Once you see the cover, it’ll become quickly clear why it feels so extra special to be able to introduce to you The City Beautiful by Aden Polydoros, a queer, Jewish historical YA thriller that I haven’t been able to stop thinking about in weeks. It releases from Inkyard Press on September 7th, and I could not encourage you more strongly to use the preorder links below! Here’s the story:
Death lurks around every corner in this unforgettable Jewish historical fantasy about a city, a boy, and the shadows of the past that bind them both together.
Chicago, 1893. For Alter Rosen, this is the land of opportunity, and he dreams of the day he’ll have enough money to bring his mother and sisters to America, freeing them from the oppression they face in his native Romania.
But when Alter’s best friend, Yakov, becomes the latest victim in a long line of murdered Jewish boys, his dream begins to slip away. While the rest of the city is busy celebrating the World’s Fair, Alter is now living a nightmare: possessed by Yakov’s dybbuk, he is plunged into a world of corruption and deceit, and thrown back into the arms of a dangerous boy from his past. A boy who means more to Alter than anyone knows.
Now, with only days to spare until the dybbuk takes over Alter’s body completely, the two boys must race to track down the killer—before the killer claims them next.
And here’s the magnificently Gothic cover designed by Mary Luna with art direction by Erin Craig!
Yes, that is my blurb on there! “The City Beautiful is the haunting, queer Jewish historical thriller of my darkest dreams.” Extremely accurate!
Aden Polydoros grew up in Illinois and Arizona and has a bachelor’s degree in English from Northern Arizona University. When he isn’t writing, he enjoys going to antique fairs and flea markets. He can be found on Twitter at @adenpolydoros.
Today on the site I’m excited to be sharing the entire first chapter from Jessica Verdi’s upcoming Follow Your Arrow, which releases from Scholastic on March 2nd and centers on setting biphobia on fire. Or I could just let the publisher describe the book in a slightly classier way:
CeCe Ross is kind of a big deal. She and her girlfriend, Silvie, are social media influencers with zillions of fans and followers, known for their cute outfits and being #relationshipgoals.
So when Silvie breaks up with her, CeCe is devastated. She’s lost her first love, and now she can’t help but wonder if she’ll lose her followers as well.
Things get even messier when CeCe meets Josh, a new boy in town who is very much Not Online. CeCe isn’t surprised to be falling for a guy; she’s always known she’s bi. And Josh is sweet and smart and has excellent taste in donuts… but he has no idea that CeCe is internet-famous. And CeCe sort of wants to keep it that way.
But when CeCe’s secrets catch up to her, she finds herself in the middle of an online storm, where she’ll have to confront the blurriness of public vs. private life, and figure out what it really means to speak her truth.
And here’s the first chapter of Finding Your Arrow!
I study the app post like it’s a Renaissance painting, dissecting and analyzing each detail before tapping the button that will send it out to the world. It took me ten minutes of crafting and deleting and rewriting to land on this combination of words and images and emphasis, but I’m still not sure about it.
Do the all-caps and exclamation points convey the right level of enthusiasm, or does the tone tip over into annoying? And I purposely limited the hashtags to three, because too many and people will just scroll right by instead of putting in the effort to read, but maybe I should have hashtagged #spring and #news too? For discoverability? And the emojis . . . I love emojis, but sometimes I wonder if everyone else in the world is over them and I’m showing how out of touch I am when I use them too much. Not that anyone’s said, “Hey, CeCe, you might want to rethink how many emojis you use” or anything. I just . . . I don’t know. I worry.
“Does this look okay?” I ask Silvie, holding the screen out. We’re lying on the floor in her room—our usual hangout spot. My leg is draped over hers, and we’re both scrolling on our phones—our usual position.
Silvie’s room is spacious, artfully designed, and looks like an #ad. Lots of white furniture, framed photography, and intentional pops of color. We spend most of our time at Silvie’s house, especially on weekends when my mom’s working long hours, or when we have a video to record or a livestream to do, like today. The sleek lines and bright light of her bedroom make for a way more professional backdrop than the chaos of mine.
Silvie skims my post draft in one point five seconds, then glances back at me. “Looks good. Why haven’t you posted it yet?”
“I needed to get it right.”
She rolls her eyes. “Ceece, we go live in”—she checks the time on her own phone—“ten minutes. Just post it; it doesn’t need to be perfect.”
She doesn’t get it. She could post Hey. Live video at 1. Watch it. and get fifty thousand likes and a hundred new followers within minutes. Everyone loves Silvia Castillo Ramírez.
I, on the other hand, have had to work incredibly hard to get people to like me and care about what I have to say.
I hold my breath and tap post. “Okay. Done.” Silvie goes back to scrolling.
When I first joined social media in seventh grade, @Hi_Im_CeCeRoss was a lot different than it is now. Not only my follower count and reach, but the content itself. The few people who actually read my posts probably got a kick out of the twelve-year-old white girl in the Midwest going on epic rants about #gerrymandering and #prisonreform and #healthcarepolicies. But I’d been fighting against my father’s conservative beliefs pretty much since I was old enough to speak. It was not only all I knew; it was who I was. And at first, the app felt like a natural extension of that: a chance to express my views without my dad telling me I was wrong, or that I’d understand when I was older, or that I was embarrassing myself. I didn’t edit, didn’t self-censor, didn’t obsess. I posted whatever was on my mind.
But then my father left.
And everything changed.
Suddenly I didn’t want to be The Girl with All the Opinions anymore, the girl who was so strong-willed, so defiant, it had torn her family apart. I just wanted to be happy, for once. I wanted—needed—a chance to breathe.
When Silvie and I met, she already had a following online—people actually listened to her, looked to her for her thoughts and perspective. Sure, her feed was mainly about stuff like #fashion and #style, but still. She was happy.
So I followed her lead.
For over two years now, I’ve done everything I can to make it look like my life is as shiny and special as Silvie’s. And that’s the thing about social media: You get to decide how people see you. You can become a casual, confident, carefree girl with more friends than she can keep track of and not a single problem to be seen. Every post, each comment, is another stitch in the tapestry of my online world. A heavily filtered selfie here, a post with a potentially controversial opinion edited out before being posted there, and about a zillion tongue-biting, sugary-sweet replies to haters. And honestly, even the haters are tolerable, because #lifestyle influencing might invite eye rolls, but it rarely invites the vitriol that fighting over immigration policies does. It certainly doesn’t lead to shouting matches so intense they make the walls of your house shake. It doesn’t stretch the limits of family, and it doesn’t result in divorce.
“You really need to stop overanalyzing everything,” Silvie says, clicking her phone off, untangling her leg from mine, and standing to stretch. It’s an unseasonably warm day for late March in Cincinnati, but the loss of skin-to-skin contact sends an instant shiver over me. “It’s not good for you.”
That’s where she’s wrong.
Overanalyzing—though I prefer to call it curating—has worked. Silvie may have 1,200,000 followers, but I have 985,000. She might have six sponsorships at the moment, but I have four. We’re both continually featured on Famous Birthdays’s “trending influencers” list.
Life isn’t perfect, the world isn’t perfect, but the time I spend on the app is as close to perfect as I’ve found. It’s my loophole. And I’d like to keep it.
