Belonging

Late Sunday afternoon, one of my favorite customers popped into the bookstore to grab a book she’d put on hold. She’s one of those people who radiates down-to-earth, good energy. She’s a joy to be around. In fact, when I’m around her, I feel like I belong.

That’s a pretty radical, earth-shifting gift: to make people feel a sense of belonging when you hardly know them. To do that requires being deeply centered in who you are, so you can allow people the space to be who they are.

It’s what Glennon Doyle calls being both free and held… at the same time.

It’s love.

I have no problem loving the people close to me. It gets trickier the farther I move out in concentric circles… to the people who the people I love love and the people those people love… and so on and so on and so on…

It gets harder because we like to belong. But to belong, sometimes we have to make sure other people know they don’t belong. And that not-belonging has dire consequences for people. Sometimes fatal consequences.

Even in spaces that should be inclusive, we’re hellbent on excluding some people. Onjali Rauf, for instance, wrote a lovely middle grades book about a refugee boy in England and the lengths his new friends go to to understand him and help reunite him with his family. It’s a book all about inclusion and acceptance, one that points out that bigotry is born out of fear of what is different.

Amazing, right?

The very same author penned an address at a women’s conference who’s sole focus was to question the identity of trans women and to argue that they should not be included in women-only spaces.

What the fuck?

But let’s go back to that brilliant, light-bringing customer of mine. As we chatted about a variety of different things–both mundane & spiritual–we touched on how fraught every single action is during this pandemic. And how, even when you’re trying to make good choices, people are incredibly apt to judge. In that context I quipped, “People can be so horrible sometimes.”

To which she replied, “I can be, too.”

And that’s really the crux of it. I can be, too.

So when I think about Onjali Rauf and her exclusionary speech, I have to remember that I said precisely the same things about trans women before I knew better.

It behooves me to remember where I came from. Just because other folks aren’t on the same place in their journey doesn’t mean they aren’t redeemable. In fact, as I was reading Rauf’s speech, I just kept thinking: does she even know any trans people? Because her entire speech reeks of the ignorance of not knowing. Of fear. Of the very thing she writes about overcoming in a book to teach kids about belonging and acceptance.

But fear can be overcome. It happens every single day. In fact, it’s one of the greatest miracles of being alive.

As a person in recovery, the truth is that I’ve done awful things in my addiction. Things borne of deep fear and deep pain. But I never have to be that person again. That’s redemption.

We’re all redeemable. But no one gets there by us insisting they don’t belong. In fact, we chip away at our own souls, our own sense of peace, balance, and well-being, every time we exclude someone. Or trick ourselves into forgetting the times we’ve fucked up, the hurt we’ve caused, the deep knowledge that we’re all profoundly flawed. And profoundly beautiful.

I can be, too.

Let’s Talk. Period.

No one talked periods in my house growing up.

Here’s what I remember: being about 8 years old and climbing around in the backseat while we were making the never-ending drive from South Florida to North Florida to visit my grandparents (y’all, Florida is an exceptionally l-o-n-g state. Those drives went on until the second of FOREVER). I didn’t have a seatbelt on (because the 80s) and was rifling around in some of the stuff packed on the floorboard, probably looking for a snack.

I came upon a box of maxi pads. I held them up. “Hey, what are these?”

If my mama’s eyes could’ve shot lasers, I’d just have been a little burn mark on the backseat. “Put that back,” she said, evenly but in that scary mommy’s-had-enough-of-your-bullshit way that still to this day stops me dead in my tracks.

“But what are they for?” I have no idea what got into me that made me think I should push the issue. My mom’s word was the final word forever-and-ever-amen.

But I needed to know.

“Kendra. We. Will. Discuss. It. When. You. Are. Older.,” she said, barely above a whisper, through clenched teeth.

But we didn’t discuss it later. Not really. We went to a Focus on the Family talk about adolescence where I learned 2 things: 1) Mutual masturbation was BAD (I think it had something to do with potentially catching the gay), and 2) Cocaine could kill you the very first time you tried it.

