“Who Put This Song On?” Is a Heartfelt Exploration of Identity and Mental Health

Due to my intensely personal experience with depression, I was really interested in Morgan Parker’s semiautobiographical debut young adult book, Who Put This Song On? Set in 2008 in a conservative Southern California town, the book follows the story of Morgan Parker, who is told depression is something that happens to people who lack faith, and that her Blackness shouldn’t be mentioned too much. Following a mental health crisis, Morgan decides to figure out who she is. Armed with an expansive soundtrack of mostly 2000s emo music, Morgan examines herself and everything she has been told in order to find out who she wants to be.

Armed with an expansive soundtrack of mostly 2000s emo music, Morgan examines herself and everything she has been told in order to find out who she wants to be.

One of the things I immediately liked about the book was the voice of Morgan Parker’s teen self. She sounds tired, but also curious and resilient. She has hit rock bottom, but she is willing to climb out of the hole depression caused her to fall into. Above all, Parker’s teen self has a voice filled with hard-won clarity that results in honest observations about her mental health, her identity, and the world around her.

Morgan’s teenage voice is enhanced with diary entries, emails, and a Yellow Notebook in which she and her friends write about their exploits in sex, romance, and crushes. One of my personal favorite lines is, “I have no idea if I have the hypothetical and figurative balls to be a Black Panther or actual Rosa Parks… sometimes I don’t even know if I want to keep being alive. But as long as I’m here, and I’m me, I will definitely be intense, ridiculous, passionate, and sometimes hilarious.”

In addition to Morgan herself, the secondary cast of characters is also worth mentioning. There’s her white best friends Meg and James, her Black love interests David Santos and Sean Santos-Orenstein, the racist history teacher Mr. K, and Morgan’s family. All of these characters affect Morgan both positively and negatively, and the nuanced way they are presented adds depth to the narrative. At one point, Meg has to be called out by Morgan when Meg says, “You’re not really Black,” even though Morgan considers Meg a friend.

It’s worth noting, too, that the way Morgan is treated by her small town and family is influenced by mental health stigma, her religiously conservative community, and the 2008 political climate. To her white peers and white adults, Morgan is expected to be excited at the possibility of a Black president as well as an authority on Black history, even as she is asked not to bring up her Blackness too much.

Moreover, Morgan’s family alternates between treating Morgan like a difficult, fragile person to be around and treating her as someone who is trying her best to live. They know Morgan is going through a difficult time, but they don’t quite understand it. They let Morgan see a therapist and help her get access to antidepressants, but they also try to avoid the issue and frequently blame Morgan herself until they realize their mistake.

“I have no idea if I have the hypothetical and figurative balls to be a Black Panther or actual Rosa Parks… sometimes I don’t even know if I want to keep being alive. But as long as I’m here, and I’m me, I will definitely be intense, ridiculous, passionate, and sometimes hilarious.”

Still, there are characters in the book who are more sensitive toward Morgan’s mental health issues and open-minded about her questioning of religion, Blackness, and her place in the world. Cousins David and Sean Santos fill this role as both love interests and new friends. When David first meets Morgan, he helps her through a panic attack, and they talk about their favorite movies. Both David and Sean are notable for being presented as added emotional support, rather than cure-alls for Morgan’s depression.

Finally, the music references are a fun bonus throughout the book. Although I was only familiar with one or two of the artists, it was nice to see a Black girl coping with her depression through emo music without anyone giving her a hard time about it. Seeing so many different 00’s emo music artists mentioned rang true to my own experiences of my teens and early twenties.

In the end, this book was a heartfelt exploration of identity and mental health. Who Put This Song On? shows that you don’t have to let your mental illness or other people determine who you can be, even if you’re tired of fighting. By questioning what you are taught and forming your own sense of self, you can change your personal potential for the better.