Speaking of, I need to retouch my makeup before we go live. I sit at Silvie’s vanity and uncap the eyeliner I keep at her house, while she comes up behind me and grabs her brush. People often do double takes when they meet my girlfriend in person for the first time, because her combination of blue-green eyes, dark hair, and olive skin is unexpected. But those same people invariably go back for a third and fourth glance. Silvie is truly one of the most beautiful people most of us have ever seen, even online.
I, along with most of the world, am a little more ordinary-looking than Silvie. But in moments like this, studying our side-by-side reflections, it’s not hard to see what our fans see: Silvie and I don’t only look good together; we look like we go together. Our hair is almost the same shade of dark brown—Silvie’s long, mine falling in a blunt bob to just above my chin. And even though Silvie’s seven inches taller than me, we fit. My skin is pale, and my eyes are a basic brown, but I think I have nice eyebrows and shoulders, and my earlobes are just the right shape for earrings. The ones I’m wearing right now are little yellow dangly houses; they were a birthday gift from Silvie last year. Silvie’s wearing the lesbian like whoa T-shirt she got at a thrift store.
She finishes fixing her loose side pony, and I wordlessly hand her a bottle of hand lotion. Whenever she brushes her hair, she likes to rub a tiny bit of lotion into her hands, then gently tamp down the frizzies on the top of her head. After being together for over two years, we know each other’s quirks like they’re our own. “This stuff is the best, isn’t it?” she says as she squeezes a small amount of lotion into her palm and massages her hands together.
“What, the hand cream?” I lean closer to the mirror and dab some of Silvie’s coral-tinted lip gloss onto my lips.
“Yeah, all the Dana & Leslie stuff. It’s insane that they’re not more mainstream.”
“Well, that’s what they have you for.” I give her a smile, then quickly devote my attention to applying a pointless second layer of lip gloss.
Dana & Leslie is the gender-inclusive, organic, cruelty-free skincare brand Silvie’s an ambassador for. I fully support their mission, and the partnership has been great for Silvie, but if I’m being honest, I can’t stand the cloying smell of that lotion. And the face wash dried my skin out.
I’ve been avoiding sharing my opinions on Dana & Leslie with Silvie, because she’s really proud of her collaboration with them, and I don’t want to start a fight or come across as unsupportive. I even purposely left all the products she gave me out in plain view on my bedside table at home just so she would see them when she came over.
But I guess I don’t have her fooled. She’s staring at me, unblinking, in the mirror, clearly waiting for a more emphatic agreement that Dana & Leslie products are, in fact, “the best.”
Silvie and I mastered the art of the face-off long ago, and I have no choice but to allow myself to stare back. I know what she’s thinking, she knows what I’m thinking, and we both know we’re on a moving bus, just a stop or two away from The Argument of the Day.
But we’re only four minutes out from one p.m., so Silvie returns the Dana & Leslie lotion to its home on the vanity and wordlessly finishes her hair.
“Looks nice,” I say gently, an attempt at keeping the atmosphere light.
Silvie and I have always bickered. It used to be a point of pride for me. It proved, I thought, that you can be in a committed, long-term relationship with another person but still have your own thoughts and opinions, likes and dislikes. Like this painting I saw once at a museum of two people forehead to forehead, balancing on a board placed on top of a ball. I remember thinking that, apart from it being a man and a woman in the painting, the depiction could have been me and Silvie. Two individuals, each unique and strong-willed, yet when they’re together, perfectly balanced. Not halves of a whole, but two wholes who do better together than apart.
Lately, though, the board has tipped, and our balance is off. It seems every little thing I’ve said or done these last few days has annoyed Silvie. She hasn’t been smiling as much, hasn’t been finding excuses to touch or hug or kiss me all the time like she used to. The bickering has turned into arguing, and the arguments are taking longer and longer to rebound from.
I know she’s stressed about the prom planning. It’s part of her responsibilities as president of our school’s Gender and Sexuality Alliance (I’m vice president—our dynamic is nothing if not consistent). Silvie and I had planned to spend this afternoon brainstorming not-cheesy prom theme ideas to bring to our next GSA meeting. We also wanted to put out feelers to @DJRio, a Chicago-based DJ who follows us both on the app, to see if he’d consider DJing our prom. But I can’t help but feel like there’s something else going on with her.
“Just don’t post about it,” she says finally, her tone clipped.
“Post about what?”
“That you don’t like the Dana & Leslie products. It was really nice of them to send extra freebies for you.”
In one second flat, the air in the room goes stale.
“Are you kidding me?” I splutter.
“Since when do I post about stuff like that?”
This makes no sense. I don’t post anything without double- and triple-checking it. I would never do anything to jeopardize Silvie’s career, or the work we both do, or our freaking relationship.
She knows that. But all she says is “Just saying.”
“Right, okay.” I mimic the action of typing on my phone and pretend to read aloud. “Hey, just thought you’d all like to know that Dana & Leslie, the company my girlfriend, Silvia Castillo Ramírez, is an ambassador for, is overpriced garbage and I don’t know why anyone would ever want to use the stuff. ’K’ byeeee!”
I wait for her to apologize. Laugh at the ridiculousness of it. She doesn’t. She simply picks up her phone again and asks, her voice flat, “Ready to go live?”
NO, I’m not ready to go live, I want to retort. You’re being a brat and really unfair and we need to talk about this.
But it’s one o’clock. We have work to do.
I check my teeth in the reflective, silvery material of my phone case, and nod. Without further discussion, we sit on Silvie’s bed. Our bodies inch closer together and our smiles appear. Silvie hits the go live button.
“Hey, everyone!” I say, giving a little wave as the screen projects our images back to us.
“Happy Saturday!” Silvie says.
“And happy spring!” I add. Today is March 20, the official first day of spring. I love spring. The hours of sunlight stretch longer, you can wear dresses without tights underneath, and avocados are in season again.
“Oh yeah! Spring break is only three weeks away!” Silvie says. “I’m going to Mexico to visit my grandparents, and we have plans to spend a few days at the beach. I cannot wait.”
“Bring me back a seashell?” I squeeze her hand, and she laughs.
“I’ll bring you a hundred seashells, babe.” She looks at me with hearts in her eyes, and I take my first real breath since the lotion debacle. We’re back at equilibrium, I think with no small measure of relief. It was just bickering, not fighting. She’s not mad at me. Everything’s fine.
“We have lots to share today, so let’s get to it, shall we?” Silvie says.
“Yes, let’s!” I slide a sealed brown box across the bed into the camera frame and grab scissors from Silvie’s nightstand. “This package just arrived this morning from an awesome new company called Benevolence.” Silvie holds the camera steady as I slice the packing tape open. Our followers love a good #unboxing vid, and I have to admit, I do too. There’s something inherently relatable about the feeling you get when a new package arrives on your doorstep, the little thrill that zips through you as you open it up, eager for its secrets to be revealed. Will the item inside match your expectations? Will it fit? Will it be the right color? Or maybe it’s a gift from someone, and you have no idea what you’ll find beneath the cardboard box flaps.
