Spooky Season Indulgences

Happy September, everyone! It’s been almost two years since COVID started impacting our lives, and my smol family and I have begun eagerly embracing and celebrating the small stuff… because over the past couple of years, our lives have gotten pretty small. It’s not bad, necessarily, but it’s different, and if we don’t find small things to enjoy and to beat the drum about, well. Things get a little bit sadder.

Well, spooky season is my all-time favourite time of year, so we started back in August… we started Spoopy Movie Tuesday (my partner doesn’t enjoy anything scary!) – every week, we watch a spooky movie and have some snacks, I started collecting Halloween-themed stationary and stickers to do some spooky season happy mail, and we started planning some fun treats for the fall holiday season – Halloween through American Thanksgiving.

But what would a proper celebration be without some literary indulgences? Well, lucky me, because picture books are some of my favourite gems of literary creation, and I’m going to share some of my all-time faves with you today. For those of you who don’t already know, I don’t believe that picture books are only for children, but of course, these are all family-friendly selections, appropriate for your tiny spooks and ghouls.

After that, I also want to share with you a YA book that I stumbled across earlier this year in the ARC pile. It JUST became available, on September 14th, and it’s a debut novel called Before We Were Blue, by E.J. Schwartz. I reached out to the author after I found it, because SO much of what this book addresses resonated with me personally – it’s one of those books that I wish I could go back in time and put in preteen-me’s hands. But even knowing that from the pub copy, I didn’t know how much I would absolutely relish this story. Graciously, E.J. was willing to share this space and give us a little bonus creative content – and I am SO excited to host her here! Shoutout as well to her agent, Kaitlyn Johnson, who I absolutely admire, and to the team at Flux for bringing this book to shelves!

The cover of BEFORE WE WERE BLUE by E.J. Scwartz.

But first… some age-inclusive spooky faves!

Brand-New Books

I have yet to get my very eager paws on any of these newly-released spooky season picture books, but I absolutely can’t wait!

Little Witch Hazel this cottagecore book of four stories by Phoebe Wahl follows a forest witch in her daily life throughout the year. I feel like this book was straight up written for me, and I can’t wait to enjoy it this fall – but it would also make a great one to revisit for the changing of the seasons, solstices/equinoxes, and/or the embers, if any of those are your thing.

Hardly Haunted is the newest offering from my FAVOURITE picture book author/illustrator, Jessie Sima, best known for Not Quite Narwhal. I don’t even know what to say about this book, because it’s so inevitable that I’m going to love it that I’m torn between waiting to buy it so I can enjoy it later and running out to get it, like, this afternoon.

The Little Kitten is the latest from bestselling author Nicola Killen, and the third in the Ollie Series. In this book, Ollie and her cat pumpkin help a lost kitten with a little support from some Halloween magic!

Books About Ghosts

Ghosts are probably my favourite spooky season characters (let’s be real – I love them all year round). These books are guaranteed to endear any reader to my phantasmagoric faves without inducing fear at any level! Straight up spoopy goodness here.

The Little Ghost Who Was a Quilt by Riel Nason and illustrated by Byron Eggenschwiler follows a little ghost who’s just a bit… different from his friends. Growing up on the east coast, this book was so nostalgic and just felt right to me. This is one I wish that I could have shared with my grandmothers. It’s also a Canadian Children’s Book Centre favourite book of 2020!

Gustavo the Shy Ghost by Flavia Z. Drago is a Dia de los Meurtos-themed spooky season tale about a wee ghost who struggles with anxiety. Gustavo was so relatable and charming to me, as I’m sure it will be for many readers, especially those who have cultural connections to fall celebrations that are Halloween adjacent. This book features incredibly detailed, stunning artwork.

How to Make Friends with a Ghost is a cottagecore how-to guide from Rebecca Green. I discovered this one working at Another Story bookshop, and often recommend it to older readers. It’s a little bit different from your average picture book, but if you want to learn a little bit about making friends with the friendly spirits (and/or neuroatypical people? I don’t know, I’m just spitballing here…) in your surroundings, this is the book for you.

Boo Who? is a lighthearted Ben Canton classic. You probably know Ben from the Narwhal and Jelly series – and if you don’t, you should probably check it out. He also wrote Rot: the Cutest in the World, which is a story about a mutant potato that would be great for spooky season! But I digress – Boo Who? is my pick for this list, because it’s ALSO about a shy ghost (are you sensing a theme here, or is it just me?), and tackles the theme of feeling invisible and learning to love who you are.

Sir Simon by Cale Atkinson is a picture book with a comics feel, and it’s 100% guaranteed to make you giggle if you are a spooky season fan. This one has also been child-approved – spooky season or not, it was the favourite of a four-year-old who I coparented for a while a couple of years back. They literally used to take the book to bed with them. If you have a wee one in your life, you want to get in on that cuteness for sure.

Leo by Mac Barnett and with pictures by Christian Robinson is the story of a young ghost boy just trying to make friends, but finding himself and his talents under-appreciated. Don’t worry – there’s a happy ending, including delicious snacks!

Books ABout Monsters and Creatures

There are so many unusual friends to make at spooky times – it’s one of my FAVOURITE things about this season. These books feature characters that only seem to be allowed to dominate shelves when the leaves are changing – and I think it’s well-worth appreciating them.

Julia’s House for Lost Creatures is one of my favourite Ben Hatke stories, although if you haven’t experienced Little Robot yet, you should. Here’s the thing – this is actually a series? I had no idea, but Ben has three books about Julia’s house as of this year! Suffice to say, this one stands well on its own. In this story, Julia and her Baba Yaga-esque walking house welcome in a few unusual visitors – and trying to figure out how to manage everything gets overwhelming fast!

Alfred’s Book of Monsters by Sam Streed is about me, if I were a young Victorian boy named Alfred. Alfred loves reading about monsters, despite his family’s objections. This book is the story of Alfred’s admirable quest to get the monsters from his books to join him for teatime!

Mr. Pumpkin’s Tea Party (you know, to stay on the tea theme) by Erin Barker features a whole host of unique spooky season characters in beautiful watercolour. It’s a well-executed rhyming book that doubles as a tool for teaching numbers.

The Scarecrow is written by Beth Ferry, but importantly: illustrated by the Fan Brothers. This illustration duo may be best known for The Night Garden or their work on The Darkest Dark with Chris Hadfield, but my favourite book of theirs is Ocean Meets Sky, which makes me cry every. Single. Time. Just like all the Fan Brothers’ other works, this collaboration with Beth Ferry is a gutpunch, from the delicious illustrations to the heartwrenching story about the changing of the seasons, friendship and loneliness, leaving and grief, loyalty, and what it means to come home.

Bonaparte Falls Apart by Margery Cuyler and illustrated by Will Terry is the perfect follow-up to The Scarecrow – it’s tender and lighthearted and guaranteed to make you smile. Bonaparte’s worried about starting schools, because he has a habit of losing his bones, and he’s worried how he’ll fit in. Despite the efforts of his well-meaning friends, he has to brave the experience in the end. It’s all about appreciating difference, and some of the antics that these Halloween-themed characters get into doing their genuine best to help their pal.

Beekle by Dan Santat… okay, maybe it’s a bit of a stretch that this is a spooky season book. Beekle isn’t exactly a ghost – he’s an imaginary friend. But I LOVE Beekle, yall. And I really think he fits into the whole ethos of what I’m trying to put together here. And there are a lot of really cool mystical creatures in this story, and a great adventure… plus honestly? Beekle’s a bit anxious and not very patient. He forges his own path – and I appreciate him.

Bone Soup by Cambria Evans is much more explicitly Halloween! I would say that as far as picture books go, this one is up there for creepy AF. It’s about a wee skeleton that never gets full, and always needs to eat, so he travels with his eating stool, his eating spoon, and his eating mouth! But you know – relatable?

She Wanted to be Haunted by Marcus Ewert and illustrated by Susie Ghahremani was the perfect addition to this list when I stumbled across it (thanks, Goodreads algorithm!). I love haunted houses, especially ones that are full characters in their own right. There are not enough haunted house books out there! Well – this is… kind of that. Clarissa is a cottage – her dad is a creepy vampire castle, and her mom is a witch’s hut! So how did Clarissa end up as an adorable cottage?! This book is all about being your BEST SELF, which I think is the true meaning of Halloween!

Pumpkinhead is the story of Otho, a boy born with a pumpkin for a head, by Eric Rohmann. It is a truly unusual story, and a little text-heavy for a contemporary picture book. That said, it’s quite an adventure tale, and its clean illustration style is very enjoyable. This story reminds me so much of folk stories my grandmother would tell me when I was wee. The pub copy describes its themes perfectly: “Is Otho’s story a parable? A cautionary tale? A celebration of the individual? A head trip? That is something each reader (and Otho) will have to decide.”

Herbert’s First Halloween is a gentle story about a small pig named Herbert by Cynthia Rylant and illustrated by Steven Henry. Are you a spooky season skeptic? Are you SURROUNDED by folks who love Halloween, and you just can’t figure out why? Well. Let Herbert’s dad teach you what it’s all about. Don’t worry. He’ll ease you into it.

Books about witches and their familiars

It’s 24/7/367 witches in my house, but even if you only don pointy hats at harvest season, these are perfect seasonal reads.

Lots of Cats by E. Dee Taylor is one of my favourite picture books of all time. Not only is it a sweet lesson about being careful what you wish for, independence, and love of animals, but the illustrations will absolutely take your breath away. They’re vibrant and beautiful and lush, and the cats are very cat.

The Pomegranate Witch, despite being published in 2017, was a new discovery for me this year! It’s by Denise Doyen and illustrated by Eliza Wheeler, and tells the story of the neighbourhood haunted house in a cute new way, with a twist ending. It’s rhyming, and prominently features a pomegranate tree and a Scooby-like gang of children who just want to get their hands on the juicy treasures that it bears.

The Cyclops Witch and the Heebie-Jeebies by Kyle and Derek Sullivan is So. Cute. It deals with really great themes like prejudice, fear of the unknown, xenophobia, and oppression… but with awesome and SUPER cute spooky protagonists, including the title cyclops witch. While you’re checking out this book, keep an eye out for the Sullivans’ board books as well – the Monster Series from Hazy Dell Press: Goodnight Krampus, perfect winter read; Hush Now, Banshee, a counting book; Don’t Eat Me Chupacabra, which is a dual language Spanish title; Monster ABC; and Get Dressed, Sasquatch and its companion title Bigfoot Baby!

Hubble Bubble, Granny Trouble by Tracey Corderoy and Joe Berger is the first rhyming story in a now six-book set of Hubble Bubble books about a little girl and her unusual grandmother. It’s a great, feminine, Halloween-appropriate story about being yourself, and embracing the weirdness in others.

Classics

Slight aside: I genuinely adore these classic books that are perfect for spooky season. But as a publishing professional, I have to tell you: times are very hard for authors writing new books right now. If you decide to purchase a copy of one of these books to enjoy the nostalgia of the season, please also consider purchasing a newly published book and creating some memories for the future!

The Teeny-Tiny Woman by Paul Galdone was originally published in 1984, and is a timeless, humorous rendition of an English folktale about a teeny tiny woman who finds a teeny tiny bone in a teeny tiny churchyard. Definitely a book that kids will love to hear aloud until they’re able to recite it along with the reader!

The Little Old Lady Who Was Not Afraid of Anything by Linda Williams and illustrated by Megan Lloyd was published just a couple of years later – 1986. It’s a rollicking Halloween classic among many millennials, and tells the story about a brave old woman getting the scare of her life.

There’s a Nightmare in My Closet is by the iconic Mercer Mayer, best known for the beloved Little Critter Series (see: Happy Halloween Little Critter if you’re new to this author). Now, There’s a Nightmare in My Closet is one of Mayer’s first books, and pre-dates Little Critter, having been published in 1968 for the first time. It deals with a timeless theme: fear of the dark.

Strega Nona is by classic children’s author Tomie dePaola, who passed away in 2020 after authoring over 200 books for young readers – including this one in 1975. Again – maybe this is a stretch for spooky season, but as a kid, I always totally thought Strega Nona (and my own grandmothers, to be fair) was a witch, so I’m keeping it in here. This one isn’t scary at all – it’s a cottagecore tale about a mystical elder woman and why you should never trust men to look after your magic, even for a minute. 😉

Miss Nelson is Missing! by Harry Allard and James Marshall came out in 1977, and is great for fall not only because of Halloween, but also because of back-to-school. It tells the story of a witchy substitute teacher whose most important lesson is the appreciation of the important people in your life!

Bony-Legs by Joanna Cole was also released in 1986, proving that that was the scariest year on record for picture books! This one is creepy. It’s straight up a story of a girl’s escape from an evil witch who wants to eat her for supper. Very Hansel and Gretel vibes!

Non-Fiction

Not everyone’s looking for fiction, and I guess we still need science lessons in the autumn. These two non-fiction books about bones are the perfect spooky season tie-ins.

Skulls! by Blair Thonburgh and Scott Campbell and Give Me Back My Bones! by Kim Norman and illustrated by Bob Kolar are both enthusiastic non-fiction titles that are engaging, informative, fun to read, and spoopy. Skulls! is a great, light-hearted read-aloud that’s jam-packed with skull facts, while Give Me Back My Bones! is about the whole skeleton – and it’s pirate-themed!

Death

These books aren’t necessarily fall or Halloween themed, but it’s inevitable that when the year is winding down, leaves are changing, and everyone’s dressing up like phantoms, death is a topic that comes to mind. I wanted to make a few suggestions for reads that you might consider if you want to approach the conversation with a bit of levity and reverence.

What Happens Next? is by Shinsuke Yoshitake, a Japanese illustrator whose works are so much fun. He has 14 books published in nine languages, including this one, about a boy who explores his grandfather’s journal after his death. It’s quirky and deep and unique. This is a book that I think everyone should read.

Duck, Death, and the Tulip by Wolf Erlbruch is a long-time favourite of mine, but a word of warning that this one is a tear-jerker for me. And not in like an, oh, sweet, I’m crying happy tears kind of way, but like, an emotionally affected kind of way. It features simple illustrations and a sparse storyline that I find incredibly touching.

Ghost Cat by Kevan Atteberry is actually the story book that I picked up when I was processing the death of my dog, D. It’s a sweet, tender story described perfectly in the pub copy as a “comforting tale of love and loss”. It does actually feature a ghost cat, and it’s a soft story that doesn’t necessary feel like a book about grief. Sneak it into your collection during spooky season for emotional health and level up!

