(Lots of) Picture Books for Grown Ups

Currently Reading: The Ghost Bride, by Yangsze Choo

A Useful Resource on Trans Language

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

Blog Redesign and Relaunch

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

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

A Quick Personal Note…

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

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

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

A Dalmatian puppy lounging on a dog bed.

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

Recommendations: Picture Books for Grown Ups

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

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

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

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

They told me:

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

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

Spooky Season Picks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Books About Animals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Books With Whimsical Nature Themes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Navigating Difficult Emotions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

General Picks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final Fall 2019 Previews

Currently Reading: A Place called Perfect, by Helena Duggan

This post is in part a news update, and then I have two more exciting fall books to talk about! First, I want to talk about Carmen Maria Machado’s memoir, In The Dream House, that comes out in November, and then I will talk about the Canadian launch of Naomi Klein’s newest book, On Fire, which is already on shelves.

Blog Redesign

It’s coming! For those of you who don’t know, I’ve commissioned an incredible artist, Bill Underwood, who also goes by Ice, to create some beautiful work so that this space will reflect more about who I am, and what my blog is all about. It’s going to be spooky and delightful, and I can’t wait to show it to you… AND share it with you. Ice has graciously agreed to let me create some small tokens of my appreciation for followers of this blog featuring some of their artwork, so keep your eyes on my Twitter account when we get closer to the relaunch for the chance to snag some spooky literati swag…

Image is of a spooky cat. The body of the cat is purple and has skeletal-style shadows over its body. Two front legs are visible, as well as a thick tail that branches into two ends. The top half of the cat's face is a skull.
A preview of some of Ice’s final art for this blog!

Non-Binary News and Reviews

If your identify is part of the non-binary umbrella, and you want to give your work a little boost next month, mark your calendars for October 1st, which is the next #IAmNonbinary day. If you are not non-binary, it’s a great time to be an active ally. Peruse the hashtag, boost non-binary creators, and drop a little cash to those who need it if you can!

Thank you to Almost, Almost for posting some great ARC reviews of trans and/or non-binary books recently! They/Them/Their: A Guide to Non-Binary and Genderqueer Identities, by Eris Young, is a new book that was released on September 19th. Much of the content is UK-specific and the book trends a little toward the dense side, but it’s an interesting new resource to have on hand. You can read a full review of this book here.

The cover of They/Them/There: A Guide to Nonbinary and Genderqueer Identities is on the left. The title is purple text on a vibrant yellow background. The cover of Trans+: Love, Sex, Romance, and Being You is on the right, the letters are in the colours of the trans pride flag on a charcoal background.

Trans+, by Kathryn Gonzales and Karen Rayne is a broad sexual and relationship education text intended for teenagers. It includes references to additional materials, as well as #OwnVoices materials supporting the provided information. You can read a full review of this book here. Thank you again to Almost, Almost for providing such thoughtful reviews!

Useful Databases

There are so many people putting together great resources to support members of the literary community these days. I wanted to share two here. One is the Aromantic and Asexual Characters in Fiction database. This is a resource that is particularly useful to those interested in underrepresented groups under the LGBTQ2S+ umbrella. The other is the New Adult database, which is still in development. As it grows, this database will be an index of books that would otherwise be classified as “late YA” or “YA/adult crossover titles”. These books feature characters and themes relevant to those in the 18 to 29 age bracket and/or lifestyle bracket. This is a genre that has traditionally faced a great deal of stigma in publishing, and thus NA books can be difficult to find for the readers who find them relatable (like me!).

In the Dream House, by Carmen Maria Machado

In the Dream House is the much-anticipated memoir of Carmen Maria Machado, following her feminist horror fairytale collection that was released last year, Her Body and Other Parties. Machado’s memoir tells the story of a prominent queer relationship in her life that was extremely abusive, and seems to have affected her deeply. It is also a book that plays with narrative style and genre, each chapter playing with a different literary form – including my favourite, the choose-your-own adventure book.

I have never read a memoir like this one. It was artistic and captivating, as well as deeply relatable and in that way, chilling. This was a book that rippled through me. I read it shortly after reading Machado’s short story collection, and in many ways, that was extremely satisfying. It felt as though I understood more deeply some of the ways in which Machado had used her experiences as inspiration for some of the stories in Her Body and Other Parties after reading this book.

I was in awe of this rich, devastating book. I am so grateful that it exists, and it seems like with this work, Machado was able to articulate experiences that are underrepresented both in literature and also in sociocultural conversation. I would recommend it to anyone, but particularly to people who are of the opinion that abuse only exists in relationships that include men. CWs for abuse perpetrated by a woman (physical, emotional, sexual).

On Fire, by Naomi Klein

On the left, the cover of Naomi Klein's new book, On Fire. It is a red cover with yellow text, where the word "fire" is represented by the flame emoji. The subtitle reads, "The (Burning) Case for a Green New Deal. The author's name is in white text below. On the right is a popular image of Klein, a white woman with brown hair, looking directly into the camera. She is against a grey backdrop, holding her glasses in her hands, and wearing a black jacket over a pink shirt.

I didn’t preview On Fire in my last post about CanLit because I don’t know that I have anything to say about Naomi Klein and her work that hasn’t already been said over and over. However, the shop where I work in Toronto, which happens to be Klein’s local indie, was the book vendor for the Canadian launch last night, and when I left feeling inspired and touched after the event had ended, I knew I needed to say something.

I have been a fan of Klein’s work since Shock Doctrine, and the first time that I ever heard her speak was in 2016 at an event raising funds for families of MMIW, where she delivered a speech about Bella Laboucan-McLean. You can listen to Bella’s story as told by Klein, with music from Cris Derksen, here.

Since then, I had the pleasure of seeing Klein regularly, when she came into Another Story, often with a plate of pasta from Roncesvalle Italian eatery Alimentari, to sign copies of her books, and to pick up something to read. I’ve definitely missed my encounters with her since she took a position at Rutgers as the Gloria Steinhem Endowed Chair in Media, Culture, and Feminist Studies. She was always humble, charming, warm, and sharp to interact with. She was no different at last night’s launch, which began with a video that Klein was involved in about the Green New Deal that left me in tears.