Silvie and I don’t have an official commission-based or pay-for-posts arrangement with Benevolence, but companies often send us free stuff in the hopes that we’ll share the products on our app accounts. We almost always do. Once or twice we decided not to because the company that sent the stuff was well-known for supporting politicians whose values didn’t align with our own, but that doesn’t happen often.
I remove the packing materials and extract the pieces of clothing one by one, holding them up for the camera. Scrunchy blue socks. A soft tank top in a red-and-white geometric pattern. A forest-green cropped-length hoodie. A pair of mustard-yellow short-shorts with white polka dots.
“Oooh, give me those!” Silvie says, propping the phone up on her nightstand so she’s free to duck out of frame and try the shorts on.
I keep talking, keep describing the clothes to our over 70,000 real-time viewers. “This stuff is super cute,” I say honestly. “And the best part is it’s all eco-friendly.” I take the little information card out of the box and read aloud. “Benevolence clothing is made from one hundred percent hemp, which requires fewer chemicals and much less water than cotton to produce.”
I have a captive audience—I could totally take this opportunity to talk more about the importance of choosing carbon-neutral and sustainable products when buying new, but I don’t. Environmental efforts are considered political, and I make sure to keep politics far away from my content. “Everything is so soft!” I say instead, sliding the fabric of the tank top between my thumb and pointer finger. “I bet this would look great under a pair of overalls.”
Silvie pops back into the shot, doing a spin and showing off the shorts, which fit her perfectly, surprising literally no one. Her legs are so long that shorts always look good on her. The girl is like a freaking mannequin.
“These shorts are mine now, thank youuu,” she says with an adorable gleam in her eye.
“You look amazing, babe,” I tell her, and she grins.
She picks up the phone again and leaps onto the bed beside me, bouncing us both. “Okay! Ready for the other big news?”
“Yes!” I say eagerly, though of course I already know what she’s about to say.
“June is a little over two months away, and you know what June is?” She grins at me.
“June is Pride month!” I reply.
“Yup! Each year, throughout the month of June, Pride parades and celebrations are held in cities across the world.” Silvie’s facing the camera again. “And . . .”
She pauses for dramatic effect, and I do a little drumroll sound. “CeCe and I have been asked to lead this year’s march on Cincinnati! We’re going to be the grand marshals at our hometown Pride parade on June fifth!” She sends up a confetti filter over our faces.
“Not only that,” I add, “but we’ve been asked to give a speech at the pre-march rally!”
Talk about #goals. By its nature, this event will be slightly more political than our usual thing, which is a little scary. But I’ve worked so hard to get people to like me, and this invite is proof that I’ve made it. People want to hear me and Silvie speak. They care what we have to say. Even just the idea of that is a dream for me. How could I say no? And besides, Silvie and I will be doing it together, standing side by side, addressing a crowd full of allies with a speech we both wrote.
Silvie gives our now 78,000 real-time viewers a few more details and sets a countdown clock on her app profile. “We still have some time before the event, obviously,” she says, “but mark your calendars if you live in the Cincinnati area! We want to meet as many of you as we can!”
We end the live session the same way we always do: I throw an arm around her and kiss her on the cheek. Sometimes Silvie kisses me in these moments, and sometimes I kiss her. But it’s always on the cheek, and always right before we sign off.
The feed stops.
“Hey, I’m sorry about earlier . . .” I begin lightly, riding the high from our announcement, but Silvie pulls away.
And just like that, the energy bleeds from the room, seeping under the door and through the air conditioner vents.
She’d only been pretending everything was normal during the live feed; I see that now. I should have seen it earlier, but I wanted everything to be fine so badly that I chose to pretend her way-too-fast mood shift was real.
Silently, Silvie adds the video to her stories stream and tags me, then starts scrolling mindlessly, her eyes affixed to the screen.
“What’s wrong?” I ask after a moment. It comes out whinier than I’d planned. I want to add, Don’t make me guess. Just talk to me—we’ll figure it out. I love you. But I don’t say anything more.
She shakes her head. “Forget it.”
“Forget what?” I honestly don’t even know what we’re talking about anymore.
“Nothing. I don’t want to talk about it.”
“But I do want to talk about it.” I need answers. Clarity.
Silvie doesn’t say anything. She’s still looking down at her phone, scrolling so quickly I know she’s not actually absorbing the posts.
“I’m sorry I don’t like the Dana & Leslie stuff, okay?” I continue. “But is that a requirement? That we have to like all the same things?”
“Of course not.”
“So what, then?”
“I don’t know,” she mumbles after a beat. Still not looking at me. Still avoiding me.
“You do know,” I press, starting to feel like I’m asking for her to yell at me. “Something is on your mind, Silvie. Just tell me.”
“I don’t want to!” she finally blurts, clicking her phone off and dropping it onto her bedspread. “Stop pushing me!”
I gape at her. “Pushing you? I’m not pushing you! I’m trying to catch up to wherever it is you are. You keep snapping at me. I just want to know what I did to make you so mad at me.”
“I’m not mad at you,” she says. “I already said I wasn’t mad at you. Jeez, CeCe.”
“Well, you didn’t say that, actually,” I half shout. “But how about I’m mad at you now?”
She has the audacity to look shocked at that. “For what?”
“Silvie, you just accused me of planning to trash-talk both you and an entire company online. For literally zero reason. Don’t you know me at all?”
“I didn’t mean that, all right?” Her chest rises and falls with a shuddering breath. “Can you just let it go? Please?”
Let it go. I’ve gotten really good at letting things go over the years. I know how to put my feelings aside for the sake of keeping the peace. I know how to shut up and smile when all I want to do is scream. I just didn’t think Silvie would ever request that of me. “No.” My voice comes out on a strange waver, as if I’m battling to stay upright on a tightrope. “I think I deserve an explanation.”
The seconds pass.
Eventually she nods, like she’s decided to give in.
I wait, anticipating some semblance of an explanation.
But that’s not what I get. Out of nowhere, Silvie pitches forward and kisses me. It’s not what I was expecting, but, hey, I can roll with this. I immediately slide closer, kissing her back. We’ve done this countless times; I know the give of her lips, the curves of her face, the taste of her lavender tea obsession so well they’ve become a part of me.
But this kiss . . . It’s different.
Oddly, it reminds me of our very first one, when we were younger and pent up with not only those unbearable, impossible-to-articulate feelings of unexplored need, but also that added layer that all queer kids have to deal with. That feeling of something akin to delicious danger. Of everything feeling so freaking right for once, even with all the people telling you it’s wrong.
This kiss isn’t that, exactly. But it is just as loaded. And it stops as suddenly as it began.
Silvie pulls back, putting her palms out to carve some distance between us.
“We need to talk, Ceece,” she whispers, picking at the stitching of the bedspread. Her lips are still pink and the tiniest bit swollen from our kiss.
“That’s what I’ve been trying to do,” I insist.
“I really wasn’t planning on doing this today,” she continues, almost to herself.
My stomach grows cold. “Doing what?”
She turns her phone over, so the screen is facedown, and she finally, finally looks at me fully. Her meaning is crystal clear in her eyes.
Need to talk. Wasn’t planning on doing this.
I suddenly feel woozy, like I’ve been pitched headfirst over a precipice. I leap off the bed just to feel the sturdy floor beneath my feet.
