BREAK OUT THE SCISSORS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Matt Artz on Unsplash

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Angèle Kamp on Unsplash

STEP ONE: Reverse Outline Your Book

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

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

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

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

Photo by Alex Gruber on Unsplash

STEP TWO: Economy of Words

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Wajih Ghali on Unsplash

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Dani Rendina on Unsplash

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

Example: There was a child napping in the shade.

Alternative: A child napped in the shade.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Dani Rendina on Unsplash

STEP THREE: Repeat Step 2.

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

And it was great.


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

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

All Eyes on Her

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

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

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

Jack’s Review of Seven, by Farzana Doctor

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

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

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

Photo by Jill Dimond on Unsplash

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

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

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

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

Photo by Yaopey Yong on Unsplash

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

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

Laurie Elizabeth Flynn, Author of ALL EYES ON HER

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

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

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

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

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

Voices in a Crowd: Writing Multiple POV

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

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

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

Know Your Characters

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

The Why

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

Try Different Formats

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

Hide and Seek

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

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

Show, Don’t Tell

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

Streamline Information

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

Motivation is Key

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

Differentiate Speech and Mannerisms

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

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

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

Veronica Mars, But Make It Queer

After taking the longest hiatus from posting that I have taken since I started this blog, coming back feels a little bit like coming home. I love my life as a literary agent, and in these quarantimes I am missing my life as a bookseller, but first and foremost, I’m always a bookworm at heart. I decided to take a step back from posting to make space for Black and BIPOC voices making essential statements during a very difficult political time both for publishing and for all of us who are touched and affected by COVID-19. I don’t want anyone to stop listening to those voices, but I also don’t want to stop making space for LGBTQ2S+ voices in this little space of mine. With that in mind, I would like to extend an ongoing invitation to Black and BIPOC writers who would find it advantageous – reach out to me. This space is yours to use if it’s useful to you. I would always be more than willing to use this platform to host and boost your words and voices if I can.

With that in mind, I have two books that I have personal connections to that I want to mention this week, and I am also all kinds of honoured to be hosting Kylie Schachte, author of You’re Next this week. But first, I want to plug a few of my favourite books by Black authors, for those of you who may not know them yet.

If you’ve been reading the blog for a while, you will know that two of my favourite books of all time are Freshwater, by Akewaeke Emezi, and Hurricane Child, by Kacen Callender – both non-binary authors. Freshwater is an adult literary novel that is like no other book I’ve read before. It’s powerful and otherworldly, at times baffling and at others too relatable. It delves into themes like identity, sexuality, and trauma, and it is a difficult but breathtaking book. Hurricane Child, on the other hand, is an accessible middle grade ghost story about a young, Black, queer girl navigating her first crush. It’s poetic and spooky in all the best ways, and I would recommend it to readers of any age. While I’m at it, I’m going to put in a quick plug for books by a dear friend – Emmy Jackson is a Black author of post-apoc fiction, and their book is literally next on my TBR. We’re working on a top secret project together right now, and they’re one of my favourite people. Check out their books here.

If you’re seeking something more contemporary, I would recommend Such a Fun Age, by Kiley Reid, which deserves to be the next TV series à la Little Fires Everywhere. I feel like every millennial has known the characters in this book in their own lives, for better or worse, and the ending is deeply satisfying. Helen Oyeyemi is an author who never ceases to amaze me. Gingerbread is my favourite novel of hers, and it’s a twisting, winding, family epic turned fairytale that is all about a sticky, spicy, maybe deadly (??) snack. In non-fiction, I’d check out Haben Girma’s memoir – a book that I don’t think got enough buzz early on, and comes out in paperback later this summer. Haben tells her story of being a deafblind Black woman, and I think it’s essential reading – especially for anyone who can only name one deafblind person in history (Helen Keller).

As for books by Black authors that I have on my TBR that are coming out later this year, there are so many… Raybearer, by Jordan Ifueko, is a YA fantasy about having the strength to find your own path. I love innovative true crime memoir, and Natasha Trethewey’s book Memorial Drive that examines the murder of her mother looks fantastic. I’m SO HYPED for Alyssa Cole’s new thriller, When No One is Watching – look out for a review somewhere in the near future, because I snagged an ARC! And in my FAVOURITE genre, YA thriller, Tiffany Jackson will drop Grown later in 2020.