Neither of these pieces of info was particularly helpful to my 10 year old self.

My mom also handed me a Focus on the Family book about puberty and told to let her know if I had questions.

IF I had questions?!?

That was it.

Obviously, it just wasn’t something that we were going to talk about.

Now I find myself at an interesting crossroads where I’ve started menopause just as my daughter is about to have her first period (all signs point to probably in the next year for her).

But we’ve never been hush-hush around the monthly bleed. The kid was with me all the time when she was real little. She’s seen me change more tampons than I could possibly count.

Truly, she didn’t think anything about it.

And then, probably 2 years ago or so, we started talking about what the tampons were for.

You bleed from WHERE?!? she shrieked.

I had to promise it didn’t hurt. But then I had to backtrack on that–because I want to honor the fact that for some women menstruation is very painful. But I did promise that the whole thing is very normal.

But then, recently, I read Witch: Unleashed. Untamed. Unapologetic. And I began to remember what I’d long forgotten since my Women’s Studies Class approximately 100 lifetimes ago: that a woman’s cycle is powerful. It’s something to be honored and celebrated. It’s not a source of shame, but a guide to knowing.

Menstrual cycles, moon cycles, life cycles… all full of great wisdom. All a gift.

So, now I’m reading graphic novels about periods. And ordering all kinds of books on puberty that celebrate a girl’s body, and talk honestly and openly about the most natural thing in the world: becoming a woman.

And about periods.

Dear God, half the world bleeds. It’s not a shameful secret. It’s a fact of life. A divine mystery. The source of all kinds of walk-in-your-power-awesomeness.

I’m going to give my daughter a different script, a way to see her monthly cycle not as a curse but as a blessing.

“The Curse” is so patriarchal. And that’s so yesterday.

There’s a whole different way to see the world that centers a woman in her own power. And that’s the kind of inner-knowing I want to hand off to my kid.

No Slut-Shaming Here

Sunday morning, the (almost) 10 year old and I puttered about the kitchen. As coffee flowed freely from its pot into my waiting mug, I heard a tentative “Mommy?” I looked up at my child who was peering at me with a look of concern (and maybe a little gentle reproach). “Um… I think you forgot to take off your makeup last night.”

I finished making my cup of coffee (I have priorities) & trompt off to the bathroom to take a look.

Looking at my reflection, I snickered. Mascara was nigh on everywhere. “Total walk of shame makeup,” I muttered to myself, more reflex than actual thought.

And then I was like, “What the HELL?!”

Because in that moment, just right then, I realized that no one ever refers to a guy’s venture home after a wild (and possibly slightly regrettable evening) a walk of shame. A conquest, maybe. But more than likely, just a regular Saturday night.

Women, though? Walk of shame.

For me, having a little girl has made me rethink everything. The way I ingest the misogynistic bullshit society turns out. Diet culture. Body image. The words I use. Everything.

I have definitely had to reckon with shame. Because, for me, shame was persistent & pervasive in the messages I got about my body. My breasts? Not big enough. My ass? Too big. Ripe for either jokes or objectification. But always up for discussion. In middle school, I quickly got the message that eating too much showed too much need & desire. Besides it could make me fat. In high school, when all that internalized shame about my desires (which I wasn’t supposed to have (because Jesus), and I certainly wasn’t supposed to act on) and my body manifested itself in abject panic about having to literally chew & swallow food, I was either praised or scorned for being too skinny.

Holy shit, that’s a lot for one adolescent child to process.

I remember being so ashamed of my body in middle school that, on a canoe trip with our youth group–which was mostly kids older than me–I cowered in a tent too small to stand in trying to change out of my wet bathing suit, which took forever because I was shaking with fear that someone would unzip the tent and come inside. That’s how much shame I carried about my own body at 13 years old.

So what did I do with all that shame?

Spent graduate school sleeping around. Of course. Because isn’t that how you demonstrate that the shame has been put to rest? That you are the master of your own body and your own fate?

(Spoiler: No. The inverse of shame isn’t wild promiscuity*. Because, oh, there’s slut shaming, too. So I just traded one brand of shame for another.)