“No.” Only after the word is out there in the room do I realize I’m the one who whispered it.
JESSICA VERDI is the author of And She Was, My Life After Now, The Summer I Wasn’t Me, and What You Left Behind. She is a graduate of The New School’s MFA in Writing for Children program and lives in New York. You can find her online at jessicaverdi.com.
I’m so, so excited to have Malulani Moreno on the site today to reveal the cover of his debut, Hawai‘i-set contemporary YA An Island Without You, which releases from Abrams Books on January 4, 2022! Here’s the story:
When Keoni’s longtime bully Spencer disappears, he’s ecstatic: Life as a sixteen-year-old gay outcast in Wahiawā, Hawai‘i just got a lot easier. But Keoni can’t seem to escape Spencer’s memory—there are missing posters everywhere, his best friend is spearheading a fundraiser, and some people think that Spencer didn’t actually run away.
Aaron didn’t know what to expect when his dad uprooted them after his mom’s death, but it wasn’t that the first person he’d connect with in their new town would go missing. Still reeling from the loss, Aaron tries to make friends, but that’s hard with his selective mutism and the visions he’s having about Spencer.
When their lives collide, Keoni and Aaron try to find the truth of what happened to Spencer. And as they draw closer to the truth, they also grow closer to each other.
And here’s the lovely, tranquil cover of An Island Without You, illustrated by Andi Porretta and designed by Hana Anouk Nakamura!
And here’s a message from the author himself!
Hawaiʻi is my home. Or as we say in ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi, our native tongue, it is my kulāiwi, the place of my ancestors’ bones. I am so excited to present to you the cover for my novel, An Island Without You, which is as much about my main characters, Keoni and Aaron, as it is about my native homeland.
Keoni is a lot like teenage me. A Native Hawaiian, or Kanaka Maoli, growing up in a place colonized by Americans, feeling more of a connection with the Western world than with his own culture. He struggles at school because of the taunts and bullying of his childhood tormentor, Spencer. And all he really wants is deep connection and friendship. Keoni is a character I needed growing up, and I’m elated that Native Hawaiian keiki and LGBTQ+ teens will get to see themselves in the pages of a book.
Aaron, too, carries similarities to my younger self. He recently moved to a new town on the island of Oʻahu. All he wants is to meet a friend, but that’s difficult for him since he’s a little socially awkward, struggling with a condition called Selective Mutism. He meets someone, though, a closeted high school athlete by the name of Spencer, who he thinks could end up being more than a friend.
Keoni and Aaron’s lives collide when Spencer — the boy they have in common — turns up missing. I’ll leave the rest for you to discover on your own when the book launches in January 2022.
You can add An Island Without You on Goodreads. And pre-order from your favorite retailer or through Abrams Books.
For now, a hui hou. Until we meet again.
Malulani Moreno is a hapa writer of Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiian), Mexican, and Portuguese descent. Born in Honolulu, Hawai’i, he currently lives and works on Maui. He earned his MFA in creative writing at The New School. An Island Without You is his first novel.
Literally nobody on Earth needs me to extol the virtues of Akwaeke Emezi’s writing; pretty sure all their awards and accolades do a fine job at that on their own. But if you somehow haven’t read Pet, their speculative 2019 YA debut starring a Black trans girl who goes hunting for the most insidious kind of monster in a world that’s supposed to be safe from them, I am legally* obligated to make sure you do that, and to remind you that no matter how much increased rep we see in other areas, we’re still not seeing a real increase in transfeminine YA heroines in traditionally published YA novels, and certainly not trans girls of color.
But this isn’t a “read it because the rep is so special” call, even though the rep is so special, and nothing brings on more like increasing the success of what exists; it’s a “read it because it’s one of the only times in my life I’ve ever been completely hooked by a novel on page 1.” Read it because it does something brilliant and special with the gentle way it handles CSA and both sides of the fear and bravery coin. Read it because it’s so damn smart in such a slim profile. Read it because I said so.
Pet is here to hunt a monster. Are you brave enough to look?
There are no monsters anymore, or so the children in Lucille are taught. Jam and her best friend, Redemption, have grown up with the lesson that the city is safe for everyone. But when Jam meets Pet, a creature who some might call monstrous but, in reality, is anything but, she must reconsider what she’s been told. Pet has emerged from one of her mother’s paintings to hunt a true monster–and the shadow of something grim lurks in Redemption’s house. No one has encountered monsters in years, though, and Jam’s quest to protect her best friend and uncover the truth is met with doubt and disbelief.
This award-winning novel from a rising-star author asks: What really makes a monster, and how do you save the world from something if no one will admit it exists?
Fun fact: one of the last things I did before the pandemic hit was have lunch with this author, so you can say I’ve been looking forward to this book for a loooong time. Maxine Kaplan’s Wench releases today from Amulet/Abrams, and here’s the story:
Tanya has worked at her tavern since she was able to see over the bar. She broke up her first fight at 11. By the time she was a teenager she knew everything about the place, and she could run it with her eyes closed. She’d never let anyone—whether it be a drunkard or a captain of the queen’s guard—take advantage of her. But when her guardian dies, she might lose it all: the bar, her home, her purpose in life. So she heads out on a quest to petition the queen to keep the tavern in her name—dodging unscrupulous guards, a band of thieves, and a powerful, enchanted feather that seems drawn to her. Fast-paced, magical, and unapologetically feminist, Wench is epic fantasy like you’ve never seen it before.
And here’s Maxine, with a guest post that’s very close to my heart about finding herself through writing Wench and its bi main character!
I started writing Wench with a clear and deeply-held agenda: There would be no romance.
It’s not something I talked about a lot. When I talked about the book, I talked about my simultaneous love for and frustration with classic sword-and-sorcery fantasy; I talked about how I wanted to flesh out fantasy archetypes with humor and humanity; and I mostly talked about my titular tavern wench, Tanya, and how I’d never seen that ubiquitous non-playable background character get to have her own adventure, or even a name most of the time. What I didn’t say was that I was determined to get Tanya through one (1) whole entire epic quest without the interference or influence of a love interest.
I thought of it as a secret mission. I knew how much readers, and especially readers of YA fantasy, expected at least a glimmer of romantic or sexual tension, and I didn’t want to turn them off before they even cracked the spine. But it was that very expectation of romance that bothered me. I hated the expectation that a girl couldn’t have an epic adventure without falling in love along the way. I cringed at the idea of Tanya achieving self-discovery and actualization through the medium of who she wanted to kiss. It felt wrong to me—even anti-feminist. I loathed the idea that something I wrote could reinforce the message that young people receive every day that says: You are nothing and no one until somebody wants to make out with you.
Tanya was going on a quest to win back her tavern. The world I had devised and the story engine I had built didn’t need any romance to make it go. And I was determined that I wouldn’t shoe-horn in a romance (and especially not a love triangle) just to fit the market—because Tanya deserved better, damn it!
And then Tanya taught me that I was wrong. Because, despite my clear intentions to the contrary, two characters showed up who would just not stop having chemistry with Tanya. One was a boy and he was very much within my own crush wheelhouse historically speaking: smart, funny, and angry. I think I just liked writing him and, slowly, he and Tanya fell into chemistry, like real people do. It was quiet, but it was on the page. I couldn’t deny it.
