The Last True Poets of the Sea by Julia Drake

The cover shows line drawings of ocean vegetation floating against a background of blue water. The title is lettered in shades of pink, orange, and yellow.

by Ash B.

Not to be dramatic, but The Last True Poets of the Sea by Julia Drake is one of the most underrated novels I’ve read. It received positive reviews from Booklist, Kirkus, School Library Journal, and Publisher’s Weekly – and yet it still seems like not many people know about it. That’s why I eagerly recommend it whenever I can! 

Violet Larkin is a wild child – partying and doing all manner of things that a 16-year-old girl probably shouldn’t be in New York City. After her younger brother attempts suicide and her own reckless behavior worsens, her family sends her to stay with her uncle for the summer in the small coastal town of Lyric, Maine.  

Descended from a shipwreck survivor who supposedly founded Lyric, Violet is convinced that disaster runs in her blood. As she struggles with inner turmoil, she becomes determined to uncover the long-lost location of that shipwreck and the truth of her family history. With the help of new, unexpected friends, Violet discovers so much more – about herself, about love in all forms, and about surviving the emotional wrecks of life. 

After Violet starts working at the local aquarium in Lyric, the story seems like it might include a very “boy meets girl” romance with her coworker, but it delightfully diverges into something more refreshing. While there is a slow-burn teen romance with a bit of a “twist” love interest, that is far from the focal point of the book. I would say the core of the story is the complexity of mental health and the importance of allowing oneself to be (safely) emotionally vulnerable. The narrative balances the mending of relationships within Violet’s family, the importance of Violet building new friendships in Lyric, and the development of Violet’s relationship with herself. 

It is such a beautiful story of healing and connection. I really appreciated how Violet, an amazingly complex teen protagonist, opened my eyes to how mental illness and trauma can impact and manifest in such different ways depending on each person. For someone such as myself, anxiety typically causes retreating into oneself, isolating, and fearing the outside world. Social anxiety and generalized anxiety can really go hand-in-hand in this way, at least in my experience.  

However, for Violet, her anxiety – the storm she feels inside but doesn’t know how to healthily cope with – is sometimes the catalyst for her extroverted, often-risky behaviors such as partying, (underage) drinking in social settings, and flirting with much older men. Over the course of the novel, I grew to understand why someone like Violet might engage in those types of behavior (that would personally make my anxiety even worse) as a means of trying to avoid their inner struggles. 

This is a YA novel that I think can help so many people, teens and adults alike. It shows the importance of communication, self-love, healthy interpersonal relationships, and being kind to oneself while growing up. It challenges the idea that teens who “act out” are “bad” or “broken,” instead showing the nuanced reasons why unhealthy coping behaviors are used by young people who are struggling. Not to mention that it is beautifully written with crossover appeal for both YA and adult fiction readers. 

The characters of The Last True Poets of the Sea settled into my heart and have made a permanent home there. I read this book for the first time over a year ago and I still can’t stop thinking about it. When a book lingers with you long after you finish the final page, that tends to be a good sign. I loved it so much, I bought my own copy and I’m planning on re-reading it during my own trip to Maine this summer! If you’re interested in a contemporary coming-of-age story, I really hope you give this one a read.

Ash is an Instructor & Research Specialist at Central Branch and is a co-facilitator for Reads of Acceptance, HCLS’ first LGBTQ-focused book club. Their favorite place to read is spread out on a blanket under the shade of the tree. 

Equity Resource Collection and New Brave Stories Exhibit

by Ash B. and Christie L.

Enrich your summer at the Equity Resource Center! Visit for the books, movies, music – and exhibits. The space upstairs at Central Branch purposefully has plenty of room for exhibits that focus on equity issues. If you missed our previous one, Undesign the Redline, you can still view a video tour on YouTube. Make time to see the new show and attend the related classes:

BRAVE STORIES EXHIBIT 

View of Brave Voices display at Central Branch, header read Story informs, heals, and ins

Stories shape narratives. Narratives shape perceptions. Perceptions shape actions. 

Whether they are told around a campfire, around a kitchen table, or online, stories have the power to move people to tears of sadness or tears of joy and to action. At Howard County Library System, we are a home for brave stories and a place to be heard. We provide a platform for people to tell their stories. This helps to better inform perceptions, develop new narratives, and re-position equity as the ideal state of being from which everyone benefits.  

HCLS is a safe space for racial equity work, but real progress begins with you. You have the power to lead, share, and connect. As we move forward as a community in Howard County, we have the chance to extend equitable treatment to those around us. How are you helping to improve life in Howard County?  

Start by making room for new stories. Visit the new Brave Stories exhibit in the Equity Resource Center at the Central Branch. Read about your neighbors’ experiences. Take the time to listen to their Brave Stories—and share your own. 

We invite you to respond to the exhibit in a series of art workshops, each using a different material, with facilitators from Notre Dame of Maryland University’s Art Therapy Department. Attend one or both workshops: Tuesday, Jul 26 and Thursday, Aug 4.

We also invite you to share your own stories in a facilitated circle. Bring your experiences and insights, listening ears, and an open mind and heart to one or more sessions: Wednesday, Aug 3; Saturday, Aug 13, and Saturday, Aug 20.

EQUITY RESOURCE COLLECTION

If you haven’t already read it, you might want to check out my previous post about the Equity Resource Collection.

Adult Fiction 

A collage of adult novels found in the Equity Resource Collection.

The second floor at Central Branch houses the adult fiction of the Equity Resource Collection, along with its adult nonfiction, DVDs, and CDs. More than 900+ adult fiction titles span all genres, including classics, bestsellers, contemporary fiction, historical fiction, romance, mystery, fantasy, and science fiction. 

Like other areas of the Equity Resource Collection, some of these titles specifically center equity issues such as racism, whereas others feature diverse characters and authors. Whatever genre or style of novel you enjoy, there is a great read for you here. One of my favorites is Open Water by Caleb Azumah Nelson, which I actually reviewed in-depth in a previous blog post. If you like poetic and tender novels, this is a must-read. 