…I’ll stop there for now, but thanks to inspiration from Kylie, I’ve asked everyone who I’m featuring in the blog today to recommend a book by a Black author, so this post is packed with suggestions from some incredible authors in their own right.

New Books to Check Out

While the blog was on hiatus, my agenting partner in crime celebrated her book birthday, for her debut novel The Sunset Sisters! Congratulations, CeCe! I couldn’t be prouder of you. This book is the perfect summer read, and is a great commercial fiction recommendation written by a badass feminist author. Cecilia is a Brazilian woman living in Canada, and I am absolutely honoured to call her my friend.

I asked Cecilia what book by a Black author she’d like to recommend alongside The Sunset Sisters, and she chose her favourite of this year so far – The Vanishing Half, by Brit Bennett.

Next, I want to give a quick shoutout to A. J. Vrana, one of my #SpineSquad authors, who is celebrating HER book birthday for her debut novel on July 28th. This dark fantasy is based on her South Slavic heritage, and it gave me nightmares. I’ll cop to it! The book that she wants to recommend alongside The Hollow Gods is How Long ’til Black Future Month, by N. K. Jemisin.

We also celebrated the sale of her audio rights to Tantor this past week, so there will be an awesome audiobook forthcoming! Congrats!!

You’re Next, by Kylie Schachte

When I picked up You’re Next earlier this year, I was absolutely gobsmacked. I read it because I had an ARC, and it was an easy go-to… as you all know, murder is my comfort read. What I actually got was a super queer, relatable, emotional story that blew me away. It reminded me of Veronica Mars, but super queer. Book of my HEART. I immediately reached out to Kylie, who is an absolute fucking gem, to tell her what a punchy rollercoaster her book had been for me. I’m thrilled that Kylie was up for writing a post for this space, and even more excited because what she wrote feels like it was pulled straight out of my heart. Thank you so much, Kylie, it’s an honour.

The cover of You’re Next, out July 7th.

You can pre-order You’re Next now, and while you’re at it, Kyle recommended two books by Black authors who share her book birthday: Cinderella is Dead, by Kalynn Bayron, and The Voting Booth, by Brandy Colbert. Here’s your summer challenge from me: order all three. You won’t regret a thing.

Re-Imagining Escapism for a World on Fire: Kyle Schachte

Emmy and I first planned the topic for this post back in March, but I am writing it in June. A month defined by uprisings in the wake of the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, David McAtee, Tony McDade, Ahmaud Arbery, Riah Milton, Dominique Fells, and more–more lives, more Black people brutally killed, so many that even as I say those names there are many more I’m leaving out. More may be murdered between the moment I write this sentence and the day it is posted. And that’s to say nothing of the fact that the pandemic disproportionally kills Black and brown people, for deliberate, systemic reasons. 

This post is not about how I, as a white woman, feel about those murders, or the general state of racial injustice–the world emphatically does not need that. But to not mention this context would be to entirely miss the point of what I’m about to say. 

My book, YOU’RE NEXT, is the story of Flora Calhoun–a sixteen-year-old girl obsessed with solving the murder of her ex-girlfriend, Ava McQueen. I first started writing the book because I wanted to write something “fun.” I had this idea about a girl detective–a girl who would toss off one-liners like a hardboiled PI from the 40s…right before she went to math class. It would be campy, and sarcastic, and full of things like fight scenes and explosions. People might bring it to the beach, or stay up all night finishing it. 

But from the moment I began writing, I ran into some difficult questions. At the core of any murder mystery is, well, murder. So how do I write a “fun” book, when at the heart of it is a queer Black girl, brutally killed? And any murder mystery must grapple, in some kind of way, with justice–what it means and how it should be served. So how do I write a “fun” book about that, when our own justice system is so broken?

There are phenomenal YA books that tackle topics like these head-on, such as The Hate U Give, or the forthcoming This is My America. These are gorgeous, wrenching books that are desperately needed in YA. But this conversation should not be limited to “issue” books, and it shouldn’t solely be the responsibility of Black and POC creators. Too often, the media we think of as being “commercial” or “fun” (specifically the stuff made by white people) side steps these questions altogether. Those stories take place in some kind of parallel universe, where race, class, gender and the like simply do not exist. 

There are a lot of reasons for this, but one of them is that same question I was asking myself: how do you write something that’s both fun and acknowledges the sad, infuriating realities of the world? Doesn’t that, kind of by definition, make things less fun? 

