Where They Came From

A few days later, the vacation ended. I flew back to pine trees, over-cast skies, and a Michigan winter that could sputter till May. My tan faded. My tongue forgot the taste of tocino and Tagalog. I stepped out of tsinelas and back into my suburban life as if I had never left.

This is how Jay Reguero, the narrator of Randy Ribay’s profoundly moving Patron Saints of Nothing, recounts readjusting to his life in America after a visit with his Filipino family. Though Jay was born in the Philippines, his parents moved to the US when he was a young child and he has only been back once. Jay’s life has been very comfortable, and very stereotypically American – now a high school senior, he is preoccupied with friends, girls, video games, and angst over his collegiate future. 

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This all changes in an instant, however, when Jay’s father drops a bomb in his lap. Jay’s Filipino cousin Jun has been killed. Jun and Jay are the same age and had been long time pen pals before eventually falling out of contact. Jay is upset to hear about Jun, but the circumstances surrounding his death make things far worse. His father explains that Jun had run away from home, begun using and selling drugs, and was killed as part of President Rodrigo Duterte’s extreme, brutally violent “war on drugs.” Jay cannot reconcile this version of Jun with the sweet, caring young man he knew and is frustrated by his extended family’s refusal to divulge more details about Jun’s death. Jay decides to take matters into his own hands, travelling to the Philippines on his spring break to stay with his family and learn more about the last years of Jun’s life and the events that led to his death. 

In Manila, Jay butts heads with his uncle, a powerful pro-Duterte police officer, and finds himself increasingly disgusted by how quickly his family has buried all memories of Jun. Jay is also haunted by guilt for letting his friendship with Jun fade away, and both ashamed and frustrated to discover how little he knows and understands about the country where he was born. As Jay makes connections and begins to untangle the mysteries of Jun’s life and death, he must also reckon with his own family history, his disconnection with Filipino culture, and his own role in deciding his future. 

Ribay is a beautiful writer with the rare ability to immerse the reader in a specific time and place. In Patron Saints of Nothing, he deftly explores and illuminates many of the complicated, nuanced ideas connected to identity and perceived otherness that immigrants are forced to contend with daily. Jay, who has a Filipino father and a white American mother, must contend with the all-too-common microaggressions at home, yet is not “Filipino enough” in the eyes of his family in the Philippines. It is perhaps this feeling of being caught in the middle that explains why Ribay’s dedication for this book reads “For the hyphenated.” 

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Jay’s experiences returning to the Philippines reminded me of another incredible book I read earlier this year. Sabina Khan’s The Love & Lies of Rukhsana Ali is an intense, propulsive book about a young woman caught between cultures and the expectations they place on young people. Rukhsana is the daughter of Bangladeshi immigrants. She is a talented student of physics, eager to attend a top university program in California even if that means going against the wishes of her parents who want her to stay closer to home. Rukhsana has gotten adept at balancing the pressures of her life and the demands of her traditional Muslim parents. Though it bothers her that her brother often gets preferential treatment, she plays the role of dutiful daughter while also making plans for her future and sneaking out to parties with her friends. 

Rukhsana’s carefully constructed world crashes down when her mother catches her in the worst possible scenario – making out with her girlfriend. Her parents had no idea that Rukhsana is gay and they refuse to accept this reality. To say they do not handle it well is an understatement. They start with prayers, threats, and plans to arrange a marriage for Rukhsana, then push things further, sending Rukhsana to live with family in Bangladesh under false pretenses while they train her to be a dutiful wife and find her a suitable husband. 

This is all traumatic and terrifying for Rukhsana, who has suddenly lost the girl she loves, her dreams for the future, and any illusion that her family supports her. But Rukhsana is extremely resilient and a bit of a bad-ass, and soon finds allies in Bangladesh as she searches for a way to stand up to her family, save her future, and thwart their wedding plans. While in Bangladesh, Rukhsana seizes the opportunity to learn more about Bengali culture and the things that her parents have endured and fought through in their lives. While Khan does not hold back when criticizing the violent homophobia and misogyny that persist in Bangladesh (and unfortunately are still mirrored here in the United States), she also uses Rukhsana’s difficult journey to highlight the brave people who fight to make society more equitable and accepting for all people. 