“I think hope is something that we earn,” Klein said early on in the evening, when she spoke about having spent the day conversing with the Canadian media. Admittedly, I came to the event assuming that I would leave feeling incredibly sad. I was impressed by Klein’s ability, after so many years in climate activism, to remain positive and motivated. She pointed out that she gets asked often how she can remain hopeful, and I appreciated her reframing of this idea throughout the evening.

The theme of Klein’s launch was undeniably one message: that climate activism is urgent, and that it must be intersectional. “We can each put the devil’s advocate questions to each other, and it is all just a massive waste of time,” she said, speaking about Canada’s centrist media, Jonathan Franzen’s recent article, and the distractions of conservative politicians in the climate dialogue.

Despite Klein’s many mentions of race, gender, and other aspects of intersectionality in climate justice, I would be remiss not to make a note that in her acknowledgements, I was disappointed to hear one of my most admired authors make a mention of Judy Rebick on the microphone at the AGO, as one of the activists who paved the way for Klein’s work. Although Rebick has undeniably made a huge impact in Canadian activism with her second wave feminist work on reproductive rights, and as founder of Rabble.ca, she has also maintained a trans-exclusionary stance throughout her life in the public eye. To assert that activism must be intersectional, but to overlook these problematic views feels antithetical.

Even as someone who follows the news around climate justice and global warming, I learned a great deal from Klein’s Q&A with Democracy Now’s Ishmael N. Daro, including but perhaps especially about a valuable voting resource as we approach Canada’s upcoming federal election: Our Time. Klein asserts, and I must agree, that our best case scenario for the upcoming election is to vote very strategically to achieve a Liberal minority government, in which Liberals are forced to make alliances with the NDP and Green Party.

The cover of No One is Too Small to Make a Difference, a plain grey cover with black text. The title is small, and the author's first name, GRETA, is the largest text, at the top of the cover.

One resource which Klein failed to mention during her launch that I would recommend especially readers who can’t make the commitment to read Klein’s longer works, is the new short book by youth climate justice leader Greta Thunberg, No One is Too Small to Make a Difference. I would also recommend Kai Cheng Thom’s new book, I Hope We Choose Love, to Klein and readers who enjoy On Fire. I reviewed it in my post two weeks ago. It feels to me as though Klein and Thom are definitely working in similar theoretical spheres with their philosophies for the future.

An excerpt from On Fire, which is available now, can be read here. I would like to close this post with Klein’s closing words from her launch, which were, “What scares me most is not the weather, it’s how people can turn on each other if we don’t invest in infrastructures of care.”

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.

Can’t Lit Fall Previews

Currently Reading: Your House Will Pay, by Steph Cha

Not to throw shade (except kind of really to throw a little shade…), but there is one Canadian book that has been getting some serious buzz this fall. And guess what? I don’t think it’s the most exciting CanLit that’s being released this season! Not even close. Let me tell you about what I DO think is the most exciting CanLit being released this season…

Empire of Wild, by Cherie Dimaline

The cover of Empire of Wild: A Novel, by Cherie Dimaline. The cover also notes that the author is the same as the #1 Bestseller The Marrow Thieves. The image is a mostly desaturated image of a green armchair sitting in the middle of a forest clearing.

I work at Another Story, an indie bookshop in Toronto’s west end. The year that I began working there was the year that Cherie Dimaline’s YA Indigenous speculative fiction novel The Marrow Thieves took the world by storm. When I chewed through it in one sitting, the cover was fresh and bare. Now, the cover is littered with medallions representing the awards that this title has won since its released, so much so that they nearly obscure the art. By the time the winter holiday shopping season rolled around, we were literally having cartons of this title delivered by hand from our distributors at the last minute to keep up with customer demand.

I was working at the Festival of Literary Diversity (FOLD) in Brampton in 2018 when I learned that Dimaline had secured contracts for four more books after the success of the Marrow Thieves, and on September 17th, the first of those will be available to the public. Empire of Wild is, like Dimaline’s last book, an Indigenous speculative fiction title, this time written for a mature audience. I couldn’t wait to get my hands on an ARC of this book.

I wasn’t disappointed. Much like when I read the Marrow Thieves, it took me a few chapters to really get into the pacing. As a settler reader, I sometimes find myself challenged by this aspect of Indigenous storytelling, but the more Indigenous lit I spend time with, the more that I am growing accustomed. Taking the time to get into the rhythm of brilliant books is always well worth it.

In Empire of Wild, Dimaline skillfully weaves her Métis heritage into a politicized, suspenseful narrative that centres around a woman’s search for a missing partner, the damage that Big Oil does in Indigenous communities, and the rougarou – a Métis mythical creature that calls to mind an anthropomorphic, demonic wolf.

CWs for this book include murder, other violence, possible abduction/abandonment by a family member, extreme right religious content, and substance use. It is an adult title, and it doesn’t pretend to be for a YA audience. I would definitely recommend this book. Is there any more enjoyable way to learn about social justice issues than through delicious, #OwnVoices storytelling?

If you are a settler and pick up Dimaline’s work, and then want to learn more about Indigenous issues, there are some great resources and books that can be read as follow up – including Billy-Ray Belcourt’s fall release, NDN Coping Mechanisms, which I recommend later in this post.

Other resources I would recommend are the final report of the national inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, and the content produced by Idle No More. Some non-fiction titles that would be fantastic follow up include 21 Things You May Not Know About the Indian Act, by Bob Joseph, Seven Fallen Feathers, by Tanya Talaga, Heart Berries, by Therese Marie Mailhot, and A Mind Spread Out on the Ground, by Alicia Elliott. Last but not least, if you can’t get enough Indigenous speculative fiction, I can’t recommend Jonny Appleseed enough, by Two-Spirit author Joshua Whitehead.

I Hope We Choose Love, by Kai Cheng Thom

The cover of I Hope We Choose Love: A Trans Girl's Notes from the End of the World, by Kai Cheng Thom. A red flower with a yellow and red centre on a black background, with white lettering.

Kai Cheng Thom is one of the only authors whose work I savour. From her insightful articles and essays to her picture books, Thom’s writing is some of my favourite. She has an advice column in Xtra, and her recent essay on the legacy of trauma within queer communities has been resonating with lots of folks online. From the Stars in the Sky to the Fish in the Sea is one of my all-time favourite, gender-affirming picture books to read with children and adults alike, and Thom’s artwork is sumptuous and vibrant.

