A Delicious #SpineSquad Addition

Happy Monday, theydies and gentlethems! I’ve got a full roster this week for you on BBB… first up, I’m going to give a little nod (both sad and happy) to Trans Week and TDOR, there’s some rad trans books in the news that deserve a little shoutout, I’ve got a tip to make you smile, a new author (and some delicious snacks) to introduce you to, AND a review of The Harpy, by Megan Hunter, written by contributor CeCe Lyra. Stick with us, there’s lots to see!

First, I’ll give a quick shout out to Téa Mutonji’s short story collection, Shut Up You’re Pretty, which is a kickass collection that totally drew me in when I encountered it at the Toronto launch of Vivek Shraya’s VS. Books, an imprint of Arsenal Pulp Press. Mutonji’s collection is CeCe’s recommendation of a book by a Black author to check out alongside The Harpy.

Trans Week and Trans Day of Remembrance

CW: death, police violence, ableism

Full disclosure: I don’t typically mark Transgender Visibility or Awareness Week, or the Trans Day of Remembrance. There’s a lot that’s complicated and difficult for me about these events, and I do my best to affirm trans voices all the time, and not just these couple of days a year. Despite that, I know that they are meaningful to many people, and so I do want to mark them in this space this year, both with a heavy heart, and also with a celebratory spirit for all the amazing things that trans folks are doing out in the world.

There are two members of my communities that I do want to use this space to recognize and remember. First, Coco, a Black trans sex worker who died in police custody in my local community recently. As many who were close to Coco have said better than I can, Black lives matter, Black trans lives matter, and Coco deserves to be remembered and her communities deserve justice. If you are able to participate or support that cause, check out the links below.

Second, Corey Alexander passed away a few months ago. They were a disabled trans person (like me), who had to balance a lot of factors and considerations when seeking medical support and treatment. Corey was one of the first people to support this blog, and me as a content creator, and for that, I will always be grateful. They left behind an archive of incredible work, including their own books and blog, that are still available to appreciate.

I also want to use this space to share some great resources that other content creators have put together to lift up trans voices right now, and always. First, if you haven’t checked out the Transathon, an ongoing reading challenge to celebrate trans authors and books, you absolutely should. They are sharing AWESOME book lists, like this thread of books by trans authors being released in 2021, some trans books by Orca publishers, and this list from author C.G. Drews. For further reading about the Transathon, I would also recommend reading this wrap up post by participant Daniela, from The Booksnom.

One last book list that I want to share is by bookstagrammer @anyaemilie, which you can check out below:

Trans Books in the News

Quick shoutout to trans YA author Aiden Thomas, whose book Cemetery Boys is currently a finalist in the Best Debut Novel category for the Goodreads Choice Award, but also HUGE congratulations to Kacen Callendar, whose middle grade novel King and the Dragonflies won the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature last week! 🎉

#DrawYourBookstore

If you need an uncomplicated bookish something to brighten your days right now, might I suggest checking out the #DrawYourBookstore hashtag, hosted by the SelfMadeHero graphic novel publisher? I discovered it earlier this week when illustrator Mariel Ashlinn Kelly posted her drawing of the bookstore of my heart, Another Story Bookshop, here in Toronto. For safety reasons, I haven’t been able to go there since April, and this drawing made my day.

New Addition to my List of Authors, the #SpineSquad

For those of you who follow this blog but who aren’t in the professional publishing world, you may not know that I am a literary agent. I don’t usually use this space to make personal announcements, but I’m making a delicious exception, just this once…

I discovered Abi Balingit’s blog, the Dusky Kitchen, when one of her recipes popped up on my Twitter timeline. It was for lao gan ma spicy chili crisp cupcakes. My partner loves that flavour that kind of makes your face go numb a little(??) and sweets, so I was immediately excited and started scrolling Abi’s feed and eating with my eyes. Not long afterward, I started chatting with Abi about working on a cookbook together – something that captures her incredible cultural experiences and translates the diasporic identity through food.

When Abi signed on to work with me, I was thrilled… but as with any agenting project, I also had some major research to do. Abi’s work is largely based on her Filipino-American experiences, and although there is a big Filipinx community in Toronto where I live now, I grew up in Newfoundland, and I had never experienced the flavours in Abi’s recipes before.

I dove into Abi’s blog. First things first, I realized that I had no idea where I was going to get the ingredients needed to make any of these recipes with the flavours that Abi was so passionate about. I did a quick Google for stores in or around Toronto that might have Filipinx products and be offering delivery, since we’re still in COVID quarantine in these parts. I was super hype when I found Sunshine Grocery. This little shop opened because of the pandemic, ships all over, and has a huge range of Filipinx products to choose from. Abi was super helpful and sent me all kinds of recommendations for stuff that my partner and I should try. Really not sure what we were getting into, we went for it…

Our grocery haul from Sunshine Kitchen.

My partner and I are both white, and when the folks from Sunshine showed up to drop off this big order we had made, they were a little confused. And honestly, so were we. Like – I wanted to trust that banana ketchup would make for good pasta sauce, but I just had zero frame of reference, you know? And listen, my partner’s face when ze first tried Filipino spaghetti? Was hilarious. But we’re both hooked on it now, so Sunshine is going to have to get used to seeing our faces! I’m super glad that we trusted Abi, because my partner and I have had a wild delicious week trying out all of the food that we got from that order – and trying Abi’s recipes!

In the spirit of the project that Abi and I will be working on together, my partner and I wanted to pick something that was nostalgic for us, and that was decidedly Filipinx, to test bake from Abi’s blog to welcome her to my author list! I had grown up eating ginger crinkle cookies at Christmastime, and my partner, sen, had grown up with a chocolate version, so we thought that Abi’s ube crinkle cookies would be the perfect place to start.

I can take no credit for the baking this time around – that was all sen – but this recipe was a simple, beautiful adventure… even though we veganized the recipe, and made it in our postage stamp sized kitchen. The cookies were completely irresistible, even though I have never tried ube in my life before this past week, and I can’t wait to try more of Abi’s recipes. Horchata bibingka is next on our list!

I am SO excited to welcome Abi to the #SpineSquad, and I’m so happy to get to learn about all this delicious food! It’s going to be so much fun.

In celebration of all of these delicious flavours that Abi has introduced me to, my partner and I also donated this week to one of the relief efforts in the Philippines following the recent typhoon. If you can donate, please do. There is a Twitter thread linked below of places that are easy and worthwhile to donate to. If you aren’t sure what the situation is in the Philippines right now, and you would like to know more, there are threads linked that summarize recent events as well.

Review of Megan Hunter’s THE HARPY, by CeCe Lyra

Married couple Lucy and Jake each have a role to play. His: reliable and successful breadwinner. Hers: loving wife and mother. It is a familiar set-up—his life is his; hers is theirs. Jake’s career takes center stage. Lucy’s part-time freelance work is barely worth noting, even to herself. They are a family. Never mind that Lucy is bored, that her sharp intellect is wasting away against a backdrop of bourgeois domesticity.

Then one day Lucy gets a call. A man is on the other end of the line. He has news: his wife, Vanessa, has been having an affair with Jake. Lucy has met Vanessa—Vanessa and Jake work together. The two couples have socialized. The betrayal cuts Lucy. Jake does not deny the adultery. He begs Lucy for forgiveness. Lucy wants to hurt Jake. (I wanted to hurt Jake, too.) And she does—a brush of her fingernail against his skin. An accident. But it is satisfying, comforting. To keep their family together, they come up with an arrangement: Lucy will hurt Jake three times, and then they will be even.

What unfolds is a dance of reckoning and retribution, one that leads Lucy down a dark path. Slowly, quietly, she succumbs to her violent impulses. Through it all, Lucy feels the push and pull of guilt (how can she unravel when she is the mother of two children?) and desire (Jake deserves this—he hurt her first). And we feel for her. After all, it is a familiar urge—inside every woman lives a question: what would happen I didn’t behave? By bearing witness to Lucy’s yielding we allow ourselves to do more than wonder.

Written in a musical prose that is both delicate and sharp, THE HARPY examines the darkness that inhabits all love stories. It reads like a fairy tale, but not of the Disney variety. It is a story about a woman succumbing to primal urges: shredding her societal self, eschewing domesticity, and allowing destructiveness to take over. It is a meditation on metamorphosis. It is a story about a woman’s unravelling. But—strangely enough—is it also the opposite. It is the story of a woman coming home to herself.


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

Meet A.J. and Ana!

I grew up as a sports-loving tomboy in St. John’s, Newfoundland, and one of my earliest memories is of my toddler body being stuffed into a snowsuit and skates, and thrust onto the ice by my grandfather. I leaned my torso on the seat of a rickety wooden chair that scraped along in front of me as I learned to clop my way around a worn rink and lots of bumpy pond surfaces. When I got steady enough on my feet, being a girl, I was funnelled into figure skating classes, while my masculine peers were shuffled off to hockey. I did local competitions until I was 10, when a knee injury from horseback riding kept me on crutches for a year, and I was relegated to recreational skating for the rest of my days. Still, ice skating has been a huge source of joy in my life, and every winter I still haul my neon purple and pink skate bag, monogrammed with my dead name, out to the rinks in Toronto. I wear knee pads these days.

The cover of The Shiny Skates, by Elizabeth Koda-Callan.

When I first came across A.J. Sass’ book, ANA ON THE EDGE, the first thing that came to mind was one of my 1990s childhood favourites, a book called THE SHINY SKATES, by Elizabeth Koda-Callan. Truly a relic of the 90s (although it was reprinted in 2004 by Workman Publishing), this was part of the Magic Charm books – a series of chapter books that came with charm necklaces for the reader to wear along with their characters. I wore mine religiously.

Around the time that THE SHINY SKATES was released was also when American Olympic figure skater Tonya Harding’s career came to a close due to her possible involvement in a scandalous event in which her skating rival, Nancy Kerrigan, was assaulted and injured at the rink. Both skaters competed in the 1994 Olympics, where Kerrigan won a silver medal and Harding finished eighth. I still remember how public perception of Tonya Harding and her less feminine presentation on the ice coloured my entire experience of learning how to skate as a young, gender non-conforming athlete. (If you want to learn more about Harding and her story, journalist Sarah Marshall wrote a great piece about her, and later did a two-part podcast episode about her on You’re Wrong About.)

The cover of Ana on the Edge, by A.J. Sass

ANA ON THE EDGE is an #OwnVoices middle grade novel about a non-binary figure skater, written by a non-binary figure skater, and all I can think every time I think about this book is how the world has changed since I was a kid. I can’t even imagine how life-changing it would have been for me to have gotten my hands on this book back in the body-shaming mid-90’s, when I was mortified by how my muscular, chubby body looked in my skin-tight, sequinned figure skating dresses… if Tonya Harding couldn’t pull them off, how could I be expected to? The gentle exploration of gender, identity, and self-perception that is navigated with such charm in ANA ON THE EDGE could have been a balm to my soul back then, as it is now.

I am so honoured that author and figure skater A.J. Sass was so generous and receptive when I reached out to see if they would collaborate on a post for this site about ANA, and my interview with them is below. I would be remiss not to mention that not only is A.J. an autistic author with an interest in neurodivergence representation in fiction, they are a much more accomplished skater than I could ever dream to be! Aside from writing books, A.J. is a US Figure Skating double gold medalist in Moves in the Field and Free Skate, a silver medalist in Ice Dance, and a member of the 2018 national bronze medalist and 2019 national silver medalist Masters synchronized skating team, IceSymmetrics. (Insert my fan face here!) Now living in San Francisco, ANA is their debut novel, and it was released in October, and is available for purchase now!

When I asked A.J. what books by Black authors they would recommend alongside ANA, they struggled to narrow it down to three choices… Kacen Callendar’s KING AND THE DRAGONFLIES (a fan favourite in these parts), THE BLACK FLAMINGO, by Dean Atta, and Kim Johnson’s THIS IS MY AMERICA.