Both Jay’s and Rukhsana’s stories are deeply upsetting at times. They also have incredible redemptive arcs that show the power of family and community to learn, adapt, and become more accepting in both small and large ways. Though not the primary focus of these two stories, both books also deal with the sacrifices that immigrant families make and the ways they face adversity and build community in a new homeland.  At a time when language targeting immigrants is being weaponized to target our friends, family, and neighbors, I will be pushing myself to reinforce that the Library is a safe and welcoming place for everyone, and to read more stories about the people who strengthen our communities with their presence.

A Southern Goth-Ick

Kristen Arnett is one my favorite people to follow on Twitter. She’s a librarian and author whose sharp-witted posts are laced with a healthy dose of dark humor. Whether she is talking about interactions at her library, the writing process, love for her local 7-11 or even non-convenience-store-centered relationships, her posts leave me cackling (and squirming when they hit too close to home). So it was no surprise that I devoured her exquisite and unsettling debut novel, Mostly Dead Things

2d4c8fb365e1620f-ARNETTheadshotcolor2017Mostly Dead Things follows Jessa, a taxidermist in central Florida, whose life is teetering on the precipice. The main thread of the story finds Jessa struggling in the wake of her father’s suicide. Though her father was in many ways a negligent parent to Jessa, he was also a massive presence in her life. He taught her that taxidermy is more than a grisly chore, that there is art in taking dead animals and recreating moments that capture the full beauty of their lives. He also passed her the routine, expectations, and burdens that came to define her life. After finding his dead body and dealing with the mess he left behind, Jessa is eager to bury herself in her work, focusing on the dead things she can fix not the gaping wounds in her own psyche. She drinks too much, limits relationships to a steady stream of casual hook-ups and struggles in vain to claw free from the ghosts of her past.

Jessa finds no solace with her surviving family members. She has long had a complicated relationship with her brother, Milo. They share a deep almost unspeakable pain that traces back to the day that Milo’s wife, Brynn, abandoned him and their children. Before Brynn was Milo’s wife, she was Jessa’s best friend and secret lover. This dynamic did not change when Milo and Brynn wed. Jessa loved Brynn deeply and Brynn seemed to enjoy both siblings’ adoration and attention. Though Jessa helps take care of Milo’s two children, their own relations remain tenuous at best. 

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Jessa’s mother is a different issue altogether. Following her husband’s death, she has found solace in creating new displays out of his taxidermy projects. These works sexualize and contort the animals in strange and grotesque ways. For Jessa this upsetting and disrespectful treatment of her father’s work is incomprehensible and borders on blasphemy. And this is just where Jessa’s troubles begin. Her mother begins to work with a local gallery owner to display her art for a wider audience. Jessa is determined to stop this show, but is also slipping into a contentious romantic relationship with the gallery owner. Jessa continues to drink too much and struggles to keep her business afloat, while her niece and nephew embrace the family business with too much enthusiasm and too little concern for laws and ethics. With her mother’s gallery opening fast approaching and old wounds reopening in all of her relationships, Jessa must figure out how to regain some semblance of control and balance in her increasingly messy life.  

I’m a pretty squeamish guy and I will admit that this book includes descriptions of the taxidermy process that were outside my comfort zone. Yet even the goriest narratives felt natural and well-placed coming through Jessa’s voice. Arnett does not hold back. Her descriptions of love, sex, aging, and Jessa’s work are raw and often glamorless. As the story progresses, it becomes clear that Jessa has endured years of emotional abuse at the hands of both her father and Brynn, and has suffered dearly as a result. With her wry voice and unique humor, it is impossible not to root for Jessa even at her lowest lows. And it is equally difficult to resist marveling at Arnett’s wrenching but sardonic meditations on love, loss, and abandonment and her ability to make both the saddest and the grossest of situations laugh-till-you-cry hilarious. Arnett recently tweeted a one-star review of her book that simply read “Dead Animals.” So I will end by saying five stars: dead animals.

30 Minutes Every Day…

Document (1)Summer is one of the busiest – and most exciting – times of year at our library. In Youth Services, we spend a lot of time focusing on our Summer Reading program. The basics are simple – we want youths to retain their reading skills while school is out, and research has found that reading for 30 minutes every day is the sweet spot. For this reason, we set a goal of reading for 24 hours by the end of the summer, and offer prizes for those who participate.

Have any questions about our reading program? We’ve got the answers!

Who can participate?

Our Youth Summer Reading Program is for anyone going into 12th grade or under. We also have a yearlong reading challenge for adults that you can learn about here.

What counts as “reading?”

