#REVIEW: Cemetery Boys, by AidEn Thomas

I’m kind of entertained that the first book review I wrote in 2020 and the first book review I’m writing in 2021 are both of YA books. And both of them are books that I came to because I’m trying to read widely in terms of the types of characters I read about and the types of authors I’m trying to read books from. To wit, Aiden Thomas is a queer Latinx transgender male, and Cemetery Boys is one of only a handful of books I’ve read with a trans male as the main character. (Also worth checking out: Lila Bowen’s The Shadow series.)

So, what’s it about? Also something I haven’t seen much of: the main character, Yadriel, is a 15-year-old trans boy who is a member of a community of brujx, people who follow traditional practices regarding communicating with and aiding the dead in passing on from this world to the next. The book takes place a couple of days before el Dia de los Muertos, and it begins with Yadriel completing a ritual on his own to confirm himself as a brujo. As it turns out, brujos and brujas have different abilities and focus on different things, and Yadriel’s family has resisted him becoming a brujo since he was assigned female at birth. Prejudice toward Yadriel isn’t a huge part of the book, but his mother was his main protector and she’s been dead for several months as the book starts, and it’s clear that his relationship toward his father is strained at best and moving toward broken at worst. Becoming a brujo requires a sort of confirmation or blessing from Lady Death, you see, and everyone basically thinks that it just won’t work, so they haven’t let him try.

So he does it on his own. And it works. And he summons a ghost, and the ghost is of a boy named Julian who has recently died– so recently, in fact, that no one seems to know he is gone and no one is looking for him. That same night, another member of Yadriel’s community dies (brujx can feel it when other brujx pass away) but despite lots of people looking for him, they can’t find him.

From here, the book moves into what is sort of a murder mystery– Julian remembers very little leading up to his death, and doesn’t want to pass on to the next world until he makes sure his friends are okay– and what is almost a slapsticky sort of thing as Yadriel tries to hide Julian from his family until he can help him pass on. All of whom can see dead people, remember.

I four-starred this; this is one of those books where the good things (the setting, the characters) are very very good and the overall actual plot is not as well executed. I thought the first 100 pages kind of dragged on a bit, and the book really doesn’t feel like a murder mystery until all the sudden at the end the villain is suddenly revealed, in a very Scooby-Doo sort of way. I wasn’t expecting there to even be a villain, to be honest; the search for Miguel, the missing person, is mostly handled off camera and the focus is on finding out how he died and where his body is, not searching for someone who killed him, and Julian’s death felt to me like random gang violence or something similar, and I wasn’t expecting them to pin it to one person and have a big Here Is My Evil Plan moment at the end.

(Like, remember the movie Stand By Me? They know they’re looking for a body the whole time. They know it’s a dead kid. They’re not really worried about how he died, they just want to find him. Imagine if that movie had ended with Ace and Eyeball explaining that they’d murdered Ray Brower in some sort of insurance scam or something. This has much the same feel.)

I can’t quite claim that I loved this book, but it’s still well worth recommending just because of the “I’ve never read anything like this” angle. The representation is great, and I can think of a couple of students I’ve had who I might try to get this book into the hands of. Where it’s strong, it’s very strong, it’s just that the story itself falls down a bit.

Some kind of random thoughts:

  • Never once is Yadriel’s deadname used in the book. There are two direct references to it; one when someone calls him by it and another when Julian sees it in a yearbook. Both times the name itself is not used in the text.
  • Thomas’ skill at writing characters who speak a lot of Spanish in a way that’s clear and understandable to non-Spanish readers is frankly phenomenal. My Spanish is good enough that I made it to page 304 before deciding to look something up– and it turned out to be an idiom, so I felt okay about it– but in general whenever someone says something in Spanish, or at least the first time something is said in Spanish, the word or phrase is used in English quickly afterward to make it very easy to infer the meaning of the word from context. Just as an example, Yadriel’s aunt says “Dame un beso” at one point, and the next sentence he kisses her on the cheek. That sort of thing. This could have felt really shoehorned in if Thomas wasn’t careful, but it always felt natural. Nicely done.
  • The words “Latinx” and “brujx” are used throughout the text, both as character dialogue and as narrative references. This did feel a little intrusive, as I’ve spent a lot of time teaching young people from Latinx backgrounds and have worked at a couple of schools where they were either a solid majority or virtually everyone, and I’ve never heard either of those words out of the mouth of a young person. I mean, okay, I wouldn’t expect “brujx,” but I think if I dropped “Latinx” in conversation with one of my Mexican or Puerto Rican students they wouldn’t know what the hell I was talking about. This isn’t a complaint so much as an observation; it’s entirely possible that the -x suffix is more widely used in other parts of the country and hasn’t made its way to the Midwest yet, but my (possibly erroneous) understanding was that it isn’t widely used yet and, in fact, was kind of controversial. It will be interesting to see if, ten years from now, the term dates the book at all.

In which today just goes away

Totally had plans to do all sorts of stuff tonight but it all got derailed by having to spend over two hours trying to put together a five minute video for class tomorrow, a project that should have taken no more than fifteen minutes but kept running into truly stupid tech-related delays. And now it’s 9:30 and I haven’t done shit since I got home and all I want to do is go to bed.

One plus side of today, though: got asked, by a pair of the kids, to sponsor a LGBTQ club at school. THAT was unexpected and interesting. I agreed, of course.

On the new newness

After several years where I was reliably getting a new phone every single year and basically coming to terms with the fact that I’d become That Guy, I waited three full cellphone generations– from the iPhone 7+ I’ve been carrying around forever to today– to upgrade my phone, and finally caved and came home with an iPhone 11 Pro Max in the Midnight Green color. I told myself I was going to wait until I could walk into the store and walk out with a phone, and that happened today. What ended up getting me to jump was the massive improvement in the cameras– I’m super psyched about getting to play with the new triple-camera setup, and the damn phone is gorgeous, to the point where for the first time I’m getting a clear case. It’s currently in my bedroom transferring all of my settings and apps and photos from the original phone, a process that was originally projected to take two hours, then 24 minutes, so I figured I had time to come out into the living room and write a blog post before going back and checking on it.

This was a long and interesting week; I was out of my classroom for two days at that rarest of beasts, a really interesting professional development opportunity, and I had parent-teacher conferences Wednesday night, which was the busiest I’ve ever been at PTCs– I had a line out my door for two hours and fifteen minutes– and then I had a parent-teacher conference for my own son on Thursday. Today most the kids actually had a recess as a little reward for surviving the first quarter, and a dozen or so of them organized an honest-to-God, flag-waving-and-chanting impromptu gay pride parade (!!!) on the soccer field. This is the first year of my career where I’ve had more than one or two kids who were conspicuously and un-selfconsciously out of the closet– there are a lot of 8th graders in my building who are somewhere on the QUILTBAG spectrum and don’t seem to give a damn who knows it.

A genuine oddity: they exist alongside the rather large contingent of more typical 8th-grade straight boys who enjoy nothing more than ceaselessly calling each other gay, and yet I have never once— and I’m watching, God damn it– seen any anti-gay bullying of any of the actual gay kids, and there are at least two boys in the 8th grade who are gay at twenty feet, if you know what I mean. I’ve never seen anyone call either of them names, even the kids who are quickest to toss “gay” at any of their straight friends.

So there may be several posts this weekend, is what I’m getting at, depending on whether I decide I want to talk about these things more. The training, at least, will probably get a post tomorrow or Sunday.

#REVIEW: THE OUTSIDE, by Ada Hoffman

The headline for this piece is a lie– which would have been a clever reference to the events of The Outside, had I meant to do it when I started writing the sentence rather than realizing it halfway through. I actually have no intention of writing a full review of this book, which is really good and which I started reading last night and finished today. I’m tired and my thinkmeats are all askew and I’d rather just give you the basic genre of the book and then if you aren’t reaching for a credit card with one hand and navigating the interwebs to Amazon with the other we probably can’t be friends.