Interview with A.J. Sass, author of ANA ON THE EDGE

A.J. Sass, author of ANA ON THE EDGE.

When I first encountered ANA ON THE EDGE, I was so thrilled for two reasons. One, there isn’t a lot of #OwnVoices non-binary representation for this age group yet, and two, I would have loved a book like this growing up. What do you think your young self would have thought of Ana and of this story?

I definitely didn’t know I was non-binary when I was Ana’s age. In fact, I’m not even sure if the term had been coined yet, officially! What I do know is that I would’ve gravitated toward a book like this on the shelves because I was an avid fan of skating as a kid. I started group class lessons all the way back when I was seven. And I think reading about Ana, a rising star in the sport of figure skating who realizes she* is uncomfortable with some of the gendered aspects within the sport, would have been revelatory for me as someone who always felt a little prickle of discomfort when I encountered similar binary components as a skater.

I can’t know for sure what I would have thought of Ana, or Hayden, her new friend who is a transgender boy, but I suspect that seeing a mirror of my own feelings reflected in someone else would have given me a solid starting point to exploring my identity much earlier in my life.

*Just as a heads up, I’m referring to Ana with female pronouns because Ana hasn’t chosen a new set by the end of the story. Non-binary people use a variety of pronouns, like gender neutral and even male and female pronouns in some instances (e.g., I use he/him and they/them pronouns interchangeably). In Ana’s case, she’s still exploring what feels best for her.

You’ve competed in figure skating, ice dance, and synchronized team skating. How did your own experiences in this artistic sport factor into your work on ANA?

As I mentioned earlier, I started skating when I was a child and I remain active in the sport now. As a kid, my discomfort associated with wearing skating tights and dresses was more of a subconscious undercurrent rather than something I was actively aware of. I think kids today are often more aware that the LGBTQIA+ community exists, even if they don’t know precisely how they fit into it. So I made sure to reflect that in Ana’s narrative, even though it took me until adulthood myself to pinpoint why I was uncomfortable with skating’s gendered components.

One of my favorite memories in the sport is of the friendships I made, and the moments my training-mates and I would goof off in between lessons during practice. Because at its core, skating is a really fun activity, even for kids like Ana who are very serious about their training. An early scene where Ana’s best friend, Tamar, challenges her to perform a cartwheel on ice comes directly from my own experiences. Here’s some proof:

From A.J. Sass’s instagram.

Being a marginalized publishing professional can be super challenging. 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 on a story featuring a protagonist who is questioning their gender? What would you say the most fulfilling part of this process was, and what was the biggest challenge?

I feel like I’ve been supremely fortunate to work with my agent, Jordan Hamessley, and the entire team at New Leaf, as well as ANA’s publishing team at Little, Brown Books for Young Readers.

Working with Jordan has been wonderful and affirming. An example: When we were preparing to go on submission with ANA, Jordan made sure I was comfortable being out as a non-binary author before pitching me as such to editors. Now that ANA is published, I absolutely see where Jordan was coming from since the vast majority of author panels I’ve been on and interviews I’ve done have referenced my experience of being non-binary in some way. I’m proud to be out and open about who I am, but I definitely appreciate Jordan preparing me to think about how that choice would impact the way people approach questions about me and my book.

My editorial team at Little, Brown has also been fantastic. Even so, working on a story with a non-binary protagonist who hasn’t made a decision to change her pronouns yet by the end of the story presented a challenge for all of us.

About a year ago, right around the time we were finalizing the book summary that would appear on ANA ON THE EDGE’s dust jacket, the use of female pronouns in reference to Ana started feeling off to me. I really couldn’t explain it at first. We’d used female pronouns for the Publishers Weekly announcement when ANA first sold and we used them on internal email communications as well. So why was it bothering me to see them on the inside flap of what would eventually become the book’s dust jacket?

Eventually, I realized my concern was that prospective readers would be unfamiliar with the nuances of Ana’s story and what it even means to be non-binary. I worried that cisgender readers would see those female pronouns and immediately make the assumption that Ana is a girl who decides to become non-binary, rather than a non-binary kid discovering that’s who they’ve always been.

Then I proceeded to worry that my publisher would be annoyed if I asked to change the wording after I’d already approved the final copy. But ultimately, this became one of the most fulfilling aspects of the publishing process for me because my editors were incredibly receptive to my feedback. They were happy to rework the copy so that pronouns aren’t referenced at all on the dust jacket, or marketing and other promotional materials. Now I feel like readers can enter Ana’s world without any misconceptions about gender identity and come to their own conclusions as they immerse themselves in the story.

In this story, you decided to include not only Ana, a non-binary protagonist, but you also introduced readers to Hayden, a transgender boy. Was it important to you to include more than one trans character in this book, or did that just happen organically as you were writing? In addition, how did you make sure that you were doing both of these identities justice in your representation of them in this book?

It was an intentional choice to include two trans characters because I wanted to highlight how no two trans experiences are the same. Hayden’s known who he is for a while by the time he and Ana meet, whereas Ana is just starting to explore the layers of her identity. As I touched on in an earlier answer, I think it can sometimes be a revelation to see an aspect of yourself reflected in someone else. That’s what happens when Ana meets Hayden: Hayden’s identity doesn’t match Ana’s precisely, but she recognizes a shared commonality, one that spurs her to dig deeper and learn more about herself.

In terms of representation, I’ve identified as a transgender man and non-binary at various points in my life. There are parts of my experience with those two identities in the representation of both Hayden and Ana. Since trans experiences can vary greatly from person to person, I also had authenticity readers provide further feedback.

Photo by LOGAN WEAVER on Unsplash

What is one thing that you would want your readers to know about ANA ON THE EDGE? Similarly, what do you wish you could tell adults who are going to choose this book to put in a young reader’s hands?

My answer here applies to both kids and adults: It’s okay not to have everything figured out about yourself all at once. It’s fine if you do, of course, but I think something I struggled with when I was younger was a concern that I might change my mind later or realize I was wrong about my identity after I’d already come out to my friends and family. I worried about burdening others if I had to come out again and ask them to use a name and set of pronouns that fit me better.

People aren’t static. We are constantly changing and evolving. The same can be true about identity, and there is no shame in coming to a better understanding of yourself, no matter what age you are. I hope Ana’s story helps readers embrace uncertainty and consider it an opportunity to get to know themselves even better.


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

Havoc and Happiness!

Ace Week

As some of you may already know, this week is Ace Week, an annual tradition highlighting identities in the asexual and aromantic communities, which are part of the LGBTQ2S+ spectrum. It’s an important week for me, because although I am allosexual, I identify as nebularomantic, a neurodivergent aromantic identity. What it means is that I can’t (and don’t) emotionally differentiate between types of love like alloromantic neurotypical people do. For me, platonic and romantic love feel exactly the same.

The nebularomantic flag.

I only began to understand this about myself in 2019. As I began to unpack what that meant for me, while also navigating the unraveling of a close friendship and an abusive partnership, so many things in my life began to make more sense to me. Complicated relationships that I had had from the time I was a child, and often their breakdowns, became so much more simple to parse and understand when I was able to piece together this part of myself. Although I had identified with various other identities in the LGBTQ2S+ community for a long time, I could suddenly identify that my lack of understanding about my nebularomantic identity is the one that has caused me the most pain. My coming into the Ace community was laced with heartbreak, as much as relief. I have come to learn that for so many Ace people, this is often the case.

My wish for Ace Week is that people who do not share identities with the people in the Ace community, especially other queer people, will take the time to learn about what Ace identities are and what they mean to us. Our relationships can look very non-normative, but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t fulfilling and precious and rich with meaning.

…and what better way to learn about identities different from your own than through books?! There are a few places to find these books, since they can be a bit tricky to pin down. First, you can check out the Aromantic and Asexual Characters in Fiction Database, always linked on our resources page. Second, check out this new list of books with asexual main characters, assembled by Fadwa, the rad Moroccan book blogger behind Word Wonders. And last but not least, a specific recommendation: Unburied Fables. This independently published short story collection features works by over a dozen a-spec authors, including my friend Rose Sinclair, founder of F*ck Yeah Asexuals, who popularized the term “allosexual”. 50% of all the book’s proceeds are donated to the Trevor Project.

The cover of Unburied Fables.

CeCe Reviews WHITE IVY

As always, I am honoured to welcome back author, friend, and fellow literary agent, Cecilia Lyra, to this space! CeCe is a Brazilian reader and a fierce, brilliant feminist living in Canada, and this week I’m so glad to share her review of White Ivy by Susie Yang. White Ivy will be released on November 3rd, and is available to pre-order now!

The cover of White Ivy.

What makes a reader fall in love with a novel?

White Ivy by Susie Yang is the story of Ivy Lin, “a thief and a liar—but you’d never know it by looking at her.” (That’s one-line gold right there. It’s what made me want to read this book.) The eldest in her immigrant family, Ivy grew up on the wrong side of town. She learned how to steal (and otherwise take advantage of situations) from her scrappy grandmother. She also learned how to covet, to aspire. And her main ambition? A life entirely different from her own.

It is no surprise then that Ivy sets her sights on Gideon Speyer, the golden boy of an old-moneyed family. Except, as a teen, Ivy doesn’t stand a chance of dating Gideon. Years later, however, Ivy—now a kindergarten teacher—runs into Gideon’s sister, a chance encounter that, as a little luck and a lot of manipulation would have it, evolves into Ivy becoming Gideon’s girlfriend. For a moment, it appears that Ivy has made it. She’s left her life—her pathetic, embarrassing, poor existence—behind. And then, a figure from her past re-emerges—one who sees the true Ivy, the self she has so deftly managed to hide from everyone else—and threatens her new, golden life. But, in addition to being a thief and a liar, Ivy is a survivor. And what she aims to protect isn’t just her life—it’s her newfound status (which, to Ivy, are one and the same—what’s the point of life otherwise?).

I read this novel compulsively. As a character, Ivy is dark and twisted and haunting, which makes readers consider the parts of themselves that are precisely that. It deals with ambition and deception, all while exploring a woman’s coming-of-age, a love triangle, and the immigrant experience. I was absorbed in Ivy’s journey. Wholly invested in it. I felt everything she was feeling—and Ivy, being a fully fleshed out, unreservedly human character, felt things that were immoral and illogical. I applaud this. I am so done with boring, moralistic characters. I loved that Ivy was flawed and I loved how she was flawed. Yang has written a wonderfully immersive novel.

Which brings me back to my initial question. What does make a reader fall in love with a novel? The simple answer is: a good story. Of course, what make a good story is a whole other matter. In a way, a good story is like magic. It’s the impossible made real. But, much like a magic trick, when we break down the elements that make up a good story, we are able to understand how it came to be. A hypnotizing voice. Lively, engaging pace. Crisp, natural dialogue. A surprising yet inevitable ending—to name a few. Storytelling feels like magic, but it is a craft, and, like any craft, it can be understood logically, even if it is experienced fantastically. In examining WHITE IVY under these lenses, I can very much see what made me fall in love with it. It has all the makings of a good story.

And yet.

Throughout the novel, the reader is prompted to ask themselves, Why is Gideon with Ivy? Indeed, this question is clearly at the back of Ivy’s mind. Like Ivy, we are afraid she will lose him, that she will lose the life she has craved—and fought—for so long. It is a fear that consistently informs her behavior and choices. It is a question we speculate about and, in novels, one counts on receiving answers to questions, particularly at the end. It’s one of the ingredients of what makes a good story: a reveal. And, sure enough, at the end of WHITE IVY, we find out why Gideon is with Ivy. The reveal is delivered. And, sadly, it was disappointing.

