Messy Roots: a Graphic Memoir of a Wuhanese American by Laura Gao

the cover of Messy Roots: A Graphic Memoir of a Wuhanese-American

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Messy Roots is Laura Gao’s memoir of her childhood and coming of age, first in Wuhan, China, then an early move to Texas, and finally through her choices of college in Pennsylvania and a job in the Bay area. As a Chinese American immigrant, Gao depicts her struggle to reconcile her childhood in Wuhan with the expectations of her friends and classmates in America via a direct and honest look at her own internalized biases and struggles, illustrated by a flowing and charming art style. I found Messy Roots to be a heartwarming and fast-paced read, and I’m really glad a friend recommended it to me.

Gao is brutally honest in her depiction of herself. She starts out by describing her efforts to fit in with her classmates in Texas, including by taking an American-ized name and minimizing hobbies and traits that mark her out as too obviously an immigrant. She finds her Chinese lessons burdensome and resents having to attend Chinese events at her family’s church. When she moves to college, she both connects more with the Chinese student community and realizes that she is attracted to women. Free from being directly under the eye of her family and people who knew her growing up, Gao, like many college students, starts to figure out for herself who she wants to be as a person. I felt like Gao’s personal journey really resonated from the page, because it was messy and not linear. I personally really empathized with how Gao’s attraction to women was evident through her early years with the benefit of hindsight, but not fully realized until college and near adulthood. Laura also struggles with who and how to come out to people, and especially to her family, but even when they are struggling to communicate, Gao depicts a complex and affectionately nuanced showing of family. I think memoirs like this are important, because real life does not reflect a neat narrative like in fiction. Reading this really focuses in on how you keep growing and learning as a person, and things that you think you had moved on from can later become important to you, and I really think this perspective is important for the teen audience this is intended for, although older readers can certainly appreciate that aspect as well.

In the final part of the book, Gao tells about moving to San Francisco after college, and rooming with a group of her immigrant friends. Buoyed by the strong Chinese community in the area and the city’s diverse and modern atmosphere, Gao starts to feel like she is putting down her own roots. But when the pandemic hits in 2020, Wuhan goes from an obscure location to a household name in America. As waves of racism and hatred impact her life and her family, Gao once again struggles to make sense of her identity and her life. It’s a terribly poignant and personal look at a time most of us would rather not look to closely at. It’s sort of refreshing to see a narrative that actively includes the pandemic as a time period that had real impact on people, and not just through the possibility of getting sick. Gao’s narrative highlights the some of the real ripple effects that this global event had, and I think that is also important to show in literature. 

Messy Roots is Laura Gao’s effort to document her journey through her identity.  Unlike a conventional, fictional coming of age story, Gao shows that life is messy and most people’s development is not linear. Her unflinching introspection and willingness to shine a light on the complex and less pretty parts of personal development make for an inspiring and insightful read. I am definitely glad to have read her perspective, and think this would be an excellent book for both adults and teens looking for a new viewpoint about growing up, coming out, and finding yourself. 

A Rich Fantasy Novella: The Empress of Salt and Fortune by Nghi Vo

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I don’t know why I put off The Empress of Salt and Fortune by Nghi Vo for so long despite all of the good reviews. Maybe it was the short length, novellas sometimes being an awkward pace. Or maybe it was the fact that all too often I mistake “high fantasy” for “too much exposition” with all of those battles and complex magic systems that just aren’t my cup of tea. Either way, it was my loss. This slim book is packed to the brim with court intrigue and politics of war, sure, but it does so by quietly unpacking the stories of characters traditionally kept to the sidelines. Nghi Vo’s work is always filled with such depth and lyrical writing, but this series in particular has quickly become one of my all-time favorites because of the way in which it insists on telling a different sort of fantasy story.

The book follows Cleric Chih from the Singing Hills abbey who is traveling with their talking hoopoe Almost Brilliant to record history, in this case the story of the recently deceased empress In-yo. Through a constellation of lost objects and the words of the empress’s former servant, Vo shows the outlines of a life in what it leaves behind. The story unfolds delicately through this collection of remnants. The book feels like a refutation of traditional history-making, Chih’s character almost fading into the background as they focus on listening and learning how to read the subtext. So much is left to interpretation, to tone, to understanding secret codes and double meanings. This is reflected, too, in the way the book refuses to overly-explain its setting, leaving the reader to tease apart the worldbuilding like a puzzle.

