Today on the site we’re talking to Nina Varela, whose name you probably know from the smash hit Crier’s War duology, and who’s now hopping categories to Middle Grade with the Sapphic adventure Juniper Harvey and the Vanishing Kingdom, releasing tomorrow from LBYR! Before we get to her fantastic post on book bannings, resilience, and growing into identity, here’s a little more on the book:
When Juniper Harvey’s family moves to the middle of nowhere in Florida, her entire life is uprooted. As if that’s not bad enough, she keeps having dreams about an ancient-looking temple, a terrifying attack, and a mysterious girl who turns into an ivory statue. One night after a disastrous school dance, Juniper draws a portrait of the girl from her dreams and thinks, I wish you were here. The next morning, she wakes up to find the girl in her room…pointing a sword at her throat!
The unexpected visitor reveals herself as Galatea, a princess from a magical other world. One problem—her crown is missing, and she needs it in order to return home. Now, it’s up to Juniper to help find the crown, all while navigating a helpless crush on her new companion. And things go from bad to worse when a sinister force starts chasing after the crown too.
Packed with adventure and driven by a pitch-perfect voice, this middle grade debut from Nina Varela is about one tween forging new friendships, fighting nightmarish monsters, and importantly, figuring out who she is and who she ultimately wishes to be.
In Juniper Harvey and the Vanishing Kingdom, 11-year-old “June” Harvey has a lot on her plate: she’s starting sixth grade at a new school in a new town, hundreds of miles away from her best
(and kind of only) friend and everything else she’s ever known. And that’s before the magical princess from another dimension crash-lands in her bedroom. And that’s before June starts wondering if maybe there’s a reason said princess makes her face go red, and not just out of annoyance.
June is a kid. She’s in her first year of middle school. She’s experiencing basically her first crush—definitely the first crush she’s been aware of while it’s happening. And the focus of that crush is another girl. Despite the rest of the plot—which involves gods, flying nightmare monsters, and islands that float in the sky—this was maybe the most difficult part of the story for me to write. You wouldn’t think so, considering I certainly know what it’s like to experience a middle school crush, and also what it’s like to experience a gay crush. But when I was June’s age, I had no idea I was queer. I knew of queerness—I knew gay people existed, and as I learned more about queerness and homophobia I became a staunch “ally”—but it didn’t seem like something that could apply to me. I’m not even really sure why. Plenty of people know they’re gay from a very young age, whether or not they possess the vocabulary to describe it. But at some point I had assumed my sexuality was the default, that I was straight, and it wasn’t until years later that I began to question that assumption. To be clear, as an adolescent, I did experience nonplatonic feelings for other girls; I liked girls, I wanted girls, I just didn’t make the connection that it was something intrinsic to who I was, something real and important enough to shape my worldview, the way I move through the world, the way I interact with myself and others, the way I live my life. I knew adults could be gay, yet somehow it didn’t occur to me that gay adults surely grew from gay children. That the confusingly intense feelings I had for other girls were not an improbable series of flukes, but something that mattered, that would continue to matter.
My experience, my timeline, is not unique. Again, some people know they’re gay from the onset, but I’ve had countless conversations with other queer people who didn’t realize they were gay until young adulthood or later—even if, in retrospect, we were having a lot of gay teenage feelings. So much of this comes down to socialization, the social hierarchies that play out beneath the surface of every interaction. Generally, we are taught to believe our gender and
sexuality align with whatever the default is. If you’re a girl, then you like boys, and only boys.
I am about to turn twenty-eight. In 2006, when I was in sixth grade, calling things “gay” as an insult was extremely normal and common and happened in my vicinity roughly 500 times per day. To my knowledge, there were no “out” queer kids in my middle or high school, though there were rumors. (Plenty of my classmates have come out in the years since. Love this journey for us.) The idea of self-identifying as queer, as a kid, let alone knowing multiple other queer kids, is wild to me, unthinkable. But for Gen Z, that’s increasingly something close to the norm. My youngest sibling just turned fifteen. Many of their friends are proudly, loudly queer and have been for years. “My friend who’s a trans lesbian,” they tell me. “My nonbinary friend, my friend who’s bi and ace.” Internet access means information access. Kids these days tend to learn about
queerness—broadly, and in specific terms—so much earlier than just one generation before. They tend to start questioning their own assumptions about themselves—the world’s insistence that they conform to a default—so much earlier. That’s pretty freaking cool. It doesn’t matter whether or not a certain label sticks; whether some kid calling themself a lesbian is an “experiment” or a phase. That’s what being young is for. Being a kid is about learning, growing, discovering who you are. Straight kids have crushes, have first relationships. The gay kids of my generation often didn’t—or had “straight” relationships because that’s what was expected. But
the fact is that gay kids should be allowed the same grace, the same space to be messy and fluid and changeable. And it’s hard to do that if you don’t know that queer is something you have the
option to be—that it’s something a kid can be, and it rocks.
