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This Queer YA Novel Is the Book We Wish We’d Had in High School
cover: Dial Books; background: natthanim/Getty images

When she comes out to her Puerto Rican family as a lesbian, 19-year-old Juliet Palante gets mixed reactions. Her precocious little brother will love her no matter what, her grandmother tells her, “You are what you are,” and her mother goes to her room and doesn’t come out.

So begins Juliet Takes a Breath, a queer coming-of-age novel by Gabby Rivera, the first Latina to write for Marvel Comics.

Before she’s able to patch things up with her mom, Juliet is off to the airport, flying from the Bronx to Portland, Oregon, for a summer internship. There, she’ll live and work with Harlowe Brisbane, a feminist author affectionately known as “the pussy book lady” (her best-selling book is called Raging Flower: Empowering Your Pussy by Empowering Your Mind). Harlowe is part queer Gwyneth Paltrow, part 30-something Gloria Steinem and part Lena Dunham. So yeah, she’s a…character.

In the liberal oasis that is Portland, Juliet’s eyes are opened to a world where people ask your preferred gender pronouns and attend union rights rallies on the regular. The transition isn’t totally seamless, though: As a Latina in a majority white city, Juliet struggles to find her place. She laments, "Feminism. I’m new to it. The word still sounds weird and wrong. Too white, too structured, too foreign: something I can’t claim."

The “too white” part comes up frequently, and it’s a tricky subject, especially for a YA novel. After all, even when Harlowe and her ilk are striving to do good, they end up co-opting an experience they’ll simply never understand.  

Rivera’s style is casual, sharp and cool. She nails Juliet’s youthful romantic naivete, her desperation over repairing her relationship with her mom and her skepticism about Portland’s more woo-woo proclivities. (In Harlowe's world, a "sacred period ritual kit" is used instead of tampons.)

Though written primarily for a teenage audience, Juliet Takes a Breath is an enlightening lesson on intersectional feminism for readers of any age. And don’t worry: It doesn’t feel like homework.

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