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.

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


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.

Changing of the Seasons

I am staggered these past few weeks about how much can change in, seemingly, the blink of an eye. The world feels so different now than it did mere weeks ago – and yet, since the day I started Books Beyond Binaries, I haven’t missed a scheduled post, so the band plays on.

The last couple of years have been very challenging for me, and in 2019, I began tweeting about celebrating small joys. I’m not a naturally optimistic person, and in times of difficulty, embracing things like Pokémon GO and homemade ice cream has helped more than I’d readily admit. These days, as most days, I’m taking a great deal of solace in books, so I’m grateful to have this space to share.

And share I shall! Today is extremely exciting for me, because I get to introduce you all to BBB’s first repeat contributor! I reached out on Twitter seeking collaborators for this blog, and I am deeply lucky that Jack reached back out to me, and will be contributing her ARC reviews to enrich the content of this space over the coming months!

An image of Jack, a Black queer woman, eyes closed, wearing gold jewellery, and covered in powder-like, colourful paint.

Jack is a queer writer and artist who is completing her English and Cultural studies B. A
at McMaster University. She likes to read psychological thrillers, Afrofuturistic works and
genre-bending memoirs that include Auto-Theory. Also, she enjoys watching films,
writing short stories, drawing and desserts that are sweet, but not too sweet. It is my absolute pleasure to give over my platform to this brilliant reader and writer, and welcome her reviews of forthcoming queer books!

There are two other firsts that I’ll be celebrating in this post, as well: the book birthday of Mia Siegert’s Somebody Told Me: the first traditionally-published novel to feature a bigender protagonist… AND IT’S A YA SUSPENSE NOVEL. I’m hyped!

Last, but not least – if you’ve been following me for a little while, you’ll know that I’m on the planning team for the Festival of Literary Diversity, held each year in Brampton, ON. It is my favourite lit festival on the planet. In light of current events, the FOLD will move online, for free, for the first time ever this year. There are 19 virtual events this year, and all you need to attend – from anywhere in the world – is to register on Eventbrite. There is one event that I’m going to highlight, though, that everyone who reads BBB should attend – both because it’s going to be AWESOME and also because it’s on my BIRTHDAY. The Art of Craft: Trans Brilliance Edition! Organized by the FOLD and Kai Cheng Thom partially in response to the transphobic violence perpetrated by the Toronto Public Library this year, this event features some mind-blowing trans writers and creators: Gwen Benaway, Ali Blythe, Casey Plett, and Jia Qing Wilson-Yang, as well as Kai herself.

Poster for The Art of Craft: Trans Brilliance Edition

Jack’s ARC Review: Broken People, by Sam Lansky

Sam Lansky’s Broken People, a work of fiction with autobiographical undertones, makes a clear distinction between a physical journey and a spiritual quest. His diction is hypnotizing, twisting and twirling until the tale he has woven is all you can think about devouring. The protagonist’s sense of awareness or lack of, drives the story. It’s a work of art that reminds us that, writing is not healing, rather, it is the reflection, the learning and understanding, that leads to healing. Similarly, the main character’s healing process begins when he faces himself in the process of what he has written.


Lansky writes a riveting tale of growing up, of finding your voice and the cyclical nature of healing. Today, we’ve cultivated the unrealistic expectation of achieving all our life goals age thirty, convinced that not meeting this constraint is an act of failure. The reader is implicated in a story of growth, one that comes from understanding one’s experience rather than just experiencing. It’s difficult to articulate what we feel and how that may have led us to act a certain way, but Lansky does it expertly. He creates characters who come to life by simply existing, making choices, breathing.


CW for this book include eating disorders, substance use and partner violence (verbal and emotional). I found myself at certain scenes conflicted, but it was in that space that I was able to acknowledge the nuances of interpersonal relationships. I recommend this book to readers in early adulthood, who are looking for something.

The cover of Broken People, by Sam Lansky, which features a hummingbird.


There are similarities between Sam Lansky the author, and Sam the main character. Broken People references the protagonist as a writer whose memoir explores substance use, which is like the content of Sam Lansky’s previous work The Gilded Razor: a memoir. Sam crafts a journey of love and forgiveness and situates it in a work of fiction.


We meet Sam, a man who seems stuck and the story is full of flashbacks. He is living the dream before the dream: moving in with a friend, dreaming about becoming a published author.


The more he can afford, the emptier Sam feels. We follow Sam through the vulnerability in the wake of sexual encounters, heartbreak and career successes. We become entrenched in what it means to explore one’s love language when loving yourself did not seem to be an option.