Just this past week, the New York Times published a wildly transphobic piece of faux-concerned hand-wringing about the concept that a kid might come out as trans to friends and trusted teachers but not parents, to which children of queerphobic parents everywhere responded: Yeah. And?
In March 2022, Florida—where Juniper Harvey is set—passed the so-called “Don’t Say Gay” law, which says public school teachers may not instruct on sexual orientation or gender identity in kindergarten through third grade. A year later, there’s a new Florida state law that requires all books in classroom libraries to be approved or vetted by a media specialist or librarian trained by the state. In September 2022, PEN America reported that during the previous school year, more books had been banned than in any previous year. Of the books, “41% had LGBTQ themes or main characters, while 40% featured characters of color.”
Kids deserve better. Queer kids exist, have always existed, will always exist. They deserve to know they’re not alone, that they’re not broken; there’s nothing wrong with them; they deserve love and joy and companionship of all kinds same as anyone else. Kids these days may be more aware of their own potential for queerness than I was at that age, but that doesn’t mean they’re safer or happier, that they’re living in a kinder world. I hope books like Juniper Harvey, books about queer kids dreaming big despite-despite-despite, can give them some seed of warmth and hope—but books can only do that if they actually make it to the kids’ hands.
For more information about censorship and how to fight the book bans sweeping the US, kindly look here, here, and here to start. Thank you.
Today on the site I’m delighted to welcome the one and only Natalie C. Parker, w ho’s revealing the cover of The Nameless Witch, “the wickedly exciting and queer sequel” to last year’s Middle Grade fantasy adventure The Devouring Wolf! The Nameless Witchis coming from Razorbill/Penguin on August 8, 2023, and here’s the story:
For fans of Soman Chainani, Anne Ursu, and stories with lots of magic, action and a big heart.
If you give your witch your name… …she’ll steal your magic and grind your bones…
After defeating the Devouring Wolf, Riley and her friends hoped they could leave scary legends behind and focus on being the best werewolves they can be. Nicknamed the Winter Pack because of when they turned, they’ve got a unique bond thanks to how different they are as a prime, and some of the other pups think they get special treatment. It’s all Riley and her friends can do to practice their magic skills, get all their homework done, and not let the other young wolves pick fights.
Suddenly their bond leads them to a new threat—a young witch on the run. She isn’t just any runaway, though. She’s the next in line to become the magic-hungry Nameless Witch and even being in her presence is dangerous for werewolves. They say the Nameless Witch can take anything she wants from you if she knows your name.
But this runaway doesn’t want to be Nameless, she wants to choose for herself. The Winter Pack understands better than other wolves what that feels like, and they pledge to help her. Too bad the terrible power of the Nameless Witch has already marked the runaway, and Riley and her pack have no time before their new friend will turn, steal their magic and bones, and possibly even destroy all of Clawroot…
And here’s the magical cover, illustrated by Tyler Champion and designed by Jessica Jenkins!
Alt text: Five 13-year-olds stand in the middle of a magical orb surrounded by an ominous green mist. Outside of the orb a hooded figure is just visible in the darkness, their hands hover to either side of the orb as though they are spying on the children. A candle burns on one side and a mortar and pestle sit on the other. The title at the top of the page reads The Nameless Witch.
Natalie C. Parker is an author, editor, and community organizer. She has written several award winning books for teens and young readers and has edited multiple anthologies including the Indie Bestselling anthology Vampires Never Get Old. Her work has been included on the NPR Best Books list, the Indie Next List, and the TAYSHAS Reading List, and in Junior Library Guild selections. In addition to writing, Natalie also runs Madcap Retreats, which has partnered with We Need Diverse Books and Reese’s Book Club to host the writers workshops for their new internship Lit Up. She grew up in a navy family finding home in coastal cities from Virginia to Japan and currently lives with her wife on the Kansas prairie.