Top photo by insung yoon on Unsplash

“Felix Ever After” Shows That the Love You Deserve Is Inside and Out

Having a sense of self-worth is important for any LGBTQ+ person, but especially for queer trans people of color. Our race often means that we are ignored among the LGBTQ+ community, while our gender identity and sexual orientation get scorned or overlooked among allocishet people of color. To that end, it is often up to QTPOC to support each other and show each other that we are worthy of life, love, and happiness.

In Kacen Callender’s Felix After Ever, protagonist Felix Love is an artistic trans boy who wants to experience romantic love. When his pre-transition photos are leaked for the world to see, he must figure out the culprit while examining his own sense of self and what kind of love he deserves. Through his experiences with others, Felix Love must look at who and what should determine his self-worth.

In Kacen Callender’s Felix After Ever, protagonist Felix Love is an artistic trans boy who wants to experience romantic love. When his pre-transition photos are leaked for the world to see, he must figure out the culprit while examining his own sense of self and what kind of love he deserves.

One of the most notable things about this book is how it shows the harmful effect of transmisia on Felix’s self-worth. His father helped Felix transition, but he can’t bring himself to say Felix’s name. Ezra Patel, Felix’s best friend, is sensitive and understanding, but another “friend” is revealed to be trans exclusionary. In turn, the behavior of family and friends, and the experience of having his pre-transition photos displayed, make Felix feel he wouldn’t be enough for any lover. The dialogue and scenes combine with Felix’s internal thoughts to convey his pain, but they also motivate Felix to confront transmisia by holding his family and friends accountable.

In fact, Felix’s relationships with family and friends are notable for their joy as well as their pain. Felix’s friendship with Ezra is wonderful and complex, in that they have fun together but also have hard, honest discussions about their future and themselves. At one point, Felix and Ezra fight because Felix is projecting his insecurities onto Ezra. As a rebuttal, Ezra points this out without invalidating Felix’s feelings. They do all of this while examining Ezra’s class privilege as the child of wealthy parents and the pressure that Felix feels as a child of a working-class father. Their friendship is never depicted as perfect, nor as competitive, but as a relationship based on support, care, and honest communication.

Felix’s relationships with family and friends are notable for their joy as well as their pain. 

Meanwhile, Felix’s father is a source of financial and emotional support, despite Felix’s issues with him. Given that Felix’s mom left them years ago, Felix and his dad must learn to make their relationship with each other work—not to mention Felix can’t quite let go of his mother, and he’s constantly drafting unsent emails to her. A particularly poignant bit of dialogue occurs when Felix and his dad discuss Felix’s mom and how some love can be unhealthy to hold on to when you’re getting less than you deserve. This conversation has an impact on Felix that stays with him when he undergoes his introspective journey.

Speaking of which, Felix’s internal journey is an emotional roller coaster. Prior to having his photos leaked, Felix was already feeling stressed because of interpersonal issues, his ongoing questioning about his gender identity, and feeling that he needs to prove himself by going to an elite university. Once things go south, Felix gets angry enough to pursue revenge against the person he assumes leaked his photos while dealing with online harassment in the aftermath. Yet his frustration also urges him to hold his loved ones accountable for their transmisia and seek answers about his gender identity via an in-person support group and online resources.

While some might find Felix unlikable for his revenge plan, his reaction is totally realistic, and his feelings are never invalidated—nor are they completely condoned. His revenge plan turns out to be less cut-and-dried than it first appears, and Felix must learn to channel his anger in a healthier way while holding himself accountable for any harm he causes. In this sense, Felix feels like a true-to-life character: he is neither perfect nor a completely bad person.

A final aspect of this book that was enjoyable is how Felix eventually uses visual art as catharsis for his newfound self-love. Art in any form has long been a refuge for QTPOC to express themselves, and to see Felix learn to take time for himself and literally draw his true self into existence is beautiful. If the book’s cover is any indication, Felix’s final portrait encompasses all that he is in his vibrant glory.

Art in any form has long been a refuge for QTPOC to express themselves, and to see Felix learn to take time for himself and literally draw his true self into existence is beautiful. 