Adult Nonfiction 

Three race and gender titles found in the Equity Resource Collection: Anti-Racist Ally, Demystifying Disability, and Gender: Your Guide

As excited as I am about fiction, I’m even more interested in the nonfiction section – partially because of how many of these titles are exclusive to the Equity Resource Collection. While these items can be requested for pickup at any HCLS branch, browsing in person offers the opportunity to find an amazing book more by chance. 

When you head into the Equity Resource Center, the nonfiction collection rests to the right. You can find introductory guides to equity issues, history books, academic texts, memoirs and biographies, art books, cookbooks, and more.  

For folks who are beginning to explore these topics, I recommend: 

For readers who are ready to delve deeper, some terrific title: 

Audio-Visual 

A collage of movies found in the Equity Resource Collection.

Are you more of a film lover than a reader? Well, no worries. The ERC has you covered, too.

From indie films to big-budget productions, you have a variety of choices from multicultural movies and movies that center Black history. While most titles are for adults and teens, there are kid-friendly favorites such as Moana and Coco as well. 

If you’re interested in TV series or nonfiction DVDs, look for the shelving close to adult nonfiction. With titles from distributors such as HBO and PBS, including Stonewall Uprising and The Central Park Five, this section is worth checking out if you appreciate a good documentary. 

For the music lover, the ERC includes CDs, shelved next to the nonfiction DVDs, from artists past and present, across genres. For the pop fan, check out Sawayama by Rina Sawayama, a contemporary singer-songwriter who is Japanese-British and bisexual.

If you like rock, blues, soul, or gospel, a must-listen is Shout Sister Shout by Sister Rosetta Tharpe, “The Godmother of Rock’N’Roll,” who pioneered music in the 30s, 40s and 50s by combining electric guitar with spiritual lyrics – providing the foundations for subsequent artists like Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley. 

Whether you’re a fan of Latin music or someone in your family still can’t get enough of the Encanto soundtrack, check out Cumbiana by Carlos Vives, the beloved Colombian singer-songwriter whose song “Colombia, Mi Encanto” plays at the end of the 2021 Disney hit movie. 

Think our collection is missing an important title? Go to hclibrary.org/contact-us/ and “Make a purchase suggestion” – after you submit the online form, it will be reviewed by one of our materials selectors as a potential addition.  

Ash is an Instructor & Research Specialist at Central Branch and is a co-facilitator for Reads of Acceptance, HCLS’ first LGBTQ-focused book club. Their favorite place to read is spread out on a blanket under the shade of the tree. 

Christie is the Director of Communication and Partnerships for Howard County Library System. She loves walking through the network of pathways in Columbia, sitting on the beach, and cheering for the Baltimore Orioles and Texas Aggies football team.

Equity Resource Center – Children’s and Teen Collections 

Wide view of the upstairs at Central Branch of Howard County Library System, where the Equity Resource Center is housed.

by Ash B.

Enrich your summer with entertainment and educational materials from the Equity Resource Collection!

The Equity Resource Collection (ERC) launched in October 2021 in response to growing community demand for materials related to racial equity, especially in the wake of George Floyd’s murder and the increase in mainstream attention to #BlackLivesMatter and systemic racism. 

The special collection was created along with the Equity Resource Center, a 700 square foot space located on the second floor of the Central Branch, directly behind the public access computers. An intentional space for learning, healing, and discussing issues, the Center also provides room for thoughtful exhibits (such as Undesign the Redline). This area houses thousands of new ERC materials, including movies, documentaries, and music CDs, as well as fiction and nonfiction books and audiobooks.  

While HCLS works hard to maintain a diverse, balanced general collection, the ERC is specifically focused on centering equity, diversity, and inclusive representation, including but not limited to race/ethnicity and racism, immigration, disability, gender, and sexual orientation. By concentrating these titles in a specific place, the ERC serves as a resource if you are interested in books on one of these topics but aren’t sure where to start. I find this particularly beneficial when browsing the children’s ERC and all the nonfiction ERC shelves.

Some titles in the ERC are duplicated in our general collection, particularly popular titles, whereas other titles exclusively belong to the Equity Resource Collection. However, all ERC titles can be requested for pickup at any HCLS branch – which we highly encourage!

If you visit the Central Branch, you might notice three “Equity Resource Center” areas, with materials located in the children’s and teen area in addition to the upstairs section. All ERC DVDs, however, are located in the main Equity Resource Center along with the adult materials, including family-friendly movies like Moana.

Children’s 

Located on the main floor behind and around the research desk, the children’s ERC contains chapter books, picture books, and nonfiction books for a variety of ages and interests.

The collection provides exceptional “mirrors, window, and sliding glass doors” for young readers – allowing youth to discover books about and by people who look like them, as well as to learn about people who may be different from them. Some of these titles are clearly informational in nature – defining terminology, explaining concepts, and narrating history. These range from textbook-like materials for tweens to picture books for the earliest of readers! 

A pastel background shows four young folx, with the two on either side holding plants that fountain with all sorts of flowers and artistry. One person is sitting in a wheelchair with a ukulele.

One example of the latter is It Feels Good to Be Yourself: A Book About Gender Identity, written by Theresa Thorn and illustrated by Noah Grigni. This gorgeously illustrated book shows examples of gender identity – boy, girl, both, neither – in a way that is nuanced but extremely clear for children (and adults!) to understand. It is simple without being oversimplified, which is an excellent achievement! If you’ve ever wondered “how do I explain gender to a child?” – or if you are new to learning about trans and nonbinary gender identities – then this book is for you! 

The Equity Resource Collection also includes children’s books that aren’t necessarily educational in the didactic sense but are still rich sources of learning, with stories about a wide variety of experiences, identities, and cultures. This is the window and doors part of what I was talking about earlier.

