Pride Spotlight: Black Queer YA

Pride Month Spotlight: Black Queer YA

June is Pride Month. With the pandemic still affecting the economic situation of LGBTQ people and current legislation negatively affecting trans youth, it may seem we don’t have much to celebrate.

Yet the fact that we continue to survive, fight, and triumph in small and large ways is worth being happy about. One of the most notable things is the rise of Black LGBTQ+ authors in young adult fiction.

A decade ago, the only Black queer author I knew of who wrote teen fiction was Jacqueline Woodson. Now I can name at least a dozen authors. From verse novels to fantasy, Black LGBTQ+ authors have been leaving a colorful mark for a new generation to see. Check out some of the Black queer YA books I’ve enjoyed over the past few years.

The Black VeinsThe Black Veins book cover by Ashia Monet

Nothing says summer like a road trip, even a world-saving one. This is what happens to Blythe Fulton, a Black bisexual Elemental Guardian, after her family is kidnapped and taken to the Trident Republic. Of course, she can’t rescue her family on her own, so she must recruit other Elemental Guardians to help her.

In addition to the magic and action, I really enjoyed the downtime the characters experience in this book. The friendship is so fun and heartwarming, especially because there is some flirting but no romance whatsoever.

Felix Ever After by Kacen Callender

Not only is this book set during Pride Month in NYC, but it is also about a Black trans demi boy learning to have pride in himself. After his pre-transition photos are leaked, Felix Love must find the culprit while reexamining who he is and the kind of love he wants from others.

Felix’s personal journey is poignant because it shows that one’s gender identity isn’t necessarily set in stone after coming out. Furthermore, it demonstrates the importance of standing up for who you are, even if it means having hard conversations with friends and family.

The Summer of Everything by Julian Winters

Spending summer working in a bookstore may seem like a lot of fun, especially when it’s a safe space. But what if the bookstore is in danger of closing? Eighteen-year-old Wesley Hudson deals with this with the used bookstore Once Upon a Page. Not to mention, he is struggling to plan his older brother’s wedding, figure out his future plans, and confess his crush on his best friend, Nico Alvarez.

All of these things are a part of something that Wesley has been avoiding: adulthood. As Wesley deals with a lot over the course of the novel, he manages to figure out what is most important to him with the help of a colorful cast of characters.

Let’s Talk about Love by Claire Kann

Being in college is difficult, especially when your girlfriend breaks up with you for being asexual. On top of that, Alice is also trying to figure out her career path. Things become even more complicated when she ends up with a crush on her new library co-worker Takumi. What’s a Black biromantic girl to do?

This book lives up to its title as Alice figures out what she loves to do in order to identify her future career and redefine what love means, both romantically and in terms of friendship. Not only does this book show how complex love can be, it also shows that it’s worth discussing and exploring with others.

Magnifique Noir by Briana Lawrence

College-aged everyday young women by day. Magical girls by night (and sometimes day too). This is the basic premise of Magnifique Noir, a book series about a Black queer team of magical girls. The first book in the series focuses on gamer girl Bree Danvers and boxer Lonnie Knox as they take their first steps as magical girls alongside baker Marianna Jacobs, who is the most experienced of the three.

The second book copes with the aftermath of the first and demonstrates the importance of mental health and taking care of yourself. Both feature short comics and colorful art that enhance the narrative and give the sparkly antics extra shine. They also tackle certain experiences in a mature manner, such as misogynoir, difficult parents, and online trolls.

The Black Flamingo by Dean Atta

My favorite definition of poetry is “imagination written in verse.” When this definition is applied to verse that tries to define the poet’s self, the verses themselves become a source of power. This is the case with The Black Flamingo, which tells the story of Michael Angelis, a Black British gay man with Greek-Jamaican heritage.

Through performance and verse, Michael blossoms beautifully as we read his story from childhood to burgeoning young adulthood. By using a flamingo as a metaphor to figure himself out, Michael learns to stand out and be proud.

The Afro YA promotes black young adult authors and YA books with black characters, especially those that influence Pennington, an aspiring YA author who believes that black YA readers need diverse books, creators, and stories so that they don’t have to search for their experiences like she did.