Special Guest: E.J. Schwartz and BEFORE WE WERE BLUE

CW: Eating Disorders

Book Trailer for BEFORE WE WERE BLUE

Okay. Before we dig into the amazing content that author E.J. Schwartz provided me with for this post – and yall, it’s lit – let’s get a little bit personal for a second. When I was 13 years old, I had no idea that I was queer. I had no idea that I was trans. I had undiagnosed psychiatric disabilities. And like so many feminine teenagers, I learned that there was something in my life that I could control, if I really wanted to: my body. I was very athletic – I rode horses, I ice skated, I played soccer year-round, I was briefly into volleyball, I did some gymnastics, I had a dog who loved long walks and we lived in one of the best places in the world for hiking. I was also vegetarian, the only one in my family, which meant that I did the majority of my own cooking, and decided how much of it I ate. I also had undiagnosed autism and high anxiety, which manifested for me as high achievement and perfectionism – at any cost.

In 2021, we recognize scientifically and sociologically that eating disorders are far more complicated than we did in the 90’s. What I experienced as a teenager and into my early 20’s would today be diagnosed as orthorexia nervosa and muscle dysmorphia. I remember as clearly as if it was yesterday, reading in a cookbook when I was a pre-teen the phrase, what you eat today is how you will look and feel tomorrow. This became an obsessive mantra for me, and it’s something that I’ve never quite shaken off, even as an out and proud, fat, queer, gendervoid, autistic, adult in my 30’s.

Suffice to say that media that reflected my eating disorder (ED) experiences did not exist when I was a pre-teen. I read pro-Ana websites, and when the documentary Thin was released in 2006, I watched it on repeat. In my research for this post, I came across this Electric Lit article by Ellen Rhudy that really nailed my experience on the head – everything that I found to consume as a victim of ED in the late 90’s and early 00’s read to me like a how-to manual, at best. To this day, I don’t really pick up many books or watch movies that depict ED, because there’s something about them that’s almost tempting. I think that a LOT of this comes from the fact that the experiences depicted in most ED media, to this day, remain so distanced from the real issues that I was facing in my life at that time – and that I continue to wrestle with.

Lauren Greenfield’s 2006 documentary, Thin

When I read the pub copy for Before We Were Blue on Edelweiss+, I immediately knew that this book was different.

At Recovery and Relief, a treatment center for girls with eating disorders, the first thing Shoshana Winnick does is attach herself to vibrant but troubled Rowan Parish. Shoshana—a cheerleader on a hit reality TV show—was admitted for starving herself to ensure her growth spurt didn’t ruin her infamous tumbling skills. Rowan, on the other hand, has known anorexia her entire life, thanks to her mother’s “chew and spit” guidance. Through the drudgery and drama of treatment life, Shoshana and Rowan develop a fierce intimacy—and for Rowan, a budding infatuation, that neither girl expects.

The publicity copy for BEFORE WE WERE BLUE, from Edelweiss+

This was a book about LGBTQ+ teens, nuanced characters with complicated lives and motivations, and it’s not preaching morality. It also hits some of my favourite parts of any book… complicated relationships, anti-heroes, fierce femme characters, friendship, coming-of-age, huge internal conflict, traditionally feminine sports, and you should be warned before you pick this up – it does go dark. Death, anti-semitism, co-morbid diagnoses, and toxic parental relationships all make appearances in this raw narrative. There are also some great light moments! Budding queer feels, kitschy emo art projects, kool aid hair dye jobs – this story has it all.

I’m sure that I will go back and read this story again and again. One of the things that I love about it is that the ending isn’t squeaky clean, and that really resonated with me as someone for whom ED has played a huge role in my life… so often, “recovery” isn’t a binary state, and it doesn’t always go the way we plan. Schwartz doesn’t shy away from the grit in this story – if anything, she digs in. I think this will appeal to young readers the same way that it did for me, and there is so much content that will open up space for dialogue for educators, caregivers, and young readers.

Photo by Erik Karits on Unsplash

This title feels so timely right now. COVID and the resulting isolation has been particularly difficult for people who experience ED, especially young people. Unsurprisingly, this isn’t something that mainstream society seems to be addressing very well, but hopefully this book will make it into the hands of those who need it. Before We Were Blue is available now – and if you want a physical copy, please order it soon – or consider an eBook! This is a rough time for production and distribution in the publishing industry, and it might be hard to get your hands on in a couple of months.

In the meantime, the characters of Before We Were Blue are absolutely captivating humans, and the relationship between the two magnetic MCs, Rowan and Shoshana, is practically impossible to unwrap your mind from. As such, I am delighted that E.J. decided to make playlists for each of her MCs to share in this space. Give them a listen below (maybe while you wait for your book to come in), and read the line notes that E.J. provided for each.


Making these playlists was such a dream, and surprisingly, a challenge! Shoshana and Rowan have large character arcs in “Before We Were Blue” and although it’s one of the things I’m most proud of writing in the book—the way neither girl is remotely the same person by the end—it made choosing songs difficult! But lo and behold, Rowan and Shoshana’s playlists (and my rambling explanations)!

E.J.’s Custom Playlist for BEFORE WE WERE BLUE MC Shoshana

Shoshana

Lucky

Britney Spears

“Isn’t she lovely, this Hollywood girl?”

“Lucky” is a classic! From the outside, someone looking in at Shoshana’s life might envy her. Her cheerleading success, her social media popularity, her relatability. I can imagine people thinking she’s lucky. But at the beginning of the novel, Shoshana is in the treatment center, hiding from the world after a breakdown caught on camera. Britney Spears’s “Lucky” perfectly encapsulates how Shoshana’s pristine image runs directly against her crumbling reality.

Blue World

Mac Miller

“Think I lost my mind, reality’s so hard to find”

Mac Miller is—was—gosh I hate using past tense with him—he was someone whose music I’d listen to for many different moods. He stood out to me for Shoshana in his goofiness, his quick rise to popularity, and his Judaism. Shoshana views her Judaism in the same way Mac did, feeling like she’s not an exemplary Jew but still takes pride in her faith and community. “Blue World” also feels right for “Before We Were Blue” since Shoshana’s world is a “Blue World” in many, many ways.

jealousy, jealousy

Olivia Rodrigo

“I think too much ‘bout kids who don’t know me”

Yes, I am an Olivia Rodrigo stan. This song is a great social media anthem. I think Shoshana, like almost every teenage girl, is green with envy and sick of herself when she sees all the success and triumphs around her online. She wants what other people have, and would rather be different. Like Olivia Rodrigo, Shosh is way too hard on herself.

The Weather

Built To Spill

“As long as its talking with you, talk of the weather will do”

Apparently this song is about someone who died, with the “No one knows what to do” portion (I just found this out)! But “The Weather” has always felt uplifting to me, like a syrupy-sweet love song. It nails the intense feeling of finding someone you can talk with about anything or nothing, and it’s exactly the same.

Overstimulated

Okay Kaya

“Anything could happen, at any given time”

Overstimulated? Shoshana? No

Somewhere Only We Know

Keane

“So tell me when you’re gonna let me in”

This was my and my best friend’s version of “our song” many years ago. We had a codependent friendship and I based Rowan and Shoshana a lot on us. Shosh and Ro want their “Somewhere Only We Know” place, but they have a hard time letting each other fully in, Rowan especially. Shoshana has to wait for Rowan to open that door.

Fade Into You

Mazzy Star

“Colors your eyes with what’s not there”

Everyone probably knows this song and if you don’t—oh my gosh, do yourself a favor and go listen. So beautiful, but also sinister? To me, this is a perfect song about codependency. Shoshana and Rowan are nothing if not attached at the hip, and I think this song sums them up well. Shoshana leans more toward Rowan, and that’s why I picked this song for her playlist over Rowan’s.

Pull The Plug

Du Blonde

“I pull the plug and I shut down”

Du Blonde is the singular artist on both Shoshana and Rowan’s playlists. Pull The Plug is angsty and raw. Occasionally a song feels like it can flip flop between the two girls, despite how different their voices are in the book. This is one of them, and it just happened to land on Shoshana’s list!

Two

The Antlers

“Two ways to tell the story”

This album, Hospice, is incredible and terrifying. If Pitchfork is right, it’s about a relationship with a terminally ill child, but I interpreted it as an abusive romantic relationship. The lyrics just floor me. “Two people talking inside your brain” feels very Shoshana, and the more obvious “no one paid attention when you just stopped eating.” The song just feels like everything is unwinding, and so it’s a good fit for Shosh.

A Lot’s Gonna Change

Weyes Blood

“It’s high tide, you’ll learn to get by” Gosh, all these songs I love, but this song… “A lot’s gonna change in your lifetime” is such a simple obvious-but-necessary mantra. It mirrors the common phrase “time heals all” and I think that’s a note to end this playlist on, regardless of Shoshana’s ending in the book.

E.J.’s Custom Playlist for BEFORE WE WERE BLUE MC Rowan

Rowan

Every Single Night

Fiona Apple

“Every single night’s a fight with my brain”

Fiona Apple is a musical master! Rowan is a master herself, or she wants to be at fitting all her moving parts under one detached leave-me-alone mask. On the one hand, Rowan wants to feel things big in Apple’s “I just want to feel everything” vein (as Rowan would say things are “meant to be felt”). But on the other hand, her brain wants to combust from feeling so much. I’ve listened to this song a hundred times and I bet Rowan would too.

Something Soon

Car Seat Headrest

“I want to break something important” x “Let’s burn this house down”

This song is all about desperation. I think of Rowan as someone who’s really desperate.

Soap On Your Skin

The Solids

“Room is ruined by clean”

Along the lines of codependency, this song is romantic, sexual, and speaks to the urge to melt into someone else. Where does the line between soap and skin blur? This is what Rowan wants for her and Shoshana; complete and total allegiance with no hesitation.

Dumb

Nirvana

“Soul is cheap”

Dumb is a song Rowan would worship because she absolutely detests people who float through life without thinking about it. She wants to debate everything with everyone. Rowan’s life is also about playing a role or playing “pretend” like the song mentions. And I mean… it’s Nirvana, come on.

i wanna be your girlfriend

girl in red

“I don’t wanna be your friend, I wanna kiss your lips”

Shoan? Roana? Y/N? We’ll see…

Holiday Resort

Du Blonde

“Looking down the barrel of a gun that I adore”

Again, Du Blonde is the singular artist on both Shoshana and Rowan’s playlists. I wish I wrote the lyrics “Romance is a crop that modern culture cannot yield” and “In my twenties I’m antique.” This song is about physical and emotional deterioration, something Rowan is all too familiar with.

God Must Be Doing Cocaine

Charlotte Lawrence

“Can anyone really blame Him?”

These lyrics—straight from Rowan’s mouth.

For Her

Fiona Apple

“Maybe she spent her formative years, dealing with his contentious fears”

Fiona Apple is the only repeat artist on Rowan’s playlist, but with good reason. “For Her” is unyielding in its pointed views of men. Rowan is a cynic. The album “Fetch the Bolt Cutters”—I mean, just the title alone—it’s all completely Rowan.

Reservations

Wilco

“How can I convince you it’s me I don’t like”

I discovered this song after writing “Before We Were Blue.” I was going through all of Pitchfork’s perfect “10″ albums and I’m so glad I did because this is one of my favorite songs now. It’s romantic and despairing and wholesome. Rowan feels this way about Shoshana: “I’ve got reservations, about so many things, but not about you.”

Don’t Let the Kids Win

Julia Jacklin

“We’re gonna keep on getting older, it’s gonna keep on feeling strange”

This song just guts me. It’s a perfect ending to Rowan’s playlist in the sense that the whole book is a journey for Rowan. Julia Jacklin writes a lot about lessons and hindsight. Rowan relishes hindsight. She believes in multiple versions of herself, layers building toward the surface of who she is in the present. I think she’d listen to this song and feel like it resonates with her coming-of-age process. Also, it’s just stunning—production and lyrics! Go listen if you haven’t!


As always when I feature and non-Black author in this space, I also asked E.J. for book recommendations, and she asked that I share two: Toni Morrison’s Beloved for prose, and for poetry, Danez Smith’s Don’t Call Us Dead, adding: Heart-wrenching reads, stamped in my brain forever!

The cover of Don’t Call Us Dead by Danez Smith.

Last, but not least, if you are seeking additional information or support about eating disorders, please checkout nedic, NEDA, or Kids’ Help Phone. If you are seeking information specifically about LGBTQ2S+ folks and eating disorders, check out this fact sheet from Rainbow Health Ontario.

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 pets, and pursuing my career as a literary agent!

I *Love* April French

Blog Update

Happy August, all! I wanted to formally write a quick update about what has been going on with this space, and what you can expect going forward! If you’re not super interested in that – feel free to skip ahead for today’s content – an interview with debut author Penny Aimes, about her forthcoming Harlequin romance, For the Love of April French!

I started this blog in December of 2018, when I was a part time bookseller, full time PhD student, and when I was trapped in an abusive relationship that was keeping me pretty isolated from the world. I didn’t know it at the time, but because of that relationship, I was losing friendships and I didn’t have a lot of space to express myself. Thanks to support from my other (current) partner, and a couple of close and supportive friends who stuck by me, I was able to extricate myself from the relationship in early 2020. Suffice to say that a lot has happened since then… COVID notwithstanding. This blog has always been a space where I could share my insider knowledge and my Big Feels about what I was reading. It was a lifeline at the time, a place for me to build community, and my room of my own. I’m so proud of how this blog has grown over the years into something more than that… but it’s still also all of those things for me!

That said, my capacity to actually run the blog has diminished over time. I’m so grateful to have wonderful collaborators and to have experienced deep generosity from so many guests who have joined me in this space over the years! That said, in order to keep things consistent and sustainable, I’ve decided to dial down the expectations just slightly. Going forward, I will plan one blog post a month – because that’s a level that I can commit to, and execute well, with the support of my team! We’ll continue to host the same quality content that you’ve come to expect in this space… just a little less frequently.

Thank you so much for your ongoing support and understanding. Also, if you’re so inclined, something that is literally life-sustaining for me and my family are the little donations that I get through ko-fi to support this blog. If you’re able to toss a coin to your witch(er) to support this blog, please know that I am eternally grateful, and that it means the world!

FOR THE LOVE OF APRIL FRENCH, by Penny Aimes

The cover of FOR THE LOVE OF APRIL FRENCH by Penny Aimes.

Yall, as a polyamorous, queer, non-binary trans person, it is rare that I find myself reflected in books with prominent romance plotlines. I feel indebted to debut author Penny Aimes, acquiring editor Ronan Sadler, and the whole team at Harlequin’s Carina Adores imprint for giving me the first experience of genuine reflection I’ve ever felt reading a category romance novel. This is a book with a transfeminine protagonist written by a trans woman author. YES.

I read a lot of trans books, and I was really built up by early readers before this landed in my lap, and even so, I was blown away. Before I had even finished the book, it would be an understatement to say that I was impressed. Aimes’ ability to balance plot progression, dialogue, and scene setting is great; the book pulls off romance tropes in a fresh way that is super identity-driven and authentic, but that doesn’t lose the essence of a series romance; the writing is super efficient in the sense that on a line level it’s clean and interesting, but Aimes has a strong appreciation for plot progression in a book with a short page count.