Despite some slow, suspense-building pacing, after the first hundred pages Felix After Ever is an engrossing coming-of-age novel that presents queer pride in all its complicated and powerful aspects. Readers will root for Felix as he learns that the love he deserves can be found inside himself, as well as outside himself among others who truly care for and respect him.

“A Song Below Water” Is a Compelling Story of Sisterhood, Magic, and Police Brutality

When I first learned about Bethany C. Morrow’s A Song Below Water and how it featured Black mermaids, I couldn’t help but think of mythology, especially the Yoruba orisha Yemaya and the water spirit Mami Wata. Depending on who you ask, some people interpret them as mermaids. I thought of them because I’ve wondered what a modern interpretation of a Black mermaid would be like. A Song Below Water managed to answer my question in a thought-provoking and touching way.

Tavia Phillips is a siren who must hide her powers in order to keep herself alive. Her best friend, Effie, is struggling with a painful past and strange happenings in the present. While they are trying to navigate their junior year of high school, a siren murder trial shakes Portland, Oregon, to the core. In the aftermath, Tavia and Effie must come together and come to terms with themselves.

I’ve wondered what a modern interpretation of a Black mermaid would be like. A Song Below Water managed to answer my question in a thought-provoking and touching way.

One of the most notable aspects of this book is how it blends fantasy and reality almost seamlessly. Mythical creatures such as sirens, elokos, and gargoyles exist alongside humans, albeit not peacefully. Sirens (and other mythical creatures) have always been interpreted as an allegory for a dangerous woman, but this is especially noticeable when applied to a Black female protagonist. Tavia Phillips’s experiences as a Black female siren parallel what real Black women deal with every day, especially when it comes to police brutality. Not only are they considered dangerous for simply existing, but their voices are often silenced and dismissed when they try to speak up.

In fact, I found this book hard to read sometimes because it is a reminder of how difficult living can be for Black girls and women. Tavia is physically and emotionally scarred by a desperate attempt to get rid of her siren abilities as a child, while Effie is battling anxiety and nightmares as a result of a traumatic experience with mythical creatures. At one point, Effie even states, “Black and female and a siren is just layers upon layers of trauma. One time I said she’s [Tavia’s] too young to deal with this, and she said we don’t get to be.” Yet what kept me reading the book were the moments of joy that Tavia and Effie experience together and by themselves.

When it comes to Tavia and Effie’s friendship, they are close enough to be sisters. Sometimes I forgot that they weren’t related by blood because their interactions with each other were just as beautiful and memorable as those I’ve seen between real and fictional siblings. A particularly memorable scene is when Effie and Tavia are gushing over fan fiction written for Euphemia, the fictional mermaid who Effie plays at the Ren faire. Scenes like this show that despite the hardships they are dealing with, Effie and Tavia still create moments when they can enjoy their youth.

Sirens have always been interpreted as an allegory for a dangerous woman, but this is especially noticeable when applied to a Black female protagonist.

Tavia and Effie’s individual character development is just as powerful as their sisterhood. Over the course of the book, Tavia learns to embrace her siren abilities and use them as a force for change. The potential of her siren abilities is explored further as Tavia realizes just how powerful she can be. Meanwhile, Effie comes to terms with her past and learns that what’s “wrong” with her can be something that is wonderful, even when the world says otherwise. The mystery around Effie’s past and present keeps the plot intriguing and develops into a wonderful coming-of-age story.

As much as I appreciated many aspects of the book, there were a few I didn’t like. The lack of explanation for what an eloko was resulted in me doing my own research and doing my best to imagine what they looked like in my head. It might be difficult for other visual readers like myself to “see” what elokos are without a fuller description.

Another aspect of the story that made me a little uncomfortable is how Tavia uses spasmodic dysphonia as a cover story for her siren abilities, as well as how she sometimes uses American Sign Language when she can’t speak without exposing her siren abilities. Her use of ASL is understandable, but the author’s decision to have Tavia pretend to have what is a real muscle disorder is problematic from the point of view of disability advocacy.

 A Song Below Water encourages Black girls to embrace their power, stick together, and never let themselves be silenced.

