How I Learned I Love Thrillers

Currently Reading: Privilege, by Mary Adkins

News

CW: violence against trans women, transphobia, murder

I don’t normally share trans news that’s not book-related, however because this story is local and has touched my community, I want to post a short note that on December 22nd, a local trans woman and activist for trans rights, Julie Berman, was murdered in Toronto. Coming on the heels of transphobic violence being allowed to take place at Toronto Public Libraries, this death feels particularly poignant to me personally as I knew Berman through my work with Re:searching for LGBTQ2S+ Health. One of my colleagues recently described her as smart and sarcastic, beautiful and hilarious.

Selfie of Julie Berman.
Julie Berman

If you are in Toronto, please also keep in mind that the bookshop where I work, Another Story, is co-sponsoring an upcoming teach-in for trans allies featuring incredible trans women speakers Kai Cheng Thom and Gwen Benaway. Click on the image below for details.

A poster for TRANScend/TRANSform. Click the image for the Facebook event.

One last note is that the Emerging Writers reading series in Toronto (recently voted the best reading series in the city) is hosting a trans and non-binary writers event in March. The deadline to submit has been extended to January 22nd! If you are Toronto local or adjacent, and you have not published a book, get in there!

A tweet from @ewreading about their upcoming trans and non-binary Emerging Writers reading event.

Karen McManus and How I Learned I Love Thrillers

In late 2018 and early 2019, I was doing a lot of long distance driving. And I mean long distance. I routinely made the trek from Toronto to Denver, which takes a pretty steady two days on the road, with, in my case, an overnight in Des Moines, Iowa. What that drive means for me, especially when I do it alone or with my dogs, is a lot of audiobooks. I’ve become a Libby expert over the past few years, and I usually listen to most of them at 2x normal speed, especially when I’m on the road and trying to avoid drowsiness.

I have an audiobook routine. A few weeks before the trip, I’ll sit down with Libby, and put a selection of books on hold. Because I know I’ll be listening to the books straight through, I typically pick a type of book that’s a little different than what I might pick were I to spend a couple of days or weeks with a luxurious hardback. I pick things that are a little lighter, a little faster paced, sometimes things that seem extra engaging.

In January of 2019, I was making the drive back to Toronto, and it was a snowy one. It ended up taking me an extra day, because I got caught in a whiteout a few hours outside of London, and one of my dogs was injured. My brain was super foggy, and I had to be on my toes in the nasty weather. I decided to listen to a book that I’d seen on the shop shelves at Another Story, the indie in Toronto where I work. It had caught my eyes a couple of times, and I’d never read a YA thriller as an adult, so I figured it would probably keep me interested, and it would be good research for our teen, educator, and caregiver customers. The book was One of Us is Lying, by Karen M. McManus.

The cover of One of Us is Lying by Karen M. McManus, which shows four teens' photos, each with the face covered in lined paper. The title is written in red marker across the photos.

This book was McManus’ debut novel. A bunch of things about it surprised me. It felt raw. It felt more graphic than I had expected for a book written for teens. It felt just a little bit kitschy, in a way that I couldn’t decide if I liked or not. And also? It totally had me hooked. I listened to the whole thing. I wasn’t the only one who liked McManus’ work. At the end of 2019, this title had spent 100 weeks on the NYT bestseller list.

A tweet from Karen McManus, celebrating the 100th week on the NYT Bestseller List for One of Us is Lying.

I had a rough 2019, as so many people did. About halfway through the year, after going through a lot of ups and downs with my psychiatric disabilities, some of my personal struggles had come to a head, and I was having trouble focusing on anything – least of all, books. I looked back at what I had read throughout the year, and I thought back to McManus’ book, and I thought… she has another title, right? I listened to it on audio again, and truth be told? I liked it a lot more than her first book.

The cover of Two Can Keep A Secret, which is reminiscent of the cover of One of Us is Lying.

I originally thought that this was the sequel to One of Us is Lying, but it quickly became obvious that I was mistaken. I stuck with it, and was pleasantly surprised. I had been reading a lot of spooky stories and YA horror through the first half of 2019, and the amusement park in a small town setting struck a gothic chord with me that high school detention had missed in McManus’ first book. The characters were richer, and the story took more twists and turns.

As 2019 progressed, I decided to embrace the small joys that I was experiencing. I leaned hard in whenever something made me happy. I collected Pokémon cards and started playing PoGo after the release of the nostalgic and charming Detective Pikachu. My partner and I bought an ice cream maker, and a book called *Incredible Vegan Ice Cream* by Deena Jalal, and we made (and ate) so much inexpensive ice cream. And when I realized that teen thrillers were the kinds of books that I could read quickly, and that would suck me in and distract me from the rest of the world? Well.

I read a bunch of them. Some of them speculative, and others just good old fashioned thrillers. I don’t really read books written by white cis men very often, so most of them had female authors… and the best ones had tonnes of plot twists. I started reading adult thrillers, with a particular interest in queer, feminist, domestic, psychological, and gothic novels. And soon, I realized that, whatever it says about me… murder is my comfort read.

These realizations completely changed and shaped my reading for the rest of the year. From realizing that this unsettling genre was my wheelhouse, my TBR swelled, I burned through so many fantastic and entertaining reads, I processed emotions, I made friends, and I discovered new authors who I had never considered picking up before.

During the #VillainAThon, a Halloween reading challenge I participated in this year, I crossed paths with Jennifer Donaldson and L. E. Flynn on Twitter, after being positively blown away by their books. They are both incredibly skilled female writers, and a pleasure to know. At the time, Flynn recommended Kara Thomas’ books to me, which I got from the library as quickly as I could, and gobbled them up. I’m so excited for Thomas’ book The Cheerleaders, which was the last hold to arrive, and for Flynn’s forthcoming title, All Eyes on Her.

I also discovered some mainstream adult authors who I honestly never thought I would enjoy. I admit, I’d seen these women on the shelves at the bookstore where I work, and I had written them off as likely too normative for my tastes. What can I say? Sometimes I just call it wrong. In the last few months of 2019, I have read three of Liane Moriarty’s books, and two of Ruth Ware’s, and I guarantee that the rest of the titles that these two authors have produced are high up on my list for 2020 reading. Not that they need my endorsement, but Big Little Lies, and in particular The Death of Mrs. Westaway were fantastic, and the latter quickly made it onto my favourites’ list.

So… that brings me back to Karen McManus. I was lucky enough to get an ARC of One of Us is Next, the actual sequel to One of Us is Lying, by @PenguinTeenCA earlier this year. Looking at McManus’ progression from her debut to her third book, the difference is staggering. This sequel takes place among the younger siblings and friends of the cast of her first book – a more diverse, nuanced cast, and a story that’s more tangled and engaging than before. It’s not surprising that McManus is now an international and NYT bestselling author, with yet another book on the docket following the January release of One of Us is Next. And I have her to thank for not only shaping my reading this past year, but also to opening my mind to a whole genre of literature that reflects my experiences and emotions in unexpected ways.

The cover of One of Us is Next, also reminiscent of McManus' previous books.

PS, if you enjoyed this post, please consider leaving me a tip! It only takes a minute, and it allows me to keep creating content just like this, buying food for my dogs, and pursuing completion of my education in social work.

A strip of film showing images of screaming faces and ghostly figures.

2019 In Review

Currently Reading: Keystone, by Katie Delahanty

News!

Get ready for your TBRs to balloon for the new year! Fellow trans blogger Corey Alexander brings you all the titles published in late 2019 with trans and/or non-binary authors. My top pick from this list are Pet, by Akwaeke Emezi, which I previewed earlier this year, and I’m most looking forward to Beyond the Black Door, by A. M. Strickland, which is on my TBR!

In response to the recent transphobic events at the Toronto Public Library, local independent bookstores are coming together to support trans writers and activists by co-hosting a teach-in at the 519 Community Centre on January 23rd. The store where I work is one of the organizers, so if you’re nearby, please come out and support the local trans and non-binary community.

Re-Introduction

When I first started this blog, one year ago, I wrote an introductory post, which gives a little bit of a window into what I’m about as far as my literary life is concerned. Because this blog and my reading in general is fairly politicized, and I believe that the personal is political, I’d like to offer a bit more information about myself that might give context to some of the 🔥hot takes🔥 that I post in this space.

A selfie of me in the bookshop where I work. I have medium complexion white skin, pink curly hair that is shaved on the right side and has dark roots, clear plastic frame glasses, and no makeup. I'm wearing a black tank top and a grey sports bra, and tattoos are visible on my shoulders. Bookshelves are visible in the background.
Me! 2019.

These are the facts about me that my Twitter bio won’t tell you!

