Tag Archives: representation

Disabled Characters Who Rock

I’m sure this won’t be news to you; we need better disabled characters. Portrayals of people with disabilities tend to misinform, sensationalize, stereotype and outright villainize them. There are thousands of articles out there on harmful disability tropes and more still to be said.

But you know what I’d rather do than write another one of those articles? Talk about some disabled characters I love. I think that, when talking about disability representation, or any other kind of representation, it is easy to get bogged down in the difficulty. I don’t just mean the labor of research or the ethical questions about which stories are yours to tell; I also mean the emotional consequences of submerging yourself in pain. It is not creatively energizing. It puts you into that “everything sucks” mentality, and going straight from that to writing can turn into the toxic editors “everything I write sucks” mentality. This is especially damaging when it comes to diverse characters, because, on the way to writing awesome representation, you will probably write some shitty representation. Not because you’re a bad person, but because all your writing is shitty when it’s on it’s way to being awesome. Representation isn’t different, it’s just extra emotionally charged.

I also think writers need “dos” as well as “do nots.” While it’s good to be aware of problematic tropes, I think that when you actually sit down to write it’s better to have an idea of good representation to focus on. You don’t hit a bullseye by focusing on the people in the crowd who you are hoping not to shoot. You know the bystanders exist, but you keep your eyes on the target.

Besides, this has been a rough year for all of us, and it’s nice to spend a little time dwelling on happy thoughts.  Continue reading Disabled Characters Who Rock


Flying Lessons, by Ellen Oh

Flying Lessons

What It’s About

An anthology coming of age stories, with both authors and protagonists from a diverse range of identities.

Why I Recommend It

Individually, these stories are all great. Though a few touch on sad content, like losing a parent or social isolation, for the most part they are fun and happy. That in and of itself is cool. It’s incredible to see a queer first crush that isn’t angsty, or a disabled kid connecting with his father over wheelchair sports, without anybody pitying or handwringing. And even when I have no personal connection to the identities represented, the stories touch on something fundamental human experience, in a moving and delightful. One of my favorites was the one where the Choctaw uncle tells his nieces and nephews with a tall tale. Folklore plus weird but kindly old people bonding with small children; that is now you make a Lane happy.

Collectively, this is a great introduction to marginalized authors who have long, award winning careers telling diverse stories. None of these stories are overtly political, but the combination tells a message that shouldn’t be political, but sadly is; anyone can tell a human story, and anyone can be the star of one. There is no one way to be the everyman, and isn’t that awesome?

Content Warnings

You’re fine.

A Banquet For Hungry Ghosts, by Ying Chang Compestine

A Banquet for Hungry Ghosts

  • Genre
    • Horror, Folklore
  • Plot Summary
    • In Chinese folklore, one of the classic ghost story forms is of a hungry ghost; a person who, having died hungry, must be fed by the living, or it will feed on them. This is a collection of short, spooky stories based on that tradition, each centered around a dish in an eight-course feast. 
  • Characters
    • Some stories have tragic protagonists, who were victimized in life and return for revenge. Some are despicable, brought to a messy end by their own flaws. Some are clever enough to narrowly avoid a rough fate. Some are sweet and well-meaning, but horribly unlucky. All of them make for excellent stories.
  • Tone: What’s it Like to Read This Book?
    • The fun of a campfire urban legend, but without all the cliche. I can enjoy a well-told creepy story even if I know where it’s going, but with a few exceptions, in this book I generally didn’t. She used all the classic tropes but kept taking me by surprise.
    • One reason the stories were so unique is that she drew on her memories of the Chinese Revolution and the various ensuing abuses of power. It adds an extra shiver when you remember that, hidden among the ghoulishness and drama, there is some element that real people suffered under. And I think that’s part of good horror, even the campy sort. There should be a real human feeling underneath, not just gore for gore’s sake. I thought this book got that balance perfectly right.
  • Other Shiny Stuff
    • After each story, in which she makes you agonizingly hungry for a dish and then creeps you out so fast you get whiplash, she gives you the recipe for the featured food. And you realize that as horrified as you were, you still want to try that goddamn murder dish. It’s pretty sadistic… and I need to buy this for myself to get those recipes.
    • Before returning this to the library, I did get to make tea eggs, long-life noodles and eight treasure rice. They were all great, and the recipes were easy to follow (although I did have to look up how to steam sweet rice for the eight treasure rice recipe).
    • She also includes notes on recent Chinese history, which was fascinating and got me curious to learn more. I know a lot more about ancient Chinese history than the more recent struggles, and I think that’s a massive problem in our education, especially considering what a huge player China is internationally.
    • Beautiful, ghostly, atmospheric illustrations.
  • Content Warnings
    • Multiple gory deaths, and if animal cruelty is too much for you, you might want to skip the tofu chapter.
  • Quotes
    • “When she looked up, the small figure of a girl stood in front of the henhouse, dressed in silk the color of moonlight. Her eyes pierced the storm with flames of hatred. As she bent down to pick up an empty bowl, her long wet hair, dark as ink, draped across her face.”

