Concentrated Adorableness in a Queernorm World: The Tea Dragon Society by Kay O’Neill

the cover of The Tea Dragon Society

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The Tea Dragon Society is a short graphic novel composed of the most concentrated adorableness I have ever encountered. It centers around Greta, an outgoing, compassionate girl training to become a blacksmith—though she sees the profession as somewhat outdated. Rescuing a tea dragon brings her to tea brewers Hesekiel and Erik, and their painfully shy ward Minette, all of whom help Greta decide what truly matters.

Central to this story is the existence of tea dragons, a mix between the ethereal and a sweet but needy pet. These small creatures frolic, snuggle, and occasionally blep. They also sprout tea leaves: fur-puffed Rooibos grows them like a mane, while the languid Jasmine has leafy antlers between his large, curving ears. And don’t get me started on little Chamomile, whose floppy ears, stubby wings, and little puppy body have absolutely captured my heart. (They may keep it.)

The narrative itself is simple enough. This being a first volume, it serves largely to introduce the main characters, and as much plot as it includes is about Greta’s growing maturity. Even so, as someone who usually needs a strong plot, I enjoyed this so much I wish every individual panel came with two pages of text, just to make it last longer. This doesn’t need a plot because it knows what it is and fulfills that purpose.

As for the worldbuilding, well, the book is an exploration of gorgeousness and soft light.

Only as I’m writing this do I realize that the sapphic content is almost ambiguous—to me, Greta and Min’s relationship is clearly a romantic one, even if that romance is of the subtle sort. There are simply too many blushes, meaningful glances, and close moments to be platonic. There’s also a small kiss near the end. It’s coded in a way that would be unambiguous between a cis girl and a cis boy in other media, and for a comic that so normalizes queerness, The Tea Dragon Society seems to me to be an epically tender slow burn.

Zero content warnings here, just a strong recommend for anyone who appreciates a simple tale of nurturing, healing, family, and time.

Sam reviews Other Ever Afters by Melanie Gillman

the cover of Other Ever Afters

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If you spend much time on Tumblr—and who doesn’t, these days—there’s a good chance you’ve seen at least one of Melanie Gillman’s gay fairy tale 24-hour comics. They’re well-loved on the microblogging social media, and for good reason. With simple but beautiful panels, an enchanting storybook feel, and a tender heart at the center of all of them, it’s hard not to stop and read each all over again whenever they pop up on the dashboard. You can go read all four 24-hour comics on Gillman’s personal Tumblr (including my favorite, “Hsthete”), but you can also find them in their recently published anthology Other Ever Afters.

As a proper graphic novel anthology, Other Ever Afters adds three new fairy tale comics to the four Gillman was already known for. The additions match in tone and style quite well, and it was a delight seeing the originals existing outside of a computer screen. It’s a beautiful book, hefty in the hand and bursting with color. The stories themselves are sugar-sweet romances, chaste but decidedly queer. A quiet longing runs through many of them, a sense of things being not quite right—seeing this familiar queer dilemma resolve with a fairy tale’s characteristic turn comes with a slight subversive thrill and a good deal of warm fuzzies each time. The addition of an illustrated introduction and epilogue was a particularly nice touch, one which I think pulls the entire book together in a wonderful way.

Other Ever Afters is the perfect kind of graphic novel to own, to have at disposal any time you’d like to read a short, sweet, queer fairy tale romance. Even if you have no plans to buy it though, I’d recommend checking out a copy from your local library, just for the experience of reading these stories in print for the first time.

Samantha Lavender is a lesbian library assistant on the west coast, making ends meet with a creative writing degree and her wonderful butch partner. She spends her spare time playing and designing tabletop roleplaying games. You can follow her @LavenderSam on tumblr.

The Queer Heart of the Circle of Magic Series by Tamora Pierce

Something I’ve discovered recently is that you can tell a lot about a person based on which Tamora Pierce series they loved as a child. Song of the Lioness fan? Congratulations on your transition. Anyone who was really into the Immortals probably has a disaster prep bag (or three) and is working on their off the grid cabin in the woods dream. But I was always a Circle of Magic fan, which is why I’m a lesbian.

For those who are unfamiliar: Tamora Pierce is a prolific young adult writer, who, similar to authors like Terry Pratchett, has a shared setting that she writes multiple series in. The Circle of Magic books are also called her Emelan books, after the name of the primary setting. The plot follows four characters: Sandry, Daja, Tris, and Briar, four ambient mages who were discovered later than most mages usually are, and how they learn to harness their powers and find their places in the world. None of them fit in with other students, both because of their unusual magic and their unusual backgrounds. They come together to live in Discipline Cottage, with two of their teachers, to receive a more personalized education. The second quartet, The Circle Opens, follows them after they become certified as adult mages and go out into the world, and they come back together as adults in The Will of the Empress.