  • Although legally I have to, I don’t capitalize my name. It’s emmy!
  • I’ve been (as) vegan (as possible, depending on where I was living) for more than 20 years! That said, I am firmly in solidarity with Indigenous and other marginalized people who cannot or do not engage with that life – especially (but not limited to) the Indigenous people who sustain their communities through the seal hunt and the deer harvest at Short Hills.
  • I’m a social work researcher, mostly focusing on LGBTQ2S+ health, and wellbeing of working dogs in therapeutic environments. In my previous life, I went to college for circus arts, and spent nearly a decade performing and coaching at a professional level. My specialities were juggling and group acrobatics.
  • I grew up in Newfoundland, an island off the east coast of Canada, in the North Atlantic. The island is the occupied territory of the Innu, the Mi’kmaq, and the Beothuk, who were victims of genocide. My family in Newfoundland can be traced back at least 7 generations on the maternal side, and we are white colonizers. I was raised in a house with my mom, my grandmother, and my great-grandmother, just the four of us most of the time.
  • J’ai appris le français quand j’étais très jeune, et j’ai vécu la grosse majorité de ma vie l’en parlant comme langue principale, alors que je me considère comme francophone.
  • My hobbies, when I have the time and energy, include film photography, snail mail (I collect postcards), roller skating, embroidery, cooking, and recently I’ve started playing video games occasionally. Oh! I also like to read!
  • I share my life with a lot of pets! Right now, that includes living primarily with an eleven year old retired racing greyhound, two formerly feral maine coon cats, and one five month old (by the time this gets posted!) deaf Dalmatian puppy. Their names are Boom, Whisper, Willow, and Pavot (pronounced pav-oh, it’s French for “poppy”, as in poppyseed). You can find them on Insta!
  • I’m polyamorous and have two relationships with genderqueer trans folks. My partner lives in Toronto, and I have a theyfriend and Denver. I am questing for a word that accurately describes “polyamorous but in no way seeking new romantic relationships,” because my life is as populated as I can handle it being.
  • I have diagnosed psychiatric disabilities and chronic illness, both of which are hormone-related (PMDD, chronic major depression, general and social anxiety, and PCOS). It’s also likely that I am on the autism spectrum, and I have most of the symptoms of borderline personality disorder, although these are both more or less undiagnosed.
  • Other alphabet soup diagnoses that play a big role in my life through the people I love are PTSD and DID.
  • I have a very small social circle, and most of my close friends are relationships that I primarily nurture online, in large part because I have am neuroatypical and have a disorganized anxious attachment style.
  • I love bees and kākāpō, but I have a lot of favourite animals.
  • Recently, I have been trying to come up with the books that I would take with me if I was going to be indefinitely stranded on a desert island, and so far, I think they would be The House of the Spirits, by Isabel Allende; The Tea Dragon Festival, by Katie O’Neill; Pet, by Akwaeke Emezi; Our Homesick Songs, by Emma Hooper; Gingerbread, by Helen Oyeyemi; and Not Quite Narwhal, by Jessie Sima.

2019 By the Numbers

All these numbers are current as of December 20, 2019.
My 2018 In Review can be seen here!

How many books I read in 2017: 41
How many books I read in 2018: 57
How many books I read in 2019: 124
First book read: One of Us is Lying, Karen McManus
Last book read: Truly Madly Guilty, Liane Moriarty
Average length: 287 pages

Books by POC: 52
POC MC: 43
Male authors: 33
Female authors: 160
Non-binary and/or authors: 5
Queer authors: 46
Queer MC: 45

Middle Grade: 18
YA: 74
Adult: 101
Graphic: 5
Short story or anthology: 1
Non-fiction: 37
Memoir: 9
Lit Fic: 55
Poetry: 3
SFF: 46
Thriller: 28
Horror: 18

Purchases: 26
Library: 60
ARC: 105

Digital: 108
Print: 50
Audio: 36

½ Star Books: 3
⭐️ Books: 21
⭐️ ½ Books: 0
⭐️⭐️ Books: 27
⭐️⭐️ ½ Books: 9
⭐️⭐️⭐️ Books: 24
⭐️⭐️⭐️ ½ Books: 28
⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ Books: 26
⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ ½ Books: 9
⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ Books: 41

January: 8
February: 11
March: 6
April: 11
May: 14
June: 16
July: 11
August: 11
September: 17
October: 7
November: 6
December: 6

Reading challenges I participated in: #VillainAThon

DNF: 68
Currently reading (unfinished in 2019): Keystone, Katie Delahanty; The Death of Mrs. Westaway, Ruth Ware; Amanda Greenleaf, Ed Kavanagh
Favourite books of the year: Little Apocalypse, Katherine Sparrow; The Collected Schizophrenias, Esmé Weijun Wang; The Wise and the Wicked, Rebecca Podos; Wilder Girls, Rory Power; Pilu of the Woods, Mai K. Nguyen; Pet, Akwaeke Emezi; In the Dream House, Carmen Maria Machado; The Tea Dragon Festival, Katie O’Neill; The Darkest Part of the Forest, Holly Black; I Know You Remember, Jennifer Donaldson; Your House Will Pay, Steph Cha; We Unleash the Merciless Storm, Tehlor Kay Mejia; The Seep, Chana Porter
Favourite picture books released this year (not otherwise included in stats above): My Footprints, Bao Yi; Stormy, by Guojing; No Room for a Pup, Laurel Molk and Liz Suneby; It Feels Good to Be Yourself, Theresa Thorn and Noah Grigni; King Mouse, Cary Fagan and Dena Seiferling; Princess Puffybottom… and Darryl, Susin Nielsen and Olivia Chen Mueller, Truman, Jean Reidy; Ping, Ani Castillo; The Cyclops Witch and the Heebie-Jeebies, Kyle Sullivan and Derek Sullivan, The Scarecrow, Beth Ferry and the Fan Brothers; The Rabbit Listened, Cori Doerrfeld

Upcoming in 2020

So far, I have three 2020 plans. First: to integrate the reading challenge that my online book community, the Rogue Book Coven, is hosting for next year! Just to be clear, I had no hand at all in creating this – but I’m really glad for the work of some of our other members, who put this majestic thing together. If you want to read along with us, find us on various social media platforms at #CovenBookChallenge throughout 2020! POI for anyone who decides to follow along: we use the octopus emoji (sometimes, gratuitously) to mean hugs!

Second, to my actual delight and pleasure, I recently joined the planning team for the Festival of Literary Diversity (FOLD), held in Brampton each May. As such, I’m looking forward to curating and participating in the FOLD reading challenge in 2020 as well. The challenges aren’t 100% finalized yet, but you can check out past challenges here.

Last but not least, following a tweet from Esmé Weijun Wang, I committed to reading two Big, Long, Old Russian Books. Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy, and The Brothers Karamazov, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. This is legitimately the challenge that I’m most worried about so… wish me luck?

Most Anticipated of (Early) 2019

Wondering what you can look forward to me chatting about next year? In January, I’m going to be previewing Karen McManus’ upcoming sequel to One of Us is Lying, the bestselling YA thriller, and chatting with author Chana Porter about gender and her Jewish Indigenous trans MC in The Seep, her unsettling and heartwarming dystopian alien invasion literary horror novel.

Some other Winter 2020 releases that I’m excited about reading? Non-binary Latinx author Anna-Marie McLemore’s new YA fantasy, Dark and Deepest Red, is a spooky modern fairy tale that spans generations. It drops on January 14th, and it’s right in my wheelhouse. I’m also looking forward to The Truants, by Kate Weinberg. It’s a thriller, and I’m curious to see if this NA is another millennial-appealing book in the vein of Such a Fun Age and Normal People, which I read earlier this year.

Kacen Callendar is the non-binary author of Hurricane Child, my favourite middle grade book of all time, and their next book, King and the Dragonflies, comes out this February. I’ll also definitely be checking out The Last Confession of Autumn Casterly, by Meredith Tate. It’s a spooky YA thriller, and my own teenage heart is stoked that this book has a musical, geeky protag, as a former band geek myself.

There are two final February releases I’m hoping to get to. I’m all about fancy school dramas, and Privilege by Mary Adkins is a feminist NA that deals with themes around sexual assault on a college campus. Since the #MeToo movement began, books with similar themes have definitely become more visible, and I’m hoping that Privilege will have something unique to offer. Finally, with some skepticism, I’m eyeing A Woman Like Her: The Short Life of Qandeel Baloch. This is Sanam Maher’s debut book, however she works as a journalist in Karachi, Pakistan. Without knowing a great deal about Baloch’s story, I’m hoping that Maher will have handled her story with sensitivity and respect.

PS, if you enjoyed this post, please consider leaving me a tip! It only takes a minute, and it allows me to keep creating content just like this, buying food for my dogs, and pursuing completion of my education in social work.

Sign off image - an open book with a bright green glowing eye in the centre and several small eyes around it.

Badass Illegal Funtimes!

Currently Reading: The Seep, by Chana Porter.

News

Before I jump into this week’s post, I want to do a quick shoutout to Gemma Hickey, fellow non-binary Newfoundlander, whose new book just hit shelves in time for holiday shopping.

The cover of Almost Feral, by Gemma Hickey, which shows a tree-lined highway disappearing into the distance against a cloudy grey sky.
The cover of Almost Feral.

From Breakwater Books, Almost Feral chronicles Hickey’s literal and figurative journeys – across the island, on foot, but also to the realization that they are transgender. There are so few visible non-binary folks from my little island that this book has been on my radar for a while. I haven’t gotten my hands on it yet, but I suspect it would be a great read for the Eat, Pray, Love crowd.

For more book recommendations for your holiday shopping, feel free to check out the holiday gift list from Another Story, the bookshop where I work! I contributed to this list, curated by our staff every year. Simply click on the image below to view it, and if you choose to purchase a book on the list, please consider supporting your local indie, and/or dropping a tip in my ko-fi.

A collage of five cover images, and a caption that reads Another Story Bookshop 2019 Holiday Gift List. The covers are, In the Dream House, Frying Plantain, I Hope We Choose Love, Pet, and Nibi's Water Song.