Beloved, by Toni Morrison


  • Genre
    • Historical Fiction, Horror, Magical Realism
  • Plot Summary
    • Two escaped slaves find each other after years of freedom, and try to make a life together. But lingering wounds and secrets threaten to destroy their little family and their last remnants of sanity… not to mention the complications brought on by the baby ghost in their house.
    • I had this one pretty well spoiled for me before I started, and while I loved it anyway, I wish I had the chance to read this once without knowing what was coming. This seems to be one of those books that people can’t figure out how to explain without giving away the last twists, so hurry up and read it before they get to you.
  • Characters
    • One of my favorite things about Toni Morrison is how beautifully she sketches her characters. She will make you feel that you’ve completely slipped into their skins, and that you can’t avoid loving them any more than you can avoid loving yourself. Then she shows you their darkest deeds, darkest thoughts, and most horrible memories, but you can’t look away, because by now you love them too much. You just hang on and hope she’ll bring them to some kind of peace in the end.
    • What makes this cast especially endearing, and painful, is that unlike in The Bluest Eye, most of the characters care about each other. They truly, deeply want to save each other, heal their wounds, and stop each other from ever getting hurt again. But at the same time they’re afraid, or confused, or timid, or misguided in how to express that love. I love horror, and I love chosen family stories. This book played the one against the other, and it nearly drove me mad. In a good way, of course, or I wouldn’t be talking about it here.
    • The ghost is one of the most intriguing characters I’ve ever read. She’s such a blend of creepy and pitiable, and oddly naive and sweet in her own destructive way. I’m not sure whether to classify her as the villain of this story or just another victim. Either way she’s brilliant.
  • Tone: What’s it Like to Read This Book?
    • Miserable and beautiful, and yet maddeningly full of hope. Seeing them relive their horrors, you almost wish you could detach yourself enough to go numb and leave it all alone. But you keep seeing the beginnings of a miracle, and even as it struggles to hold together, even as it falls apart and keeps being roughly stitched back into place with threads that don’t possibly look strong enough to hold it, you want it all to work out. You can’t stop wanting it to all be okay. 
  • Other Shiny Stuff
    • Actually had a happier ending than I thought was possible. There, I think that’s vague enough. 
  • Content Warnings
    • Oh good lord, what isn’t here? Death of adults, death of children, adults in peril, children in peril, physical abuse, psychological abuse, and two sexual assaults. These characters get absolutely raked across the coals and you are not permitted to glance away. If you can tolerate it, you’ll be rewarded with something unforgettably profound and sweet. 
  • Quotes
    • “Freeing yourself was one thing, claiming ownership of that freed self was another.”
    • “Love is or it ain’t. Thin love ain’t love at all.”
    • “There is a loneliness that can be rocked. Arms crossed, knees drawn up, holding, holding on, this motion, unlike a ship’s, smooths and contains the rocker. It’s an inside kind–wrapped tight like skin. Then there is the loneliness that roams. No rocking can hold it down. It is alive. On its own. A dry and spreading thing that makes the sound of one’s own feet going seem to come from a far-off place.”
    • “Me and you, we got more yesterday than anybody. We need some kind of tomorrow.”
    • “She is a friend of my mind. She gather me, man. The pieces I am, she gather them and give them back to me in all the right order. It’s good, you know, when you got a woman who is a friend of your mind.”

The Wicker King, by K. Ancrum

The Wicker King

Note: the release date for this book is October 31st, and it is still available for pre-order at the time I am publishing this. Get it at a discount and support an awesome new writer!