I am currently writing a paper where I explore the relationship between the physical body and orientation, of both gender and sexuality. Lansky writes of self-discovery through both the body and the external world. How do you explore the world when you do not feel at home in your own body? How can you escape who you are? He does not answer these questions, rather, he offers possible paths. Lansky explores consumption of relationships, food and substance use. “Your body is a temple”, but what if you don’t know how to praise whom the altar belongs to? What if you don’t know yourself? There is no single cure or quick fix to the struggles of real life, but there is learning, through trial and error. So that is my take-away. Reading Broken People felt like making a home out of a story. It’s a story about the coming of age of the coming of age story.

Broken People is scheduled to be released in June 2020, and is available for pre-order now.

Happy Book Birthday to Somebody Told Me, by Mia Siegert

Yall, it is a weird time to be celebrating a book birthday, but we are here, and it is happening, and I have been waiting for this little gem for a while!

Somebody Told Me is the first novel to be traditionally published featuring bigender representation, and it came out this month from Carolrhoda and is available to buy now. Mia’s described this book as the French film Améie, but if it went terribly wrong… and given that Amélie is a huge favourite of mine, I am so here for this.

The novel follows Russian Jewish protagonist Aleks/Alexis as they navigate gender, and the fallout after they are sexually assaulted in their fandom community. It explores themes of gender presentation as the MC tries to solve a mystery before someone else gets hurt, and in doing so, confront their abuser and their own trauma. It’s not a light and fluffy read, and CWs also include trans and queerphobia, and religious content. That said, this is the kind of nuanced diversity representation that as a reader, I’ve been waiting for, and I would say: don’t sleep on this.

For a taste of what you can expect from this book, check out the book trailer above, voiced by Katelyn Clarke and Zeno Robinson. And while you’re at it, head on over to Mia’s Twitter, where you can check out the this spectacular book look featuring colourways from the bi-coded book cover, and wish a happy book birthday to Somebody Told Me!

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.

Never Have I Ever

Currently Reading: Darling Rose Gold, by Stephanie Wrobel

Non-Binary New Release

Just a quick heads up before I jump into the theme of today’s post: non-binary poet Danez Smith’s newest title dropped on January 21st, and although I haven’t gotten my hands on it yet, I hope that all of you will! It’s called Homie, and it’s a mixtape-styled collection that celebrates Black love, while lamenting the harm done to Black people.

Arospec Awareness Week!

Happy Aromantic Spectrum Awareness week! Over the past few months, I’ve been embracing my arospec identity for the first time. This is my first Arospec Awareness Week, and I wanted to remind everyone about the Aromantic and Asexual Characters Database! It’s always linked in my resources page, and it’s the best way that I know of to find great books by and about arospec folks.

FOLD Reading Challenge: Caribbean Author

If yall are reading along with the FOLD 2020 Reading Challenge, then you know that we are on month two, and this month’s challenge is to read a book by a Caribbean author. Truth be told, this is an area where I have serious gaps in my knowledge, but I put together a quick list of authors to check out this February…

  • Marlon James
  • Afua Cooper
  • Jamaica Kincaid
  • Roxane Gay
  • Ben Philippe
  • Ibi Zoboi
  • Claire Adam
  • Lilliam Riviera
  • Candice Carty-Williams
  • Elizabeth Acevedo
  • Zalika Reid-Benta
  • Nicole Dennis-Benn
  • Ann Dávila Cardinal
  • Maika and Maritza Moulite

…and last, but not least, non-binary author Kacen Callendar. If you take a look at some of the works by these authors, there really should be something for everyone, and that speaks to the sheer breadth of cultural and literary diversity that bursts forth from this region of the world.

Wet’suwet’en Strong

A drawing of the hereditary chiefs, with text that says "The hereditary chiefs say NO to all pipelines".
Art by Christi Belcourt

I see part of the work of this blog is lifting up marginalized voices, including those of the Indigenous community. For that reason, I want to issue a short solidarity statement from this platform, even though it is small. I am so humbled by the Wet’suwet’en land protectors and the incredible work that they are doing. So proud of all they are achieving. If you are not doing everything you could be to support them, you should make better choices.

Today’s Post

It’s a long one, so I’m going to jump right in! I’m so excited today to be featuring two spooky titles by LGBTQ2S+ authors; one from a small indie press, and one that was crowd funded. They both also have gorgeous covers.