Quick Personal Note

This has been a wild ride, but I have two personal notes to make this week. First, this is the ONE YEAR ANNIVERSARY POST for Books Beyond Binaries. This project has become so near and dear to me, and I never imagined that I would enjoy it this much. I wanted to say thank you to everyone who’s supported the blog, and me, and trans and non-binary literature this year. If you are reading this, you have no idea what it means to me to have your support.

Relatedly, I had to say goodbye to one of my beloved dogs this weekend. This post may be a little more scattered than usual. I appreciate your understanding!

Dinner Date, affectionately known as D. August 1 2008 – December 7 2019.

New from M. K. England: Spellhacker!

Two books laying in some festive foliage. Underneath, a hardback of The Disasters, a space helmet on a pink background. On top, an ARC of Spellhacker, a purple galaxy print cover with sparkly gold text.
Spellhacker and The Disasters, by M. K. England.

Readers may know queer author and librarian M. K. England from her queer YA space opera debut, The Disasters, which came out in 2018. I am thrilled that today’s post is part of the blog tour for England’s sophomore novel, Spellhacker! This new book is the story of a heist gone wrong in a futuristic world with magic, starring a girl named Diz who is basically a cactus secretly filled with marshmallow. Diz is joined by her non-binary childhood friend Remi (who she is definitely not dating), her fierce bestie Ania, and her dad-friend Jaesin.

For this post, I asked England to tell me a bit more about our heroine: Diz.

So, here’s the thing about Diz from SPELLHACKER: There’s the person she thinks she is, and the person she actually is. She is a champion self-liar. She’s a Hufflepuff who thinks she’s a Slytherin, a cactus secretly filled with marshmallow. It makes taking personality quizzes on behalf of Diz kind of challenging, because… am I taking this as the more self-aware Diz at the end of the book, as the angry, oblivious Diz at the beginning of the book, or as the author who knows her true heart? Take a look at the results and see what you think. 🙂

M. K. England

First off, let’s start with something basic… we asked Diz, What Dog Breed Are You?

Diz’s result in the What Dog Breed Are You quiz: Mutt!

Unfortunately, this wasn’t the most informative result. Being a mixed breed dog gives you all kinds of advantages in the evolutionary lottery, but there aren’t a lot of specific characteristics we can pin down from that: You’re a renegade, an artist, and you will not be confined to any sort of box. You have tons of real-life experience that makes you a great dinner-party guest with tons of stories. Plus, you are cute in that “je ne sais quoi” kind of way. Luckily, our collective Twitter feeds have been flooded with Which Three Disney Characters Are You? results!

Diz’s result in the Which Three Disney Characters Are You a Combo Of?

In this quiz, we learn SO MUCH MORE. Diz got some big personalities on this one – Megara, a young woman enslaved by Hades in Disney’s Hercules, Disgust, from Inside Out, and ice princess Elsa, from Frozen. Fierce and feminine, Diz definitely doesn’t want to be messed with: You’re sarcastic, opinionated, and fiercely independent. You blaze your own path and don’t let the rules of society dictate how you live your life. Although you boast about your tough exterior, you actually have a very sensitive heart and fall in love easily.

Diz’s result in the Which Type of Explorer Are You quiz: You’re a climber!

Next, we asked what kind of explorer Diz would be. Our lovable but formidable heroine aptly got “climber”: Brave like a rock climber, you’re a natural risk taker. Climbers scale rocks and mountainsides for fun. Like these daredevils, you never say no to a good challenge of any kind. Friends rely on you to take adventures to new heights!

Since England’s previous book was set in space, and Spellhacker is more of a fantasy, I had to ask Diz – did she feel more like an alien or an Earthling? Turns out, England’s new MC may have a little disaster in her yet…

Diz’s result in the Are You More of an Earthling or an Alien Quiz: Alien!

If you weren’t born among the stars, you certainly should live there now. Since you likely came to us from afar, you embody a vibrant spirit of curiosity, wonder, and exploration. Never relinquish your love of space, alien friend!

Last, but not least, it would be a total travesty to have a queer as heck book, and not ask of the MC, What Kind of Rainbow Are You?!

Your rainbow is intensely shaded green, red, and black.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

What is says about you: You are an intelligent person. You appreciate mystery. You may meet people who are afraid of you. You get bored easily and want friends who will keep up with you.

Find the colors of your rainbow at spacefem.com.

This one gets Diz spot on: You are an intelligent person. You appreciate mystery. You may meet people who are afraid of you. You get bored easily and want friends who will keep up with you.

…of course, it was too tempting to read all of Diz’s results, and not wonder what mine would be. Would I be able to keep up with this badass? Dear reader, definitely not. This pug polar explorer with a greyed out rainbow is firmly rooted to the earth. And my Disney characters? Predictable: Alice in Wonderland, Sully from Monsters Inc., and Peter Pan. Lighthearted, confusing, cozy adventures only, for me. I’m glad that I can at least live vicariously through Diz in Spellhackers!

England is hosting a HUGE pre-order campaign for this book, which officially launches on January 21, 2020, with HarperTeen. If there are fans of Marie Lu, Space Unicorn Blues, or Nicky Drayden on your holiday gift list or if you read and loved Alex Harrow’s Empire of Light earlier in 2019, you should definitely get in on this, and get all the rad Spellhacker swag – a bookmark, stickers, a signed bookplate, a postcard, and some additional digital goodies are all on the table for this one.

PS, if you enjoyed this post, please consider leaving me a tip! It only takes a minute, and it allows me to keep creating content just like this, buying food for my dogs, and pursuing completion of my education in social work.

A badge that reads Spellhacker Launch Crew member.

Trans-Affirming Picture Books 2019

Currently Reading: Gideon the Ninth, by Tamsyn Muir.

Several months ago, I wrote a post that was a roundup of picture books from 2018 that were – if not explicitly trans-celebratory – trans-affirming. I decided to do the same thing to close out this year, with some of my favourites from 2019.

Here’s the thing: I have the best complaint this year. I tried to do the same thing with this list as I did with my 2018 list, and go broad – including lots of books that were not QT explicit, but that could still be considered affirming (see: my favourite picture book of all time, Not Quite Narwhal, by Jessie Sima). And there were too many. I had to narrow this list a lot. And this post is long.

The books I chose are an assortment from board books to child-friendly graphic novels. Some have trans characters, while others have themes of celebrating difference or gender non-conformity, and some are books that are naturally gender-neutral. Either way, they are all fantastic reads that any young person (QT or not) would be happy to have in their collection.

My Shape is Sam, by Amanda Jackson, and illustrated by Lydia Nichols, tells the story of a character named Sam in a binary world. While circles and squares have distinct roles in this world, Sam longs to be a circle, although he is a square. This book is an affirming exploration of identity and non-conformity, through a simple, geometric story.

I was charmed by A Little Bit Different, by Claire Alexander. It’s a simple and whimsical story about not fitting in, and eventually finding your place and being celebrated. Likely not coincidentally, the colours in this book are rainbow-themed, which makes it a nice under-the-radar Pride book.

You Are New by Lucy Knisley is the perfect gift for new parents of infants, or very young children. This book is written entirely in the second person, and the illustrations are diverse, making it a great gender-neutral choice that’s hard to fault.

What Riley Wore, by Elana K. Arnold, and illustrated by Linda Davick, has an explicitly gender-creative main character in Riley, whose story explores self-expression through clothing. This book is a great companion book to Harriet Gets Carried Away, by Jessie Sima, and a perfect choice for any kid who loves to be creative through fashion.

Mary Wears What She Wants, by Keith Negley, is based on the true story of Mary Edwards Walker, a 19th century doctor who defied the gender stereotypes of her time, and faced incarceration because of the risks that she took. A historical trailblazer, this book is great for showing kids what can be accomplished when we don’t allow social expectations to define us.

A perfect contemporary companion to Mary Wears What She Wants, Patricia Toht and and Lorian Tu-Dean’s Dress Like a Girl is the story of a group of girls at a sleepover party who explore resisting gender stereotypes through what it means to bend the rules of dressing like a girl. Although this book is highly gendered, it’s a great book to encourage gender creativity.

2019 was a good year for rainbow-themed books – and finally some that aren’t written exclusively by white men! The first that I’ll write about is The Rainbow Flag: Bright, Bold, and Beautiful, by Michelle Fisher and illustrated by Kat Kuang. This book tells the story of the creation of the first Pride flag in 1978.

I am super excited about Ho’onani: Hula Warrior, by author Heather Gale, who currently lives in my Canadian local of Toronto, and illustrator Mika Song. Gale grew up in New Zealand, and Song was raised in Manila, Philippines and Honolulu, Hawai’i. This book tells the story of Ho’onani Kamai, a gender non-conforming hula dancer, who dreams of leading the all-male hula group at her school. Ho’onani is an explicitly non-binary main character, and the book is an exploration of empowerment through traditional culture.

This is the year for LGBTQ2S+ board books, in my opinion. In 2019, we got rad books for the youngest readers, like My Two Moms and Me and My Two Dads and Me by Michael Joosten and illustrated by Izack Zenou… and countless others. I actually started a list, but there are genuinely too many to be exhaustive here. There are a few that I found to be specifically trans-affirming in a way that’s accessible, however, and I’ve included them here. The first is Pride Colors, by Canadian author Robin Stevenson, is a board book for young readers introducing the colours of the Pride flag, and affirming the freedom of children to always be who they want to be.