  • Genre
    • YA, Suspense, Psychological Thriller, Magical Realism
  • Plot Summary
    • The story of two damaged teen boys who love and support each other. If by love and support you mean become entangled in a quest to save an fantasy land which might only be a sign of their impending madness. It’s sweet, in an “oh god no what are you doing stop it with the fire” kind of way.
  • Characters
    • August and Jack are so lovable. On the surface, they’re both a couple of foul-mouthed, troublemaking assholes, but the deeper you get the more you see the kind, caring natures beneath. And not the fake kind of jerks with a heart of gold either. All too often I’m informed that I’m going to get jerks with a heart of gold, but I actually get jerks who are mildly less mean to the narrator, and then act like they deserve a cookie for it. Jack and August aren’t like that. They are both, at times, intentionally off-putting in ways that make sense for the defense mechanisms they’ve developed, and the wounds they have received. They also make terrible decisions that make sense for the level of mental and emotional maturity they have reached. They also try very, very hard to help those around them, as well as each other, albeit sometimes in the most misguided of ways. It’s impossible not to care intensely for them. 
  • Tone: What’s it Like to Read This Book?
    • I wanna say punked up Hitchcock.
    • Not the spiky haired kind of punk, but the attitude that lies underneath. The adolescent cynicism that half wants to rock the world and smash the system and half wants to be proven wrong about how broken they think everything already is.
    • And Hitchcock in the sense of deep, raw dread that has nothing to do with bombs or bullets, and everything to do with being being made aware of the fragility of the human mind, and then given just enough information on how this could all go terribly wrong.
    • Not to mention the incredibly wry sense of humor that both styles have in common. It’s a great read.
  • Other Shiny Stuff
    • Bisexual representation!
    • The format is cool as hell. Each chapter is short but unnumbered. They have short titles, and sometimes the connection between the title and the chapter text can be a bit of a puzzle (but when you get it, a whole new level of cool is added). Mixed in are police reports, news stories, notes from the characters, and even mix CDs, all adding levels of insight into what’s going on. Then there’s the evolving art on the pages themselves… they start out as plain paper, but gradually acquire smudges, margin doodles and burn marks. Sometimes the entire page is black with white text. It’s intriguing and atmospheric and looks absolutely stunning.
    • I was impressed by the level of research into mental health and relationships. It’s a big topic, and the author went into some areas that I’m unfamiliar with, but in every place where this book and my experience overlapped, she was dead on.
    • I also felt, as a person with mental health issues, that the issues that were used for suspense weren’t glamorized. I love psychological horror, but I have read all too many where the authors made the pain of mental illness or abuse something romantic to endure. Here, I actually felt the most romantic bits were the fragments of normal teen life, which was a welcome change. 
  • Content Warnings
    • Parental neglect, scenes of drowning and burning, hallucinations. Altogether, nothing too graphic, so unless you have specific traumas associated with those things, you’ll probably be fine. If you love suspense but not gore, this is the book for you.
  • Quotes
    • “Sometimes, especially when he was cooking, he felt like maybe the Great Big Sad took his mom so he would be ready for Jack. Like the fear and depression that choked her until she couldn’t move made it so that when Jack stumbled into his house three years ago and admitted that he hadn’t seen his own mom in weeks, August was ready to sit him down and make him some soup.”
    • “‘They have stories about you, songs. They call you the Raven, the Golden Bird, the King’s Lionheart. Women smile at you as we walk in the streets; men talk about you over their fires. It’s written all over the walls. They love you and you can’t even see them… my Lionheart. Can you imagine?'”
    • “‘The Buildings fade to trees, the trees fade to bramble, the bramble fades to dust, and beyond is the land of forgotten kings. The Wastes. Where nothing lives, nothing grows, and nothing dies.'”

American Born Chinese, by Gene Luen Yang

American Born Chinese

  • Genre
    • Graphic Novel, Young Adult, Coming of Age, Fantasy
  • Plot Summary
    • This book interweaves the stories of Jin, a Chinese American boy dealing with ostracism and bullying, Danny, a blonde white teen with a surreally stereotypical Chinese cousin, and the Monkey King, a hero from Chinese folklore seeking to become the equal of creator god Tze-Yo-Tzuh. All three are linked with themes about pride, identity, vanity and self-acceptance. At the end, they come together in a way that is clever, surprising and satisfying.
  • Characterization
    • The protagonists are all various types of hot messes, but you can’t help root for them anyway. You see where everyone is coming from, and want them to hurry up and learn their lesson so they can be happy.
    • Special shout out to the monk Wong Lai-Tsao. I love seeing hapless, unassuming people get a moment in the spotlight, especially when that comes from being who they are, not despite it.
  • Tone: What’s it Like to Read This Book?
    • It’s loads of fun, then surprisingly thought provoking. It’s a book I read once and thinking, “yeah, that was pretty good”, but found myself obsessing over it for years after. Like any story with a good twist, it’s highly re-readable; you will catch new things each time around.
  • Other Shiny Stuff
  • Content Warnings
    • Naturally, the main conflicts all revolve around characters overcoming stereotyping, bigotry and ostracism; apart from that, the content is all very lighthearted and tame.
  • Quotes
    • “It’s easy to become anything you wish . . . so long as you’re willing to forfeit your soul.”
    • “You know, Jin, I would have saved myself from five hundred years’ imprisonment beneath a mountain of rock had I only realized how good it is to be a monkey.”