The other was a girl and nothing in my own writing has ever surprised me more.
This girl was always part of the story, for sure. She had been in my outline from go. I knew she was a happy-go-lucky rogue; a thief who loved violence and smiled a lot. So that’s how I wrote her and, without my even having to try, she and hyper-competent, independent, snarky Tanya smacked into each other with the electricity of a lightning storm. Writing good sexual tension—satisfying, believable tension–is hard to do. I know it is, because I’ve tried to do it. But with these two, I didn’t have to try. I didn’t even think about it, not once. It just was.
It got to the point that my strict avoidance of any mention of romance was rendering the story legitimately confusing for any reader. That’s how clear the chemistry between these two was—the completely unplanned, unlooked for, and even unwanted chemistry. But however inadvertent the romance between the two girls was, I eventually had to own up to a simple fact: I wrote it, so I was invested in it.
I grew up in the late 90s and early 2000s as a cis female. It was a time when calling oneself bisexual had a lot of cultural connotations that I was frankly uncomfortable with. It’s not something I’m proud of, but I had a lot of internalized biphobia. I remember being “scared” that I might be attracted to girls—because, sometimes, I was. But I was also attracted to guys. I had no confusion on that score, so I quietly filed all the moments of attraction to girls away in a mental folder labeled “anomalies” and got on with my life as a straight woman.
That was a mistake. That was short-sighted. I wish that, when I was Tanya’s age, I had paid better attention to who and what I actually was: queer. And the thing is? I think that if I had been Tanya’s age today, in 2021, I wouldn’t have had that problem. Because I would have had books like the ones LGBTQReads writes about every day.
And that’s how I came around on romance in my YA. Wench is a book, at its heart, about found families and finding community, which in and of itself, is a process hardwired to identity. You can’t find where you belong without knowing who you are. And you can’t find out who you are by shutting down, or shutting out, the voices in your head telling you who you want. A good book romance isn’t about finding a partner; it’s about a character learning more about themselves, and, sometimes, a romance—whether it’s successful, disastrous, or unrequited— can help with that process. It can be a means to an end as much as it can be its own happily ever after.
The romance I found in Wench helped me remember who I was. It reminded me to honor what has always been true about me. And there’s nothing anti-feminist about that.
Maxine Kaplan is a private investigator and writer. Her books are The Accidental Bad Girl and Wench. She lives and writes in Brooklyn, NY, where she caters to the whims of her dim, but soulful cat. Follow her on Twitter @maxinegkaplan.
We’re honored to have Jay Coles on the site today, revealing the cover of his sophomore novel, Things We Couldn’t Say, which releases from Scholastic on September 21st, 2021! (Preorder links down below!) Here’s the story:
There’s always been a hole in Gio’s life. Not because he’s into both guys and girls. Not because his father has some drinking issues. Not because his friends are always bringing him their drama. No, the hole in Gio’s life takes the shape of his birth mom, who left Gio, his brother, and his father when Gio was nine years old. For eight years, he never heard a word from her … and now, just as he’s started to get his life together, she’s back.
It’s hard for Gio to know what to do. Can he forgive her like she wants to be forgiven? Or should he tell her she lost her chance to be in his life? Complicating things further, Gio’s started to hang out with David, a new guy on the basketball team. Are they friends? More than friends? At first, Gio’s not sure … especially because he’s not sure what he wants from anyone right now.
There are no easy answers to love – whether it’s family love or friend love or romantic love. In Things We Couldn’t Say, Jay Coles shows us a guy trying to navigate love in all its ambiguity — hoping at the other end he’ll be able to figure out who is and who he should be.
And here’s the beautiful cover, designed by Baily Crawford and accompanied by a few words from the author!
I’m so very, very excited for the world to see the cover for Things We Couldn’t Say and for the world to eventually read what’s inside it! I’m a huge fan of James Baldwin and how he writes about the unique intersections and complexities of Blackness and queerness, racism and homophobia. I’ve always wanted to write a book attempting to explore that, too. I was and (continue to be) inspired by Mr. Baldwin. In fact, two of the main characters in Things We Couldn’t Say are named after the two main characters in Mr. Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room.
During the process of writing this book, I faced trials of many kinds: crippling anxiety, depression, family conflicts. Together, we faced horrific racial injustices and a global pandemic, among other things. Throughout all of this, I felt burnt out, broken, beaten down, defeated, and thought I’d lost my way, my voice. I thought I couldn’t write anymore. But I kept thinking about what this book might mean to a Black kid and QPOC all over the world. This story sort of demanded that I write it. And I’m so, so thrilled that I did. This book saved me in so many ways. It helped me fight. It helped me process the things I couldn’t say. It made me brave. At the very least, I hope this book inspires you to be brave to talk about all the things you couldn’t say before!
24-year-old Jay Coles is a graduate of Vincennes University and Ball State University. When he’s not writing diverse books, he’s advocating for them, teaching middle school students, and composing for various music publishers. His acclaimed debut novel Tyler Johnson Was Here is based on true events in his life and inspired by police brutality in America. He resides in Indianapolis, Indiana.
I am delighted to welcome Reverie author Ryan La Sala to the site today to celebrate the publication of his dazzling new contemporary YA romance, Be Dazzled, which just released from Sourcebooks Fire yesterday! Before we get to Ryan’s absolutely hilarious and marvelously on-point post, here’s a little more about the book:
Raffy has a passion for bedazzling. Not just bedazzling, but sewing, stitching, draping, pattern making–for creation. He’s always chosen his art over everything–and everyone–else and is determined to make his mark at this year’s biggest cosplay competition. If he can wow there, it could lead to sponsorship, then art school, and finally earning real respect for his work. There’s only one small problem… Raffy’s ex-boyfriend, Luca, is his main competition.
Raffy tried to make it work with Luca. They almost made the perfect team last year after serendipitously meeting in the rhinestone aisle at the local craft store–or at least Raffy thought they did. But Luca’s insecurities and Raffy’s insistence on crafting perfection caused their relationship to crash and burn. Now, Raffy is after the perfect comeback, one that Luca can’t ruin.
But when Raffy is forced to partner with Luca on his most ambitious build yet, he’ll have to juggle unresolved feelings for the boy who broke his heart, and his own intense self-doubt, to get everything he’s ever wanted: choosing his art, his way.
And here’s Ryan’s post, an unofficial ranking of queer villains! Take it away, Ryan!
As persistent as the fatiguingly masculine stalwart hero is the trope of their devious counterbalance—the bad guy who is effeminate, dramatic, and sassy. Wickedly fashionable. Prone to monologues. And, of course, queer-coded to hell. That’s right! Today, we’re talking about the Queer Villain.
A lot, and I mean a LOT, has been written about queer villainy. Its toxic recurrence as lazy storytelling shorthand in narrative arts, its destructive repercussions on the psyche of queer youth, and so on. That’s all good and well and important, but I’d like to take a brief break from the discourse to approach the subject from a different point of view—one of glorious appreciation.