I wanted to do something fun and creative with this one, so rather than focusing too much on the texts themselves, I’ve asked some of the rad authors of these works to share a bit about themselves, a teaser of their writing, and play a good old fashioned round of the classic adolescent party game, Never Have I Ever. Snuggle down, and pour yourself the beverage of your choice. Never have I ever made poor choices playing this game…

In Restless Dreams, by Wren Handman

In Restless Dreams is the perfect indie book for fans of The Hazel Wood duology, by Melissa Albertalli, or Holly Black’s Cruel Prince series. Written by an openly queer author, this book has so many elements I love in an urban fairy tale… careful handling of mental health issues, a MC who finds herself suddenly wealthy, a fancy prep school, and – of course – a little trickster magic. With this beautiful cover, it’s practically impossible to resist, and I’m thrilled to feature this title in this space.

Wren Handman

About the Author

Wren Handman is a novelist, fiction writer, and screenwriter. She’s written three novels: Last Cut (Lorimer Ltd 2012), Command the Tides (Omnific 2015), and In Restless Dreams, which was originally self-published and has now been released from Parliament House Press. Wren was pleased to be part of the team that wrote The Switch, a comedy about trans life in Vancouver. Her next book, Wire Wings, comes out with Parliament House on June 23rd, 2020. Follow her blog, or on Twitter.

Never Have I Ever…

For this post, Wren and I brainstormed, and she came up with an awesome idea… to have her main characters from In Restless Dreams play a good, old fashioned game of Never Have I Ever. Please enjoy this casual preview of Wren’s charming characters from her newly released novel, and, peripherally, the first fiction that I’ve ever had the pleasure of hosting on this blog!

“Never have I ever…been in a situation like this.” It might not be in the spirit of the game, but it’s true. I’m just a normal girl from Topaz Lake, Nevada. Or I was, until I moved to New York to live with my disgustingly rich Christmas-and-birthdays Dad. Now I’m just a disgusting rich girl from New York, New York. Which, in my neighbourhood, is sadly also normal.


Then again, I’m currently sitting in Fairy, which is about as far from normal as you can get. Yup, that Fairy. Magical world just a step away from our own. There’s a campfire, sort of, but the fire burns hot blue and dancing purple, and the sparks that drift away from the wood flicker and live on like tiny stars. On the other side of the enchanting flames are two people who make my heart beat faster, and I’m not sure if it’s from fear…or something else entirely.


One of them brings his drink to his lips and takes a long, deep gulp. His eyes are dancing with light of their own, and it’s the only brightness about him. The rest of him is nothing but shadow, from the living shadow-grey mass of his hair down to the pitch shadow-black of his skin. I don’t know his name, so I’ve taken to calling him Stranger.


“You really shouldn’t have been in a situation like this before,” the third person says to Stranger, chiding. “Interacting with humans is a breach of the Accord.” Royan is the embodiment of a young girl’s fantasy of a knight on horseback. Blond wavy hair, eyes an emerald that humans just don’t have, chiselled jaw that could cut his marble abs. I mean, I can’t see his abs, I’m just imagining them. I mean, I’m not imagining them! I’m just saying. He’s hot.


Stranger just shrugs at the hostility. He’s not afraid of the Knight. “I said like this, not exactly this. It’s your turn, Knight.”


“Never have I ever…been a Commoner.”


“No targeted ones,” I object. “It has to be something that could hit both of us.”


“I didn’t take you for a cheater,” Stranger teases.


“I was not cheating. I merely misunderstood the rules,” Royan says, though I’m not sure I believe him. “Never have I ever…eaten a hamburger.”


I laugh and take a drink. They tell you not to eat or drink in Fairy, in all the stories, but Stranger promised the drink wouldn’t hurt me, and I believe him. There’s something about him that just makes you feel safe. Maybe it’s his smile.


Stranger drinks, too, and Royan looks at him with narrowed eyes but doesn’t say anything.


“Never have I ever had a threeway,” Stranger says without missing a beat.


I snort out an awkward laugh, very unladylike, and no one drinks.


“Oh, wait.” Stranger rubs his head. “Sorry, no. That’s no good. Oh! I’ve got a better one, anyway. Never have I ever fallen for a mysterious stranger.”


They both look at me as my cheeks burn red hot. I don’t care if it’s cheating, there’s no way I am drinking! “You’re both giving yourself way too much credit,” I say, knocking my cup against the log I’m sitting on to show I’m not bringing it to my lips. “Never have I ever met royalty.”


They both drink, though Stranger shakes his head at me. “I feel like that’s cheating.”


