Turtle in Paradise, originally a children’s book, was published as a lovely graphic novel last year. This story by Jennifer L. Holm works wonderfully for children and teens who may be having trouble reading fiction but find graphic novels and pictures easier to comprehend and follow.
The story follows an 11-year-old girl named Turtle who suddenly has to move to Key West, Florida to live with her aunt. All is going smoothly until she reaches the residence and realizes she is not welcomed with open arms. Although she adjusts to the next few weeks there with her cousins, their weird friends, and jobs, and becomes accustomed to the strange nicknames for everything in the area, Turtle still cannot wait to go home.
If you like a quick read that grabs your heart strings and keeps you immersed, this delightful story has the words and visuals to do just that. Find out how Turtle learns to grow and get along with her aunt and cousins. Take a look at her mother’s love interest and how that affects Turtle and the family. Discover the story behind a pirate and his lost treasure… and what does that have to do with Turtle?
Answer all these questions and more with this riveting tale. For those who would prefer the fiction copy, it might be fun to contrast the differences between the formats. Graphic novels are a good way to incorporate reading and learning with your children, families, or even on your own.
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.
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:
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 onhoopla, 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.
Reading a multi-book series can be a bittersweet thing. On one hand, you get to spend more time in the world of the story, more time with the characters, seeing them grow and change with each volume. On the other hand, even the best series must ultimately end, or risk devolving into endless sequels with lesser and lesser impact. How does an author balance continuing a story versus ending it?
In the world of graphic novels, this is an eternal problem. For superhero comics, authors and illustrators can swap in and out, resulting in entirely different styles – sometimes, Batman is a gritty noir detective, and other times, he’s an ultra-genius rubbing elbows with omnipotent aliens. For manga, authors don’t often get replaced, but over the course of a long series, the authors themselves change, for better and for worse. Compare the first volume of Bleach with the sixtieth, and you’ll see an incredible difference in visual and narrative style. It can be jarring, particularly if you’re reading it after years (or decades) of publication.
This is why a short series can pack more impact in a few volumes. Our Dreams at Dusk is a perfect example. The author, Yuhki Kamatami, wrote twenty-three chapters, which are collected into a mere four volumes. You can hold the entirety of the tale in your hands.
And it is a tale to read, one that I didn’t want to end. Tasuku Kamane is a teen, hiding his sexual identity from his family and peers. He’s gay, and he loves his table tennis clubmate, Toma – but he can’t say anything, he can’t be himself. When his classmates discover some gay erotica on his phone, he’s driven to self-harm and worse. But at that darkest point, he meets Someone.
Someone is a person who refuses to be identified, or even really known. At the top of the town’s highest point, they appear like a spirit to Tasuku, talking to him with a quizzical honesty. They guide him to the Drop-in Center, a local hang-out spot for LGBTQ+ people, those who can’t really be themselves out in the town. It is an oasis for Tasuku, exactly what he needed at the moment he needed it.
Haruko and Saki are a lesbian couple who haven’t made their relationship public to their families, but at the Drop-in Center, they can be together with a degree of comfort. Tchaiko is an older gentleman, who makes fine coffee and plays Tchaikovsky for the group, but quietly hides his long-term relationship with his partner. And over time, we meet Shuji, a middle schooler who is wrestling with how to identify, and others, all seeking some zone in which they can be accepted.
It is not a wholly happy tale. Tasuku and the others don’t always find acceptance among their family and friends – or even each other, at times. Feelings are stepped on, and feelings are crushed. Tasuku himself even hurts others, in his growing understanding of gender, resulting in some chapters that were incredibly hard to read.
But by the end of the fourth volume, people have changed, mostly for the better. We see a small slice of each character’s journey, which will assuredly continue after closing the book. I put off reading the final volume for months, not wanting the story to end – partly because I didn’t want to discover an unhappy ending for anyone, and partly because I didn’t want it to be over. But it ends as best it can, and for that, I am grateful. Even Someone has their mystery revealed (but not the whole of it, just as they’d prefer).
There is a certain aspect of Our Dreams at Dusk that feels like checking off the boxes of the LGBTQ+ experience, ensuring the story represents some major facets of gender and sexual identity. On one hand, it can seem a bit forced, but on the other hand, I wasn’t thinking about that at all – the art carried me along, finding ways to say what words couldn’t. This is the sort of illustration that captures youth and longing, commitment and family, those experiences that are universal and those that are entirely specific to one human being. The art is sometimes fragile, and sometimes harsh, but it always finds a way to visually speak to the interior experience, in that way only masterpieces of graphic novels do.
Our Dreams at Dusk is an LGBTQ+ story, but to sell it as only that wouldn’t be right. It’s a coming of age story, and a love story, and a mystery, with comedy and tragedy laced throughout. I’ve not read anything else quite like it in manga. Its handling of its characters and LGBTQ+ issues, particularly from a Japanese perspective, are unique, and all of this is built upon an amazing art style that shows off what this medium can do.
I can’t recommend it enough – to readers of manga, of LGBTQ+ fiction, and of quality books of any stripe. Plus, as I said, it’s only four volumes! So if you’re a tad nervous about reading a graphic novel series for the first time, this is a great one to start with, if you can handle a bit of heartache along the way.