Latonya Pennington is a poet and freelance pop culture critic. Their freelance work can also be found at PRIDE, Wear Your Voice magazine, and Black Sci-fi. As a poet, they have been published in Fiyah Lit magazine, Scribes of Nyota, and Argot magazine among others.

Top photo by Anete Lusina from Pexels

 

Terrible Awful Beauty

Terrible Awful Beauty

by Angela Voras-Hills

The night Trump was elected, I lay in bed awake all night, wondering if a nuke would reach the Midwest. I was sure we would all explode before the night was over. Lots of people were afraid in different ways, but my fears always culminate in the explosion of the world. Have you seen the movie Melancholia? That is always where my mind ends up.

When I was pregnant, I was afraid of falling. I was afraid the baby wasn’t kicking. I went to the doctor a lot to be sure she was still alive. But then, she was born, and the fears were bigger. There was not a squishy waterball around her body to protect her if she fell. I was afraid if a knife was in the same room as her. I was afraid of stairs. I was afraid of sleeping and of not sleeping. Don’t get me started about crossing roads.

Two Months Before My Son Leaves for Belgium, We Visit the Zoo

 

And a few months before that, the airport is bombed. I get message
message message: am I letting him go? And maybe I’m to blame,
because I never told them I’d once caught him running on the roof
of our third-floor, that he was once hit so hard by a car his shoes
flew from his feet into air (a story I heard as his friends joked
about the lady who’d hit him, who’d cried and hugged him in the road,
making sure he was ok), or when, just three days before the bombing,
a high school kid scrawled plans to shoot everyone on a bathroom stall.
And so, two months before my son boards a plane to Belgium, we feed
giraffes, and he poses with peacocks. He wants to see reptiles and primates,
his sister wants elephants, crocodiles, never stops running until she sees a baby
kangaroo—we all stop and watch him hop around his mother
who lays on the concrete floor, bored. He cleans her ears, jumps
on her head to engage her in play, and she swats him away. He is already
half her size, but clearly still a baby. He doesn’t give up until finally
she stands, and I say I think he’ll climb into her pouch! My son doesn’t
believe the joey will fit, and I tell him he will fit, and then, an illusion—
the pouch one minute tucked against the kangaroo’s belly, stretches,
touches the ground as the joey climbs in head-first, shuffles and turns
settling in. After that, there is little to see. Black paws peek from the belly.
The mother nibbles her fingers, drags her baby toward a food bowl, and I
follow her eyes down the dark corridor toward the metal door bursting
open, the light blasting in, my daughter running out into it.

Most moms I know spend a lot of time at Target. The Dollar Spot. The end-cap clearance. The Starbucks. They go for toilet paper and spend $100. I am occasionally a mom who does this, and I don’t call this out to judge, but to say, when I am afraid, I go to Target. It feels safe there. (Though I’ve seen enough shooting footage at Walmarts to know better.) It’s easy enough to drink a latte, push my kids in the cart while they play with a random toy I won’t buy, and pick out a pretty thing or two that will make my life easier.

When I spend a lot of time at Target (or, more recently, internet shopping), I write nothing. I let all of my anxieties be swept away by faux eucalyptus wreaths, bamboo potato bins, vetiver candles— the promise of an organized home, manageable children, an “Instagram-worthy” life. But when I get these things home, I am unsatisfied. Most things I buy, I return within a week.

Haunted

 

Living alone, I’d call my mom, make her listen
as I moved room-to-room
looking in closets, behind doors,
under the bed, anywhere

a man could fit. I plugged my curling iron in
each day before showering, imagined
identifying a man in a lineup
by his melted cheek,

his missing eye. By then, I’d seen enough
Law & Order reruns to play each scene
out until sentencing. Ever since
I was a kid, I’ve wanted things

to be fair, believed hand-on-my-heart
in liberty and justice for all, but I’ve also
been so afraid. Mostly of a death
I’d have to live through—

drowning, fire, kidnapping that ends with me
tied up in a hole filling with dirt.
My daughter is scared of ghosts,
believes they’re in each

corner of her dark room. I tell her
they’re not real, but once playing Ouija
at the cabin with cousins,
we contacted The Blue Ghost

and the light above us flickered blue/
burnt out, left us in dark woods alone.
So who’s to say? I’ve never walked
through a haunted house,

staged or otherwise, but my cousin
pissed her pants inside one, left
a puddle someone had to clean.
One year, the gun club

sponsored a haunted hayride, and I rode
through the forest, hay splintering
my ass through jeans, and when
a man jumped out of the dark

with a chainsaw buzzing at us, I thought,
“God, who knows if this is really
part of it? Who gets paid
to behave this way?”