Cover of I Promise.

I Promise is written by the incredible Catherine Hernandez, whose previous picture book, M is for Mustache: A Pride ABC Book is one of my favourites. Hernandez is of Filipino, Spanish, Chinese and Indian heritage, and she is married into the Navajo Nation. She is one of the locals who I have occasion to see on stage pretty regularly, and I am a huge admirer. She recently performed burlesque at my shop’s Toronto launch of Cherie Dimaline’s new novel, Empire of Wild. The illustrator of I Promise is trans artist Syrus Marcus Ware, who is also a core team member of Black Lives Matter Toronto.

I had the honour to be present for the launch of I Promise at the Toronto indie where I work, Another Story bookshop. The event was rush-moved to our store from the Toronto Public Library, since Hernandez and Ware were among the authors supporting the trans community in Toronto as they spoke out against the transphobic hate speech event that was held there and supported by the City Librarian, Vickery Bowles (I wrote about this in a previous post). The launch featured Fluffy and Fay, local drag queen story time celebrities.

Hernandez’ reading of I Promise was engaging and charming, and had all of the kids in the room joining in and listening rapt. This is a book that I would recommend to any child, since its primary subject matter is non-nuclear families, which is particularly affirming to LGBTQ2S+ folks who are part of or have built families that are rarely reflected in children’s literature. It’s also illustrated by a trans artist, who is great role model for trans kids who aspire to careers in the arts one day.

When Aidan Became a Brother is an #OwnVoices picture book by trans masculine author and librarian Kyle Lukoff, and illustrated by Kaylani Juanita, that tells the story of a young trans boy who is becoming a sibling for the first time. It’s a beautifully illustrated diverse book, and while it is nuanced, there’s no overt villain. It’s a refreshing take on a trans narrative, penned by an insider author.

There is nothing specifically trans-affirming in Incredible You by Rhys Brisenden and Nathan Reed, except that the book is centred on self-affirmation and positivity. I decided to include it here because it’s a fun book that could resonate with any child, and it’s a vibrant feast for the eyes. For someone looking for a bit more of a general inclusive read, this would be an uplifting, safe pick.

I Am Not a Fox by Karina Wolf and illustrated by Chuck Groenink is one of my favourite trans and/or non-binary affirming books of the year. It tells the story, through charming and adorable illustrations, of Luca, who looks like a fox, but acts like a dog. To no one’s surprise, this book has been compared to Not Quite Narwhal, by Jessie Sima – my all-time favourite picture book – because both books remind readers that you don’t need to choose to be just one thing in order to find your place in the world. Also? This book is cute AF, has a charming feminine protagonist, and is great for animal lovers big or small.

Another one of my favourites this year, and the second #OwnVoices picture book on this list, is It Feels Good to Be Yourself, illustrated by non-binary artist Noah Grigni, and written by parenting writer and podcaster Theresa Thorn. The art in this book is breathtaking, and there is fantastic diverse representation throughout. The book is part story, part educational, and explains many concepts of gender in accessible, age-appropriate ways, without leaning heavily on binary stereotypes in either the text or artwork. This is a fantastic primer for any kid or parent to learn how to talk about gender, how to explore gender, and how to have affirming and creative conversations about gender. If I had to pick one picture book this year to put in every classroom and every home, it would be this one.

Sarah Hoffman, Ian Hoffman, and Chris Case are back in 2019 with Jacob’s Room to Choose, the follow up to their 2014 title, Jacob’s New Dress. In this new title, Jacob and a new friend, Sophie, tackle the dreaded issues of gendered school washrooms, prejudice, and self-expression.

Sam!, written by Dani Gabriel and illustrated by Robert Liu-Trujillo, feels like a bit of a throwback to me, but it’s always nice to see that there are more explicit trans stories on the shelves as time goes on. This book is similar to I Am Jazz, in that it tells the coming out story of a trans youth, and it is based on a true story. In Sam!, the MC is trans masculine.

Local author Ishta Mercurio, who wrote the recent picture book Small World, turned me on to Ogilvy as a trans-affirming story. This story, from Deborah Underwood and illustrated by T. L. McBeth, is about a bunny named Ogilvy who moves to a new town, where activities are gender-prescribed. As the pub copy reveals, Ogilvy shows readers that the clothes don’t make the bunny, and embraces all the fun things there are to do. This story is useful for deconstructing gendered expectations, as well as affirming for non-binary kids.

Rainbow: A First Book of Pride, by Michelle Genhart and illustrated by Anne Passchier, and GayBCs, by M. L. Webb, are two more board books that came out this year. Rainbow focuses specifically on LGBTQ2S+ families, and would be most appropriate during the Pride season or for a child who is part of a family who identifies as such, and the GayBCs are an accessible exploration of the LGBTQ2S+ lexicon through the alphabet – including words such as “non-binary”!

Our Rainbow, from Little Bee Books in partnership with GLAAD, is perhaps my favourite 2019 board book, because not only is it a book that’s age-accessible, it’s also the first book that I’ve seen that features the updated Pride flag that includes Black and Brown stripes. If I had to pick one board book for new QT parents or a young child, this would be it. The story is a simple, colourful exploration of the flag, each colour has a different artist who worked on the illustrations, and the book has an interesting geometric design (the board itself is in the shape of the waving flag).

For slightly older readers, Not Yet a Yeti by Lou Treleaven and illustrated by Tony Neal is funny, trendy, and symbolically affirming of the trans experience, particularly for young people undergoing or wanting to learn about medical transition. In this rainbow-themed book with flashy illustrations, a family of yetis has a child who doesn’t wish to grow up to be a yeti, but rather chooses to grow up to be a unicorn. Affirmed by his family, the young yeti becomes a unicorn, and finds a fulfilling role in the social ecosystem! It’s a lighthearted, uplifting story, and it will make young readers laugh.

A final board book put out in 2019, An ABC of Equality introduces young readers to social justice concepts, including LGBTQ2S+ inclusion, in an age-appropriate way. Written by Chana Ginelle Ewing and illustrated by Paulina Morgan, this one doesn’t pull any punches, and is perfect for early activists – plus it has on the page representation of diversity in physical ability.

And last, but absolutely not least, Except When They Don’t by Laura Gehl and illustrated by Joshua Heinsz is colourful, and rhyming, and super engaging! This is another book in partnership with GLAAD, and it focuses explicitly on deconstructing gendered stereotypes about toys and play. This would be a great fit with other books in this list, like Ogilvy, or favourites from last lear, like Jamie is Jamie, by Afsaneh Moradian, and illustrated by Maria Bogade.

Cover of Let Me Out.

I would be remiss to not mention Let Me Out! A pop-out about coming out., by Omid Razavi. This Kickstarted pop-up book is super rad. The art is absolutely incredible, and the book has on the page representation of many different parts of the LGBTQ2S+ community. Although it may seem most applicable to a queer “coming out”, this book should really be in the hands of all young people.

For some reason, it’s incredibly difficult to find videos and images of this book in its finished state. The book’s website has an FAQ and a few computer-generated images of the cutouts inside the book, but it doesn’t do the finished product justice. This is a great tool to open conversations about sharing information about identity. The only aspect of this book that doesn’t resonate with me personally is that one of the main characters appears representative of drag culture, and that’s not something that I find helpful to me. That said, it does mean that much of the book is colourful, spirited, and glitter-filled!

Cover of Phoenix Goes to School.

There was one book that was published in 2018 that I missed in my wrap-up list from last year, and that I came across when compiling this list. I would be remiss not to write about Phoenix Goes to School, by Michelle and Phoenix Finch, and illustrated by Sharon Davey. Written with input from Phoenix, this story is about a gender non-conforming youth going to school and having conversations about gender for the first time. It is intended to support trans readers aged 3 and up who are navigating worries about being bullied.

I know that graphic novels and picture books are not the same thing. However, for readers who are taking the first steps from picture books to reading more complex texts (usually chapter books), graphic novels can be a great stepping stone. They can also be great for older readers who love illustrated work. These two graphic novels are two of my favourite books this year, and they are 100% child-appropriate. They would make great read aloud choices, or books for a group of readers at different levels to share.

Pilu of the Woods by Mai K. Nguyen tells the story of Willow, a character who is not explicitly gendered, as they learn to navigate complex emotions, while at the same time developing a relationship with Pilu, a tree spirit who is lost in the woods near where Willow lives. The illustrations in this book are unique and detailed, both cute and incredibly evocative. This story feels heavily steeped in nature, and I found it intensely relatable as an adult reader. Everyone should read it. It’s charming AF.

I was so excited for the release of Katie O’Neill’s The Tea Dragon Festival, sequel to The Tea Dragon Society, and it did not disappoint. If I’m being completely honest, I actually like this second volume better than the original story. There is skillful on the page representation of disability, Deaf culture, and gender and racial diversity. The prowess, humility, and gentleness, with which O’Neill delivers on representation in these whimsical and transportive stories, sets a high standard for other authors and artists.

Logo for the Launch Crew of MK England's upcoming book, Spell Hacker.

If you enjoyed reading these recommendations, and would like some of your own, head on over to my contact page, and send me a message! I love giving recs and readers’ advisory, and have lots of experience from my work as a bookseller.