I grin. “Or is it just playing smart?”


“Never have I ever kissed two people in the same night,” Royan says.


Stranger and I both drink, and when our eyes meet I giggle. “New Year’s Eve,” I explain. “You?”


“Madcap love affair with a forest nymph and its estranged troll lover,” he says, and I can’t tell if he’s joking. I guess being more than a thousand years old, you’re bound to have had some pretty wild experiences. But not Royan. I look at him when he isn’t looking, watching the light play across his cheekbones. He always seems sad, when you catch him unaware like there’s something he can’t quite let go of.


“Your turn,” I remind Stranger, who drums his fingers against his lips.


“Never have I ever…ridden on an airplane.”


I drink, not calling him out even though I think that techncially counts as targeted. They don’t have airplanes in Fairy.


“Do the sky bison of the Northern Mountains count?” Royan asks.


“Oh, yes, definitely,” Stranger says, and Royan shrugs and drinks.


“Never have I ever stayed awake more than thirty hours,” I say.


Royan looks confused, and Stranger shrugs. “Time sort of…works differently here. It’s narrative.”


“Time is narrative? What does that even mean?”


“It means that it moves more quickly when you are between important moments,” Royan explains.

“So technically, we experience very little non-meaningful time.”


“So that’s a no for both of us,” Stranger says with a grin.


“I think I should get a re-ask,” I complain, but I’m smiling, and neither of them takes me seriously.


“Never have I ever lost a fight,” Royan says. Stranger and I both drink, laughing, but this time we don’t share the stories behind it. I notice we have more in common than I expected, and once again I wish I knew his story. Who is it, really, behind the laughter and the mystery?


“Never have I ever started a fight,” Stranger says, and Royan and I both quickly drink. I’m not proud of my temper, but it’s there, all right. Sometimes I make bad choices.


“Never have I ever been in love,” I blurt out, before I can stop myself. I watch them both closely.

Royan smiles, softly, and takes a drink like he’s thinking about something pleasant from a long time ago. Stranger drinks, too, but he hesitates before he does, and the drink is quick, almost angry. It’s the exact opposite reaction to what I was expecting. Stranger, with his laughter and his promises of the truth; and Royan, with his honor and his uptight attitude.


They both have such huge lives beyond me. And there’s still so much I don’t know.


It isn’t anyone’s turn, but I drink anyway. Maybe I just need a drink. Or maybe my turn wasn’t as true as I thought it was…

Unspeakable: A Queer Gothic Anthology

I could not believe it when I saw the Kickstarter for Unspeakable, a collection of creepy and transgressive queer gothic tales. Is there anything more on brand for this blog?! I’m so excited to be part of the tour of this collection of stories, and to feature a few of the authors in this space. There are four trans and/or non-binary writers who contributed to Unspeakable, and today, I’m pleased that you get to know a little bit about three of them here.

The cover of Unspeakable: A Queer Gothic Anthology, which features a skeleton wearing a flower crown and collar on a rainbow backdrop.

Meet Red!

Claire Hamilton Russell, aka Red

Claire Hamilton Russell lives in Glasgow, Scotland and is usually known as Red. They are one of life’s natural Disaster Bisexuals, hence why they are genderqueer/genderfluid/nonbinary, because choosing anything as solid as a distinct single gender identity is clearly antithetical to them. They are disabled and neurodiverse, and have a grand ambition to eventually cover all their various mobility devices in cool geeky stickers.

A former worker with disabled children and young people, refugees and torture survivors, they had to give up full time work due to chronic illness and now spend their time blogging about disability and LGBT+ rights issues, writing, embroidering, playing or running tabletop roleplay, LARPing with mobility aids and listening to podcasts. They are currently developing a podcast on Scotland’s lesser-known industrial and post-industrial history with their wonderful husband, Mark, occasionally hindered by their beloved Staffie, Jasmine.

Let Down: Teaser!

A tower, lit up at night, reaching into the clouds.
Photo by Victor Malyushev on Unsplash.

“Let Down” is a darker, nastier, and queering take on the Rapunzel faerytale. The Lady Melisandre is trapped in an isolated tower under a horrifying curse decades after rejecting a proposal from a very incel prince. She has long since given up on rescue, but it turns out the patriarchal mindset can leave some unexpected loopholes in curses.

Never Have I Ever…

Zip-lined across the River Clyde (I haven’t, sadly)
Left Europe (I haven’t, and I’ve taken the Flight Free pledge)
Gone on a rollercoaster (I haven’t – I have POTS so it would be distinctly unfun)
Petted a wolf (I have, and I’ll do it again at every possible opportunity)

Meet Avery!