It’s a beautiful book that I’ve been recommending to everyone. With its short length you’ll only be giving up an hour or two, so I encourage you to give it a shot even if you aren’t typically a fan of high fantasy. With the fourth book just recently out (Mammoths at the Gate) and a fifth on its way in May (The Brides of High Hall), it’s nice timing to catch up on the books now. Each novella is meant to serve as a standalone entry point so you can’t go wrong with any of them—or really any of Vo’s works—but it’s worth starting with this one.

Trigger warnings: death, misogyny, war, suicide, murder

An Ode to Burning it All Down: The Genesis of Misery by Neon Yang

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Have you ever been seized with the inexplicable urge to destroy an intricate and beautiful object? But you don’t; you just sit with that strange, uncomfortable urge twisting in your chest and gnawing away at your heart. That’s a bit like what reading The Genesis of Misery is like. The title is Neon Yang’s debut novel, released in September 2022.

Let me back up a little and maybe add a warning: gentle lambs, if violence is not your thing, maybe sit this one out. 

The Genesis of Misery is a frame novel, so we’re told the story by another narrator, which adds an immediate additional layer of intrigue. We open knowing that Misery Nomaki (they/she), just turned twenty and believed to be the Last Savior of the Faithful, has arrived at the Imperial Capital already a prisoner. 

Reader, we are plunged into the surge of their escape and exposed to their raw ability to manipulate stone as they attempt to phase through the holystone door of their cell. The action fiend in me was already on its feet, wildly cheering. I didn’t know Misery yet, but I wanted her to win. 

We learn quickly as we go, frantically fed threads of information about this new world with every sentence. There is so much about it that’s just cool. You like magic? Space cults? Mechs? Rocks? A void virus that lives in your head and explodes out of your body in the form of too many teeth, bones, limbs? The Genesis of Misery has it all.

You could live inside of the universe that Yang created, and foul-mouthed Misery navigates it effortlessly. They’ve had a hard life, made harder by the creature no one else can see. It says its name is Ruin, Misery calls it a demon, but the information it has is good. Though Misery believes it to be a manifestation of voidsickness, they’re keen on survival, so they play up the role of inscrutable messiah, trying to stay one step ahead of the not-quite-openly-warring Church and Empire. 

Throughout The Genesis of Misery, we’re given the chance to see Misery grow into her self-appointed role as chosen one, Hand of the Larex Forge, leader of a ragtag mech squad meant to eliminate the Heretics once and for all. We watch as they continue to gather belief and followers, carefully manipulating those around them, and we watch them fight space battles with fierce joy and explore the crackling tension with Princess Alodia Lightning—and others. It’s a riveting, wild ride, one that begins with a sinking feeling and ends with one, too. Misery has never had it easy. 

After finishing the book, I haven’t been able to stop tumbling it over and over in my brain, fixating on the strange world and still half-living inside its constructs. 

Is Misery an antihero? Maybe. 

Is she likable? Maybe. 

But are they forgettable? Absolutely not.

The Genesis of Misery is for you if you’re looking for a queer, gritty, “chosen one” retelling with a morally gray protagonist. It’s for you if you want a painfully intimate view of fanaticism, all nestled within a glittering, imaginative sci-fi universe. It’s for you even if you’re just here for mech battles in space. 

But mostly, it’s for you if you’ve ever felt like burning it all down.

A Lesbian Poet Teen Finds Her Voice: Kween by Vichet Chum

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Kween is a character-centric book about Soma Kear, a Cambodian teen whose life in Lowell, MA has been deeply shaken. Soma’s Ba has been deported, her Ma is in Cambodia with him, her Bridezilla sister is in charge… and Soma just wants to make sense of things. With a viral TikTok video, an upcoming poetry contest, a loyal best friend, and a (hopefully!) new girlfriend, Soma just might be able to find her voice.