I’ve read, re-read, and been repeatedly brought to tears by her poetry collection a place called NO HOMELAND, but I’ve actually held off on reading her fictionalized memoir, Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars, which got some buzz recently since it was Emma Thompson’s Shared Shelf pick in March of 2019. I couldn’t bring myself to read it, because Thom didn’t have any other books, and I didn’t want to have read everything she’d published! I was so excited when I heard that Thom had a new project in the works, and now the wait is almost over, since her new collection of non-fiction essays, I Hope We Choose Love: A Trans Girl’s Notes from the End of the World, will hit shelves on September 24th.

Heartwrenchingly, I find myself hesitant about this new collection. It is beautiful, and brilliantly written. It is thought provoking, and that Thom brings a perceptive, and well-informed analytical lens to the issues that marginalized people face surviving the current political climate together. I would never hesitate to recommend any of Thom’s work (this collection included) to another reader, but I wondered even reading the title if perhaps our paradigms had diverged too far in recent times for me to find Thom’s newest work meaningful for me personally in the same way that I had her previous publications. Am I too cynical? Am I too white? Am I too hopeless? Am I too immature? Am I too angry?

I saw red flags that led me to believe this book was not for me. In the first chapter, Thom referenced works that make me deeply uncomfortable, for example, Sarah Schulman’s Conflict is Not Abuse, which is a deeply problematic work that can be used to gaslight victims of harassment. Thom also criticized “call out culture” or “cancel culture”, when I am of the opinion that if cancel culture’s existence isn’t a myth entirely, people often use this rhetoric when what they really mean is “consequences.” Yet, when Thom outlined her political views, I found nothing objectionable, and so I decided to proceed with caution.

Whatever it is about me and my social location, or about this political moment, I struggled with this collection. The format alternates between essays and poetry, and while much of the poetry reached me in a way that felt reminiscent of NO HOMELAND, the essays did not. They’re accessible and well-articulated, and I was often right there with Thom, until about three quarters of the way through. At some point in each of the essays, I found myself taking pause.

There was a conversation on Twitter recently about how instead of describing the written work of a marginalized person as “important” or “urgent”, we should be approaching these works as requiring “urgent listening.” I hold Kai Cheng Thom in great esteem, and while the conclusions drawn in this book are difficult for me to agree with, it is a book that I think warrants urgent listening, and probably for me, revisiting. I would definitely recommend it to fans of books like Emergent Strategy, by adrienne maree brown, and it may just become my alternate recommendation when folks come into my shop for Conflict is Not Abuse. In the meantime, me and my rage are looking forward to savouring Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars in the not-too-distant future.

NDN Coping Mechanisms, by Billy-Ray Belcourt

The cover of NSN Coping Mechanisms: Notes from the Field, by Billy-Ray Belcourt. The cover notes that the author is the winnter of the Griffin Poetry Prize. The image is a person with long, dark hair, wearing a black shirt, set against a backdrop of dry, tall grass or wheat, and a pale, clear blue sky. The person has their hands folded as if in prayer in front of them, and the hands are bound together with white fabric. They are holding a piece of wood that looks like a dried, dead tree, with a hole positioned over one of the person's eyes. The wood obscures the rest of the face.

I was honoured to be able to attend the Toronto launch of this book as one of the staff of Another Story, who are the book vendors for the literary events held at the Art Gallery of Ontario. As Belcourt himself noted during his talk, the event was very well-attended, and I spent the majority of my time behind the bookselling table admiring the spectacular beadwork and other Indigenous jewellery that so many of the people in the diverse crowd seemed to be wearing.

In my doctoral studies, I cite Belcourt’s work on animality in decolonial thought constantly these days. He is one of few Indigenous scholars based in colonial Canada who has written academic work in this area, and since I study working animals using an anti-racist and decolonial lens, his work has been invaluable to me. Because I had yet to read Belcourt’s Griffin-award-winning poetry collection This Wound is a World, I was intrigued by this new work consisting of both scholarly theorizing, as well as poetry.

The event, like the book (title pronounced N-D-N Coping Mechanisms), was varied in both tone and intellectual register. The book is a gripping commentary on the paradoxical horror and beauty of Indigenous queer life in colonial Canada. Belcourt noted that the book had already made the CBC Books Bestseller List for its first week out – but had, strangely, been placed in the fiction category.

Belcourt was joined at the AGO by fellow Indigenous author and scholar, Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, who asked questions ranging from how Belcourt conceptualized success and envisioned his responsibility to future Indigenous queer authors, to probing for details about the men that Belcourt writes about in his new book. Belcourt himself joked about being born in the 90’s and thus having too short an attention span to write a novel, and also mused about who the anthropological object of his creative work was. I simultaneously enjoyed the evening, and felt (appropriately) like a complete outsider. At times, the conversation was theoretically challenging for me to keep up with – and I say that as a fifth year PhD student. I was both awed, and at times, a little lost. Both Belcourt’s and Simpson’s readings of excerpts from the book made me shiver.

There were a few moments in the evening that were particularly poignant for me. When asked why he writes, Belcourt responded, “I don’t know how else I would deal with all this shit.” As someone who has been eyeball-deep in affective scholarly work for the better part of my adult life, this was deeply relatable to me. In some ways, NDN Coping Mechanisms appeals to me as a work precisely because of this. I am interested and often validated when I have the opportunity to read about the experiences of other marginalized people who have found creative ways to cope with the state of the world, or who cope through content production.

I was also charmed and impressed when Simpson inquired whether Belcourt suffered from imposter syndrome, and he replied, “Maybe it’s just my generation’s thing of being like, I know I’m amazing!” The audience laughed, and Belcourt paused before continuing, “I know what I bring to the table.” As a bookseller and a member of the literary community, if I could have one wish for all Indigenous people, it would be that they all feel this kind of confidence in their work. Indigenous literature is certainly having a cultural moment right now, one that I hope will have a lasting effect on the literary scene in our colonial nation state, and I hope that Indigenous creators can all be aware of just how much they bring to the table.