Avery Kit Malone

Avery Kit Malone is a long shadow in a dark hallway. He is a researcher in psychology, as well as a writer of dark, and often weird and surreal, fiction. His work appears or is forthcoming in Aphotic Realm, The Gateway Review, Pseudopod, and other venues. You can call to him across the void: @dead_scholar

Doctor Barlowe’s Mirror: Teaser!

A person's face, partially obscured, wearing a headscarf and reflected in a mirror.
Photo by Rendiansyah Nugroho on Unsplash.

In “Doctor Barlowe’s Mirror,” an inventor creates a strange device that conjures the image of a perfect version of oneself. This vision is not, however, all that it appears to be. As the doctor’s assistant discovers, something unsettling lurks within that handsome visage the longer he looks…

Never Have I Ever…

I have never owned a pet rabbit.
I’ve never gone swimming in the sea (or anywhere else. I can’t swim).
I’ve never been bitten by a centipede. As far as I know…
I have driven across the United States alone in my car more than once. Once, I took a wrong turn during a snowstorm and ended up driving through a national forest. Road conditions were fairly poor, and I was quite alone there, but sight of the sun coming muted through the fog between these giant evergreens, snow blanketing the ground beneath them and everywhere else, was lovely, in a lonely kinda way. I’ll never forget it.

Meet Jen!

Jen Glifort

Jen Glifort (she/they) is a nonbinary writer and editor living in Connecticut. When she’s not writing, she’s usually playing trumpet, losing at Overwatch, or giving presentations about robots in media for pop culture conventions. She can be found on Twitter!

Taylor Hall: Teaser!

A manor house in a foggy evening.
Photo by Ján Jakub Naništa on Unsplash

Taylor Hall has always been a sanctuary to Kit Taylor—a place to hide away when the world felt overwhelming. But when Kit develops feelings for a new roommate, the ancient family manor is all too happy to intervene, digging up emotions Kit would rather keep hidden.

Never Have I Ever…

One thing I have done: Gotten caught trespassing on a graffiti-covered abandoned highway.
Three things I haven’t done: Taken a cruise to visit the US Virgin Islands. Sang “Bohemian Rhapsody” at karaoke. Been drunk at Disney World.

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

A book with a spine on its spine.

Feature Interview with Author Chana Porter

Currently Reading: In Restless Dreams, by Wren Handman

On Being a Lit Agency Intern

I think I’m confident enough in my new position to announce publicly now that at the beginning of this year, I accepted an offer from Toronto-based literary agency The Rights Factory for a six-month contract as a literary intern and assistant. Although it means that I am suddenly very busy, and my TBR has grown three sizes this holiday season, I couldn’t be more overjoyed. It’s my first foray into working in the publishing business from starting out as a bookseller over two years ago… and it’s something that I’ve wanted and hoped for a lot.

I’m also completing doctoral studies in critical social work right now, but my role in that field has been in research for the past several years, and my main source of income (despite my bookshop job!) has been as a freelance researcher. My hope, as I slowly finish my PhD, is to put all the skills I’ve gathered over my years as a counsellor, researcher, bookseller, and blogger to cumulative use to help support authors (my actual heroes tbh) in their careers, and play my part in producing some really good books.

Over the next six months, I’ll make periodic updates about my internship, and everything that I’m learning. One of the resources that’s been incredibly helpful to me in my new role has been listening to as much of the Print Run Podcast as I can over the past few weeks. When I got asked to manage some of the TRF agents’ schedules for the upcoming London Book Fair? I was so glad that I’d listened to the Print Run episode that Laura and Erik did about their experiences there last year. I would have been so in the dark otherwise. Shoutout to them, for producing such great content for new professionals in the industry.

2020 Reading Challenge Update

I wrote in my 2019 year in review post that one of the reading challenges I’ll be doing this year is the FOLD Reading Challenge, hosted by the Festival of Literary Diversity. I’m thrilled to be on the planning committee for the festival this year, and to be contributing to this challenge! My picks will be featured on the FOLD blog in October, but I’ll be participating all year long. If you decide to participate, give me a shout, I’d love to follow your progress.