I won’t spoil it, but I will say this: it felt device-y. At best, lazy and unimaginative. At worst, offensive. I will also say that I do not fault Yang—at least no more than I fault every author out there (myself included). Whether we want to or not we are a product of the heteronormative, white supremacist patriarchy that rules our world, which means we often fall prey to its pervasive teachings. Even the most progressive, enlightened human has been brainwashed by the system and, sometimes, these prejudices unconsciously make their way into our stories. I do not know Susie Yang, but I believe it’s possible—likely, actually—that she did not notice the problematic plot reveal at the end of her novel and that, if she had, she would’ve addressed it in a responsible manner. I know I’ve seen problematic aspects in my own writing and hope to continue to see them, as that will mean I continue to grow. My criticism is not without compassion. In fact, it is imbued with it.

What makes a reader fall in love with a novel? A good story.

And I’m very much looking forward to Susie Yang’s next novel.

Feature: HAVOC AND HAPPINESS

Cover of Havoc and Happiness

I am super thrilled to get to feature Canadian LGBTQ2S+ author Wren Handman’s newest YA light fantasy title Havoc and Happiness on the blog today, on the day of its release! Happy book birthday!!! We decided to have a little fun with this post, but all you really need to know is this: Queer. Monster. Hunter.

…or, that’s all I needed, anyway. This book follows undead MC Michaela Peters, as she navigates a new school, new powers, and horrible monsters that shift depending on what people’s imaginations have the capacity to conjure.

The cover of a book of Mad Libs, called Goofy Mad Libs: World’s Greatest Word Game.

Now. Do you all remember Mad Libs? Well, we thought it might be fun to create a mad lib of an action scene from Havoc and Happiness to give to a couple of our contributors, to give BBB’s readers a silly preview of this rad new book. Thank you so much to Jack and Eddie (from reddietoread) for humouring Wren and I in this project intended to bring a little light during a weird, weird time. The scenes are below! In the meantime, I asked Wren to recommend a book by a Black author for this post, and she wanted to shout out one that’s on her TBR: The Weight of the Stars, by K. Ancrum, which is a rad YA lesbian sci-fi romance that was released by Imprint in 2019.

The cover of The Weight of the Stars.

Mad Lib: Version One

The two of them face off with a sort of ‘you wouldn’t dare’ look. Cade takes a long, deliberate swallow of his coke. Devin starts to relax, but then Cade goes on the attack.

“I guess you wouldn’t have heard,” Cade tells me, not breaking eye contact with Devin. “But Devin asked the apple last year so he would get a telephone.”

“Cade has a tattoo of bookcase!”

“Devin owns sixteen fish!”

“Cade had to eat  people to come to his birthday.”

“Devin joked Mr. Stephens to turn his basketball!” to a house!”!”

“Cade—”

“I need to run!” I holler into the stream of abuse, and hurl myself up from the book. I don’t look back, but I picture the two of them not even slowing down as they continue to fight.

I linger in the bathroom, putting on lipstick, fixing my hair, anything to avoid going back outside. I’m running out of things to do to my face when I hear a tall crash from the dining area. I rush back into the main room to find Cade and Devin both looking long and helping our waitress clean up some broken dishes.

“What happened?” I ask, picking up the handle of a broken mug and heaping it on top of the tray.

“They got into a fight about who was paying the bill,” the waitress, whose nametag reads “Kelly,” explains.

“I am so green,” I tell her, handing over the plate. “I don’t know what on Earth got into them. They’re acting like cakes.”

“Oh, honey. Teenaged boys and their fishes,” she says, rolling her eyes. “You just be careful—I’m sure it seems all cold, them fighting over you, but it can go bad fast.”

“Trust me, I don’t think it’s slimy,” I moan. “What’s a foot called when there’s only one girl?”

“A disaster?” she teases, and pushes me back towards my water. I drag my feet crossing back through the restaurant. I can’t believe what I’ve gotten myself into.

Mad Lib: Version Two

The two of them face off with a sort of ‘you wouldn’t dare’ look. Cade takes a long, deliberate swallow of his coke. Devin starts to relax, but then Cade goes on the attack.

“I guess you wouldn’t have heard,” Cade tells me, not breaking eye contact with Devin. “But Devin spat the frying pan last year so he would get a statuette.”

“Cade has a tattoo of foil!”

“Devin owns sixteen washing machines!”

“Cade had to slice  people to come to his surprise party.”

“Devin won Mr. Stephens to turn his armoire!” to a germ!”!”

“Cade—”

“I need to utilize!” I holler into the stream of abuse, and hurl myself up from the skyscraper. I don’t look back, but I picture the two of them not even slowing down as they continue to fight.

I linger in the bathroom, putting on lipstick, fixing my hair, anything to avoid going back outside. I’m running out of things to do to my face when I hear a squeamish crash from the dining area. I rush back into the main room to find Cade and Devin both looking unbelievable and helping our waitress clean up some broken dishes.

“What happened?” I ask, picking up the handle of a broken mug and heaping it on top of the tray.

“They got into a fight about who was paying the bill,” the waitress, whose nametag reads “Kelly,” explains.

“I am so calm,” I tell her, handing over the plate. “I don’t know what on Earth got into them. They’re acting like stuffed animals.”

“Oh, honey. Teenaged boys and their oceans,” she says, rolling her eyes. “You just be careful—I’m sure it seems all bright, them fighting over you, but it can go bad fast.”

“Trust me, I don’t think it’s ridiculous,” I moan. “What’s a potato called when there’s only one girl?”

“A disaster?” she teases, and pushes me back towards my lamp. I drag my feet crossing back through the restaurant. I can’t believe what I’ve gotten myself into.

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

Not All Bookstores Are Created Equal

Hey sportsfans! I was supposed to be reviewing a self-pubbed title today, but unfortunately, the book ended up being not the best fit for this space. Instead, you get me again! I’ve been a little self-indulgent here, and written a post that’s been on my mind for a few months – particularly since so many publishing professionals have been struggling through this weird pandemic year. 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 during this ongoing, trying time.

I’m going to make my own shameless plug for support with this post as well. At the end, like all of my posts, I’ve put a link to my ko-fi. As a bookseller at a local indie, I lost most of my income due to COVID this year. I’ve been lucky enough to figure out ways to make it work, but your support is always appreciated! If you enjoy this post, please consider supporting my work on this blog!

Book Retail 101

The publishing industry is so huge that its inner workings can be mystifying even to those with a peek behind the curtains. When you walk into a retail outlet, and purchase a new book published by a trade publisher, there is a whole globalized ecosystem behind how that object came to be.

Photo by Streetwindy on Unsplash

The Short Version

First, the author writes the book. Generally, an agent then partners with the author to edit and submit the book to publishers. An acquiring editor purchases the book, and then works with the author, a marketing team, and artists to create the final mock up. That is then sent to a printer, generally in China. Advance review copies, or ARCs are the first prints of books that are created, pre-publication, and then the final product is printed. Cases of the book are shipped to the distribution company. Bookstores order copies from the distribution company, and they have 90 days to sell the books, or return them to the distributor. The books that are left over are called “remnants”, and depending on the title, they are either destroyed and recycled, or purchased in bulk at a lower price from a different kind of book retailer, who can then mark them down and resell them at discounted prices.

Types of Book Retailers

You can see even from this really brief breakdown that there are many different versions of every book, and that there are many kinds of book retailers. In this post, I’m going to break down what the different kinds of book retailers are, and how you can use that knowledge to best support the person that is at the heart of this whole industry: the author.

Photo by Serge Kutuzov on Unsplash

New Books for Cover Price

I’ll start with the type of book retailer that most people know best: brick and mortar chain bookstores. These are stores like Chapters and Indigo in Canada (and recently the US), Waterstones in the UK, and Barnes and Noble in the US. They are one of the backbones of book retain worldwide. They sell new books, which they buy at wholesale prices, for the cover price. That difference in price is their profit margin. They sometimes get special prices from distributors, allowing them to have pretty great sales – like “bargain bestsellers” or Indigo’s well-known 30% hardcover markdowns, for example. When you buy a book from one of these retailers, authors get royalties on that sale!

Independent bookstores are my favourite kind of bookstores, and that’s generally because they are smaller, and have a more curated selection of books, than your average chain store. Although they may have more than one storefront location, independent bookstores are not owned by an umbrella corporation, and operate (as the name would have you believe) independently. You can find an independent bookstore in the US through IndieBound, or in Canada through the map recently created by Penguin Random House Canada. CBC also recently posted a resource for finding a Canadian indie that will ship books ordered online, due to the pandemic.

Photo by Ashley Byrd on Unsplash

If you ask me, libraries and indies are the cornerstones of the publishing industry and book distribution. Indies work so hard to support authors and reading communities, and often take political stances in the industry where chain bookstores can’t or choose not to. Indies sell new books, which they buy at wholesale prices, for the cover price. That difference in price is their profit margin. They are not generally eligible for publisher discounts, which means that any discount you receive from an indie is a loss to the store, that they’ve chosen to absorb for their customers. When you buy a book from one of these retailers, authors get royalties on that sale!

One important thing to know when you’re shopping for a title that a smaller independent bookstore may not have in stock is that indies have contracts with all of the major book distributors in their region. What that means is that just because you don’t see something on the shelf doesn’t mean that they can’t get it for you! If you drop by, call, or Email your local indie seeking a specific title, they can almost always order it in for you if it’s still in print. Unlike online book retailers, if you pick up your book in the store when it arrives, you won’t be left on the hook for shipping costs, either.

Photo by James Barker on Unsplash

The next kind of book retailer where you’ll see new books in the wild for regular cover prices is special markets stores: your pharmacy, grocery store, Crate and Barrel, Pottery Barn, big box stores like Target or Wal Mart, price clubs like Costco, or gift stores. These are different from off-price retailers like Marshall’s or Winners, and I’ll get to those later. These stores are curated, but in a way that’s very different than independent bookstores, and generally only carry household names, bestsellers, or lifestyle books that fit a certain niche, depending on the store. They are purchased from distributors through special markets sales reps that work with publishers and help curate these selections. They are sometimes sold in speciality packaging created specifically for the needs of that retailer, and can sometimes be offered publisher discounts to lower the price point for the store’s customer base. When you buy a book from one of these retailers, authors get royalties on that sale!

Discounted New Books

This is where bookselling starts to get tricky. Let’s zip back to the short version of this story. Remember where I wrote: The books that are left over are called “remnants”, and depending on the title, they are either destroyed and recycled, or purchased in bulk at a lower price from a different kind of book retailer, who can then mark them down and resell them at discounted prices? Well, these stores are where those remaindered books go. Books sold at these stores have been bought for radically discounted prices, and the pricing of the books is at the discretion of the retailer. When you buy a book that has been remaindered, authors do not generally get royalties on that sale. The bulk sale of these books is a way for publishers to recoup some of the loss of printing and distributing a book that did not sell well for its cover price, and to avoid landfill waste or the costs of bulk recycling.

It is important to know: remaindered books are new books. They are generally identified by a remainder mark, which can be a dot on the cover of the book, or a line on the pages, but otherwise, they will not appear drastically altered or damaged. For more information about remaindered books, check out this piece from the Guardian.

Who are the stores that sell remnants, and how can you tell whether or not you are actually supporting an author when you buy their book? Some of these stores are off-price department stores that sell all kinds of remaindered goods, not just books. The most recognizable are those owned by the multi-national TJX Companies: HomeGoods, HomeSense, Marshalls, Sierra, TJ Maxx, TK Maxx, and Winners. Ross’ Dress for Less is also an off-price retailer. These stores target middle-income households with more affordable prices than regular retailers.

