Danika reviews Star-Crossed by Barbara Dee

This has been a much-anticipated read for me! Back in 2016, I saw a tumblr post by Barbara Dee’s daughter talking about the upcoming release of her mom’s book, Star-Crossed: a middle-grade book with a bisexual girl as the main character. The first middle-grade novel with a girl who likes girls as the main character! And with an adorable cover! I was sold, but it was still months before it came out.

Unfortunately, the next time I heard about this title (other than the endless reblogs on tumblr) was when I read Barbara Dee’s post, Please Don’t Talk About Your Book. (Which got me so upset that I wrote Let’s Talk About STAR-CROSSED: Why We Need Bisexual Kids’ Books, Backlash or Not at Book Riot.)

Needless to say, I was pretty eager to read this story myself! I was pretty biased going into it, I’ll admit, but I felt that it lived up to the hype. This is a very sweet story that balances Shakespeare references with the dizzying experience of middle school crushes. The characters and middle school politics felt realistic and well-rounded. Even the “mean girl” isn’t dismissed as one-dimensional.

This story revolves around the 8th grade production of Romeo and Juliet, and there is lots of discussion about the play and Shakespeare. Each chapter starts with a related quotation from the play. I was impressed with the discussion that takes place with the material–the play is not only explained, but also critiqued and complimented by the kids performing it. I think it shows what you can gain from really diving into a story looking at in depth. It begins to be relateable and personally valuable.

As for the representation in the story, the word “bisexual” isn’t actually used, but it’s explicit that she acknowledges that she can get crushes on boys and girls. Mattie worries what people will think if they find out that she has a crush on a girl, but there’s very little homophobia on the page. (More detail and spoilers in following paragraph.)

[Spoilers] The only homophobia on the page is one kid saying “That’s gay” about something and the teacher and his classmate (the popular girl who’s been kind of a jerk otherwise) both immediately say that wasn’t okay and that being gay is nothing to be ashamed of. Mattie comes out to her sister, teacher, and friends without ant of them really batting an eyelash. She doesn’t come out to her parents by the end of the book, but doesn’t seem worried about it. She asks Gemma (her crush) out on a date, and she accepts! [End spoilers]

This was a light, fun read, and I’m so happy it’s out in the world now. This would be life-changing for kids questioning their sexuality/romantic identity! It is fluffy enough that I don’t expect I’ll reread it or that it will stick with me in a huge way as an adult reader, but it’s well-written, entertaining, and much-needed.

Elinor reviews Gay and Lesbian History for Kids: The Century-Long Struggle for LGBT Rights, with 21 Activities by Jerome Pohlen

gayandlesbianhistoryforkids

There isn’t a lot of nonfiction for young readers out there about LGBTQ people or issues. For this reason alone, Gay and Lesbian History for Kids: The Century-Long Struggle for LGBT Rights, with 21 Activities stands out. With just over 150 pages, tons of beautiful photographs, and a century of gay history, there’s nothing else like it on the market for children. Public and school libraries should stock it and let interested readers learn about the context and story of gay activism in the United States. There is nothing overtly sexually in this book and nearly all the language is totally school-appropriate, so there is little for adults to object over, except for the folks who are upset about the spotlight on gay history itself. The book also lists resources so interested readers can find out more.

Is it something you should buy for the kids in your own life, though? That depends. I’m a middle school teacher and a former elementary teacher, and I received a copy of this book for my class library in exchange for an honest review. I currently work at a school in the Bay Area with an active gay-straight alliance and a handful of out teachers, including me. While I was very excited for this book and think it would be great for some kids, it has limitations.

The biggest of these is that the intended audience is more unclear than it seems on the surface. The reading level is advanced, at least upper elementary if not middle school, but the tone is clearly for children, not young teens. Teens and tweens who see themselves as mature or who already have some awareness of LGBTQ history and politics may find it patronizing. Many sections struck me (and some of my volunteer eighth grade readers) as talking down to the reader. This wouldn’t be as noticeable to, say, a third grader but the vocabulary and writing style is beyond that of most third graders. A child would likely find it frustrating to read unless they are a very fluent reader with a great vocabulary or they are reading it with an adult. The activities are all for students in elementary school, some of them best for students in early elementary grades. These activities don’t add much to the book either. Gay and Lesbian History for Kids would have had a wider audience with an easier reading level, without activities, with “young people” instead of “kids” in the title, and/or with a little more faith in its readers.

It’s noteworthy to me that the title and subtitle don’t really line up in this book, which is reflected in the book itself. Bisexuals don’t get mentioned very much. Trans people and trans rights get more attention, but huge chunks of trans history in the 20th century are absent. Even the lesbian history sections are condensed to the point that I felt important parts of the story were missing. Part of this is just that summing up a century in the space allotted means things will be left out. Yet as a history buff, and history teacher, I know that what we cut for space is often as telling as the history itself.