Well…yeah, in some ways. I’m not going to sit here and tell you that teenagers getting killed is fun. But we should also ask: fun for whom? That fictional parallel reality, absent any acknowledgement of inequality…it was constructed for the comfort of white people. An excuse for us to continue to ignore what we are already ignoring in the real world. Escapism from the issues that barely touch us, and yet make us uncomfortable. A world in which our privilege goes unacknowledged and unchecked. 

When creators respond to these critiques, the answer is often, “It’s not supposed to be that serious,” or, “I don’t want people to have to think that hard.” Mind you, these are often the same people who have developed wholeass magic systems they expect readers to follow, but acknowledging that race…exists…is asking people to think too hard. And that response actually makes a lot of assumptions about readers, and what they will find enjoyable. It assumes a definition of “pleasure” that is, like so many things, oriented around a straight, white, cis-gendered, able-bodied, male gaze. 

Photo by James Eades on Unsplash

But that kind of pleasure can ruin a story for others. I often give up on shows or books because the oversights are so glaring. Is this a world in which no people of color exist? No queer people? Women do not make up 50% of the population? When I consume those kinds of stories, there is no escape. My brain works double time to pick out every issue, every whitewashing, every dogwhistle. 

And anyway, it’s a false choice! We already know for a fact that it is possible to write books that can be both fun and acknowledge systemic injustice…because marginalized writers have been creating those stories for ages. Check out A Blade So Black by L.L. McKinney, You Should See Me in a Crown by Leah Johnson, or the upcoming Cemetery Boys by Aiden Thomas–all joyful and escapist, and yet imbued with the lived experience of marginalization. And we should absolutely be handing the mic to #OwnVoices authors at every opportunity, but that does not absolve us from needing to do better in our own work as well. 

I’ve been thinking about these questions since I started writing YOU’RE NEXT in 2014, but my thoughts started to coalesce a few months ago, when I watched the movie Knives Out. For those who haven’t seen it, the movie is an extremely campy, whimsical romp in the vein of Clue, or The Westing Game. An eccentric millionaire is murdered in a locked room, and a brilliant, ostentatious private investigator is brought in to figure out whodunit. But underneath those fun trappings, the movie is also a pointed rebuke of white privilege. The millionaire in question left his entire fortune to his nurse, Marta–a young Latinx woman whose mother is undocumented–cutting his family out of the will altogether. At first, the white family members treat Marta with saccharine affection (while loudly debating in her presence whether “illegals” should be deported), but when the money gets involved, they turn on her. They threaten her and weaponize her mother’s immigration status–even the “nice,” “liberal” side of the family. 

Now, is Knives Out a nuanced, in-depth portrayal of our broken immigration system, or the ways white people benefit from systemic racism? No. It is zany and bonkers, and exactly what you would want from a movie like that. But it provides just enough context to feel like it lives in our real world, or at least was created by people who are aware not only that these problems exist, but that they shape every story we tell–whether we acknowledge them or not. 

Photo by Jr Korpa on Unsplash

“Escapism” shouldn’t mean ignoring hard or painful things completely. Instead, when we acknowledge those issues, we find new narrative possibilities–we can create “escapist” fiction that is in dialogue with the things we are trying to escape. Knives Out is pleasurable–and commercially successful!–not because it pretends that racism and xenophobia don’t exist, but because Marta triumphs over it through her own cleverness and good heart. 

The joy I tried to create in YOU’RE NEXT is a little different. Yes, there’s the fun, high octane stuff–car chases, fight clubs, Noir tropes with a high school twist. But unlike Knives Out, the triumph over injustice at the end isn’t so clean & tidy. In many ways, I think the true pleasure of the book comes not from joy, but from pure, unadulterated rage. 

It is fury that propels Flora, the main character, to act. Anger that fuels her obsession with solving Ava’s murder. She lives in the same world we do, where kids are killed all the time, and the entire system is built to protect the wealthy & privileged. And she’s pissed as hell about it. She would love nothing more than to scream “fuck you” in the face of everyone who doesn’t care, or who looks away…and she kind of does exactly that. 