I was 30 years old before I figured out how to have any respect for my own body. I was 35 before I learned to love it. That was the same year Jane was born. The year I realized I had to go all in on loving myself, because parenting is a lead by example situation. And I want that girl to love herself to bits. And to take care of herself. And she’s looking at me to show her how.

As Jane enters puberty, it’s even more important to me than ever to be conscious about how I talk about my body and about sex and intimacy in general. I don’t think that sex should be a taboo discussion. Because, if it is, how is she supposed to be comfortable asking questions when she’s pondering having sex (or has had sex or her friend has told her something patently absurd about sex)?

Since the day Jane was born, we’ve been striving to teach her to think independently (except when it comes to cleaning her room. Then she should just do as she’s told). Which means that, in this instance, I’ve tried to lay out the broad spectrum of choices people make about when and with whom to have sex (high school, college, not until marriage…people they are in love with, people they’re fond of, the guy or girl on the barstool next to them). And for different people, those are all valid options.

But what she really needs to know, what would have saved me from a world of shame, is that it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks. It only matters that she does what is right for her. And that can change… week to week or even moment to moment. And, when the time comes, she needs to be honest & transparent with her partners about her expectations and follow the campsite rule (which Dan Savage coined to as a guideline to protect a younger person engaged with a more experienced partner–but I think should apply to everyone).

This is 2021. And folks are still shaming women for their bodies and their sexuality. As a mother, in my house that stops with me. I want Jane to understand her inherent value as a person–not an object (no matter society’s subtle & not-so-subtle insistence otherwise). And that starts with helping Jane find her inner compass, her own True North, that will guide her in all decisions–even the ones about S-E-X.

She may be only (almost) 10, but what she hears from me will be with her for the rest of her life. The very best I can hope is that my words guide her away from shame and toward total, radical self-love.

* Nothing wrong with wild promiscuity. But it’s not an escape hatch. It’s a choice, one that you should be able to make with a clear head. It should never be just one of multiple, concurrent paths to self destruction–which was all it ever was for me. Know thyself and all.

Everything’s Coming Up Witches

Back in early December, my book club picked A Discovery of Witches for our upcoming book nerd-out session. And when I say “we” picked it, I really mean I nudged it forward because folks had been coming in the store to grab the book. And it’s super helpful if, as a bookseller, I can chat about (or recommend) a book that’s garnering a lot of interest (it’s a series on Netflix …. and that gives book sales a big boost. I can’t even get any of the Bridgerton novels currently. Backstockarama, that one).

What’s funny is that I’d already tried to read A Discovery of Witches twice. And hated it both times. But books are mysterious. Sometimes it just has to be the right time, the stars have to align, and the Starbucks barista has to be able to correctly spell your name before a book will really strike you. But I was determined this time to read the damn book.

Which worked out because… witches.

Witches are real big in our house right now.

The sacred feminine has held me in it’s thrall since I read Women Who Run with the Wolves when I was 20 something. Pure magic. The power & mystery wrapped up in being a woman is nothing short of miraculous. That belief runs so deep in me that when Simon told me he was going to transition, I asked him why he would want to devolve like that (Alright. It wasn’t my finest moment. But I just didn’t understand how anyone could not want to be a woman. Don’t worry–I’m clearer on things now.)

I knew I was ready to explore the sacred feminine more fully this year, so I grabbed a planner with the phases of the moon, the Wheel of the Year (I do love a holiday celebration & ritual), and some preliminary witchy spells/rituals. Nifty. That sits on my bedside table so I can jot down what speaks to me most from my horoscope each morning (It’s woowoo AF over here lately. We’re embracing all the magic).

I’d also been looking for a good intro-to-all-things-witchy nonfiction book, and one of my bookstore customers recommended Witch, which is utterly amazing by the way. Lots of applicable knowledge about everything from history to casting a circle. It’s the perfect alchemy of hang-out-and-chat-about-woman-stuff and walk-into-your-power goodness. And the cover of that book (and, yes, almost everyone judges a book by it’s cover) is like BOOM. Here I am. In all my glory & power. It’s also on my bedside table.