Photo by Enayet Raheem on Unsplash

If indies are my favourite book retailers, “independent” bookstores that make the bulk of their income off of remaindered books, and often, other remaindered sidelines (non-book products sold by book retailers, like bookmarks, tote bags, stationary, etc.) are my least favourite. Technically speaking, these are still independently-owned stores, but they do not play the pivotal role in the publishing industry or the lives of publishing professionals or authors that indie bookstores do. Some of them even have contracts with major book distributors and sell a mixture of remnants and new, cover-price books. My local example of this is Book City, which claims the title of “Toronto’s leading independent bookstore”, even in a huge city with thriving indies who do incredible work. (Shoutout to Another Story, A Different Booklist, Glad Day, Bakka Phoenix, Page and Panel, the Beguiling, Mable’s Fables, Ella Minnow, Type, (the list goes on)…)

The last place where you will see remaindered books in their natural habitats is in second hand book stores, thrift shops, or online book outlets like Book Depot or Book Outlet. Anywhere where you see books selling for less than the cover price, you can be almost certain that you have encountered a book that has been remaindered. The important thing to know is that while this may appear customer or budget friendly, it is actually much worse for the industry than patronizing your local library. Publishers get pennies for these remaindered copies, and none of the professionals or content creators who work to make these books happen get paid when remaindered books are sold.

Second Hand Stores and Rare Book Sellers

Credit where credit is due, on my part: I don’t advocate purchasing books that are still in print at discount prices if you can access them through a library or purchase them at cover price. However, second hand bookstores, and especially rare and antiquarian book dealers, are so essential to the literary landscape. I have spent many hours in my life rummaging through dusty shelves of out of print, impossible to otherwise find, or internationally printed books, and that way I have found some absolute gems. My current favourite is the Monkey’s Paw, and if you want to check out your local, you might find them through the Antiquarian Booksellers Association of Canada, or the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers.

Photo by César Viteri on Unsplash

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

Just Me!

Hey friends! This week on the blog, I’m doing something a little different than the massive, exciting guest posts I’ve been throwing around lately. This week… it’s JUST ME. I’m going to tell you, 1, about this rad video game I played this weekend, and 2, I’m FINALLY going to let this post that I wrote in 2018 and for some reason NEVER POSTED go LIVE! Be free, ye olde blog post! Tell the world now VERY belatedly about the brilliant book Jonny Appleseed, by Joshua Whitehead.

Before we dive in, a quick plug that NEXT WEEKEND is the Festival of Literary Diversity (FOLD) Kids Book Fest, which is free, live, and online this year. Don’t miss it! It’s one of my favourite events of the year. Photo evidence below.

Visual Novel: Neo Cab

I think probably more than I should about what “reading” means. The perennial question of, is listening to audiobooks reading? Semantically, maybe not, but practically, of course, especially in a world where visually perceiving words on a page isn’t accessible to all readers. In my house, we do a lot of reading. My partner reads braille, and I use a text-to-voice app to give my eyes a break from sensory overload, we both have eReaders, we have an impressive stash of audiobooks, and predictably, our physical bookshelves are full to bursting.

When I was a kid, I devoured Choose Your Own Adventure books. The series was immensely popular, selling over 250 million copies in the 1980’s and 90’s alone. It still continues to this day – the latest series is Choose Your Own Adventure: Spies, based on non-fiction stories. The next title in the series, Mary Bowser, written by Black author Kyandreia Jones, comes out in October. Later, I discovered interactive text games, and recently, I decided to try out a visual novel on Nintendo Switch.

Visual novels are otherwise known as point and click narrative games, and are distinct from adventure games, which incorporate narrative and other gameplay aspects, for example, puzzle-solving. Visual novels are text-based stories that integrate animation with interactive elements. I honestly didn’t know how I’d feel about this. I love slice of life anime, which seemed to have some of the same flavours as visual novels, but I wondered if they would just feel like really boring action adventure games. I’m not a … super patient person.

Turns out? I love them. They absolutely incorporate aspects of slice of life, and also simulation games, in ways that feel organic and engaging. When partnered with really stunning visuals, they are a really great way to spend an afternoon.

Neo Cab is described as an “emotional survival game”, and it’s available for Switch, Linux, Mac, iOS, and PC. In it, you play Lina, a WOC who is basically a near-future Uber driver, who just moved to the city to be with her (toxic) best friend, Savy. The game is queer-coded, heartwarming, anti-capitalist, AND has really skillful non-binary rep. It checked every box for me… and taught me weirdly uncomfortable truths about myself. (Are video games allowed to do that??) If you’re having trouble getting into conventional reading these days, for whatever reason, or you’re just looking for a new way to experience storytelling, this game is a great place to start.

Jonny Appleseed: Written December, 2018

Listen, yall. I wrote this piece around the time I created this blog. I didn’t know back then if I was going to really be able to commit to this thing, and it felt like A Lot. Also, the launch it’s about… fully changed my life. It was when I got to really meet the incredible Alicia Elliott, who continues to inspire me to this day. I had a lot going on at the time. Somehow, this fell down in my drafts and never got posted. So, consider this a time capsule, because Jonny Appleseed seriously deserves the air time.

When I found out that my book shop would be hosting the (belated) Toronto launch of Joshua Whitehead’s debut novel Jonny Appleseed, I was so excited that I immediately messaged my managers to ask if I could work the event. Whitehead had been on my radar since spring of 2018. He was nominated for a Lambda award in the Trans Poetry category for his previous publication, full-metal indigiqueer, a collection that propels Two-Spirit (among other) identities out of a Eurocentric-imposed past and into an anti-colonial future.  I read and admired the clear and generous letter that Whitehead wrote when he turned down the nomination, calling for space to be made to celebrate Two-Spirit identities within (colonial) literary award frameworks. Then, I encountered Whitehead himself at the FOLD last spring, where his books sold out completely, and customers who had attended his panels raved about how well-spoken and spellbinding he was on stage. Jonny is one of the only books I’ve ever found myself searching through boxes for in the middle of the night at the book shop.

After all of this exposition, I was hungry for the months-late launch of Jonny Appleseed… and I hadn’t even peeled open the cover of the book yet. Ultimately, I didn’t manage to start Jonny Appleseed until five days before the event, which meant that I finally finished the book only a few hours before Whitehead would take the stage. I was still wiping tears off my cheeks when I headed out for work that day, as I sent a text to my partner to say that I was sobbing in our living room over the end of the book – in a good way.

The blurbs and press copy on the back of Jonny Appleseed describe it as a fever dream that centres on a Two-Spirit/Indigiqueer glitter princess, who is returning home to attend his stepfather’s funeral. I cannot emphasize enough that even with all the hype that I experienced around this book, so much was still completely unexpected for me.

The non-linear novel is peppered with nostalgic and evocative anecdotes about Jonny’s close relationship with his kokum (grandmother), and I hadn’t anticipated that being such poignant part of the book. I was raised in a small rural city by my mother, grandmother, and great grandmother all under one roof. Although my relationship and memories of my familial matriarchs looked very different from Jonny’s in some cases, there were striking similarities, and I found these sections of the text to be heart wrenching. Whitehead has what seems to be a careful willingness to delve into the complexities of the relationships that exist between people who exchange caretaking; a tactful ability not to shy from the grittiness in these relationships, but to describe them in such a way that they don’t lose sweetness in the process.

Jonny Appleseed also wrestles with the reconciliation of identities with the environments that the character inhabits. On the rez (reservation) where Jonny was raised, he struggles to find space to safely express the queer and gender-defying aspects of his Two-Spirit identity. After moving to the city, he struggles instead to find space for his Indigineity. For a reader like me, the experience of this theme was twofold. While carving out space for a complex identity is relatable, it was also educational, and any white settler reader would do well to learn from this book.

Perhaps most unexpectedly? I laughed. Maybe that doesn’t seem like a big deal, but I have trouble laughing. Whitehead cleverly weaves pop culture references into this book, and through them had me chuckling and reading passages aloud to other people. 

I’ve already passed on my copy and an additional two copies of Jonny Appleseed to friends and family. It was released in paperback, and it’s well worth the investment required to check it out.

Also, check out Joshua Whitehead’s new collection, Love After the End, a young adult anthology of stories by Indigenous authors, featuring Two Spirit and queer heroes in utopian and dystopian settings.

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

Miss Meteor Blog Tour

I know I’m shaking up the schedule a bit this week, but it’s a big week over here, so I hope that it’s worth the wait! I’ll be back to my regular schedule next Monday at noon ET like usual! For now, I have a few exciting announcements to share, and then a review and (what I think is) a cool creative, quarantine-friendly project in honour of the release of Miss Meteor, a new contemporary YA with speculative elements from incredible non-binary author Anna-Maria McLemore, in collaboration with Tehlor Kay Mejia.

Cemetery Boys Makes History

First, I want to take a quick minute to shout out trans author Aiden Thomas, his agent Jennifer March Soloway, and the editorial team at Swoon Reads, for the breakout success of the paranormal romance novel Cemetery Boys. Not only did it hit the NYT Bestsellers list, but it also made the National Book Award long list!

Thomas is in good company on the National Book Award long list – Black non-binary author Kacen Callender also made the list with their newest offering, King and the Dragonflies.

New Non-Binary Author: The Girl of Hawthorn and Glass

In my corner of the world, we’re also celebrating the debut YA from #SpineSquad author Adan Jerreat-Poole, The Girl of Hawthorn and Glass. Adan is a non-binary author, and their YA fantasy officially released this week from Dundurn, after quietly sneaking onto some shelves in advance earlier this summer. This is the first in a duology, and Adan’s working on some amazing new LGBTQ2S+ SFF projects for the future – so watch this space.

reddietoread

I couldn’t be more thrilled to introduce all of you to a new non-binary content creator who is now supported by Books Beyond Binaries: reddietoread! The human behind this account is Eddie, a college student studying literature, creative writing, and art history. They are currently fulfilling their middle school dream of being a booktuber, and they are working on their other childhood dream of becoming a published author. In their spare time they can be found reading YA and middle grade fiction, learning how to use power tools, and obsessing over anything dark academia-related.

Check out their channel for all kinds of rad content, including a playlist of non-binary book reviews and recommendations! The video below is the first in that series. Welcome to the team, Eddie! So glad to have you!!

Last But Not Least…

I just want to take this opportunity to wish an INCREDIBLE book birthday to my friend and author Cecilia Lyra on her sophomore novel, The Faithfuls, which comes out TODAY!!! CeCe is a badass Brazilian feminist woman living in Canada, and I was thrilled when my pre-order landed in my inbox this morning! Pick this one up, and when you do, if you can guess the twist ending? Make sure to let CeCe know… so far, no one has!

#MissMeteorOnTour

I jumped at the chance to be an official stop on the blog tour for this book (thanks, Caffeine!) for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is because the level of hype Miss Meteor is seeing leading up to its release is truly not on par with the level of excitement I felt when I discovered this title. Also – I want to interrupt myself for a second here to give a special shoutout to @MeteorReadathon on Twitter, because their Meteor Shower Readathon is such a great idea. If you haven’t had a chance to pick up some of these authors’ other works, check out their feed for great inspiration.

Tehlor Kay Mejia

I’ve gushed about Tehlor Kay Mejia’s incredible YA duology We Set the Dark on Fire and We Unleash the Merciless Storm in this space before. What I have never written about is how Anna-Marie McLemore’s Wild Beauty is one of the first books that brought me back to reading YA fiction after a long time away from the category. I picked it up when I first began working at Another Story, during my many years in academia, and had to reintroduce myself to YA after being exclusively immersed in scholarly non-fiction for way too long. Wild Beauty was one of the first queer YA books I ever read, and it is still one of few books that I see dimensions of myself reflected in that don’t really show up anywhere else. Later, when McLemore celebrated their non-binary identity publicly, it was super heartwarming for me, and their books hold a special place in my heart for all of that.