The queer content in this book is nice. Truly, “nice” is the best word for it. The relationship is comfortable and easy. Soma’s parents are supportive when she comes out; though they do worry she may experience challenges outside the home, these challenges do not occur on the page. This is a safe book for a lesbian protagonist to explore her identity and feelings.

However, when that holds true for all facets of the narrative, it becomes a problem. Soma is always safe to explore her feelings. That may sound like a positive, but for me, it felt indulgent and excessive and made for a deeply frustrating reading experience. Soma wants to find her voice… but she already has her voice. She’s already facing a parent-teacher meeting for an essay she wrote a bit too loudly. Her TikTok video goes viral in the first few chapters. Her poetry is encouraged and praised and everyone believes in her.

All of that could be positive, if Soma weren’t so acutely cruel. I have never hated a main character as much as I hate Soma, maybe because I was bullied in high school and Soma is a high school bully. She’s not trying to find her voice. She’s using it. When she’s not lashing out actively at others, she’s filling the first-person narrative with complaints about the sister who uprooted her own life to help her family, the best friend who does nothing but support and cheer for her, the lonely classmate who just wants a friend. All of this seems somehow excusable to the greater narrative. She rarely faces consequences, and when she does, it all comes wrapped up in words of encouragement, reassurance, and admiration.

Again, this could be great. I love the idea of a character allowed to be messy without being condemned, but that character needs to address if they cause hurt, and Soma does. The entire book, all she cares about is herself. Of course she makes an apologetic gesture at the end, but even then, it seems to come from a sense of her own grandeur, not actually caring about anyone else. Soma is a deeply flawed, deeply flat character experiencing a narrative of encouragement and indulgence.

From a narrative standpoint, this book is unbalanced. I said earlier that the queer content is nice, and that’s true. It also feels almost perfunctory. The book lacks a central focus—it wants that focus to be the poetry contest, but it’s not. The contest is the second-act climax and has no impact on the rest of the book other than being dismissed when Soma is done having feelings about it. And that’s honestly representative of the whole book.

A well-intentioned but deeply flawed reading experience, overall.

A Dazzling Debut: How Far the Light Reaches by Sabrina Imbler

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I first learned about Sabrina Imbler (they/them) last year when my girlfriend and I traveled to Seattle to watch the UConn Women’s Basketball team compete in the Sweet 16. Whenever I travel, I like to visit a local bookstore, which is how we ended up in the gorgeous Elliott Bay Book Company, a woman and queer owned business located in the heart of Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood. When I asked one of the booksellers what LGBT books she recommended, she enthusiastically suggested Imbler’s gay volcano chapbook Dyke (geology) and a signed copy (Imbler’s name flanked by two cute goldfish) of How Far the Light Reaches: A Life in Ten Sea Creatures. Two gorgeous books by a queer person of color? I was elated.

Imbler is a writer and science journalist with a gift for storytelling. How Far the Light Reaches is organized into ten essays wherein Imbler masterfully weaves facts about sea creatures and phenomena with meditations on survival, identity, body image, family, relationships, and community. While the essays stand alone and can theoretically be read out of order, they have a clear throughline. As a reader who began How Far the Light Reaches with limited knowledge of marine biology, I was shocked by how many facts I retained from each essay. Imbler’s essays are crafted with care and intentionality. They don’t just state facts about each sea creature, they reflect on their essence, treating each with reverence.

In “My Mother and the Starving Octopus,” Imbler introduced readers to Graneledone boreopacifica and highlighted one of the most renowned of these purple octopuses: a mother who starved herself for 53 months (four and a half years) while she focused on the task of brooding her eggs. Imbler interspersed reflections on their mother’s sacrifices and on how Imbler learned to find their own body desirable through reveling in queer bodies.

In “Pure Life,” Imbler marveled at deep sea dwellers—vent bacteria, tube worms, and yeti crabs—which survive by using chemosynthesis for energy in the absence of sunlight.  Imbler likened hydrothermal vents in the ocean to queer spaces and communities—both representing oases providing rest, nourishment, and safety: “Life always finds a place to begin anew, and communities in need will always find one another and invent new ways to glitter, together, in the dark.”