Lastly, and to make reference back to some of my complicated feelings about Thom’s I Hope We Choose Love, Simpson mentioned during the launch that some of Belcourt’s lines of poetry would stay with her forever, and I think that the one that she mentioned is a good place to end this recommendation of Belcourt’s NDN Coping Mechanisms, which is available for purchase now. He wrote, “Revenge is more decolonial than justice,” something which feels equitable and firey and powerful to me. Simpson therefore asked herself, and Belcourt, and I think that it is a good question for everyone in the Canadian literary community to consider: what does revenge look like in CanLit?

Other Fall Books That Just Can’t Lit

…and if two books won’t be enough to stock up your TBR this fall, there are lots of other Canadian releases you should know about, for readers of all ages. These are some of the ones that I would recommend:

  • One Drum, by Richard Wagamese, October 19th
    Political non-fiction, Indigenous author.
  • On Fire, by Naomi Klein, September 17th
    Political non-fiction.
  • From Where I Stand, by Jody Wilson-Raybould, September 20th
    Political non-fiction, Indigenous author.
  • Breaking the Ocean, by Annahid Dashtgard, available now
    Memoir, Iranian-Canadian author.
  • Pickles vs the Zombies, by Angela Misri, September 21st
    Middle grade dystopian.
  • Angry Queer Somali Boy, by Mohamed Abdulkarim Ali, available now
    LGBTQ2S+ memoir, POC author.
  • Hustling Verse, various authors, available now
    Poetry, authors are sex workers.
  • African Canadian Leadership, various authors, available now.
    Political non-fiction, POC authors.
  • I Promise, by Catherine Hernandez and Syrus Marcus Ware, available now
    Picture book, LGBTQ2S+, POC authors.
  • Blanket Toss Under the Midnight Sun, by Paul Seesequasis, October 22nd
    Photography, Indigenous artist.
  • We Three, by Markus Harwood-Jones, available now
    YA with polyamory and LGBTQ2S+ representation.
  • In My Own Moccasins, by Helen Knott, available now
    Memoir, Indigenous woman author.

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.

Fall Preview: Music and Monsters

Currently Reading: NW, by Zadie Smith

I am super lucky that for this upcoming season, I was gifted some amazing (and in some cases, very high profile) ARCs, either for the purpose of screen reading them to see if they’d be a good fit for the bookshop where I work, or for review. Some came directly from incredibly generous publicists, and others came from the shop’s hardworking sales reps. Others came from Edelweiss+ or Netgalley. EITHER WAY, for the next couple of months, I’m going to do my best to share the wealth and feature some of these hot new titles in this space.

If you’re interested in my own personal reading, I stumbled across this read-a-thon that’s too perfect for me to pass up! It’s called the #VillainAThon, and I’ll be participating until the end of October. It’s my first ever read-a-thon! (When do I get my merit badge?) I’ve paired the information about the #VillainAThon with a fall preview that would be a perfect fit!

Before I get to these great ARCs, I stumbled across a new resource recently that is incredible. Compiled by Ray Stoeve, it’s the YA Trans Ownvoices Masterlist – a list of all the trans, young adult lit that is written by trans authors. Check it out, and if you like it or find it useful, please remember to show your appreciation through ko-fi.

High School, by Tegan and Sara

Cover image of High School, by Tegan and Sara. Image is of two twins with long, thick hair, standing back to back, looking into the distance. Image is black and white, on a light gray background. Image is oriented in landscape, although the book is oriented in portrait.

I first discovered Tegan and Sara’s music when I was an unaware queer teen, living in St. John’s, Newfoundland. It wasn’t even that I was closeted, it was that I was so unexposed to the breadth of LGBTQ2S+ experiences that I didn’t know that there was queerness beyond gay, white men. I had no idea that I could be anything other than a cis, het, woman. And even so, something in their music spoke to me in a way that most other music never had. So Jealous became the soundtrack to my life overnight, and awakened something in me that had yet to be discovered.

I’ve been a huge fan of theirs since then. The Con guided me through much of my early twenties, and I can sing every word of Sainthood by heart. I’ve seen them in concert in arenas and grassy fields, and heard their music echo off the towers of the Toronto skyline during Pride. When I heard that they had a book coming out, I was so excited.

High School isn’t exactly what I expected. When I saw the previews online, I imagined a glossy, hardcover book, with loads of photos, lyrics sprinkled throughout, something abstract and commemorative – but the book is a straight memoir. While there are photos included, the book is a collection of autobiographical essays, alternating authors, that chronicles the artists’ lives from tenth through twelfth grade, in downtown Calgary, Alberta.

This memoir feels very CanLit to me. Written in a chronological timeline, the stories are set on a backdrop of cold, Alberta winter days that turn the skin of the white authors’ knees purple through their ripped jeans, and freeze car batteries. There are stories of weekends spent in Jasper, and shows at the Saddledome. The anecdotes that Tegan and Sara tell are also very 90’s throwback. I think any white, middle class, Canadian Millennial who picks this up will find something relatable in the ambling stories of twins who troll Value Village for striped sweaters, write long notes to their friends, and fight over the telephone.

I almost felt like this book was told in two parts. Tegan and Sara before music entered their lives, and after. *High School* is the story of three tumultuous years, and the first half of the book is an exploration of budding queerness, the complex relationship that exists between twin sisters and their adolescent friends, and (CW) more alcohol drug use than I expected. For me, it was honest, complicated, and relatable. While I enjoyed reading Tegan and Sara’s musical origin story, the second half of the book focused much more on their fledgling career. I wished that the themes of the first half had bled a little more into the later part of the book.

Now having read the whole thing, I’m glad that I did, and I would recommend it to fans of Tegan and Sara’s music, CanLit memoir fans, or young queer Canadians still learning about their identities. The one burning question that I felt the book left unresolved for me – and maybe this is petty – is how “Sara and Tegan”, used throughout the entire text of the book, became “Tegan and Sara”?!

*High School* comes out on September 24th, and is available for pre-order now. Peripherally, Tegan and Sara’s new album, “Hey, I’m Just Like You,” comprised of songs unearthed while working on writing the memoir, will drop on September 27th. If you’re a fan of their older music like I am – I’m feeling cautiously optimistic about this new album, and I could be ready for a nice nostalgic Spooky Season this year. If you haven’t seen the preview video for the new album, you can watch it below, and get hyped for all this fresh Tegan and Sara content…

Pet, by Akwaeke Emezi

Cover of Pet, by Akwaeke Emezi. Letters of the title are large and blocky, filled with cream-coloured feathers. They are set against a map of a neighbourhood in purple and cream. In the foreground stands a young Black girl in pajamas and slippers, holding a large feather in her right hand.