For readers who might be sensitive to explicit content, this book does have a lot of sex in it – or at least, for someone (me, it’s me) who doesn’t read a tonne of category romance, it felt like it had a lot of sex in it – and CW for BDSM. But, for readers who might be sensitive to explicit content because you’ve never seen a book handle trans identity or trans bodies well in sexual contexts? Well, you might find yourself as validated as I felt reading these passages.

I am thrilled to host Penny Aimes in this space to talk about this fantastic book. It was an absolute delight to conduct the following interview, and I think that her answers are candid and beneficial for readers and authors alike. For the Love of April French will be released on August 24th, and is available for pre-order now!

Interview with Penny Aimes

Author Penny Aimes, photo by Magnetic Focus.

1. This is your first novel length work! Can you talk a little bit about what your writing process and your goals have been, and what it’s like for you to see it become a published book from one of the biggest publishers in the world?

I’ve tried to write novels before–I’ve been a voracious lifelong reader and I think of myself as a creative person–but until this year I’d never tried romance and I found it a really congenial fit, with the result that APRIL FRENCH is the first of those many manuscripts I ever finished!

One thing I really enjoy about romance is the shifting between viewpoints; I’m a sprinter, not a marathon runner, and romance seems to naturally break up into a series of well-defined mini scenes–not even an end to end event, but simply expressing a single emotion or characterizing one element. I even played around with format when I got stuck, writing sections as transcripts of phone calls or purely narration without dialogue. Of course, my beta and editor made me go back and smooth those out later, but it helped keep moving. Slowing down is death in first drafts, at least for me! Better to write a pithy scene, wrap it, and switch POVs than get stalled.

My goal was really just to finish the book! I happened to do so right as Carina Pitch was happening, and I thought, “Why not?” — in another reality where the date was different, a MUCH less polished version of my book has been up on Kindle Unlimited for more than a year!

Working with Carina, and through them Harlequin and then through them, at a great remove, Harper Collins has been really wild. An interview in Entertainment Weekly or professional marketing direction really weren’t even on my radar when I started writing in the first couple months of the pandemic. 

I’m so appreciative of the opportunity and for all the people who have contributed to this book’s journey, both from the publisher and from outside–my beta reader, Rebecca Fraimow, my wife, the many many authors on Twitter who have taken an interest, cross-promoted or just had conversations with me. I got a blurb–and a lot of kind advice and cheerful conversation–from Talia Hibbert, one of my all time favorites of the genre! It’s all so much more than I ever expected!

2. Full transparency, I usually caution my authors against writing POV characters who occupy a marginalized identity that they do not share. In romance, this is really hard, because of the strict format restrictions of a traditional romance novel. If you want to have diverse representation in your book at all, you almost don’t have a choice except to include them as a POV character. That said, the book was so thoughtful about trans representation that I imagine you were just as thoughtful in your approach to representing a Black character on the page, and I would be interested to know how you went about navigating that, and what kinds of tools you used to ensure the representation was accurate and responsible.

This is a question I anticipated and thought about a LOT. By the time I really engaged with the romance community on Twitter, I had written a rough first draft of the book, and that was where I began to encounter the advice against writing POV characters outside of your experience. It was a new thought to me–I was more used to advice encouraging authors to create more diverse worlds–but the justice of the perspective clicked with me right away.

At the same time, I have a lot of reservations about how this advice intersects with trans representation, because we are so underrepresented in romance at the current moment; without non-transfeminine authors there would be exactly four category romance novels with trans heroines, as far as I know–and three of those came out this summer!. I personally have seen great trans rep from cis authors, and I think there should absolutely be trans women in books by cis people–but there will always be topics and feelings that they haven’t experienced and should probably steer clear of, which means there is always a need for those more authentic voices.

I really hope and encourage that we can make space for Black trans women in romance; there are only a few transfems in the genre right now, and all of the ones I know of are white. But it was really that that made me decide to go ahead with the story and try my best. I knew I’d have to accept responsibility for my screw ups and acknowledge that there would be some stuff a Black author would have done better! But it seemed like, for now, if it was going to be done at all it was up to me and my tiny cohort.

I spent a lot of time thinking about Dennis’s community and his arc, drawing from my Black friends and colleagues as well as conversations in the romance community itself. I also worked with a sensitivity reader from Salt and Sage books (https://www.saltandsagebooks.com/profiles/lynn-brown/) who gave me some great encouragement–she really gave me the courage to dig into Dennis’s family–and asked some great questions that really helped me crack his storyline. 

The two specific things I engaged with from that feedback were: how does Dennis feel being the Black person in the room, just as April is always the trans person in the room? And how is Dennis seeking and establishing community as a Black person in his new environment? These themes not only helped round out Dennis’s character and arc, they really established some resonances that feed into why Dennis can empathize with April, and why he’s been an advocate for Jason before now. It put April and Dennis on parallel paths–April has a strong community but needs to reach for romantic love, Dennis falls for April immediately but needs to put down roots to really be ready for her.

My editor John Jacobson also contributed a lot in content edits, highlighting some needles we wanted to thread carefully and helping me work them out, particularly with regard to April’s crisis moment late in the book–being afraid of your boyfriend getting angry at you hits different with a Black protagonist! My trust in John to walk the walk after seeing them supporting and advocating for Black authors really helped build the trust that they could help me get it right.

I’ll also admit I cheated somewhat, by making Dennis new in town and coming from a very white city and industry. Dennis’s childhood is also in an area very similar to where I grew up. He’s almost starting from scratch, and a lot of Dennis’s community-building and relationships with other Black folks, while they’re a big part of his character arc, live off-screen. It’s unfortunate but I knew I couldn’t write it authentically. That’s definitely something a Black author could have done better! 

It’s a topic I think about a lot, especially because I want to continue writing stories about April’s friends. One of them, Beth, is Black and nonbinary, two identities I don’t share. Do I leave them as the only one who doesn’t find love because it’s not my lane? Do I take the risk? Neither solution feels totally right.

As a side-bar, a lot of my favorite romances were written by Black women, from Beverly Jenkins to Rebekah Weatherspoon to Talia Hibbert, and they have been some of my best advocates and friends in the community too. The positive feedback fhas meant the world to me and helped me feel confident publishing this book.

In some ways, the core fantasy of mf romance and especially mf BDSM is, what if there was a man you could actually trust (to tie you up)? The first two books of the Beards and Bondage series and the Ravenswood and Brown Sisters book really take this further–what if there was a white man you could actually trust? I think that’s why those books really resonate with me, and the core idea of APRIL FRENCH was always, what if there was a cis man you could actually trust?

Of course, making that cis man Black changed the equation; it created vulnerabilities and commonalities between them that really became core to the relationship.

Photo by Jason Leung on Unsplash

3. ​Romance is such a niche genre, one that is often looked down upon despite its massive popularity, and the readers of the genre are SO voracious. What was it that drew you to writing a romance book, as opposed to other genres? What do you hope the response from readers will be to this book?

I’ve always loved genre books of all stripes–I love the inherent promise in a genre title, and the fact that even in a book that is only average, you’re guaranteed that one thing you came for, whether it’s spaceships or dragons or a happily ever after. But romance was the one genre I had always stayed away from, because it felt like too much of an admission of the secret femininity I was hiding. And while I had a ton of nerdy female friends, for a while they were in that phase of reading everything but romance too, because science fiction and fantasy are seen as more “serious.”

But my friends were outgrowing that mentality and diving into reading whatever they wanted, and I was newly out to myself as a trans woman, and I really gave myself permission to immerse myself in romance. Romance entered my rotation, but just as one type of book among many… and then the pandemic happened!

So what really drove me writing a romance novel was that I had been consuming nothing but romance novels for weeks! When the pandemic started, I suddenly could NOT stomach anything with world-ending stakes; my wife and I were watching several superhero shows and mysteries that I couldn’t stand to watch any more.

And as I’ve found all my life, as I filled myself up with certain tropes and ideas, my own takes and concepts and what-ifs began to come together into a book. But this time… I actually finished it!

One of my key motivations with writing this book was, of course, the paucity of books by and about trans feminine people. I hope trans readers see themselves in this book, that keen beautiful sense of recognition of your feelings in someone else that romance gives us better than anything else–and I hope cis readers have those same feelings, in one way or another, and recognize April as a woman with all the pains and fears and joys of any woman, plus an opportunity to learn about the unique experience of transness. 

(Or–one unique experience of transness. My motivation in writing this book was driven by scarcity, but I’m so overjoyed to be part of a recent wave that has doubled the number of published category romances with trans heroines, and to share the summer with  established transfem authors like May Peterson and Lily Seabrooke. The more books we have, the less each book bears the load to be THE book for all trans women.)

3. Talk to me about the trans representation in this book. I can only speak from my personal experience, but especially from an intimacy point of view, this was one of the most accurate portrayals of a trans MC I’ve ever read, but in addition, you have non-binary characters, other trans characters, diverse queer representation – it’s awesome. Why did you choose to make that a focus of this novel, and what was it like?

There’s very, very little left of it now, but the very original inspiration for April and Dennis were as the Jane/Bingley analogs in a trans Pride and Prejudice, where all of the Bennetts were trans women. So she always came with a posse. April’s investment and “Mama April” role at the bar were inspired, also, by my experiences on a kink discord where I became a moderator and a den mother for a lot of young and wild trans girls. So I always knew Frankie’s would be a queer hub, and then I just had to show that.

It was great to have conversations at different levels of ‘getting it’ and with different perspectives–early on, Dennis, for instance, doesn’t realize that Aerith is agender or that Max is trans-masc. He just thinks they’re androgynous and baby-faced, respectively. But April knows them better.

I think sense-of-place is so important in romance, and Frankie’s is the most important place in this book, so getting really into the bones of the community and population there was critical. Some of that community are more expert than others with queer experiences, but all of them have good intentions. Romance is all about wish fulfillment!

The idealized kink club has been done before, of course; May Sage’s Kings of the Tower series has a great example, combined with the “what if billionaires used their power for good?” trope; but in Frankie’s I wanted to do something a little less glamorous, a little more neighborhood bar. Kink and queerness are both things that are outside the norm, but are really so very down-to-earth and normal for the people who live in them.

That ties back to the representation question, because part of that same idea is making the population of the bar diverse in a very mundane way. For instance, there’s a deaf woman in a very minor role at Frankie’s–not out of any esoteric idea of scoring points for diversity, but because Austin is home to the Texas School for the Deaf, and you often see people signing to each other in public places here. I don’t make any special claim to be able to represent those marginalizations, but I know that they are part of the world, and a setting without them doesn’t look or sound real. If you really pay attention to the communities around you, diversity is everywhere–homogeneity is what’s artificial!

4. If an educator was going to teach your book in a college creative writing class, for example, what do you hope students would take away from that experience? Similarly, what do you wish you could tell educators or booksellers who are going to choose this book to put in a reader’s hands?

I am actually so, so honored to be able to say that fellow author Ali Williams is going to use FOR THE LOVE OF APRIL FRENCH as part of her Romancing the Discourse online course on looking at romance through an academic lens. I’ll be part of the Kink as Liberation unit.

What I hope people take away from this book, or are expecting from this book, is a rich fantasy with some very gritty truth at the bottom. I don’t think many trans women get a devoted millionaire like Dennis, more’s the pity. But this is how, to the best of my ability, I imagine a trans woman (this particular trans woman) reacting to that scenario. The wish fulfillment is fun and lovely and cathartic, I hope, but what I hope people learn from is the beating heart underneath it. The fears and ghosts that haunt us, and the dreams we keep safe in our hearts and don’t dare tell anyone.

More than anything, I wrote this book for other trans women, and I hope they feel known and seen; I hope they recognize themselves. But I hope that anyone who reads the story can recognize some piece of themselves in April.

And if nothing else, I hope it’s another bright happy-ever-after someone can use to shield themselves against the world, and I hope that they remember that that joy can come from and belong to a trans woman as much as any other.

Finally: as always when we feature a non-Black author on BBB, author Penny Aimes was asked to recommend a book by a Black author. She wanted to shout out the Gods of Hunger series by R. M. Virtues, which feature transfeminine characters.

The cover of DRAG ME UP by R. M. Virtues.

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 pets, and pursuing my career as a literary agent!

Editors, and Agents, and Editors Again?!

As some of you may know, if you follow my Twitter account at all – I have been in a reading slump. I’m not going to dig into that here, because I am actually halfway through a blog post about that! But, one of the things that has been occupying my restless mind while I struggle with reading full books has been getting to Inbox Zero in my agenting job – and a big part of that is getting through my query backlog.

When I am processing unsolicited queries that come to me from authors, I have a pretty set process, and I’ve tweeted a bit about that process before (see the embed below). Once I request a full manuscript from an author, I usually send them two questions, to get a (very preliminary) sense of whether or not we’re on the same page in terms of fit. These questions are: 1, what are your goals, both as an author, and for this individual project? And 2, what are you looking for in an agent?

I would say that about 80% of the time, the responses that I get to these questions are well thought-through, give me a taste of how much research the author has done before querying, and offer me a sense of what they want is aligned with what I, personally, can offer as an agent – because we are all super different! Now and then – and honestly, more often than I would have guessed before becoming an agent – people’s responses to these questions indicate that they don’t necessarily understand what a literary agent does. To be clear: that’s okay! There’s a lot of education involved in my job, and I not only have an FAQ document ready to go, but I am also really used to answering a lot of questions about my role. That said, I can’t always take on all the questions that I get – or that would be my role.

In my most recent batch of queries, there was one response to my questions that came up a few times. It was usually a variation on: I am looking for someone to help me develop my vision for my book, it would be great to work with someone to finesse the trouble spots, and it would be great to have someone committed to working with me on editing this story. On some level, this answer makes sense. I am an editorial agent – and, in fact, most of the agents I know are! However, in my role as an agent, I am not a developmental editor, and I am not an acquisitions editor, and sometimes, authors don’t know what the difference is between these three jobs.

Photo by Surface on Unsplash

What is the difference between an editorial agent, a developmental editor, and an acquisitions editor?

I can only speak for myself, and my own process as an agent. To be clear, every agent and every agency is a little bit different, just like every author is a little bit different, and editors are different from one another, too! I hope that this post will be a good starting point for authors looking to develop their books, and ready them for querying, and then for submission – but I can’t cover every aspect of every agent’s process here, so please be aware that there is lots of variation within the industry!

Where to begin? You are an author. You have recently completed the first draft of a manuscript that you hope to query. Your goal is to find an agent to represent you, and then have the manuscript be acquired, edited, and published. You have just typed those golden words: THE END. What happens now? The simple answer is: editing. Let’s start with an article from Reedsy: 6 Types of Editing: Which One Do You Need Right Now? This piece from Reedsy, a professional editorial company, outlines six types of editorial work that most projects go through at various stages in their development. They are: editorial assessment, developmental edits, structural edits, line/copy editing, proofreading/formatting, and fact checking. If you end up working with an editorial literary agent with your book to publish in traditional publishing, you will go through the editorial process about three times in the life of your book!