The genre, according to author Ada Hoffman, is “queer autistic cosmic horror space opera.” It may also be relevant to your interests to know that Hoffman is both queer and autistic.

That’s all. You may go now; I know you have more important things to do.

Turns out this isn’t complicated

Around a year ago, give or take, Instagram suggested I follow what was clearly a secondary account for one of my friends. It was a new account, with one picture on it, and in that picture my friend was wearing eyeshadow. My friend was not the type of person for whom randomly choosing to be photographed in eyeshadow was a terribly surprising thing, so I thought nothing of it and followed the account, then forgot all about it.

A few days later my friend’s wife texted me and asked if I had any questions about her — and this is the point where I can’t come up with a coherent way to not choose gendered words, so for the moment I’ll go with “husband,” because at the time that was the word I would have used– making the decision to transition.(*) Apparently that account wasn’t really meant for full public attention yet. Whoops! I laughed and said that I’d found it in suggestions and followed it and not thought about it for another single second and then went on to have the type of conversation that you typically have when an adult makes a decision like that.

My son is seven. He and their youngest son are just a couple of weeks apart in age, and have been best friends for more or less forever despite them having moved a couple hours away a few years ago. They regularly communicate via the Facebook Kids Messenger app and play Roblox together. My son is aware that his friend now has two moms, and has literally never asked a single question about it or displayed the slightest bit of confusion about it.

The other day I was sitting in my recliner while he was on the couch talking to his friend, and the iPad is loud, so it’s kind of hard to not overhear their conversations and I try to keep half an ear on him while he’s on the thing anyway just because, y’know, parenting. And I hear his friend tell him that he has decided to change genders and be a girl, and that he wants to use feminine pronouns now, and be known by a different name. And, well, I went from paying halfassed attention to listening carefully quick.

And … my son says “Okay,” and immediately starts arguing with her about whether “dude” is a gender-neutral term or not, and whether “dudette” is something that he should be using now, because that’s where his priorities lie, and went right back to playing Roblox.

Now, has he been great about not deadnaming his friend? No, he hasn’t– he’s pretty much sticking with “dude” most of the time, and I’ve definitely heard far more uses of the original name than the new one over the last couple of weeks. And there was a brief discussion between the two of them later about whether his friend could really be a girl or not, because girls can have babies and boys can’t. This led to the only parental intervention I’ve had to make in this entire process, where after they were done with the conversation I pulled him aside and explained the difference between gender and sex, to which he reacted by absorbing the information and shrugging and saying “Oh, okay.”

We were over at my parents’ house earlier this week and their family came up in conversation. My mom was aware of the parental transition but not the kid’s, and after a few minutes called my son into the room and asked him what he thought about it.

“Oh. Yeah, he changed genders. He’s a girl now.”

And that was the end of it. He was done talking.

So … okay, not great on pronouns, but he’s seven. It was as if his friend had changed favorite colors or something. In my son’s head, it’s no big deal.

This is the second time in a few weeks that my son has encountered the concept that people exist who are other than cis and straight, and just like the first time, he just rolled with it. And it’s not because either my (cis, straight) self or my wife’s (cis, straight) self are some sort of woke paragons of allyship. We aren’t. I’m pretty sure we’ve literally never had a direct discussion about sexual orientation with him. It’s because this isn’t actually all that complicated to explain to kids and because if kids see their parents treat something as normal they will too.

Some kids have two dads.

Some kids have two moms.

Sometimes men love men, and sometimes women love women, just like Mommy and Daddy love each other.

Sometimes people decide that they aren’t boys or girls anymore, and sometimes people decide that they’ve always been a boy or a girl and that it’s okay to let the world know that too.

“How do we explain this to our children?” is a cop-out, and it always has been. It’s just not that goddamn complicated. You just treat it like it is: normal.

Happy Pride Month, y’all.

(*) If at any point in this post I fuck up my phrasing, call me out on it and I’ll fix it.