You see, I love queer villains. I practically am one myself, what with all the velvet capes and cackling behind large paper fans. Growing up, I saw these characters not as destructive stereotypes but as answers to the question society kept asking little gay me: How will you survive a society that won’t accept you? What does an intolerant world deserve?
Queer villains answer this in their every action and inevitable yet fabulous failure, and I often root for them. When you understand a villain as queer, a lot of what they do to undermine the status quo starts to make a lot more sense. And so here I go with my unofficial ranking of my top queer villains.
1. HIM (The Powerpuff Girls) — The undeniably BEST queer villain is, of course, HIM. Flamboyant, powerful, and constantly high-kicking in thigh-high spiked heels, HIM is an aspiration in red, a demonic Santa Claus in satanic satin. My personal hero, and the tippity top of my queer, villainous Christmas tree.
2. Ursula (The Little Mermaid) — This is a no-brainer. Ursula is quite literally based on Divine the drag queen. Because of her, for years, I begged my dad to buy me a birdbath (which is what I thought Ursula’s cauldron looked like) so I, too, could trick pretty girls into depending on me for bad boy advice and potions. And never have I forgotten the importance of body language, ha!
3. The Grinch (The Grinch Who Stole Christmas) — I think the Grinch is queer. I really do. Disagree? Well then, riddle me this: Have you ever seen a straight person stitch together an entire costume just to center themselves at a holiday party? That’s what I thought. Oh, and let’s not forget the emblematic image of the Grinch plucking bobbles from a Christmas tree using those long, furry fingers. That wrist looks preeetty limp to my little gay eye.
4. Mystique (X-Men) — Mystique is canonically queer, but who needs the canon when you are quite literally the icon of shapeshifting disguises, gender fluidity, and a swept-back hairdo dyed lesbian crisis red? Plus, she has the one power every little gay boy is drawn to: absurd flexibility and a fighting style that incorporates senseless gymnastics.
5. Azula (Avatar: The Last Airbender) — Reading Azula as queer was a personal choice right up until she decided to give herself asymmetrical bangs. Then it was canon.
6. Bugs Bunny — Stylish, annoying, and cross-dressing for theatrical antics, Bugs was an early model for the infinite ways we, as queer people, may outsmart and belittle those who invade our spaces in the name of the hunt. Was Bugs petty? Yes. Iconically so. And that’s why they’re on this list.
7. Team Rocket — Messy, dramatic, and constantly in costume, Team Rocket is the queer found family we all make fun of but are actually a part of. I mean, Jessie’s mullet defies gravity, and James never misses a chance to get into drag. And the gayest thing of all? They take orders from their cat.
8. Rita Repulsa — Is Rita queer? I have no idea. Do I unflinchingly embrace the daydream in which she’s my lesbian aunt who brings her roommate over for holiday meals and buys me Sailor Moon action figures even though my parents insist I’ll grow out of my “doll phase” soon? Absolutely.
9. Jafar (Aladdin) — Jafar is adored, yet I still believe he’s deserving of more credit for all he’s done for queer villainy. We need to talk about the wingtip eyeliner. And the perplexingly eccentric choice to imprison Jasmine in a kitschy hourglass. And the fact that the moment he got ultimate power, he gave himself a beefy chest and black acrylic nails. I would make all those choices too.
10. The Trunchbull (Matilda) — Olympian, educator, chocolate lover. The range of this butch icon goes on and on, much like the children she catapults into the sky. Somehow, that feels a little gay too. I’m still not sure why.
11. Yzma & Kronk (The Emperor’s New Groove) — This duo is everything a queer duo should be. Fashionably costumed, theatrically incompetent, and rife with miscommunications that get people turned into llamas.
12. Lady Deathstrike (X-Men) — If you were in the theater with me when I saw Lady Deathstrike bare her indestructible nails, you watched my life change. Sure, she probably is not queer herself, but there is nothing gayer than using your adamantium manicure to skewer Hugh Jackman. Quote me on that.
13. Cheryl Blossom (Riverdale) — I knew Cheryl was queer from episode one. I’ve never known a straight person to combine ambition, charisma, and tartan skirts so well. And, spoiler alert: Cheryl has since been treated to a lesbian love story on Riverdale, and I’m happy for her.
14. Gaston — Bi. Bi as hell. If Gaston isn’t bisexual, explain the brandishing pectorals furred in hair. Explain the flourish of pride when he sings “I use antlers in all of my decorating.” Explain how he instantly knew how to use that gay little hand mirror to telephone our hound-face hottie, the Beast? I have talked to Gaston on Grindr, and he is not nice. But he is queer.
15. Shego (Kim Possible) — I don’t know if you know this, but Shego, the very cool and very bored nemesis of Kim Possible, received her powers when she was exposed to…a rainbow-hued comet. So. There you have it.
16. Barbara Covett (Notes on a Scandal) — Okay, here we have a literal queer villain. I won’t say much because you need to hear it all from Barbara yourself. Her acidic wit, her shrewd fixation on Cate Blanchett, and the fact that she is unrelentingly writing to you through a diary should be all you need to know to seek out the movie Notes on a Scandal or the book it’s based on by Zoë Heller. I highly recommend both.
17. SpongeBob SquarePants (SpongeBob SquarePants) — Don’t laugh. Don’t you dare laugh. It is absolutely undeniable that SpongeBob is chaotic evil. He ruins everything, compulsively. And anyone who pretends their nose is a piccolo in their theme song? And lives in a pineapple? SpongeBob may just be the scariest person on this list.
18. Scar (The Lion King) — Big goth kitty with a smoky eye and a large following kept in line by witty retorts they have no hope of understanding? And the affected accent? We never see Scar with a love interest, but I have more than enough evidence to fortify my head canon in which Scar summers in Andalucía with another male lion named Marc.
19. Skeletor (Masters of the Universe) — Look no further than Skeletor’s fashion if you’re wondering why he’s on this list. A harness…with a hood? A loin cloth….over briefs? Knee-high boots…with a sensible heel? This sort of describes everyone in the Masters of the Universe universe, which is all the more reason for me to keep on believing Skeletor is my eventual final form.
20. Jareth (The Labyrinth) — What can be said about Jareth that hasn’t already been said by David Bowie’s prominent pelvis presented to a crowd of puppets? It’s offensive to even ask me to explain Jareth’s inclusion.
21. Dr. Frank-N-Furter (The Rocky Horror Picture Show) — I’m shivering with antici…patory fear that adding Dr. Frank-N-Furter to this list is going to get me in trouble. But I must! There’s a lot to overlook, yes, but if it means I get to appreciate a sissy in STEM who pulls off a lab coat and pearls, it will have all been worth it.
22. Maleficent (Sleeping Beauty) — There is a STRONG case for Maleficent’s queerness. Firstly, her best friend is a bird. Second, I’ve never seen a straight person successfully pull off purple and neon green. And lastly, I truly cannot think of anything gayer than showing up to a straight baby shower bearing the gift of curses and then the curse itself is along the lines of “I’m going to give your child a fascination with old-timey sewing machines.”
23. Every other Disney villain — I have a hard time thinking of a single Disney villain that isn’t, in my gay little head, super queer.