This month’s picks are from Audible, the sponsor of the challenge, and the theme is audiobooks by an Indigenous author. I think that this is a genius challenge, because although Indigenous literature is really having a good cultural moment right now, I don’t think that Indigenous lit is where most people’s instincts take them when they consider audiobooks, unless that is the primary way that they consume written media. From my experiences in the bookshop where I work, I think it’s a common misconception that Indigenous literature is necessarily heavy, political, and serious – and often, historical. Although I would contend that a lot of Indigenous literature is powerful, there are lots of Indigenous books that would just make the commute to work a little more pleasant (I know that’s when I consume most of my audiobooks).

If you’re looking for a super engaging Indigenous title to listen to, I would suggest…

  • the suspense-packed Moon of the Crusted Snow, by Waubgeshig Rice, a chilling post-apocalyptic speculative novel.
  • Louise Erdrich’s family-friendly middle grade alternative to Little House on the Prairie, The Birchbark House
  • the fever dream of an audio experience that is queer Indigenous throat singer Tanya Tagaq’s Split Tooth
  • Cherie Dimaline’s multiple award-winning YA sci fi novel, The Marrow Thieves

…which should all be available for free through the Libby app using your local library card, or you can support your local independent bookstore (or mine! Another Story, in Toronto) by purchasing them through Libro.fm.

The Seep, by Chana Porter

The cover of the book The Seep, by Chana Porter. Hands reach out from flowers and what appear to be bones on a black background.

I closed out my 2019 reading year with Chana Porter’s debut novel, The Seep, a gently unsettling dystopian speculative featuring a trans woman protagonist. The world is so ready for genre books featuring trans MCs, yall! I read this book a couple of weeks after losing one of my dogs to cancer, and I had been struggling with reading after such an emotional experience. This book was the perfect distraction, and strangely, the perfect balm for my grief and complicated emotions around loss in this disaster capitalist world.

The Seep is about the arrival of a benevolent alien presence on earth, who slowly becomes dominant through their desire to heal humanity. It is unique and precious, while managing to poetically move through several impactful themes, including things like identity, racism, cultural appropriation, art, transformation, rebirth, death, and the end of the world as we know it. I was rapt while reading it, and I was so honoured that author Chana Porter was willing to chat with me about her work. She was so sweet and generous to talk to, and I’m happy to be able to share some of our conversation here.

Feature Interview: Chana Porter on Writing Outside Your Identity, Mentorship, Gender, and Bears

A stylized photo of Chana Porter, looking upward, arm reaching up. Theatre curtains frame the image. The background is foliage with flowers.
Photo by Peter Bellamy for the Playwright Portrait Project.

Note: All of the photography featured throughout this post is curated from artists on Unsplash, and reflects the themes of Chana Porter’s novel The Seep.

emmy: The Seep totally bowled me over. I’m really grateful to have the opportunity to give it some extra exposure and tell people how much I loved it. I’d love to hear more about why you chose to write your main character, Trina, as you did. It’s obvious that all the aspects of her identity play key roles in the messages of the book. Still, it takes a lot of work, research, and care to write skillfully outside of your own experience, and I think that you achieved that. What was that like, and what were your reasons for making that choice?

Chana: When I began writing The Seep, it was an epic novel with shifting multiple points of view. Trina and her journey was a major aspect of the narrative, but she was one of 3 or so main characters. As I worked, it eventually became clear that Trina’s story was the most heartfelt and compelling. I shaved off the other plot lines and focused on her. (The UK edition of The Seep will have the boy from the Compound’s point of view included as a bonus short story, which is fun for me. I cut a lot of things that I loved!)

I wanted to write a butch trans woman character for a lot of thoughtful metaphorical reasons, which I will get into, but first and foremost, I wrote the kind of character I wanted to spend time with. She has a kind of swagger. She’s a bit of a brooder. She’s tender and passionate and a little gruff.

So Trina is a trans woman, and a butch woman. Her gender identity is distinct from her gender expression. Being a woman is not about wearing lipstick (no shade on lipstick, I like lipstick). That was the first thing I wanted to celebrate in the creation of her character. Secondly, gender identity is meaningful to Trina, and she is wary of the way people use The Seep to change their faces like they were changing outfits. I also liked the idea of people giving Trina guff for being so old-fashioned because she doesn’t want to modify her body. I wanted to show that she felt in alignment with her gender, in both expression and identification, and didn’t need to change anything. I also wanted to show that she didn’t want or need to “look cis” now that it was possible with the wave of a Seep wand.

A monarch butterfly partially emerged from a chrysalis.
Photo by Bankim Desai on Unsplash.