We really like to emphasize that any form of reading counts including, but not limited to, reading on your own, stories read aloud by someone else, reading to younger siblings, listening to audiobooks, and, of course, reading graphic novels and comics. Because our program begins at birth, we also encourage parents to count time that infants and toddlers spend interacting with books, whether they are paging through them or just seeing what they taste like!

How does the program work?

We have reading logs for children and teens which can be picked up any time at our library. Readers can color in one star in the log for each half-hour of reading they do. Beginning July 1, participants can bring their logs back to the library and win prizes. Prizes are awarded at 12 hours and 24 hours, and will be available until August 31 (or until we run out).

At 12 hours, our readers get a color-changing pencil and their choice of a ticket to the Imagine Children’s Museum or a Seattle Storm basketball game in Everett. At 24 hours, they get a free book and entry in a grand-prize raffle. And if they finish by August 16, they are invited to our summer reading party which always includes exciting VIPs!

I like prizes! How do I sign up?

To sign up, just pick up a reading log at our Youth Services reference desk!

Every spring, our Youth Services Librarians visit Elementary and Middle Schools throughout Everett, promoting this program and getting students excited about the books they can read this summer. My visits center mostly on middle schools, where I see groups of sixth and seventh graders. These trips are exhilarating and exhausting, and are always one of the highlights of my year. Here are a few of the books I brought that students seemed especially eager to read:

The Owls Have Come to Take Us Away by Ronald L. Smith

Simon has always been obsessed with aliens, but now it seems that they are obsessed with him. Simon mostly keeps to himself – his dad is in the air force, so his family moves a lot, and he has trouble fitting in and making friends. To ward off loneliness, he lets his imagination run wild researching UFO sightings, convinced that many of them are real and determined to find a pattern in these alien encounters.

Then one dark night on a family camping trip, Simon is attacked. Although it seems that he was simply clawed by an owl, Simon knows better. This was alien work. And the gouge in his stomach isn’t a scratch from an owl, it’s proof of an alien implant. When Simon tells his parents what happened, they are beyond skeptical and take him to a psychiatrist, who in turn prescribes him some medication. But none of this helps Simon with his problems. As Simon falls deeper and deeper into his obsession, it remains unclear whether these events are actually happening or if Simon is losing his sanity. If you want to know which is the case, you’ll have to read it!

Lizzy Legend by Matthew Ross Smith

For 13-year old Lizzy, basketball IS life. She practices every free moment, obsessing over every part of her game and analyzing the greats. Someday she hopes to be a legend herself, but right now her goal is to make the boys team at her school. She manages to make the team and become the star player, but she also has some things weighing her down. She lives with her dad, who has trouble keeping a job, and debt collectors are always breathing down their necks.

Then one day she gets a strange call. It sounds like the kind of robo-call that promises a free vacation or new iPhone but winds up a total scam, except this call tells Lizzie that she is pre-selected for one free wish. She says the first things that comes to mind, then hangs up the phone and forgets the call. But something strange has happened. Lizzie soon realizes that her wish has come true and she can make any shot she shoots. Pretty quickly a viral video leads to a tryout for a professional team, and before she knows it, Lizzie finds herself on the court playing for a pro team against full-grown men, with her power on the fritz. There’s a big game on the line and her new team is counting on her, so Lizzy needs to find a way to beat the best.

Beast Rider by María Elena Fontanot de Rhoads and Tony Johnston

The beast is a massive, fast moving network of trains that snake through Mexico toward its border with the United States. It is a treacherous ride, on a route with many people who could leave you dead – deceitful criminals, violent gangs, and corrupt police. Manuel is a 12-year-old living in the Oaxaca region of Mexico who dreams of joining his brother Toño in Los Angeles. But to do so, he will need to ride the beast.

This book follows his three-year journey, with its many hungry nights, threats, near deaths, and cruel beatings. Manuel also meets many kind and caring people who help him along the way. As he slowly gets closer to LA, Manuel begins to wonder if he will survive to make it there and if he will ever be able to forget the terrible things that have happened along the way. This book is, at times, a thrilling adventure and a heartbreaking story of sacrifice. But it is also an account of the perilous journey that many people endure to seek a better life and it also explores the reasons why people take such giant risks, and the stories that they bring with them.