24. Every villain from Sailor Moon — That’s right. All of them. Even the weekly monsters. I can’t quite explain why, but there’s something SO self-explanatorily queer about a monstrous, sexy vacuum lady. And the sexy pegasus carousel man. And the fact that every person in Sailor Moon, except for the sailor scouts themselves, gets to use dark magic while wearing couture.
25. Sinister (X-Men) — Often overlooked but absolutely deserving of a spot on this list is Sinister, a baddie who wears a cape made out of ribbons and hasn’t quite found the right foundation to match their icy undertones. And if you want to know Sinister’s power, they themselves will tell you that it’s “overthrowing tyrants and being absolutely fabulous.”
26. Xerxes (300) – When I first saw Xerxes, I had no idea what to think other than “this movie is about the wrong person.” I like the whole hero journey, but if given the choice between a buff guy with airbrushed abs versus a person who shows up to war wearing every accessory they own? I’m going with the warlord who just pillaged Claire’s. Sorry.
27. Snow Miser (The Year Without Santa Claus) — Anyone who makes you watch a whole dance number before agreeing to help you is, by definition, a queer hero, but technically, Snow Miser is kinda bad. I guess. But the little hat! The gleeful pride in being “too much!” We should be encouraging this.
Ryan La Sala writes about surreal things happening to queer people. He is the author behind the riotously imaginative Reverie, and the brilliantly constructed Be Dazzled, both of which made the Kids’ Indie Next List. He has been featured in Entertainment Weekly, NPR, Tor.com, and one time Shangela from RuPaul’s Drag Race called him cute! Ryan is also the co-host the Celebrity Book Club Podcast, and a frequent speaker at events/conferences. When not writing, Ryan does arts and crafts and, if he’s lucky, he sometimes remembers to film his escapades for his long-suffering YouTube channel subscribers.
Today on the site I’m excited to be revealing the newest of longtime queer YA author Hannah Moskowitz! The Love Song of Ivy K. Harlowe is a contemporary f/f YA romance releasing from Entangled Teen on June 1, 2021, and you can learn more about it here:
Ivy K. Harlowe is a lot of things.
She’s my best friend.
She’s the center of attention.
She is, without fail, the hottest girl in the room. Anytime. Anyplace.
She has freckles and dimples and bright green eyes, and with someone else’s energy she’d be adorable. But there is nothing cute about Ivy. She is ice and hot metal and electricity.
She is the girl who every lesbian wants, but she has never been with the same person twice. She’s one-of-a-kind but also predictable, so I will always be Andie, her best friend, never Andie, her girlfriend.
Then she meets Dot, and Ivy does something even I would have never guessed—she sees Dot another day. And another. And another.
Now my world is slowly going up in smoke, and no matter what I do, the flames grow higher. She lit that match without knowing who or what it would burn.
Ivy K. Harlowe is a lot of things.
But falling in love wasn’t supposed to be one of them…unless it was with me.
But wait, there’s more! We’ve got an excerpt, so you can get your first glimpse of the girls!
I leave with Ivy and Dot, spilling out of the club and toward the lot two blocks away where I left my car. We’re up on College Hill, and the street’s covered with Brown and RISD kids standing in line for cheap pizza or stumbling back to their dorms. Dot’s a little slow in her high heels, and she lags behind Ivy, who snarks to me, “Do you really think I didn’t make sure she wanted to come?”
“Can’t be too careful.”
“I can rescue my own damsels, thanks. Or is this interrogation thing a new role you provide?”
“What, you mean along with my taxi service? And only if they look like they were born during the Obama administration.”
Ivy glares at me and slows down to take Dot’s hand.
They get in the backseat together and are all over each other before I’ve even started the car. Christ. I roll my eyes and adjust the rearview mirror so I don’t have to look at them. “Yeah, you’re welcome for the ride,” I mumble to myself, wondering, like I always do, why the hell I always agree to do this shit. God, I don’t even agree. I volunteer.
I weave us around the college kids, down the hill into the lights of the city, and south to good old Elmwood, the neighborhood where Ivy and I have lived since we were little kids, making pillow forts and mixing nail polish colors and teaching each other how to kiss. Or I guess she taught me.
I don’t really wonder why I volunteer for this shit. I just wish I did.
Elmwood’s one of the shittier parts of the city, and part of me expects Dot to try to back out when she sees where we’re headed; she wouldn’t be the first prospective girl of Ivy’s to do it, and she doesn’t exactly look streetwise. But she doesn’t care, or maybe just doesn’t notice, with her face and hands otherwise occupied, feeling up my best friend in my backseat, and there’s no protest as I turn onto Ivy’s block. And then immediately stop, because her street is crowded with police cars, firefighters, and a bunch of people gathered on the sidewalk.
“Ivy,” I say.
“Mmm,” she says, her hands on Dot’s waist, their lips together.
She pulls away and shoots daggers at me in the rearview mirror. “What?”
“Your house is on fire.”
There’s a second where none of us move, and then all three of us scramble out, leaving the cars open and beeping in protest as we run down the rest of the block, weaving through the crowd until we’re on the sidewalk. The shit hole formerly known as Ivy’s house is smoking pathetically, one wall completely gone and the others not much better, bits of charred roof and furniture strewn into the front lawn. The firefighters are packing up their equipment, ready to go.
Oh my God. Holy shit.
Somehow what comes out of my mouth is, “How many fucking times did your landlord say he was going to fix the wiring.”
“Oh my God,” Dot says. “Was anyone in there?”
I shake my head. “Her mom’s in Costa Rica. Fuck, Ives. You could have been in there.”
Ivy’s staring at the house, her eyes slightly narrowed like she’s trying to figure it out.
“Holy shit,” Dot says. She puts her hand on Ivy’s arm. “I’m glad you’re okay.”
“She’s not okay,” I snap, because who the fuck is Dot to be here, to be part of this, to act like it really matters to her world whether this person she’s known for half an hour burned alive or not? “She could have died. If this had happened last night she would have been in there.”
“But I wasn’t,” Ivy says flatly.
“Still… God, all your shit. All your school stuff. Your clothes.” All the crafts we made when we were little, her half of the construction paper heart that says BEST FRIENDS FOREVER, though fuck if I’m about to say that in front of Dot. I take her hand. “Ivy…”
Ivy is still looking at her house like she’s making a decision, and I think about Dot’s face at the club when she was looking up at her. Two natural disasters in one night.
Ivy’s so fucking beautiful, in the streetlight and the smoke.
Her mouth quirks up into a smile. “Good,” she says quietly. “Good. Burn it all down.”
Hannah Moskowitz is the author of more than a dozen works for children and young adults, including Break, A History of Glitter and Blood, the 2013 Stonewall Honor Book Gone, Gone, Gone, and Sick Kids in Love. After a stint in New York, she’s happily back in Maryland.
December 1st was World AIDS Day, and there’s a lot familiar in the horrible handling and terrible ignorance of it for anyone who was around during the AIDS crisis. Whether that’s a history that’s familiar to you or not, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a YA novel that handles it more poignantly than Abdi Nazemian’s Stonewall Honor sophomore YA, Like a Love Story, which follows three teens each experiencing the effects of the disease in different ways. Check it out:
It’s 1989 in New York City, and for three teens, the world is changing.