This was years before a man
shot into a crowded concert
from a hotel window in Vegas
and before so many

defended his rights. I watch TV,
try to believe “these stories are fictional
and do not depict any actual
person or event.” My daughter

asks about monsters, and I say they’re not
real, but news breaks, and she knows
I’m lying. If ghosts are real,
what do they expect

from a four-year-old? By now,
you’d think we’d all have heard
the unsettled dead. You’d think
something would’ve changed.

It took me a while to recognize this cycle of consumerism and fear, and especially how it is encouraged among women, particularly mothers, and it is fed by social media. The amount of money a mom can spend on “baby gear,” and the sheer volume of stuff one can buy for a tiny human being who can only roll over, is a testament to this.

A few years ago, I watched the video The House in the Middle, which is a PSA made by the Civil Defense Department in the Fifties and sponsored by a paint company. The video suggests that if you (the housewife) keep your house clean (and well-painted), your family could survive a nuclear attack. Can you imagine? All you need to do is keep a clean house, and ta-da! Your family survived the nuke. From there, I read bomb-shelter shopping lists. I looked at fallout shelter meal plans. I looked at photo after photo of how mannequin families “survived” nuclear tests. All of these mannequins looked just like me. They looked like every mother I knew: cooking dinner, stocking the pantry, decorating the fallout shelter with new bedding, encouraged to buy things and stay busy.

The Mannequin Refreshes the Facebook Mom Group While Sitting on the Toilet

 

A pregnant woman has been reading— childbirth
sounds awful, bringing baby home is terrifying,
she wants someone to tell her it’s not. Someone
say it’s beautiful. And they do. 97 comments
gushing about the beauty, assuring her yes, it’s hard,
but you will only remember the joy of those first days,
they go so fast. The mannequin has had enough
babies to mostly remember the awful, the weight
of body after body escaping her own, she can barely
read the comments without feeling cheated
out of forgetting, so she scrolls past them, another
mom wants recommendations for a nutritionist,
her husband won’t let their toddler eat sugar, natural
or otherwise, and her toddler is losing so much weight
so fast now that he’s weaning, and that’s as far
as the mannequin gets before the door bursts open,
and a photo appears in her Facebook feed, and it’s
her baby a year ago, and here’s her baby today, and
she sees he was beautiful—the baby on the duvet,
stretching in his new skin, now wobbling in
on chubby legs, such terrible, awful beauty.

Jareen Imam author photo

Poet, community organizer, and instructor Angela Voras-Hills grew up in Wisconsin. She earned an MFA from the University of Massachusetts Boston. She is the author of the poetry collection Louder Birds (2020), selected by Traci Brimhall for the Lena-Miles Wever Todd Prize.

Voras-Hills has received grants from the Sustainable Arts Foundation and Key West Literary Seminar as well as a fellowship from the Writers’ Room of Boston. She cofounded The Watershed: A Place for Writers, a literary arts organization, which evolved into Arts + Literature Laboratory in Madison, Wisconsin. She lives with her family in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Best Books to Give Black Readers This Holiday Season, 2020

Best Books to Give Black Readers This Holiday Season, 2020

Many of us have had our ability to read diminished by this stressful year, myself included.

One thing that kept me reviewing books for this column was the hope that my review could either make the author happy or make a potential reader happy. Despite everything going on, I’ve still managed to read, review, and discuss some fun and powerful middle grade and YA books this year.

With the holiday season upon us, it is the perfect time to whittle down your To Be Read pile. Whether you want to read for yourself or get a book for someone else, I have plenty of suggestions for you. Here are the middle grade and young adult books that are perfect gifts for Black readers this holiday 2020.