And the satisfaction of that rage can be its own kind of pleasure, or escape. As I have better educated myself about the injustice of the world around me, I have often been sad…but more often I have been livid. Furious with the world for being such a dark and violent place, furious with other people for not doing anything about it, and furious with myself for not knowing better sooner. And while there is plenty we can do in real life to work towards a better world, my hope is that there is something deeply, primally satisfying about watching a teenage girl–someone whom society has deemed weak, vulnerable, without agency–burn the whole fucking thing to the ground. 

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

I strove to write a book that is “fun,” but still inhabits a world in which race, class, and injustice actually exist. As an obscenely privileged white woman, I have certainly gotten things wrong, and have much work still to do. But I could not write a book in which a queer, Black teenage girl dies and pretend that her race and sexuality have nothing to do with her death, or the failures of the investigation. I could not write a book in which teenagers participate in an illegal fight club for money, and not acknowledge the class divisions that drove them to such violence. Acknowledging these problems is not a chore, or an obligation. It creates opportunities for newer, more original stories to be told–and, most importantly, to connect with more readers. Because we already have plenty of books that look the other way, and people are hungry for something else.

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.

…and we’re back!

My dearly departed laptop.

It was bound to happen some time! Two weeks ago, my beloved Frankenstein of a laptop finally died, and I simply did not have it in me to fight to assemble a blog post. It’s the first time that I’ve missed a planned post since I started this blog, so I’m super happy to be back in action this week with a post that’s super exciting. I’m so pleased to host a review of forthcoming LGBTQ2S+ novel You Exist too Much, by BIPOC author Zaina Arafat, by BBB’s new regular contributor, Jack.

I’m also thrilled to be able to share a guest post from an author for whom I have deep admiration, Isabel Stirling. She is the creator of some FABULOUS queer witches in her YA novel These Witches Don’t Burn, and its upcoming sequel, This Coven Won’t Break! I feel especially attached to celebrating Isabel’s latest book because I celebrated my own birthday on May 3rd, and her book releases on May 19th, so we are Taurus twins! More on that later…

First! I want to share a quick shoutout to AJ Vrana. Her debut novel, The Hollow Gods, comes out with Parliment House Press on July 28th. I participated in the cover reveal for this novel on Twitter, and since then, AJ’s joined the list of authors who I represent as an agent. I’m super proud that The Hollow Gods was reviewed by Publisher’s Weekly this week!

Jack’s Review: You Exist too Much, by Zaina Arafat

Zaina Arafat is an American and Palestinian writer and journalist and teacher. Her debut novel You Exist too Much is a diasporic piece of fiction. The story is told in flashbacks, beginning with the shaming of a twelve-year-old Palestinian girl, whose feelings of not belonging are externalized. It’s a story told in cyclical flashbacks, similarly to how we live life. Geographically, the novel mainly alternates between the US and the Middle East, between New York and Palestine.

This novel explores the meaning of living on the margins, of wanting to fit in a neat category. As an American and Palestinian woman, who has loved both men and women, she exists in the overlapping centre of a Venn diagram. The protagonist exists too much, yet, struggles to occupy space for herself. Arafat explores the pervasiveness of intergenerational trauma, and how it affects one’s identity.

Content warnings in You Exist Too Much include Emotional manipulation and Eating Disorders. While at a retreat, topics including sexual assault (from the perspective of the perpetrator) and substance abuse are mentioned.

When the novel begins, we know that the protagonist is in pain. It is the kind of emotional pain that manifests physically, the pain that makes You Exist too much an accusatory statement. The protagonist attempts to heal by falling in love with others, eventually realizing that one person can’t simultaneously occupy two bodies. We follow the protagonist as she confronts the different ways in which she exists.

This is a novel about existing and occupying space, it’s a novel about visibility and acceptance. The protagonist is presented as out of sync with the world, her live-in girlfriend and her own self. The novel embraces missed connections and opportunity, depicting the fleetingness and intensity of desire. You Exist Too Much is a story about identities and the complexities of attachments. Arafat invites us to question what obsessions, attraction and attachments all have in common.

YA Fantasy

Before I jump into Isabel Sterling’s awesome and creative guest post, I want to talk a little bit about why the publication and popularity of These Witches Don’t Burn and This Coven Won’t Break are such huge accomplishments.

YA fantasy is a hard market in traditional publishing. Looking at the deals made so far in 2020, there have only been 10 acquisitions in children’s (including MG and YA) fantasy, across all imprints, this year. One of them is a Lucasfilm IP property, and one is the next in the Keeper of the Lost Cities series, so really, it’s more like 8 deals total for new books in that space, in the span of nearly 5 months. In 2019, there were 11 total deals in that space that were not series continuations. The competition is fire!! And yet, Isabel’s books are doing great.