And, for our family hang-out tv show, we’re watching Just Add Magic. It is adorable. And, well, magic-y*. I keep piping up in the middle of the show to let Jane & Simon know when things on the show line up with what I’ve read, like when each spell comes with a price often steeper than the magic being performed (see: Threefold Law). Jane just nods and eats another Oreo. I’m sure Simon’s making a mental note about how he’ll hear all about this later, whether he wants to or not (he’s long-suffering).

Anyway, into all that witchiness came A Discovery of Witches. And it was just the escapist reading I needed. It was totally otherworldly (vampires, witches, daemons), while still being of this world (set mostly in Oxford). I got into it enough that I dreamed of vampires for nights on end (they’re complicated & I was getting really close to understanding them, y’all).

What got me (and kept me reading) was the discovery of power storyline. There’s a central thread in the book that you cannot deny or escape power that is rightfully yours. It’s been bestowed upon you, and it will find a way out. Your only choice is to harness that power and control it–or it will control you.

I mean… hello, metaphor for life.

I’m a woman who has given away her power spiritually since she was a child. I let other people tell me what to think and how to believe. And I am done with it. I am 100% down with exploring my own power, having my own dealings with the divine, and not really giving one fig what anyone else has to say about it.

Diana, the protagonist in A Discovery of Witches, has been trying to make a go of her life on her own–without magic. Which leaves her hollow, albeit highly functional. But she’s cut off from everything that makes her special, from her own birthright in a long lineage of witches. What follows in the book is a messy discovery of herself, one that she can’t escape any more even if she tries.

I can relate to back-against-the-wall-self-discovery (which is pretty much the definition of getting sober). And I was driven to know more about her backstory (none of which I can tell you, because spoilers) and her journey to her own power.

There is a romance storyline wrapped in this. Parts of it resonated deeply with me (I don’t think many of us come into our power completely on our own) and parts were highly problematic. I liked that I pushed against it as much or more than it drew me in. But, for me, that part of the storyline was an addendum (more or less).

I was thrilled to have read this one. It was all that I needed it to be right now: a place to escape but also to believe that maybe we all have more power than we realize.

It fit right into my gigantic woowoofest & it completed the trinity of witch books on my bedside table. It’s definitely all coming up witches this January.

*This is a super-cute show. And they aren’t pushing any agenda, except friendship, loyalty, and personal responsibility. Which I think we can all get on board with.

Do No Harm–It’s My First Rule of Bookselling

The other day, this lovely young woman came in to the bookstore and asked if we had any Christian books.

Ahem.

It was kind of awkward… because we have a spirituality section. But let’s just stay it leans heavily toward Buddhism, general spiritual pursuits (mindfulness, crystals, auras), and witchcraft. We do have a few Christian books. But they’re ones folks happened to donate. Which is to say, it’s certainly not a well-curated selection.

And, unexpectedly, as I was looking at this rather earnest young woman, I felt really bad about that.

My dance with Christianity has been long and storied. And, let’s suffice it to say that I have closed the chapter on that part of my spiritual journey. But, as often happens when you’re grieving a loss (and finally understanding that your childhood religion will no longer work for you–that it’s actually causing you great harm–is a loss), I got angry. Like, real, real angry.

So much so that I haven’t been able to not be angry when the topic of Christianity comes up. Which is problematic for several reasons:

  1. I don’t want to be an angry person. For real. I appreciate anger. I think it can be cleansing and empowering. But then, something shifts and it begins to erode joy. To increase negativity. To make you into one of those people who can only identify what they don’t like, what they have a problem with, what is wrong with things. Those people are an energetic drag, and I have no desire to be one of them. But that’s totally what happens if anger hangs around past its expiration date.
  2. 65% of Americans identify themselves as Christians. So, you know, it comes up often.
  3. That young woman who came in the store? I would never want to make her think that I believe her spiritual beliefs are somehow less than. That’s gross. Also, some of the people I most admire identify themselves as Christians.

All of this adds up to… you guessed it…

Time to let that shit go.