A young girl with dark hair and brown skin sits on a suitcase between a house in the a tropical seeting and an urban environment, with a plane overhead.

One of my favorite recent reads is Home Is In Between written by Mitali Perkins, illustrated by Lavanya Naidu. In this picture book, a young Indian girl moves to the U.S. with her parents, while their extended family remains in India. Vibrant and heart-warming, Home Is In Between tenderly depicts the immigrant experience by conveying the excitement of new things and the challenges of feeling ‘in between’ two cultures. The illustrations are gorgeous, too!

Teen 

Also located on the main floor, you will find the Teen ERC in the far right corner, with organization similar to the children’s area. Some teen and adult graphic novels reside on the top left shelf, followed by novels and short story anthologies, then fiction audiobooks, and finally, nonfiction. 

Compilation of: You Should See Me In a Crown that features a young Black girl with natural hair and a tiara drawn on top; Cemetery Boys with two young men standing back-to-back with a mysterious figure in front of a full moon; and We Are Not Free with sketched carachters sitting on a pile of luggage and boxes.

Some of these novels center the high school experience, such as the award-winning You Should See Me in a Crown by Leah Johnson, which follows a poor, queer, Midwestern Black girl’s pursuit of prom queen-dom, in the hope of earning a scholarship. The recipient of a Black-Eyed Susan award, Stonewall Book honor, and one of TIME’s best 100 YA books of all time, this title has earned high praise – it’s a sweet, joyous read that evokes the spirit of great teen movies. 

Other titles delve into cultural practices, such as Cemetery Boys by Aiden Thomas, which brings together traditions from various Latinx cultures in a supernatural, urban fantasy setting – along with a gay rom-com storyline for a trans male protagonist. With its humor, heart, mystery-adventure, and magic, this is one of my personal favorite books (also available as an eBook and an eAudiobook from Libby/OverDrive)!

Fantastic historical fiction novels also address legacies of injustice, such as the incarceration of Japanese-American citizens during World War II, as depicted in We Are Not Free by Traci Chee. The granddaughter of Japanese-Americans who were imprisoned as teenagers at that time, Chee felt personally invested in bringing attention to this oft-neglected history. With many moments inspired by the stories of her relatives, this is an incredibly powerful story about fear, hope and resilience. 

Compilation of: The Burning which features yellow flame motif and red lettering; The Stonewall Riots which features illustrated crowd and rainbow sky; A Disability History of the United States which features seven photographs of people with physical ailments; Trouble Maker for Justice features a young Bayard Rustin against a faded photo of a protest; Protest features Olympic Medalist Ibtihaj Muhammad in her fencing gear; Rolling Warrior features the illustration of a white woman in a wheelchair holding a sign that says Rights Now!

Of course, there are also excellent nonfiction titles to help you learn about history. Some delve into specific events, such as The Burning: Black Wall Street and the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921 (Young Readers’ edition) by Tim Madigan and Stonewall Riots: Coming Out in the Streets by Gayle E. Pitman. Other titles use a broader lens to approach the history of marginalized people, such as A Disability History of the United States by Kim E. Nielsen. There’s also important history to be learned in biographies and memoirs of icons of the past and present, from the Civil Rights organizer Bayard Rustin, to Olympic medalist Ibtihaj Muhammad, to disability rights activist Judith Heumann. 

For aspiring activists, there are books that can serve as guides as well as stories of youth who are speaking out and affecting change today. Kids on the March by Michael G. Long talks about youth protests from the 1903 March of the Mill Children to the recent movements of Black Lives Matter, March for Our Lives, and the Climate Strike. 

There is so much to discover and learn within the Equity Resource Collection! We highly encourage you to come visit if you can… and stay tuned for Part 2 to learn about the other areas of the collection! 

Ash is an Instructor & Research Specialist at Central Branch and is a co-facilitator for Reads of Acceptance, HCLS’ first LGBTQ-focused book club. Their favorite place to read is spread out on a blanket under the shade of the tree.

Open Water by Caleb Azumah Nelson

The image is of two photographs of young Black men, one above the other. The one on top is looking directly at the camera while the one underneath is looking towards the ground. The title is in light blue across both photographs, with a background of pale red and orange.

By Ash B.

Are you looking for a lyrical novel to savor slowly, perhaps while sipping tea (or your warm beverage of choice) on a quiet day? The type of novel that can break your heart and then put it back together, over and over again? 

Well then, reader, do I have the perfect suggestion for you. 

Open Water is the debut novel from Caleb Azumah Nelson, a 26-year-old British-Ghanaian writer and photographer living in south-east London, and wow, what a debut! Consider me truly impressed – in fact, if I had to recommend a single 2021 release for you to catch up on, it would be this one. (Yes, it is that good)!

A love story at its core, Open Water follows two young artists, one a photographer and the other a dancer, as they develop an intimate friendship that challenges the boundaries of platonic and romantic relationships. 

However, the connection between these two is complicated not only by the details of their initial meeting, but also by the realities of life as Black British young adults; experiences of falling in love are not mutually exclusive with experiences of racism. The desire and affection two people feel for each other can be healing, but it does not create an impermeable bubble from fear, pain, and violence. So, this is absolutely not “just” a love story. (Not that there’s anything wrong with those, either, but Open Water is a different vibe).

Nelson masterfully balances Black joy and creative expression – especially descriptions of music and the South East London cultural scene – with experiences of racial profiling and the policing of Black bodies. Life is so beautiful yet so painful, and Nelson captures this complexity with ease.  

He writes with insight into vulnerability and mental health in a style that is understated yet breathtakingly poignant. Also, the narrative is told in second-person, which might be off-putting to some readers, but I found it to be all the more engaging. You know that saying about walking a mile in someone else’s shoes? Nelson skillfully places the reader inside the inner world of his protagonist through this use of second-person perspective. It’s brilliant. 

