In Ash Van Otterloo's winning, authentically queer middle-grade novel, The Beautiful Something Else, a seventh-grader stumbles upon a magical force that pushes them to make the leap from surviving to truly thriving.
Sparrow Malone knows firsthand that making a good impression and blending in can convince people that your home life is stable. But when Sparrow's mom enters rehab, it becomes harder to fly under the radar. Sparrow's maternal aunt, Mags, brings the 12-year-old to her eclectic LGBTQ+ community. "The displaced Malone offspring studies its caregiver tentatively," Sparrow internally mimics a nature documentarian, "uncertain of how to proceed." As Sparrow nervously adjusts to their new situation, they are abruptly confronted by their own shadow acting independently of them. Shadow pantomimes behavior it wants Sparrow to emulate, such as strutting confidently, and speaking up in class. Soon, Shadow convinces Sparrow to branch out and attempt all the items on a list of their mom's strictly forbidden items and behaviors, including "no beets, no sleepovers, no country music, no questions about the past." Sparrow thinks, "My feelings were neatly organized until Shadow showed up and started blurring the lines between my safe emotions and the terrifying ones."
Van Otterloo (Cattywampus) enriches the narrative by beginning each chapter with an excerpt from Sparrow's writing, often paralleling animal adaptations with how Sparrow and their mother have transformed to survive. The plot carefully balances moments of joy in Sparrow's gender journey with the slow exposure of family secrets and the persistent threat of Sparrow's mom's unstable health. The author buoys the book's heavy social themes with comical magical elements and an earnest, fallible protagonist. --Kieran Slattery, freelance reviewer, teacher, co-creator of Gender Inclusive Classrooms