school senior with a mission: to make sure her skinny, popular rival, Bridget Benson, isn’t prom queen – no matter what. Madge and Bridget have been enemies since Bridget beat out Madge for a children’s TV role, and growing up hasn’t stopped them from sniping at one another whenever they get the chance. Madge teams up with her best friend Lucas to bring Bridget down, first by running against her for prom queen, and then by organizing a huge and lavish anti-prom party. The Bridget battle is set against a backdrop of Lucas’s boy problems, Madge’s mom problems (she’ll only prepare diet meals), and the discovery that perfect Bridget has some serious problems of her own. And hallelujah! the book doesn’t end with Madge losing weight; she succeeds without ever apologizing for her plus-size pants.

The characters use alcohol, drugs, and the F-word with a frequency not unrealistic among high school students, but which might give some pause to more conservative parents. Gay culture is celebrated throughout the book, but sex scenes are not graphic, happening mainly offscreen. Although the book’s chaos is part of its charm, there are a few too many plot threads to keep track of: for example, a story involving Madge’s fashion-designer sister is dropped abruptly. However, Fat Hoochie Prom Queen is a worthwhile purchase; it’s a romp of a read that will fly off YA shelves.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Last Exit to Normal

Michael Harmon, March 2008. Ben is fourteen when his mom walks out after his father announces that he's gay. Ben goes downhill from there: "I took my first hit from a bong two weeks after my mom left. I got plastered at a kegger a week later, dropped a tab of acid the next month, and got busted for defacing public property three days after that. I was on a roll, and I was just getting going." After a couple of years of this behavior, including Ben's arrest for driving the escape car after his friends steal beer from a store, Ben and his dads move to eastern Montana. The idea is that country life will save Ben from the "negative influence" he's getting in the city.

Rough Butte, Montana, is quite different from what Ben is used to...not least because of his uber-strict step-grandmother, who hits him with a wooden spoon whenever he swears - including words like "crap" that he's used to thinking of as pretty innocuous. But the real problem is their next-door neighbor, Mr. Hinks, who makes no secret of his homophobia, but does a better job of hiding his abuse of his eleven-year-old son. Ben takes on these problems and a full-time schedule of farmwork while also pursuing The Girl. These events, and the humor and warmth with which they're told, make for a compelling, fast-paced novel that doesn't skimp on character development and has less gay content than it appears at first. Recommended as a fish-out-of-water story, a coming-of-age tale, and of course, a book about how to deal (and how not to deal) with a gay parent.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Down to the Bone

Mayra Lazara Dole, February 2008. Protagonist Laura doesn't identify as lesbian (or tortillera, the taunt preferred by homophobes in her Miami neighborhood), but she is in love with Marlena - she knows that for sure. When she's kicked out of her Catholic high school after a teacher discovers their love notes, and then kicked out of her home when her mom can't deal, Laura moves in with her friend Soli and her open-minded mami. Marlena quickly abandons Laura for Jesus and a Cubano husband, and Laura won't come out even to other dykes, so she's lonely for a while. In quick succession, she befriends a boi, dates a boy, gets roofied at a gay club, is held up at knifepoint by a homophobe, comes clean to her friends, and begins dating a beautiful waitress. Is this too much plot for one YA novel? Yes, but it's a big messy commotion of a book in the first place, so the drama works. Recommend to readers who liked Sofi Mendoza's Guide to Getting Lost in Mexico and The Secret Story of Sonia Rodriguez as well as your gay teens.

Monday, December 15, 2008


Tonya Cherie Hegamin, April 2008. This first novel, poetic and daunting, tells the story of O(pal) and M(arianne), best friends in a small Pennsylvania town. They're inseparable as children, but part ways when they go off to high school, where M becomes a dissembler and O a dissenter. M forgets the kisses the girls shared under a blackberry bush in order to try out for cheerleading and become the county's first black homecoming queen, while O is a scholar who throws up emotional walls that block any other friendships from forming. Near the beginning of the book, M's body is found in a ravine, leaving O friendless and unsure of her future. Intertwined with the girls' story is the tale of Hannah, a runaway slave whose ghost appears as a warning to M. The veil Hegamin drapes between the reader and the narrator leaves this one too complex for younger and reluctant readers, but excellent for older teens and college students.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Love and Lies: Marisol's Story

Ellen Wittlinger, July 2008. Readers of Wittlinger's acclaimed Hard Love (1999) will rejoice in this new novel about Marisol, the touchy punk-rock lesbian with whom protagonist Gio fell in unrequited love. Love and Lies features a cast of gay characters including Birdie, Marisol's flamboyant roommate; Lee, small-town baby dyke with a crush on Marisol; and Olivia, Marisol's beautiful and talented writing teacher. As is typical of gaytopia novels, the action revolves around a romance rather than the coming-out process. In this case, our heroine falls for Olivia, who seems too good to be true; she showers Marisol with gifts and praises her writing, calling her "the star of my class." It turns out, of course, that Olivia is not all that she seems. The main story is set against subplots involving Birdie's neurotic boyfriend and a road trip to Provincetown. Great romance with depth and personalty.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Say the Word