Photo by Surface on Unsplash

The First Round of Revisions: Developmental Editing

The first time you go through this process happens when you have finished your first draft. Now, it’s time to edit. This round of edits can happen in a lot of different ways, and can sometimes involve the support of a developmental editor, but it has to happen BEFORE you take the book out to query agents with it! Depending on your budget and your personal process, the first time you revise your manuscript, you may do it largely on your own, you may share it with beta readers or critique partners or a writing group or a class, or you might hire a professional editor to work with you on the project.

Editors can work as part of a company, they may offer their services as part of a book coaching program, or they might be freelancers. Many freelance editors also work for publishing houses or as agents themselves, separate from their editorial role. I have offered these services in the past on a freelance basis, and will likely do so again in the future! These editors, hired by an author to support them in revising their manuscripts, are what I commonly refer to as developmental editors. Their only job is to help you improve your book in a way that will forward your goals – whether that’s creative achievement, publication, or something else. It is generally speaking a fee for service model, and these prices will likely reflect the standards set by the Editorial Freelancers’ Association or your local equivalent, unless you have a special agreement with a particular editor, or they offer a sliding-scale option.

It is not required in any way to work with a developmental editor before you query your book. The important thing to note here is that the role of a developmental editor and the role of an editorial agent are NOT THE SAME.

Okay. Now you’ve drafted your manuscript, you have gone through your first round of revisions (maybe second, maybe third, it depends on your process!) with your supports, which may or may not include a developmental editor. Once your book is as perfect as it can possibly be, then you are ready to query.

The Second Round of Revisions: Preparing for Submission

Most often, when I sign an author onto my client list these days, their book is already in a place where developmental edits (this first major round of revisions) are complete. I wish I could work as a developmental editor with all of my clients and querying authors – but I just don’t have the capacity to do that. Some of my clients worked with developmental editors before they signed with me, and some of them prefer to continue to work with them even after they have an agent, because those relationships can be so beneficial to an author and their work.

I do, however, provide editorial feedback to my clients before I take their book on submission. Here, I can only speak to my personal practice, but when I am offering my editorial assessment, what my clients can normally expect from me is that I am suggesting minor developmental and structural edits, and then the majority of my work in the text is copy editing, proofreading, and ensuring that the author does due diligence in their fact checking and representation. I send them an editorial report, as well as tracked changes and comments in the body of their manuscript. Then, the author does the second round of revisions revisions. I am a very hands-on, editorial agent, and I provide editorial feedback on every project that I work on. I have two goals when giving editorial feedback: one, I want the writing and the narrative to be as strong as possible, and two, I want the book to be as commercially viable as possible. When I get the book back after the second big round of revisions, it’s just to do a quick read to make sure it’s ready to go out to acquisitions editors.

When I’m giving feedback, I do it from the perspective of a set of outside eyes – I definitely don’t expect authors to agree with everything that I think or suggest. Ultimately, it’s their work, and they need to stand behind it! I will always give more feedback rather than less, to try and give as many options and as much space for growth as possible. I consider myself to provide very thorough editorial feedback, but I would never expect an author to change their work in ways that don’t feel authentic. I’m always available to discuss rationale behind suggested changes, in case there are ways I haven’t considered that might achieve the same goals differently.

I want to pause here to make two important notes. First, it is totally normal for receiving editorial feedback to be an intense, emotional process for an author. I was recently listening to a podcast episode featuring actor Bradley Whitford, who said that when he first hears feedback on his acting, he goes through three silent beats in his head: Fuck you. I suck. Okay, what? (Read the full interview here.) In my experience with working with authors, this is a pretty normal reaction to having someone critique your artistic output! I also like this blog post that delves into that experience in a bit of a tongue and cheek way.

When I send out editorial feedback to an author it is often accompanied by a note that says that it is probably best for them to read the feedback, take a couple of days to process, and then check back in once they have had some time to sit with it (and their emotions). In a perfect world, that would be the acceptance stage, but more often than not, it is the bargaining stage. Realistically, my hope is always that authors have the supports in place to manage this experience – but sometimes, that’s not the case, and I do my best to help my clients navigate that part of the process as best I can.

My second important note: any services that an agent provides to their clients, including providing editorial feedback of any kind, is completely included in the commission that they receive for selling the book to a publisher. That is to say: it is not normal for an agent, even an editorial agent, to charge their clients or querying authors for developmental editorial services. That is a huge red flag, and if an agent is asking for a fee for this work, it is not considered ethical practice within the publishing industry. Like I said before, some agents offer editorial services as freelancers in addition to their agenting jobs, but those two roles should be completely separate, and they should never be using their query inbox to advertise these services or to get clients for their freelance work. If you approach someone as a developmental editor, you should not consider that business relationship a query. If you approach an agent with a query, you should never be asked to pay any fees for their editorial insight. The roles of developmental editor and editorial agent are completely separate roles and business arrangements.

The Third Round of Revisions: Preparing for Publication

The next step in this process is that your agent will take your book on submission to editors. Brand new editors! More editors! These folks are acquisitions editors. They work at publishing imprints to purchase books on behalf of the publisher, and in many cases, to work with the authors on their manuscripts once they have been acquired to prepare them for publishing. Once your book is acquired by an editor, the editorial process starts all over again, for the third time, with someone new! It can and will involve publicity folks, marketing folks, sometimes more freelance editors, editorial assistants – and it can be a bit intimidating. Your agent should be there to support you as you go through that part of the journey, too. A big part of my job as an agent is freeing my clients and their editors up as much as possible so that the relationship between them can be purely creative!

Summary: What Do Agents DO?

To summarize, I want to offer a quick list from my own FAQ document of what editorial agents do. If you want to know what developmental editors do, check out the Reedsy homepage. They explain it perfectly. If you want some more insight into what editors at publishing imprints do – including acquisitions editorscheck out this blog post from MacGregor and Luedeke.

  • offer editorial feedback for improving your book
  • endeavour to sell your book to a reputable publishing house
  • keep up to date with editors’ interests as well as their contact information
  • negotiate the terms of your contracts with publishers
  • communicate with you within a reasonable period of time
  • keep you as informed as you want to be about progress on your projects together
  • give you realistic expectations
  • be as interested as you are in getting a good deal for your book–the better you do, the better they will do
  • work on commission

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 pets, and pursuing my career as a literary agent!

(How) Do Authors Get Paid?

Listen. All I needed was ONE FRIEND to tell me that an industry-related post explaining royalties would be interesting, and I’m so ready to dive into this topic. The last time I wrote I post like this, I included this disclaimer, that is still true: I’ve been a little self-indulgent here. I love these details, but I hope that even if it’s not usually their jam, readers will be able to use this knowledge to support authors! This post is a massive info dump, but I hope that even if it’s long, it will contribute toward an ongoing goal of mine for more transparency in publishing.

BUT FIRST, before I dive headlong into how authors make their (very small amount of) money from the books that they publish in traditional publishing stream, I’m going to offer up a review of All Boys Aren’t Blue by George M. Johnson, written by our regular contributor Jack (thank you so much!!), and a short review of a simple and queer visual novel I completed recently.

Review of George M. Johnson’s All Boys Aren’t Blue, by Jack

Cover of All Boys Aren’t Blue

The specificity in Johnson’s All Boys Aren’t Blue makes this memoir a survival guide. Johnson explores carving part of themselves in their relationships, community and individual while simultaneously thriving off their duality. It’s the Black Queer joy, Black magic, is skipping rope with your girlfriends and playing football with your father. All Boys Aren’t Blue is an exploration of lived experiences, the linking and unlinking of one’s gender, sexuality, and favorite past times. Johnson’s work is meant to inspire, educate, illustrate, and challenge the stereotypical depictions of Black boys.

Johnson is an activist and writer based in New York who according to Macmillan publishers has written on race, gender, sex, and culture for numerous prominent publications. Their writing experience is evident in their memoir, which is an exploration of gender and sexuality intersecting with race and class; it’s a love letter to intergenerational relationships.

Johnson mentions interpreting their feelings for men as an indication of their gender identity rather than sexuality. Similarly, to how Sara Ahmed connects orientation and orientalism to explore how one physically orients themselves in space and identity, All Boys Aren’t Blue explores how in a world of social constructs, we use often use race and gender as tools of understanding our sexuality.

CW includes but is not limited to violence, misogyny SA, incest, transphobia, and homophobia.

Johnson’s memoir doesn’t shy away from acknowledging their healing journey and demonstrating what accountability looks like. Or how confusing it can be when those who are supposed to love you can harm you. All Boys Aren’t Blue, Johnson’s story, deserves to be heard both in the context of educational generalizations and a memoir. Too often are marginalized authors demonized for not representing or speaking for the collective.

***This is a note regarding representation: no Black Queer person needs to/can represent all our experiences when they write.***

I recommend this memoir to all boys who aren’t blue, to families and kinships who are trying to create communities, Black Queer kids, and adults who deserve to see versions of their story being told. 15+ and up.

All Boys Aren’t Blue is the warmth and comfort one feels when being hugged by someone they love, it’s the presence of community and visibility.

Review: A Hero and a Garden

The banner for the video game A Hero and a Garden

A while back, I posted about having discovered visual novels for the first time, through first buying a Switch Lite to play Animal Crossing in lockdown. Well, if 2020 taught me anything, it taught me that visual and interactive novels are masterful storytelling that’s just as powerful as any book I’ve ever read… and it can be just as super queer, too. A Hero and a Garden is an indie game by npckc available for Switch, PS 4, Android, Windows, Linux, Mac, and Xbox One. In it, you play Cyrus. He was a knight, born and sworn to protect a princess… until she ran away from home to live in a village of monsters. Cyrus went after her, and destroyed the town to save her – only to find that she was actually pretty content, and not in need of saving at all.

The game begins at this point – when Cyrus has been cursed by a local witch to tend a magical fruit garden until he has repaid his debt to the villagers, and helped rebuild their town. This game is super simple and light to play – literally zero pressure – but brings all the feels. As Cyrus helps the town, he learns about the villagers, their lives, their love, and himself. This game doesn’t play into normative expectations when it comes to gender, sexuality, or monogamy. If you’re indulging in a lot of baking shows and slice of life anime right now to get through this weird time in human history, maybe what you need is to pick some berries, and get to know the delightful cast of this very fluffy and sweet, LGBTQ2S+ celebratory game.

The creator of this game has SO MANY OTHER COOL GAMES, and because I don’t usually play on my computer (I spend too much time with this machine as it is – they need a rest every now and then, and so do my eyes!!), I am just very very hopeful that Ratalaika Games will port more of them to Switch ASAP. Take my meagre dollars, I beg of you!!

Let’s Talk About Money

I have previously used this space to write industry-related posts about things like how to best use your purchasing power to support authors through choosing to support the best retail outlets for authors, but it’s been brought to my attention recently that some readers might be interested in a post about another aspect of how money flows from readers to authors in traditional publishing. Once the money goes into a bookshop’s coffers – how does that money make it from the bookshop, via the distributor, back to the publisher, through an agency, and then back to the original creator of the intellectual property that you’re ingesting: the author? One part of the answer to that question is through royalties.

Royalties are used in all kinds of industries, including traditional publishing. In basic terms, royalties are the percentage of money that an author gets from the sale of a book. Any time that a reader buys a new book – not a book that’s purchased second hand, and not a book that’s remaindered – but a brand new book, the book’s author generally gets a little bit of money from that sale. That applies to all formats: hardcover, paperback, mass market, special edition, eBook, and audio. The one notable exception to that (that I can think of) would be if the book was written on a Work For Hire contract, and that contract included a fixed rate, but no royalties. That happens most commonly, in my experience, in a licensed content situation, which you can learn more about by watching the video below, by Alexa Donne 👇🏼

A YouTube video called WHAT IS IP IN PUBLISHING?

The amount of royalties that an author will get depends on a LOT of different factors. Some of these might include the size of the publisher, the size of the imprint, the values of the publisher/imprint, the negotiating power that an author’s agent or agency has with a particular publisher, the author’s platform and their past publication history or track record, the economy in general – the list goes on and on.

From here, the information that you want to know may depend on your positionality a little bit – so I’m going to split the rest of this post into two sections. The section that follows is probably most relevant to authors. If you’re not interested in the back end of how royalties come together, but you are a reader who wants to know how to best spend their money to support creators, skip to the next section!


For authors…

Royalties are negotiated individually on every book deal between either an author or their agent, and the publisher, and are often based on what are called boilerplate contracts. These are standard template contracts that publishers have in place that serve as the starting point for negotiation – and they vary between agencies and publishers. If an author is lucky enough to be represented by an agency with a long history, their boilerplates with publishers will be well-established, and that often means that authors can receive more royalties than if they are unrepresented, or if they are part of a newer literary agency who has yet to establish standards with different imprints around the world.

That said, like most things, there are some industry standards. For a deep dive into these, I recommend checking out the Writers’ Union of Canada’s royalty math page, but the basic numbers are these: for hardcovers, 10% of the cover price on the first 5,000 copies sold, 12.5% on the next 5,000, and 15% thereafter; for paperback, 7.5% of the cover price, and for eBooks, 25% of the publisher’s net receipts. For more information on retail versus net royalties, check out this post from Alexander Field at the Bindery. It’s important to know that most publishers, while they will compete on advances, do not typically compete with each other on royalties.

If you want to know more about the publishing process and where contract negotiations fit into it, there are three resources I recommend: one from Bloomsbury, a guide to the publishing process; one from blogger Rachel Kent for Books&Such Literary Management, about the publishing timeline; and one from KN Literary Arts, a publishing timeline for first-time authors.

Photo by lucas Favre on Unsplash

The other big question that authors tend to have is when do I actually get my royalties? The answer is, as soon as you earn out your advance. It’s always a difficult balance to strike as an agent when you’re advocating for an author: do you negotiate for as high an advance as you can manage, or do you go more modestly on the advance so that the author starts getting royalties sooner? Royalties are a more sustainable form of income for an author, and the higher the advance payment they receive, the less likely it is that they will ever see those payments, in this economy. Let’s take a recent release as an example.

As I write this, Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo is #4 on the Barnes and Noble bestsellers list online, the first listed paperback, at $10.99 USD – which I’m going to call $10 for the sake of simplicity. From that $10, applying a standard royalty rate of 7.5%, Bardugo is entitled to $0.75. If you set aside hardcover sales and subrights sales, and you consider that most authors are printed straight to paperback, you can see how earning out a high five figure advance would take some time – and a huge number of sales. After the advance earns out, that’s when an author begins to see royalties – but not the full $0.75 per copy. From that, you need to also subtract the 15% of that royalty that would be collected by her literary agency, $0.11, bringing that amount down to $0.64 per copy sold.

There are, however, other ways to earn out your advance as an author that don’t involve royalties at all. For this part of my long-winded story, I consulted with BBB contributor, CeCe Lyra, who is also an agent for PS Literary. Since she gave such valuable insight here, and this section of this post is specifically for authors, you can see CeCe’s most recent MSWL here. This might get a little bit convoluted, but the TL;DR of this next paragraph is: any money that you earn for your publisher as an author before you have earned out your advance counts against your advance. The way that this most often happens is through subrights sales.

