The front cover of Flamer has a lofty quote from Jarrett J. Krosoczka: “This book will save lives.” It may seem like an overstatement, but when one finishes reading Flamer, they will invariably agree. Flamer may be a devastating read, but it provides a much-needed update to Dan Savage and Terry Miller’s It Gets Better Project that feels current in spite of its mid-1990s setting.
Aiden Navarro is spending his summer earning badges at Boy Scout camp. In the fall, he’ll start at public school, choosing not to return to the Catholic school he’s attended—and where he’s been relentlessly bullied—for years. Aiden is chubby, Filipino, and effeminate, all qualities that render him an easy target for the aggressively masculine white boys at his school (and, for that matter, at Boy Scout camp). Unfortunately, Aiden’s home life is difficult as well. His father is verbally abusive, and his mother leans heavily on Aiden for emotional support after their fights. At its best, Boy Scout camp provides Aiden a refuge, a space where he and fellow campers are free to rank their favorite X-Men characters and where friends value his thoughtful perspectives about how to treat their girlfriends with dignity. At its worst, though, Boy Scout camp is a hotbed of daily micro and macro-aggressions. One camper targets Aiden with a relentless stream of racist comments, and another holds Aiden down to pull out his ponytail, ripping out some of his hair in the process.
In spite of his discomfort with the homophobic jokes other campers make, Aiden is convinced he’s not gay. After all, as he puts it, “Gay boys like other boys. I HATE boys.” But after daydreaming that he is Jean Grey to his bunkmate Elias’s Cyclops and experiencing a handful of other clues—like an accidental erection in the boys’ shower—he begins to suspect he is different from his girl-obsessed peers. He writes to his BFF Violet to express his concerns. After a particularly embarrassing moment with Elias, and suspecting that Violet’s lack of response to his letter means she’s ashamed of him, Aiden reaches a breaking point. He contemplates suicide and is confronted by a humanoid manifestation of the fire inside him; a flame, often used as a pejorative for queerness, is literally his savior. This powerful moment is likely to resonate with anyone who has tried to push away an aspect of their identity only to realize it is integral to who they are.
Curato’s art, in colored pencil and ink wash, is predominantly drawn in thick, pastel-like black and white lines. Curato uses fiery spot colors to indicate particularly emotional moments, such as scenes where Aiden is being bullied or where Aiden feels conflicted about his Catholic background. There are three particularly powerful panels of artwork I’d like to highlight. In one, Aiden is sinking into a deep pool of water created by his mother’s tears. Another is reminiscent of the Rider-Waite tarot deck’s Nine of Swords: Aiden is covering his eyes in his bed in one corner of the full-page spread, while the walls around him are scrawled with his own negative self-talk. The third depicts Aiden, saved by the fire inside him, reborn as a phoenix in flames.
Curato includes a handful of practical resources alongside the narrative. Since the story takes place at summer camp, Curato seizes the opportunity to teach the reader about aspects of camping, such as different knot shapes, orienteering, hemp bracelet stitches, and how to find and use good firewood. Additionally, after Curato’s afterword, in which he details how Aiden’s story is similar to his own experiences, he shares information for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline and the TrevorLifeline.
Flamer doesn’t sugarcoat its subject material, so readers who enjoyed the similar handling of tough subjects for tweens in Tillie Walden’s Spinning and Kacen Callender’s King and the Dragonflies are sure to love this book. With its soft-edged illustrations and frequent daydream sequences, Flamer retains an otherworldly quality even while grounded in the real world’s brutalities. This truly intersectional queer graphic novel is a must-have for all libraries serving teens and adults.
By Mike Curato
Henry Holt Books for Young Readers, 2020
Publisher Age Rating: 14-18
Title Details and Representatio
NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+), Older Teen (16-18), Teen (13-16)
Creator Representation: Filipino-American, Gay,
Character Representation: Filipino-American, Gay, Catholic