Also, shoutout to writer KJ Aiello, who helped me out with this post, and asked: does crossover potential (ie, books that could appeal to YA or adult audiences) help fantasy books that are going on submission in traditional publishing? The unfortunate reality is, when a book is submitted to an imprint, you either sub to a YA imprint, or an adult imprint. The only real exceptions to that are SMG, which has St. Martin’s/Wednesday and acquires for both age groups, Tor, which encompasses Tor Teen, and Amazon, which publishes specifically with an eye to YA that is actually written for adult audiences.

BUT. When you see “crossover potential”, “millennial fiction”, “college-aged YA”, these kinds of terms, what they are actually code for, in the industry, is “New Adult”. Publishing’s unspoken secret is that we do publish NA, all the time. It’s just not branded as NA anymore, because the way that that experiment played out like, 5-10 years ago, is that the term has a negative connotation (ie, it just means YA books with erotic content now, basically), so we have to call it something different.

But adult appeal in YA-branded books is actually somewhat essential. A little over 50% of YA readership IS adults, and in addition, YA novels have to appeal to adults because they are often the ones with the purchasing power even if the books’ audiences are younger. Educational wholesale markets are a huge part of that – so not only are publishers aiming to appeal to adult readers of YA, but they’re also aiming to appeal to parents, teachers, and librarians. Fantasy novels aren’t seen to have as much of a place in a classroom setting as some other kinds of novels, partially because of the stigmas that surround all genre works as being seen as less-than compared to more “literary” work. Also, YA as we know it has only existed since the 1970s, so it’s by far the newest category in the traditional publishing industry, and it’s only been seen as legitimate since the late 1980’s, early 1990s.

If you want to learn more about YA books in general, YA fantasy, and on the attitudes toward genre versus literary works in broader publishing, here is some further reading:

  1. How Young Adult Fiction Blossomed With Teenage Culture in America
  2. A Brief History of YA Literature: An Infographic
  3. Home and Away, by Guy Gavriel Kay
  4. The Critics, the Monsters, and the Fantasists, by Ursula K. Le Guin
  5. How Horror Helps Us Overcome Our Fears, by Adam Pottle

This Coven Won’t Break Tarot Reading, by Isabel Sterling

Hello, Readers! Isabel Sterling here. To celebrate the upcoming release of This Coven Won’t Break, emmy suggested a tarot reading for my three main girls, and I thought that sounded like a wonderful idea. I don’t normally let myself think about what happens to my characters after their book is done, so getting to read for Hannah, Morgan, and Gemma was really fun! The cards had some interesting things to say. 

For this reading, I used the Modern Spellcaster’s Tarot Deck. I really enjoy this deck, especially because all of the major love cards are same-gender couples, and there’s racial diversity in there, too. Definitely a step up from many super white, heteronormative traditional decks.

Since This Coven Won’t Break is her story, I started with Hannah.

(Pictured: Seven of Pentacles, Ten of Wands, and The Sun)

In This Coven Won’t Break, Hannah works a lot with the Council, the organization responsible for protecting the three Witch Clans and keeping everyone in line. Hannah plants a lot of seeds with them, so the Seven of Pentacles tells me she’s going to be working to help those efforts grow and bloom. Unfortunately, it looks like Hannah will try to bite off more than she can chew and work harder than she should (Ten of Wands). If she’s not careful, some important things could end up dropped. Luckily, she has Morgan and Gemma to remind her to actually get out and have some fun in the sun, and overall, she has a really awesome summer.

Hannah definitely deserves some rest, relaxation, and brightness in her life. So The Sun card was nice to see. It also looks like she has some babysitting in her future, and perhaps some unexpected twins from Sarah and Rachel? (Who knows! Not me! Like I said, if it didn’t happen in the book, I honestly don’t know.)

Next, let’s take a peek into Morgan’s summer.

(Pictured: Queen of Swords, Two of Cups, and Two of Wands)

Well, without getting into spoilers, Morgan kinda Goes Through It during the course of This Coven Won’t Break. As a result, the Queen of Swords is telling me her mom gets a little over-protective about things. Which, honestly, is reasonable. With the Two of Cups, though, it looks like Morgan still has plenty of time to hang out with Hannah. I see lots of dates at their secret spot in the woods. (And see what I mean about the same-gender couple! I love this deck.) 