…cue the gushing. I’ve written about Emezi before on this blog, so it should come as no surprise that when I heard they had another book coming out, I was immediately eager to read it. Even with my high level of anticipation, this book blew me over in so many ways. First, when talking to one of my partners while I was reading, I described the worldbuilding in this book as setting a high bar for what the norm for books of the future should be. To begin, Pet is set in a fictionalized world, post-revolution, in a time of relative peace. Emezi takes this basic, familiar setting, and masterfully crafts their main character, Jam, and her surroundings in a way that sets a fresh standard for what diverse representation in novels should be.

Race, transness, queerness, disability, and neurodiversity all get a place to unapologetically shine in this book in a way that regularly brought me to the edge of tears. I am doing my best to be acutely aware of my privilege as a white, settler reader, as I write this next bit. I had to read Pet more slowly than almost any book that I’ve ever read, and part of the reason for that is because it was so much to take in. I was completely overwhelmed by the way that Emezi’s poetic prose and nuanced, loving character development served as both a window and a mirror for me over the course of this book.

I felt deeply reflected in this book by the implicit rejection of gender norms, the generous depictions of characters with a rich internal worlds and varying outward capacities, and the tacit portrayal of non-monogamous and queer bio and found family structures. Meanwhile, the dialogue, clothing, and foods that the characters take up through this story were a window into a racial and cultural world that both felt welcoming and nurturing, and utterly unfamiliar to me.

Emezi achieves in Pet much of what they achieve in their previous fictionalized memoir for adults, Freshwater, which is to say that it is a paradigm-shifting gem of a book, but it unfurls in a way that feels more accessible to younger readers or people who may be triggered by some of the content of Freshwater. It also feels more plot-driven – and the story itself is a wild ride about a fantastical creature that is accidentally summoned from a painting in the first few pages of the book, who challenges Jam’s perceptions of the world, but also of her dearest friendship. But I wouldn’t want to spoil it anymore than that.

Pet is exquisite, and it comes out on September 10th. It’s available for pre-order now, and I would encourage you to do that through your local brick and mortar book shop. (CW for mention of child abuse, not very detailed.)

The #VillainAThon

I stumbled across Kailey Steward’s Villain-themed read-a-thon just in time for my favourite time of the year: Spooky Season! I always read a lot of horror, thriller, and paranormal books, but I definitely try to indulge even more in my favourite genre as October approaches. Even though I’ve never participated in a read-a-thon before, I figured this would be the perfect chance, given that the bar for participation was low, and it would give me a chance to chat about my favourite kind of books with some other people who were also excited about them!

My only hesitation in participating is a feeling that’s new to me, but there are a lot of rad folks on Twitter these days who are so much younger than me! While I definitely appreciate that youth and young adults are doing such cool things and using the internet in the best ways, I’m also 31, and always a little nervous about sticking my nose in where I’m just going to be an intrusive elder. But. I decided in this case that talking about spooky books is something I’m willing to do with just about anyone, so I’m pushing my internalized ageism aside and hoping that I’ll be welcome.

If you’re interested in more details on the #VillainAThon, check out Kailey’s post about participating, and choose something from the required reading list! It’s a super accessible event, and if you’re going to participate, please let me know, so I can give you a wave on the bird site!

The Tenth Girl, by Sara Faring

Cover image for Sara Faring's The Tenth Girl. Background is an ice blue, with branches and birds silhouetted against it. There are some letters and numbers indistinct in darker ink. The primary image is of a large, dark, manor house that is suspended in the middle of the cover. It fades to black and then into the background.

Kailey has put together some great recommendations for Villainous reading, but I thought that I’d pile on with one more. I read this book so long ago that I nearly forgot to write about it at all, even though it made my head spin at the time, so I’m very glad that trying to think of something to recommend for the #VillainAThon brought it back to mind. Two of my favourite spooky aspects are morally ambiguous characters, and haunted houses that become characters in their own right. This book has both of those in spades, nothing in this book is as it seems.

This book is a suspenseful, historically situated, complex horror novel, by Argentine-American author Sara Faring. It has dual narrators, which I initially had a negative reaction to, but once I read a few chapters, I had trouble putting it down. I’m so glad that I persevered. The characters and the setting of this novel are well-developed and compelling. The Patagonian setting is unique, and I would encourage educators to recommend this book to students who are interested in history, political resistance, and dictatorships in general. For someone looking for a bit of a more mature read, this would be another book that I would recommend as an alternative to Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale.

The plotline is extremely complex, with one of the most shocking twist endings I’ve ever read. That said, I question this novel’s categorization as a young adult read. None of the main characters are teens, and this book is one of the more chilling horror novels I’ve read this year – the scare factor is high. It works well as NA, or as a YA/adult crossover. I would recommend this book to fans of Tananarive Due’s The Good House, or Sarah Maria Griffin’s Other Words for Smoke, which I blogged about earlier this year.

Who is the villain in this book? One of the things that I like about it is that I think that many readers would give many different answers. Without spoiling the book, I’d have to say that to make that judgement, you’d have to read it for yourself when it comes out on September 24th. In the meantime, check out the Den of Geek’s interview with Sara Faring, and the book trailer for The Tenth Girl.

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.

Femme Rebels

Currently Reading: The Water Dancer, by Ta-Nehisi Coates

An Academic Finding…

Some regular readers may know that when I’m not book blogging, I’m a PhD student, studying social work and critical animal studies. I came across an open access academic article this week while conducting a literature search on decolonial animal studies that I would be remiss not to share here. Although I haven’t written much about erotica here on the blog, obviously it’s a huge area of literature, and something I do write about a lot is spooky books… and who doesn’t love a good monster, right? Well, if monster erotica is up your alley, you should definitely check out this 2017 academic article from the journal Humanimalities, called How to Fuck a Kraken: Cephalopod Sexualities and Nonbinary Genders in Ebook Erotica. Although I couldn’t find much about the author, Dagmar Van Engen, online, they seem to be non-binary, and have taught in the English department at the University of Southern California. If you’re out there, Dagmar, give me a wave, so I can credit you properly! This article is rad. Dear readers: you’re welcome.