Anna-Marie McLemore

When I heard that these two incredible queer Latinx powerhouses were teaming up on a project, I was over the moon – and Miss Meteor does not disappoint. My preface to this glowing review is this: I didn’t bother to read much about the book before I picked it up, because I was so excited to see what Mejia and McLemore would come up with together. I had skimmed the jacket copy and seen the cover, and that was it. This book was not at all what I expected.

The best way I can think of to pitch Miss Meteor is if Dumplin’ were super queer, and had a little touch of magic. I was a kid who grew up closeted in a small town that’s truly supportive and sweet as long as you abide by don’t ask, don’t tell… and there there were a lot of moments of searing truth in this story. There aren’t enough queer books that take place outside of the sprawl of metropolis, and we need them. I don’t think that LGBTQ2S+ folks think enough about how different it is experiencing queerness and gender non-conformity outside of urban centres. McLemore and Mejia paint a picture of a small town that’s believable and quaint and chilling, and there is skillful, diverse representation in every direction in this narrative.

Miss Meteor has so many things to love, including food descriptions that left me drooling onto my eReader. It has Wild Beauty‘s fingerprints all over it in the character of Lita – after reading this, I want to go to a cactus birthday party so badly! The only criticism that I really have of the book overall is that I could have used just a touch more of the magic that we get a hint of through this main character. It had everything else – the thrust of a powerful friendship story to keep to keep the plot momentum in forward motion, touches of romance and truthfulness, and the spectacular, voicey writing that I’ve come to expect from the authors’ other works. I just fell a little bit in love with the girl who was made of stardust, and I wanted to know more.

Miss Meteor Stitch Project

For those of you who don’t know, when I’m not reading, I’m usually stitching. I discovered embroidery a few years ago when I was adjusting to a new psychiatric medication, and I still love it. It’s cheap, it’s not super difficult, and I love the outcome. For my creative project for #MissMeteorOnTour, I decided to make a sheet of stitchable (or colour-able, if you’re not a stitcher!) Miss Meteor Merit Badges!

What’s your favourite part of this book? The pageant, the cactus birthday parties, the delicious diner food, or the awesome space rocks and star dust? The choice is yours.

Project materials:

  • large wooden or plastic embroidery hoop – nothing fancy required
  • scissors
  • fabric! You can use an old T-shirt (or bedazzle a new one), a swatch of cotton, or really anything you have lying around. Choose something with a fun pattern for a decorative background.
  • medium-sized embroidery needles. I would suggest DMC Size 5, if you’re a beginner!
  • graphite transfer paper to trace the pattern onto the fabric
  • embroidery floss. Use any colours you want! I would suggest DMC six-strand embroidery floss. It’s inexpensive, you can get it at lots of craft stores, and it comes in LOTS of colours. Sometimes, less expensive floss can tangle more easily, but you can also dig into your childhood friendship bracelet supplies for this project!
  • basic felt sheets
  • Mod Podge matte – you can use the spray version, or use a sponge to apply the regular version

Resources used to create the merit badges:

Instructions

All you need to do is print the pattern above, use the graphite paper to trace it onto fabric (be careful, these lines won’t wash off), and then get started! Before you thread your needle, you’ll want to cut off a few feet of embroidery thread, and separate it into 3 strands. Only use 3 strands at a time to thread your needle. Once you’ve threaded your needle, and tied it off at the end, you’re ready to get stitching. You can use a simple straight stitch or back stitch for any of these designs, or get creative and choose something more complicated! There are loads of Youtube tutorials for learning embroidery stitches.

Once you’re done, and you love your badge, you can iron it flat, or leave it under a stack of books for a few days to flatten out. Then, cut the felt sheet to make a backing, and glue it to the back of the badge, and you’re done! If any of you decide to stitch (or colour!) a Miss Meteor merit badge from these patterns – PLEASE send me a note through the contact form! I would love to feature it on the site.

Happy stitching!

Trans (P)review and FOLD Kids

Books Beyond Binaries Editorial Services

A little shameless self-promotion to start off this post, before I get to the good stuff!

As most of you know, as well as being a full time student, I am also a fledgling literary agent and a bookseller. I make most of my living in my student life, taking on freelance research projects, and I’ve usually had the comfort of a small but reliable paycheque from the bookshop where I work part time to fall back on. Unfortunately, because of COVID, both of these sources of income have all but disappeared from my life these days. As such, I’ve decided to start offering book doctor services to writers alongside my agenting career. I’m putting my experience of 3 years as a bookseller, nearly a decade in academic publishing, and my first year in traditional publishing to work with competitive rates to support writers at all stages of their careers. You can check out my Fiverr page here if you’re interested. While I am available for bigger contracts, I love offering thorough first pages critiques to strengthen longer projects and pitch packages.

FOLD Kids

Before I jump in to this week’s feature, I want to highlight an amazing event coming up TOMORROW for educators, supported by The Festival of Literary Diversity’s Kids Book Fest. Details for Decolonizing Education and the Role of Restorative Justice in Schools is a free webinar, and details can be found below. While you’re looking, registration opens on September 2nd for the Kids Book Fest being held in October that is not to be missed if you’re a supporter of diverse literature for young readers, a parent, an educator, or a young reader yourself!

Kit Mayquist’s Review of FIRST, BECOME ASHES, by K. M. Szpara

I cannot say enough how excited I am to host this review, written by up and coming #SpineSquad author, Kit Mayquist, who recently celebrated the sale of his debut novel, Tripping Arcadia, to Dutton, an imprint of Penguin Random House.

There is nothing I love more than trans stories being reviewed by trans readers. While Kit is just beginning a promising literary career of his own, K. M. Szpara made waves with his debut Docile, and his sophmore release First, Become Ashes is expected in April of 2021 and is available for pre-order now.

To readers of First, Become Ashes, Kit would also like to recommend one of my favourite haunted house books of all time, The Good House, by Tananarive Due. Tananarive Due is an epic horror author who I didn’t learn about until way too recently. If you’ve been sleeping on her work, definitely check it out. It will give you chills, no matter how hot this summer is getting.


There is magic in the world, though it depends on who you ask.

Being raised in a cult of Baltimore-based, monster-hunting wizards, the main character Lark is awaiting his 25th birthday where he will undertake his mission as one of The Anointed, and fulfill his oath to rid the corrupted world of monsters. When we begin, he is bidding his partner and lover Kane goodbye, watching him leave the guarded gates of Druid Hill and venture into the world to complete his own mission, but for Lark, this ending is the largest beginning he could imagine, as Kane betrays them and reports the Fellowship of the Anointed to the FBI, resulting in a sting operation and their arrest.

It is rare to find a story where two realities can exist simultaneously and still seem rooted in our own, present day. First, Become Ashes deals with many topics that readers will find familiar, topics such as growing up and discovering your own beliefs versus those you were raised in, and the rocky path of wrestling with belief when everyone seems to have a different opinion on it. Much like in Szpara’s debut novel, Docile, First Become Ashes is a story of a man discovering who he is in the world as he undergoes a deprogramming. In fact, for many readers of Docile, the themes in First, Become Ashes will seem very familiar. Our protagonist, Lark has an inner narrative and voice that is strong-headed and yet, gives the reader full insight into the unraveling (and lack thereof) of his beliefs and of his identity as he wrestles with what it means to exist beyond life as a chosen one for a cult that the world is all too happy to condemn. Much like how Docile followed Elisha as he lost sense of himself and struggled to regain it, our protagonist takes the reader on a journey full of bravado and surety, with his fingernails clinging so hard to his beliefs that he practically bleeds. His is a story of agreement with his cult’s beliefs and a resistance to the efforts of those around him to tell him otherwise. Along his journey Lark meets a cosplayer, Calvin and in him he finds companionship as well as another soul desperate to believe there is magic in the world.

 From a meet-cute beside the dumpsters in cosplay (relatable for many of us, I’m sure), to unashamed enthusiasm for the 21st century nerd and fan culture (so many references, so many!), Calvin is just like any one of us. Eager to go on a quest, and above all else, eager to believe that the rumors about The Fellowship of the Anointed’s ability to wield magic is genuine. For Calvin, Lark’s presence in his life is a much awaited turning point, and a choice he makes to find out for once and for all if he can live the life of the characters he dresses up as, and possibly find love in the process. What he does not expect, is to go on a road trip with a bag of BDSM toys in the trunk, and to discover that for some, magic does not come from a loving, joyous space, but from something darker.

 First Become Ashes comes with a warning of sadomasochism, and it is a warning well-deserved if that is not your thing. If it is your thing, you will be well rewarded. Much like in Docile, themes surrounding consent, and what it means for our protagonist, develop through a narrative that makes such lessons poetic and extremely grounded in the story’s plot and world-building. For Lark, there is no question magic is real, he feels it in his body, becoming weak when he is drained of it. It is a very real thing. It is also something that requires a partner to hurt him in order to produce, and it is a process his scar-marked body enjoys arguably more than any other member of The Fellowship.

 As his bond with Lark develops, it is revealed Calvin is no stranger to BDSM and the world of kink, though Lark’s approach to it, and his relationship to a life where pain is a necessity and not something pleasurable, is concerning. This raises an internal debate throughout the book for Calvin and Lark’s Fellowship partner, Kane, about if Lark is even aware of his own kinks, and if he can come to understand his own enjoyment and embrace pleasure in his life aside from shoving down any positives for the sake of self-discipline. One final note on the BDSM link to magic and ritual in the book is that there are two major instances of sexual abuse and rape on the page as we learn about the actions of The Fellowship and their leader. Though not glorified, the scenes highlight the link between spiritual and sexual abuse in a way that may be extremely triggering for some readers, so please be advised.

However as serious as the themes discussed in First, Become Ashes are, it is not without humor. References to protein shakes as ‘potions’ and glow sticks from your classic convention rave being used as evidence of magic come with a nod and a wink that feels like that assignment I had once in Anthropology 101 to discuss current items as if they were being discovered 100 years from now. That being said, the humor serves a dual purpose in showing us just how isolated Lark and the other Fellowship member’s lives have been, and while some pick up the intricacies of modern day objects like hotel key cards and Google Maps with ease, for others, it is a reminder of just how much they’ve been denied, and a challenge to avoid a deep seeded fear of spiritual corruption.

It is no shock that the beliefs of First, Become Ashes feel so rooted and real, knowing that Szpara himself has a Theology degree. What was perhaps most refreshing to me was seeing a classic ‘Doomsday cult’ without the Christian lens. Instead the Fellowship reminded me most of my own childhood spent in metaphysical circles and having soul paintings done and being taught to bend spoons with my mind when all I wanted to do was play Pokémon. I think this is why for myself especially, the experiences of the various Fellowship members in the book feel truer to life than anything else. In First, Become Ashes we see all sides of the belief debate. The one who chose to leave, the one who was abused, the one who was never chosen, the shunned Preacher’s Kid, and the outsiders who want to believe, as well as those who hate them. Seemingly every perspective on The Fellowship and their actions is explored at least briefly, and readers are likewise taken on the journey of whether the magic is real or not, bouncing between proof for both sides, and unexplainable instances that will continuously leave you guessing yourself, just how much is fact or fiction.

Last though certainly not least, as a member of the LGBTQ2S+ community myself, First, Become Ashes is full of inclusive language and gender identities (one of the best things about The Fellowship is the normalized greeting of “What are your pronouns?” ) making it as comforting a read as it is a challenging one in terms of themes. Queerness is on the page in a celebratory way, as are discussions of polyamory and different types of love; something I’d personally like to see much more of from publishing. Ultimately First, Become Ashes is an excellent, well-awaited sophomore novel to Szpara’s Docile, while treading equally in familiar territory as well as new. Szpara’s ability to connect sex and identity to the plot in an inseparable way are what make his writing memorable long beyond the last page, and what make this novel shine.