PS, if you enjoyed this post, please consider leaving me a tip! It only takes a minute, and it allows me to keep creating content just like this, buying food for my dogs, and pursuing completion of my education in social work.

Guest Post: Poetry from a Former Skeptic

Currently Reading: A Madness of Sunshine, by Nalini Singh

This week, I am extraordinarily grateful to Beck Andoff, for providing me with a FANTASTIC guest post on a topic that I have neglected in my previous posts: poetry! I don’t read enough poetry, and I certainly don’t give it the coverage it deserves in this blog, so I’m glad that when I asked for a post from a fellow Toronto indie bookseller, this is what I got!

Andoff is somewhat of a local celebrity, and someone who I very much look up to in my local indie bookshop world, who can sometimes be heard sharing their book recommendations on Metro Morning!

Beck is a cheerful, messy queer whose gender could best be described as HIM from Powerpuff Girls. Too much gender for one tired anxious depressive body. Beck manages two locations of Type Books in Toronto, reads a lot of pop culture crit and micro histories, and lives with Bill Pullman the malamute mutt.

I’m honoured to host this guest post and share their poetry recommendations in this space!

From Beck: Queer Poetry

The Gay Agenda is just about getting you to read poetry.

Once upon a time, I loved being that smug 20 year old jerk who dismissed poetry as boring. I was yucking people’s yum left, right, and centre. In the years of bookstore experience I had before I worked at Type, I never ONCE handsold a poetry book.

But then, one day this past fall, The Queers got me. They caught me with the simplest little poem in the teeniest prettiest little book (Sennah Yee’s How Do I Look), and made me realize that poetry could be irreverent and current and kind of ridiculous and still have bite to it. The year since then has been an excited process of discovering just how much of a contrary fool I was to be missing all this for a decade. So here’s a little list of my fledgling queer poetry collection recommendations from someone who hasn’t a fuckin clue how to talk about poetry.

Holy Wild by Gwen Benaway

Wow. Gwen is a trans girl of Anishinaabe and Métis descent (and a hero of the trans/NB/GNC community here in Toronto right now), and this poetry collection ACHES. It’s righteous and exhausted and graceful and very, very real. And tremendously readable for something that deals with some incredibly painful subjects. Take your time with this one, and watch her work forever.

Hera Lindsay Bird by Hera Lindsay Bird

This miserable joyous snarky work by bisexual New Zealander Hera Lindsay Bird fully embraces rooting her pieces in time with frequent absurd references to pop culture, like the poem MONICA… which is about Monica from Friends. She also just has some of the best titles in the game: KEATS IS DEAD SO FUCK ME FROM BEHIND, WILD GEESE BY MARY OLIVER BY HERA LINDSAY BIRD, BRUCE WILLIS YOU ARE THE GHOST.

Don’t Call Us Dead by Danez Smith

Danez Smith is often one of the best things about my twitter newsfeed— their recent (joke) thread about top privilege was a thing of beauty (I caught myself literally saying to someone “it’s funny because it’s true!”). Their poetry’s really tremendous. Not an easy read for me— fragmented and abstract, plays with form— but very worth it. a note on Vaseline is one that burned its way into my heart and brain.

How Do I Look by Sennah Yee

Every one of these itsy-bitsy poems was a precious lil jewel of delight for my soul. Irreverent and goofy and artful and specific. I am endlessly tempted to get the whole of the poem My Type tattooed on my body.

NDN Coping Mechanisms by Billy-Ray Belcourt

Griffin-winning poet. He tangles longing and gay sex and colonization, and his style is an amazing clash of academic and conversational. And he has a poem titled AND SO I ANAL DOUCHE WHILE KESHA’S ‘PRAYING’ PLAYS FROM MY IPHONE ON REPEAT. Come on. My standard for all poetry now is unflinching reference to the realities of queer sex prep, apparently.

Lunch Poems by Frank O’Hara

Why had none of my jerk friends never told me Frank O’Hara was queer? Rude. He writes yearning and contentment and wanting to be loved like absolutely no one else, and with precise clarity of language. His poetry often feels like a warm bath. Reading this really makes me wonder if it was fluke that I wasn’t born a white cis gay man writing poetry in the 1960s rather than white genderqueer queer person writing fuck-all at the end of the world.

Full-Metal Indigiqueer by Joshua Whitehead

Easily the most high-concept collection on this list. A Two-spirit Ojibwe Cree storyteller and writer (his novel Jonny Appleseed was visceral and RAW and sexy and heartbreaking), this collection uses a kind of scifi-meets-lore conceit, and I’ve never seen anything quite like it.

This is a list of poets that have captured me (mostly through my coworker Sasha’s amazing recommendations), but it is also the list of someone who has only been dipping their toe into poetry for less than a year. There’s a huge body of amazing queer poetry out in the world, and the right bookstores and libraries will be able to indoctrinate you better than I have.

PS, if you enjoyed this post, please consider leaving me a tip! It only takes a minute, and it allows me to keep creating content just like this, buying food for my dogs, and pursuing completion of my education in social work.

#VillainAThon Wrap Up

Currently Reading: Unfuck Your Boundaries, by Faith Harper

Welcome to the Relaunch of Books Beyond Binaries!

A green book that says "Books Beyond Binaries". There is an actual bone spine on the book spine with a skull at the top. Creepy stuff oozes out of the pages, and there is a purple background.

Since I started this blog last year, it has been my plan to commission a non-binary artist to create an aesthetic for this project that would be unique, and capture my personality and my interests, so that when people come to this site, it feels like something special. I was so lucky to get a chance to work with Ice, aka Bill Underwood, who created the incredible artwork that is now featured on this blog.

I love spooky books, and while I always want this blog to focus on LGBTQ2S+ literature, with a keen eye to trans and/or non-binary authors and books, I always want the blog to reflect me as its creator. I will always have a special place in my heart for spooky spec fic and feminist thrillers, and I believe that these books are often queer and move beyond binaries in their own ways. I grew up on fantasy novels and 90’s kidlit horror like Bunnicula and Goosebumps. Currently, YA and adult dark fantasy, paranormal horror, dystopian, post-apoc, magical realism, mystery, paranoid fiction, true crime, memoir, and thrillers make up a large portion of what I like to read. I am so excited to have this blog reflect these interests, and feel more like my space, thanks to the incredible art that Ice has produced for it.

To celebrate, and spread the word about my blog, I’ve decided to host a giveaway on my Twitter! If you help Books Beyond Binaries by spreading the word about the relaunch, you can get your hands on some awesome stickers of some of the art that Ice has created for this page. Keep your eyes on this space, because winners will be notified just in time for Halloween!

Also, if you’re as into Spooky Season as I am, @genderqueerwolf created a partially crowdsourced Halloween playlist, and honestly, I couldn’t make a better mood list for this site if I tried.

News: Transphobia Locally and in Publishing, and New Trans Research

Transphobic Hate Speech at TPL

The Toronto Public Library is one of the biggest and most well-used library systems in the world. It is a cornerstone of the Canadian literary community, and a community institution of which I am generally incredibly proud and fond of. However, the TPL recently chose to uphold a room reservation for a sold-out event that will give a platform to transphobic hate speech, by well-known trans-exclusive radical feminist Megan Murphy.

I am incredibly grateful to the folks who have spoken up in our community. First and foremost, trans folks in the literary community, including Indigenous poet Gwen Benaway, who has done some community organizing around this issue. In addition, the Toronto Public Library Workers, who create the safe spaces that myself and others inhabit when they visit the libraries, other author allies, Toronto Pride, Another Story Bookshop (the indie where I work), and even the Conservative city mayor, John Tory.

The event will go ahead tomorrow evening, and I encourage anyone in Toronto to attend the protest at the library where the event will be hosted.

New St. Martin’s Press Book

A book listing on Edelweiss+ for Savage Messiah: How Dr. Jordan Peterson is Saving Western Civilization.

Unfortunately, transphobia is also alive and well in publishing at large, and I was extremely disappointed to find a book entitled Savage Messiah, by Jim Proser. Proser has written two books for St. Martin’s Press previously, both biographies of conservative, American white male military personnel. His next book profiles transphobic Toronto-based psychologist Jordan Peterson (click for some background info). It is a huge disappointment to see St. Martin’s support this project, and if you would like to tell them about how this affects you or your community, they can be contacted at publicity@stmartins.com.

New Trans Research

I am part of a Facebook group for trans PhD students. This new academic article, entitled Tumblr Was a Trans Technology, was posted there this week. The authors met in the Facebook group, and co-authored this rad paper together. It’s open access, so be sure to check it out.

A Personal Note

I found out this week that my legal name change has been finalized! …that’s the tweet. I’m super excited.

A name change certificate from the province of Ontario.

#VillainAThon Wrap Up!

I am participating in my first ever readathon right now, the #VillainAThon! I need to say, for various life reasons, I am rocking this thing (even if it means that I’m struggling in some other areas!). You can read an update from the host blogger participants here, and I’ve decided to write mini-reviews for all the books that I’ve read over the past two months below.

Ky, aka @genderqueerwolf, visits Victoria Schwab, one of the inspirations for the Villain-a-Thon, at a public appearance at the Tattered Cover in Denver, CO.