Months have passed since I actually read this book, but I still can’t get over the flow of Nelson’s writing – it truly is like water, smooth at some times and turbulent at others. If you enjoyed On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong with its poetic vignettes, but would appreciate a more hopeful tone or different subject matter, you will love Open Water. 

And even if this doesn’t sound like what you would typically read, I would still recommend this book to just about anyone. I’m nearly begging for more people to read it at this point, if I’m being honest. I’m so desperate for this book to get the attention it deserves! 

At under 200 pages, the slim size of the book isn’t intimidating, and despite this short length, there is so much to get out of this book. You might even want to keep a camera (or, you know, your smartphone) close by in order to take photos of all the beautiful quotes you don’t want to forget. That’s certainly what I did, as well as repeatedly putting the book down throughout to marvel at what I had just read. I got chills. I felt literal aching in my heart. I was reminded what an utterly tender, yearning type of human I am. I loved, loved, loved this book. I hope you will too! 

Open Water by Caleb Azumah Nelson can be requested here. It is included in both our regular Adult Fiction collection as well as our Equity Resource Center collection.

Ash is an Instructor & Research Specialist at Central Branch. This time of year, they are especially fond of reading while cuddling with their golden retriever and sipping hot cocoa or tea.

Gender Queer: A Memoir by Maia Kobabe

The image shows two characters as mirror images of one another , one in yellow shorts with no shirt and arms outstretched, the other in a blue shirt and blue rolled-up pants, clutching the gem of the pants. Both are up to mid-calf in blue-green water; the "reflected" person has a green-gold forest in the background.

By Ash B. 

When I started working here at the library, my favorite section to get acquainted with was the graphic novel section. One reason for this was the rate at which I could find LGBTQ representation; I’ve joked with friends and colleagues that sometimes I feel I have a ‘sixth sense’ for intuitively knowing whether an artist is queer based on their art style or the design of the book’s cover.  

Sometimes there are subtle clues about the book’s content, and sometimes there is something overtly LGBTQ-related about the cover, title, or summary. Gender Queer: A Memoir by Maia Kobabe (pronouns: e/em/eir) falls into the latter category on all counts. As soon as I heard the title alone, I knew I needed to read it. 

Gender Queer is a memoir, formatted as a graphic novel, that recounts Kobabe’s experiences regarding gender and sexuality throughout eir childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood. At its core, it is a book that addresses what it means, in Kobabe’s personal experience, to be nonbinary, queer, and asexual. As e explains in a Washington Post op-ed, Kobabe primarily wrote this as a way of explaining eir nonbinary identity to eir parents and extended family. However, Kobabe’s story has reached much farther than that, garnering praise from readers, reviewers, and the American Library Association (ALA). 

In my opinion, as a nonbinary reader, Gender Queer is so remarkable because there is nothing else quite like it. Through a talented combination of text and illustration, Kobabe addresses complex intersections of gender and sexuality with such specificity that I was honestly blown away. Never before I had felt so seen and understood by a piece of media. One of my favorite passages addresses the struggle to achieve a balance of ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ gender expression when society is set on placing you on one side of the gender binary. I truly don’t have the words to fully express how meaningful this is to me… so let me share a brief anecdote instead: 

Around the time I was re-reading the book to prepare for this review, one of my (fellow nonbinary) friends texted me regarding a conflict they felt over an article of clothing they wanted to buy because they were concerned it would be read as ‘too feminine.’ Within our text conversation, I sent my friend two panels from the book.  

My friend’s response? They related so much that they started crying in the bathroom on their lunch break at work.

Representation matters. 

Even for those of us within the LGBTQ community who have come to terms with our identities, have community support, and hold privilege (whether it be whiteness, financial stability, ability, etc.) that improves our overall life outcomes – it is still hard to exist in a heteronormative society structured around the gender binary. At best, it is exhausting and invalidating, which still takes a hit to one’s mental health.  

Now imagine being a young person who lacks community support, lacks independence, and is questioning or struggling with accepting their identity. 

Books such as Gender Queer not only educate – they provide invaluable support to queer, trans, and questioning readers who need to see affirming, accurate, and nuanced representation. When we say these books can be a lifeline for readers, that’s not an empty statement; suicidality is significantly higher amongst LGBTQ youth, especially those who are trans, in comparison to their non-LGBTQ counterparts. 

Unfortunately, in the past year there has been a national surge – including in Howard County – in attempted censorship of LGBTQ books in school classrooms and media centers. Gender Queer has been one of the most controversial titles due to its frank discussion of (queer) sexuality and, to a lesser extent, gender dysphoria.  

This trend – the challenging and banning of books that contain content regarding sex, LGBTQ identity, or both – is not new. What is new is the influential role of social media and the internet, which allows far-reaching communication between book challengers and can create even more oppositional fervor towards the books that they have deemed “obscene,” “pornographic,” and so on. 

One of the problems with this overall pattern, however, is it increases divisiveness in public discourse. Parents, students, educators, librarians, and policymakers need to discuss these topics with the nuance, open-mindedness, and compassion necessary to truly educate and uplift youth. Instead, we are faced with a proliferation of outrage that doesn’t “protect” anyone – least of all LGBTQ youth. 

Some opponents are unapologetic in their homophobic and transphobic motivations, quite literally demonizing anything they hear is LGBTQ-related. (Do I need to explain further why these messages are extremely harmful to LGBTQ folks?) Other opponents claim they have no problem with queer-affirming books, but take issue with the books that contain passages regarding sex. I can understand where these folks are coming from – however, I would push back against the idea that teens need to be shielded from the type of “sexual content” that is in Gender Queer. This book isn’t meant to titillate – it is meant to inform, based on Kobabe’s own experiences of adolescence and young adulthood. 