Letting go of anger on a personal level is one thing. But, also, as a liberal, queer bookseller, one of my biggest caveats is to carry books that will do no harm. Especially to the queer folks that walk up in here trusting me because they see that big Pride flag in the window & feel like this is a safe space.

So, I feel like I have to vet every Christian book that comes in here. But, again, that’s problematic, because that is not a healthy space for me. And … where would I even find time to do that?!?

See the problem?

But it is on my heart (you can take the girl out of youth group, but you can’t take youth group out of the girl) to offer folks of all spiritual stripes books that will nourish their souls and cause no harm. It’s also become apparent to me that this is the first step in letting go of anger that is no longer serving me.

So, I’d love to hear what y’all have read that falls into the Christian or Christian-adjacent category written by authors who celebrate the LGBTQ community (not just tolerate it).

P.S. I just need to take a minute and let y’all know that I’m 100% in love with Nadia Bolz-Weber. I read her Sunday Morning Prayers every week, and they break open my heart in beautiful ways. If you haven’t checked her out, she’s worth your time no matter what your faith tradition.

Her Timing is Always a Mystery

Parenting is largely intuitive.

Right?

Or am I doing it wrong?

Because this really feels, for the most part, like a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants endeavor.

It’s not so much the “where do babies come from?” conversations… those big ones are expected. You kind of get to plan for those. And, honestly, for us that one was easy… Jane came to be in a very skilled fertility doctor’s office. In fact, she knows her origin story so well, we had to go ahead & speed up the talk about the way that many cis/het folks procreate before she started telling her friends with authority that babies were made in the doctor’s office (with a mobile of white Christmas lights above the examination table, for ambiance).

But then there are the conversations that happen as you’re driving to, say, the chiropractor on a random Monday afternoon.

“Mommy, can drinking kill you?” There she was, sat in the back seat looking super-interested in the answer to this question.

But it’s nuanced, you see. Because I’m in recovery. So, yeah, drinking could totally kill me. But I also know that the way I respond to things either provides her something to push back against (and that girl is the queen of push back) or something to think about. Depending on how I handle it.

So, I followed the instructions I keep getting (over and over again) from the Universe… I trusted my intuition.

And I was straight-up honest.

I told her how I got in trouble drinking (read: I hated myself & wanted to escape that feeling). I told her that many folks drink safely. And that she could choose to drink (or not!) when she got old enough. But you can believe that I put a plug in for sobriety being a valid life choice, whether you “have to” be sober or not. We also talked about what happens when you drink too much (acting a fool, blackouts, headaches, puke-fests).

None of this conversation was entirely foreign to her. When you’ve got a parent in long-term recovery, you occasionally bump into a drunkalog story along the way. Because it’s easier to point to what NOT to do with humor than with haranguing lectures.

I remember sitting in an AA meeting and hearing a woman in recovery declare (forcefully) that her child would never drink (as in not ever take a sip of alcohol). I thought that was a foolish premise then. Now that I have a child, I know how truly absurd that idea is.

Jane will drink. She’ll try it at least. And that’s what I acknowledged in our little car chat yesterday afternoon: she’ll make mistakes when it comes to alcohol. And she’ll regroup and make (better) decisions from there.

Not everything has to be black and white. I don’t need the kid declaring herself a teetotaler at (not quite) 10 years old. But I do want her to know that sometimes drinking is kicking back and having a beer on the beach with friends. Sometimes it is … so very NOT.

And that’s the truth for me. She’ll find her truth.

But, as is true with so many other things, she’ll only make good choices about alcohol if she’s at peace with who she is, if knows how to love herself.

And it’s that lesson that I hope really sticks.

My explanation for most things: Because I’m a Virgo.

During the chaos that is our morning coffee time (seriously, the dog’s running about, the kid’s doing some crazy chicken imitation, I’m hyped up on caffeine… it’s utter mayhem), Simon mentioned that I can sometimes be intimidating.

I laughed.

Because, hello… obviously, I’m the least intimidating person in the world. I’m like a muppet: overly enthusiastic and always zeroing in for a hug.

