Love at First Selkie: The Girl from the Sea by Molly Knox Ostertag

The Girl From the Sea cover

Buy this from Bookshop.org to support local bookstores and the Lesbrary!

On a recent trip to Portland, my partner and I picked up The Girl from the Sea by Molly Knox Ostertag (she/her) from Powell’s City of Books.  This gorgeous graphic novel follows Morgan Kwon, a 15-year-old young woman living with her mom and younger brother on Wilneff Island in southeastern Nova Scotia, Canada. Morgan and her family moved there from Toronto about seven years ago, when her parents were happier, her brother wasn’t angry, and she didn’t have to worry about her sexuality. Fast forward to present-day, where her dad has moved out to the city, her brother is increasingly insufferable, and she can’t wait to go to college in a city so she can finally be out.

Early in the novel, Morgan is seeking refuge from issues at home in her quiet place—the cliffs overlooking the sea—when she slips on a wet rock, hits her head, and falls into the water. As she drifts below the waves and begins to see her life flash before her eyes, she is rushed to the surface by the beautiful Keltie.  Back on solid ground and emboldened by her near-death-experience, Morgan kisses Keltie, who she is certain is a hallucination.

Only Keltie is real. She is a selkie: a creature from Celtic and Norse mythology that can change between human and seal form by removing or replacing their seal skin. A kiss from her true love (Morgan?!), has allowed her to transform from a seal into a human and walk on land. Morgan must now decide how Keltie fits into her life, if at all. 

Ostertag’s illustrations are gorgeous. She perfectly captures every character’s facial expressions and body language. Even without text, a reader would know that Keltie is carefree and earnest, that she loves Morgan plainly and without reservation. They would also know that Morgan is put together, neat, and precise, that her body is tense from keeping her family, friends, and personal life in separate boxes. 

The Girl from the Sea is a sweet and beautiful meditation on first queer love and how exhilarating and terrifying it is all at the same time. It is also a reckoning of the pressure queer people feel to compartmentalize our lives. How that pressure forces us to live double and triple lives, draining us of our precious energy and robbing us of our joy. Being our truest, most authentic selves is not always something that comes easy, but it is nowhere near the cost of hiding the best parts of ourselves.

I really enjoyed this book and wholeheartedly recommend reading it. I love how it weaves folklore together with queer coming of age and how it addresses challenges that many queer people experience without exposition. If you enjoy this book, Ostertag (@molly_ostertag on Instagram) has written several other graphic young adult novels with queer and other diverse characters, including The Deep Dark, which is coming out on June 4, 2024.

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.

Stories About Brave Women Who Don’t Take Shit from Anyone: The One Hundred Nights of Hero by Isabel Greenberg

the cover of One Hundred Nights of Hero by Isabel Greenberg

Amazon Affiliate Link

We all have our preferred coping methods. Mine is returning to comforting favorites: books that changed me, those old familiar stories that still move me, no matter the intervening years. 

These last seven years, Isabel Greenberg’s graphic novel The One Hundred Nights of Hero has been waiting quietly for me to pick it up again. The book itself is oversized, a choice I like to think foreshadows its impact, but let me tell you more about its insides first.

The One Hundred Nights of Hero is a collection of stories set within a love story about two women defying a patriarchal empire. The art is sketchy but striking, with a limited color palette of red, gold, and teal, enhancing black, white, and gray. The prose conveys the same style—simple and striking—with the added zing of snark, allowing the story itself to shine. 

The prologue opens with a world creation myth. Early Earth was perfect, but this soon changes due to a God’s meddling. This God, Birdman, fanatically desires worship and adoration. “See these humans Kiddo has created… Happily breeding. Left, right and centre. NO MORE! I shall give them ME. They will learn to fear me, they will learn to do my bidding… They will worship me.” 

Properly furnished with this context, we arrive at the city of Migdal Bavel in the midst of a fireside conversation between Manfred and Jerome. Here, devotees of Birdman hold sway and women are seen as little more than amusing possessions, forbidden from learning to read and write.

We learn of Manfred’s difficulties with women. Alas, after he killed his first wife for being assaulted, he’s unable to find a woman who meets his highly specific criteria: “Beautiful. Clever enough to have a conversation, not clever enough to disagree with [him]. Obedient. Chaste. Good at mending socks. NOT ambitious. Marriage to [him] must be the height of her ambition. Interested in [his] passions. Falconry, battlements, maps, etcetera. But not as good as [him] at those things.” Hearing this, his friend Jerome points out that his wife, Cherry, is all of those things. And so he sets a ludicrous wager. He will give Manfred one hundred nights to attempt to seduce his wife Cherry, who is so incredibly chaste that even he has not “taken her virtue.” 

Years before this shameful fireside chat between Manfred and Jerome, Cherry fell in love with her maid, Hero. They shared a single wonderful summer together before Cherry was forced into marrying Jerome. Now, faced with a similar seemingly inescapable situation, they come up with a bold plan. They will distract Manfred with an enchanting story every evening for the next one hundred nights, in the grand tradition of One Thousand and One Nights

The graphic novel unspools from there, Hero telling story after story to a rapt Manfred and an anxious Cherry. We learn mysterious and tantalizing tidbits about Migdal Bavel and Hero. Some stories are familiar but end in a new way, such as the Twelve Dancing Princesses. Others are wholly new, like the story of the Secret League of Storytellers, a group of women who resolve to tell “…all the stories that are never told…And above all, stories about brave women who don’t take shit from anyone.” The guards are enthralled too, and soon the entire city of Migdal Bavel whispers about Hero’s stories. 

(Spoilers, highlight to read) When Jerome returns home on the one hundredth night and Cherry’s virtue remains intact, Manfred screams witchcraft, and the women are taken to the tallest tower… You can imagine the end that awaits them there. I refuse to spoil it for you, but know that I cried in queer despair and joy.

There is so much to love in Greenberg’s graphic novel. There are beautiful repetitions and throughlines, like women not being sorry, not even one bit, like brave women who don’t take shit from anyone, and recurring devices like a magic pebble. These stories unfurl, less in a linear progression and more in a self-referential spiral, all adding up to inform the gorgeous ending. 

I’ve carried the bold and unrepentant spirit of The One Hundred Nights of Hero’s love story with me since the first time I read it in 2017, and I hope you choose to do the same.

Warnings: misogyny, nudity; mentioned but not depicted: sexual assault, violence