Photo by Mirza Babic on Unsplash

If you want to learn the basics of subrights, check out this blog post from Valerie Peterson for The Balance Careers. For the purposes of this post, the thing to understand is that any subrights that publishers retain for your book and sell generates income for the publisher. If this happens before you’ve earned out, it will also count against your advance. To illustrate this, let’s say that I write a great new book, and it is acquired by a publisher for $20K, but they negotiate with my agent, and manage to hold on to my international and translation rights. This book is getting a lot of good press, and the publisher has a super keen rights team, so they manage to sell it in four different countries before the book even goes on sale. A huge coup! Each of those rights sales generates a $5K advance – and, just like that, my advance is earned out before my book has even hit shelves. FANTASTIC, in so many ways – but as CeCe pointed out to me, this also comes with downsides. Some argue that if the publisher sold $20K worth of foreign rights and the author’s advance was already earned out, then they could lower their marketing budget for the book’s debut in its home market, since they’re not worried about losing money if the advance doesn’t get earned back. This is part of the reason why the best thing for authors is often for their agents to advocate to retain as many of their subrights as possible and sell them separately on the author’s behalf, rather than having that service be performed by the publisher.

Now – let’s say that an author has earned out their advance (yay!), and now their agency is receiving royalties statements, and cutting them a check for their earnings twice a year. I got a question from a reader over Twitter, and it’s a great one: how do returns get factored in? Royalties payouts and statements are anything but straightforward. If you really want to do a deep dive on this, you can check out the (slightly older, but still reliable) video below, from the Authors’ Guild. If you aren’t ready for the deep dive, though – and I don’t blame you, because unless you are an unrepresented author, understanding all of this is really your agent’s responsibility and not yours as an author – let me give you a wee primer on how book distribution works!

A YouTube video on Understanding Your Royalty Statements.

In this hypothetical world, your book birthday has passed, you have earned out your advance, and bookstores are steadily ordering new copies of your book to sell. In their retail outlets, booksellers put in their orders for merchandise to their distributors. These are companies that exist between publishers and retail outlets/wholesalers who organize book sales. Books flow from the publisher to the distributor, who then makes sure that all the retail outlets get their orders. The general rule in the industry is that book retailers have 90 days from the time that they receive the books from the distributor to either sell them or return them without any financial loss.

That allowance is essential for book retailers to stay afloat… but how does it affect authors? It means that when your royalties statement comes in, the publisher will hold back a small percentage of your royalties earned on “reserve” to safeguard against books that have been ordered by booksellers, but will be returned instead of sold. If you are an unrepresented author, you should always keep an eye on exactly how much of a reserve your publisher is holding, and be sure to ask them their policies around this. If you are represented, your agent should be reviewing your statements and verifying that they are being executed correctly on your behalf.


For readers…

If you are a reader who is lucky enough to have some money to spend on books, and you wonder what the best way to support an author is, the basic answer is a bit unfortunate, but also pretty simple: the more money you spend, the more the author gets. In general, authors make more money on hardcover sales than paperback, more on paperback than mass market, and if you buy at a store that gets special sales editions and pricing (like Costco or Target, or through a subscription like a book box), the author will get a little bit less than if you buy from a brick and mortar chain store or an indie.

There are two exceptions to these rules. One is that if you buy a book that’s on sale at a regular retail outlet, for example, a 30% off hardcover at Indigo, usually that loss in profit is absorbed by the store, or in rare cases by the publisher, and not by the author. The second is if you buy an eBook. Because eBook royalties are often calculated based on net profit rather than cover price, authors don’t always come out on top, but in general, they make a higher percentage of the cover price of the book than they do for physical books, and this can serve them well in the long run.

There are two red flags that you want to keep an eye out for if you’re wanting to make sure that an author is getting full royalties from your book purchase (aside from where you’re shopping). One, a sticker over the cover price of the book that advertises a lower price than the original. This generally means that the book was sold through special sales (explained in this post from Ingram Spark), and authors often get a lower royalty rate for these kinds of bulk sales. The second is a remainder mark, usually a mark made by a Sharpie or other permanent marker to the pages of a book, near the binding. While they may be sold at a more advantageous price for consumers, authors do not get royalties on remaindered book sales.

Last but not least, is there a way to support authors financially without having your own money to spend? Always our heroes, the libraries. Authors do get some financial benefit from library loans, although the format of the book and the location of your library both play a role in this – and unfortunately, my knowledge here is limited to North America, so if you live elsewhere, it pays to do your own research about this! Also, when it comes to libraries and eBooks, what I will say is that at best, things are complicated, and if you want to support an author to the best of your ability, consider purchasing a hard copy of a book for your personal collection or as a gift or donation if you read something from your library’s eBook collection and you love it.

In the United States, authors only get royalties from libraries on physical books when they are purchased for their collections, no matter how many times the book is borrowed. That said, if you are an American reader, make sure to request titles from your local library so that they get that support! In Canada, we are #blessed to have the Public Lending Right program, which means that your library loans mean more to Canadian authors, so keep borrowing all the Can Lit you can manage!


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 pets, and pursuing my career as a literary agent!

Victories Greater than Death

I am always humbled by the connections that I get to make with incredible new authors and emerging artists through this platform. Once in a rare while, I also get to connect with authors who I have admired for a long time. This week, I am super excited – and still kind of in disbelief? – that I get to share an interview that I had the pleasure of conducting with the iconic Charlie Jane Anders.

Charlie Jane Anders, photo by Sarah Deragon.

If Charlie Jane Anders is a new name for any of you reading this, buckle in, because you are in for a wild ride. I was excited to get to chat with Charlie Jane about her upcoming YA debut, the first book in a trilogy, Victories Greater Than Death, which comes out TOMORROW with Tor Teen! You still have a little while to pre-order! Run! (And don’t stop running.) This book is (if I’m counting right), Charlie Jane’s ninth novel-length work, but she is prolific and has won an awe-inspiring number of awards for her longer works, but also her short fiction: the Emperor Norton Award, a Hugo Award, a Nebula Award, a William H. Crawford Award, a Theodore Sturgeon Award, a Locus Award, and a Lambda Literary Award. Nbd. (Except, VERYbd).

I had the pleasure of reading an early copy of Victories, which was great, because I full-blown squealed when I heard that Charlie Jane was working on a YA project. Although I do love speculative work, for whatever reason I am a reader that struggles with worldbuilding – so, often, YA speculative is much easier for me to wrap my mind around. That said, though, I’m not an Epic Fantasy person… so sometimes, YA speculative that appeals to my interests can be a challenge to find. I was lucky, because (unsurprisingly to me at least) Victories delivered on everything that I wanted it to.

Like I told Charlie Jane before I interviewed her, I’m not usually an intergalactic-war person, but the characters and the voice of this novel were irresistible. Everything about this story is just fun. As an anxious and autistic person, the protagonist’s best friend, a character called Rachael, was highly relatable. Her needs were represented in ways that were charming and challenging and often not well-executed in fiction, and for me, it was a joy to follow her through this story. Still, the real beauty of this book for me was the absolutely bonkers diversity of the characters. The pub copy comps the book to Dr. Who meets Star Wars, and I grew up watching so much monster of the week TV that the levity of the worldbuilding really struck a chord with me as a reader, even though I’m not a science fiction buff. Suffice to say, I would recommend this book up and down to a wide variety of readers, and I’m thrilled that Charlie Jane agreed to chat with me about it in this space. Without further ado…


The cover of VICTORIES GREATER THAN DEATH.

You are becoming – if you’re not there already – a prolific author, and most of your work has speculative elements. This book is a bit of a departure, though, in that it is your first book intended explicitly for young readers. I have two questions about this. First, what came first – the story, or the intention to write for young readers?

I started thinking about writing a young adult book in spring 2016, around the time I quit my day job to write full time. I had been noticing for a while that YA fiction was getting more action-adventure-oriented, like there were more books being published like Warcross or Want or Illuminae. YA seemed to be taking a turn towards being a place where you could do something super fun and exhilarating. So I started to think about what I would like to do in a YA, and immediately started to remember all those times when I was a teenager, when I just wished a spaceship would swoop down out of the sky and come take me away from this planet. That led to imagining the story of a girl who’s actually the clone of an alien hero, and her efforts to reclaim her heritage and seize her destiny. 

Second, did you find it difficult to adapt your writing style to the voicey, confessional tone that is so characteristic of YA works right now (because I felt like you nailed it)?

In terms of the tone, that took a TON of work. I sat down with a huge pile of my fav YA books and paged through them, getting a sense of which were first person and which were third person, and how they worked on a sentence level. It took a ton of trial and error to get Tina’s voice right, and I had to keep coming back to the idea of her being snarky and funny, but not ironic or wry or self-mocking the way adults usually are. And once I handed in a complete draft, I worked a lot with my editor, Miriam Weinberg, to tighten the book and speed up the pace and boost the emotion in a lot of crucial places. 

There is such a wide range of characters in this book, and it has a huge cast. Humans, clones, aliens, teens, and adults, all with very distinct aesthetics, cultures, bodies, identities, etc. Do you have an absolute favourite, or one who you relate to the most? What was the most enjoyable part about creating such a rich and diverse cast?

I had so much fun creating all of these different aliens and creatures. It was a total dream come true, and I spent hours and hours cooking up complicated histories and backstories for the different alien worlds and societies, as well as the galaxy as a whole. And then I also spent hours and hours doing research and talking to people for my human supporting cast, since they come from all over the world. I definitely had different characters on different days, but overall my favorite character probably ended up being Rachael — I love how she just wants to hide away and draw when she’s on an alien ship in the middle of a space battle. 

One of the norms in this book is that the characters consistently introduce themselves with their pronouns, and many of the characters use non-binary pronoun options or no pronouns at all. This isn’t prominent in many books. What was your rationale behind that choice, and did you struggle with it through the editorial process at all? 

I honestly can’t remember how I decided that everyone should introduce themselves with their pronouns. I was just thinking about the fact that all of these aliens are speaking their own languages and it’s being translated into English, and so it made sense to me that a translator could also give you other important information — like someone’s pronoun. And once I started doing it, it just made sense. I made sure to mention that not everybody actually “hears” the pronouns spoken out loud, the way Tina does. It works differently for different people. But this felt like a good way to be introducing a lot of human and alien characters, some of whom might not have genders or other identifiers that a human would be able to figure out at a glance. It also went along with the overall theme of the book, of respecting other people’s identities while you try to figure out your own.  

Photo by NASA on Unsplash

As a literary agent who represents speculative authors across age categories, I am constantly hearing from editors that sci fi in YA is a super tough sell, and that they have trouble getting these works approved by their acquisitions boards. In comparison to your other works, what was the process like finding a home for VICTORIES, and what made you choose to write sci fi for this age group? 

I always hear people say that science fiction is a hard sell in YA as well, but then you look at series like The Hunger Games, Illuminae, Divergent, the aforementioned Warcross, and a bunch of others, and it’s clearly not accurate. That said, I am very nervous about launching a YA science fiction book, just because I’m aware of that widespread misconception, and I’m worried it’ll keep people from offering the book to kids. I think especially right now, it’s super important to get young people (and everyone) fired up about science and exploration and discovery. Luckily, the folks at Tor Teen were super excited to delve into this space-opera universe—and I think the fact that it stands out a bit is not a bad thing. 

If an educator was going to teach your book in a high school or college creative writing class, what do you hope students would take away from that experience? Similarly, what do you wish you could tell educators who are going to choose this book to put in a young reader’s hands?

Wow, I can’t ever think about people teaching my books to creative-writing students, except as an example of what *not* to do. 🙂  In the case of Victories, I hope they’d be interested in the voice, like we talked about before, and the way I use humor and feels to add to the suspense. (Or at least, I hope I do that.) For high-school teachers generally, I would hope they’d talk about the themes of post-colonialism and what it means to be a hero. 

Being a marginalized publishing professional can be super challenging once in a while. You have worked with a few different imprints and editors over the course of your career so far. What has your experience been like working with an agent and an editorial team at a big publishing house? What would you say the most fulfilling part of this process was, and what was the biggest challenge?

I’ve been so lucky with Russ Galen and with everyone at Tor, including Miriam Weinberg and Patrick Nielsen Hayden. Everybody has been incredibly supportive and understanding, and nobody blinked when I said I wanted to include so many queer characters in my space opera universe. The most fulfilling part has probably just been talking to Miriam about the characters and the story and how to make them pop — and the biggest challenge has just been breaking in as a YA author, especially during a time when school visits and other in-person appearances are not possible. 

Last, but not least, when I’m covering a non-Black author, I ask them to recommend a book by a Black author to go alongside their post. Would you mind sharing a rec with me?

Three that I’ve read and loved recently come to mind: The Stars and the Blackness Between Them by Junauda Petrus, A Song Below Water by Bethany C. Morrow, and Legendborn by Tracy Deonn. 

Victories Greater Than Death comes out on April 13th, 2021 from Tor Teen. If you enjoyed this interview, you can find Charlie Jane Anders on her Hugo Award winning podcast with co-host Annalee Newitz, our opinions are correct.


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 pets, and pursuing my career as a literary agent!

New Books by Genderqueer Breakouts

In this post, I am super lucky to be able to host A. E. Osworth, author of the breakout adult fiction novel We Are Watching Eliza Bright. This #MeToo era story about harassment in the gaming industry is told multiply and unreliably by users on Reddit, a novel that shatters the concept of form and narration completely. You’ll either love this one or you’ll hate it, but either way, you’ll probably emerge with huge admiration for this author.

But first, I have a guest review from a wonderful friend from my online book community, The Rogue Book Coven, and brilliant reader, Amanda Hamilton. Amanda has graciously penned a review for the highly-anticipated forthcoming title One Last Stop, from Casey McQuiston, whose adult LGBTQ2S+ romcom with crossover appeal, Red, White, and Royal Blue was an overnight sensation in 2019. Does their sapphic sophomore novel meet the high expectations set by the previous novel?

Review: One Last Stop, by Casey McQuiston

By guest contributor Amanda Hamilton

Like so many people, I read and loved Casey McQuiston’s debut bestselling novel, Red, White & Royal Blue last year, so when I had the chance to read an ARC of their upcoming book, One Last Stop, I was over the moon. And I am so happy to report that there is no sophomore slump here.

One Last Stop follows August, newly arrived in New York City, as she settles into her new life, complete with too many roommates and a job at a local diner. It is not the most glamorous life, but for once, it is completely hers. Until she meets Jane, a criminally attractive and charming woman replete with a motorcycle jacket. August and Jane have the ultimate meet-cute on the subway, but Jane doesn’t seem to want to see August outside the station. Because Jane is stuck. Stuck in time, stuck in the station, stuck riding the train over and over. But when the chemistry is this strong and the girl of August’s dreams are right in front of her, what’s a little time loop between friends?