So, before jumping to the conclusion that this book is inappropriate for high schoolers, consider Kobabe’s perspective: 

“It’s very hard to hear people say ‘This book is not appropriate to young people’ when it’s like, I was a young person for whom this book would have been not only appropriate, but so, so necessary. There are a lot of people who are questioning their gender, questioning their sexuality and having a real hard time finding honest accounts of somebody else on the same journey. There are people for whom this is vital and for whom this could maybe even be lifesaving.” 

Kobabe’s work gives language to some of the complexities that lie at the intersections of gender and sexuality. And with representation of asexuality and nonbinary genders still in short supply, Gender Queer is a much-needed addition. Mainstream narratives about LGBT people in the past few decades have often represented people who have “always known” they were transgender or “knew since they were three years old” that they were gay. But many of us do not have that experience. Many of us are in the dark about our true selves, until someone shines a light on all the possibilities of what queer existence can look like. Gender Queer has and will continue to have that positive impact on teens and adults alike.  

I hope this review will encourage you to see the value in this book for a variety of readers, LGBTQ or not. I urge you to read the book for yourself – and truly reflect on it. Print copies of Gender Queer: A Memoir can be requested to borrow here.  

Want to skip the waitlist? Your HCLS account also grants you access to the eBook version of Gender Queer on hoopla, a platform that allows titles to be streamed immediately or downloaded to devices for offline enjoyment later. For assistance with hoopla, view the tutorial on our website, visit your local branch, or reach out to us with your questions. 

Ash is an Instructor & Research Specialist at Central Branch and is a co-facilitator for Reads of Acceptance, HCLS’ first LGBTQ-focused book club. This time of year, they are especially fond of reading while cuddling with their golden retriever and sipping hot cocoa or tea.

Skye Falling by Mia Mackenzie

The book cover shows a cityscape with multicolored homes in the foreground, trees in the middle ground, and a skyline view of tall skyscrapers in the background.  People are in purple silhouette walking along the street, sitting or leaning on their porches, and looking out of windows.  The whole cover is done in shades of blue, purple, pink, and peach.

by Ash B.

If you’re looking for a heartwarming read that is thought-provoking, discussable, and hilarious, look no further than Skye Falling by Mia McKenzie. 

Skye is an elder millennial who is quickly approaching her 40th birthday, and she has no interest in ‘settling down’ or having any deep sort of meaningful human connection. The successful founder of a small travel company, Skye has spent years adventuring around the world in the fleeting company of strangers… which has provided her the perfect opportunity to avoid lasting relationships of any kind.  

In short, Skye has an impressive career but she is a hot mess when it comes to her personal life. 

Her brief returns to her hometown, Philadelphia, usually consist of crashing at her friend’s B&B, dodging her brother’s calls about their chronically ill mother, and planning for upcoming trips she will lead for work. She typically does not spend this time reflecting on the past or dredging up emotions that she has long since buried. 

So, when she finds that the egg she donated over a decade ago has actually developed into a real human child – now a twelve year old girl, to be exact – her initial reaction is to run. Literally. Skye tries to run and hide from this girl, Vicky, who introduces herself as “your egg.” But it turns out Vicky is actually pretty cool… so cool that Skye might want to stick around and try to be responsible for the first time in her life.  

However, this is complicated by the fact that Vicky’s aunt and caretaker is not a big fan of Skye, at least not at first. But, as they get closer, let’s just say the tension between these two women isn’t solely about their different approaches to parenting…  

In the interest of avoiding spoilers, believe me when I say McKenzie is a master of comedic writing. The outrageous situations she puts her characters in, and the figurative language she uses to describe them, is top tier. Not to mention her hilarious one-liners, too! 

This novel isn’t just funny, though – it is emotionally rich and insightful about a range of issues from family trauma and fractured friendships to gentrification and policing. McKenzie creates an engaging balance between humor and tragedy, joy and anger, fear and love. The result is a feel-good, fun book that holds space and respect for serious topics that are part of everyday life. 

This is ultimately what makes Skye Falling one of my favorite 2021 releases, and I believe it is also what makes it a great choice for book club discussions – which is why I included it on the HCLS 2022 Books for Discussion list (which you should take a look at for more reading suggestions). 

While I think Skye Falling can appeal to a variety of readers, I would particularly recommend this title to lovers of Honey Girl by Morgan Rogers. Both novels center queer Black women who put pause on their careers in order to sort out personal relationships, figure out what they are doing with their lives, and eventually begin to process their complicated relationships with their parents. They each have rom-com elements without that being the entire plot, are full of millennial humor (albeit on different ends of the generation), and celebrate friendship and chosen family. I wholeheartedly recommend both! 

Skye Falling is available to borrow from HCLS in print and is one of the many titles included in our Equity Resource Collection.  

Ash is an Instructor & Research Specialist at Central Branch and is a co-facilitator for Reads of Acceptance, HCLS’ first LGBTQ-focused book club. This time of year, they are especially fond of reading while cuddling with their golden retriever and sipping hot cocoa or tea.

The Mirror Season by Anna-Marie McLemore

A woman with long dark hair embraces a man who is looking away amid leafy plants. The colors are all night-time blues and purples. Her face is pensive.

by Ash B.

[Content warning: sexual assault, PTSD, bullying, homophobia, and racism] 

“If I don’t pull apart things I actually did wrong from things that weren’t my fault, I’ll never really be able to really apologize for anything. Deciding everything is your fault is, in the end, as meaningless as deciding nothing is[…] I need to apologize for what is my fault, for what I did wrong, but not for the wrong that was done to me. 

Ciela Cristales just might be my favorite protagonist of 2021. 

The story begins with her dropping off an unconscious boy at the hospital on the night that changed her life – the night that she and this boy, whom she does not know, were both assaulted at the same summer party. She drops the boy off and intends to seal off the memories of the event as if they never happened.  