Artwork by Kayla Shaggy, a Dine/Annishinabe woman of color that draws and creates comic books.

If you like the artwork featured above, you can support see more on Kayla’s portfolio site, read her comics, or support her Patreon!

Femme Rebels in my #2019Reading

I only started tracking my reading in a real way a couple of years ago, back when the 50 Book Pledge was separate from Goodreads, and I didn’t even realize that there was such a thing as like, book culture. One of the things that I really like about tracking my reading is that as I read more, themes start to pop up in the titles I’ve picked, without my even expecting them to. One of the unintentional themes that’s come up in my reading this year, especially in the YA that I’ve been drawn to pick up, has been rebel girls.

Real talk: I would vastly prefer if I was finding loads of books with representation from a spectrum of gender identities, because the “rebel girl” trope for me feels a little binary and tired. However, if I’m going to read something from the plethora of books that are out there about binary identified characters, I’m at least glad that books are challenging gender stereotypes in so many ways, and that femme characters are fierce, queer, and forming complex friendships to take down the patriarchy.

There are three books that have really stood out for me this year in terms of this theme cropping up, and they’re all 2019 titles. We Set the Dark on Fire by Tehlor Kay Mejia came out in February; A Dress for the Wicked, by Autumn Krause, just dropped a few days ago; and The Grace Year, by Kim Liggett, hits shelves in October – just in time for spooky season! I also read two books earlier this year that fit nicely into this theme: Little Apocalypse, by Katherine Sparrow, which I reviewed earlier this year, and The Hollow Girl, by Hillary Monahan, which is a backlist title, released in 2017.

The Hollow Girl: Horrific Revenge Fantasy

I’m going to write briefly about The Hollow Girl, because it is backlist, and because I read it really early on in 2019, but I haven’t written about it on this blog before. I actually read it in one sitting on a plane ride. It was at a time this year when I was filled with frustration about many things, but in particular about one of my partners’ ongoing divorces from an abusive and manipulative ex, who was treating everyone involved in her life with my partner terribly. It was triggering a lot of things in me to go through that experience – memories of my own past with my long-term abusive ex not least among them, as well as memories of the rape I experienced in my early 20’s.

The Hollow Girl was the revenge fantasy I needed, and it was incredibly cathartic to read. This book is a rad horror story about feminine rage in the face of sexual assault, with excellent, positive Welsh Roma representation. CW for violence, murder, and gore. Welsh Roma representation. It’s a heartwrenching book, and not an easy one to stomach, especially on a plane surrounded by strangers and stale air, but it’s also a book filled with dark magic and creepy grandmother mentors. In the wake of the #MeToo movement, I would recommend this book to any femme who can stomach it.

Rebel Girls

The other three books that I wanted to look at more closely are not horror titles, although some of the content in these YA dystopian titles is uncanny enough so as to be chilling. All of these books are stories of oppressive societies with polarized upper and lower classes, and the feminine characters that use their individual privilege in an effort to reject social norms and resist structural forces that marginalized the vulnerable members of their societies.

I’m going to come out and say this early on, and loudly, as someone for whom Margaret Atwood’s writing was very formative in my own education about activism and injustice: Since Margaret Atwood’s disappointing, apologist behaviour in the face of the sexual assault and harassment issues that came up in the CanLit community in 2018 (eloquently detailed by Zoe Whittall, author of The Best Kind of People in the Walrus), I no longer recommend her books or media based on them to my customers at the book shop. I am happy to say that any of these YA titles would make a great alternative read or curriculum replacement for The Handmaid’s Tale.

We Set the Dark on Fire is the first book in a trilogy that was released earlier this year, with the second volume coming in February of 2020. The author, Tehlor Kay Mejia, is queer and Latinx, and the book is a powerful #OwnVoices coming of age story set on the fictional island of Medio, featuring an undocumented MC who is learning how to be an activist and a rebel while living her life under the enemy’s roof.

The only thing that truly disappointed me about this book is that from the prologue and the lore of Medio, I was really excited for this author to dig into the radical storytelling potential of the world that she had created where triads, rather than couples, were the norm as heads of household. Even though this was presented as an oppressive, faith-based, polygamist structure, as a consensually non-monogamous person, I was curious where the author would take that. There are so few works of fiction where non-monogamy is portrayed in a non-toxic way, and I was curious if that would be explored at all in this book. Unfortunately, it wasn’t. Fortunately, the book is super queer, and although I’m not a huge romance person, I was glad for that.

I loved that the author sprinkled Latinx culture and language throughout *We Set the Dark on Fire*, but I was surprised at how quickly it felt to me like a novel about a literal war, rather than a symbolic or internal struggle. The pacing of the story really picked up near the end of this volume, though, and I can’t wait to see what happens next. CWs for physical violence and war-like conflict, alcohol use, sexual harassment.

I would describe A Dress for the Wicked as Project Runway meets The Hunger Games. There are lots of things that I loved about this book, which is a classic country-mouse-turns-city-mouse tale about a rural girl who gets a chance to compete in a high-profile fashion competition in a dystopian society where fashion is everything. As someone with a vivid visual imagination, the writing was a perfect level of poetic and descriptive, and the ending was emotionally satisfying for me as a reader. Although it’s described as romance, that’s not the focus of this book. I actually found it to be a bit queer bait-y, since there is no LGBTQ2S+ representation, but the plot centres on several richly portrayed feminine characters, who have a lot of depth and mystery. The lack of queer rep felt like a bit of a missed opportunity here.

In a lot of ways, I would have been more interested in A Dress for the Wicked if the heterosexual love interests hadn’t been introduced at all, since the relationships that were most important to the narrative and most interesting to me were the nuanced friendships between the women. The other things that I loved about this book are that there really aren’t any CWs necessary, it stands alone, and it has a hopeful ending. I often joke that I’ll consume any media as long as there’s pretty dresses… well, if this is you, you want this book, because it’s one that you can feel good about on multiple axes.