Dreadnought by April Daniels

Danny lives in the Pacific Northwest in New Port City. In her world, superheroes and supervillains roam the skies, waging epic battles between good and evil. It might sound cool, but for ordinary people like Danny it is just plain dangerous. So when she witnesses a battle up close, she tries to stay out of the way until the great hero Dreadnought crashes down next to her, mortally wounded. As he dies in her arms, Danny is both terrified and annoyed – because even a dying superhero manages to misgender her. Danny presents as male, but is actually a trans woman.

As Dreadnought dies, something unbelievable happens. His powers transfer to Danny, not just giving her super strength and the ability to fly, but also transforming her body into what it is meant to be, that of a young woman. Needless to say, this is a lot for Danny. For one thing, she wasn’t ready to come out to the world and now her true identity is impossible to hide. She also must figure out how to fit in with the Legion of superheroes and hunt down the evil cyborg, Utopia, who killed Dreadnought and is a massive threat to humanity. So Danny joins with another hero and must learn to navigate life with her new body and her responsibilities as a superhero in time to stop the evil Utopia before it is too late.

XL by Scott Brown

Will is disastrously short. I don’t mean just a bit short for his age – at 16, he is just 4’11.”  This is beyond an embarrassing height. It makes him miserable and he has tried every crazy trick, miracle cream, and superstition to try to grow taller. Nothing has worked. Luckily, he has his best friends by his side, his stepbrother Drew and Monica, a book-obsessed surfer, who Will secretly loves.

Then two things happen that throw Will’s life into chaos. First, he catches Drew kissing Monica. Not only does this break Will’s heart, it also sends their little group into chaos. And then, Will starts growing. And growing. And growing. At first this is great- he can reach the pedals in his car, he grab things off top shelves. Then he gets taller – even better! He can look DOWN on his classmates. He can dunk. Then he gets taller. His body hurts, he is always hungry, and people start treating him like maybe there is something wrong with him. And to make things worse, it seems that the taller he gets, the harder it is to stay friends with Drew and Monica. Without them, Will doesn’t have anyone to hold him back as he grows into a bigger and bigger jerk. What’s a 7-foot tall ego monster to do?

Versailles of the Dead by Kumiko Suekane

Marie Antoinette is on her way from her native Austria to France, where she will marry the future king, securing peace between their countries. In real life Marie is beheaded during the French Revolution, but not in this book! Zombies devour her instead. The only survivor of the attack is Marie’s twin brother, Albert. Albert continues to Versailles, hoping to take refuge with the court. When he gets there, the King, who is trying to fight off the zombie invasion and can’t afford a war with Austria, decides that Albert will disguise himself as Marie and marry the Dauphin (prince). Now Albert has a lot on his plate. He must trick the people into believing he is Marie, including many who are suspicious of him, wondering how he alone managed to survive the zombie attack. He also has to survive a court filled with deadly intrigue and deadlier romance, and fight a few zombies along the way.  This is a terrifically fun and ghoulish new manga series!

Must-Reads of 2019 So Far…

I’ve never recapped my personal best-of reading list so early in the year before, but 2019 is already off to such a great start I’m making an exception. The biggest silver lining of February’s snow show was getting more time to read. Here are just a few of my faves so far, in no particular order because these books are amazing and I refuse to rank my favorite children books.

Watch Us Rise by Renée Watson & Ellen Hagan
Recommended for fans of Moxie by Jennifer Mathieu.

I’m convinced I will always 100% love everything Renée Watson writes. This book hit so many high notes and addressed so many topics important to me that I really just want to read it again.

Best friends Jasmine and Chelsea are fed up with the way female students are treated at their supposedly progressive high school, so they start a Women’s Rights Club. Poems, essays, and videos go into their club’s online blog, Write Like a Girl. The blog goes viral, but online trolls escalate tensions in real life and the blog gets shut down by a condescending school administration. Jasmine and Chelsea aren’t ready to go quietly into the night–not when they know they are reaching other students who are facing the same misogynist treatment. How will they balance their need to help and be creative while not further angering their school’s administration?

The way that feminism, racism, body shaming, and everything else is addressed was just 10/10 perfect. The essays, poems, and playlists that the characters create for the Write Like a Girl blog were my absolute favorite part. It was like getting a very rad nonfiction bonus in my fiction book.

I fought for them. I cried for them. I cheered them on and didn’t want their story to end. These are multidimensional characters written authentically and I’m so here for it.

Cold Day in the Sun by Sara Biren Recommended for fans of The Cutting Edge and The Everett Silvertips.