However, this proves difficult when the trauma she experienced results in the loss of the magical gift she inherited from her grandmother: the ability to sense exactly what type of pastry someone wants before they even know it themselves. If this doesn’t sound like a big deal, then consider how this ability, “the most precious thing my bisabuela could ever have left me,” has passed down for generations and is part of the success of her family’s pastelería business. For Ciela, losing this magic is losing a part of herself – but it wasn’t just lost, it was taken through the cruelty of her peers. 

I’ll be honest, I was a bit hesitant to read this one because of the intensity of the storyline’s subject matter. I personally tend not to read heavy books, as they can leave a significantly negative impact on my mental health. However, I knew from reading their social media that McLemore put a lot of care into this story, purposefully including hope and healing along with an emotionally accurate representation of trauma. (McLemore themself is a survivor.) 

This information from the author, combined with my pre-existing love of their writing style, was enough to motivate me to give The Mirror Season a try… so I threw myself into reading it, and wow, did it devastate me in the best type of way. Honestly, few books have ever made me cry as much as this one did, and it provided me with some much-needed catharsis. 

Ciela is gradually forced to confront the extent of her trauma – including specific details of the event that she represses through most of the book – due to the development of her relationship with Lock, the boy who was assaulted at the same time she was. They are able to form a unique friendship due to their shared experiences of sexual violence, connecting to each other in ways that other folks might not understand; for example, making jokes out of their trauma as a coping mechanism. McLemore crafts these characters, and their world, so well and with so much care. They truly felt like living, breathing people with real, raw, messy lives that are worth learning about and empathizing with. 

Stylistically, McLemore combines elements of YA contemporary fiction with what they do best: magical realism written in lush, atmospheric prose. It’s the type of writing where the reader is left with some uncertainty regarding “is this all literally happening, or is this metaphorical?” during certain passages. For much of the book I questioned whether Ciela was perceiving some of these things as an expression of her trauma, or if real objects were legitimately turning to mirrored glass – and I believe that this uncertainty is well-suited for the representation of Ciela’s experience of reality after such a traumatic event. McLemore does not shy away from portraying the difficulties of PTSD, including nightmares and flashbacks, which can cause challenges in discerning between one’s past and present realities. 

I haven’t been through anything anywhere near what these characters have been through, but reading this book honestly helped me process my own feelings of the sexual harassment I have experienced as a queer trans person: the shame, the anger, the visceral disgust when remembering the event, the internalized victim blaming, and the sense that other people are entitled to disrespect the bodies and the personhoods of Othered individuals. In the case of Ciela, her Latina and pansexual identities create intersections in the ways she is objectified and harassed by her white, straight, cisgender peers. 

One aspect of this representation that I appreciate so much is that while this is a story about a queer person experiencing trauma, this is not a Queer Struggle story. Her struggle is not about being queer specifically. The classmates that assaulted her throw the word “lesbian” at her in a derogatory manner, but Ciela is not struggling with coming out or coming to terms with her sexuality. She is open about being pansexual (i.e., attracted to people regardless of gender) and her prior same-gender relationships, and she is accepted for it by herself, by her loved ones, and by Lock. Personally, I felt like the vibrant queer world around Ciela far outweighed the homophobia, so the overall tone of the book is queer pride, resistance, and joy. This, combined with the arc of Ciela of coming to terms with how to cope with her trauma in a healthy way, makes for an ultimately empowering story of growth and courage. I honestly could see this taking the place of Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson in future high school classrooms. 

So yes, this is a very emotionally challenging book, and no doubt will be highly triggering for some readers, but it is very healing. I really encourage anyone interested in this book – teens and adults alike – to give it a try, while being mindful of what you need to care for yourself. Check in with your current mental health and support system as you find the space and time to process this story in whatever way you need. I truly hope this book reaches as many readers who will benefit from it as possible. Copies of The Mirror Season can be requested through HCLS here.

For resources regarding sexual violence, visit www.rainn.org. For local support, community engagement, and more, check out HopeWorks of Howard County (formerly the Domestic Violence Center of Howard County) by visiting hopeworksofhc.org. 

Ash is an Instructor & Research Specialist at Central Branch and is a co-facilitator for Reads of Acceptance, HCLS’ first LGBTQ-focused book club. Ash is an eternal lover of coming-of-age stories, especially those that center queer and trans joy.

One Last Stop by Casey McQuiston

The cover, in shades of pink and lavender, shows the two main characters looking at each other; Jane is on the subway, dressed in a black jacket, torn jeans, a white t-shirt and orange sneakers; August is walking alongside the subway station, wearing a white t-shirt and black jumper and boots, carrying a cup of takeaway coffee with a purse slung over her shoulder.
Book cover of One Last Stop.

by Ash B.

If you’re at all aware of contemporary LGBTQ romance fiction, then you’ve no doubt heard about Red, White & Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston. I’ve honestly yet to read it, but I can confirm there is no sophomore slump for McQuiston with their second novel One Last Stop. 

One Last Stop follows August, a cynical 23-year-old college student, as she adjusts to life in New York – trying out yet another college in another city – complete with quirky roommates, a job at a pancake diner that she may or may not be qualified for, and a subway route that she happens to share with the most attractive girl she’s ever seen. The aforementioned “Subway Girl” goes by the name Jane, she is equal parts kind and fierce, and… well, her existence may defy reality as we know it. 

I leave this intentionally vague for a reason: I likely would have found the book even more enjoyable if I had no idea of the plot before I started reading, given that McQuiston spends quite some time building up the mystery of who – or what – Jane actually is. Therefore, I will refrain from going into detail about the book’s premise. Honestly, if this review piques your interest in the title, then I recommend that you simply dive into the book for yourself without reading the summary! 