Starred Rating: 5/5


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BREAK OUT THE SCISSORS

Happy Monday, theydies and gentlethems. This week, I’m pleased to share with you a review of Avalon’s Last Knight, an #OwnVoices LGBTQ2S+ novel by trans author Jackson C. Garton. I’m also thrilled to host a guest post from dark fantasy author A. J. Vrana on one of my favourite editorial topics: HOW TO CUT WORDS. Thank you so much for your continued support of this space! If you want to throw a coin to your blogger, my ko-fi is linked at the end of the post.

Review: Avalon’s Last Knight, by Jackson C. Garton

I’m so pleased that author Jackson C. Garton sought me out and shared this book with me, and I owe him a public apology, because it took me forever to finally pick this up. 2020 has been a hard year, and if I had known that I would enjoy this as much as I did, I may not have waited so long. Sorry, fam!

Avalon’s Last Knight from Pride Publishing is loosely categorized as LGBTQ Urban Fantasy, but I think it is more accurately described as an LGBTQ2S+ romance with speculative elements. I’m not usually all about retellings, but Garton managed to skillfully integrate the old and the new in a way that wasn’t distracting from the thrust of the narrative. Set in the rural American south – a rare bird for LGBTQ2S+ fiction – Garton’s book follows Lance and Arthur, high school BFFs turned sweethearts, as they learn to navigate their new relationship, and all the complications that come with it.

With strikingly raw prose reminiscent of the fiction of the Trans Vanguard, Garton expertly weaves thematic aspects of the original tales of Avalon through a diverse and contemporary romance flavoured with a taste of the occult. Emotions right on the surface, this book tackles the complexity of transition, love, and the cultural tension of progressive life in a conservative setting.

My only criticism of this book is that, to my knowledge, the racial representation is not based on lived experience. For me as a reader, it felt as though the diversity aspects were handled sensitively, and this remains a book that I would recommend. As a white reader, I would be interested to see reviews of this title from POC.

When I asked Garton what book he would recommend by a Black author, he suggested Kacen Callendar’s Felix Ever After, which was featured on Santana Reads! I’m thrilled to have been introduced to Avalon’s Last Knight, and I look forward to seeing what Garton comes up with next.


The Baldwin quote above is the banner that I use on my editorial reports for my lit agent clients. It feels appropriate here, because today, I am completely stoked to be hosting one of those clients with a guest post on one of my FAVOURITE editorial topics: how to make deep cuts. There is nothing more satisfying than a manuscript with good economy of language, and no one knows how to achieve that better than A. J. Vrana. Her method is just… *chef’s kiss*. I asked her to write this as much for my nerdy brain as for anyone else’s benefit. I hope you’ll all enjoy as much as I did.

In the meantime, if I haven’t shouted about it enough, A. J. Vrana’s beautiful debut dark fantasy novel is also now available for purchase, if you’d like a book-length example of the kind of results you can get with her editorial methods.

How to Cut Words: Guest Post by A. J. Vrana

There is no shortage of jokes about writers. Whether you are a hobbyist or a professional, you’re bound to encounter a quip or two about creative types and their stubborn dedication to their artistic vision. Creative people are sometimes incorrectly stereotyped as being spacey, unmoored, and impractical, much to my personal chagrin. Of course, if that were true, none of us would have succeeded in making a living with our creative work, least of all in a business that is primarily concerned with one thing: making money.

There is no separating creative writing from the publishing industry if, well, you want to be published. While there are many talented, visionary writers out there, navigating the business side of publishing can prove frustrating and alienating for many people. However, if we want our work read, we need to come to terms with the fact that publishing is a business, and businesses will always be concerned with how to maximize their profits. One of the ways they do this is by becoming intimately acquainted with the market. For a book to be publishable, it needs to have commercial potential. It doesn’t matter how breath-taking, eloquent, or poetic your writing is; if it isn’t something a publisher feels they can sell to a market they themselves have carved out through a long history of curated publication and advertisement, there is little hope the manuscript will be acquired by an agent or an editor.

Photo by Matt Artz on Unsplash

One of the often understated facets of marketability is word count. See, when I say, “markets that have been carved out through a history of curated publication,” I’m talking about genre conventions that have slowly but surely become cemented in readers’ understanding of literature, and subsequently inform their expectations. Word count is one of the many markers of how well a work fits within its intended genre. It has implications not only for a publisher’s production costs and returns, but for how the market will actually receive the work.

So, what is an acceptable word count for your next best seller? Well, it depends on the genre. Here are some general figures for popular genres; these can be easily found on the interwebs:

  • Mainstream Romance: 70,000–100,000 words
  • Subgenre Romance: 40,000–100,000 words
  • Science Fiction / Fantasy: 90,000–120,000
  • Historical Fiction: 80,000–100,000
  • Thrillers / Horror / Mysteries / Crime: 70,000–90,000 words
  • Young Adult: 50,000–80,000
  • Middle Grade: 25,000–40,000 words
Photo by Jude Beck on Unsplash

With the exception of kidlit and SFF, you’ll notice immediately that the upper end of the word count bracket for most genres is 100k. However, I would argue that if you’re a debut author, your SFF should also be around or under 100k. Once you go over this mark, the work becomes an increasingly difficult sell for both agents and publishers.

I myself am a verbose gal. When I wrote the first draft of my debut, a contemporary dark fantasy, it was 135,000 words! I justified this massive word count by convincing myself it was what I needed to tell the story, but I was a DIRTY LIAR. In truth, the long word count reflected several of my weaknesses as a writer: I sucked at pacing. My first 50 pages were way too slow in getting to the action. I overwrote emotions. I spent too much time on scenes that didn’t move the plot forward, and I did so under the guise of ‘character development’. I underestimated how few words I needed to get my point across. After several rounds of substantive edits and several more of line edits, I parred the beast down to 97,000 words. The final manuscript upon publication? 98,300 words. The best part? The major plot beats and structure hadn’t even changed.

But how the heck do you chop a novel’s worth of words out of your manuscript to appease your agent or editor’s pragmatic bones? Well, let me tell you. Here’s how to murder your beloved in three, excruciating steps.

Photo by Angèle Kamp on Unsplash

STEP ONE: Reverse Outline Your Book

The first step to chop-chop-chopping is to get rid of any large chunks of text that are unnecessary to the plot. But how do you know what’s unnecessary to the plot? That three-page meditation on the movement of celestial bodies and their implications for the fate of the family cat provide the reader with such a keen glimpse into your character’s psyche.

To figure out whether your reader will give a rat’s ass about the family cat’s natal chart, try a reverse outline. To do this, make a note of your book’s conclusion, then work your way backwards. What event prompted the ending? What then triggered the event that prompted the ending? Keep working your way backwards until you reach the beginning of your book. The catch? Don’t look at your manuscript when you do it. You, as the author, should be able to backtrack through your entire manuscript and communicate the book’s major inciting events without analyzing the text.

Once you’ve done this, take a look at your manuscript and make note of everything that falls outside of those core events, then ask yourself if those scenes are truly necessary. After reverse outlining your book, you should have a little more distance to judge whether these outliers are really needed. If you aren’t sure, cut and paste them in a separate document and see if the story still works without them. If the answer is ‘yes,’ DELETE DELETE DELETE. I don’t care how much you like it; GET RID OF IT. You won’t notice it after it’s gone, I promise.

One other option is to consolidate chapters that deal with similar events or circumstances. Are there two chapters where your protagonist visits a creepy old man in the woods to get information about a certain mystery? Slap ’em together, delete all the dialogue and prose that isn’t vital for your reader, and maintain the core purpose of both chapters—but in one!

Photo by Alex Gruber on Unsplash

STEP TWO: Economy of Words

This is the more detail-oriented and pain-staking method of cutting words, but people grossly underestimate just how much can be excised with careful line edits. The goal here is to make sure that not a single word is wasted. There is no one method of doing this, but I’ve learned a few tricks that can go a long way.

Contractions. This one took me a while to get used to because I got my start in academic writing, where contractions are a big no-no. However, using contractions in non-academic writing, especially creative writing, can reduce word count significantly. Use Ctrl+F to find common phrases that can be replaced with contractions.

That. Many a time, the word ‘that’ is not really necessary. I was told that I’d have to cut at least 10,000 words from my book. See what I did there?

Sentence Structure. Sometimes, switching up syntax and playing with verb conjugation can spare a word or two per sentence. It may not seem like a lot, but when you have thousands of sentences, it adds up.

For example: He stared at the maskless buffoon and then wondered if humanity was done for.

Alternative: He stared at the maskless buffoon, then wondered if humanity was done for.

Even better alternative: He stared at the maskless buffoon, wondering if humanity was done for.

Now, you don’t want to use the same sentence structure over and over again. Don’t get too nitpicky with this, because sentence variety is more important than cutting a single word per sentence. Don’t forget that you can also change what order your clauses are in. Be conscious of modifiers and subordinate clause placement, as sometimes these can needlessly lengthen sentences.

Example from this very verbose blog: When I wrote the first draft of my debut, a contemporary dark fantasy, it was 135,000 words!

Alternative: The first draft of my contemporary dark fantasy debut was 135,000 words.

Photo by Wajih Ghali on Unsplash

Starting sentences with ‘And’ or ‘But’. This is probably the thing I struggled with most. I loooove starting sentences with ‘and’ and ‘but,’ especially when establishing a character’s voice. Sadly, it’s not necessary most of the time. Occasionally it’s fine if used for emphasis or in dialogue, but try to minimize this as much as possible.

Adjectives and adverbs. Remember when I said I overwrite emotions? Yeah, this. Listen, there is NOTHING wrong with a good adjective or adverb, but when you find yourself piling them on like a grocery list comprised entirely of snack foods, reign yourself in. Pick ONE snack food. Even better—ask yourself if there is a more accurate noun or verb that can replace the adjective + noun or adverb + verb you’re using.

Don’t repeat yourself. Sometimes when we try to communicate something, we spend too many sentences expressing the same sentiment. This is natural, as overwriting is how we explore the best way to get a point across. However, once we’ve done this, it’s a good idea to go back and pick one sentence that best communicates the intended point.

Metaphors > Literal Description. This can be a tough one as it forces you to exercise your poetic brain, but I promise it pays off and makes your writing more interesting. Literal descriptions of settings or a character’s emotional state tend to be quite lengthy, and if you have the attention span of a kitten like I do, they can be kind of boring too. Sometimes, an apt, pithy metaphor can convey all that needs to be conveyed in far fewer words than a very literal description. Don’t be afraid to experiment with similes and metaphors; if it doesn’t work, someone will let you know with their confusion! As with the suggestion about sentence structure, you shouldn’t turn every description into a metaphor, but it can help add some variety!

Example: On the weekends, the sidewalks were crowded with people pushing past one another.

Metaphor: On the weekends, the sidewalks [crowded] like an ant colony.

Photo by Dani Rendina on Unsplash

Don’t start sentences with ‘There was’.  This is best illustrated with an example.

Example: There was a child napping in the shade.

Alternative: A child napped in the shade.

Eliminate the obvious. This is another trick best illustrated with an example:

Example: The sky was grey. The clouds hung low, heavy with unfallen rain.

Alternative: The grey clouds hung low, heavy with unfallen rain.

Since clouds are inherently in the sky, we don’t have to mention the sky and the clouds.

Eliminate absences. One trick to using precise language is to eliminate any mention of things being absent, and instead focusing on what is present instead of the absence. Here’s what I mean:

Example: She stared at her estranged mother and felt nothing. The love was gone.

Alternative: She stared at her estranged mother. The love was gone.

Here, it’s redundant for us to say that someone felt nothing; instead, we can infer that there is an absence by noting that ‘the love was gone’.

Photo by Dani Rendina on Unsplash

STEP THREE: Repeat Step 2.

Seriously. You need to do the line edits like three times, because as you progress through your manuscript, you will grow lazy and let things slip. The first time I finished cutting on a line level, I’d eliminated 3000 words. After my second round, I’d eliminated 6000 words. By my third round, I’d cut a total of 8000 words.