August, Jane and the myriad of characters in One Last Stop’s world are all fully developed, with their own motives, concerns and loves, and it’s a joy to watch them all bloom throughout the course of the novel. Romance novels are often dismissed as predictable and rote, but that is certainly not the case here. Jump into this lovely and surprising with August and Jane – you won’t regret it.

For readers who enjoy One Last Stop, Amanda also recommends The Princess Trap, by Black author Talia Hibbert.


We Are Watching Eliza Bright: Feature Interview with Author A. E. Osworth

In Chapter 10, you give a bit of a gaming history of one of your characters in the book, Lewis. I would love to hear your gaming history! Did you write this book based on a lifelong interest in gaming, are you completely new to the gaming world, or was this just an interesting world for you to explore through fiction

It might come as no surprise that all the characters who have a gaming history (I believe there are three and there were almost more!) just have pieces of my own gaming history. I love video games and board games and table top RPGs (though I do not happen to be very good at most video games—especially if they require a large amount of dexterity-based combat). We were a Nintendo family, and my brother and I spent mornings before school playing the Nintendo 64 (Super Mario! Star Fox!) or, if we’d been dropped off early, Pokemon on our Gameboys. I also played Ultima Online quite a bit in my teen years—until a member of my guild took advantage of my naiveté and slaughtered me in a PVP zone for all my stuff (I had a lot of cool stuff). It wasn’t as much fun after that! Not because I lost all my cool stuff (though that was a bummer) but because it made me feel like my weird little online friendships weren’t meaningful.

Two more gaming-related questions. 1, do you have a favourite game that has kept you busy during the pandemic? 2, what character alignment do you most relate to yourself?

Honestly? Dungeons and Dragons. My household plays a big outdoor game with two other households, all socially distanced and our DM painted a giant battle grid on a bed sheet and hand-stitched cute beanbags to use as “minis.” Right at the beginning of the pandemic, though, it was all Animal Crossing all the time. Could that game’s release have been timed more perfectly? I used to get my avatar all dressed up in pajamas and have them lay in bed, surrounded by aesthetically pleasing digital objects in a world where no one was sick. They closed their eyes and slept soundly while I watched and pretended I felt like that. That sounds a bit sad, now that I say it out. But it is how I spent the early days and it was instrumental.

And that second question—like most folks I talk to, I wish desperately that I were Chaotic Good. When I play said Dungeons and Dragons, that’s usually what I go for. But the reality is that I’m Lawful Good. Which is to say, I am a giant weenie of a rule follower. I don’t make illegal u-turns and I get to airports a full two hours before my flight. I comfort myself only with the knowledge that I am not the worst alignment: Lawful Neutral. Law for the sake of law, rules for the sake of rules. Fuck that alignment!

You use gender neutral pronouns and have written a lot of non-fiction about queerness and technology. Did your experiences of gender and queerness impact the way that you approached writing this book? If so, how?

So when I wrote this book (or at least, the first several drafts of it), I didn’t know I was trans. I could’ve sworn up and down that I was a cis woman, and I wrote a story that centered on one. In that respect, my experience of gender has been with this book throughout. And queerness was always a part of it, too, in the character of Suzanne.

After coming out as trans, I had the opportunity to add and revise the second collective narrator, The Sixsterhood. This queer and trans art commune is inspired by a real group of people and a real place—the former Octagon in San Francisco, as well as other queer communities of which I am a part. That voice is explicitly queer and trans (and there are a lot of in-jokes there that are specifically for my queer and trans folks).

The cover of WE ARE WATCHING ELIZA BRIGHT

One of the things that is super unique about your book is the narrative style. Rather than having a single POV character, your book is narrated by a group of online fans of a popular MMORPG. For me as a reader, it created a sort of distance between me and the titular character, Eliza Bright. As a literary agent, I would say that this is a super risky choice in a competitive literary market. Why did you make that choice, and what do you hope it adds to your story?

I heard it again and again: cut the narrators, just tell the story. So many people in graduate school were of the opinion that I should do away with the book being narrated by Reddit, and they said the same things you’ve just said. I knew they were wrong because the whole point of the book is the Reddit narrator. The point is the antagonistic collective; the point is the parasocial relationship they have with the group of protagonists; the point is the feeling of being watched. I am so very lucky that I found an agent, and then an editor, whose whole mission was not to simply tell me to cut the narrator, but to ask the right questions and make the right comments to help me make the narrator really, really work. And I think it does; I think they do.

In addition to being a novelist, you also do a lot of teaching (you are so busy!). If an educator was going to teach your book in a high school or college creative writing class, what do you hope students would take away from that experience? Similarly, what do you wish you could tell educators who are going to choose this book to put in a young reader’s hands?

I think what I hope students take away depends on what this is being used to teach. If it’s being taught in the context of writing, I hope students try their own collective narrators. It’s really fun to consider how the collective knows what they know, how they share information with each other, whether or not they all agree, what they all sound like as one. There’s so much delight in working with this point of view, and there are so many good examples that all do it drastically differently (The Virgin Suicides, And Then We Came to the End, We Ride Upon Sticks).

If it’s being used to teach current events or internet culture or any number of other things, I hope students are taught the book beside the headlines that inspired it, because in the end I did make it up. The psychological and emotional underpinning of the book is as true as I could render it, but it’s a work of fiction. The narrators’ voices are accurate, but imagined. A good place to start with that is The New York Times’s Everything Is Gamergate.

A. E. Osworth, author of WE ARE WATCHING ELIZA BRIGHT

Being a marginalized publishing professional can be super challenging once in a while. Your book is with a Big 5 publisher – one of the Hachette imprints – and that’s a really big deal! What has your experience been like working with an agent and an editorial team at a big publishing house? What would you say the most fulfilling part of this process was, and what was the biggest challenge?

I have loved nearly every moment of working with my team at Grand Central. Seema Mahanian, my editor, has made this book the very best version of itself that it could possibly be. I was a little nervous that any editor at a Big Five publisher would look at my weirdo narrators and try to tone them down; Seema helped me turn the dial up on the narrators, and it was actually her idea to add the second collective (my beloved Sixsterhood). When I did two sample pages of the Sixsterhood and there were no periods at the end of the sentences, she said bring it on. I have felt not only artistically free, but artistically encouraged to find my very strangest ideas and let them play.

The biggest challenge for me is something that I truly think would be a problem no matter if I was working with a Big Five or not, and that’s the feeling of at-sea-ness that comes from We Are Watching Eliza Bright being my very first foray into publishing a book. The process is really opaque to me—as my book’s launch date approaches, I don’t know what I should be doing or what’s working or what’s not. My agent, Christopher Hermelin, is truly amazing though. And he’s been able to contextualize and guide and clarify for me. That I remain confused at times is a shortcoming of mine and not anyone else’s.

Last, but not least, when I’m covering a non-Black author, I ask them to recommend a book by a Black author to go alongside their post. Would you mind sharing a rec with me?

Oh oh oh! One of my year-mates from my MFA program at The New School (we graduated in 2016!) is publishing something I’m REALLY excited about. Zakiya Dalila Harris’s book The Other Black Girl is coming out in June and I am AMPED.

The cover of THE OTHER BLACK GIRL, by Zakiya Dalila Harris.

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 pets, and pursuing my career as a literary agent!

The Longest Shortest Month of the Year

Theydies and gentlethems, the first thing I need to do in this post is apologize for the sometimes sporadic timing of posts over the last several months. I am personally, officially more than one year into lockdown, more than one year into working as a literary agent, and I am doing my best to be mindful of my abilities and limitations during this weird part of our collective history. As such, there have been times when I’ve had to step back from some obligations in order to fulfill others, and at times the regularity of the blog schedule has suffered.

Today, however, I have a great post in store. First, I want to review a super exciting picture book, Jamie and Bubbie, by Afsaneh Moradian and illustrated by Maria Bogade. Then, I have a very exciting interview from author Zak Salih, whose gay literary fiction Let’s Get Back to the Party comes out THIS TUESDAY (!!!) from Algonquin books.

Before I dive into those, I have a VERY COOL resource to share for all of you who maybe didn’t get as much reading done in 2020 as usual. I’m super, super lucky to be part of a great online book community, called the Rogue Book Coven. This year, some of our incredible and skilled members put together this great resource featuring the best books read by our members in 2020 – across age categories, genres, and release periods. Check it out, and find something great that maybe you missed. I think of it like the front table at your favourite indie bookshop at the end of a long year.

Jamie and Bubbie

The cover of Jamie and Bubbie, A Book About People’s Pronouns

I have written about Afsaneh Moradian’s first children’s book, Jamie is Jamie, in this space before. I am a huge supporter of Moradian’s work, and so I was thrilled when she reached out to me to ask if I would review her newest offering. Moradian is an educator, and her expertise and familiarity with children really shines through in her picture books.

This book features illustrations of a diverse population that extends beyond racial inclusion, including wheelchair users, and a broad range of ages. It addresses an important topic – the use of pronouns – and it fills a huge gap in resources created on this topic by non-white creators. The book handles the topic with great sensitivity, allowing the young character to be the hero of the story, educating their elders in new and different ways to use language, while maintaining a sense of gentleness, positivity, and humility throughout.

This is a great 101 resource, and a lovely story. The only criticism that I could offer is that it is limited in the sense that there is no discussion of neopronouns. That said, for most people living in North America, this book is a great, accessible starting point for learning, that is expertly executed. It also includes resources for teachers and caregivers in the back of the book.

While you’re checking out Jamie and Bubbie, check out another one of my favourite picture books, Saturday, by Black author Oge Mora.

The cover of Saturday by Oge Mora.

Feature Interview: Zak Salih

Debut author Zak Salih’s novel, Let’s Get Back to the Party, will drop this Tuesday, February 16th. It’s been hailed as “iconic” by the Gay Times, was one of this month’s most anticipated books from Lambda Literary, and Michelle Hart, the assistant editor of books at O Magazine, said that it was among the titles that would change the literary landscape this year. I am honoured to have gotten the chance to interview Salih, and I hope that you enjoy reading as much as I did!

Cover of Let’s Get Back to the Party, by Zak Salih.

I can remember the exact moment that I heard that the US had legalized gay marriage – it wasn’t so long ago, after all. Do you remember that moment in your life? What did it mean for you?

I was working in the marketing department at The Washington Post at the time, so I was at my desk and saw the news on the website as soon as it broke. The next morning, I went down to the lobby and picked up a copy of the paper; I still have the front page here somewhere in my office. While marriage equality hasn’t been a social panacea for the LGBTQ2S+ community, it’s a powerful symbol and its legalization was a powerful moment. I’m glad I was alive to witness it.

You write a lot about art in this book, which is in itself a very artistic, literary work. Is art something that you feel passionate about, or was it just something that you researched for your novel? What role has it played in your life? Do you have a favourite artist or particular work that you wish all of your readers could experience?

I’ve always enjoyed art—flipping through art catalogs, walking through art museums, reading novels about artists—so those sections of the novel were relatively delightful to write. When it’s safe, the National Gallery of Art here in D.C. is the first indoor place I plan on going post-pandemic. I highly recommend it to everyone, especially because you’ll find John Singleton Copley’s Watson and the Shark there, a painting that’s fascinated me since I was a young boy.

Watson and the Shark

For me, your book felt very nostalgic. I think that it really hearkens back to a tone and type of iconic gay literature that we don’t see as much of these days, but it grapples with very contemporary material. I wonder what books you would recommend for readers of your book, and what works you would say influenced you when you were working on it?

I’d recommend all of the LGBTQ2S+ books that inspire me— as a member of an incredibly diverse and wonderful community, as a writer, and as a human being. At the moment, I’m thinking in particular of books like Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, Daniel Mendelsohn’s The Elusive Embrace, Alexander Chee’s How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, and Andrew Holleran’s The Beauty of Men.

From my experience, particularly for LGBTQ2S+ “elders” (feel free to interpret that in whatever way you wish!), childhood memories of grappling with sexuality and complex relationships with peers are often poignant, and linger throughout our lives. This is a theme that comes up in your book, and I’m curious what that was like to explore through your writing. 

While I don’t share the specific childhood memories of Sebastian and Oscar, I do dwell on the past a little more than is healthy. But I think that’s true of most people, queer or otherwise. The past always tends to pop up in the most unlikely of places: the face of a stranger, a painting in an art gallery, a line in a poem. I find stories that focus on the past, or in which characters cannot get over the past, to be the most rewarding types of stories. They teach me about navigating my own relationship with memory and experience.

Obviously, as creatives, we all carry different parts of our identities into our work with us. How did your identities direct what you wanted to do with this novel, and to what extent do you feel your various identities define you as a writer?

In an obvious sense, my identity as a gay man informed what I tried to do with this novel, and the complexities of what it means to be part of a generation strung between a traumatic past and a more hopeful future. But when I sit down to write, I’m nothing thinking (at least consciously) about my identities. I don’t care to label myself a “gay writer” any more than I would label myself a “biracial writer” or a “cis-gender writer.” These identifiers and descriptors, I feel, are more for other people to make sense of me than for me to make sense of myself.

One of the characters in your book is a high school teacher. If an educator was going to teach your book to a group of young adults, what do you hope students would take away from that experience? Similarly, what do you wish you could tell educators who are going to choose this book to put in a younger reader’s hands?

I would hope students came away from the book with a sense of enlargement about their relationships with other people—the idea that they’re part of a larger community with a past, a present, and a future. I suppose I’d caution educators (and all readers to remember that Sebastian and Oscar represent no one but themselves; their messiness is not what makes them queer, it’s what makes them human.

Being a marginalized publishing professional can be super challenging once in a while. What has your experience been like working with the editorial team at Algonquin, which is a large independent publisher? What would you say the most fulfilling part of this process was, and what was the biggest challenge?

I honestly have nothing but kind words for everyone at Algonquin Books. Since they first acquired the novel, everyone from my editor to the marketing team has been entirely supportive not just of my writing but of the inherent queerness of the book itself. Perhaps other writers have horror stories to share, but in my relationship with Algonquin, I was never once asked to tone down or make more “cis-hereto-friendly” the story I was trying to tell.

Last, but not least, when I’m covering a non-Black author, I ask them to recommend a book by a Black author to go alongside their post. Would you mind sharing a rec with me?

Season of Migration to the North, by the Sudanese writer Tayeb Salih. A fascinating, and occasionally disturbing novel about reverse colonization, whose enigmatic central character is a Western-educated Sudanese man who resolves to “liberate Africa with [his] penis.”

Cover of Season of Migration to the North, by Tayeb Salih.

New year, who dis?

Happy 2021, theydies and gentlethems! A quick personal note to start this post: Books Beyond Binaries may look slightly different this year, in terms of content. Part of the reason for that is because I have recently transitioned my Twitter account to announcements-only for the foreseeable future. I’ve come to accept that posting my updates and checking my mentions through Hootsuite is a lot better for my mental health and time management than reading my feed every day, even if it does mean that I miss out on content sometimes. If you see anything on Twitter that you think should be featured in this space, feel free to tag me or send it my way via DM or the contact page!

