Apr 4, 2012

How Beautiful the Ordinary edited by Michael Cart

How Beautiful the Ordinary edited by Michael Cart

There are countless reasons for reading, but when you’re young and uncertain of your identity, of who you may be, one of the most compelling is the quest to discover yourself reflected in the pages of a book. What a comfort that provides, seeing that you are not alone, that you are not—as you had feared—the only one of your kind. But what if you search whole libraries of such books in vain for your own face?

From the introduction by Michael Cart

How Beautiful the Ordinary: Twelve Stories of Identity is an anthology of YA short stories focused on the experiences of lgbtq protagonists, which includes such renowned contributors as Emma Donoghue, Jacqueline Woodson, Gregory Maguire, David Levithan, Margo Lanagan, Francesca Lia Block and Julie Anne Peters. As the subtitle tells us, the emphasis of these stories is on identity: they’re about how sexual orientation or gender identity impact these characters’ lives as a whole1. There are stories about first love, about other forms of meaningful human connection, about parenthood, about accepting who you are, about sex, about loss: stories that cover a wide range of emotions and human experiences.

As with any anthology, I enjoyed some stories more than others. I was less than crazy about Ariel Schang’s comics panels (although I love the idea of including comics in an anthology like this), but otherwise there were no stories I actually disliked. However, it was a handful of contribution that really made How Beautiful the Ordinary stand out for me, so I thought I’d focus specifically on those:

David Levithan’s “A Word From the Nearly Distant Past” is a beautifully written and haunting story told from the point of view of a past generation of gay men who had to confront the threat of AIDS and levels of bigotry superior to those of the present day. These unnamed narrators watch the lives of several contemporary gay teens with astonishment and awe, and urge them to live their lives to the fullest:
We were once like you, only our world wasn’t like yours.
You have no idea how close to death you came. Ten years. Twenty years. A generation or two earlier, you might not be here with us.
We resent you. You astonish us.
Levithan strikes the exact right tone here, and the result is incredibly moving. “A Word From the Nearly Distant Past” combines an appreciation for the ways in which the world has changed for the better with an awareness of just how fragile such changes are, how recent, and how long a way there still is to go. It’s a celebratory story, but also a painful one: it doesn’t invite readers to pat themselves on the back or to slip into political complacency, but rather to be aware of the steep human cost of the progress they now enjoy.

A few more bits I particularly liked:
“Let’s just do it,” one boy says to another.
We yell no.
And when we’re not heard, it hurts even more.

We know that some of you are still scared. We know that some of you are still silent. Just because it’s better now doesn’t mean that it’s good.
Dreaming and loving and screwing. None of these are really identities. Maybe when other people look at us, but not to ourselves. We are so much more complicated than that.”
Margo Lanagan’s “A Dark Red Love Knot” is a reworking of the Alfred Noyes ballad “The Highwayman”. In this version, the story’s protagonist, Tom, is not in love with the innkeeper’s daughter but rather with a soldier in the King’s army with whom he had a sexual experience. In her usual gorgeous, fearless prose, Margo Lanagan explores the links between homophobia and the casual derision of femininity, as well as the ways in which the two reinforce each other. Tom is simultaneously the victim of an oppressive system and an actor in another one, but he only comes to realise this when it’s too late to avert tragedy.

Julie Anne Peters’ “First Time” is a story in verse about a young lesbian couple’s first sexual experience. Peters uses an original text layout to give both girls a voice, and the story does a wonderful job of capturing the intimacy and extreme vulnerability of sexuality.

Last but certainly not least, there’s Emma Donnogue’s “Dear Lang”, my favourite story in How Beautiful the Ordinary. “Dear Lang” is a letter written by a nonbiological lesbian mother to the daughter, now a teenager, she was completely cut off from. As the narrator tells us, the coldness of a term such as “nonbiological” is itself part of the problem:
Nonbiological: as if I’m made of silicon or something. A cyborg. As if I have no body, or at least not one that ever touched you, my baby Lang, ever stubbed a toe on your wooden blocks, ever got a crick in the neck with you asleep on my shoulder on the couch all night, ever registered that surge of warmth on my belly that felt like love but actually meant you’d just peed through both our clothes.
“Dear Lang” is a very moving and powerful illustration of the human consequences of the complete lack of legal recourse of gay and lesbian parents: when a relationship goes wrong (and some of them inevitably will, as all human relationships do), they’re left completely vulnerable and at the mercy of their former partners’ whims. As I said before, I enjoyed almost all of How Beautiful the Ordinary, but I would not hesitate to recommend this anthology for Donnogue’s story alone.

Many thanks to the lovely Kaz Mahoney for sending me this book.

Reviewed at: Stuff as Dreams are Made Of, Becky’s Book Reviews, Bonjour Cass, A Book Blog of One’s Own

(Have I missed yours?)

1 Though I’ll return to this idea from a completely different angle when I review Hanne Blank’s fascinating Straight.

Affiliates disclosure: if you buy a book through one of my affiliates links I will get 5%.


  1. The book sounds really interesting. It is going on my to-read list.

  2. I've wanted to read this for awhile, I'm glad there are some worthwhile stories!

  3. Love love love this review. This has already been added to my Goodreads "Want to Read" list. :D

  4. Wow, what an important collections of stories.

  5. Great review! I'm always hesitant to read anthologies because they can be so hit or miss, but this one sounds worth it.

  6. I'm going to recommend this to a few friends who have teenagers younger than mine.

  7. So nice to read that you liked this book! I loved it when I read it back in 2010. Reading your review made me want to reread at least my favorite stories if not the whole book. Levithan's and Donoghue's stories were also among my favorites. And since reading How Beautiful the Ordinary Emma Donoghue has become one of my favorite authors.

  8. Oh I want to read the Margo Lanagan story the most! I LOVED that poem when I was a kid, LOVED it. I read it a trillion times. And "We resent you. You astonish us," is incredibly touching even in that short excerpt.

  9. I need to get my hands on this book (I'm becoming a David Levithan completist lately so I can justify it that way). And then I will make my teenage nieces read it XD

  10. I really want this. It sounds awesome. To be honest, I almost don't care if the texts are good or not, it is awesome simply for existing. And the bit you quoted from the introduction was awesome. I want to own this book for that bit alone. I really, really want to read this. And I kind of wish I could give a copy to myself a couple of years ago.

  11. Love the quotes you shared. I'm definitely picking this one up soon!


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