Magnifique Noir Book 2: You Are Magical by Briana Lawrence

I’ve been a big fan of Briana Lawrence’s Magnifique Noir comic book novel series for a few reasons. One is that the artwork for the series oozes fun and quirky Black Girl Magic, with sparkles, glitter, and bright colors used to depict its Black queer college-aged heroines. Another reason is that these books tackle difficult topics that Black girls and women experience, such as misogynoir, the Strong Black Girl archetype, and respectability politics. If you’ve got an older teen or adult reader in your life who enjoys Sailor Moon or Black coming-of-age stories, this book (and the rest of the series) is perfect for them.

(Full Review)

The Black Flamingo by Dean Atta

Novels in verse and coming-of-age stories go together like peanut butter and jelly, especially when the main character is on a journey of self-discovery. This is the case with Michael Angeli, the Black gay UK lead of Dean Atta’s The Black Flamingo. Michael undergoes an artistic and personal transformation that is expressed in verse and told in a compelling story arc involving his discovery of drag culture. Poetry lovers will fall head over heels for this book.

(Full Review)

The Beauty That Remains by Ashley Woodfolk

There have been many losses this year, and the grief can be overwhelming to experience alone. While this book won’t completely alleviate it, seeing the way its characters experience and come to terms with their grief may provide some comfort. Shay, Logan, and Autumn’s stories are told from each character’s perspective in a way that demonstrates how differently grief affects people and how a medium such as music can help you remember a loved one.

(Full Review)

Tristan Strong Destroys The World by Kwame Mbalia

This memorable fantasy sequel shows that being a hero isn’t always easy, especially when your mind is still traumatized by your last adventure. Tristan Strong, the savior of Alke, knows this well, even as he knows he must return to the land of Alke, the now war-torn magical land of African and African American myths and folklore. Yet magic and life still remains within the land, even as a new force arises to destroy what is left of it. Through Tristan, readers embark on an epic adventure starring characters old and new.

(Full Review) | (Book 1 Review)

Felix Ever After by Kacen Callender

Although this coming of age book is set during Pride Month in NYC, the themes of family, friendship, self discovery, and self love are timeless. The story of Felix Love, an artistic Black trans demiboy, will resonate with anyone who has had to fight to define themselves on their own terms and needed the right words or medium to do so. After Felix’s pre-transition photos are revealed to the world, Felix must figure out who is responsible while asking himself and those around him some hard questions about his identity. Featuring the highs and the lows of Black queer coming of age experiences, this book demonstrates that your own personal happiness is worth believing in.

(Full Review)

The Afro YA promotes black young adult authors and YA books with black characters, especially those that influence Pennington, an aspiring YA author who believes that black YA readers need diverse books, creators, and stories so that they don’t have to search for their experiences like she did.

Latonya Pennington is a poet and freelance pop culture critic. Their freelance work can also be found at PRIDE, Wear Your Voice magazine, and Black Sci-fi. As a poet, they have been published in Fiyah Lit magazine, Scribes of Nyota, and Argot magazine among others.

Top photo by Any Lane via Pexels

 

“Tristan Strong Destroys the World” Is a Magical Tale of Intergenerational Trauma

“Tristan Strong Destroys the World” Is a Magical Tale of Intergenerational Trauma

Kwame Mbalia’s Tristan Strong Destroys the World begins one month after the events of the first book. Tristan Strong and the mythical world of Alke are traumatized—but their battles are far from over.

When folk hero John Henry is attacked by a mysterious enemy and Tristan’s grandmother is kidnapped, Tristan must journey to Alke once more to save what’s left of the realm before its stories are lost forever.

One of the things that immediately grabbed my attention about this novel is the fact that Tristan is traumatized by his previous adventures. He has nightmares and distracted thoughts even when he needs to go save the world of Alke again. This is compelling, because I haven’t read a lot of books that show the effects of a grand yet dangerous adventure on a hero’s psyche. In most sequels, the hero seems perfectly fine emotionally and is ready to tackle the next adventure. It is wonderful for young readers to see that it is okay not to be okay, even when you’re a hero.

In addition, Tristan’s trauma allows him to better empathize with the residents of Alke, the world of beings from African and African American myths and folktales. Alke has literal scars and emotional ones, and things only get worse for it as the plot thickens. Yet there is also beauty, life, and history in Alke, and to see Tristan search for and attempt to protect those aspects of the world is poignant and emotional. By telling and collecting stories of Alke’s history, Tristan is able to put his skills as an “Ananseem” to good use in order to get to the heart of Alke’s current problems.