I hadn’t read these books in around 15 years, maybe more, which left me in an interesting position: I remembered a lot of emotional beats and character development, but was hazy on specific plot details. This allowed me to read the books almost like they were new, but not quite. My final verdict? Tamora Pierce is an incredible writer and these books still hold up very well. Reading these books was like peeling back layers of my personality and taste and exposing the core of my soul. How many characters have I loved (and written) that are just a slightly different version of Briar Moss? How many times have I read a story claiming to be found family and thinking that their friendship was nice, but it was just lacking something? Circle of Magic feels like the platonic ideal of many of my favorite tropes and character archetypes.

While the characters have stuck with me, one of my favorite parts of this series as an adult was the world building. Pierce uses a lot of clear inspiration from real world countries, both as cultural and racial influences, but she also works hard on magic systems and how they influence culture. The Traders are particularly fascinating, as they’re less of an ethnic group and more of a collective culture shared by a variety of people. While at first glance it’s easy to tell that they’re just visiting Fantasy Russia, there’s so much more depth that she builds up. The result is a diverse, interesting world with characters to match. I have done a lot of nostalgic childhood rereading this year, and it’s incredible to me how much more diverse these books were compared to others that were out at the time, and even those that are coming out now.

While it’s easy for me to wish that there was more obvious queerness in the early books, the thing is that the kids are 10 years old and probably don’t care very much about whether or not Lark and Rosethorn are kissing. Also, considering that Sandry’s Book was published in 1997 and The Will of the Empress was published in 2005, I’m more surprised that there were any canon gays at all. (In this reread I also hit up Melting Stones and Battle Magic, which is as recent as 2013, but I’m not focusing on them quite as much since they are less about the relationship and growth of the main foursome). Besides, the books feel like such a metaphor for queerness: all of the kids don’t fit in with other people and feel closer to each other than their own families, there’s an acknowledgement of their differences but they have more in common with each other. And even though only Daja is the only one who gets a girlfriend, we all know how friend groups tend to become more queer as time goes on. These books are just as fun to discuss as they are to read, and that makes them a fun series to read with friends.

Overall, I love these books. I’m not going to wait another 15 years to revisit them, they are staying near and dear to my heart, and they are required reading for anyone who wants to really understand who I am and what kinds of characters I like. I need to reread more Tamora Pierce now, since I’ve confirmed that she really is as good as I remember. They even appealed to my incredibly picky girlfriend, who doesn’t like reading middle grade/young adult books as much as I do! I think that’s the biggest endorsement I could give.

Larkie is a west coast lesbian living with her girlfriend and cat. When she’s not reading every queer genre book she can get her hands on, she’s probably playing video games or taking pictures of mushrooms. Larkie’s Lesbrary reviews can be found here. More reviews are on Storygraph.

Til reviews Séance Tea Party by Reimena Yee

the cover of Séance Tea Party by Reimena Yee

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Séance Tea Party begins with Lora, a lost young person somewhere between girlhood and womanhood. Growing up looms large throughout the graphic novel… as much as anything looms in this gentle, joyful, sometimes heartbreaking story. Lora feels alone with her friends moving on to things like slick magazines and text chains, while she continues to prefer imaginative play. When ghost girl Alexa joins Lora at the titular séance tea party, the two form a friendship—and maybe something more—that will ultimately bring healing to both girls and those important to them.

It’s a quick read and a sweet one. Lora is relatable as someone who doesn’t want to stop having fun but feels like her fun is no longer accepted. I saw a lot of myself in her and remembered going through the same feeling that “growing up” means growing miserable. Lora and Alexa’s friendship is adorably played. This literal ghost of the past gives Lora the confidence to do new things and reach out to others, while holding on to the things she values about her younger self.

This is a story about what we let go of and what we hold onto. The narrative never feels critical of Lora’s desire to keep her childhood joys. It’s not a cruel story. If anything, it’s about an intentional and healthful fusion of the two.

Take my commentary with a grain of salt: my visual literacy is far from the sharpest, and I likely missed a fair helping of nuance. The core story, though, is a delight.