The one note that I should make here, because I read an advance copy of this book, and I’m not sure if it was changed for the final edition, is that there was one moment in this book that made me raise a serious eyebrow. In chapter 7, the author includes a line that is a real dig about consent culture around kissing (“If there is anything less romantic than being asked if someone may kiss you, I don’t know what it is.”). It’s hugely problematic, and completely unnecessary. I hope that it was revised before the final version was released? If you are a reader and you got your hands on the published version – fire me a message from my Contact page, and let me know!

Last but not least is The Grace Year, which is an Indie Next pick for Fall 2019. Unlike A Dress for the Wicked, this book does get dark fast, and there should be a big CW for physical violence, as well as a trigger warning for anyone who’s #Exvangelical or who has endured abuse in religious contexts. One of my goals this year was to read more fiction and non-fiction about religious right extremism, and I will probably feature this book in a blog post specifically about that at some point. That said, I could not put this book down – and I’m not the only one. The book has already been optioned for film, even though it hasn’t hit shelves yet.

I read this one on a plane, too (2019 has involved a lot of travel for me), and I tore through it. The Grace Year has a bit of a gender-bent Lord of the Flies feel that’s a commentary on the Christian religious right in a dystopian setting. Especially for educators, this book addresses so many of the themes in The Handmaid’s Tale, only they’re updated for a 2019 context, and as far as I know, the author hasn’t recently defended rape culture, which is a plus. This book has some queer representation, and a super empowering ending that made me bawl my eyes out. In public. On a plane. And contrary to We Set the Dark on Fire, even though this book isn’t literally about consensual non-monogamy, it did give me warm and fuzzy compersion feels.

Of course, I would be remiss to review four books in one blog post – five if you flipped back to read what I previously wrote about Little Apocalypse – and not to say that the one thing that stands out in common among all of them to me is that despite the fact that they are all books about resistance, struggle, fighting social norms, overcoming oppression… they are all stories that are essentially devoid of any non-binary content. It’s great to see queer content trickling into some of these titles, but it would be so cool to see non-binary and/or trans MCs in some of these rebel titles! I’d have even taken a genderfluid best friend, or a trans girl sidekick… this is a great opportunity for an author to get in and fill this niche. Although these books are fabulous, I’m ready for the book about the trans rebel who leads us to progressive revolution.

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.

Challenging Gender Stereotypes in Diverse KidLit

Currently Reading: Look, by Zan Romanoff

New Look!

If you’re new to my blog, welcome! If you’ve been here before… you’ll notice that I’ve made some layout changes! This is because there are exciting things coming for the blog… recently, I’ve begun working with an artist to put together a branding package for the site, so that it will reflect me and my vibe a little bit more. I’ll share more on that later, as things come together! If you’re really curious, you can visit Ice’s site, and get hyped!

Trans Lit News

I’m excited today to be writing this (belated) post in order to be part of the blog tour for Each Tiny Spark! I’m also celebrating having 1K Twitter followers, and I’m grateful to have this platform to use to share my thoughts about publishing, books, and issues that affect LGBTQ2S+ people. Before I dive in about this newly-released middle grade title, I want to share two links that might be useful. First, I’ve had an ARC of Sissy by Jacob Tobia on my TBR shelf for ages, and I still haven’t managed to get to it. In part, that’s because there are just so many trans memoirs these days – it’s really astonishing. Even though I can’t speak to it, trans journalist Harron Walker wrote a piece about this memoir for Jezebel, that can be found here, called What Can a Trans Memoir Do? In addition, Bookish Heights, written by a UK blogger, has a great post that offers up some recommendations for books with non-binary MCs. This is a great roundup, and has some titles that I have yet to feature in this blog, so check it out (and get ready to explode your TBR…)!

Each Tiny Spark Blog Tour

A banner for the Each Tiny Spark Blog Tour, with that text, and the Penguin logo in the bottom right hand corner. The image on the left shows a girl with light skin and curly red hair, wearing a pink shirt and green coveralls and yellow gloves, holding a welding helmet and a welder. There are small lightning bolts coming out of the welder.

Even though Each Tiny Spark, by Pablo Cartaya, isn’t an LBTQ2S+ title, I was super excited to be invited to be part of the blog tour for this exciting middle grade book. I’d grabbed the ARC for one of the kids in my life a while back, and it’s a title to watch for a number of reasons. First, Cartaya is a seasoned, award-winning, Latinx novelist. Second, this book features a feminine main character who smashes gender stereotypes as bonds with her father working on old cars with him. Third, the book features representation of neurodiversity – something that isn’t explored enough in books for younger audiences.

As part of the blog tour, I got to ask Cartaya about his work directly… and here’s what I wanted to know: I talk a lot about gender on my blog, and one of the things that interested me about Each Tiny Spark was that the main character reconnects with her father through welding – something that I wouldn’t consider a traditionally feminine pursuit, but a skill that really is so useful and so cool for folks who can do it well. I would love to read something from him about why he chose to write about a feminine main character, and what he hopes young readers will take away from the story, both folks from the Latinx community, and folks from outside.

Check out Cartaya’s post below! Each Tiny Spark was released just yesterday, and can be ordered here, or from your local book shop!

Challenging Gender Stereotypes in Diverse KidLit: Pablo Cartaya

A photo of the author, Pablo Cartaya.
Pablo Cartaya, author of Each Tiny Spark

I began writing Each Tiny Spark with a singular scene. I didn’t know exactly where it was going, so I just listened to the voice in my head and wrote down what it told me. What emerged in that first iteration was a twelve-and-a-half-year-old girl welding a piece of metal to a car door while her father looked on quietly. I suppose something subconsciously was telling me to write this story with a female protagonist while her Papi looked on without saying much, but I didn’t understand why at first.

When I finished the manuscript, I realized that I was building a character modelled around my own twelve-year-old daughter. It was my way of trying to understand, respect, and listen to who she is and how she sees the world. There are many layers to this story but at its heart, this is a book about a father and a daughter finding their way back to each other by literally welding a car back together. My books are very personal as are my characters and I hope that readers, both in my Latinx community and beyond feel empowered by their own voices and build on their experiences. With Each Tiny Spark, I realized that first vision of the girl welding a car as her dad looked on quietly was in fact, a hope for my daughter to claim her identity and voice as she navigates the world. Ultimately, I wrote a book with her in mind so when I read it back now, it’s her voice I’m listening to.