In “Hybrids,” Imbler juxtaposed their biracial identity (half Chinese, half White) with a hybrid butterflyfish, the offspring of two different species. Imbler examined how The Question: “What are you?” is itself an act of taxonomy. They also reflected on the irony of their frustration with The Question, but also their endless curiosity about other mixed people.

In a word, How Far the Light Reaches is spectacular. The more I reflect upon it, the more I love it. I read it over the course of a few days, but Imbler’s writing is so thought-provoking, you may want to savor the book over time. I really hope Imbler will write another book, but in the meantime, you can check them out at Defector, an employee-owned sports and culture website, where they cover creatures.

Trigger warnings for sexual assault, lack of consent, rape, body mutilation, racism, body image, disordered eating, and animal death/harm.

Raquel R. Rivera (she/her/ella) is a Latina lawyer and lady lover from New Jersey.  She is in a lifelong love affair with books and earned countless free personal pan pizzas from the Pizza Hut BOOK IT! program as a kid to prove it.

Haunted by the Past: She is a Haunting by Trang Thanh Tran

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Horror is a very broad genre, and, I am inclined to say, a particularly personal one, seeing as what scares one person may not scare another, or, on the other hand, it might scare them too much. I myself love a good haunted house, but psychological horror freaks me out in concept alone, to the point that I won’t touch a book when I see it labeled that way. Trang Thanh Tran’s She is a Haunting, I am pleased to report, is my favorite kind of horror, that particular style where it’s kind of about the ghosts, but it’s not really about the ghosts. Or rather, it is, but it’s about what the ghosts represent more than the don’t-look-behind-you scariness.

That’s not to say this book isn’t scary, of course. I personally do not tend to get scared while reading books, so I am not the best judge, but I thought the book did a good job creating a creepy atmosphere and some really unsettling images (all those bugs *shudder*). The scariest thing in this book, though, is not the ghosts themselves but the very real horrors of colonialism, as well as the impacts of it that linger through to today. While this book is aimed at teenagers, it does not shy away from those atrocities, but nor does it dwell on them, exactly.

Beyond those horrors, however, this is also the story of Jade, a closeted seventeen-year-old wrestling with a complicated family dynamic and her relationship to Vietnam as a Vietnamese American who is visiting the country for the first time. As a protagonist, I adored Jade. I thought she felt very authentically seventeen, which is to say that while she was occasionally frustrating, she was trying her best. 

I also thought all of the relationships in the book were well-drawn. Her romance with “bad girl” Florence was endearing, and their interactions made me giggle a few times. The more complex dynamics with the parents worked equally well for me, and in fact I found her mom to be a standout character for me by the end.

Regarding the ending, I will say there were one or two elements that felt on the edge of overly dramatic, but I thought the book did enough well that I didn’t really mind. Emotions were running high, after all, and real life can be overly dramatic too. Regardless, I felt the book ended on a high and, frankly, down-to-earth note that left me satisfied.

I look forward to more horror from Trang Thanh Tran, and reading more horror in general this year, because this book reminded me that it is a genre I enjoy when it is done in the particular way I most vibe with, as this one was. If you are looking for a creepy haunted house that’s grounded in both the past and the present and the ways they affect each other, I highly recommend She is a Haunting.

Understanding the Japanese Internment Camps: Displacement by Kiku Hughes

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“And keep drawing, too. Draw what you see, what happens here. It’s important. They can scare us, but they can’t make us forget.”

In this simply illustrated yet poignant graphic novel, Kiku Hughes reimagines herself as a teenager who is pulled back in time to witness and experience the Japanese internment camps in the U.S. during World War II. There, she not only discovers the truths of what life was like within these camps but also follows her late grandmother’s own experiences having her life turned upside down as her and her family are villainized and forcibly relocated by the American government. Kiku must live alongside her young grandmother and other Japanese American citizens, as she finds out about the atrocities they had to suffer and the civil liberties they had been denied, all while somehow cultivating community and learning to survive.