Always a delight to get to reveal a great queer Middle Grade cover, and today’s is none other than Skating on Mars by Caroline Huntoon, a nonbinary contemporary MG releasing from Feiwel & Friends on May 30, 2023! Here’s the story:
Life isn’t easy on twelve-year-old Mars. As if seventh grade isn’t hard enough, Mars is also grappling with the recent death of their father and a realization they never got to share with him: they’re nonbinary. But with their skates laced up and the ice under their feet, all of those struggles melt away. When Mars’ triple toe loop draws the attention of a high school hot shot, he dares them to skate as a boy so the two can compete head-to-head. Unable to back down from a challenge, Mars accepts. But as the competition draws near, the struggles of life off the rink start to complicate their performance in the rink, and Mars begins to second guess if there’s a place for them on the ice at all.
Alt text: The title “Skating on Mars” fills the top half of the image; a young figure skater with short hair, black clothing, and white skates poses with a lightning bolt across their chest; in the ice below the skater’s feet there is a rainbow and the reflection of the skates is black; at the bottom, there is the name “Caroline Huntoon”
Caroline Huntoon is an author and educator. They write middle grade fiction across genres. Caroline lives with their feisty child, Winifred, in Ypsilanti, MI. Skating on Mars is their debut novel and will be published on May 30, 2023 by Feiwel and Friends. Find out more about Caroline and their work at CarolineHuntoon.com.
Today on the site we’re revealing the extremely cute cover of Jude Saves the World by Ronnie Riley, a nonbinary middle grade contemporary with lots of varied queer rep that releases from Scholastic on April 18, 2023! Here’s the story:
Jude Winters might be in over their head. Maybe. But they’ll never admit it.
They befriend the ex-popular girl, Stevie Morgan, create an all-ages safe space at their local library with their best friend, Dallas Knight, and come out as nonbinary to their grandparents.
When the club becomes an overnight success, friendships crumble, and their grandparents act like they’re stuck in the Stone Age, Jude fights to keep their world from tearing itself apart. But a twelve-year-old can only handle so much.
And here’s the cover, designed by Maeve Norton with art by Ricardo Bessa!
Ronnie Riley (they/them) is a queer, nonbinary, neurodivergent, disabled author living with their partner in Ontario, Canada. They love tea, chocolate, and a cat (or six) nearby while they are writing or reading.
Obie knew his transition would have ripple effects. He has to leave his swim coach, his pool, and his best friends. But it’s time for Obie to find where he truly belongs.
As Obie dives into a new team, though, things are strange. Obie always felt at home in the water, but now he can’t get his old coach out of his head. Even worse are the bullies that wait in the locker room and on the pool deck. Luckily, Obie has family behind him. And maybe some new friends too, including Charlie, his first crush. Obie is ready to prove he can be one of the fastest boys in the water—to his coach, his critics, and his biggest competition: himself.
She can pry into folks’ memories with just a touch of their belongings. It’s something she’s always kept hidden — especially from her big, chaotic family. Their lives are already chock-full of worries about Daddy’s job and Mama’s blues without Tennie rocking the boat.
But when the Lancasters move to the mountains for a fresh start, Tennie’s gift does something new. Instead of just memories, her touch releases a ghost with a terrifying message: Trouble is coming. Tennie wants to ignore it. Except her new friend Fox — scratch that, her only friend, Fox — is desperate to go ghost hunting deep in the forest. And when Tennie frees even more of the spirits, trouble is exactly what she gets… and it hits close to home. The ghosts will be heard, and now Tennie must choose between keeping secrets or naming an ugly truth that could tear her family apart.
Magic and mayhem abound in this spooky story about family legacies, first friendships, and how facing the ghosts inside can sometimes mean stirring up a little bit of ruckus.
In Other Boys, debut author Damian Alexander delivers a moving middle grade graphic memoir about his struggles with bullying, the death of his mother, and coming out.
Damian is the new kid at school, and he has a foolproof plan to avoid the bullying that’s plagued him his whole childhood: he’s going to stop talking. Starting on the first day seventh grade, he won’t utter a word. If he keeps his mouth shut, the bullies will have nothing to tease him about―right?
But Damian’s vow of silence doesn’t work―his classmates can tell there’s something different about him. His family doesn’t look like the kind on TV: his mother is dead, his father is gone, and he’s being raised by his grandparents in a low-income household. And Damian does things that boys aren’t supposed do, like play with Barbies instead of GI Joe. Kids have teased him about this his whole life, especially other boys. But if boys can be so cruel, why does Damian have a crush on one?
San Francisco and Orangevale may be in the same state, but for Héctor Muñoz, they might as well be a million miles apart. Back home, being gay didn’t mean feeling different. At Héctor’s new school, he couldn’t feel more alone.
