Estelle: Openly Straight by Bill Konigsberg

Openly Straight by Bill KonigsbergOpenly Straight by Bill Konigsberg ( web | tweet )
Publication Date: May 28, 2013
Publisher: Arthur A. Levine Books/Scholastic
Pages: 336
Target audience: Young adult
Keywords: LGBT, boarding school, labels, friendship, lies
Format read: ARC paperback from TLA.

Summary: Rafe decides to spend his junior year on the East Coast at an all boys boarding school. What’s so crazy about that? Well, unlike his life in Boulder, he decides not to share with anyone that he is indeed gay in order to give him the chance to strip away all labels and give him the opportunity to be more than his sexual preference.

Openly Straight is a novel that encompassed so many of my favorite things: a flawed main character who felt a lot, supportive and enthusiastic parents, and heart-tugging friendship and romance. And best of all? It made me think.

Basically, I want to hug and squeeze this book until I can’t anymore.

Rafe is pretty lucky when he comes out to his parents. They are completely supportive; they barely blink an eyelash. The liberal town of Boulder, Colorado responds pretty much the same way. His teachers want his thoughts on the gay movement, he trains to give speeches to others about sexuality, and his family surprises him with an awesome coming out party. Life is pretty much hunky dory. We’ve all heard people’s hurtful experiences regarding coming out, so it’s kind of hard to believe that Rafe has anything to complain about, right?

Well. Wrong. He feels totally pigeonholed by his sexuality, and decides to go off to a boarding school on the East Coast in hopes of wiping the slate clean. He won’t exactly be back in the closet because he knows he’s gay… he just won’t really tell the peers in his all-boy school what his deal is.

The idea of going to a brand new place and being a whole new you is pretty tempting. Of course, part of it, especially in Rafe’s case, isn’t awesome because he is kind of lying in some instances. But in others, he’s finding out things about himself that he never knew. Like maybe the jock isn’t always “the jock” and maybe he can actually keep up with a bunch of guys playing football in the quad.

The challenges though… outweigh that lack of boundary Rafe feels. And as a reader, you are just waiting for everything to blow up in his face. His parents are confused by this “phase”, he’s making up stories about his closest girl friend, and this intimate friendship with Ben, a soft-spoken jock who loves to read and have deep conversations, is definitely in jeopardy, especially as he and Rafe continue to get closer. Is Ben gay? Are they just best friends? The lines are so blurred at times, that it was really hard for me to figure it out. The possibility of heartbreak is so palpable.

Konigsberg also included pieces from Rafe’s writing class — a great way for us to get this character’s back story but also to see him grow as a writer. (I adored the teacher’s comments so much because so many times what he was saying was criticism I have about what I’m reading: “show don’t tell!”) Mr. Scarborough also gives him room to think about his choices to be someone new at the school, and subtley offers some helpful perspective. He would definitely have been one of my favorite teachers too.

I feel absolutely so much love for this book that my heart is actually seizing up as I write this review. From Rafe’s refreshing narrating to watching him painstakingly make blunders and attempt to get himself out of them, Openly Straight unveils a different kind of journey towards self-discovery — one filled with laughs, love, late nights, and finding out how to balance all the parts that make you you.

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Estelle: See You at Harry’s by Jo Knowles

See You at Harry’s by Jo Knowles
Upcoming Publication Date: May 8, 2012
Publisher: Candlewick Press
Pages: 310
Keywords: Family, siblings, LGBT, family business, bullying, trauma
Target Audience: Mature middle grade
Format Read: Paperback from ALA. (Thanks!)

Summary: With her parents always working at the family restaurant and her younger brother constantly winning everyone’s attention, Fern has become more of an observer — trying to remain a good friend to all even though everything is changing so much. While she tries to keep her head, the unexpected happens and her family needs to pull together more than ever. But she’s not so sure they can do it.

I read Jo Knowles’ Jumping Off Swings a few months ago, and while I found it an engrossing read, I was unhappy with the lack of character development and therefore, the lack of connection I had with the characters.

I’m happy to say I had the exact opposite reaction to See You at Harry’s. In fact, based on the bright cover with the empty glass of ice cream, I was expecting to read something a little bit lighter than my usual (internet predators, abuse, death) and instead was completely turned around by the events of the book.

Warning: you will cry.

Knowles presents us with a hardworking family. Dad owns a restaurant, Mom helps out but tends to get stressed easily, and older sis Sarah – on her “gap year” — works at the restaurant.  That leaves three more kids: Fern, our main character, and her two brothers, Holden (older) and Charlie (three). All the kids are named after literary characters (a detail I loved) and Fern feels a lot of pressure to live up to hers. Fern was one of the main human characters in Charlotte’s Web and this Fern believes it’s her mission in life to be a good, dependable friend to everyone.

She’s starting to realize just how difficult this role is. Especially in her family. She feels a bit ignored, jealous of her cute younger brother that everyone loves, and upset with her dad for spending more time at his restaurant than seeing what is going on at home. Then there is her brother Holden, with whom she has a special connection. This isn’t a spoiler: he is gay, has always known that he is gay, and finally is ready to say that much to his family. In fact, he also starts dating for the first time.

For a book that is written for 5th grade and up, I thought this was an unbelievably brave move by Knowles and I completely appreciated her focusing on a character going through this kind of change, where he is bullied and feels unsupported. And also how a family comes to terms with the announcement.

As for the major turning point, I was not expecting for things to go down the way they did. At all. I had a few guesses along the way but I was wrong. Utterly and completely. What occurs is actually quite similar to something that happened during my freshman year of college, and one that continues to frighten me to no end. I don’t want to go any further but it forces this family to evaluate their roles in their own unit and work to be there for one another when life turns upside down.

It was extremely painful to read, but I think Knowles handled this storyline particularly well and I was reminded of some of the more serious reads from my elementary/middle school years (i.e. Bridge to Terabithia by Katharine Paterson). There are a lot of characters, and many different emotions being depicted and even though Fern at times feels more self-aware for someone at age 12, it felt carefully authentic. (I’m sure the topics could have been explored with more depth if for an older age bracket.)

Whether See You at Harry’s is read at home or in a classroom, it is sure to bring up important and relevant discussion. At any age, we can relate to huge changes in the family, finding a balance when it comes to work and home, and struggling through our own personal roles in a family. Knowles has written a fast-paced yet heartbreaking and refreshing novel that covers all the bases.

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