Til reviews The Stone Child by David A. Robertson

the cover of The Stone Child

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The Stone Child is book 3 in the Misewa Saga, following foster siblings Eli and Morgan, who discover that they can travel to another dimension when they put Eli’s drawings on a wall in their foster-home’s attic. Here, in Misewa, they meet animals who wear clothes and live in villages, but sometimes face major crises with which the children can help. The series incorporates Cree words and rituals, with identity as a powerful theme for the main characters, both of whom are First Nations.

This is the first book to introduce a romantic side-plot. Since it’s a middle grade novel, I hadn’t felt that was especially lacking, but it was introduced with characteristic nuance. This time Morgan’s friend Emily is along for the adventure. The girls share a nerdy friendship centered around a mutual love of outer space adventure stories, especially Star Wars; they tease each other and generally enjoy one another’s company. This would have been a perfect portrayal of a friendship even without the romance aspect.

As for the romance itself? Adorable. It progresses slowly, with little jokes and blushes, a tiny kiss on the cheek and full stop to ask if this was okay. Morgan and Emily have a relationship built on shared interests, respect for one another, open communication, and trust. Their nascent romance never rises to the center of the story, something I consider a positive. There are life-and-death stakes in this book. Morgan is struggling with her family. Though Emily is a consistent positive in her life, she’s never a distraction from Morgan’s questions of identity and belonging. One of my biggest pet peeves in any fiction is a character losing their sense of self for a romantic partner, so I adored watching Morgan stay honest to her path, even as she invited Emily to walk with her.

I don’t recommend starting with this book. The first in the series, The Barren Grounds, is the place to start. Even before Morgan and Emily’s friendship begins to wend its way toward “something more”, the series is filled with nuance—from Morgan, an angry girl with a huge and damaged heart; to her foster-mom Katie, so eager to do right but oblivious as a white woman fostering First Nations children; to how right and wrong play out on a generational scale. It’s at times heartbreaking and at other times pure delight. And, consistently, it’s an exciting adventure.

Danika reviews Other Ever Afters: New Queer Fairy Tales by Melanie Gillman

the cover of Other Ever Afters

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Melanie Gillman is one of my favourite artists. I even support them on Patreon–which I highly recommend, because you get to read their travel diary comics and sometimes you get little zine-style comics in the mail. You might remember their YA graphic novels, As the Crow Flies and Stage Dreams, which are both queer and excellent. This collection of queer fairy tale comics is aimed a middle grade audience, but it will appeal to readers of any age.

I always love Gillman’s intricate pencil crayon illustrations, and this collection is no different. Despite having a cohesive style throughout, each face is distinctive and recognizable, and I appreciate how much the women’s facial features vary (no Pixar faces here). Each page is a joy to look at, and there are so many panels I’d love framed and hanging in my room.

As it says on the tin, these are queer fairy tales, and despite being original, they really capture the timeless feel of a fairy tale that’s been around for many generations. The cadence also reminds me of classic fairy tales, with some stories using repetition just as oral storytellers do.

Of course, these aren’t classic fairy tales, and they all feature queer characters, most of whom are sapphic. A ranger who falls for a girl sneaking around in the woods she protects. A princess who tries to convince the beautiful goose girl to marry her. A giantess who isn’t the monster the villagers make her out to be.

I appreciate that Gillman always knows the precise moment to end each story. I often wished there was just one panel more, but I knew I was wrong; it had to end exactly there.

I’ve been running the Lesbrary for more than a decade now, so let me be indulgent and say that I’m so glad books like this exist now. Not long ago, there were no middle grade queer books, and it’s only in the last handful of years that it’s expanded. Now, kids can read these beautiful queer fairy tales! It’s also feminist, with characters dismantling unjust power structures, and an ending that made me want to punch the air in triumph–while these stories stand on their own, there are a few that cross over.

I had some of these in zine format (they were 24-Hour Comics Day comics from previous years), but I’m very happy to have the whole collection and to read the ones I haven’t encountered before. Buy this for a kid in your life and then buy it for yourself. I love this collection.

Til reviews The Lock-Eater by Zack Loran Clark

the cover of The Lock Eater

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The Lock-Eater tells the story of Melanie Gate, an orphan sent on an adventure with a gearling in a land of power-hungry wizards, invisible unicorns, humanoid animals, true friends, and cute seamstresses. This is a book that feels very aware of its adherence to the typical—the author definitely knows what he’s doing when he diverges from expectations. It’s clear from the beginning. Rather than happily sending away another worthless foundling, matron Mrs. Harbargain truly cares for Melanie and sends her off to become a witch’s apprentice only because she’s in a very tight situation. Even as readers embark on the journey alongside Melanie and Traveler, we see that there are good people in this world.