I have read 15 books that qualify for this readathon, and I am super proud of myself! Since I love spooky books, especially around Halloween season, this Villain-themed readathon is right in my wheelhouse. The mini-reviews are posted in (mostly) chronological order below.

The covers of The Archived and The Unbound, which depict a key and ring respectively, with smoke coming out of the bottom of them, and a feminine face visible in the smoke.

The Archived and The Unbound, by Victoria Schwab

I had never read any of Schwab’s books before this challenge, and my experiences with them were mixed. One of the requirements was to read any of her books, so I went to my library and put holds on a bunch of them at the beginning of the month. I started with The Archived because it was the first one to be available. This book is set in a world where the souls of the dead are stored in an archived, and a girl who is charged with returning the dead to their places in the stacks when they escape. I liked it so much that I wound up reading its sequel as well, and just found out that it’s been optioned. It was a compelling duology with a unique premise, and I enjoyed reading both.

The Naturals, by Jennifer Lynn Barnes

I’m a bit type A, so I decided to get all the required reads for the challenge out of the way first. Schwab was the first that I completed, and then I had to choose a book off of the list provided by the host. The list was great, but included a bunch of books that I’d already read or DNF’d (The Devouring Gray, We Hunt the Flame, Sawkill Girls), which made it challenging to choose what I’d check out next! I landed on The Naturals, the first in a series about a group of teenagers with talents that lead them to be scouted by the FBI for a special training program. This book is tropey and unrealistic and fast-paced and everything I wanted it to be. If you’re looking for a good read for a night in the bath or plane ride, I would definitely recommend this series.

Salt, by Hannah Moskowitz

I immediately added Salt to my best books of the year when I finished it. It’s a story about a group of sea monster hunting siblings out to find their missing parents, and try not to get outwitted by pirates on the way. Romance isn’t the main plotline, and I loved every character in this book. It was haunting, and the world-building was detailed, but easy to digest. I loved it.

I Know You Remember, by Jennifer Donaldson

I can’t even say very much about this book, except that it has one of the best HOW DARE YOU moments of any YA thriller that I’ve read. It’s set in Alaska, where the author is from, and depicts a setting that is not often seen in mainstream literature. Coming from Newfoundland myself, it was highly relatable. Put this on your TBR – you won’t regret it.

Her Body and Other Parties, by Carmen Maria Machado.

Machado’s debut collection of short feminist horror stories got so much buzz in my circles, so although I am struggling with shorter forms lately, I decided to finally pick it off my shelf for this challenge. After reading an ARC of Machado’s memoir in September, though, I have to say that I had mixed feelings about this first book. Some of the stories were fantastic and chilling, but others, I didn’t wind up finishing. Although I would recommend Machado’s writing without hesitation to a horror fan, I would say that Her Body and Other Parties was more of a mixed bag for me than anything.

Half-Resurrection Blues, by Daniel José Older

So. I don’t read many books by men. But this one had been recommended to me by folks from my online book community, the Rogue Book Coven, and I decided to give it a chance because of Older’s great reputation. One of the things I loved about this book is that it’s so evident that it’s written by a person of colour in the best possible ways. One of the things I didn’t love about this book is that it’s so evident that it’s written by a man in the worst possible ways. I read it, but the toxic masculinity throughout, particularly obvious in the author’s portrayal of feminine characters, really ruined the experience for me.

Your House Will Pay, by Steph Cha

This book is finally available in stores, and if you don’t have it yet, it’s time to call your local indie and make sure they’re carrying it. This one is a must-read. An LA noir, Your House Will Pay felt like The Hate U Give for grown ups. I couldn’t put it down.

One Night Gone, by Tara Laskowski

This is my kind of beach read. Set in a seaside town in the dead of winter, and featuring a house that might be haunted and a girl who might have been murdered AND a badass roller derby team, this feminist thriller is spooky and winding and drew me in. I’m so glad that the thriller genre is finally producing powerhouse books written by and centred on feminine people. Pick this up when you need a summer chill on the seaside.

A Place Called Perfect, by Helena Duggan

I have not been in the headspace for a lot of middle grade recently, and it had originally been my plan to also read The Trouble With Perfect. That one is still on my TBR, though, because A Place Called Perfect was fantastic. Age-appropriate for middle grade, offbeat, and chilling. Bleeding eyeball plants, yall. True horror writing for the little ones. I would have eaten this up when I was a kid (and I ate it up now! No regrets).

The Hazel Wood, by Melissa Albert

I debated about including this book in my list, because the only requirement for books to be included was that there had to be a villain. Now, in thrillers, mysteries, and a lot of books for younger readers, the “bad guy” was pretty clear – at least by the end of the book. In Salt, there was no real antagonist, but sea monsters? Pretty villainous. In Your House Will Pay, ultimately there were multiple villains, and they were more complex and less straightforward. When I first listened to The Hazel Wood, having recently received an ARC for its forthcoming sequel, I was like, nope, no villain. I changed my mind, however. I think that there are a few candidates in this delicious fairy tale story for the title of villain, and I’d love to know who others think they might be.

The Body in Question, by Jill Ciment

After The Hazel Wood – yall, I hit a DNF wall. Part of it was just that woah life stuff came at me out of nowhere, and suddenly I had no real brain power for reading. I picked up The Body in Question because it was short, and murdery, and as has become PERFECTLY clear throughout this challenge… murder is my comfort read. This was a great book. Ultimately, it ended up being more about a woman coming to terms with a lot of heavy life stuff, and reconciling a lot of real world responsibilities in not-so-neat-and-tidy ways, and less about murder. Even so, it grabbed my attention enough to read the whole thing and really enjoy it.

Last Girl Lied To, by Laurie Elizabeth Flynn

I started this thriller on audio during the same stint of low executive function as when I picked up The Body in Question. By contrast, this was exactly what I expected it to be. Fast-paced, spine-tingling, high suspense, lots of twists and turns. As I tweeted at the author when I’d finished it, I’ve learned this year that “manipulative best friend who I am also kind of in love with” is very complex, and also possibly my favourite. Also in this vein, The Best Lies, and I Know You Remember (above).

The Ghost Bride, by Yangsze Choo

I came across this book on a list of spooky books for Halloween season, and I noticed that it had already been optioned for Netflix. It was available as an audiobook, so even though it skews somewhat historical fiction, I decided to go for it. Yall, it took me a minute to get through this one. Last Girl Lied To was actually a brain break I took in this middle of beginning The Ghost Bride on audio, and my three week loan expired and I had to borrow the eBook from the library to finish it. Although the ending of this book was unexpected and had me questioning the protagonist’s decision making skills, I still really enjoyed it. Filled with mythology and in an uncommon setting for books in the North American market, this book was lush and like nothing I’d ever read. I’m dying to know what the adaptation will be like, and that’s not a familiar feeling for me.

The Darkest Corners, by Kara Thomas

When I tweeted about having read Last Girl Lied To, the book’s author was kind enough to respond with some of her favourite toxic friendship book recs, including See All the Stars, by Kit Frick, and “any thriller by Kara Thomas. I went to Overdrive, and The Darkest Corners was available. I started reading it after a whirlwind week of relationship turbulence, puppy care, vet visits with my older dog who is on palliative care, and some strife in my PhD studies, on a day when my brain needed a break.

The Lying Game, by Ruth Ware

It was members of my online book community, the Rogue Book Coven, who originally recommended Ruth Ware to me. I was wary of trying her books, because it’s very unusual for me to enjoy books by a mainstream author. However, The Lying Game was available on audio through Libby one day before I had to take a long drive, and I started it, and I couldn’t put it down. I’m a sucker for any book with a spooky seaside setting, but this unsettling story with sublime pacing captivated me. I’ve already put all Ware’s other titles on hold through the library. Add this to your list of toxic friendship books that bowled me over.

And then, as anyone who follows my Twitter or Goodreads knows, I DNF a lot. Maybe more than a person should. I wanted to document the books that I tried to read, and didn’t quite get through, during this readathon. So here they are…

Lies You Never Told Me, by Jennifer Donaldson

The style of writing in Donaldson’s first book just wasn’t for me. Now that I know how good her second book is, though, I’m definitely going to go back and give this another go.

Girl on the Train, by Paula Hawkins

This book is a classic example of why I’m sometimes hesitant about mainstream authors. I started listening to this on audio, I was into it, and then suddenly there was a bunch of content about unhealthy substance use that just came out of nowhere. It felt unnecessary, and it totally turned me off of the book.

And the Trees Crept In, by Dawn Kurtagich

Seemingly unnecessary ableism in the first couple of chapters around one of the main character’s bodies made me DNF this immediately.

Hocus Pocus and the All New Sequel, by AW Jantha

I had hoped this 90’s cult classic would have aged better, and I was looking forward to the queer rep in the new book. Spoiler alert: it did not age well. Stick to the movie.

My Story, by Elizabeth Smart, and What is a Girl Worth, by Rachael Denhollander

I started both of these books, and it quickly became evident that they would be oriented toward a very white Christian worldview. Given our current political climate, I simply cannot with that.

Death and the Seaside, by Alison Moore

I gave this one a college try, but I was just bored by both the narrative, an extremely unsympathetic main character, the novel-within-a-novel format, and what felt like a touch of ableism.

The Laws of the Skies, by Grégoire Courtois

This book became gruesome too quickly for me. I’m not down for the shock-and-awe for its own sake kind of horror, and this felt like it was going to be that. Serves me right for considering a book by a male author for a change?