With everything that happens to Morgan, the Two of Wands tells me she’s a little nervous about leaving the nest to go to college. She’s just finally putting down roots in Salem and isn’t sure she’s ready to move on and start her “real” life.

Finally, let’s take a look at Gemma’s reading.

(Pictured The Tower, The Empress, and the Ace of Cups)

Well, The Tower is a total spoiler, so I can’t really say much except Gemma’s world turns upside down a bit near the end of the book. The Empress, though, tells me Gem spends much of her summer further honing her interest in all things witchy–tarot cards and crystals and everything. The Empress is often linked to motherly instincts, but in Gemma’s case, I see that as her connection with Hannah’s boss, Lauren, and Gemma getting into with her feminine intuition. 

Finally, it looks like there might be some romance waiting for Gemma with that Ace of Cups. Her crushes in These Witches Don’t Burn didn’t turn out so great, so she definitely deserves a little post-graduation fun. Maybe she can double-date with Hannah and Morgan! 

That’s all the cards had in store for us tonight. I hope you found this fun, and if you haven’t yet, you can order These Witches Don’t Burn here and This Coven Won’t Break over here! Happy reading! 

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

Guest Post: Poetry from a Former Skeptic

Currently Reading: A Madness of Sunshine, by Nalini Singh

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

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

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

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

From Beck: Queer Poetry

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

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

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

Holy Wild by Gwen Benaway

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

Hera Lindsay Bird by Hera Lindsay Bird

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

Don’t Call Us Dead by Danez Smith

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

How Do I Look by Sennah Yee

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

NDN Coping Mechanisms by Billy-Ray Belcourt

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

Lunch Poems by Frank O’Hara

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

Full-Metal Indigiqueer by Joshua Whitehead

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

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

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

Challenging Gender Stereotypes in Diverse KidLit

Currently Reading: Look, by Zan Romanoff

New Look!

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

Trans Lit News

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

Each Tiny Spark Blog Tour

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

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

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

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

Challenging Gender Stereotypes in Diverse KidLit: Pablo Cartaya

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

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

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

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

Guest Post by Lisa Bunker

Introduction…

I am super excited to be hosting a drop in post today from Lisa Bunker, author of two middle grade books featuring trans main characters. Bunker’s first book, Felix Yz, was released in 2017, and was a science fiction story about a child who had an alien inside of him, and who faced a dangerous Procedure to separate the two beings. Felix Yz is told as a series of journal entries written by the main character as he anticipated the Procedure.

The cover of Felix Yz, by Lisa Bunker.

This year, Bunker released her second middle grade novel, Zenobia July, which I reviewed back in April. As I told Bunker during our correspondence, this book wasn’t necessarily the book for me, however I am a huge supporter. There needs to be a diversity of voices in middle grade books, especially when it comes to books that represent trans, non-binary, and other LGBTQ characters. My shop carries the book, and I advocate for it with our school board and educator customers.

This gentle story about trans character Zen navigating life at a new school and solving a cyber mystery is a great path for readers who may not know a lot about trans issues, and perfect for young trans readers looking to see themselves reflected in literature.

The cover of Zenobia July, by Lisa Bunker.

The other reason I advocate for Bunker’s books is because of the author herself, and her strength as a role model for trans and other LGBTQIA2S+ readers. A trans woman herself, Bunker is not only a successful published author, and a pioneer of #OwnVoices trans literature for the middle grade bracket, but also an accomplished politician. Bunker is currently a Democratic state rep in New Hampshire. Following the election of Danica Roem in Virginia in 2017 that gave her a boost of confidence to run for office as a trans woman, Bunker used her decades of activist and community organizing experience to become one of New Hampshire’s first trans legislators.

For all of these reasons, I’m proud to host Bunker herself on my blog today, the only (to my knowledge) #OwnVoices author of trans middle grade books!

What The World Needs Now is Post-Binary Narrative

A guest post by Zenobia July author Lisa Bunker

No doubt binaries come in handy. We humans need to be able to sort and classify our worlds, in order to be safe and productive. But binaries can also easily get out of hand, and are susceptible to abuses. As a trans author of stories with lots of queer characters, I am on a mission to keep binaries under good management and to push back against the abuses. I’ve gathered my ideas about this mission under the new-minted genre descriptor Post-Binary Narrative. And, in order to make it manageable and memorable, I’ve come up with the following six quippy characteristics of this kind of writing.