Similarly, the book briefly explores homosexuality and gender variance in ancient history in ways that didn’t read as balanced to me. Africa’s left out of the early history section entirely and Asia’s section mentions only a gay emperor in China and a gender flexible Hindu god/dess. In reality, pre-colonial queer and trans history around the globe is really interesting! Many homophobic laws and cultural influences in Asia, Africa and the Americas are leftovers from European imperialism and colonialism. It’s fascinating to look at how that lingers. In some places globally there’s never been a large scale gay rights movement because queerness is more culturally normalized, even if that normalization occurs in flawed ways. I wish, if pre-modern LGBTQ history were going to be mentioned in a global context, it had been explored more deeply. The rest of the book is about LGBT history mainly in North America and somewhat in Western Europe. The bits about Two-Spirit Native peoples are all in the past but not the present, and queer and trans people are discussed in ancient cultures when the modern descendants of those places are never mentioned in modern history sections of the book. The attempt a global multiculturalism feels more like spice than substance.

Along those same lines I wish this book took a more intersectional approach. A featured picture in the book shows the first Annual Reminder in 1965, with Frank Kameny holding a sign reading “Homosexual American Citizens–Our Last Oppressed National Minority.” A similar idea later popped up unchallenged in a Larry Kramer quote from the 1980s. But obviously when we look back at the 60’s or the 80’s or even when we look at the U.S. today, we can see racism, sexism, ableism and other forms of oppression had and have devastating effects on people, that homophobia isn’t necessarily “the worst,” and that trying to pick a “worst” oppression isn’t really the point. The fact that gay white men thought that gay people were the last or most oppressed minority strikes me as pretty clueless. The idea that it’s possible to experience oppression and privilege in a variety of intersecting ways isn’t presented at all. It is a complex idea, but a valuable framework for people who may be reading about activist history for the first time.

Despite all the criticism, I am really glad to have this for my classroom. I absolutely think it should be in libraries for young people. I don’t think it should be the only book on LGBTQ history available, and I hope future authors fill the gaps. If you’re thinking of buying this book for an individual child or teen you know, consider their reading level, age, and how much support they’ll get reading it. If you’re there to bridge the gap between the tone and the reading demands, and ready to provide information about what’s left out, go for it. If not, you might want to read it yourself before you decide if it’s really right for the young person you have in mind.

Audrey reviews Gay & Lesbian History for Kids by Jerome Pohlen

gayandlesbianhistoryforkids
The full title is, Gay & Lesbian History for Kids: The Century-Long Struggle for LGBT Rights, With 21 Activities. We’ll get to the activities part. First, as this is a history and reference book for children, I want to break down my impressions.

Layout: Are kids going to want to read this? Is it attractive? It’s a manageably sized paperback in landscape format with a 4-color cover; good start. The interior isn’t 4-color, but it’s 2-color (magenta and black). There’s plenty of visual interest, and the text is broken up appropriately and attractively. Useful and relevant sidebars also add appeal.

Organization: Chronological. The first three chapters cover up until 1960 (chapter one is “a brief history to 1900”), and each decade thereafter gets its own chapter. The content is paced well. There are other important features to consider in children’s nonfiction, though. The table of contents is easy to read, and a two-page timeline follows, summarizing much of the content covered in the book. There’s a short, but well-chosen, resources section, and lots of notes, and wonder of wonders, a useful index, which I used at least twice. There’s also a short introduction featuring a scenario that’s wrapped up in the afterword. It pulls kids in, and later gives them a happy ending.

Content: The table of contents doesn’t give chapter subheadings to clue readers in to what’s going on within chapters; it lists only one title and what decades are covered and then gives page numbers for corresponding activities. So the timeline on the next page is very useful in getting an idea of what the book covers. The first event marked is the death of Sappho, and only a few dates later, we’re solidly in the 1900, ending a page and a half later in 2015 with the Obergefell v. Hodges decision. Pohlen explains that of necessity, well-documented LGBT history coverage started only within the 1900s, and although there’s much historical speculation, that’s all it is–speculation. The book is useful in providing some avenues and figures that may pique interest (Emily Dickinson, Katharine Lee Bates, Leonardo da Vinci), but doesn’t go into much detail. A small section about two-spirit people in the first chapter is particularly interesting.

The first chapter contains more of a world perspective, but once Pohlen gets down to it, it’s clear this is really the story of a century-long battle on the American front. And the story covers all the major bases one would expect and hope to find, and in clear and engaging prose. The content and writing are supposedly appropriate for ages 9 up, but I’m not sure many 9-year-olds would stick with it. Middle graders seem like a better audience, even given Pohlen’s penchant for inserting an exclamation point every now and then. Middle graders would also appreciate the non-busy layout for research purposes. If it’s weapons or flags or Legos, the busier the better (Dorling Kindersley!), but for research, straightforward and easy-to-follow books are greeted with relief. The activities are the only point of contention. More later. The book does contain content on Ls, Gs, Bs, and Ts, but doesn’t go beyond four consonants, and most of the book is Gs and Ls.

Authoritativeness: Pohlen has already had a title on the VOYA Nonfiction Honor List, and the afterword makes clear this one is close to his heart. He’s the right guy to have written a book that’s factually correct and primarily neutral in tone–it’s curriculum-adoptable in terms of the basic text.