Except maybe I’m not like that at all. That’s how I see myself. But maybe that’s not the way other people see me.

And that sent me into a minor existential tailspin.

Because who am I really?!

To be fair, this concept isn’t entirely new to me. I picked up somewhere (back in Psych 101 in college, maybe) that our perception of ourselves changes long after we have. So, the way I see myself could be outdated. Or maybe my self-perception reflects my own interiority–not the way I exist in the outside world.

Or maybe I made the whole thing up.

It’s a bit unsettling that we can never really know what other people think of us. Not fully, anyway. Let’s just say I was surprised when Simon clued me in on what other people read from me.

I’m leaning into curiosity right now. And the unknowable. This kind of amorphous nature of how I’m viewed in the world feels unsettling. But right, too. Like maybe my task is to be in this moment, to look for magic, to experience all that is there… and not to worry so much what other people are doing or seeing.

My horoscope keeps nudging me toward full, radical acceptance of other people just as they are. Towards a celebration of every unique soul–my own included.

The word on the street is that outwardly I seem to make decisions without giving a flying fuck about how others see them. Which is funny, because (on the inside) nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, one of my intentions for 2021 was to let go of what other folks think so I can make decisions that are life-affirming and right for me–instead of being paralyzed by the fear of what other people might think.

I’ve got my eye on letting go of my preconceived notions (about everything) and embracing wonder. Today’s horoscope had 2 nuggets for me that I’m turning over and over in my mind:

  1. If you want to sharpen your capacity to make independent decisions, experiment with larger truths. I’m still parsing what this means specifically in my little orbit, but the concept makes me feel expansive (literally, in my chest). And that’s always a good thing for me (I can be a bit dogmatic. I’m a Virgo. It happens) I also doubt the larger truths have much to do with micromanaging how each person views the way I navigate my life.
  2. One of the most harmful things humans do is deny the reality of each other’s existence. I am incredibly sensitive. But that doesn’t always translate to tenderness. Because tenderness requires not always believing that MY answers are the right answers for everyone (again, Virgo), acknowledging the vastness fo the human experience, and meeting folks where they are with love. Radical, accepting love.

I’m a bit adrift, in orbit over here… you know, experimenting with the larger truths. So, flag me down if you need anything. Promise I’ll try not to intimidate you.

Beginnings (Happy 2021!)

Beginnings. They’re so full of possibility.

None of those bothersome details to work out. No negative feelings or pesky loose ends that tend to crop up when things get real.

Beginnings are all magic.

When I hung around AA, they were fond of saying “wherever you go, there you are.” It’s been true for me. I’ve brought myself into every new beginning I’ve ever had. With mixed results.

This year, I’ve given myself to actively looking for magic in the everyday. But then, there I am, my very Virgo self telling me that surely I can’t write anything if I haven’t been writing every day since January 1st.

See what I’m up against?

But I’m learning to accept contradictions. And to embrace both what is and what could be. It’s an interesting place. There’s no solid ground here. Which is both terrifying and liberating.

For me, happiness is bound up in my spiritual journey. It’s a central part of who I am and how I move though the world. It’s taken an unexpected turn recently, but one that feels like home. We’ll see. It’s always a work-in-progress. But right now it feels open and spacious, like a place for discovery. And that’s particularly energizing for me.

I’ve also been thinking about my sobriety a lot lately. I’ve been sober for over a decade. But recently, I’ve taken more moments to realize where I’d be–and what I’d be missing–if I hadn’t gotten sober. Maybe that sounds grim. But, really, it just fills me with gratitude–to the Universe for providing me the opportunity to get sober and to myself for taking a chance on what could be (and for sticking to it).

At the bookstore, I spent the last week of 2020 and the first days fo 2021 crafting a reading challenge worthy of all the diverse talent that exists in the literary world. I examined copious book lists to pull together options that will push folks out of their comfortable reading niches and be wildly appealing. It was a extensive, time consuming project. But it’s one that I’m proud of. We’ll be rolling that out this week (currently, it’s in production with my amazing designer, who I happen to be married to). And this year, my reading choices will be largely dictated by the list I created. Trust me: keeping at TBR list in my head wasn’t going to cut it anymore. So, I just invited all my customers to join in.