This book is for anyone like me who was completely obsessed with the film The Cutting Edge–where a hockey player and a figure skater are paired up for the Olympics–who also wanted a sequel to be about hockey.

Holland is the only girl on her high school’s hockey team and she’s used to holding her own skating with the guys–even though it means dealing with the misogynist insults from the small hockey town’s good ole’ boys. But when she’s selected to represent her team on national television to help sway the public to vote for a major hockey tournament to be held in her hometown, Holland will have to confront her own self-doubts and fears that she might not be good enough to be on the boys’ team.

Oh, and she’ll also have to deal with her changing feelings towards her bossy team captain who she’s starting to realize might not be her frenemy after all. Maybe, just maybe, her frustrations stem from strong romantic feelings for him that she’s ignored for too long.

Cold Day in the Sun is full of feminism, the Midwest, small-town life, and a romance that will hook you and not let you go.

The Paragon Hotel by Lyndsay Faye
Recommended for fans of historical fiction with a sharp social justice edge.

As soon as I finished this smashing book I immediately missed the residents of The Paragon Hotel. Especially Blossom. And Max. And Nobody. And okay, everyone. It’s literally everyone.

I spent several days utterly invested in this story of a white woman who goes by the name Nobody. She flees the Mob in 1921 after having to fake her death. Rescued by a concerned train porter, she is allowed to stay in an all-African American hotel in Portland. The Paragon Hotel’s residents are reluctant to welcome her, as having a white woman in their rooms will only draw negative attention from the bigoted community. Soon these fears become reality. Nobody and the hotel’s staff and residents are thrust under the KKK’s magnifying glass as they all search for a missing 6 year old foundling they’ve all been collectively raising from infanthood.

The pacing is great, dipping back into Nobody’s past when relevant, and showing how she learned to survive. The author turns phrases like pancakes and if I were highlighting all the clever passages the pages in my copy would be nearly solid yellow.

This book destroyed me in a good way.

Even though this is fiction, I learned a lot of disturbing things about the KKK’s nonfictional influence in Oregon. I’m likely to start digging into the Northwest Room for more information about this time period in Oregon’s past.

Death Prefers Blondes by Caleb Roehrig
Recommended for fans of Leverage, RuPaul’s Drag Race, and heist novels.

I was immediately hooked at the premise of a heist novel starring teenage drag queens, and it only went up from there.

Margo isn’t your typical teen. By day she’s a socialite the paparazzi can’t get enough of. By night she’s a highly successful cat burglar. She and her four best friends, all of whom are teenage drag queens, each have their own reasons for doing what they do. The one thing they have in common? They’re damn good at stealing. But when a routine job goes wrong, they’ll need all their skills, training, and friendship to not only survive but to stop the mastermind who is determined to out them all.

There’s love, sex, violence, friendship, redemption, and huge helpings of both snark and bonding. If you’re looking for a fast-paced wild ride of a novel–look no further.

So let’s hear it. Which books have hit the tippity top of your favorites so far this year? Leave your recommendations in the comments. Who knows? Maybe one of your favorites will hit my next best-of list. Which judging by the way this year is shaping up might be sooner than we both expect.

Here’s to the Scientists and Monkeys

Every once in a while, I read a book that must have been made for me. I don’t mean one that just aligns with my interests. I mean there’s an underground lab somewhere filled with white coated technicians experimenting with plot formula and monkeys with typewriters tapping away, all working on the singular mission to create books perfectly tailored for my taste.

That’s the only explanation I can think of for Amy Rose Capetta’s The Brilliant Death. Released in October. I only found this book last week. As I’ve read it, I’ve been increasingly impressed by the work of this cabal of scientists and monkeys that call themselves “Amy Rose Capetta” and increasingly annoyed that it took me two months and a decent amount of dumb luck to stumble upon it.

9109wewh-qlThe Brilliant Death is set in a kingdom filled with murder, intrigue, and stories of magic wielding strega. Teodora di Sangro has grown up with ample firsthand experience of violence and viscous plots. Her father is the head of one of five families that rule the kingdom. Like the mafia, these families rule through an intricate web of extortion, intimidation, and retribution that keep the people fed, clothed, and thoroughly subjugated.

Teo also carries a secret. The stregas of childhood legend are more than bedtime stories. They are real, and Teo is one of them – possibly the only one. She has always kept her magic secret, but has used it to help her family. When an enemy, rival, or other problematic person threatens them, she is quick to secretly transform them into pretty trinkets that now line her bedroom’s shelves.