I haven’t read a lot of books that show the effects of a grand yet dangerous adventure on a hero’s psyche. … It is wonderful for young readers to see that it is okay not to be okay, even when you’re a hero.

Part of Alke’s history lies within characters old and new. This second book in the Tristan Strong series sees the return of spunky doll Gum Baby and crafty trickster god Anansi (albeit in phone form), but it also introduces new characters like the mischievous and mouthy boy Junior. The introduction of new African and Black women characters in this book makes up for the lack of them in the first one. There is adventurous folk hero Keelboat Annie, resourceful juke joint owner Lady Night, and regal goddess Mami Wata. And I would be remiss to fail to note that Tristan’s grandmother, Nana, also has a larger role in this book as Tristan’s source of strength and inspiration.

Alke’s history consists of elements rooted in African American history and culture. These elements range from the painful and ugly to the lively and the resilient, embodied in everything from the new antagonist, DJ Culture Vulture, to the jollof rice served at Lady Night’s juke joint. A personal favorite of mine is the SPB, the portable smartphone version of Alke’s Story Box and the new home for trickster god Anansi. It was fun to see more of the phone in action after the events of the first book, especially through the new “Diaspor-app” that allows Tristan to see how Alke’s stories are connected to the Diapora.

Combining Alke’s history, Tristan’s trauma, and Alke’s current issues, Tristan Strong Destroys the World offers a compelling tale of intergenerational trauma and recovery. Whether it be through family, history, or a bit of both, many African Americans deal with intergenerational trauma in one way or other. Not only is this story a good way to teach the concept to younger readers, but older readers can also learn something from it as well.

Tristan Strong Destroys the World offers a compelling tale of intergenerational trauma and recovery. … Not only is this story a good way to teach the concept to younger readers, but older readers can also learn something from it as well.

Tristan Strong Destroys the World is a powerful sequel to its predecessor. There is more magic, action, and stories to learn from than ever before. If the ending is any indication, things are going to be even more epic in the next book of the trilogy. For now, though, readers who enjoyed Tristan Strong’s first adventure can join him once more and have their world rocked.

The Afro YA promotes black young adult authors and YA books with black characters, especially those that influence Pennington, an aspiring YA author who believes that black YA readers need diverse books, creators, and stories so that they don’t have to search for their experiences like she did.

Latonya Pennington is a poet and freelance pop culture critic. Their freelance work can also be found at PRIDE, Wear Your Voice magazine, and Black Sci-fi. As a poet, they have been published in Fiyah Lit magazine, Scribes of Nyota, and Argot magazine among others.

“The Beauty That Remains” Is a Raw and Liberating Meditation on Grief and Music

“The Beauty That Remains” Is a Raw and Liberating Meditation on Grief and Music

Grief that results from the loss of a loved one is something we all experience at some point. Experiencing death as a teenager or young adult is especially painful, however, because these are formative years when having your loved ones around is crucial.

In Ashley Woodfolk’s 2018 book The Beauty That Remains, Autumn, Shay, and Logan gradually learn to cope with their grief and become connected by their mutual love for the band Unraveling Lovely.

Told through the viewpoints of the aforementioned characters, The Beauty That Remains provides a strong, intricate narrative about grief that is very notable. In the initial aftermath of their losses, each of the characters copes differently. Autumn tries to go about her daily life as it was before the death of her friend Tavia but soon finds herself sending emails to Tavia and pushing away Tavia’s brother, Dante. After her twin sister, Sasha, dies, Shay attempts to run away from her grief. Finally, Logan deals with the death of his ex-boyfriend Bram through self-destructive behaviors such as drinking.

In addition to the leads, their lost loved ones are fully fleshed out characters who have a presence in their lives even after their passing. Tavia, aka Octavia, is boisterous, loving, and inspirational; she is a nice foil to the quiet, introverted Korean artist Autumn. Sasha’s enthusiasm about music is both painful and comforting to Shay, a Black indie rock music blogger. Bram’s troubled and gregarious nature haunts gay red-headed musician Logan to the point where he can’t write songs, but he can watch his ex-boyfriend’s old YouTube videos.