The Witches: Salem, 1692, by Stacy Schiff

I enjoyed a few chapters of this very long book before I became lost in the details of names and dates and was unable to commit to it in the long haul.

A Darker Shade of Magic, by Victoria Schwab

Maybe it was my mood, but I just wasn’t interested in any of the characters in this book at all. I think that Schwab has a lot more affection for men than I do in general, but I found none of the MCs in this book drew me in. Without anyone to root for, I couldn’t stick it out.

Girls of Paper and Fire, by Natasha Ngan

I was having a rough time when I started this one, and there was some swift and disturbing animal violence right up front. I may give this one a chance another time, but for now, it’s not for me.

A badge that reads Spellhacker, by M K England: Launch Crew Member.

(Lots of) Picture Books for Grown Ups

Currently Reading: The Ghost Bride, by Yangsze Choo

A Useful Resource on Trans Language

I was recently tipped off about the Trans Language Primer by someone in a Slack, and when I was reminded about it during #IAmNonBinary Day on Twitter, I realized that it would be a great resource to share here. This is an extensive, ongoing glossary of trans-related terminology.

Blog Redesign and Relaunch

The final artwork by Ice for the blog’s redesign is done, and to celebrate, I will be hosting a giveaway on my Twitter when the full relaunch goes live in TWO WEEKS. On October 28th, I will have a new post, and the site will be fully redesigned. Check out my Twitter account that day to help me spread the word, and to get some spooky swag. The winners of the giveaway will be announced on my favourite day of the year: Halloween!

A purple book with a boney spine and ruffled pages.
A sample of the new artwork for the site, by Ice!

A Quick Personal Note…

Since we’re talking picture books this week, let me introduce you to Mia, a young girl who wants a puppy more than anything… but whose family thinks their city apartment is too small to accommodate a polka dot pet. In this new version of a traditional Yiddish folktale, Mia reminds her family that… there is always room for one more.

The cover of No Room for a Pup, which shows an open door, and in the doorway stands a black and white spotted puppy, holding a red leash in their mouth, with their head cocked to the side.

Spoiler alert: I am Mia. In this most literary of coincidences, No Room For A Pup, by Elizabeth Suneby and illustrated by Laurel Molk, was released on October 1st… on October 7th, my partner and I welcomed the newest addition to our family… meet Pavot!

A Dalmatian puppy lounging on a dog bed.

Pavot is a deaf Dalmatian puppy born on August 10th, whose name means “poppyseed” in French (one of my first languages). He joins D and Boom, two 11-year-old greyhounds, Whisper and Willow, our formerly feral cats, and my partner and I in our 500 square foot city apartment. It’s cozy in here, yall. To commemorate, both my partners and I have revamped a neglected Instagram account to showcase pictures of ALL the animals in our large, spread out, polyamorous family. Check them out!

Recommendations: Picture Books for Grown Ups

The Festival of Literary Diversity in Brampton, affectionately known as the FOLD, is my not-so-secret favourite literary festival. Since 2018, the indie where I work has been the festival’s official bookseller. This year, the FOLD launched FOLD Kids, and I had the pleasure of attending all weekend as the book vendor. After spending three days selling picture books, sometimes to caregivers or educators, but also to adult customers, I tweeted my love of picture books. Although I don’t have any children in my life in Toronto, I have a massive collection of picture books. Some of them are from my own childhood, but many are more recent. My partners and I love sharing them with the kids in our lives, but we also read them to each other, and sometimes to our pets. I also find them therapeutic to read myself, when my academic adult life gets too intense. They are nurturing works of art, and I would recommend every adult have a few favourites in their home.

My favourite picture book of all time is Not Quite Narwhal, by Jessie Sima. It’s a beautifully-illustrated story about a unicorn named Kelp who grows up believing himself to be a narwhal. He has to come to terms with his identities when he meets unicorns for the first time. This book is magical and engaging, but what made me cry when I first read it was that it is the most stealth book for affirming non-binary identity that I have ever encountered. I recommend this book – and the others by Sima – to everyone, and I handsell it all the time.

The cover of Not Quite Narwhal, by Jessie Sima. The cover depicts a unicorn wearing a scuba helmet, swimming in a ray of sunshine under the sea. There is help below and three fish swimming alongside.

After my tweet, I was approached by one of the FOLD organizers, who asked for more picture book recommendations

They told me:

  1. They were very behind on children’s lit.
  2. They like animals, nature, space, mysticism, and Halloween-themed books, and asked specifically for recommendations for books about sadness.

…and I wanted to focus on diverse books as much as possible, since that’s the focus of the FOLD, and on things that have come out recently. As far as I knew, these books were purely for the enjoyment of the person who asked, so this is not necessarily the same list I would offer if I had a child in mind. This is a much longer list than some of my previous lists of recommendations, since most of these books are quick little gems.

Spooky Season Picks

The cover of Lots of Cats, by E. Dee Taylor. Cover depicts in bright colours a small witch stirring a cauldron. Green smoke pours out, and cat eyes peek out from the smoke.

I started with some seasonal faves. I instantly fell in love with Lots of Cats by E. Dee Taylor when it was released in 2018. It was my staff pick Halloween book for that year. This book is bright, and colourful, and has a touch of 90’s nostalgia. The illustrations feature stunning neon colours that appear as though drawn by hand with coloured pencils. The story features an independent witch, who decides to conjure herself a furry friend, and ends up with more company than she bargained for. Let’s just say that I find this story… relatable.

The cover of Alfred's Book of Monsters. Depicts a small boy reading in a large armchair, with a tiny ghost beside him, frowning. In the background are the shadows of three, much larger, creatures, with glowing eyes.

Just in time for Halloween this year, Alfred’s Book of Monsters by Sam Streed is a new release that’s reminiscent of Edward Gorey’s work. It’s about a young Victorian boy who has an interest in monsters, despite his proper family’s objections. For those who enjoy a gothic Spooky Season aesthetic, this is my 2019 recommendation. My favourite Halloween season recommendation, however, remains How to Make Friends with a Ghost, which is written and illustrated by American Rebecca Green, who is currently making her home in Osaka, Japan. This book is a detailed guide for how to care for a ghost who you wish to befriend. A useful and delightful book for any lonesome ghost enthusiast.

The cover of How to Make Friends with a Ghost, which depicts a skeptical-looking feminine child sitting on a swing, and a blushing, hopeful-looking ghost hovering above the swing next to her.

My last recommendation is a recent release that stole my heart. Recently, middle grade author Ally Malinenko tweeted, “All stories about witches are stories about survival and all stories about ghosts are stories about grief. Children need scary stories to understand how to survive and to learn how to say goodbye.” This has certainly been true in my own life, both as a child, and an adult. Unfortunately, one of my 11-year-old dogs was recently diagnosed with terminal cancer, and I’ve experienced a lot of anticipatory grief through the time that we’ve been recently spending spoiling her. When I came across Kevan Atteberry’s Ghost Cat, a picture book about a young boy who’s sure he has a haunted house, it felt relatable and poignant – and also made me giggle. This is a sweet book for anyone who’s ever lost a pet, who loves their cat, or who has a fondness for the spirits who’ve got our back. (Fun fact: Atteberry is also the creator of Clippy, the Microsoft paperclip!)

The cover of Ghost Cat. A boy on a cool-coloured background looks over his shoulder as a ghostly cat runs away.

Books About Animals

Next, I’ll write a little bit about some of my favourite recent books about animals – which are, let’s be clear, some of my favourite books in general. Some are a little more literal, like Little Brown, by Marla Frazee. This is just a book about a cranky dog. It’s just about being cranky, and being a dog. I found it utterly relatable and it felt really real to me. Not all dogs are Dug… you know? And sometimes, we all struggle to know how to fit in.

The cover of Little Brown, which just shows a small brown dog, frowning, a lot.

There’s something that feels like a hug when I’m reading All the Animals Where I Live, by Philip C. Stead. It feels like memories of my grandmother, and of places that are serene, and times that feel simple, and quiet. It’s just… lovely. I honestly don’t know if I would have appreciated this book as a child, but as an adult, it’s perfectly soothing.

The cover of All the Animals where I live, which depicts a red house in the background, a shaggy dog, and in the foreground, a tree branch, with green leaves.

Another book that is categorized as children’s literature, but that I wouldn’t necessarily handsell that way, is Australian author Shaun Tan’s heartbreaking, anti-capitalist picture book, Cicada. Nothing is particularly soothing about this book. It made my whole self ache for the little insect protagonist. I was simply relieved that the story has a positive ending. This book is unique, and heartfelt, and it feels like a grown up child’s tale for neoliberal times.

The cover of Cicada depicts a cicada in a business suit, holding a sheet of paper, standing on a gray backdrop, with similar sheets of paper all over the floor.

I recommend Moon, by Alison Oliver, as a lighter compliment to Cicada. This book is a heartwarming friendship tale of a young, feminine character named Moon (who is not explicitly racialized in the book) and a grey wolf. The relationship between the wolf and Moon teaches the overburdened child how to be free. I have recommended this book often, not only because I think it’s a lesson that bears repeating, but also because the colours and artwork in this book are a treat. I also appreciate that this story challenges the typical kidlit notion of a wolf as an inherently villainous animal.