And what a world it is! There are generations of warfare and extortionate treaties woven into this book. There are magical beasts and the less-than-pleasant, delightfully realistic observation that living just below an aerie of gryphons means living just below an aerie’s worth of gryphon-sized poos. For all its lighthearted moments, the book has seriousness, too, including a small nation under colonial rule, the magical equivalent of a nuclear weapon, and far too many dosed cups of tea. The strongest consistent thread isn’t exploration or magic or even coming of age. It’s community. Sometimes Melanie has to solve tough problems on her own. Often she has support. Though she has a talent for magic, she’s not the only one, and she loves her friends for their talents, too. This novel pulls off “everyone’s special” so well.

So, what kind of queer representation can you expect? In my opinion, the perfect amount for a middle grade adventure. Melanie likes girls. Not only is that outright stated, she meets a seamstress who immediately takes away her powers of speech—not through magic, but a keenly relatable awkwardness! The crush is reciprocated and sweet. I don’t tend to enjoy overwhelming romances; usually, once it becomes more than ~35% of the story, it’s too much romance. That’s one of the things I like about middle grade fiction. Lock-Eater does a great job being a comfortable, supportive queer narrative that embraces the import of identity, with or without romance.

No disrespect intended to all the romance fans out there, of course!

The book also has some comments on gender and identity. They’re less centered, but undeniably present. Melanie is repeatedly judged for being a girl in a boy’s coat, but she loves its starry design and doesn’t care who it was “meant” for. She is not explicitly stated to be nonbinary, just refusing to be overly confined to societal expectations. Another character chooses a new name for herself late in the story. This is treated as extremely powerful. Her choice is honored. I’m not someone who can or would try to speak for the trans community, but as someone who has never felt entirely comfortable within gender norms, I found these little touches to be absolutely wonderful.

The Lock-Eater is a sweet adventure story about a magical world with a very human protagonist, and it isn’t afraid to explore emotional depths and darker outcomes.

Til reviews Artie and the Wolf Moon by Olivia Stephens

Artie and the Wolf Moon cover

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Artie and the Wolf Moon is a graphic novel about middle schooler Artie, a budding photographer who discovers that her mom is a werewolf. Artie is a lonely kid. She’s one of the few students of color at her school, and she’s bullied by some of her classmates. When she shows signs that she, too, is a werewolf, her mom takes her to a whole community of wolves.

The book follows Artie’s development as a werewolf, learning her history both of her family and of werewolves in the United States, as well as her personal growth as she gains confidence, navigates new non-werewolf friendships, and falls blushing and stammering into a romance with her new friend Maya. It’s a tightly woven narrative with strong plot and character elements throughout, and it explores themes of community, grief, and growing up.

A good graphic novel strikes just the right balance between too much character content and too much action, and I thought Artie and the Wolf Moon absolutely nailed it. Artie stood out as an impulsive, stubborn, curious girl. She discovers the werewolves’ world as readers do. Scenes with Maya’s family and community overrun with a sense of acceptance and community. I felt how much happier Artie was, and werewolf shifting and lore felt like family activities–especially the way Artie was included even before she learned to control her shifting. There was a sense of adventure and even peril, but those felt secondary to a story about belonging.

The artwork suited the story well. The center of the story is Artie and her newfound community, and the images reflect that. Stephens creates simple backgrounds, setting the stage but focusing on the characters. I found it effective, especially with creating atmosphere. Werewolf-ness was represented by bright red lines, while vampires were jagged shadows. It gave the supernatural elements an otherworldly feeling.

This is a coming-of-age story, and Artie and Maya’s romance has the feeling of a first love: hesitant and shy and marked by a lot of blushing, and it develops over quiet moments they share. Their relationship is defined by this shared time and closeness. When Maya chooses to spend time with Artie alone, they climb a tree together in the sweetest single panel I have seen, possibly ever. It feels sincere, tender, and just right for a story about identity and belonging. It was soft and lovely. This is exactly the content I came here for.

The werewolves’ story ties into Black history in the United States. Mine is an outsider’s perspective here, but it’s an important part of the book and excluding it from the review would be disingenuous. The Mother Werewolf fled enslavement, and with Black werewolves and white vampires, generational conflicts between the two parallel racial violence and discrimination. One incident that stands out involves vampires forcing a werewolf family out of town. This is a scene that, portrayed in films, would have ensured one of the white characters stepped into an especially bright patch to be given identity, a particularly harsh contrast given how films’ lighting already favors lighter-skinned actors. Stephens chose to portray this scene without making the vampires more than blurred phantoms, no personhood for those mired in hate. When historical elements of violent discrimination were included, they kept the narrative centered on Black characters.