Reza is an Iranian boy who has just moved to the city with his mother to live with his stepfather and stepbrother. He’s terrified that someone will guess the truth he can barely acknowledge about himself. Reza knows he’s gay, but all he knows of gay life are the media’s images of men dying of AIDS.
Judy is an aspiring fashion designer who worships her uncle Stephen, a gay man with AIDS who devotes his time to activism as a member of ACT UP. Judy has never imagined finding romance…until she falls for Reza and they start dating.
Art is Judy’s best friend, their school’s only out and proud teen. He’ll never be who his conservative parents want him to be, so he rebels by documenting the AIDS crisis through his photographs.
As Reza and Art grow closer, Reza struggles to find a way out of his deception that won’t break Judy’s heart—and destroy the most meaningful friendship he’s ever known.
I’m so excited to welcome A Curse of Roses author Diana Pinguicha back to the site today to celebrate the release of her debut, and to discuss the delicious food in it! The f/f YA fantasy just released yesterday from Entangled Teen, and if you click on the title above, you can check out the first two chapters right here on LGBTQReads. Already read and loved them? Then read on to learn about its culinary delights!
Disclaimer: I love food. I’ve always loved cooking, and baking, and some of my best memories are with my grandma Nini, who was an out-of-this-world cook. I still think she had some sort of magic in her, because every dish she touched came out delicious. She was also notoriously bad about writing down her recipes, because, well… she didn’t follow any, not really. Portuguese people don’t do measuring cups, or instructions when cooking—we just throw stuff in with confidence and whatever happens, happens.
And, in true grandmother fashion, she’d feed me until I dropped. Much to my mom’s chagrin, since I was obese as a child, and whenever I went to my nana’s I’d come back much heavier than when she dropped me off. I believe Nana’s overfeeding came from the fact that she, much like the rest of my family, starved during the dictatorship, and once she had access to food, she saw no reason not to overindulge. There would be times when I’d cry because I wasn’t supposed to be eating so much. But my nana always made me feel at ease about my weight and appetite. She said, “Fat isn’t ugly, and you’re always so happy when you eat. So eat!”
That was another aspect of her that I thought was magical. She cared only for my happiness. She was the only one who never judged me for being “a difficult kid” and would always be kind to me, even when I wasn’t kind to myself. She was also the only person who would let me just be. If I wanted to be left alone in a corner to read, or play video games, she’d let me. If I wanted to hijack the kitchen to make desserts (which she did not like to make) she’d let me. Really, I don’t have enough words to express how much I love her and miss her, and how utterly good she was.
Now that my nana has passed, I’ve spent a great deal of time trying to replicate what she’d serve me. The taste is still vivid in my memories, and if I close my eyes, I can remember what her chickpea stew tasted like, her ensopado, her migas. More than anything, I wanted to honor the memories of the food she made me, and because A CURSE OF ROSES takes place in Alentejo, it was the perfect opportunity to highlight the gastronomy of my home region. I’ve mentioned above that people from my family largely starved during the dictatorship, and it’s true for a lot of Alentejo and other interior regions. The way Alentejanos had of making their food last was to add the stale bread they had lying around, and for that reason, a lot of our dishes include it. And since Isabel of Aragon’s miracle involved turning bread into roses—which was another great excuse to go all-in on Alentejo cuisine.
During my research, I also found that many Alentejo dishes have their origin with the Moors. The chickpea stew my nana made? A variation of what is now the Moroccan Harira. The broas? They’re a variation of the Arabic ghoribas. The Encharcada? It’s a variant of Qalb El Louz. The Almendrados? They’re remarkably like the Mlouwza. Which, at a time when people are trying to erase our Moor past, seemed very important for me to include.
So, the gastronomy in ACOR? It’s everything I grew up eating.
There’s açorda (which I stylized as assorda, since medieval serigraphy didn’t have the ç), which is an inexpensive dish that fed my family many a times, and that we make together every Christmas Eve at 3 am. All you need for it is garlic, cilantro, olive oil, stale bread, eggs, and boiling water. Eggs aren’t really mandatory, though. And, if you’re feeling fancy, you can add some fish such as cod.
The chickpea stew (Cozido de Grão), which is made with chickpeas, and a lot of other vegetables, such as kale, carrots, and so on. It’s also usually cooked with meat, and my grandma did it with pork. When I was younger and had textural issues with all the different veggies, she’d also pass it through an immersion blender so I could eat it, and whenever my parents told her not to, she’d just give them a smile and say, “It’s two minutes of my time, and if this helps her eat better, I’m doing it.”
Pork is another big player in Alentejo gastronomy. I mention the slaughter season in ACOR, and it’s another thing I’ve lived with. Every February, my grandparents would slaughter a pig, and the neighbors would help them with several cuts, sausages, and so on. No part of the pig went to waste—not even the blood, which is used in some dishes and sausages. The things we made with a single pork would last us almost an entire year, and in older times, the chouriço, and the toucinho, and all that, would be used as something to trade for. It was also not uncommon to have a pig the entire neighborhood took care of, and then divided come slaughter. I do not miss that part of the year, and I haven’t eaten pork in over a decade—but it plays a huge part in our gastronomy, and so, I included it.
Then there is Migas, which is literally bread you throw into a pan, and then water until it breaks up. Some people will also add the fat that’s leftover from cooking the pork—but again, I don’t eat pork, so I actually use regular water and fry it in a bit of olive oil and garlic.
Conventual sweets also make an appearance. There’s Rala Bread (Pão de Rala), which is essentially, flour, sugar, and eggs. There are also Gadanhas, native to my hometown of Estremoz, and they’re based on eggs and almonds.
There’s another aspect I had to consider, and that was what kind of food would be available to you depending on social class. Commoners would be mostly vegetarian, save for the aforementioned pork days and the occasional chicken, or some animal they hunted, as commoners were allowed to hunt in their Lords’ lands in times where food was scarce. Hunting was also another way my family had to feed themselves during the dictatorship (and they kept ferrets solely for the purpose of hunting rabbits!) Meanwhile, the nobility would be gorging on everything, from wine and meats. Sweetwater fish are also part of Alentejo gastronomy, like the boga and the bordalo—fish that are slowly disappearing because of the pollution in our rivers.
There were other dishes I wanted to include, but couldn’t due to the fact that the ingredients were not native to Europe, and could not be realistically delivered. The Tomato Soup (Sopas de Tomate) was one, as were the pumpkin Dreams (Sonhos), and the Ensopado (because it requires potatoes), and the tomatada (that’s when you cook in a delicious tomato sauce—my nana learned to make that especially for me). I also could not include cod-based dishes, which was a shame, but alas. Hopefully there will be other books set in more modern times, where I can highlight those as well.
And I hope this blog post has piqued your curiosity in our humble Alentejo food! I promise it’s as delicious as it sounds!
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Born in the sunny lands of Portugal, Diana grew up in Estremoz, and now lives in Lisbon with two extremely fluffy cats and one amazing bearded dragon. A Computer Engineer graduate from Instituto Superior Técnico, she has worked in award-winning educational video games, but writing is where her heart always belonged. When she’s not working on her books, she can be found painting, immersed in books or video games, or walking around with her dragon.