The cover of Moon, which shows a young feminine character with purple skin, wearing a white dress, sitting cross legged in the grass, wearing a flower crown. She sits beside a serene gray wolf. Both have their eyes closed.

Lastly, this counting book is a complex narrative in disguise. Pretty Kitty, by Karen Beaumont and illustrated by Stephanie Laberis, is the story of a reluctant older man who has to confront an ever-growing group of felines in need of homes. This is a must-read for anyone who’s had a cat arrive in their life unexpectedly, but if you follow the silent storytelling in the illustrations, this book also tells the story of a man coming to terms with the loss of an old friend and learning to open his heart.

The cover of Pretty Kitty, which has a purple cityscape in the background and yellow text. An older man walks across the cover, and many cats are scattered across the letters.

Books With Whimsical Nature Themes

I didn’t choose as many literal nature-themed books as I did animal-themed books, although clearly All the Animals Where I Live and Moon have a lot of nature running through them. Most of my nature recommendations are picture books that are less story and more science, and for someone who had an appreciation for mysticism, I decided to go with a little more whimsy on the nature front.

Ocean Meets Sky is by Terry and Eric Fan, known as the Fan Brothers, who are probably best known for their titles The Night Gardener and The Darkest Dark. The Fan Brothers were educated in Toronto, where I live, and I’m always happy to give recommendations with a connection to my locale. Ocean Meets Sky is my favourite of all their books, and it regularly brings me to tears.

The cover of Ocean Meets Sky, by the Fan Brothers. In the centre of a large compass rose, there is a blue whale, surrounded by ships and hot air balloons that float on seas of clouds.

Ocean Meets Sky has exquisite illustrations, depicting the place where the ocean meets the sky. These include lush depictions of ships and sea creatures, clouds, and ocean waves. The narrative is about a child coming to terms with the loss of his grandfather, and finding ways to honour him through his reimagining of stories that they used to share.

Cover of Dream Friends, by You Byun. The image is of an orange sky over green water with flowers made of bubbles growing out of it. A young girl rides the back of a large white mammal wearing a red bowtie who soars through the sky.

Dream Friends is the debut picture book by Korean-American author and artist You Byoun. It is a soft, appropriately dreamlike story, depicting the dreams of a young girl named Melody, who is learning to make friends. The unique world that this book creates for the reader is reminiscent of Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds for me, in that it combines down-the-rabbit-hole fantasy with sharp, vivid imagery.

I have long been an admirer of Jillian Tamaki’s work, and since she lives in the same neighbourhood as my bookshop, I’ve also had the pleasure of meeting her and being involved in events with her. I love her graphic novel This One Summer, which she co-created with her cousin, Mariko Tamaki, who recently announced the launch of her own graphic novel imprint for LGBTQ creators under Abrams Kids. Tamaki is mixed-race Canadian, with Japanese heritage.

The cover of They Say Blue, which shows a young child reaching into a blue background, where black birds fly.

I was excited when we received They Say Blue at the shop, but I was also lucky to be the bookseller for the FOLD that year, where Tamaki read her book at a children’s event. She is a lovely reader, and she brought the simple story that revolves around the passing of the seasons and the colours that come with them to life for me. As such, I would recommend reading this one aloud, if you can.

Navigating Difficult Emotions

There are so many beautiful picture books about dealing with difficult emotions these days. At Another Story, we actually have an entire section of the store dedicated to children’s books about feelings – and as a person who has a lot of them, it should perhaps come as no surprise that it’s my favourite kidlit section. When I was considering recommendations for books about sadness, many came to mind, but the first one I thought of was Wolf Erlbruch’s Duck, Death, and the Tulip.

The cover of Duck, Death, and the Tulip is just a simple drawing of a duck looking skyward, on a beige background.

This book is at once haunting and serene. It is a simple story of the death of a duck, and has essentially two characters: the duck, and death. It’s gentle, and slow, and doesn’t shy away from a difficult subject. It’s heart wrenching in its way, and I’m very fond of it.

A similarly heart wrenching book is guojing’s The Only Child. This was Chinese artist guojing’s debut title, and is a wordless picture book. There is nothing that I can say that will do guojing’s evocative artwork justice. The Only Child is based on guojing’s own childhood experiences, growing up under the single child law in Shanxi Province, China.

The cover of The Only Child shows a small child curled up against a large, furry animal, with tall horns.

It is difficult to classify The Forest, by Riccardo Bozzi, illustrated by Violeta Lopiz, and Valerio Vidali. It is part contemplative picture book, part exquisite art book. Written originally in Italian, the text was translated by Debbie Bibo. This book depicts, through vibrant images, embossing and debossing, and die-cut pages, a journey through the wilderness, but also man’s journey through life. This book is a treasure to hold in your hands.

The cover of The Forest, which has no text. From the Kirkus review of this title: The book’s design is clever, instantly arousing curiosity with its translucent jacket (sans title) overlaying brilliantly hued vegetation onto a muted cover.

My next three choices are about how particular characters deal with specific, onerous emotions, and in these books, the emotions themselves are made tangible. In two of these books, When Sadness is At Your Door, by Eva Eland, and Me and My Fear, by Francesca Sanna, the emotions are anthropomorphic characters in the book. Julie Kraulis, on the other hand, turns difficult emotions into literal baggage to be managed in Whimsy’s Heavy Things – another pick from an author who is in my Toronto local.

A collage of three book covers. In Whimsy's Heavy Things, a blonde character wearing a striped dress pulls a wagon full of black lumps up a hill. In When Sadness Is At Your Door, a character wearing a red coat and galoshes points at a large, round, light blue figure whose head is hanging. In Me and My Fear, a character with long blue hair is being cradled by a large white character who smiles as they sleep. A village of houses sits upon their back.

All of these tender stories offer practical strategies for navigating tricky emotional waters. Kraulis’ Whimsy learns (through failure) to break down her problems into manageable blocks, Eland’s simple illustrations advise welcoming sadness as one might a guest, and in Sanna’s story, a young girl has to learn to relate to unfamiliar people, after moving to a new place and a new school. Although these stories have young protagonists, all of these stories are emotions that will be familiar to any reader, and it never hurts to have gentle insight into how one might move through them.

The cover of Jerome By Heart, which depicts two boys bicycling down the street side by side, holding hands.

Translated from the French, Thomas Scotto’s Jerome by Heart is a uniquely touching book about a child who’s learning about his emerging queerness. This book is illustrated by Olivier Tallec, and translated by Claudia Zoe Bedrick and Karin Snelson. It’s so interesting to me that the pub copy for this book doesn’t explicitly recognize the character as gay, since this is one of the most quintessentially LGBTQ2S+ stories I’ve ever encountered. It’s simple, it’s sweet, and it’s full of age-appropriate adoration that will absolutely tug your heartstrings.

My last recommendation in terms of books about managing difficult feelings is a little bit easier to digest. There are a bunch of different versions of The Color Monster, by Spanish author Anna Llenas. My favourite, particularly for adults, is the pop-up book version. I have Big Feelings, and I love spooky creatures like monsters, so I find this book relatable and charming. Accompanied by intricate pop-ups, this lighthearted book is a great choice for anyone who’s going through a particularly emotional time in their life.

This video is a reading of the Color Monster pop up book, in which you get a taste of the three-dimensional details in the artwork.

General Picks

Finally, I wanted to suggest a couple of general picture book favourites of mine, in the same vein as Not Quite Narwhal, since the person I was writing recommendations for had already requested that title from the library. The first is Little Robot. Ben Hatke is one of my go-to children’s authors. Little Robot is a short, wordless graphic novel that he wrote and illustrated for children, about a main character of colour, who is never gendered, who makes friends with a small robot in a junkyard. The robot is confused, and needs a little help from the MC as he navigates the world beyond the robot factory.

The cover of Little Robot, by Ben Hatke. A young person of colour and a small robot sit on a grassy ledge overlooking a junkyard. A black cat climbs on discarded tires, and an angry eye peers up from the trash.

Peripherally, Hatke’s family recently suffered the tragic loss of their four year old child, Ida, after a sudden accident. There is a fundraiser that is ongoing for the Hatke family.

The last book I wanted to recommend is a must-read for any animal-loving bookworm with a deep sense of imagination. Franklyn’s Flying Bookshop is a deeply relatable tale by Jen Campbell, and illustrated by Katie Harnett.

The cover of Franklyn's Flying Bookshop, which shows a dragon silhouetted against the full moon. A young redheaded feminine character sits with the dragon, reading a book with them.

This book is the first in a series of books, which includes Franklyn and Luna Go to the Moon, and the forthcoming Franklyn and Luna and the Book of Fairy Tales. I realize that I didn’t give any space-themed recommendations in this list, although that was among the interests that I was taking into account when I made this list. Unfortunately, space isn’t a big one of my interests, although there are so many picture books about space. For that reason, I hope that Franklyn and Luna Go to the Moon might be a good lateral move from this book!

In Franklyn’s Flying Bookshop, Franklyn is a lonely, bookworm dragon, who’s struggling to make friends, who meets Luna, an isolated bookworm herself. They bond, and then decide to build a bookshop on Franklyn’s back in order to share their love of books with others. As a (somewhat isolated) bookseller myself, I found Luna to be one of the characters who is most relatable to me in any picture book I’ve encountered, and I imagine that this would be the case for many bookish folks (although, unfortunately, Luna appears to be a white character).