And it was great.


Alex’s recommendation for a book by a Black author to check out is the Binti trilogy, by Nnedi Okorafor. I had the pleasure of hearing Okorafor speak in Denver a couple of years back, and she blew my mind. This book is definitely worth the read!

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

All Eyes on Her

I could not be more excited for today’s post. I am super thrilled to welcome back BBB contributor Jack for another incredible review. This time, Jack writes about a forthcoming LGBTQ2S+ novel, Seven, by Farzana Doctor, an author of colour in my local, Toronto. Then, I am deeply honoured to be hosting a post by another Ontario author, Laurie Elizabeth Flynn, whose new YA thriller, All Eyes On Her, comes out later this month. She addresses a super challenging topic in writing, and one that she proves herself to be a master of in her upcoming title that I couldn’t put down: multiple POV.

Before we jump in, I just want to put in a quick plug for an upcoming LGBTQ2S+ contemporary indie press book by my client, author CM Harris. Maiden Leap releases on September 1st, and you can read more about it here!

In addition, as a follow up to last week’s post on chapter books, huge congratulations to Theanne Griffith, Reggie Brown, and their whole team – there are more Magnificent Makers books on the way!

Jack’s Review of Seven, by Farzana Doctor

I have such a fondness for Farzana’s work, which I discovered years ago through our mutual connection to the social work profession. I was super glad when Jack chose this book to check out. Seven comes out later this year, and is available for pre-order now.

Farzana Doctor’s novel Seven is the kind of novel that, like the scent of baked bread wafting over from a bakery, lures you in. In her fourth novel, Seven, Doctor explores themes of personhood, motherhood, and the concept of individuality in a collective community. The novel borrows from Farzana’s Indian ancestry, specifically her Dawoodi Bohra community and carefully braids truth and fiction into a family’s intergenerational story. What begins as an insight into a familial tree takes Sharifa through past and present becoming a story of chosen family and the fortitude of relationships.

Seven, is a layered concoction which reveals itself to its reader in pieces. In the novel, Doctor questions how people define “harm”, challenging the notion of harm and family as mutually exclusive. Doctor represents social justice on the public scale we are familiar with, and through the individual experience which personalizes pain.

Photo by Jill Dimond on Unsplash

CW for this book include sexual violence and gas-lighting. I found enlightenment in the presence of both sexual violence and strategies of healing. I recommend this book to readers in their young adulthood. It is also an insight into the different types of activism and stands one can take.

Farzana Doctor is a Canadian author, activist, and psychotherapist. She is a careful writer whose embroidery of Intergenerational trauma, the politicization of women’s bodies and the human experience, is both brilliant and alluring. What happens when trauma is weaponized as a vehicle of obedience and victims become perpetrators? How can multiple truths co-exist?

During this year’s Festival of Literary Diversity (FOLD), I had the pleasure of attending the virtual What We found discussion, where she posed thoughtful questions about identity, about writing. The thoughtfulness is evident once again in the configuration of Seven, a novel full of questioning.

The novel begins with Sharifa, a woman who feels broken. Sharifa and her family decide to go to India, where Murtuza (her husband) will be working and Sharifa will be on sabbatical. Sharifa plans on researching her family, specifically Abdoolally’s role as the family’s patriarch, while homeschooling her daughter.  Her daughter, Zee becomes a focal point, reminding Sharifa of herself as a child when she would travel back to India. During her research, Sharifa begins to identify the ways in which people can inflict harm their loved ones. Even though this is a work of fiction, the character of Abdoolally was inspired by Hussonally Dholkawala, Doctor’s great-great grandfather, and the character are based on the very real Dawoodi Bohras’ community.

Photo by Yaopey Yong on Unsplash

In many ways, the novel is an account of the experiences of a cultural transplant with sexual violence, generational trauma and belonging. By showing the varying ways in which trauma shows up for the same experience, Doctor explores the complicated nature of trauma.

In Seven, the reader is given pieces of a puzzle and asked: “what happens if we believe in the wrong thing, the wrong people?” What does healing look like?

Laurie Elizabeth Flynn, Author of ALL EYES ON HER

I met Laurie through this blog, when I first wrote about one of her titles, Last Girl Lied To, which I read during the #VillainAThon last year. I could not put this book down. Since then, I’ve learned that Laurie herself is as much of a delight as her books are, as she’s peppered me with recommendations for other un-put-down-able titles over the last several months. I think that I can safely say that we share a passion for messy teenaged femme characters, and I have never been disappointed by a book that she’s suggested for me.

I am honoured to have met Laurie, and to have received an ARC of her forthcoming YA novel, All Eyes On Her to screen read for my bookshop. It was the first book I read in 2020, while I was going through a very difficult time in my life, and it was immersive and escapist and everything I’d hoped. The ending drove me bananas in the best possible way. The last chapter was absolutely delicious, and kept me guessing through the very last page. All Eyes On Her comes out on August 18th, and is available for pre-order now.

More recently, Laurie has achieved incredible success, and as a reader I could not be happier, and as one of her supporters, I am deeply proud. Her adult debut was recently acquired by Simon and Schuster, and optioned for television by AMC. I can’t wait to read this book, and I hope desperately that we’ll all get to watch it come to live as a super bingeable series.

For this post, I am so grateful that Laurie addressed multi-POV writing. As I wrote at the top of this post, she executes it perfectly in All Eyes On Her, and it’s something that takes so much technique, precision, and dedication to master. Thank you so much for this, Laurie, and congratulations for all that is to come!

As is tradition, I asked Laurie to recommend some books by Black authors that readers of this blog should check out alongside All Eyes On Her. Her choices were Some Other Now by Sarah Everett, which releases in early 2021. She also loved Allegedly, by Tiffany D. Jackson, and You Don’t Know Me But I Know You by Rebecca Barrow. 

Voices in a Crowd: Writing Multiple POV

When I started writing All Eyes On Her, I didn’t have a plot or an outline—just a vaguely drawn idea about a boy and a girl who went into the woods, and only the girl came back. The first voice that came to me was the main character Tabitha’s best friend, Elle, and the next thing I knew, Tabby’s sworn enemy needed a say too. Before I knew it, several other characters had emerged from my imagination, all of them with one thing in common: They knew, or had known, Tabitha Cousins, and thus felt qualified to weigh in on her guilt or innocence. To act as a sort of jury, convincing the reader of her true nature.

I drafted the novel in a fast and furious blur. By the time I finished, there were five main point of view characters, each with a different relationship to Tabby and her deceased boyfriend Mark, as well as several peripheral characters with their own chapters. To complicate matters, the story also involved news articles, blog posts, texts, diary entries, and police transcripts. 

I give huge credit to my editors for not balking at the idea of a novel with so many different POV characters and formats. They were fully on board and excited about the concept from the start. I knew the challenges I was facing—to successfully execute the style I wanted the novel to take, each voice had to sound unique, and each character had to provide different information that informed the narrative and moved the plot along. It was in editing and revising that I really learned what worked and what didn’t, and I came up with these tips for anyone else working on (or wanting to start) a multiple POV novel!

Know Your Characters

You need to know your characters no matter how many POV characters you have, or how the story is told. But it’s especially important when you have a cast of characters whose voices each need to sound distinct. Each time I entered a new perspective, I settled into that character’s head, and that informed the voice. I often asked myself, is this something she would say? Is this a reaction she would have? I also challenged myself to memorize each person’s motivations—why he feels this way, and why he thinks the reader needs to be made aware. I aimed to know instinctively how each character would react to a situation, even if it was a situation that wasn’t happening on the page. 

The Why

Ask yourself why a certain character’s POV needs to be included. What does it bring to the story? What information or insight does this person provide that another one can’t? A few side characters with POV chapters in the first draft of All Eyes On Her were cut in revisions, because as fun as they were to write, they weren’t adding any new or crucial information to the narrative.

Try Different Formats

While most of my POV characters have first-person present-tense chapters, I wrote one entirely using a police transcript format. At the time, I wasn’t sure why his story needed to be told this way, but looking back, I can see the reason. I didn’t necessarily want the reader in his head as much as directly outside of it. I wanted to showcase his personality through dialogue and intentionally keep certain thoughts off-limits. Which brings me to the next point…

Hide and Seek

Just because you have multiple characters doesn’t mean you need to give readers their every thought. In fact, it’s more effective when you don’t (especially if you’re writing a thriller where everybody may be a suspect…). Think as much about what you choose not to share as what you do. Give your readers tantalizing little gaps to fill in. Consider why a character may not be saying something, and what that tells readers about him or her. The only thing I love more than an unreliable narrator… unreliable narrators.

The only thing I love more than an unreliable narrator… unreliable narrators.

Show, Don’t Tell

This is solid advice for writing in general, but I find it especially helpful for navigating a multi-POV book. If readers are simply told every thought in a character’s mind, they’ll get bored easily, and you run the risk of one character blending into the next. Show how the character interacts with others. How she walks and talks. What her hobbies are. How she acts at parties. How she behaves around friends versus parents. What her secrets are, and how she conceals them…

Streamline Information

Something to avoid with a large cast of POV characters is each section feeling like an info-dump, or a repetition of information another character already shared. Ideally, you want each character’s next chapter to piggyback off the one before it, ramping up to the climax of the novel. The order needs to be determined by underlying tension, and what comes next to ratchet up that tension. Every author has a different strategy, and there’s no wrong way. Some write all of one character’s chapters before moving into the head of another, and some write mostly in chronological order. For this book, I head-hopped and wrote mostly in order, which I think helped with the pacing, and ensured that every new event built on the one before it to create momentum.

Motivation is Key

Since character arcs are so important, this is a challenge when you have several characters whose stories need to feel compelling on their own, as well as part of a whole. Make sure you always know what each character wants, and what’s standing in the way of them getting it. I also like to keep in mind what each character is hiding, or what they don’t want people to find out. Having character arcs overlap and inform each other is like putting together a (sometimes frustrating, sometimes extremely satisfying) puzzle.

Differentiate Speech and Mannerisms

A trick I employed as I edited All Eyes On Her: If I picked up the manuscript and flipped to a random chapter, would I know whose head I was in within a couple sentences? If the answer was no, I looked at why. Had I fallen into similar phrasing? Made everyone constantly push their hair back behind their ears? Did the dialogue feel familiar? Voice is everything in a book with several of them, so having consistent go-to mannerisms or expressions that feel familiar to a character helps them stand out.

I hope these tips are helpful to anyone writing multiple POV! All in all, try to think of it for what it is… a very fun experience, and a challenge that will improve your writing. If you’re someone who gets bored easily (hi, me) or something doesn’t feel right in your book from just one POV, it might be worth figuring out whose voice to potentially add to the story. Listen to what that character has to say—because it may be quite telling.

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

Chapter Books… What’s GOOD?

New (to me) Resource

Before I get into content, I do want to throw up a new Enby Book List that I discovered on Twitter this week! Compiled by Jeanne G’Fellers, this is a new resource that I’ve now added to the BBB Links and Resources page! This is a great list, especially if you’re looking for indie or harder to discover titles featuring non-binary authors and characters.

Chapter Books… What’s GOOD?

Thanks to some inspiration from one of my clients, Marissa Ellor, I’ve decided to finally write a comprehensive list of chapter book recommendations. This is a post that I’ve been meaning to make for a while, and it’s a total bookseller post, but I hope that it will be useful to parents and kidtlit writers as well.

The bookshop where I work is in a neighbourhood with a lot of young families in it, and we also do the majority of our business with the local school boards. Our store specializes in social justice and diversity, so as curators and booksellers, we are very mindful and selective about the books that we choose. For a while now, there has been fantastic YA to choose from, and picture books are getting better and better every day. Board books are catching up, and there’s starting to be some good MG out there. When you’re looking at kids who are still learning to read independently, though, finding really good chapter books, early readers, and graphic novels for the developing (or “reluctant”) reader can be super challenging. I hope that my recommendations can make finding the gems a little bit easier for those who are overwhelmed!