Touching on important themes of cultural history and generational trauma, Hughes meshes these topics seamlessly into a fascinating plot and an extremely endearing and relatable main character. Kiku reflects a lot, during her journey, on the way that marginalized people are treated within the U.S.—during the past and in modern time—but also on the way that her family’s history and experiences had such a great effect on her own life.

Throughout the story, she feels powerless because of the lack of information she has regarding her grandmother’s past and her community’s history, which makes it difficult to help those around her. She can’t tell them what is about to happen to them; she doesn’t know what the living conditions are like in the different internment camps they are sent to; she can’t warn them about the specific atrocities that await them. She is forced to undergo this displacement alongside everyone else, and her ignorance not only makes her scared but also makes her feel quite guilty for not being able to contribute more aid or comfort to those around her.

She is also confronted with this difficult-to-place, bittersweet feeling of being disconnected from her family’s culture but also acknowledging that her own habits and traditions have been so deeply impacted by it. All these moments of introspection felt like a personal call out to me and made Kiku the kind of main character to whom a lot of readers will be able to relate.

Because of my own relationship to my family’s culture and history, reading this graphic novel was an extremely personal and emotional experience. On one hand, I think a lot of people will be able to connect with this story; on the other hand, I think a lot of other people will have the opportunity to learn something new through it.

I also loved the subtle sapphic romance arc that was included. It didn’t overpower the main message of the novel, but it was a nice, comforting surprise in an otherwise heavy read. I saw it as a beautiful testament to the joy and love we humans are capable of finding, even in moments of great duress.

The illustrations were beautiful, the art style was simple but extremely effective, the characters felt very fleshed out—which is sometimes hard to do in a graphic novel, working within a limited number of panels. All the artistic choices perfectly matched the tone of the story, which is a testament to Hughes’ true talent as a creator.

Representation: sapphic, Japanese American main character

Content warnings: racism, racial slurs, colourism, sexism, hate crimes, cancer, death, grief depiction, confinement, imprisonment, war themes (World War II and Japanese internment camps)

Censorship, Expression, and Signaling in Malinda Lo’s Last Night at the Telegraph Club

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Malinda Lo’s novel Last Night at the Telegraph Club (2021) has won multiple awards and has been reviewed multiple times at the Lesbrary already, so let’s start this review somewhere different: Last Night at the Telegraph Club has been banned and/or challenged at least 34 times in 14 states. Having done a bit of research and writing about these book challenges, I’m going to let you in on a little secret: the people who submit complaints to school boards and file police reports with law enforcement very rarely actually read the books that they are attempting to ban. In the post linked above, Lo provides evidence of just how easy it is to file FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) requests that reveal all sorts of information about the people who want to ban books that they feel do not fit a certain narrative profile.

This is why you won’t see me write much about YA here—I spend way too much time writing about these issues elsewhere. However, I wanted to write about Last Night at the Telegraph Club because, simply, I hadn’t read it yet. 2023 was not a good year, so why not end it with a book on my TBR pile that I knew would be good? And it certainly was.

One element of YA that is important to watch out for is how it serves two primary sets of readers. The first set is the group of readers whose identities most closely align with the characters and/or the subject matter. For example, in the case of Last Night, adolescents who are Asian American, immigrants, and/or part of the LGBTQ+ community are in this first set of readers (along with potentially any other adolescent from a marginalized community). When we talk about who books are for, this is the set of readers to whom we are usually referring. If I can recognize myself in some facet of Lily’s character, Last Night speaks to me and my experiences. I might, for example, be reminded of the thrill of realizing something important about myself when Lily begins to interact with Kath, or I might recognize the danger that I feel through Lily’s constant need to keep large parts of her life a secret. In other words, the reader’s experience is reflected back to them in the pages of the novel.

The second group of readers is, simply put, everyone else—and this is where we run into trouble. Why should my child, who is nothing like the characters in these books, be subjected to these books? That’s the question that I’ve heard posed so often, either in those exact words or otherwise. Their children, they argue, shouldn’t have to be confronted with what it means to call an Asian American person a term that is meant to describe objects rather than people. Their children shouldn’t be exposed to a point of view that challenges the way the “typical” white person behaves, as they are when Lily is asked if she can speak English or is repeatedly called a “China doll.” Their children, most especially, shouldn’t see “immoral” behavior go unpunished. 