Now, on to the good stuff. I’m thrilled that for the first post of a new year, I have some super special content to share. CeCe Lyra has reviewed Susan Mihalic’s novel Dark Horses. This one holds a special place in my heart, because I grew up horseback riding every chance I got, competing, and devouring “horse girl” books. Not only are these coming back in MG and YA literature lately, which is a welcome trend over here, but I am hype for the books coming out for former horse girls turned reading adults.

I am also super excited to welcome an author who I’ve been following for a few years now for his first feature post in this space, Sam J. Miller. I first discovered Sam through his acclaimed YA novel, Destroy All Monsters, which I featured in a post back in 2019. At the time, this poignant and bizarre novel had become a staff favourite at Another Story, the local indie where I worked as a bookseller.

Sam’s fourth novel, The Blade Between, recently dropped, and I’m honoured that he was willing to put together a super cool post for us about some of the research that he did when writing the book. Sam’s books are spooky and fascinating and, in his words, “gay as heck.” If you’re new to his writing, I hope that this post will encourage you to dive in, because you’ve been missing it in your life. I promise.

Review of Susan Mihalic’s DARK HORSES, by Cecilia Lyra

The cover of Dark Horses.

Fifteen-year-old Roan Montgomery is a competitor in the exclusive, high-stakes equestrian world with a goal of becoming an Olympian. She has good reason to think she’ll get there: Roan is talented, hard-working, and genuinely passionate about riding. She’s also pedigreed—her father has several Olympic medals of his own and wrote the book on eventing. It’s no surprise then that he is Roan’s coach, publicist, and agent. What is a surprise: he’s been raping her since she was six years old. A greater surprise still: Roan’s mother knows.

An image of a chestnut horse wearing a harness eating hay.
Photo by Emmy Nordstrom Higdon; Cape Breton, 2011. Taken on Portra 160 VC; Minolta.

To survive (a word Roan would undoubtedly resent), she compartmentalizes. She tells herself it’s not all bad. That staying silent is her choice. That she would rather be complicit than a victim. That what really matters are her riding ambitions. As with all emotions, perhaps a lot of it true, or perhaps all (or none) of it is. But truth in emotions is beside the point. What is the point: Roan’s indomitable, clear-eyed strength. It is this strength that guides her as she struggles to comprehend and navigate her circumstances, not just the conflicting emotions she feels towards her father, but also the role she feels she plays in their relationship. Throughout the novel, we watch Roan’s sense of self grow stronger, which in turn causes her father to tighten his grip on her. This is exacerbated by the fact that Roan’s mother leaves, taking with her what little protection she could offer, and that Roan falls in love with Will, a classmate at her exclusive prep school. Although she is, without a doubt, a victim of abuse, Roan does not come across as a victim. She’s a fighter—has been from page one, and as the story unfolds, we watch her battle with growing fortitude.

Set against the backdrop of competitive riding, DARK HORSES moves along nimbly, with explosive stretches that made my pulse race. Typically, when I’m reading a book that I know I will later review, I make notes as I turn the pages. I jot down my impressions on the narrative flow, themes examined, and characters I meet along the way, pausing to reflect on their fatal flaws (I have a thing about flaws). I’m a natural note-taker and, more to the point, I find it helps with my reviews. I couldn’t do that with this novel. Its pull was all-consuming, like being sucked in by a tidal wave. I had no time—or headspace—to make notes. It’s quite a feat for any novelist, holding a reader’s attention like that. But given the disturbing nature of the subject matter it’s even more impressive.

A black Newfoundland pony, wearing a harness, grazing, seen through a white fence.
Photo by Emmy Nordstrom Higdon; Newfoundland, 2011. Taken on Portra 160 NC; Minolta.

DARK HORSES had everything to be a story of privilege. A poor-little-rich girl narrative with a horsey twist. Instead, it’s an exploration of power, control, and desire as told through the lenses of a girl who refused to be broken. It’s a powerful novel—in more ways than one.


Along with Dark Horses, CeCe recommends readers check out Aftershocks, by skillful Black author Nadia Owusu. It comes out on the 21st of this month.

The cover of Aftershocks by Nadia Owusu

Feature Post: Author Sam J. Miller on THE BLADE BETWEEN

Hudson is a weird distinctive haunted looking town, and so I had a huge assortment of creepy fascinating spaces at my disposal when I started writing my gentrification ghost story The Blade Between. And while I hope I succeeded in rendering those locations vividly enough on the page, the reality of the city is worth sharing. 

The cover of The Blade Between.

Here are eight of the locations where key events take place, along with a quote from the book describing each. If you’ve already read THE BLADE BETWEEN, I hope they help you compare the space as it really is to the way you imagined it. And if you haven’t read it, I hope they spark your interest enough to want to visit Hudson… even if it’s only on the page. 

A brown brick building against a blue sky with dry greenery in front and bare trees. Text reads, Every building on that block looked like something out of Meet Me in St. Louis, great gingerbread monstrosities of nineteenth-century wealth, ;wide, deep porches and Tiffany glass, ; porticos and gables and other words I never knew before I started researching Hudson home prices - the better to burn them all down.
A bridge covered in faded graffiti over a worn concrete road. Text reads, A set of rusted black trestles carried the train tracks over Power Avenue.
An American diner on the corner of a street, red and white with silver metallic accents. Text reads, The familiar sooty chrome exterior of the Columbia Diner caught my eye, sucked me inside by awakened twenty-year-old instinct - an entire childhood's worth of Saturday morning breakfasts with my dad, on our walk to work at the butcher shop...
A road on a tree-lined street in winter, after the leaves have all fallen. A new-looking house sits on the corner. Text reads, Walking south on Second Street, up the steep block that fell away to a ravine on either side, where the rain still fell from the trees and the air smelled like rot and wilderness, I heard a voice say: Why so glum, glummy?
Twilight, a street with train tracks embedded in it, lined on one side with run-down buildings, and on the other side with parked cars. Text reads, Freight train tracks run right through upper Hudson, along sixth street, right below the park.
An evening sky with a streetlight on in the foreground, over a quiet back alley. Text reads, He puts a brown paper bag on the hood of her car, and stalks off into the alley dark. She hollers at him to wait - even turns on her cell phone's flashlight function and hurries after him - but he's already gone.
A bridge over the Hudson River. The sun shines through the clouds, reflecting off the water. Text reads, I was kneeling on the pedestrian walkway of the Rip Van Winkle Bridge. Staring down into the same dizzying dark, the same twenty-story fall that swallowed up my mother.
The inside of a library with marble floors and white-painted shelves. Text reads, ...the Hudson Library, which before being a library had been a mental institution and before that a foundlings' home, and both of those establishments had been in need of a cell in the basement for their most recalcitrant occupants.

In addition to The Blade Between, Sam J. Miller (and I!!!) recommends that readers check out A Spectral Hue, by Black author Craig Laurance Gidney. Sam writes: A gorgeous, creepy, rapturous story, told in incredible prose, and if there was any justice it would have already won ALL THE AWARDS. 

The cover of A Spectral Hue.

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 pets, and pursuing my career as a literary agent!

Wounded

2020 is drawing to a close, and as arbitrary as time is, this is our last post of the year here on Books Beyond Binaries! First things first: if you’re here, that means that you’re seeking our new banner! I could not be more thrilled with the result of this year’s refresh, thanks to Oaky, a non-binary, Latino, concept artist and illustrator, who created this awesome new look for the blog going into 2021!

In today’s post, lots of new resources to share (as you can see) for books to read from trans and/or non-binary authors from 2020 and going into 2021, including this list of 2020 debuts from trans, non-binary, and gender non-conforming authors from the Chicago Review of Books.

Otherwise, this post is all about the Big Feels, which seems appropriate for the end of 2020. I review a new poetry collection called Wound from the Mouth of a Wound, by torrin a. greathouse, and we are super excited to host a post from #SpineSquad author A. J. Vrana on writing for emotional impact.

As always, when we feature books by non-Black authors in this space, we also offer recs of books by Black authors to accompany them. For my part, I want to recommend my favourite book that I read this year, Riot Baby, by Tochi Onyebuchi.

The cover of Riot Baby, by Tochi Onyebuchi.

A personal request for support…

Before I kick off this post, I’m going to use this space to make a small ask for support. For those of you who don’t know, I’m completing my PhD studies right now. I was supposed to have defended my dissertation in December, but due to an administrative error at the School of Graduate Studies at my institution, and delays within my committee caused by COVID, I am being forced to take an extra term in order to be able to complete my studies. All of this, despite my having met every deadline and requirement thrown at me in 2020, has been really challenging to come to terms with. In addition, this situation comes with a whopping, unexpected, $2300 price tag that I am completely unable to afford. As a new agent and having lost my bookstore income due to the pandemic, I am just making enough money with freelancing and agenting to stay out of debt, and my department is not offering me any financial support for this extra semester of studies. If you are interested and able, there are three ways you can support me, a disabled trans student trying my best to have my work over the past seven years of study recognized. One, I have a crowdfunding campaign that you can donate to, two, you can hire me to edit your work or the work of an aspiring writer in your life, three, you can share these links (and the blog!) within your networks. Thank you in advance! 💜

Review: WOUND FROM THE MOUTH OF A WOUND, by torrin a. greathouse

A few months ago, I was approached by Claire Laine, a publicist of Milkweed Editions, one of my favourite independent publishers, to review the poetry collection Wound from the Mouth of a Wound, by torrin a. greathouse, which comes out tomorrow: December 22nd, 2020. torrin’s online bios describe her as a transgender cripple-punk and poet.

I am a person with Big Feelings, so sometimes I struggle to read poetry, because when it is done well, it feels like every syllable is an emotional gut-punch. That said, I love poetry for the same reason. Two of my favourite books of all time are a place called NO HOMELAND by Kai Cheng Thom, and Bodymap by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha. Both of these collections absolutely gutted me. The blurb for torrin’s collection calls it, “A versatile missive written from the intersections of gender, disability, trauma, and survival.” I felt confident when I accepted the offer to review that this book would soon join Kai and Leah’s in my heart.

Wound from the Mouth of a Wound is the winner of the 2020 Ballard Spahr Prize for Poetry, and has already received many glowing reviews and recommendations from Refinery29, NBC Out, Book Marks, Lambda, and the Chicago Review of Books. I’m afraid that Books Beyond Binaries won’t be the source of a dissenting opinion in this case. I do feel that I should, however, note that I am not a poetry expert, so I come to this review purely as a reader. If my thoughts in this post lack precision or technicality, I apologize in advance for that.

The collection opens with six verses inspired by a 2008 sculpture of Medusa carved by Luciano Garbati. The statue itself is fairly unadorned, a rendition in bronze of the woman with hair of snakes, unapologetically holding in one hand a blade, and in the other hand the severed head of a man. This sculpture is a response and inversion of another work that resides in Garbati’s hometown in Italy, near Florence, a statue by Benvenuto Cellini, called Perseus with the head of Medusa. In torrin’s collection, they use accessible, but poignant, imagery to write about this sculpture as a symbol of rape culture, and how that culture bleeds into the lives of children who are the product of traumatic experiences. Garbati’s sculpture has been reinterpreted again as the stunning cover art for this collection.

The cover of Wound from the Mouth of a Wound by torrin a. greathouse.

The first formal section of this book begins with a quote. I was charmed by this, because coincidentally, shortly before reading Wound, I connected with queer Palestinian poet George Abraham after the Palestine Writes Literature Festival, in the hopes of featuring them and their poetry in this space soon. His collection, Birthright, is available now.

Wound is a collection of short works in verse, prose, and essay formats. There are five sections total. I am amazed by the efficiency of torrin’s collection. This is writing that works hard. In the first section, she tackles themes including motherhood, infant loss, and parentage; a relatable yet brief critique of the medical model of disability; the sterile experience of medical transition and the scientific fragility of physiological gender; sex and trauma; finally, and most resonant for me in this section, the radiant, emotional impact of medical transition. These themes unravel at a pace that is perfectly possible to keep up with, and with moments of startlingly beautiful imagery. Often, I find myself lost in poetry, but in this section, I rather found myself awash in it.

Mirroring the first section, the second begins with a quote (this time from Jillian Weiss), and a section of prose. The themes from the first section thrum throughout this book, with occasional meditations on body image and eating disorders, morality, addiction and blackouts, etymology, fear… torrin pulls absolutely zero punches in unraveling what I can only assume are their reflections on personal experiences on the page.

My personal favourite piece in this collection, and one that I am eager to share with the world, is the poem That’s So Lame, which addresses the casual violence of ableist language. It is searing, relatable, and communicates so much that is difficult to articulate in such a short space. It is both beautiful, and functional, and such a valuable tool, I think, for social justice and for literature.

Wound from the Mouth of a Wound by torrin a. greathouse launches tomorrow, and if you are able to purchase it from an independent bookstore, you have the opportunity to support a trans, disabled author, an independent not-for-profit press, and an independent small business, all at the same time. This collection, despite dealing with impactful themes, is not a chore to read. It is accessible and easy to follow, overflowing with evocative imagery, and it filled me with the sense of empowerment that one might get from watching a beautiful flower emerge from a crack in the concrete. Works like these are how the light gets in. I’m very grateful for Claire and torrin sharing this book with me, and with Books Beyond Binaries, and I hope that many of our readers will indulge in this incredible collection this winter.

Writing for Emotional Impact, by A. J. Vrana

A. J. Vrana’s recommendation for a book by a Black author to read alongside this post is from non-binary author Rivers Solomon, The Deep.

The cover of The Deep, by Rivers Solomon.

As a reader, there is no better experience than being emotionally moved while devouring a good book. The written word is, after all, intended for communication, and more often than not, what writers want is to make their readers think and feel a certain way. This is especially true in the world of fiction and memoire writing, where readers expect to be drawn into the story and to grow attached to the characters.

However, if you’re an author, you know that it’s not easy getting people to notice your book, and it can be even harder to get them invested. The world is full of different kinds of people, which means not everyone will pick up what you put down. Nonetheless, at the heart of authorial passion is the desire to have your story emotionally resonate with as many people as possible.

Okay, great, but how does one convey emotion through writing? We know beautiful prose when we see it, but how do we emulate it? How do we communicate the rawest parts of ourselves authentically and effectively? This is no small or easy task, but there are techniques that can help. In this piece, I will share four tricks I’ve picked up.

Photo by Seven Shooter on Unsplash

Sentence Structure

The very structure of a sentence—its length, syntax, and punctuation—can impact the way it is received be a reader. The way writing flows from word to word, sentence to sentence, conveys a lot about the writer’s intentions. For example, short, choppy sentences can be great for communicating strong, sudden emotions like distress, confusion, and pain (in the negative) or excitement, anticipation, and joy (in the positive). Although I am generally not an advocate of using sentence fragments, the occasional fragment can be very effective in communicating a strong emotion—the caveat being that it’s used occasionally. Let’s look at a few examples:

            It came from within, this furious, bone-deep itch. Thousands of tiny needle-point legs, trampling on nerves. They burned and screeched, demanding nails on flesh.

