If you’ve been looking for a queer YA book that is really invested in the idea of LGBTQ community, look no further than debut novel Kings, Queens, and In-Betweens by Tanya Boteju. So often the contemporary stories we get about LGBTQ teens are about them being the only queer or trans person they know. I loved how awkward queer biracial teen Nima Kumara-Clark’s story is all about her finding community.
Nima has a lot going on: her mom took off unexpectedly about a year and a half ago, she’s in love with her straight BFF, and she’s bored and restless in her small community. This all changes the night when she randomly encounters a small drag show at a local fair. There she meets and befriends the person who becomes her drag mentor, Deirdre, and a young queer woman named Winnow that she’s immediately crushing on. From there, Nima moves towards — while also sometimes taking two steps forward and one step back — self-acceptance, confidence, and understanding.
I loved how Kings, Queens, and In-Betweens committed to depicting the intricacies of the drag world, the first blush of meeting other queer people you might be interested in, and exploring your place in the LGBTQ community. At times this YA about little awkward baby dyke Nima really brought me back to that period in my life, which for me was the first few years I was in university. There are very few books that I can say legitimately made me feel this way, which is pretty cool!
I also loved the supportive adults in Nima’s life: her white hippie dad who is dealing with his Sri Lankan wife leaving their family, the lesbian gardener family friend Jill, and drag mentor Deirdre. So many YA novels feature adults who are totally absent and/or completely incompetent. What a refreshing change! (The only other YA book I can think of that also features supportive, present parents is Mariko Tamaki’s Saving Montgomery Sole—reviewed here).
And here’s the but: the plot about Nima’s mom and the abandonment was unfortunately underdeveloped and insufficiently resolved. I get that not having everything answered and tied up in a neat little bow is realistic, but there were developments (spoiler alert: Nima’s mom comes back) that tried to develop the plotline and instead ended up muddling it more. I think it actually might have been more effective if her mom had just stayed away.
I also felt a bit troubled about the characterization of Deirdre. While I really appreciated that Nima had a queer adult mentoring her, the actual character of Deirdre felt confused. She’s constantly referred to as a drag queen but it’s also clear she presents as a woman all the time. It felt quite strange that she’s never referred to as a trans woman. I also thought she felt too much like a stereotypical performing Black drag queen rather than a real person; I don’t know, this is certainly not my area of expertise and I would love to hear the opinion of a queer and/or trans Black person on the representation!
Speaking of representation and unresolved plotlines, the character Gordon and accompanying story had some issues as well. Gordon is, to put it plainly, a homophobic bully to Nima, but also a former childhood friend and someone who appears to be struggling with a possible trans identity. When Nima becomes friends with Deirdre, she puts the two of them together to interesting results. However, this plot thread is again dropped without meaningful resolution by the time the novel ends.
One thing I’m wondering is if this book might have been better suited as a new adult story rather than a young adult one set in high school. Logistically it just didn’t make sense that an underage person would have regular access to the types of spaces—ie, bars—where the drag scene is focused. As I said, the time of my life that this novel reminded me of was my early twenties, my first few years of university, and initial coming out period. I think setting the book in a new adult context would have opened up some possibilities for investigating themes like distancing yourself from the “high school you” and making new relationships with the adults in your life now that you’re (kind of) an adult yourself.
Have you read Kings, Queens, and In-Betweens? What did you think? I’m honestly still sitting here wondering if the pros outweigh the cons. I think they do? Let me know your thoughts!