Entertainment factor: I struggle with this one. Kids don’t generally sit down with nonfiction for the fun of it. (I don’t, either, with some exceptions.) But this was really engaging material, and the age group that would probably be using this book tends to get fired up about injustice–they might take to it more strongly than predicted.

Activities: This is where the book did not work for me. I understand the concept of making history participatory, and “enlivening” it. But the material is already in capable hands. The tie-ins for some of the activities make sense (“Remember a loved one with a quilt panel”). Some are kind of cool (“The high five”). Kids can learn about designing a flag, or boycotting something, or reading banned books. But conducting an inkblot test or finding a constellation seem like they may be reaching. Many of the activities didn’t seem integrated. However, many were designed to help kids learn about methods of protest or of effecting positive social change, which seems to fit. Some are better than others. The boycott activity was phrased particularly effectively and seemed like it would go a long way toward starting excellent conversations.

Quibbles:
Photos on title page, table of contents pages, and timeline lack captions and credits./Photos all appear later in the book with captions and credits.
“Other rallies were held in cities like Cincinnati, Ohio, and Dallas.” Only two of these things jumped out at me in the whole book (the other was an affect/effect thing), but that’s still two too many for something I would use in a classroom.

Final thoughts: Well, isn’t this something! Great timing for a book of this nature, and something my library certainly has…none of. What about yours? I like this book and wish something like it had been around while I was growing up. This version, though it notes next steps that need to be taken and more progress to be made, ends on such a high note. Get it for the kids in your family and recommend it to your local library, as there is a paucity of books on this subject for this audience, and this is actually a very nice title.

Hannah reviews Emlyn and the Gremlin by Steff F. Kneff

emlynandthegremlin

I love quality children’s literature. Books for children, in my opinion, require all of the elements necessary in producing a good book for any other age group (a plotline! characters!), but also: whimsical rhymes, eye-catching illustrations, and maybe maybe maybe a gentle nudge in some moral direction.

Steff F. Kneff’s Emlyn and the Gremlin has 2.5/3 of these things, making for a pretty quality read. Emlyn is a little girl with two mothers – but, as the title shows, her parents’ relationship isn’t central to the plot. A very tiny gremlin is. The story begins with Emlyn convinced that a nasty gremlin is stealing and breaking all her shiny things – but she’ll find out, in a gentle way, that maybe she shouldn’t have judged the gremlin before meeting her.

I liked the rhyming, the storyline, and the addition of Emlyn’s dog Moose (cute!). I loved that Emlyn’s two moms weren’t scrutinized or “explained”. Emlyn’s prejudgments about the gremlin could obviously be linked to Emlyn’s parents, of course, but Kneff thankfully took a more nuanced route.

The illustrations could perhaps be improved upon. The characters look vaguely reminiscent of manga characters, and I’m not sure the style quite fits with most current children’s literature. Still, children may very well take to the brightly-colored pictures regardless, and the story is good enough that it shouldn’t be passed up.

Danielle Ferriola reviews Emlyn and the Gremlin by Steff F. Kneff and illustrated by Luke Spooner

emlynandthegremlin

Upon discovering rummaged jewelry boxes and messes young Emlyn knows she did not create, Emlyn confronts her two mothers about the probability of a mysterious gremlin sneaking into her bedroom at night. Determined to find out which creature was indeed responsible for displacing shiny items in her room, Emlyn disregards her mothers’ claims that no such gremlin exists and plans a trap to catch the little gremlin. A wonderfully colorful and fun read for children and parents alike, Emlyn and the Gremlin, written by Steff F. Kneff and illustrated by Luke Spooner, is a bed side must have for your children’s sleepless nights.

Emlyn and the Gremlin encourages children to not judge a book by its cover. Prior to meeting the gremlin, Emlyn assumes this creature is a troublemaker. After exchanging a few words with the gremlin, Emlyn realizes that the gremlin does not mean any harm and is enamored by glittering jewels as she does not see such gems where she lives underground.

Even with the wide variety of children’s books available on the market, it is rare to find stories featuring two mothers. It is refreshing that while the sexuality of the mothers remains in the background, readers are sweetly reminded that lesbian parents are just as normal and wholesome as traditional families with a mother and a father. Every opportunity to further educate and illustrate the notion that all families are special (and quite similar in parenting approaches) is guaranteed to inspire more individuals to accept one another. Emlyn and the Gremlin should be available in both school and community library settings as well. Children learn a lot about themselves and each other in school. Unfortunately, this is also a breeding ground for teasing and bullying those who are looked at as different. While we all come from diverse backgrounds and are taught different values at home, school is an opportunity for children to develop their own thoughts and to enlighten their parents on issues that they might have been taught wrongfully. One of the main reasons why people are hateful towards others is the lack of understanding of a particular characteristic or behavior another person possesses. By providing material that acknowledges nontraditional families, the door is open for positive communication.

With delightful rhymes and brilliant pictures, Emlyn and the Gremlin is absolutely enjoyable. Looking forward to what Kneff and Spooner will come up with in the next installment of Emlyn and the Gremlin and the Mean Old Cat, available for purchase December 2014!