Falling in Love With Hominids, by Nalo Hopkinson


  • Genre
    • Short stories, Folklore, Urban Fantasy
  • Plot Summary
    • Eighteen short stories from one of my favorite authors. The topics wander from apocalypse to mourning to falling in love to loving yourself to discovering a giant flying elephant in your apartment. What they have in common is that they are all amazing. 
  • Character Empathy
    • It’s Nalo Hopkinson. If you don’t both like and relate to at least 90% of the characters, you’re probably a sociopath.
  • Tone: What’s it Like to Read This Book?
    • The stories cover a wide range of emotions. There’s funny, sad, scary, trippy, wistful, triumphant… what they all have in common is the characteristic weird and fun originality that you get from Nalo Hopkinson every time.
  • Other Shiny Stuff
    • One of the creepiest werewolf stories I’ve ever read (and you know how I feel about werewolves). 
    • A giant flying elephant. Did I mention that already?
    • Sometimes the protagonist is queer in a “this is one of several things about the person and not the most important thing at all” way.
    • A cherry tree who is really into body positivity and women power.
    • Look, every story here has multiple cool shiny things, and I don’t want to spoil them all because it is really fun to go in blind and discover them. Just go read it!
  • Content Warnings
    • You’ll be fine
  • Quotes
    • (From the Intro) “I’ve learned I can trust that humans in general will strive to make things better for themselves and their communities. Not all of us. Not always in principled, loving, or respectful ways. Often the direct opposite, in fact. But we’re all on the same spinning ball of dirt, trying to live as best we can. Yes, that’s almost overweeningingly Pollyanna-ish, despite the fact that sometimes I just need to shake my fist at a mofo.”

I Remember Beirut, by Zeina Abirached

I remember Beirut

  • Genre
    • Non-Fiction, Memoir, Graphic Novel
  • Summary
    • The memories of a childhood spent in the middle of no man’s land, during the Lebanese Civil War.
  • Character Empathy
    • Characters are sketched very simply, but in a way that doesn’t diminish them. In the same way that a silhouette can trigger a more visceral reaction than a photograph, the characters here don’t suffer even a little for the brief glimpses you get of them. 
  • Tone: What’s it Like to Read This Book?
    • Simultaneously light and thought provoking. I brought it to work and finished it in one lunch break, then was mulling over it for days later. It’s sad, but in many ways also beautiful and hopeful.
  • Other Shiny Stuff
    • As you can no doubt see from the cover, the art is absolutely beautiful.
    • The contrast between the perspective of Zeina and her brother, for whom all of this is normal, and their parents, who remember the old days and are trying to give their children a normal life despite everything. It’s understated and perfect.
    • There is a story about a terrible barber that I absolutely loved. I can’t explain why, but something about it was immediately familiar and made me laugh. You’ll just have to get the book and see what I mean. 
    • Almost every sentence in the book starts with “I remember,” but it never gets tiresome. It just pulls you straight through. I don’t know how she does that.
  • Content Warnings
    • Although the time is brutal, there is no graphic violence. It’s more about psychology. How does the human mind adapt to a world where violence is your next door neighbor? It’s about damage, but also resilience, and finding joy and beauty in the little things.
  • Quotes
    • “I remember that during the war, the school bus skipped our neighborhood. The neighborhood’s alleys were close to the demarcation line and had a dangerous reputation. The bus would stop at Ward’s ice cream parlor at 6:30 every morning and 3:30 every afternoon. By virtue of being on the edge of the zone where the bus didn’t dare go, Ward’s had been turned into a bus stop.”
    • “I remember back when you could still smoke in planes. I remember that during the war, we were short on water, bread, electricity, and gas… but never cigarettes. I remember that every living room had a platter with packs of cigarettes on it. The hostess would offer them to her guests, as if she were passing around chocolates.”
    • “I remember my brother collected bits of shrapnel. I remember that after my brother’s outings with Chucri, he would spread his loot out all over the coffee table. Then he would put the shrapnel away in a basket my mother had given him. I remember that I had taken to leaving my backpack by my bed at night. In my backpack, I had everything I wanted to take with me, if we had to run.”
    • “I remember old Kit Kat wrappers. I remember the three steps before eating: ripping through the glossy red paper, folding back the white tissue paper, and crinkling up the foil.”
    • “I don’t remember the last day of the war. But I remember the first time you could take a real shower.”