Except these sorts of issues are precisely what adolescents should be reading about because, for many, novels like Last Night provide a window into an experience that isn’t their own. The parents who seek to ban books only want their children reading books that mirror a certain set of experiences, while marginalized adolescents have to look through windows into lives that don’t mirror their own. In truth, all adolescents should read both sorts of books. All adolescents need the books they read to function as windows and mirrors so that they can learn about themselves and about others. (Note: The credit for the windows/mirrors metaphor goes to Rudine Sims Bishop, who advocated for diversity in children’s literature, particularly for Black readers and authors. Here is a great resource for more on this concept.)

Again, I really enjoyed Last Night, and I wanted to say just a bit more about two things that I found particularly delightful: the discussions of butch/femme and signaling. Does anyone remember Genesis from The Real World: Boston? The first time that I ever heard the term “lipstick lesbian” was from her. A couple of years later, I learned more about the concept of “butch” from Jack Halberstam. In 2024, we know that these terms are slippery and have limited utility—perhaps they don’t even have any utility for current adolescents at all. However, for many of us who left adolescence behind long ago, femme and butch were part of the limited ways that we had to describe queerness at something resembling a mainstream level.

Lo uses the historical setting of San Francisco during the Red Scare to explore the femme/butch binary in a way that helps younger readers understand the ways in which previous generations explored queerness, sexual orientation, and gender expression. Again, even if the femme/butch binary doesn’t serve adolescents today, the historical context does because, as we know, where we came from directly influences where we are and where we are going. And, of course, who among us hasn’t at some point felt the same awkwardness and excitement that Lily feels as she is figuring all of these things out over the course of the novel?

This past fall, I taught an undergraduate seminar on young adult literature; in one of the books that we read, several characters provide nonverbal cues to signal their sexuality. The discussion that we had in class about signaling was one of my favorite discussions that we had all semester. I wish I had time to recount more of that discussion; for now, though, just imagine Last Night as a way to juxtapose mid-20th century signaling from what it looks like today. After all, all one has to do today is slap on a pride flag, get an undercut, or quote Steven Universe or The Owl House, and the people who need to know—well, they know. Compare those contemporary signals with the ways in which Lo describes the way her characters dress and wear their hair as well as the way she describes Lily’s reverence as she encounters outward expressions of queerness. 

If you haven’t read Last Night at the Telegraph Club yet, don’t wait any longer! If you have read it already, perhaps it’s time to give it a second read.

Content warning: homophobia, racial slurs, racism

Liv (she/her) is a trans woman, a professor of English, and a reluctant Southerner. Described (charitably) as passionate and strong-willed, she loves to talk (and talk) about popular culture, queer theory, utopias, time travel, and any other topic that she has magpied over the years. You can find her on storygraph and letterboxd @livvalentine.

A Trans Teen Finds Her Words: Just Happy to Be Here by Naomi Kanakia

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Tara is the first trans girl to attend Ainsley Academy, an all-girls school. She finds it hard to fit in, especially considering that she’s also one of the few students of color. One place she does feel like she belongs is the Sibyls, an exclusive society within the school that values classical history. Tara’s passion is speeches throughout history, and she admires how the Sibyls stand behind their values and don’t seem to care what anyone else thinks about them. When she applies to join, though, she’s thrown into a controversy about who is allowed into this elite group for girls, and whether it should still exist at all.

This was an infuriating read. Tara is a young trans woman of color who seems to bounce between dealing with micro aggressions and macro aggressions; there’s almost no one she can just be herself around. Her parents are… somewhat accepting, but they often misgender her and question whether she’s sure enough about her transition to go on hormones. Tara desperately wants to be on hormones, but they live in a state where parents can have their kids taken away if they’re suspected of pushing them to transition. And because of their immigration status, they’re even more vulnerable. It’s not paranoia, either: they are reported at one point and interrogated by a state official.