However, I will divulge that, in my opinion, One Last Stop is an example of speculative fiction at its most accessible, and I absolutely loved it. In a recent interview, Casey McQuiston explains how they “have always loved that genre that’s sort of one step away from sci-fi, one step away from magic or fantasy. It’s a type of romcom that I think was really popular in the late ‘90s and early 2000s,” referencing films such as 13 Going On 30 and Freaky Friday. These are not stories typically considered sci-fi or fantasy – at least, not in the same way as Star Wars or Lord of the Rings – but they absolutely exist within the realm of speculative fiction, incorporating fantastical elements while allowing the author to set the story in an otherwise ‘normal’ contemporary world. The reader can take comfort in the familiarity of the overall setting but can be surprised, or at very least entertained, by the circumstances that arise from the speculative elements employed.  

Whereas these elements are often used for comedic potential in Hollywood movies, McQuiston is able to use them in a way that enriches One Last Stop with queer history and profound examinations about social differences between the past and present. And, of course, the situations created by the speculative elements are also well-suited for romantic tension and drama, which makes for a very engaging story.

I’ve found that a book is a particularly good read for me personally if it reminds me of other books I’ve loved, automatically encouraging my brain to go into “let’s compare these parallels!” mode while simultaneously being an enjoyable narrative on its own. One Last Stop is a perfect example of this! At the beginning, I found myself thinking of An Absolutely Remarkable Thing by Hank Green, as both of these novels feature mystery-loving bisexual female protagonists in their early twenties, living in present-day NYC, that end up being caught in the middle of seemingly unreal circumstances. McQuiston’s lovable cast of characters, development of a queer found-family trope, and flirtation with the “star-crossed lovers” trope (but with a happy ending!) reminded me of Cemetery Boys by Aiden Thomas. And by the end, as hidden family histories and unexpected connections between characters are revealed, I excitedly reminisced about The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid. Other than being some of my favorite reads in the past few years, I would not think to compare any of those three titles with each other… yet they fit perfectly in comparison to One Last Stop. 

In its best moments, One Last Stop is so tenderly written that it makes me yearn for a life in New York City – and that’s saying something, considering I’m a lifelong suburbanite who’s always been more drawn to the countryside than the city. McQuiston crafts likable characters who speak realistically about life in their city, honoring both the beauty and the struggles of the world which they inhabit. Not only that, but the city itself – and certain destinations within it, such as August’s apartment and the pancake diner where she works – feel like characters too. McQuiston writes them all with such care, I couldn’t help but feel connected to them, want to visit these places, want to be friends with these people and experience life alongside them. This makes for a wonderful book to escape into, and I strongly recommend it to anyone looking for a feel-good read about falling in love, finding one’s community, and growing into the best version of one’s self.

One Last Stop is available to request from HCLS in print as well as an eBook and eAudiobook from Libby/OverDrive.

Ash is an Instructor & Research Specialist at Central Branch and is a co-facilitator for Reads of Acceptance, HCLS’ first LGBTQ-focused book club. Ash is an eternal lover of coming-of-age stories, especially those that center queer and trans joy.

The Unpopular Vote by Jasper Sanchez

The book cover shows a diverse group of teens dressed for school, one with a backpack.  The title is in bright multicolored letters of different fonts, against a pink background, with a blue check mark in the center of the "O" in the word "vote."
Book cover of The (Un)popular Vote.

by Ash B.

School may be out for the summer, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t hot new summer book releases that are set in school… 

If you enjoy contemporary YA fiction full of heart, humor, and drama, look no further than The (Un)popular Vote for your next summer read!

Mark Adams has grown up immersed in American politics, being the son of Graham Teagan, a prominent congressman. However, none of his new classmates realize who his father is, nor does the country realize Congressman Teagan has a son. Why? Mark is transgender, and has agreed to start at a new school and keep a low profile – as a cis-passing, straight-passing guy with no relation to Congressman Teagan – in order to maintain his father’s public image.  

However, between homophobic bullying of one of his friends and an upcoming student government election with candidates of dubious intent, Mark is spurred into action in pursuit of justice… by campaigning for student body president. Along the way, he must also navigate a burgeoning romance, unstable friendships, the disapproval of his father, and an investigative school journalist attempting to unravel his past for all the internet to see. 

This debut novel from Jasper Sanchez will appeal to teens and adults alike, especially lovers of The West Wing and The Politician, the latter being an especially fitting comparison given the precocious, serious, determined nature of the high school characters in both The Politician and The (Un)popular Vote.  

Sanchez does not shy away from having his characters show off their AP-level political and philosophical knowledge, and I will admit that many references went over my head. Nonetheless, I think the writing style makes this an accessible and engaging read. I truly struggled to put it down and always looked forward to getting a chance to read more, so I tore through it rather quickly and would happily read it again! 

The romance was even better than I expected, and I felt it was well-balanced along with the development of the student presidential campaign, Mark’s personal growth, and the rising tension between Mark and his father. Mark’s love interest was so sweet – honestly a standout character for me – and the dynamic between him and Mark was immaculate. I am always a sucker for the mutual pining trope, and Sanchez beautifully develops the bond between these two characters as they become closer while each grows as an individual. The (Un)popular Vote is both my favorite queer YA romance and my favorite trans-led novel since Cemetery Boys by Aiden Thomas! (Side note: our Reads of Acceptance book club will be discussing Cemetery Boys on September 20 and I’d love to see you there!)

Much like Cemetery BoysThe (Un)popular Vote is a refreshing example of a trans protagonist who has already transitioned before the first page of the book. Many mainstream representations of trans experiences, especially portrayals of trans youth, primarily deal with the questioning of one’s gender and the beginning stages of transitioning. Those stories are important, of course, but it is equally important to show trans people already living as their authentic selves.  

From the beginning, Mark is comfortable in his gender identity and is already out to himself, his parents, and his two best friends. Mark wears a packer and a binder daily, being mindful to bind safely, and this type of gender-affirming behavior is casual and normalized. His gender-related arc is not about the typical narrative of figuring himself out, or dealing with internalized transphobia, or even about coming out. Rather, and more interestingly in my opinion, it’s about the promise he made to his dad to remain ‘stealth’ in his transition; in other words, Mark is assumed to be a cisgender male by his classmates, and that’s how the situation should remain according to his father.  