It’s not clear whether A Song Below Water is a standalone or the first book in a series. Either way, it’s a compelling read. While the portrayal of police brutality and Black trauma doesn’t make the book easy to digest, the sisterhood and magic are major payoffs. A Song Below Water encourages Black girls to embrace their power, stick together, and never let themselves be silenced.

Top photo by Briona Baker on Unsplash.

“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 Black Flamingo” Is an Electrifying, Poetic Declaration of Identity

As a Black Asian nonbinary queer femme from the United States, I find it fascinating to learn about what life is like for queer trans people of color around the world. Some countries have more queer freedom than others, but somehow international QTPOC always find a way to create a space to be themselves. This is exemplified in Dean Atta’s verse novel The Black Flamingo, which is heavily inspired by UK LGBTQ+ culture. It tells the story of  Michael “Michalis” Angeli, a gay British young man with Greek Jamaican heritage. Growing up, his multifaceted identity makes him feel out of place. After deciding to attend a university in Brighton, Michael joins a drag club and slowly discovers how to combine his identities and his lived experiences to make himself feel whole.

One of the most notable aspects of this book that immediately drew me in was how it flawlessly combines standard poetry with narrative storytelling. As in Elizabeth Acevedo’s The Poet X, this book’s protagonist becomes a poet and gradually uses his poetry to express his blossoming sexuality as well as his gender and his racial experiences. One of my personal favorite poems in this book is titled “I Come From,” which features Michael reveling in his heritage and the experiences that have shaped him to that point: “I come from DIY that never got done. / I come from waiting by the phone for him to call. / I come from waving the white flag to loneliness. / I come from the rainbow flag and the Union Jack.”

The narrative storytelling in verse is also remarkable because it shows Michael’s life from childhood to early adulthood. I haven’t read too many coming-of-age verse novels that present the character at different stages of their life. This choice allows the reader to see how both small and large experiences shape Michael as he grows up. For example, Michael recalls wanting to have a Barbie doll as a child and how his mom initially thought he was kidding, since boys are socially conditioned to like “boys’ toys” like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. In a more affecting episode, preteen Michael takes an Easter trip to Cyprus and hears about a black flamingo on the news.

In fact, seeing how different experiences shaped the development of Michael’s drag character, “The Black Flamingo,” was thought-provoking and poignant. Inspired by events such as having his dreadlocks touched by white people and reciting his poetry at an open mic, Michael’s becoming The Black Flamingo allows him to transform into a more confident and fuller self. The character also serves as the result of Michael’s growth as a person and how he has learned about, and unlearned, things like internalized racism and Black queer lives of the past and the present.

Seeing how different experiences shaped the development of Michael’s drag character, “The Black Flamingo,” was thought-provoking and poignant.

Furthermore, some of the experiences that influenced “The Black Flamingo” also give the reader an interesting glimpse into LGBTQ culture in the United Kingdom. The contrast between a gay bar and a Black queer gay bar, and the homophobia casually tossed around by schoolchildren with terms like “bwatty bwoy,” show how complex the experiences of Black queer UK youth are, especially those of the children of immigrants. Michael has to unlearn a lot, especially regarding gender norms and heteronormativity. Neither completely fertile nor arid, UK LGBTQ culture is represented as something that Black queer people must navigate well in order to grow into the people they want to be.

Michael’s story also gives the reader a solid introduction to drag culture, with clear and creative explanations of what it is and what it isn’t. Since Michael is new to drag culture, the reader is able to learn about it alongside him. I love these lines that sum up what Michael wants from drag culture: “I’m just a man and I want to wear a dress and makeup onstage…. I’m a man and I want to be a free one.”

While The Black Flamingo is enjoyable as-is, it would have been interesting to see what the Jamaican side of Michael’s family thought of his queerness. Michael doesn’t mention his queerness to them at all, since he knows it’s illegal to be gay in Jamaica and that his family might have brought some of that prejudice with them to the UK. It is entirely possible that some of Michael’s family will not accept him. Yet given how completely Michael’s Greek mom accepts his queerness, it would have been nice to see at least one member of Michael’s Jamaican family do the same.