Tara is used as a political pawn. Even people who are theoretically accepting just see as her as “the trans girl.” When she says anything that doesn’t match their idea of what a trans girl should be, they immediately push back against her, even when she’s just expressing her own insecurities. They seem more concerned about saying the right things than actually getting to know her. Even the trans guy at school uses her as an unwilling figurehead in his fight to take down the Sibyls for being exclusionary, ignoring that she loves the Sibyls and has no interest in dismantling the group.

Tara wants so badly to fit in, to be “ordinary”, and deals with a lot of internalized transphobia and racism. She doesn’t want to lead a charge against transphobia. She just wants to blend in.

I had to put down the book at some point because I was so full of rage on her behalf. The school administrators and teachers often have double standards for her: when it comes to benefits of being part of Ainsley Academy, Tara is technically part of the boys’ school. But when it comes to the drawbacks and discipline of students, she’s part of Ainsley. One of her teachers escalates from double standards to flat-out transphobic hate speech.

The Sibyls aren’t perfect, and in fact there are very good reasons to want to dismantle this not-so-secret society of rich women. But it is where Tara meets her first genuine friends, who treat her as an individual—including her crush, Felicity, who she gets closer and closer to. (Tara is bisexual, with a preference for women.) They’re all flawed people, and they may not always say the right thing, but they’re finally a place where Tara feels like she belongs and that people have her back—not for political reasons, but for her as a person.

Just Happy To Be Here has a long author’s note at the end with advice for trans girls, and that advice is not sugar-coated. It’s also frustrating that trans women and transfem YA is so new, and yet this author’s note feels even more urgent and dire than these books did a handful of years ago, when the first few trans YA titles were being published by mainstream presses. It’s horrific that it’s gotten even more dangerous to be a trans woman in the United States.

This was an emotionally harrowing read, full of non-stop transphobia—plus some added racism. It’s one I’m glad to have read, but I’m even more glad to be done.

GBBO, but Sapphic and Bangladeshi: The Dos and Donuts of Love by Adiba Jaigirdar

the cover of the dos and donuts of love

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Adiba Jaigirdar, author of The Henna Wars and Hani and Ishu’s Guide to Fake Dating, has become known for her compulsively readable teen romances centering queer Bangladeshi-Irish characters. Her newest novel, The Dos and Donuts of Love, tackles fatphobia, racism, and familial expectations, this time on the set of a nationally televised baking competition. 

Seventeen-year-old Shireen Malik is at a low point heading into summer vacation. Her best (and only Bangladeshi) friend Fatima is spending most of summer vacation visiting family in Bangladesh, and Shireen is recovering from a recent breakup. Between shifts at her parents’ struggling donut shop You Drive Me Glazy, Shireen barely leaves her bedroom, marathon-watching Great British Bake Off, FaceTiming with Fatima, and obsessively checking her email for news from Junior Irish Baking Show

When Shireen receives a congratulatory email inviting her to be on the show, she feels like she has no one to celebrate with—her parents seem wary of the pressures of reality TV, Fatima is in a different time zone, and her ex is out of the picture. But Shireen is determined to prove herself as Ireland’s most talented young baker, and to represent her South Asian identity amid a mostly white pool of competitors. 

But when Shireen shows up to the first filming, she finds herself face to face with her ex Chris Huang. Chris is not just her ex, but also the daughter of her family’s rival donut shop owners. Shireen has to navigate the next few months of high-pressure competition confronting the hostile feelings from her recent breakup, and to complicate matters, she has developed feelings for Niamh, another charismatic contestant on the show.

I’ll be honest—I typically do not go for the increasingly popular baking/romance genre. But as a recent (and very late to the game) fan of Great British Bake Off, I was sucked right into this baking competition setting, the coziness and high stakes of which Jaigirdar very realistically brings to life. Shireen is a tenacious, lovable, fat-positive main character who, despite her self-confidence, falls prey to the toxic culture of reality TV fame and to the overwhelming feelings of teenage romance. Jaigirdar does a flawless job of balancing interpersonal drama with the more sobering issues of body standards and anti-Asian rhetoric thrown at Shireen and Chris as they progress through the competition. I look forward to working my way back through Jaigirdar’s previous books, which I suspect are equally fun, thoughtful, and heartwarming.