EW talks YA: Celebrating Pride Month with 4 gorgeous queer novels
EW is here to provide reviews and recommendations for the biggest new YA titles. Looking back on June titles, we’ve reviewed some of the hottest LGBTQ titles of the season, in celebration of Pride Month. Check out our roundup below, and in case you missed our column from May, we’ve got you covered.
June’s Top Pick: Like a Love Story, by Abdi Nazemian
Like a Love Story adds to the renewed interest in 1980s New York City we’ve seen of late, from Ava DuVernay’s exploration of the Central Park jogger case When They See Us to Ryan Murphy’s portrayal of the pulsating ball culture that rose during the decade in Pose.
It was a time that saw the emergence of groundbreaking stars like Madonna and activists fighting for members of the LGBTQ community and those grappling with the AIDS virus, a disease that spread as fast as the misinformation about it. But the setting is just one of many reasons why Abdi Nazemian’s Like a Love Story serves as a meaningful historical and cultural record. The novel weaves together three storylines and tackles a range of ever pertinent subject matters: the immigrant experience, the sacrifice of advocacy, and the struggle one faces when they fail to fall in line with social norms.
Set in 1989, the story follows Reza, an Iranian teen struggling to come to terms with his sexuality; Judy, an aspiring fashion designer who idolizes her AIDS-stricken uncle Stephen; and Art, Judy’s best friend and their school’s only out and proud student. As Reza and Art grow closer, Reza fears he’ll lose Judy, the only true friend he’s ever had, by breaking her heart.
Like a Love Story also offers a thoughtful and informative retrospective of the Act Up movement, and intriguingly meditates on the impact of icons on the queer community, from Judy Garland to Elizabeth Taylor to, of course, Madonna. Each line Nazemian writes is colorful and poetic, pulling the reader into a thrilling yet heartbreaking journey that’s so multilayered, it can be enjoyed on repeat reads. The world he paints is so rich, in fact, it makes the open ended conclusion somewhat difficult to digest. These characters are not easy to part with. —Justine Browning
Wild and Crooked, by Leah Thomas
In Wild and Crooked, queer characters get their chance to shine in a juicy small-town murder mystery. Kalyn identifies as a lesbian; Gus is pansexual, and also has Cerebral Palsy. And although there are plenty of thoughtful discussions about sexuality and disability throughout, Wild and Crooked never strays from its plot-heavy, page-turning pleasures.
Kalyn’s father has been incarcerated roughly since his daughter’s birth for the murder of Gus’ father, but the facts aren’t adding up when the teens start asking questions. A DIY investigation ensues as Kalyn, Gus, and their friend Phil — who struggles to connect with others and worries about his own humanity — explore their rural town to uncover clues about what happened all those years ago.
Author Leah Thomas doesn’t write token characters. Rather, her characters feel authentic: They are who they are, and that’s that. Sure, Gus struggles with how others view his CP and Kalyn has more than a few uncomfortable encounters with boys she’ll never be interested in, but the plot doesn’t depend on these moments. They just serve to flesh out the characters as they’re piecing together the puzzle of their parents’ pasts.
There’s an emphasis on how each of the three teens view the world, and Thomas manages to give them each a distinct voice in their chapters and their dialogue. Kalyn’s chapters are full of cursing and colorful metaphors, Gus’ are thoughtful and self-conscious, and Phil’s are peppered with references to video games and Shakespeare that help him connect with others. Despite how different their home lives are — Kalyn lives in a trailer where money is tight; Gus lives in a mansion; Phil’s father doesn’t quite know how to talk to him — the three are able to have meaningful discussions about anything and everything. It’s refreshing to read teens having thoughtful conversations without losing their particular voices.