Not only do the lead characters cope with their grief differently, they also get help for it in different ways. Logan is forced to see a psychiatrist by his parents after he gets caught with his father’s liquor. Following an emotional breakdown, Autumn slowly learns to open up to Dante, her older sister Willow, and Tavia’s ex-boyfriend Perry. Meanwhile, Shay gets an unexpected intervention that leads her and her mother to different support groups. It is moving to watch each character find solace in someone or something they didn’t think would help them process their grief.

All of the characters show how complicated and messy grief can be. Sometimes, grief will make you lash out at loved ones, avoid them, or self-destruct. These responses are neither healthy nor excusable, but they happen. Grief can also result in strong physical reactions, such as the panic attacks that Shay has. Autumn’s sister Willow sums up the situation well when she says that Dante and Autumn have suffered “a great trauma.” Given that some people think grief is a temporary mood, like anger or sadness, it is gratifying to see grief depicted as something that strongly impacts mental, physical, and emotional health.

As a result of coming to terms with their grief, each of the lead characters is able to see “the beauty that remains,” which can be understood as the good things they still have despite who they have lost. Not only do they have loving friends and family who are still alive, they also have small and big things in their lives that they can enjoy. For Autumn, it’s drawing and reading books. For Shay, it’s running track. And for Logan, it’s writing songs. Yet the common love they all share is music, especially the band Unraveling Lovely.

Most of us know that music can be a powerful way to soothe and convey feelings that are otherwise difficult to express. When seen through the lens of grief, music can be both painful and wonderful. This is demonstrated when Shay walks out on a live performance of an Unraveling Lovely song that was sung to Sasha before she died. Music is a coping mechanism for all the characters, but they engage with it in different ways. Shay is a music blogger for her and Sasha’s website BAMF (Badass Music Fanatics), Logan is the former vocalist and songwriter for the band Unraveling Lovely, and Autumn listens to music, watches music-inspired films, and has Unraveling Lovely’s former guitarist Dante as her love interest.

While there was much about The Beauty That Remains that I enjoyed, I would point out that the book’s huge cast is both a strength and a weakness. On the one hand, the characters are diverse in terms of ethnicity, gender, and orientation, and almost every character plays a role in the healing the lead characters undergo. On the other hand, there were times I mixed up the characters or forgot who certain ones were, especially those who were in different bands. However, this did not ruin my enjoyment of the book.

All in all, The Beauty That Remains is a raw and liberating meditation on grief and music. Grief is a traumatic experience that everyone deals with differently, but this book shows that with help, you can still have wonderful things in your life despite the loss you’ve experienced. With music as their common thread, the characters blog, sing, and listen to words that bring them solace and keep the memory of their lost loved ones alive.

The Afro YA promotes black young adult authors and YA books with black characters, especially those that influence Pennington, an aspiring YA author who believes that black YA readers need diverse books, creators, and stories so that they don’t have to search for their experiences like she did.

Latonya Pennington is a poet and freelance pop culture critic. Their freelance work can also be found at PRIDE, Wear Your Voice magazine, and Black Sci-fi. As a poet, they have been published in Fiyah Lit magazine, Scribes of Nyota, and Argot magazine among others.

Top photo by Stas Knop from Pexels

 

“The Summer of Everything” Is a Fun and Heartfelt Teen Summer Rom-Com

“The Summer of Everything” Is a Fun and Heartfelt Teen Summer Rom-Com

Summer tends to be the most fun time for teen coming-of-age stories because some of the best ones take place outside of school.

The movie High School Musical 2 and Claire Kann’s book Let’s Talk about Love immediately come to mind. Now, Julian Winters’s The Summer of Everything is adding a new story to the teen summer coming-of-age lexicon, one that takes place in Santa Monica in the fictional used bookstore Once Upon a Page.

Wesley Hudson is an eighteen-year-old Black gay comic book geek who planned to spend his entire summer working at Once Upon a Page and somehow confessing his feelings to his best friend and crush, Nico Alvarez. Adulthood looms in more ways than one, however: his father keeps asking about his plans for a college major, his brother, Leo, wants him to help with wedding planning, and Once Upon a Page is in danger of being bought out. Soon, all these issues pile up, and Wesley must learn to face adulthood head on.