Trina is also Jewish and Native American.Years ago, N.K. Jemisin gave a lecture one summer at The Octavia Project, a free science fiction summer camp I helped create, where she described how when the European colonizers came to our shores, the diseases and violence that they brought to Indigenous peoples were the equivalent of an apocalypse. She cautioned our teens that when writing about apocalypse, don’t lose sight that many groups of people have experienced something similar already.

I think this is also true when writing about utopia, particularly because The Seep wishes to heal all wounds. We must witness and value past trauma. We also must acknowledge and celebrate what was here before, and is still here.

A feminine figure crouches in some foliage, face partially obscured by shadows.
Photo by Tiko Giorgadze on Unsplash

One of Trina’s surnames is Oneka, which is a Mohegan name. This aspect I crafted from research. The Mohegans are based in central southern Connecticut. In early drafts, it was made clear that Trina and Deeba used to live together in Brooklyn, so I first narrowed it down graphically. Then I located her ancestry there because tribal leadership for the Mohegan people is often passed through the maternal line, and they are known for their deep knowledge of herbal medicine, as well as hunting and fishing technologies. I liked the idea of Trina as an artist and healer, coming from a beautiful and specific tradition, which is very much alive today.

As for the Jewish aspect, my family is partially from Pale of Settlement. It used to be part of Russia, now it’s Lithuania, and the Jewish culture that thrived there is gone. It is a place that no longer exists. I was also interested in this– what happens when a place loses its memory? My character YD explores this idea further. But everyone is grappling with something that was meaningful to them which is now gone. Pina the Bear is no longer really a bear. There is a grief and loss there too.

A set of disembodied arms reaches out from behind some foliage, embracing it.
Photo by Will Cornfield on Unsplash

emmy: You mentioned working with Rachel Pollack as your thesis advisor. Was The Seep a product of your MFA and your work with Rachel? I’m curious what the conversations that you had with her were like, what that process was like for you. What advice might you give other authors who are involved in or seeking mentorship around writing inclusive and diverse work?

Chana: I went to Goddard College specifically to work with Rachel Pollack (great low-residency MFA program, highly recommend). I first learned about her in my study of tarot and Kabbalah, as she’s an expert in both. Then I stared reading her novels, and I knew I had to learn from her. Everyone, GO READ RACHEL POLLACK! A very different version of The Seep was my thesis. It was her metaphysical scholarship and fraught, spiritual science fiction that drew me to her, but of course the way she writes about gender is part of that draw. So it was fortuitous that Rachel is an older trans lesbian (a tryke, as she lovingly puts it), like Trina. But also, because my book takes place in the future, Trina’s character is more my peer in age than Rachel’s, and grew up in a different conversation about gender than Rachel did. I remember writing an early scene (that didn’t make it into the final book) where Trina and Deeba first meet and fall in love. Rachel wrote this comment in the margin, something like, Oh my, if only it could be like this. Rachel blazed the trail for us. We had a lot of rich conversations about identity. She also made me get more specific about anything spiritual, so it wouldn’t read like wishy-washy mumbo-gumbo.

A black and white image of a newborn baby, arms and fingers outstretched.
Photo by Alex Hockett on Unsplash

I am a queer person who is in community with a lot of trans and GNC people (I identify as a bisexual woman ray of light ☺️). And because of my own questions around gender and identity, I’ve been reading people like Kate Bornstein and Judith Butler (or trying to) from when I was a wee thing. Two of my dearest friends, who were also deep readers of early drafts of The Seep during the 7 years I was writing it, actually transitioned during that time period. I couldn’t have known that two of my closest friends and trusted readers would transition while I was writing this book. But also, it makes sense. Because part of why we found each other and loved each other was because we were all gender outlaws. It was a long conversation we were all having together, for many years.

emmy: I’d love to talk more about your own process with gender, if that’s something you’d be comfortable sharing a bit more about, both with me and with the blog. I know it’s a complex question! The ways that people choose to identify and the ways that people see their genders sometimes feel very different to me. Language and identity and the ways that they are co-constituted or not can get messy. There are lots of ways that people expand their gender conceptualization and gender expression that exist sort of outside of these labels that get thrown around all the time. If you wanted to talk a little bit about your thoughts on your own process with thinking about gender, I’d love to make space for that, and would be interested in hearing more.

