Beyond Magenta by Susan Kuklin

Kuklin_MagentaKuklin, Susan. Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out. New York: Candlewick, 2014. Print.

Genre: Nonfiction

Summary: Photographer Susan Kuklin compiles the stories of 6 transgender or gender-neutral teens as they transformed from male to female or female to male. Whichever way they go, these young souls discover that to be happy with who you are on the inside, you must also feel comfortable with what you are on the outside.

Critique: In honor of Caitlyn Jenner’s debut to the world, I just had to share this very excellent book! Whether the former Olympic gold medalist’s gender transformation had you clapping your hands or scratching your head, this book is worth your time and attention. Kuklin profiles six teens and pretty much transcribes their responses to her interview questions. The result is their voice, their take, their experience and profound insight. Photographs fill up other pages, tracking the metamorphic transformation. These photos are more than before-after snaps. They are a revelation of what it looks like when the soul does not harmonize with its shell–and how radiantly it glows when it does!

The stories all revolve around the central question of happiness. What would you be willing to do in order to be happy? It’s a fair question; one we all face.

This book as a lot to teach about the nuances that differentiate gender from sexuality, as well as queer from gay from trans from a million other potential identities. Perhaps the photo-essays from Cameron (who is also featured on the book cover) say it best, likening gender to a spectrum in which some people float while others swim. Unlike floaters, swimmers control where they are on the spectrum at any given time. Is someone in your life learning to swim that spectrum–a friend, a sibling, a partner, a child, a parent? Maybe just you.

Either way, when it comes to achieving happiness, don’t get stuck dog-paddling!

Also, because this is an annotation, it’s worth listing the “few” awards and honors heaped on this book’s shoulders…

A 2015 Stonewall Honor Book
Flora Stieglitz Straus Award for Nonfiction, 2014
Publishers Weekly’s list of Best YA Books of 2014
Kirkus, 10 Best YA Books, 2014
CCBC Choices, Best-of-the-year, 2014
Blue Ribbons, The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books, 2014
TAYSHAS 10 Best Books, Texas, 2014
The Advocate, 10 Best Books list for Transgender Non-Fiction,2014,
Books for a Better Life Awards, National Multiple Sclerosis Society [Finalist]
Shelf Awareness, Best Books of 2014
Booklist, Editors’ Choice for 2014
Finalist, Lambda Literary Award, a “Lammy”
Finalist, Cybil Awards 2014
Finalist, 2014 Foreword Reviews’ INDIEFAB Book of the Year Award for Young Adult Nonfiction
Notable book, National Council on Social Studies, 2015
ALA Rainbow List, 2015
Top 25 pick for IRA Notable Book for a Global Society

The Family Romanov by Candace Fleming

fleming-romanovFleming, Candace. The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion, and the Fall of Imperial Russia. Schwartz & Wade, 2014. Print.

Genre: YA nonfiction

Summary: When two young, royal people meet, fall in love, and marry, what else but a Happily Ever After could possibly await them? Well, in the case of Nikolai and Alexandra Romanov, its anything but. How about watching the country they rule slide into an agonizing civil war that eventually results in the brutal murder of their entire family?

Critique: There are many reasons why Flemin has received the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award and a Golden Kite Award for her nonfiction (with a Sibert honor and YALSA finalist recognition for this book to boot). But the best reason is that she writes ripping page turners, by which I mean you darn near rip the pages out of the book to see what happens next! In this example, Fleming establishes a teasing structure whereby she introduces the Romanovs at the height of their glory, wealth, and power, all while deftly hinting at debilitating secrets and an inevitable tragic demise. Sprinkled throughout the narrative are “peasant interludes” taken directly from diaries or newspaper accounts. Unlike commercial breaks interrupting your favorite crime drama, these passages contribute an outsider’s perspective, further illuminating what the rest of the world saw as the dark side of Romanov rule. Scope under the skin of her words and you’ll find a very standard syntactical anatomy. Where some writers give you pagefuls of damask, Fleming gives you denim: succinct, functional, with an as-a-matter-of-fact style. No, denim is not as fancy or flashy as damask, but it is durable. Good thing, considering all the burn marks your fingers will leave on the pages as you race along the downward spiraling vortex of tragedy marking the last third of this Happily Neverafter Tale.

Chrysalis and Entropy: A Celebration of Adolescence

(Migrated post. Content originally published 10/2013 on

I have a monthly Google calendar reminder to check on several interesting children’s/YA publishing industry related blogs. Actually, I have many calendar reminders set to pretty much boss me around day-to-day and month-to-month. Many of the tasks I set up on a revolving basis are treats. Like writing 2,000 words each day. I love that one and it pops up first thing every morning at 8 a.m.

Others pop up and I scoff and send my eyes in search of the top-most textures of my head. Checking those blogs, I admit, can sometimes be a scoff-task. But this time around, I came across the following video on the Carolrhoda Lab, and it made me clap and cheer!

The footage reveals a large group of very young musicians totally rocking out. And the short blog post accompanying the video on the Carolrhoda site praises young folks for doing intricate, complicated, and spectacular things!

And the post+video made me cheer out loud not only because it is true, but also because it encapsulated my philosophy and methodology in writing for adolescent audiences.

Manymanymany novels out on the retail shelves depict teens coping with, causing, and sometimes solving drastic, catastrophic, world-bending events. And in the midst of all that hubbub, they intermingle elements of the adolescent experience. Puberty. Relationships. Dermatological disasters. Family drama. Love.

Books that exhibit this approach include Those That Wake, The Hunger Games trilogy, or the Divergent trilogy. 

And on its own, that approach sounds perfectly respectable. It certainly hasn’t cost any of those authors any profits. There is, after all, a world with teenagers in it.

But the-world-with-teens paradigm does a disservice to the adolescent experience. From the vantage of a teen, there is, first, exhilarating chaos within the body, then exquisite madness beyond the body. It’s more like there are teens with a world around them. 

Sounds neurotic? Self-centered? Maybe even a little narcissistic? Well, that’s because it is…and what the hell’s wrong with that? The neurology of the adolescent brain resembles a rain forest feasting on Miracle-Gro. The heart is simultaneously shredded and nourished by hormones that swell and crash with more force than a thousand tsunamis.

The lyrics of Tool’s song in the video above encapsulate precisely the teens-with-a-world paradigm. “Change is coming through my shadow….” “My shadow’s shedding skin….” “Change is coming through….”


The song depicts the itchy, uncomfortable, scabby, bloody process of growing up — that epic war between entropy and chrysalis. The childlike husk of the self erodes while the new but-not-fully-formed shroud of the teen emerges.

I maintain that when it comes to writing YA, the metamorphosis a child goes through while “growing up” is substantially more important than evil forces scheming to take over the world, dystopian governments, or even, the apocalypse! Make no mistake: the primacy of the experience receives no short shrift in a novel like Martine Leavitt’s The Book of Life by Angel or in any John Green novel (include any novel considered kith and kin to Green and Leavitt). But I suspect that a “genre” or “spec-fic” writer is just as capable as the real world chronicler when it comes cocoonto depicting adolescence

When I write, I seek to celebrate the complexity and profundity of teenage ability and creativity. Beyond that, I strive to honor the glory, the pain, the horror, and the beauty of adolescence.