The ending is slightly disappointing and doesn’t hold up as well as the rest of the book. Things come together a little too cleanly, and if adults had told the truth, everything would have been solved a lot sooner. Even the teens themselves are aware of how easy, in retrospect, it all was. “It took only the smallest effort,” Phil tells the adults. “Minuscule, even.” But despite the letdown of the final few pages, Wild and Crooked has a lot to offer. YA authors looking to incorporate meaningful and moving LGBTQ stories into their novels: Take notes. —Caroline Tew
Something Like Gravity, by Amber Smith
What feels revolutionary about Amber Smith’s YA romance novel is that it’s a typical YA romance — boy and girl are brought together because of their mutual traumas and fall for each other. But in Amber Smith’s book, Chris and Maia are also brought together over one depressing summer — Chris has been sent to his aunt’s house and Maia is still processing the sudden death of her sister.
Brought together by circumstances chalked up to fate (how very YA!), Chris and Maia begin to bond, and not just because they’ve become accidental neighbors; the pair sense something in one another that they can’t quite put into words. What’s different about this YA story is that Chris is trans, and refreshingly so, it doesn’t even really matter, at least to Maia.
Chris expresses bravery in being fully himself, but he is reeling from a horrific attack as well as alienation from his mother. Something in Maia allows Chris to open up to her. But that doesn’t mean that they don’t keep their cards incredibly close to the chest. By the end of Something Like Gravity, going through the highs and lows with Chris and Maia connects the reader to them deeply, but it takes a bit too long to get to that point in terms of length. In its satisfying, surprising ending, and nuanced exploration of sexuality and gender identity, Something Like Gravity is still worth checking out. —Kerensa Cadenas
I Wish You All the Best, by Mason Deaver
In I Wish You All the Best, the tired teen romance tropes of first loves and perfect prom dates get a refreshing makeover in the form of Benjamin De Backer, the novel’s nonbinary narrator and protagonist.
Like many 17-year-olds, Ben is hiding something. But the struggle of growing up queer to a pair of queerphobic parents proves much more pressing than the typical adolescent rebellion. Tired of carrying the crushing weight of their hidden gender identity alone, Ben comes out to their parents right at the book’s opening, despite the potential for their world to come crashing down as a result. Spoiler alert: It does.
This simple affirmation of self-identity uproots Ben’s whole life in Goldsboro, N.C. as their parents respond by casting them out of their childhood home and into 30-degree weather on New Year’s Eve without a moment’s notice, leaving them without shoes and a cell phone on the street. But, while wading through feelings of abandonment and suffocating symptoms of an undiagnosed anxiety disorder, Ben finds unexpected allies in their estranged sister, Hannah, and her husband, Thomas, a teacher at North Wake High School in Raleigh. Despite the pair’s best attempts at comfortably replanting their “sib” in Raleigh, the adjustment isn’t easy for Ben as North Wake’s newest addition just months before graduation. That is, until Nathan Allan comes along.
It’s “love at first anxiety attack” from the moment of their encounter. Nathan’s sunshiny smile, freckled features, and endearing personality quickly latch onto Ben’s quiet circumspection, lighting up their world and inspiring in them the first pangs of love. However, this budding relationship also opens Ben up to the difficulties of the dating in an inescapably gendered society.
Author Mason Deaver enhances their timely novel with a focus on Ben’s reliance on the internet, to ease their isolation and help them formulate their identity. Portions of All the Best are told through Ben’s text conversations with Nathan and “enby mama”/mentor/bestie Mariam, a nonbinary Bahraini immigrant with a major YouTube platform that champions LGBTQ+ youth. In regards to Nathan, Mariam advises Ben, “Cross your heart and hope he’s bi.”
Deaver believes Ben to be a character “born out of necessity,” created to help young members of the LGBTQ+ community embrace their identity and confront loneliness. “Ben is my anxiety, my depression, my feelings about my own gender, and the people whom I’ve loved,” they share in the novel’s preceding letter to readers. “I decided to tell the story that I needed when I was younger.”
Deaver skillfully spins Ben’s character arc, from their first attempt at living openly to reaching full self-acceptance. All the Best relatably situates readers in Ben’s own swirling internal monologue. Hope cuts through the most painful moments, as Ben’s support system prompts them to forgo fear and stubbornness for bravery, and persist in spite of their parents’ failure to accept them or apologize for their cruelty. —Lexi Vollero