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.

Critical Publicity

Currently Reading: After the Eclipse, by Fran Dorricott

On Talking About Books

Recently, I was listening to an episode of the Print Run Podcast that was about the nuances that exist in talking about books, particularly the difference between writing about books for the sake of criticism versus writing about books for the sake of publicity. I spent the remainder of my drive after the episode ended thinking about my own talking about books, and considering why it is that I do what I do, and exactly what it is that I think I do, both in my personal life, and in this blog.

I have lots of qualifications that mean that I am well-suited to write literary criticism. I am a published doctoral student with a speciality in critical theory, and I spend a lot of time evaluating, peer reviewing, and producing academic writing. I am also a bookseller in a small, independent, justice-oriented bookstore in Toronto. If I’m feeling particularly self-confident, I would tell you that my marginalized identities and my social location mean that I bring a unique perspective to the books that I read.

That said, I would be lying to myself and anyone who cared to ask if I didn’t say that even when I’m providing criticism of a book, I’m ultimately doing it for the purposes of sales. It will probably damage my anti-capitalist street cred to say that, but living in a capitalist world, when I look around me and I consider what luxury purchases I want people to spend their surplus money on, and what investments I want people to make with their time? I want them to spend it on books.

A lot of that is selfish. Publishing is not a perfect industry, by any stretch – and mass market publishing is such a small part of the publishing sector as it exists in the world. But as person who has often felt isolated in the world, it’s not an exaggeration when I say that books have often been my closest friends, and there are many parts of my life that I never would have survived without them.

Reading is formative for me. It has made me who I am and continues to make me. Book sales provide some of my very limited income. And one of the only things that I have strong faith in is the ability of ideas to make the world better… so ultimately, I spend a lot of my energy trying to get the books that I think will do that into the hands of people who need them.

I’m not always sure that readers understand all of the moving parts that is the giant machine of mass market publishing. I know that I don’t fully understand it yet, and I had an even more limited grasp before I began working as a bookseller. From conception to writing to physical production to distribution to sales, there are so many links in the chain that need to remain strong for books to make it into the hands of readers.

Right now, at the shop where I work, there are some scary conversations happening. Toronto is one of the most expensive cities in Canada, so the basic costs of maintaining a storefront in this city are a challenge for any retail business, especially one with profit margins as small as bookselling has. Although my shop still maintains a storefront, we also do the vast majority of our business through school board contracts and with educators – whose budgets are getting slashed by our current provincial government. That means fewer book fairs, fewer vendor fairs, and fewer librarians, lib techs, and teacher librarians who are ordering from us.

On a more macro level, things like paper shortages and tariffs on books will impact our tiny store’s ability to get newly published titles in a timely manner, especially in comparison to places like Amazon and Indigo, who are able to order much larger quantities of books pre-sale. Because of this political climate, the amount of backorders and slow reprints that we have to manage these days is much higher than it was in the past, which makes it difficult to please educators and retail customers.

And more than ever, authors are being pressured by their economic situations and also by the publishing industry to always, always, always be focused on that elusive measure of success… the pre-order. But so often, I see huge authors – in some cases, very successful people who have won the majority of their recognition in part due to the efforts of independent booksellers – promoting their pre-sales through Amazon, or other big chain bookstores. Authors are my heroes, but it hurts my heart to see those links. Indies (and other brick and mortar stores) can take pre-orders, too!

When I review a title, I always try to offer a critical perspective. I choose diverse titles to read on purpose. I almost never read books written by allo cis het men, and I try to read as many books by underrepresented authors and with characters who embody marginalized identities as possible. No matter what I read, I try to write reviews honestly and analytically.

But when I review a title… I am always hoping that someone is going to go out and buy a book, or visit their local library and take one out. I always hope that someone is hearing about a book that they need to read, or that someone they know needs to read, when they open my blog on a Monday afternoon – or, that they’re hearing about a book that they should absolutely avoid, but in favour of something that’s going to do the job better. I don’t think that that makes my reviews less legitimate, or that it makes my perspective less valuable. Publicity for any individual book is important, but whether I review a single title well or poorly, I like to think that that is publicity for books… and for me, that is the most critical thing of all.

Review: Wilder Girls

The cover of Wilder Girls, by Rory Power.

…which brings me to my review this week. I almost don’t even need to review Wilder Girls, by Rory Power, which was released on July 9th. As I’m writing this, it currently sits at the top of the Goodreads list of top titles published this month, with over 40 000 users having added it to their “want to read” shelf. No one needs me to recommend them this book (content warnings found here), because chances are good, if it’s for you, you’ve heard about it already.

What the publicity copy on this book won’t tell you, though, is that this is a book that I needed, and that the world needs, so badly. The book is gripping. I stayed up way past my bedtime and woke up long before my dogs were hungry the next morning just to finish it. In so many ways, I feel like I’ve been waiting my whole life for a book like this one.

This is a YA title, but this book is straight up genre fiction. It’s definitely a horror title that stands on its own legs outside of the YA category – and for me, that’s important in and of itself, because it demonstrates the depth and breadth that YA titles encompass these days. More than that, this book is queer AF. Three are three main protagonists in this story, and all three of them are queer women. But the best thing for me? That’s not what the book is about. The book is about politics, infectious diseases, climate change, adaptation, transformation, disfiguration, trauma, coming of age, mental health, love, friendship, and ALSO… queerness.

The protagonists of Wilder Girls are complicated. The relationships that exist between them and that the characters have with themselves are morally ambiguous and messy and raw… and this book isn’t even about all that. We are finally getting books that embody those aspects of queer life and community, but also have riveting, thought-provoking, surprising plotlines. This is one of the first times that I have ever felt myself reflected in a book in an authentic, multi-faceted way, and I am deeply grateful for the weird and wonderful experience that that was.

Listen. It surprises me more than anyone that 40 000 want to read about infectious queer girls sprouting gills and fighting over food and trying to save their friends from dying, literally. But I am here for it.

If you didn’t pre-order Wilder Girls, and you think that it’s your speed, don’t sleep on it. Your local bookshop can and should hook you up, and while you’re at it, put in a request at your local library, too. Out there, there’s a teenaged me who’s going to have a very different life than I did because this book landed in their hands early on.