A pale, slightly monochromatic feminine figure stands against a backdrop of very large foliage.
Photo by Tiko Giorgadze on Unsplash

Chana: Okay, I will try to distill down a major conversation of my life into a few short paragraphs! From when I was very little child I thought I was not a girl. I heard the word “hermaphrodite”, which we now call intersex, before I heard the word lesbian, and I thought that this was my big secret. I imagined that I was slowly turning into a boy, and that everyone would be very upset. Partially, I was drawn to the work of Rachel Pollack because she writes about the archetype of the golden hermaphrodite in world religions. I’m very compelled by an all encompassing gender, a totality of gender. That feels more whole to me– angelic, in fact. I have written several plays for theater that explore these ideas. Most people I am attracted to are gender outlaws in some form or fashion. I present as a woman, and I use she/her pronouns. I experimented with using ‘they’ in a few contexts and it did not bring me any comfort. When I feel too pinned down to one identity, I feel trapped. I have been a wife. I’m now a sort of step parent— my partner has two young children. One of them called me ChanaDad on a whim, and I LOVED it. I do not feel like a man– I am not a man. But I don’t want to be anyone’s mother. ChanaDad gives me a freedom that I like.

I like getting femmed up, in a dress and lipstick, and going out to dinner. This always feels like a kind of performance, a costume. And I enjoy it. But when those trappings become a uniform, I feel oppressed. Likewise, I dated a woman in college who would not let me shave my legs. I loved having hairy legs (I don’t have demure body hair), but one day I mentioned wanting to be smooth for a while again. She was livid. I didn’t have the words at the time, but I wanted to say something like, Hey, I stopped shaving because I don’t like being told how I need to look to be accepted. It’s not my problem if my body offends or confounds you. It’s my body. What could be more personal than that?

An image of a white person with red lipstick, snake eye contacts, and green scales airbrushed onto their cheek. Their hair is bright yellow and long, wrapped around their neck in a braid.
Photo by MAFFITI / Merily on Unsplash

I have never understood or identified with most things we are told women should want– but is this gender? Or is it patriarchy? I love the feminine, and I wish to enlarge and embrace it, rather than belittle or reject it. Did I identify with male characters more as a young reader because they were written to be witty, mysterious, and interesting? If I had Trina to read as a younger person, I think I would have fantasized about being this swaggering butch. Not being Jordan Catalano or Brandon Walsh, which I did instead. I actually think that there are as many gender identities as there are people. But I’m traveling through the world as a cis woman, and I want to own that identity, with its myriad privileges and traumas.

emmy: A final question. I just loved Pina. By far my favourite character in the book, and as someone who’s on the autism spectrum, I found the ways that Pina talks and the role that she plays so relatable and charming. I would love to hear more about her. Why did you make her a bear? What role did she play for you? Is her affect intentional, or was it just a creative choice? Whatever you feel like sharing about her, I’d love to hear about it.

An image of a bear looking upward beyond the camera.
Photo by Thomas Bonometti on Unsplash.

Chana: I’m so glad you loved Pina and that her speech spoke to you— she is also my favorite. I’m also a person who stutters, and for this reason the cadence of my speaking voice is particular. So I also relate to Pina, in this way.

I CANNOT wait for the audiobook to come out– I can’t wait to see what Shakina Nayfack (who is so brilliant) does with Pina (and YD)!

I created a bear character because of Rachel Pollack, that genius. In an early draft, I had a human character transform into an animal (a dolphin, actually). Rachel’s note was something like– why is this so human centric? What would happen if an animal, say a bear, was transformed by The Seep? I tried it a few ways– I wrote a version where Pina was a human with a bear consciousness, which was fun to write, and then I rewrote her as a bear because I visually enjoyed that more. She is actually a little bit like my grandmother– she wants to feed you, she’s no-nonsense, she is very sweet but sometimes sounds mean. She slams a plate down, and it means I love you.

The cover of Temporary Agency, by Rachel Pollack. Depicts people walking through the streets with giant heads wearing ornate helmets on posts in the middle of the roads.

I wanted to say thank you so much to Chana Porters for this rich and thoughtful interview, and also offer a couple of recommendations on her behalf at the end of this post. Unfortunately, Chana’s plays have yet to be published, but fans of The Seep should make Temporary Agency by Rachel Pollack the next book on their TBR!

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.

2019 In Review

Currently Reading: Keystone, by Katie Delahanty

News!

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

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

Re-Introduction

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

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

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

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

2019 By the Numbers

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

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

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

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

Purchases: 26
Library: 60
ARC: 105

Digital: 108
Print: 50
Audio: 36

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

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

Reading challenges I participated in: #VillainAThon

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

Upcoming in 2020

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

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

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

Most Anticipated of (Early) 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

(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).