And while Mark is repeatedly referred to by the wrong name and pronouns by his father – who is incredibly dismissive and toxic towards Mark – this book was ultimately a very feel-good experience as a queer, trans reader. There is no forcible outing and no transphobia from anyone within Mark’s circle (besides his dad). Mark’s friend group includes a neat variety of LGBTQ representation that felt organic, not tokenized, and these characters are nothing but supportive of each other’s identities. There are quite a few of them, and while I got a little confused at the beginning as I tried to keep track of names, I soon was able to distinguish each character from one another because they felt like individual people, not just words on a page.  

As for Mark himself, I found him to be a likeable and realistically flawed protagonist. He makes mistakes in his relationships that I found relatable and understandable, creating conflict to advance the plot and character growth without making me too frustrated at Mark. Themes regarding privilege, inequality, politics, and social change are woven throughout in a meaningful way as Mark experiences conflicting feelings regarding his own privilege, his ego, his family history, and his genuine desire to help the student body. Sanchez is also able to briefly yet poignantly integrate messages about toxic masculinity and feminism from a transmasculine perspective in a way I had yet to read in YA literature, and I very much appreciated it! 

Sanchez certainly gives weight to the issues that demand it, including instances of bigotry happening at the school in addition to Mark’s struggles with his dad. Ultimately, though, this novel is an uplifting pleasure to read, infused with plenty of queer joy, chosen family, resilience, and hope. The (Un)popular Vote is exactly the type of book I wish I had when I was in high school and am happy to read as an adult. I’m so grateful that it is available to teens today. Request a print copy today! 

Ash is an Instructor & Research Specialist at Central Branch and is a co-facilitator for Reads of Acceptance, HCLS’ first LGBTQ-focused book club. Ash is an eternal lover of coming-of-age stories, especially those that center queer and trans joy.

Where Black Music Month and Pride Month Intersect

Shea Diamond, a Black woman, sits by herself at a table covered in a red striped cloth. She's wearing a yellow sundress, hoop earrings, and a bracelet. Her chin rests in her hands as she looks toward the camera from the edge of her eye. The wall behind her is a weathered blue.

by Ash B.

As a passionate lover of music and self-proclaimed band nerd for life, I love analyzing the music I listen to. I enjoy paying attention to all the choices that go into a work of music – the chord structure, time signature, melody, instrumentation, and so on – and I love identifying the possible musical influences that affected those choices.  

Music is fascinating, in part, because so many different styles connect in some way, even if those connections are not immediately obvious. However, innovation doesn’t occur out of thin air; new musical styles have always developed out of existing ones, with artists often blending different cultural influences to create new sounds. I believe that understanding the history of American music is essential to fully appreciating the music of today, and to do so, we must center the musical innovations of Black Americans. 

And now is the perfect time to do so! 

While it may be a coincidence, I find it extremely fitting that June is LGBTQ+ Pride Month as well as Black Music Appreciation Month. While we don’t know how many of them would label themselves with today’s language, many pioneering Black musicians throughout history defied gender norms, had same-gender relationships, or both. Some expressed their sexuality quite openly, such as Gladys Bentley, a 1930s blues singer and pianist who performed in men’s tuxedos while flirting with female audience members. Other musicians were not as public regarding their sexuality, such as Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the gospel-singing, electric-guitar playing “Godmother of Rock ‘n’ Roll” who had relationships with both men and women.

Regardless of the labels that would best suit historical figures, it is worth recognizing the personal complexities of artists who lived these intersections of race, gender, and sexuality. A refusal to acknowledge the intersections between Black music history and LGBTQ+ history would be a failing to understand the foundations of American pop culture and music.

Black LGBTQ+ artists continue to have great impact on the American musical landscape: Janelle Monáe, Lil Nas X, Kehlani, and Frank Ocean, just to name a few. However, there are still many incredible artists that don’t get the amount of attention they deserve, and that is why I’d like to shine the spotlight on the singer-songwriter and activist Shea Diamond. 

Shea Diamond singing “Seen It All” in the recording studio and speaking to the It Gets Better Project about her life experiences.

Shea Diamond’s music draws upon her lived experiences as a formerly incarcerated, Black trans woman, speaking to the challenges of navigating a society that has frequently marginalized her, all while remaining confident and determined to create space for herself. 

Her first EP Seen It All was released in 2017 and is definitely among the most mature and masterful debuts I’ve ever heard. Shea’s dynamic, powerhouse voice conveys raw emotion, amplifying the message of her vulnerable and authentic lyrics. From playful to proud, celebratory to somber, reflective to resilient, Shea seamlessly weaves threads of her experience together into a tapestry that portrays the complexities of her life, all in five gorgeous songs that show an impressive musical range.  

While she is predominantly considered a soul and R&B singer, her music has a very strong rock/pop presence that incorporates elements of funk, blues, gospel, and folk. Many artists are skilled in their musical range, but I find Shea to be unique in the particular way that she cohesively brings together the aforementioned genres. Her music is fresh and contemporary while being clearly rooted in these American musical traditions, and the message of her lyrics is amplified by the corresponding musical style and instrumentation of each song. I don’t think there’s any other artist that can get me from dancing to crying and back again as quickly and as powerfully as Shea can!

Ultimately, I find her most inspiring because of the authenticity and passion she brings to her work. She is an artist who knows the power of her voice, and she isn’t afraid to use it – from her emotional vocal techniques to the lyrics she sings. Shea Diamond has a lot to say; will you listen?

Find Shea Diamond’s music on your preferred platform here, or stream Seen It All for free on hoopla through HCLS.

Interested in listening to CDs, too? Check out our current bundle bag options for Black Music Month and Pride in Music.

Ash is an Instructor & Research Specialist at Central Branch. They grew up playing piano and clarinet, and are now slowly learning the ukulele. At any given moment, they might be thinking admirably about Janelle Monáe.