One aspect of the book that immediately drew me in was Wesley Hudson’s internal voice. He sounds chill, anxious, and nerdy all at once due to the pressures of adulthood towering over him. A bit of internal dialogue that demonstrates this goes, “Frankly, Wes doesn’t know who he wants to be in five minutes. An influencer? A teacher? Alive after suffering through that last chapter of his mom’s book?” Wes’s voice is also evident in the various lists he makes to weigh his options and determine how much he likes someone or something. For example, his list titled “Five Things I Love the Most” has Once Upon a Page at number two. He calls the store his “safe place” where he doesn’t have any stress and can be himself.

In addition to Wesley himself, there is a wonderful cast of characters that play a role inside and outside of the bookstore. Wesley’s best friend and crush, Nico Alvarez, is a kind and compassionate skateboarder and a good foil to Wesley’s flaws. Ella Graham is a fat bestie with sarcastic wit who is something of a slacker. Kyra is a Black lesbian who organizes the events for the bookstore. Zay functions as a sort of music DJ for the bookstore. Lucas, one of the youngest bookstore workers, is a shy comic book lover. There are other notable characters, too, like Wes’s inscrutable older brother, Leo, but the main teen cast stands out due to their fun personalities and diverse queerness. They are a near perfect cast for a coming-of-age teen rom-com.

With the help of all the characters, Wesley eventually grows into a more mature and level-headed person. One notable aspect of Wes’s coming of age is how the book shows that it is impossible for anyone to be completely sure of what they what with their life by a certain age. There is pressure on teens and twentysomethings to have certain things done in a certain amount of time, such as going to college or having a particular amount of money in savings. As demonstrated by dialogue between Wes and Zay, kids of color feel an intense pressure to live up to their parents’ expectations. Although Wes’s personal circumstances can’t be applied to everyone, there are moments of uncertainty and lack of direction that will resonate with the reader.

Providing the backdrop for Wesley and the others is the bookstore and the Santa Monica area where the story takes place. Both places come to life through sights, tastes, and sound that will even make the most unfamiliar reader feel as if they are right there with Wesley and the others. As someone who has frequented big chain and some small chain bookstores, I found the bookstore interactions were realistic and enjoyable to read. There are stressed-out parents telling their kids to hurry up and pick a book, coworkers “canceling” each other’s music selections for the store, and tender one-on-one conversations.

A particularly endearing aspect of the character interactions is how no particular type of relationship is depicted as more important than the other. This is especially notable given that some teen rom-coms tend to make the romance the central focus of the plot. Wes does have a crush on his best friend, but he also has to work on being a good friend to Nico in the meantime. Furthermore, Wes has to make a relationship with his brother, Leo, work in order to get his help to try to save the bookstore while he helps plan Leo’s wedding. Meanwhile, the group interactions are just as hilarious and heartfelt outside the bookstore as they are inside it.

My only issue with the book is how unrealistic Wes’s living situation seems at times. Even though he does have friends and family who bring him food, has his own job, and can live alone unsupervised, it felt a little weird to not see his parents check up on him more often, even if they are working abroad. It would be more understandable if Wes were living on campus in college, but his having barely any adults around seemed unusual.

All in all, The Summer of Everything is a fun and heartfelt teen summer story. If you’re looking for a bookish, geeky, and queer teen summer novel, then this four-star book should more than satisfy your needs.

Disclosure: I received a digital ARC from the publisher and Caffeine Book Tours in exchange for a review. This post is a part of the ‘Summer of Everything’ book blog tour.

About the Author

Julian Winters is a best-selling and award-winning author of contemporary young adult fiction. His novels Running with Lions (Duet, 2018) and How to Be Remy Cameron (Duet, 2019) received accolades for their positive depictions of diverse, relatable characters. A former management trainer, Julian currently lives outside of Atlanta where he can be found reading, being a self-proclaimed comic book geek, or watching the only two sports he can follow—volleyball and soccer.

The Afro YA promotes black young adult authors and YA books with black characters, especially those that influence Pennington, an aspiring YA author who believes that black YA readers need diverse books, creators, and stories so that they don’t have to search for their experiences like she did.

Latonya Pennington is a poet and freelance pop culture critic. Their freelance work can also be found at PRIDE, Wear Your Voice magazine, and Black Sci-fi. As a poet, they have been published in Fiyah Lit magazine, Scribes of Nyota, and Argot magazine among others.