Then one day, Teo’s entire world is shaken. First, her father is poisoned and falls into a coma. The new capo, who rules the five families, claims credit for the assassination attempt and summons a family representative to the capital. Teo believes she is the best choice among her father’s children to assume this task – after all, she has been secretly defending her family for years. However, Toe is also a daughter in a world where her gender effectively disqualifies her from leadership.

Yet on the same day her father falls, Teo meets Cielo. Cielo is beguiling, witty, and possibly quite dangerous. Like Teo, Cielo is a strega. And a gender fluid strega at that! Cielo’s appearance, combined with their ability to completely transform their appearance, give Teo hope that she too can transform, allowing her to travel to the capital and confront the capo. With the help of Teo’s brilliant younger brother Luca, she and Cielo set off for the capital in an uneasy alliance, one that will need to be unbreakable to survive the deceit, cruelty, and corruption that await them.

The Brilliant Death is full of mythical magic, fantastical world-building, and political intrigue in a kingdom stuffed with dastardly criminals and dashing rogues. It also prominently features queer romance, a thoughtful approach to identity, and complicated presentations of family, loyalty, and betrayal.  I’m not saying it’s a perfect book, but for me it comes pretty darn close!

Attention Hollywood

It’s been a really great year for YA movie adaptations. Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda was made into the charming and sweet (if poorly renamed) Love, Simon. To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before which took Netflix by storm. And The Hate U Give was a critical hit at a timely moment. It’s a bit of a reach, but I’d even argue that Black Panther was a YA adaptation considering where we shelve the comics. But am I satisfied? Never! I want to see more of my favorite characters head to the screen so I can fret that Hollywood will ruin them and rejoice the few times that they do not. Luckily for all the producers, project developers, and screen writers out there, I’m happy to do the leg work for them. I want Nic Stone’s Odd One Out to be the next big thing.

81A39u7iP5LOdd One Out follows three teens, Courtney, Jupiter, and Rae, each of whom narrates a section of the book. Courtney is the first narrator. A high school basketball phenom, he lost his father to a tragic accident years ago and lives with his single mother. He is well-adjusted, kind, and introspective. He is also secretly, hopelessly, and madly in love with Jupiter, his longtime best friend. Jupiter is  quick-witted, Freddy Mercury obsessed, and an engaged activist and community leader. Though Courtney and Jupiter share almost everything, he can’t bring himself to tell her about his feelings. In addition to risking their friendship, it would be an exercise in futility. Though Jupiter deeply loves Courtney, it could never be romantic. Jupiter is gay.

As the book follows Jupiter and Courtney into their junior year of high school, they are thrown a curveball. Rae is a bright, bubbly, and endearing student who has just moved to town and transferred to their school. She quickly becomes an integral member of their group, but she also creates the friction that might destroy their friendship. From the moment Rae shows up it is clear that Jupiter has feelings for her. And as Courtney desperately attempts to get over Jupiter, he begins to like Rae as well. And Rae? Rae might just be falling for both of them! I hesitate to use the phrase “love triangle” because it feels cheap and hackneyed, but if the shoe fits….

What follows is a fun, dramatic, and sometimes stressful series of adventures and misunderstanding for these three teens, including a strange but emotionally resonant side story featuring a long-forgotten children’s entertainer. I fell deeply in love with all of the characters in this book, and I lived and died with their every triumph and defeat. But Stone’s work is also a deep, moving, and well constructed consideration of identity, sexuality, and the expectations placed on teens. In the author’s note, Stone explains why she wrote Odd One Out:

“It’s a book I needed at twelve, when I was skittish at slumber parties and worried about playing truth-or-dare because I didn’t want the other girls to know about the fire I felt below my navel when I watched them kiss each other and stuff. I needed it at fifteen, sixteen, seventeen, when I would change for cheer practice separate from the other girls because I didn’t want anybody to catch me looking. (Flee temptation! My Bible said.) I needed it at twenty-one, when trying to navigate intense romantic feelings for a female friend. And I need it now as I continue to waffle between labels. (Am I bisexual? Pansexual? Queer? Herteroflexible? All of the above? None of the above?)”

I’m confident that it’s still a book that tweens, teens, new adults, and grown-ass adults still need, whether they’re questioning their own identities or could just use a window into the lives of others to build empathy and be better allies. Of course on top of all that, it is also a fun, satisfying, and smart story that I could not put down. Now someone make me my damn movie.