Where the Line Bleeds, by Jesmyn Ward

Where the Line Bleeds

  • Genre
    • Fiction, Drama
  • Plot Summary
    • Upon graduating from a poor high school near New Orleans, twin brothers Joshua and Christophe look for work. Joshua finds it, but Christophe doesn’t, and turns to pot dealing. As Joshua becomes afraid of the path Christophe may be following, and Christophe becomes resentful of Joshua’s good luck, both struggle to keep the relationship that has let them survive this far. 
  • Character Empathy
    • The two protagonists are lovingly detailed. Some of the secondary characters are a little less fleshed out, but on the whole, I liked all of the main characters, even while I felt the need to scream “what are you doing? Don’t do that thing! That won’t end well for you!” 
  • Tone: What’s it Like to Read This Book?
    • The pace here is simultaneously luxurious and suspenseful. The book takes time to set up the characters, so you never have to ask “why do I care?” You care because you know Christophe and Joshua, and you know what they’re going to do, and if they don’t get through their shit okay then so help me… and once the book has you in that position, it just lets you stew, for page after page while the tension builds and the climax is inched towards. It’s agony, but god help me if I didn’t love it anyway. 
  • Other Shiny Stuff
    • The scenes are full of the kind of sensory details that too many authors neglect. Jesmyn Ward knows that to really put readers into a scene, you shouldn’t just tell them what a thing looks like. We need to know smells, sounds, tastes and textures. I can still remember a scene where their grandmother was preparing shrimp, not because of anything special that happened, but just because I really felt like I was there.
    • Teenage characters who actually feel like dumb teenage boys, while still being incredibly sympathetic. Not many people can pull that off. 
    • No spoilers, but I was so worried that I wouldn’t like the ending and I very much did. 
  • Content Warnings
    • Some fistfights and obviously drug use (mainly alcohol and marijuana). Without going too deep into my personal politics, I think the substance abuse is handled very well; not demonized, not glorified, just portrayed as something people are vulnerable to when they have nothing else in their life to look forward to.
  • Quotes
    • “Christophe peeled the shrimp slowly and carefully: that was his way around her, and it was the exact opposite of his usual demeanor. She knew it for what it was: love.”

The People Could Fly, by Virginia Hamilton

people could fly

  • Genre
    • Folklore
  • Plot Summary
    • A series of tales passed down by generations of Black storytellers, gathered from collections and primary sources by award winning children’s author Virginia Hamilton.
  • Character Empathy
    • As with oral folklore found around the world, the characters are more archetypes than individuals. However, this book does bring subtle but powerful empathy for it’s storytellers, as Virginia Hamilton points out the elements of the stories that came from the struggles of slavery and reconstruction. 
  • Tone: What’s it Like to Read This Book?
    • The loving care put into this project is evident on every page. So many of these stories have either been erased from mainstream folklore collections, or only presented in whitewashed or minstrelized versions. This was a work that came from a passionate hunger to put these stories back in their rightful place.
  • Other Shiny Stuff
    • I loved the variety in this collection. There’s humor, fairy tales, animal fables, riddles and tall tales. I love studying the common roots of fairy tales, and I saw ones that clearly shared DNA with stories I’ve read since childhood, and ones that were brand new to me. Either way, I was a very happy folklore geek.
    • Each story comes with a note on the cultural and historic context, which again made the folklore geek in me really happy.
    • Virginia Hamilton worked very hard to add in elements of the original dialects, enough to make it evocative and honor the original voices but not enough to confuse the average reader (as opposed to those old Uncle Remus collections that are almost unreadable). In my opinion, she hit that balance perfectly.
    • Most of the stories are pure fun, but the title story was so beautiful I honestly got a little choked up. 
  • Content Warnings
    • It is intended to be suitable for parents to read to their children, so there’s nothing to talk about here. 
  • Quotes
    • (from the author’s introduction) “These tales were created out of sorrow. But the hearts and minds of the black people who formed them, expanded them, and passed them on to us were full of love and hope. We must look on the tales as a celebration of the human spirit.