Jeanine Garsee, March 2009. In this family problem novel, Shawna's mom just passed away, but Shawna didn't really know her very well. Mom left the family years ago to move in with her female lover, and Shawna has resented her ever since. The funeral is a train wreck - Shawna's controlling father and conninving aunt are rude to the lesbian-mom half of the family, while Shawn's stepbrother's eulogy outs the lesbians to those few who don't already know - and the weeks afterward don't get any better for Shawna as she struggles with her feelings toward each of her parents. The book traces Shawna's path toward acceptance of her mom's half of the family and uncovers some secrets which the reader will have probably figured out before Shawna -- that her best friend is also interested in girls, for example. Recommended for teens struggling with parental issues, whether they're related to sexuality or not.

After Tupac & D. Foster

Jacqueline Woodson, January 2008. This excellent middle-grade novel follows the lives of the unnamed narrator and her two best friends, Neeka and D. The narrator lives across the street from Neeka and has known her since they were toddlers, but D is new in their lives. She has a mysterious past and a totally unknown present; Neeka and the narrator don't even know where she lives. She shows up on the bus at random hours, whereas N & N aren't even allowed off their block. The three girls listen to Tupac Shakur's music, relating it to their own lives as much as they can, and follow his history of assaults and hospital stays until the day of his death.

A subplot follows Neeka's brother Tash, in prison for a crime he didn't commit. Tash is introduced to the reader as "a queen" and "a sissy from day one and most people just accepted it." Despite these derogatory terms, Tash is presented as a strong and sympathetic character, on the girls' side when the world is against them. His mother only reluctantly accepts his sexual preference, disliking it when he calls himself "a sister" or acts "sissyish" around his little brothers, but ultimately she admits, when Tash asks whether he's good enough for her, "You know you are, baby. You know you are."

Friday, November 28, 2008

My Tiki Girl

Jennifer McMahon, May 2008. Traditional YA lesbian problem novels tell the stories of teen girls who fall madly in love with their female friends, only to face serious consequences when parents and classmates find out. In recent years, however, the trend is toward books featuring protagonists whose sexuality is only one aspect of their complicated lives.

Despite its 2008 copyright, My Tiki Girl is a reversion to the problem novel. Its heroine, Maggie, was pretty and popular until the car accident that killed her mother. Now she wears a leg brace and feels like an outcast until new girl Dahlia asks her to join her rock band. Maggie develops a crush; Dahlia reciprocates; and the two have a secret and joyous relationship until Dahlia’s mother walks in on them half-dressed.

Until this point, My Tiki Girl, while formulaic, is charming and different. It features appealing secondary characters like Dahlia’s younger brother Jonah, who believes he is a wizard, and funny portrayals of teens smoking clove cigarettes and obsessing about Sylvia Plath. But when the girls’ secret is discovered by Leah, Dahlia’s mother, the plot takes some bizarre turns. Leah has been portrayed throughout the book as a cool hippie mom who shoplifts with the girls and creates doll alter-egos for them. Her reaction to the girls’ love affair (“Abomination! Pervert!”) is, then, wildly out of character. It doesn’t get better from there: the last chapters of the book involve a car accident that too obviously parallels the one in which Maggie’s mother was killed as well as a makeout session between Maggie and Joey, a brain-damaged boy who lives in a cave. Recommended only for libraries where authors like Nancy Garden and Julie Anne Peters are popular.

My Most Excellent Year: A Novel of Love, Mary Poppins, and Fenway Park

Steve Kluger, March 2008. Kluger's second epistolary novel for younger teens features diary entries, emails and online chat transcripts written by its three protagonists: T.C., an amorous athlete recovering from the loss of his mother; Augie, T.C.'s theatrical quasi-brother, closeted only to himself; and Alejandra (Alé), a new student whose father's career as a diplomat means she's met all the teen idols her classmates have only seen on TV. During their junior year in high school, T.C. plays matchmaker with his father and his advisor while ardently courting Alé. She, in turn, rebels against her parents' expectation that she'll major in foreign relations and follow her father's footsteps into a government career; she throws herself into the performance arts with a vengeance and becomes close friends with Augie. Augie himself discovers his sexuality and falls in love with cute jock Andy, but tragically, Andy is uncomfortable with Augie's rather fabulous self-presentation, encouraging him to go out for sports and tone himself down. This tale of coming out into the surprisingly welcome world of a suburban high school has David Levithan to thank for setting the gay-utopia standard in his instant classic Boy Meets Boy (2003). Kluger lives up to his predecessor, creating memorable characters who keep the reader rooting for them throughout their triumps, mistakes, and exploits. Recommended for all libraries with young adult collections; the sexuality doesn't go beyond kissing, so it would be appropriate for middle-school libraries as well.