In the above example, I’m describing someone in distress. I would assume that a person experiencing this level of discomfort wouldn’t be able to think or narrate in fully formed, complex sentences because of their emotional state, so their thoughts would come out choppy and somewhat fragmented. Keeping the sentences short ensures a snappy, urgent pace that puts the reader on edge. Now let’s look at another example:

            She stood there—a ghost returned from the grave. Only she wasn’t a ghost. She was flesh and blood. She was family, and she was alive.

 In this example, we have someone seeing a loved one they thought was dead. Although this is definitely a happier occasion, it is nonetheless riddled with complex emotions. Seeing someone you’ve grieved over is still quite traumatic and stressful, even if you are happy to see them! Similar to the previous example, I would assume that the person in question wouldn’t really have it in them to form long, eloquent sentences when first seeing a family member who is presumed dead. The short sentences mimic their tattered emotional state: shocked, confused, uncertain, but ultimately relieved or happy.

However, short sentences aren’t the only ones that can convey emotion. Longer, occasionally even rambling sentences can communicate scrambled thoughts, worry, or exasperation. For example, someone trying to recount a highly stressful or exciting event might narrate in run-on sentences. The same could be said of someone who is overstimulated or has had too much caffeine! Here’s an example:

            I put the key in the ignition, then turned it—the key, I mean—and then the engine revved like usual, but as soon as I switched the gear, I heard this noise like someone had dropped a glass from the roof, and then there was this bang and a sputter, and I could smell smoke, so I panicked and hit the breaks even though the car wasn’t moving because I was scared, you know?

The sentence above is narrated in the first person from someone who is frazzled after their car broke down (and who knows what happened before then!). The sentence is longer than any sentence should be, frankly, but the use of punctuation makes it manageable to read/ However, occasionally, using sentences like this is fine because they can effectively convey the person’s emotional state.

Photo by Jerry Wang on Unsplash

Word Choice

Be methodical about word choice. Sometimes, the right words can go a long way in creating a specific emotion. For example, if I say someone is ‘angry,’ it doesn’t really evoke much of an image, but it I say someone is ‘seething,’ my brain conjures a specific image of a pot about to boil over. It gives me the distinct sense that something bad is about to happen—like someone might lose their temper and lash out. In comparison, the adjective ‘angry’ has very little impact.

Here is another example: if someone is drunk, rather than describing their gait as ‘clumsy’ or ‘uncoordinated,’ you can describe them as ‘shambling.’

“They shambled down the hill” is far more evocative than, “They walked clumsily down the hill,” or, “Their gait was uncoordinated as they walked.”

Photo by Dollar Gill on Unsplash

Metaphors and Similes

Perhaps one of my favourite techniques for evoking emotion is using similes and metaphors to conjure a specific image in the reader’s mind. The fact is, direct, simple language often does not create emotional impact the same way that abstract images do. When we write about something directly, it may engender intellectual understanding, but it rarely provokes empathy from the reader.

Metaphors and similes are a great way to communicate how something feels without saying it directly. Because direct and clinical descriptions are so endemic to how we communicate on a daily basis, we are desensitized to their impact. For example, when a friend has a bad day at work, they might say, “I was so annoyed,” and then go on to explain why. We hear this so often that it has almost no meaning and falls flat when encountered in prose.

However, metaphors and similes give us a tool for creative expression for emotions we all experience; they defamiliarize us from the simplicity of loaded terms like ‘anger’ and ‘happiness.’ They offer us a specific and tangible image with which we can better understand the power of what is being conveyed.

For example, saying someone is “unpredictable” doesn’t really evoke any particular emotional response from me as a reader. However, if we say that someone is “like a tornado in the middle of the night,” we can insinuate that they are unpredictable based on culturally shared knowledge and symbolism around tornados: they are highly unpredictable and destructive storms with an erratic path, and the idea of one dropping from the sky after dark is especially terrifying because everything is less visible and less certain when the sun goes down. In other words, it’s the image, not the adjective, that evokes feelings of uncertainty, unpredictability, and anxiety. Through the image, we create an empathic connection with the subject of the writing. As a result, we genuinely feel that the person being written about is unpredictable.

Photo by Jilbert Ebrahimi on Unsplash

Bodies Talk

Ah yes, the mind-body dualism. Whoever came up with it did some serious damage to how we think of ourselves. In reality, the border between mind and body is paper thin, and anyone who has ever had anxiety (aka all of us) can confirm this. Our emotions manifest through our bodies, and more often than not, bodies speak what we cannot.

For this exact reason, using the body as a tool to convey emotion is far more effective than direct, clinical description. Many of you will have encountered this advice in the form of “show, don’t tell.” For example, rather than telling your reader that someone is grief-stricken, show them through body language.

Does their face twist with realization? Do they curl in on themselves, seeking comfort and safety? Do they flee their immediate surroundings? Do they grab a drink or light a cigarette with a trembling hand? What does their voice sound like? Does it come out rough like sandpaper? Are they swallowing rapidly, mouth parched? Are their eyes red from tears and sleeplessness? Do shadows cling beneath them?

When you find yourself writing a scene that demands emotional impact, try to make those emotions visceral by focusing on the body. Embodied experience is the most tangible way we relate to the world, and it is also one of the best tools for communicating what lies beneath the skin.


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(What a) Year(!) in Review

I’m sort of in disbelief that I’m writing this post to celebrate the end of 2020, and the second anniversary of Books Beyond Binaries! If you are reading this post: congratulations, yall. We made it.

This one’s a big one! First, I’m going to throw out a bunch of resources on the best books that I can recommend going into 2021, I want to talk a bit about how you can support the blog going into 2021, I’m going to do my customary review of my own #2020Reading (which you can see snippets of on Twitter), AND last but not least, scroll on down to the end of this post, because I do have a review for today, from Jack! Jack read and gives her thoughts on one of 2020’s most lauded LGBTQ2S+ titles of the year – Luster, by Raven Leilani.

Roundups and Recs

Alright, folks. In this section, I have included links to a couple of different roundups of non-binary and trans books that have been posted recently. There are a few other resources that I would absolutely encourage you to check out as you do your holiday shopping or consider what to add to your TBR for the new year. First, a friend of mine and member of the Rogue Book Coven (my online book community), Sarah Cuddie, does this impressive data gathering project annually where she takes the “Best Of” lists from that year, and creates a GINORMOUS master “Best Of”. Obviously, the 2020 list is still in progress, but the Best Books of 2019 BIG Roundup is available and super interesting – especially for spreadsheet nerds like me.

I also always want to recommend the Another Story Holiday Gift List. Compiled by the best indie booksellers I know at the bookshop where I worked in the Before Times (aka, until the pandemic made it too dangerous for me), this list is the active staff’s favourite books of 2020! If you decide to buy from this list, please patronize your local indie. If you don’t have one, check out Bookshop.org if you’re in the US, or McNally Robinson in Canada (who offer $5 shipping all over the country).

Last but not least, I want to announce that there is a new trans book blog that you will love if you love this blog. It’s called Oceans of Novels, and it’s run by the creator of the Transathon book challenge! Welcome to the blogosphere, Ocean!

Support Books Beyond Binaries

Especially over the course of this tumultuous year, Books Beyond Binaries has been a space of safety and freedom for me, and I hope that I’ve curated content that has felt that way for all of our readers! Over the course of 2020, I really didn’t have the capacity to keep an eye on the performance stats for Books Beyond Binaries, but recently I took a peek, and on average this year, we are getting about 720 page views per month! I’m so proud.

If you are one of those approximately 8600 reads this year, and would like to support us, there are a couple of ways that you can do that! You can make a small donation through my ko-fi, or you can purchase my editorial services for yourself or for another writer in your life! Money received through these channels helps pay for the domain, hosting, artwork, and books that you see featured on Books Beyond Binaries! And what will that mean going into 2021? Well…

I won’t give away our secrets, but of course it means more guest posts from rad authors, more artwork commissioned from LGBTQ2S+ artists, more book reviews from Jack and CeCe Lyra, and it means that BBB can continue to support emerging non-binary literary content creators like Santana Reads and reddietoread! WOW a lot has happened since I created this space. Happy anniversary, blog supporters. I’m so honoured you’re sharing this with us.

This Year Did Not Go As Planned

Me in 2020, wearing a mask from the Canadian Children’s Book Centre, featuring art by Gabrielle Grimard, author and illustrator.

…dramatic understatement, I know. And honestly, I don’t know if I have it in me to write a big personal blog post about my experience of the pandemic, or even of the last 12 months of my own life. So much has happened, personally and professionally, that it would be difficult for me to capture in a way that would feel safe and interesting in this kind of forum. In summary, I will say that I feel incredibly lucky on an individual level to have been able to stay healthy and safe this year, and to have stable housing and employment (even if it’s less than it used to be).

In my professional life, I am so honoured to have been able to spend this year building my list of authors as a literary agent, and to have been offered a dream position with Westwood Creative Artists. The #SpineSquad are an incredible group of creators who I am in awe of every day, and who I feel so lucky to be able to support in their work. Although some of the contracts are still being finalized, and announcements being prepared, I am super proud to have sold 11 books (including three audio deals) since February. Those that you can check out immediately are: The Hollow Gods, by A. J. Vrana, and Maiden Leap, by C. M. Harris… with many more to come.

How Agenting Changed My Reading – For Better and Worse

This year, my reading stats are very different from other years. This is in part because I haven’t been able to work at the indie book shop where I was employed in the Before Times because my partner is high risk for COVID, and the shop was unable to make accommodations that would keep us safe. I hope that that will be different in the future – I miss the shop with my whole heart – but for now, I’m part of the long-term self isolating crowd. We’ve been quarantined since mid-February… going on month 10 over here.

The biggest factor, though, has been my agenting work. Although I finished 99 books so far this year, about 2/3 of those were complete (unpublished) manuscripts that I read every word of with an editorial brain on as queries, freelance projects, assigned work from supervisors, or client work. Of the other books that I read, some were for my academic work, some were for research, and some were recreational books that I picked up because I just wanted to. I really have yet to find a way to strike a healthy balance between reading for work and reading for fun – and I’m aware it’s a problem, and working on it.

2020 By the Numbers!

My 2019 in review can be seen here.
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
How many books I read in 2020: 99

First book read: All Eyes on Her, Laurie Elizabeth Flynn
Last book read (as of this post): I’ll Never Tell, Catherine McKenzie
Average length: 302 pages

Books by POC: 20
POC MC: 18
Male authors: 25
Female authors: 81
Non-binary and/or trans authors: 14
Queer authors: 36
Queer MC: 38

Middle Grade: 9
YA: 28
Adult: 62
Graphic: 2
Short story or anthology:
Non-fiction: 16
Memoir: 4
Lit Fic: 25
Poetry: 2
SFF: 26
Thriller: 19
Horror: 10

Purchases: 9
Library: 14
ARC: 12

Digital: 35
Print: 13
Audio: 1

½ Star Books: 0
⭐️ Books: 0
⭐️ ½ Books: 1
⭐️⭐️ Books: 2
⭐️⭐️ ½ Books: 0
⭐️⭐️⭐️ Books: 12
⭐️⭐️⭐️ ½ Books: 16
⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ Books: 31
⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ ½ Books: 13
⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ Books: 24

January: 30
February: 13
March: 11
April: 3
May: 12
June: 9
July: 7
August: 6
September: 9
October: 2
November: 6
December: 0

Reading challenges I participated in: None

DNF: 9

Currently reading (published, unfinished in 2020): The Sunset Sisters, by Cecilia Lyra; White is for Witching, by Helen Oyeyemi; Devotions, by Mary Oliver; The Deep, by Alma Katsu; Amanda Greenleaf, by Ed Kavanaugh; On This Day, by Dale Jarvis
Favourite (published) books read this year: Riot Baby, by Toni Onyebuchi; Resilience is Futile, by Julie S. Lalonde; Love Notes, by Philip McKibbin

emmy’s Most Anticipated of Early 2021

  • Detransition, Baby, by Torrey Peters
  • In the Garden of Spite, by Camilla Bruce
  • The Bad Muslim Discount, by Syed M. Masood
  • We Are the Ashes, We Are the Fire, by Joy McCullough and Maia Kobabe
  • Loner, by Georgina Young
  • Kink, ed. by R. O. Kwan and Garth Greenwell
  • Let’s Get Back to the Party, by Zak Salih
  • Dark Horses, by Susan Mihalic
  • Spin With Me, by Amy Polonsky
  • Honey Girl, by Morgan Rogers
  • Some Other Now, by Sarah Everett

Jack’s Review of LUSTER, by Raven Leilani

Raven Leilani’s debut novel, Luster, is a rollercoaster. It’s not for the faint of heart. Leilani is an American writer and artist, with an MFA from NYU. In a NYT feature, Leilani mentions how surreal the release of Luster feels, during a pandemic that claimed her father’s life. Leilani also expands on Edie, explaining that “” she wanted to highlight a nonlinear artistic path, one that came in contact with the real world”.

Luster reads as a confessional, observational disclosure of Edie’s internal world. This book tells the story of Edie, an editorial assistant and artist. It’s about the awkward moments, it’s about being young, it’s about being human.  Like most 23-year old’s, Edie seeks validation in her relationships and at her job. What starts off as an affair between Edie and Eric, a white man in an open marriage, mutates into the exploration of the dynamic in families, with Edie living with Eric’s wife and adopted daughter.

As a disillusioned painter, Edie begins to question everything: what makes somebody an artist? How do you maximize productivity and is genius contagious? What and how do you structure the hard work that makes one’s talents shine?

Content warnings include violence, racism, child loss/pregnancy and transracial adoption. I recommend this book to hopeless artists, Black Women, and to the dream chaser, who is being held down by reality. This is a perfect read for YA.

Leilani expertly articulates the tension one feels when survival requires a never- ending audition. Luster is about grounding oneself and how we become products of our experiences. Did Luster lure me in? Or did I recognize something I needed in it?

By avoiding writing, a “neatly moral character” (Leilani’s words), Luster reminds me of Dionne Brandt’s Theory. You are then invited into a world where you not only read and see characters, but you’re also invited to be them.

Luster is about the relational understanding of one-self in the context of the world. By exploring Black womanhood, personhood, and the complexity of being a human being and societal established dynamics, Luster spoke to me. I couldn’t walk away, I needed to know what was next, I needed to be with Edie as she moved through life, searching for affirmation and validation.

Leilani wrote about a Black Woman who is questioning everything.

Edie’s astute worldview conflicts with her poor communication skills. The reader is then strapped in their seat, aware of the aside but unable to disclose what they know. Reading Luster is like driving by a car accident, with Edie at the wheel.