Most days, Héctor just wishes he could disappear. And he does. Right into the janitor’s closet. (Yes, he sees the irony.) But one day, when the door closes behind him, Héctor discovers he’s stumbled into a room that shouldn’t be possible. A room that connects him with two new friends from different corners of the country—and opens the door to a life-changing year full of magic, friendship, and adventure.
In a modern mega-city built around dragons, one boy gets caught up in the world of underground dragon battles and a high-stakes gang war that could tear his family apart.
Once, dragons nearly drove themselves to extinction. But in the city of Drakopolis, humans domesticated them centuries ago. Now dragons haul the city’s cargo, taxi its bustling people between skyscrapers, and advertise its wares in bright, neon displays. Most famously of all, the dragons battle. Different breeds take to the skies in nighttime bouts between the infamous kins―criminal gangs who rule through violence and intimidation.
Abel has always loved dragons, but after a disastrous showing in his dragon rider’s exam, he’s destined never to fly one himself. All that changes the night his sister appears at his window, entrusting him with a secret…and a stolen dragon.
Turns out, his big sister is a dragon thief! Too bad his older brother is a rising star in Drakopolis law enforcement…
To protect his friends and his family, Abel must partner with the stolen beast, riding in kin battles and keeping more secrets than a dragon has scales.
When everyone wants him fighting on their side, can Abel figure out what’s worth fighting for?
The first LGBTQ+ anthology for middle-graders featuring stories for every letter of the acronym, including realistic, fantasy, and sci-fi stories by authors like Justina Ireland, Marieke Nijkamp, Alex Gino, and more!
A boyband fandom becomes a conduit to coming out. A former bully becomes a first-kiss prospect. One nonbinary kid searches for an inclusive athletic community after quitting gymnastics. Another nonbinary kid, who happens to be a pirate, makes a wish that comes true–but not how they thought it would. A tween girl navigates a crush on her friend’s mom. A young witch turns herself into a puppy to win over a new neighbor. A trans girl empowers her online bestie to come out.
From wind-breathing dragons to first crushes, This Is Our Rainbow features story after story of joyful, proud LGBTQIA+ representation. You will fall in love with this insightful, poignant anthology of queer fantasy, historical, and contemporary stories from authors including: Eric Bell, Lisa Jenn Bigelow, Ashley Herring Blake, Lisa Bunker, Alex Gino, Justina Ireland, Shing Yin Khor, Katherine Locke, Mariama J. Lockington, Nicole Melleby, Marieke Nijkamp, Claribel A. Ortega, Mark Oshiro, Molly Knox Ostertag, Aida Salazar, and AJ Sass.
Struggling with anxiety after witnessing a harrowing instance of gun violence, Manuel Soto copes through photography, using his cell-phone camera to find anchors that keep him grounded. His days are a lonely, latchkey monotony until he’s teamed with his classmates, Sebastian and Caysha, for a group project.
Sebastian lives on a grass-fed cattle farm outside of town, and Manuel finds solace in the open fields and in the antics of the newborn calf Sebastian is hand-raising. As Manuel aides his new friends in their preparations for the local county fair, he learns to open up, confronts his deepest fears, and even finds first love.
When Jay starts eighth grade with a few pimples he doesn’t think much of it at first…except to wonder if the embarrassing acne will disappear as quickly as it arrived. But when his acne goes from bad to worse, Jay’s prescribed a powerful medication that comes with some serious side effects. Regardless, he’s convinced it’ll all be worth it if clear skin is on the horizon!
Meanwhile, school isn’t going exactly as planned. All of Jay’s friends are in different classes; he has no one to sit with at lunch; his best friend, Brace, is avoiding him; and–to top it off–Jay doesn’t understand why he doesn’t share the same feelings two of his fellow classmates, a boy named Mark and a girl named Amy, have for him.
Eighth grade can be tough, but Jay has to believe everything’s going to be a-okay…right?
Born in Paris, Kentucky, and raised on her gram’s favorite country music, Cline Alden is a girl with big dreams and a heart full of song. When she finds out about a young musicians’ workshop a few towns over, Cline sweet-talks, saves, and maybe fibs her way into her first step toward musical stardom.
But her big dreams never prepared her for the butterflies she feels surrounded by so many other talented kids—especially Sylvie, who gives Cline the type of butterflies she’s only ever heard about in love songs.
As she learns to make music of her own, Cline begins to realize how much of herself she’s been holding back. But now, there’s a new song taking shape in her heart—if only she can find her voice and sing it.