There was a period of my life when I was spending a lot of time in suburban Colorado, and probably once a week I found myself at the 2nd and Charles in Aurora. This store is an oasis of used kids’ books. They have a massive selection in a clean and well-organized space, and they often do ridiculous sales. At the time, I was co-parenting, and one of my favourite things to do was to bring the kids to these sales and give them free rein to pick whatever books looked good, and then spend time sitting at one of the kids’ tables with them, discussing what we were going to bring home and why it was awesome.

A bearded person stands in front of shelves of picture books with their arms full of books. They are laughing.
Photo from the 2nd and Charles Facebook page, May 22 2019.

Part of the fun of this for me was rediscovering the books that in large part made me who I am today. I was that kid who used to bring their maximum number of library loans home every week, and had to carry a stack after the Scholastic order came into my classroom in elementary school. I was lucky enough to be allowed to read whatever I wanted, and I read a lot. Some of my favourites were chapter book series – from The Chronicles of Narnia to The Saddle Club to Goosebumps and Bunnicula… I loved these stories. The bad news is? A lot of them haven’t aged so well. The good news is? There are a LOT of new things on the market for this reading group.

Unfortunately, sometimes too many choices can be overwhelming, and because chapter books are chronically under-screened and under-reviewed compared to books in other categories, it’s hard to know what’s good. Taking a peek at Barnes and Noble’s selection, for example: there are over 27 000 titles available through their website categorized as paperback, ages 6-9, and that cost between $5 and $10 USD. The Toronto Public Library lists 5 816 results for “easy-to-read” stories. Important to note: neither of these outlets for books for kids actually categorize books AS chapter books. Where does a reader even start to look? I hope that by providing some recommendations for my favourite chapter book series, it will make the selection process a little more manageable!

A close up of a child reading a book, one eye visible, and the book large and out of focus in the foreground.
Photo by Johnny McClung on Unsplash

I’ve chosen the series listed below for a number of reasons, and diverse representation is at the top of that list. That said, probably the BIGGEST fault in chapter books right now is that you actually can’t judge books by their covers. Although so many of these titles look super inclusive, there is a serious dearth of #OwnVoices stories, and even most of the books that feature diverse casts are still written by white folks. It’s time for kidlit publishers to seek out better representation among their authors for books in this reading level.

I am also not a fan of “potty humour” in books, so there’s not a lot of that here. For each category, I’ve profiled my favourite selection briefly, and then included a list of other titles in that category underneath. You will see that the book listed is always the first book in the series (where the series are numbered), but as a rule, it is not necessary to read chapter books in the order in which they are published! They are typically stand alone stories. Where the series name isn’t obvious, I’ve included that in parentheses following the title.

A child looks at a bunch of books on a shelf.
Photo by Suad Kamardeen on Unsplash

Books with Animals as Characters

When you’re looking for a crowd-pleasing book for a group of young kids, or a great read aloud, it’s hard to go wrong with anthropomorphic animals just living their lives. The Heartwood Hotel series, written by Canadian author Kallie George and illustrated by Stephanie Graegin is a wholesome series about a super-cozy hotel for forest animals. Themes of friendship and community come through in these books accompanied by black and white illustrations.

The cover of Heartwood Hotel: A True Home, showing a tree with a small mouse sitting on a branch.
  • Eva’s Treetop Festival (Owl Diaries)
  • A True Home (Heartwood Hotel)
  • Rabbit’s Bad Habits (Rabbit and Bear)
  • A New Friend (The Adventures of Sophie Mouse)

Stories for Animal Lovers

The Jasmine Green books by Helen Peters and illustrated by Ellie Snowdon are about a young girl who lives on a family farm with her parents and siblings. Her mom is a veterinarian, and each book in this series sees Jasmine helping an animal in need. This is the perfect series for compassionate education in a classroom, or for any kid who loves animals.

The cover of A Piglet Called Truffle, featuring a pink piglet running through the grass.
  • Mercy Watson to the Rescue
  • Megabat
  • Amy and the Missing Puppy (The Critter Club)
  • A Piglet Called Trouble (Jasmine Green)

Books about Friendship

I love Megan Atwood’s books. At a more accessible level for readers, the Dear Molly, Dear Olive series features two young girls who are cross-country Email penpals. One lives in a city, and one lives in a rural area. The books follow the girls as they tell each other about their adventures, and the reader explores the ups and downs of long-distance friendship. At a more advanced level are the Orchard Novels, of which there are four, one for each season. These follow four kids who live and work together on a New England apple orchard. Like Dear Molly, Dear Olive, these lighthearted books feature a diverse cast.

  • Ivy and Bean
  • Best Friends Forever? (Ashley Tall and Ashlee Small)
  • A Fall for Friendship (An Orchard Novel)
  • Dear Molly, Dear Olive
  • The Baby-Sitters Club

Books about Making Stuff

The Magnificent Makers series is an #OwnVoices series of books about kids making stuff, written by Theanne Griffith, PhD. She is not only a children’s author, but also a neuroscientist. The illustrator for this series is Reggie Brown, who specializes in diverse representation. These books are charming, well-written, and they are a brilliant fresh perspective for a space where we are only just starting to see #OwnVoices stories come to light.

The cover of Magnificent Makers: How to Test a Friendship, showing three children of colour looking at a biodome on a table.
  • Rosie Revere and the Raucous Riveters (Questioneers)
  • Ellie, Engineer
  • The Un-Friendship Bracelet (Craftily Ever After)
  • How to Test a Friendship (The Magnificent Makers)

Mysteries

My favourite series in this whole post is the Museum Mysteries series. While I wish that the creators behind this series (Steve Brezenoff and Lisa K. Weber) were a little more diverse, the books themselves offer a fresh new take on classic whodunnits with an inclusive Scooby Squad cast of characters and beautiful covers. They’re quick reads with awesome classroom tie-ins, and if your household is playing a LOT of Animal Crossing right now (like mine is), fans of Blathers will be super into the varied museum settings of these stories.

The cover of The Case of the Haunted Mystery Museum, featuring a child looking up at a large museum with lightning in the background.
  • Ada Lace on the Case
  • The Case of the Haunted History Museum (Museum Mysteries)
  • King and Kayla and the Case of the Missing Dog Treats

Spooky Stories

Obviously, my favourites. I wish that my childhood chapter books had aged a little better, but I’m glad that there are new spooky series taking up the mantle – like Desmond Cole Ghost Patrol, by Andrés Miedoso and illustrated by Víctor Rivas. This is a classic monster-of-the-week series (appropriate for the faint of heart!) featuring the fearless Desmond Cole, and his sidekick who is afraid of everything: Andrés.

The cover of Desmond Cole Ghost Patrol, which shows two children in the foreground and some spooky houses and ghosts in the background.
  • Ghoulia
  • The Haunted House Nextdoor (Desmond Cole Ghost Patrol)
  • Sam Wu is Not Afraid of Ghosts
  • Isadora Moon Goes to School
  • Amelia Fang and the Barbaric Ball

Fantasy

There are so many good fantasy chapter books, and they range from epic to urban to friendship stories about yetis. There’s something for every reader. Left wanting for an #OwnVoices series in this category, I still love Zoey and Sassafras, by Asia Citro and illustrated by Marion Lindsay. This whimsical series is a blend of science and magic with lots of illustrations, featuring a young girl, and her cat.

The cover of Zoey and Sassafras, which shows a young girl and a cat looking at a small dragon.
  • Upside-Down Magic
  • Dragons and Marshmallows (Zoey and Sassafras)
  • Polly Diamond and the Magic Book
  • Rise of the Earth Dragon (Dragon Masters)
  • Bo’s Magical New Friend (Unicorn Diaries)
  • Sparkly New Friends (Unicorn and Yeti)
  • Willow Moss and the Lost Day (Starfell)

STEAM (Science, Math, and More)

At a slightly more advanced reading level, the Elements of Genius series is ideal for a reader transitioning to MG novels. This series is written by Jess Keating who is herself a zoologist, and illustrated by Lissy Marlin, an artist from the Dominican Republic now living in the US. Lissy has done all kinds of cool projects, including the Magic Misfits series by Neil Patrick Harris. the Elements of Genius are witty and trendy and feature a badass feminine protagonist as she navigates a new school for gifted kids.

The cover of Elements of Genius, which shows an adolescent girl in the foreground and a ferret reaching toward a laser gun in the background.
  • Nikki Tesla and the Ferret-Proof Death Ray (Elements of Genius)
  • The Friendship Code (Girls Who Code)
  • Frankie Sparks and the Class Pet
  • Super Amoeba (Squish)

Graphic Crossover (Illustrated)

I challenge anyone not to love the CatStronauts, a graphic series by Drew Brockington featuring astronaut cats in weirdly scientifically accurate NASA-type situation. They’re wonderful. I have nothing else to say about these books.

The cover of CatStronauts, which shows four astronaut cats on the moon.
  • CatStronauts: Mission Moon
  • Buffy the Vampire Slayer: New School Nightmare
  • Sparks!
  • The Way Home (Owly)
  • Narwhal: Unicorn of the Sea (Narwhal and Jelly)
  • Hildafolk (Hilda)

Heroes and Adventure

There are a lot of really good hero books out there, but none as weird and charming as Gum Girl by Rhode Montijo. These books have bubblegum-scented covers (yeah, for real), and feature a feminine protagonist who literally changes into gum and goes on adventures. With a little bit of Spanish sprinkled throughout, I love the writing in these books, and I love the bizarre concept. They’re heavily illustrated, and they’re funny.

The cover of Gum Girl, which shows a character made of gum flying through the sky.
  • Mia Mayhem Is a Superhero
  • Kitty and the Moonlight Rescue
  • Chews Your Destiny (Gumazing Gum Girl)
  • The Jolly Regina (The Unintentional Adventures of the Bland Sisters)
  • The Princess in Black
  • The Bad Guys
  • An Extra-Ordinary Girl (Ellie Ultra)

Contemporary

They’re a bit on the ridiculous side, but if the #OwnVoices Alvin Ho books aren’t relatable, I don’t know what are. They’re about a kid who’s afraid of everything, and basically just has to figure it out. Alvin Ho is written by Lenore Look, who has been creating kids’ books since she was a kid herself, and illustrated by the incredible LeUyen Pham, who also illustrates the Princess in Black series, and is co-creator of Real Friends with Shannon Hale.

The cover of Alvin Ho, which shows a scared child on the front.
  • Good Dog McTavish
  • Katie Woo Has the Flu
  • Alvin Ho Allergic to Girls, School, and other Scary Things
  • Sadiq and the Desert Star
  • Yasmin the Builder
  • Mindy Kim and the Yummy Seaweed Business
  • Stella Díaz Has Something to Say

…last but not least: Sports, Choose Your Own Adventure, and Personal Faves

There are SO MANY CHAPTER BOOKS that I couldn’t not mention just a few more. On the top of this list is a standalone chapter book level novel called Coyote Tales. It’s written by acclaimed Indigenous author Thomas King, and tells two stories about Coyote that demonstrate his skillfulness as an author, as well as his humour. This is a rad book that we sell a lot at the shop, and although it’s a bit difficult to categorize, I would be remiss not to mention it here. It’s the perfect note to close out on.

The cover of Coyote Tales, where a coyote looks up at the moon, who frowns back.
  • Coyote Tales
  • Sideways Stories from Wayside School
  • Flying Ace: Errol’s Gander Adventure
  • Little Shaq
  • The Ice Chips and the Magical Rink
  • Choose Your Own Adventure
  • Yael and the Party of the Year (Yes No Maybe So)
A small child reading on a couch.
Photo by Josh Applegate on Unsplash

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