Human Scale

How many times do plucky protagonists have to save the world (again) before we become completely numb? The whole Marvel Universe arc that just ended with “Avengers: Endgame” is a perfect example of scale overkill. I don’t know about you, but I left that movie feeling bludgeoned and empty. Could we please get back to stories driven by the struggles, choices, defeats, and victories of individual characters? I think such stories can actually have a bigger impact, because a reader who invests will be able to connect in a way that feels right-sized for once. In my new story, Zenobia July, someone hacks the school website, protagonist Zen deals with teasing at school while living in stealth, friendships form, and a family starts to come together. Those are the biggest plot elements, but they make just as engrossing a story as if Zen were single-handedly averting Armageddon (again).

No Evil

Note the capital E. I’ve gotten so tired of villains who are just purely, cartoonishly vile. Disney, much as I love many of the movies, is particularly egregious about this. Jafar, Scar…there’s no way to understand them as human (lion), and the good guys flatten out as well, because they are so completely Good in contrast to the Evil. I try to write gloriously imperfect humans coming into conflict with other gloriously imperfect humans, with everyone doing what they do for reasons that make sense to them, and I strive to write them all sympathetically. That’s not to say that Evil has never existed in the world, but plenty of other story-makers are making those stories. Too many. For deconstructing binaries, No Evil is the way to go.

Challenge “Normal”

Inevitably, in each binary we humans invent, one side weighs heavier than the other side, and then some less-than-ideal things start to happen. One is that generally the heavier side gets to decide what counts as “normal,” and that can lead to the lighter side getting defined as abnormal, freakish, less than, other. To counter this, Post-Binary Narrative includes the idea of challenging and even subverting this pattern. I have gotten reviews that complain that there are too many queer characters in my stories. In my first book, Felix Yz, I did it just for the lark, but in the new one it’s very much on purpose, as queer family of choice is a powerful force for good in Zen’s life. Within the bounds of both these stories, the nerdy geeky Rainbow Folk are the “normal” of the story, and the cis/het characters are the ones fluttering around the edges. This subversion jostles the comfortable in a fruitful way, and is definitely part of the playbook.

Fight Injustice

This is a distinct and more serious version of challenging “normal.” When the imbalance of power in various binaries gets entrenched in how our culture operates, we get outcomes like systemic racism and the glass ceiling. I mean, for crying out loud, when are we going to finally elect our first female President? Such interleaved injustices are challenging to name, describe, and dismantle, not least because those in power constantly offer counter-narratives that tell us that we’re wrong, that we’re imagining it, that we’re over-reacting, that they’re just kidding, that it’s our own damn fault anyway. Gaslighting is rampant around these ingrained power-imbalances, and we have to keep crafting narratives that push back against it. It’s crucial to the future well-being of our species as a whole.

Remember “We”

In these increasingly polarized and reactive times, I think it is essential that at least some of us keep trying to find ways to say “we” and “us” that actually mean all of us, not just other humans sharing our particular bubble. And, we need to do it while holding the “fight injustice” provision in our hearts at the same time. It’s like when #blacklivesmatter happened, and there was the immediate reactive response of #alllivesmatter. The Post-Binary Narrative response to that is, “Yes, true, in one sense, but that’s not what we’re talking about right now. We’re talking about a world where unarmed black teens get gunned down by police and then told it was their own fault. Of course all lives matter, but we have a problem, all of us together, that we still need to fix.

Practice Love

I’ve chosen the verb on purpose for its dual meanings: “practice” as in enacting something in the world, and “practice” as in continuously working at it because it’s hard to do. In particular, it can be hard to give some version of love back to someone who is pointing hate at you. Sometimes we can’t, and that’s OK too. But as much as possible, speaking for myself, I try to offer love back to everyone, all the time. Or, at least, refrain from hating back. Not much more to say about this – it’s pretty simple.

Human scale stories, with no Evil, that challenge accepted ideas of what constitutes “normal” and that fight injustice, while recognizing that we are all humans and that all humans are worthy to love and be loved. That’s Post-Binary Narrative. I respectfully submit that our poor over-burdened planet needs more of it.