On the whole, The Black Flamingo is an electrifying, poetic declaration of identity. Through poetry, coming-of-age perspectives, and drag, the novel offers a triumphant tale of transformation and self-expression.

Top photo by Wendy Wei from Pexels.

“How To Be Remy Cameron” Explores Identity with Complexity and Care

When other people define you based on labels, it can be hard for you to define yourself. This is the conflict at the center of Julian Winters’s second novel, How To Be Remy Cameron. After being assigned an essay about who he is, seventeen-year-old Remy Cameron must come to terms with the labels others have given him and how they fit into how he sees himself.

For Remy, the most suffocating labels are the gay kid, the Black one, and the adopted child. Each label is a reminder of his Otherness, and confronting them via an essay that’s worth half his grade and a chance at a prestigious college is overwhelming—as it would be for anyone who has attended public high school. In fact, Remy feels so overwhelmed that he refers to the essay as “The Essay of Doom.

When other people define you based on labels, it can be hard for you to define yourself. This is the conflict at the center of Julian Winters’s second novel, How To Be Remy Cameron.

While dealing with this essay and the labels placed upon him, he also experiences two life-changing events. The first is learning about a previously unknown member of his biological family. The second is crushing on Ian Park, a Korean young man who recently came to terms with his orientation and isn’t publicly out. These events are notable not only in terms of character development but also because they deliver refreshing storytelling.

As a reader, I really appreciated how Remy isn’t completely cut off from his biological family. Given that the book’s premise is about identity and his adopted family is white, it would have felt uncomfortable not to see him interact with any other Black people besides one of his friends. The biological family member who reaches out to Remy is wonderfully fleshed out, becoming a nice confidante while being her own character. Furthermore, the topic of adoption is explored in a sensitive and realistic manner through Remy’s adopted family and his biological family.

When it comes to Ian Park, Remy’s crush and their subsequent romance is both amusing and heartwarming. A particularly enjoyable aspect of their interactions is how they always ask each other permission to kiss and touch each other. Remy learns to do this from Ian, who in turn learned the importance of consent from his grandmother. It’s really nice to see Remy adapt to Ian’s needs this way, especially since Ian isn’t publicly out yet. Remy never tries to get Ian to do anything before he is ready to, and this allows Ian to explore his orientation at his own pace.

In addition to these events, other aspects of the storyline help Remy question his identity further. One enjoyable scene is a conversation about music tastes between Remy and Brook, another Black student. It moves from talking about their favorite music artists to how eclectic their tastes are and how music doesn’t define them. The dialogue shows how close the two are as friends while giving Remy a small nudge in his personal journey.

Speaking of friendship, Remy’s interactions with his circle of friends are fun to watch. Featuring the witty Lucy Reyes and the single-minded Rio, among others, their dialogue never sounds forced or too cheesy. Remy and Lucy’s scenes together are especially amusing, because Lucy teases Remy in a way that is friendly and supportive. At one point, Remy must learn not to keep his friends in the dark too much, and it’s touching to see friendship and romance given an equal amount of weight.

All in all, How To Be Remy Cameron is a thoughtful, poignant, and fun coming-of-age experience.

Other notable characters include Remy’s adoptive family and his English teacher, Ms. Amos. Remy’s adoptive family is quirky and loving, with the mom into 80s music and the father able to make wicked French toast recipes. As the book progresses, both realize that while they can listen to Remy and try their best to cheer him up, they aren’t always going to be able to help him through certain things. Meanwhile, Remy’s English teacher is wonderful and honest in a way that puts things in perspective for Remy and encourages him to find his own voice.

All in all, How To Be Remy Cameron is a thoughtful, poignant, and fun coming-of-age experience. While self discovery isn’t always easy, Remy’s willingness to question and learn about himself is inspiring. With a great cast of characters, memorable dialogue, and a entertaining setting inspired by Dunwoody, GA, this book is wonderful.

Top photo by alex bracken on Unsplash