Author and Illustrator : Mike Curato
Publisher: Henry Holt and Company, Sept 2020
Themes: bullying, homophobia, racism, fat-phobia, scout camp, coming of age, Asian-Americans, body positivity, religion, fighting parents
Genre: Graphic Novel, fiction
It’s the summer between middle school and high school, and Aiden Navarro is away at camp. Everyone’s going through changes—but for Aiden, the stakes feel higher. As he navigates friendships, deals with bullies, and spends time with Elias (a boy he can’t stop thinking about), he finds himself on a path of self-discovery and acceptance.
I know I’m not gay. Gay boys like other boys. I hate boys. They’re mean, and scary, and they’re always destroying something or saying something dumb or both.
I hate that word. Gay. It makes me feel . . . unsafe.
Why I like this book:
Flamer is a raw and gutsy realistic portrait about what being closeted in the 90s could have been like for any young teen. I was already a huge fan of Mike Curato’s picture book work, and this was such a courageous and stellar debut for an older audience.
Loosely (or less loosely) autobiographical, this graphic novel is steeped with heart, humor, healing and power. This is a transitional summer for Aidan as he is switching from Catholic school to public school for 9th grade. He has long been battling with homophobic bullying and some internalized homophobia, as well as being picked on for both his weight and ethnicity (he’s half Filipino). The journey is super hard but so realistic for me, from one of almost self-loathing through moments of suicide ideation through to the beginnings empowerment. Many of us in the queer community growing up in the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s will be able to relate to this as I am sure will many teens today despite the progress we have seen.
Curato has capture the 90’s camp experience perfectly in his illustrations and I don’t know whether it is he or his art director who made the choice to basically use orange/red and black and white, only, but it is a sensational choice, accentuating the depths of emotions Aiden experiences. Aiden focuses on his scout troop, The Flaming Arrows, learning archery and orienteering, building fires and canoeing, hoping for acceptance and trying to find things he is good at finds things he’s good at, like making and tending to the campfire and making people laugh. Moments of relief also come from time spent with his bunk mate, Elias, on whom he has a subconscious crush. Aiden’s best friend, Violet, and her camp letters, also contrasts with the incessant bullying he experiences.
He is, however, constantly tormented, and Curato liberally includes the most offensive and frequent name-calling, Faggot, throughout the book. The language, mention of masturbation and porn ground the novel in the stark crushing reality of this closeted hurting teen (and his peers) and never feel gratuitous.
While the novel only spans seven days, with the intensity of the experience and various flashbacks especially of his unsupportive family situation, Curato packs in years of emotion. This all culminates in a dark-night-of-the-soul vividly depicted without words.
The novel also portrays and accurate and damning critique of the homophobia in scout camps in the 1990s, and still in much of the world today. Counselors were removed and and queer boys (or those suspected to be) were humiliated and bullied. Sadly the scouting movement failed many young tweens and teens in their community, and novels like this are important exposés.
Flamer is frank, harsh and funny— the testimony of one young gay teen’s journey toward self-acceptance and finding his people. This is a strong debut novel I want to get into the hands of many teens.
Disclosure: I received an ARC at no cost from the author/publisher for review purposes.