Artie and the Wolf Moon is a standout. Plot and exploration of this new world complement character growth, with each aspect given space to breathe. I appreciated moments when Artie was allowed to be frustrated or annoyed, not because the story needed it but because that’s part of growing up; I appreciated moments where characters are thrust into situations they’re not ready for because the story demands more. Supernatural elements are grounded in a palpable community setting. I enjoyed so much about reading this book.

Trigger warnings: the book includes instances of racism and bullying

Danika reviews The Legend of Auntie Po by Shing Yin Khor

The Legend of Auntie Po cover

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This is a quiet, almost slice-of-life graphic novel about a 13-year-old queer Chinese American girl’s life at a logging camp. Mei is the daughter of the camp cook, and she helps out in the kitchen and spends her free time spinning yarns for the other children in camp–especially about Po Pan Yin, or Auntie Po, a Chinese American matriarchal version of Paul Bunyan. She is best friends with (and obviously has a crush on) Bee, the foreman’s daughter.

In the background, though, is the constant hum of anti-Asian racism. The Chinese workers eat separately from other workers. A sawmill that employed Chinese workers is burned down. Mei is keenly aware that she’s losing something: she no longer prays, she doesn’t know her grandparents, and her Cantonese is rusty. She is caught between traditions she feels disconnected with and an American culture that doesn’t accept her.

Auntie Po is the bridge between them: a blending of cultures and a way of adapting tradition to make it relevant. Not only does Mei tell stories about Auntie Po, she also begins to see her–especially when times get hard. Auntie Poe (and her giant water buffalo Pei Pei) become a source of hope and inspiration for her, and it’s left ambiguous whether or not she’s real.

The foreman claims that Mei and her father are like “family” to him, but Mei’s father knows better than to take him at his word, even if their daughters have grown up together. The story explores friendships across racial and financial differences in both these generations (Bee and Mei as well as their fathers’ relationship) and how fraught these can be. Mei’s father soon finds himself choosing between the man he’s called “family” and his own safety and comfort.

I enjoyed the watercolor illustrations with digital lines art style, and there are some stunning spreads. Pei Pei especially is a delight whenever he makes an appearance. This is a quick read, but there are lots of different aspects to dive into: I think this is a book that could act as a great conversation starter with young readers.

As for the queer content, Mei’s crush on Bee is obvious, and they hold hands and dream about a future together, but this isn’t a romance. It’s the kind of adoring friendship (with occasional blow-ups) you’d expect between 13-year-old girls. Not long ago, this kind of relationship in a kids’ book would likely be dismissed as a close friendship, but the author’s note makes it clear that Mei is queer, and I think we’re finally at a point where queer content doesn’t have to be spelled out to be obvious.

This is a thoughtful book about a topic of U.S. American history not often written about in middle grade books, and I highly recommend it.

Danika reviews The Girl from the Sea by Molly Ostertag

The Girl from the Sea cover

Way back in 2016, I wrote a post for Book Riot called 5 Lesbian Mermaid Comics You Need to Read where I rounded up sapphic mermaid and selkie comics. There were far too few than I would like, but I was able to find a three page comic story from Molly Ostertag on tumblr about a girl who falls in love with a selkie. Obviously, I was delighted, and so imagine my surprise when I found out that the concept was made into a middle grade graphic novel! I love selkies, I love queer middle grade comics, so I needed to read it ASAP.

This follows Morgan Kwon, a 15 year old with a plan for her life. She’s going to keep her head down until she graduates, and then she’s going to become her authentic self. She just needs to wait it out. Her parents have just divorced, and her brother isn’t taking it well. She has a close group of friends, but she doesn’t feel like she can tell them her secret: that she’s queer.

When she was younger, she played with a selkie. At least, that’s what she remembers–but she’s written it off as her imagination. Then, she almost drowns and is rescued by that same selkie. The next day, Keltie appears on land in human form: something she can only do every 7 years. While they both clearly are romantically interested in each other, Morgan panics that Keltie–with her bluntness, her weird clothing, her unrestrained personality–will out her. But she doesn’t want to walk away, either, so she tries to balance these two lives.

I love the artwork here and the quiet exploration of Morgan’s character. She has to learn to be true to herself and embrace when life doesn’t go to plan–that it’s okay to let things get messy. I can’t wait to get a finished copy in all its glossy, full-colour glory!

I do want to give a clear content warning for nonconsensual outing. (Spoiler: her mom accepts her immediately.)