Oh Mother Where Art Thou?

I always enjoy the little surprises that books can provide. Recently, I finished a fantastic book while on vacation. It followed a young man haunted by the disappearance of his mother, grappling with adulthood, identity, and a tumultuous, changing world. It was the kind of book that stays with you, suppressing any desire to begin something new. I needed a book for the rest of my trip but had no idea what I wanted. Luckily I was visiting two friends with strong opinions and great taste. They clued me in to another incredible novel, this one about a young man haunted by the disappearance of his mother, grappling with adulthood, identity, and….you guessed it, a tumultuous, changing world.

Despite this coincidence, these books both feature rich, nuanced characters in very different circumstances. It was a pleasure to stumble into their lives one-after-the-other, and to have the opportunity to discover the links between them as their stories unfolded.

51ru-JNuaDLIn Lisa Ko’s The Leavers, Deming Guo is introduced as a boy living with his mother and her boyfriend in the Bronx. Deming’s life is far from perfect- his family has little money, he struggles in school, and he argues with his mother. But they love each other fiercely and seem to have an unbreakable bond. This makes it all the harder when Deming’s mother suddenly disappears without explanation, leaving him shattered and alone. Eventually Deming is put in foster care then adopted by a well-meaning but aloof white couple who take him to live upstate and, hoping to help him fit in, change his name to Daniel.

The narrative follows Deming both as a child, coming to terms with his mother’s disappearance and his strange new life, and as Daniel, a recent college dropout desperate to make a name for himself among the ultra-cool of the Lower East Side and Brooklyn. As Daniel’s life begins to unravel, the narrative also expands to include the story of his mother, how she came to America, and the real reason she disappeared from Daniel’s life.

The Leavers is a painful but redemptive story of family, immigration, assimilation, and identity. Ko methodically reveals Daniel’s and his mother’s stories, bringing careful attention to their struggles, their triumphs, and their flaws. Daniel repeatedly finds himself on the outside looking in. In upstate New York he feels too Chinese; among New York City’s hipsters, he feels like an impostor from upstate. When he finally visits China, he feels conspicuously and inescapably American. Ko’s narrative may be at its strongest when Daniel is puzzling through his questions about identity, but through Daniel’s birth mother’s story, Ko also deftly brings attention to the cruelty and inhumanity of America’s militarized immigration enforcement system.

saleemhaddad-guapaOn its face, Guapa, by Saleem Haddad, is a very different kind of story. Guapa follows a young man named Rasa who lives in an unnamed Arab country during and after the Arab Spring. Like Daniel, Rasa struggles to escape his memories of his mother, who disappeared when he was a child. Rasa is also facing a crisis point. His grandmother just discovered him in bed with his boyfriend, who is also about to get married. To a woman. Rasa struggles to salvage this romance while keeping his identity under wraps in a society where knowledge of his sexuality is a legitimate danger to his life.

As Rasa struggles through a truly terrible day, his story shifts through time revealing details of his childhood and the circumstances that led his mother to abandon him, his years as a college student in New York where he struggled to explore his sexuality and not be pigeonholed because of his ethnicity, and his traumatic days protesting during a period of revolutionary unrest in his homeland. Haddad also explores generational conflict in the Arab world. Rasa is one of many young people determined to change their country, but frustrated at every turn by a mix of oppression, extremism, and bureaucracy. On a personal level, Rasa struggles to understand his grandmother’s adherence to traditional values, particularly the idea of shame.

As Rasa’s day lurches towards decisive confrontations with the two largest figures in his life, his grandmother and his boyfriend, he contends with his own past, his country’s future, and the nagging fear that he may not have a place in the world around him. Rasa is a compelling character who seems caught in impossible circumstances, with the oppressive constraints of identity, expectations, and cultural norms bearing down on him with heart-wrenching weight.

I wish that Rasa’s New York could bleed into Daniel’s and the two could meet. While they come from very different circumstances, and want different things from their lives, they are both linked by the vacuum left behind when their mothers disappeared. Daniel might understand Rasa’s despair as he navigates his queerness and Arabness in a hostile homeland. And Rasa might understand the way that Daniel feels stretched as he tries to shed his Chinese heritage to please his adoptive parents while remaining desperate to reconnect with his mother and her roots. I, for one, felt lucky to discover these two young men and get lost in the murky, tumultuous years of their youths.