Stay Gold by Tobly McSmith
I decided to review these 2020 YA debuts together because they use allegory and allusion to examine teens navigating a world where claiming their identity puts them in danger.
I saw some reviewers were disappointed with Stay Gold because they thought it was a rom-com for some reason? I mean McSmith does write parody musicals but I don’t really get rom com from the marketing. This is a quintessential coming of age story about legacy and choosing how you want to be seen. There are some dark moments and a violent transphobic attack towards the end but McSmith tells an ultimately hopeful story.
As you can guess from the title Stay Gold is an allusion to The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton–the classic 1960’s YA about a teenager named Pony Boy struggling to stay gold amidst the toxic masculinity in his life while dating outside his social group. In Stay Gold, McSmith plays with a different type of masculinity through our protagonist Pony, a transgender teen who is excited to embrace the things that come with traditional masculinity at his new high school where everyone assumes he is cisgender.
Aside from Pony being romanticly paired with Georgia a high spirited image-conscious cheerleader, The Outsiders allusions aren’t really that obvious. They almost feel like an afterthought. In fact, my only complaint about this book is that it felt patchworked together. There were just so many story elements that got introduced but never had the opportunity to become fleshed out.
McSmith is the Director of Digital Sales for Harper Collins and in the author’s note he says he pitched this book idea to his colleagues. I wonder if maybe this book got overworkshopped since it came from a pitch and not a manuscript? It’s also kind of telling that two of #ownvoices trans books we’ve gotten this year had to come from people with a foot already in the industry.
Nonbinary actor Theo Germaine narrates Pony’s POV and they do an amazing job. They are apparently in The Politician on Netflix and I’ve found some of my favorite audiobooks have been narrated by television actors. With the increase of books featuring nonbinary characters I hope they get more audiobook opportunities. Georgia’s POV was narrated by Phoebe Strole, she is new to me and was excellent as well but she sounds ALOT like narrator Jorjeana Marie.
A Song Below Water by Bethany C. Morrow
A Song Below Water by Bethany Morrow is told in the dual POV of Tavia, a siren, and her adopted sister Effie–the survivor of a sprite attack. I’ll be honest, this book wasn’t on my radar until it got a push on Black Out Tuesday. In this fantasy/paranormal debut, the treatment of sirens is as an allegory for misogynoir, misogyny directed towards Black women where race and gender both play roles in bias.
Tavia and Effie exist in a world similar to ours except certain paranormal creatures are known to exist. Of those magical beings, sirens are the most feared because of their ability to compel. They must keep their identity a secret or be faced with violence. Sirens are the only magical creatures regulated this way and they also happen to be the only magical community made of exclusively Black women.
This book had me in the first half as we watch Tavia and Effie navigate their Portland community but the second half utterly lost me. It relies heavily on that trope of a-girl being-paranormal-and-everyone-keeping-it-from-her-For-Reasons and at 60% I was just like OUT WITH IT! I also didn’t like how this book ended, especially for Effie. For a book that is about sisterhood, Effie’s ending made no sense. It also seemed dangerous?
For a while, I was really confused by the magical beings in this book called elokos. Elokos wear special necklaces and have songs and are beloved for some reason. It’s not fully explained what they are but I believe they were supposed to show creatures with similar powers to sirens are accepted because they are not exclusively Black women. I’m including this in the review because in the reviews I looked at, I think they confused a lot of readers.
I see that Morrow is writing a companion book to this series about one of the elokos. I’ll be curious to check it out and see if maybe it clears up some things and how she continues Tavia and Effie’s story.
The audiobook is narrated by Andrea Liang and Jennifer Haralson. I really loved Liang’s cool confident narration in the Revolution of Birdie Randolph and it comes out again here. This looks to be Jennifer Haralson’s first audiobook and she brings a bright but meek quality to Effie subtle narration.