Sometimes I am clever.

2021 has opened with a lot of joy and possibility for me. I’m grateful for that. I know not everyone is in the same place. I’m working hard to live into that possibility. And to be sensitive and compassionate to those who are struggling to find hope this year.

No matter where you are in your journey, or what you are bringing into 2021 with you, you are loved and valued by the Universe. You are worthy just as you are. Always.

The Nitty Gritty: Clap When You Land

I hugged this book when I finished it. I just couldn’t imagine putting the characters down & walking away from them.

I’m still not ready to let go…

Even if YA novels aren’t typically your thing, this deserves a read. It’s a novel written in verse, which is pretty damn cool to begin with. It’s both stripped bare & poetic. And it’s easy to float through…

And yet.

The themes aren’t simplistic at all. I think for teenagers just beginning to sort the complexities of family, this novel might be revelatory. For me, in my mid-forties with a child of my own and parents who are both complicated and aging, I found myself nodding my head often. Sympathetically clucking. Yes, yes. We are often disappointed in love and life. Yes, yes. There is pain. But there is also terrific joy and new beginnings. And life. In all its richness.

Elizabeth Acevado is immensely talented. Without any excess description to bog down her writing, she made me see the Dominican Republic so clearly. She neither romanticized nor disparaged the island. She rendered it real, beautiful, complicated–like a living being.

And I love Acevado for giving us a gay character in a YA novel where her being gay is entirely beside the point. This isn’t a novel about coming out. Or coming to grips with identity (not gay identity at least). This girl is just gay. Because folks are. And she lives her life. Because folks do. And it’s all so shockingly normal that it made me cry.

I was caught in this novel between remembering what it was like to be 17 and knowing that one day (sooner than I could imagine) my own baby will be 17. It’s kind of a beautiful, liminal space. And I found adults in this book that were complicated, yes. But sometimes powerful, sometimes vulnerable, and always deeply human.

It’s good y’all. Go read it.

The Nitty Gritty: Charm & Strange

I read the best books without having any idea why I really picked them up. In this case, the copy of Charm & Strange that I have at the store has library markings on it. For some reason, that makes it much harder to sell. So I grabbed it out of a pile of books I’d brought out to my front yard for the East Atlanta Strut-in-Place. Figured I’d read while I waited for folks to roll up and peruse the tent.

Except then I really didn’t want to put it down. At all.

It’s a YA book. And it won the American Library Association award for debut authors. And, y’all, it’s riveting. But it’s dark. Like, real dark.

It made me remember how stark the lies of adolescence can be–and how damning: that we aren’t enough, that we are flawed, broken, shameful. That the world would be better off if we didn’t exist–but at the very least we shouldn’t let people get close. Because they’ll loathe what that they see–probably wouldn’t be able to stand it–so to protect them and us, we shut everyone out.

Maybe that wasn’t your adolescence. But it was mine. And I wished I’d had a book like this to let me know that I wasn’t the only person that felt this way.

At many points in the book, you really have no idea what’s going on, or why it’s happening. Which drives you into a fever pitch of reading so you can figure out what the actual hell is happening/has happened to this 17 year old kid. Why does he make the decisions he does? Why is he bent on his own social destruction, his intense isolation?

Here are some things you should know: You do eventually figure out the whole dark, painful, twisted story. Nothing is rosy in this book but I felt like someone had opened a window & let in a stream of light at the end. But you have to be willing to engage in the journey to get there.

It was definitely worth the read. And I loved that the author trusted her YA readers with some intense social issues–and gave them the task of shifting the lies we tell ourselves when we are in pain from the objective truths that others can more easily bear witness to.

If the whole review is a little cryptic, it’s because I’m trying to preserve the mystery for you. But as a final note: there are some topics in this novel that will be triggering for some folks. If you’re concerned that may be you, please read a review that includes trigger warnings before picking this one up.