A lot of transformations occur in the lives of Hazel Johnson and Mari McCray. From meeting and forming crushes in 1963 to reuniting in 2015 and nurturing their long-lost love through 2038 and beyond; these queer, black women navigate the changes and regrets of life, love, family, and identity. Their story is a powerful and diverse narrative, whether in reference to LGBTQ experiences, senior love, body sizes, oppressive socio-religious norms, growing social acceptance, or simply processing the choices in one’s life.
The story mainly focuses on Hazel Johnson, a middle schooler lovestruck at meeting the new girl in town, Mari. Mari dubs her Elle, a nickname no one else uses and a term of endearment that gains power through the story’s decades as precious few people accept or even know about Hazel’s romantic interest. Hazel and Mari are clearly compatible, going on dates with good humor and finding time to be together in and out of school, continuing through high school. Both of their families discover them kissing, which leads to a number of religious-fueled denouncements. “My grandmother says I’m an abomination and I’m going to hell,” teenage Mari reports to the love of her life. “Let go of that sinner,” “Beg God to forgive you,” and “Jesus did not die on the cross for this sin,” they are told, though Hazel wonders to herself “Since when is it a sin to be in love?” After their forced separation, both women surrender to arranged marriages and going on with their lives of quietly nursing wounds that won’t heal.
Decades later, Hazel and Mari meet again, at a church bingo game. This time, both ladies have families of their own and a lot of consequence to consider. “I love my family, but deep down inside, I’m truly not happy,” Hazel recognizes, going so far as to say “I’ve been dead inside since 1967.” In order to be as close as they both desire, they have to divorce their husbands and explain their long-hidden love to their families.
Readers who enjoyed The Other Side: An Anthology of Queer Paranormal Romance or Melanie Gillman’s As The Crow Flies will find a lot to love here, as Tee Franklin’s writing, Jenn St-Onge’s art, Joy San’s colors, and Cardinal Rae’s lettering all work together in support of Hazel and Mari’s pure, natural love. As girls and women, these two make each other smile, laugh, and feel comfortable in their skin, and St-Onge never runs out of glowing, joyous facial expressions at every stage to communicate their compatibility. In addition, Hazel and Mari’s outfits and hair are consistently stylish and represent the wealth of expression bubbling within them, from 1963 to the near future. Their lives radiate against the comparatively plain backdrops of suburbia and high school. In scenes populated with family members, a variety of hair styles are shown, whether long, short, shaved, curly, wavy, black, brown, gray, or rainbow. A scene of Hazel lovingly braiding her granddaughter’s hair shows how the activity emotionally grounds both of them and serves as an important bonding ritual. Layouts are clear and easy to follow, and the creative team has good instincts for when to employ a large or full-page panel to show off a powerful emotional moment, whether it’s a warm family celebration, an enraged outburst, or a loving embrace.
There are a couple of minor stumbling blocks in the story in the form of editorial notes referencing digital, supplemental chapters about events outside of the main story. These notes could have been used as miniature advertisements at the end of the book, but in the heart of the action, they might give readers the feeling of missing out on bonus material. Also, at the beginning of the story, Hazel refers to the lighter-skinned Mari as a “honey colored maiden” and “honey glazed goddess.” While used as terms of endearment, these expressions are part of a pattern of non-white characters in literature described as foods and flavors. The pattern only lasts as long as the opening scene, but it’s there.
This 88-page queer black love story has a lot to unpack and appreciate that this review can’t cover out of length concerns, but the central conceit has a lot of characterization and commentary hung with care for the story’s impact and adoration for the central romance. Instances of characters clearly stating their interests or identity will serve as encouragement, reinforcement, and education for readers of all stripes. With official release on Valentine’s Day 2018 and content that falls squarely within a wholesome tween/teen range (no explicit nudity, no swearing besides “Hell,” lots of family drama and reconciliation, a bathtub embrace), audiences will positively swoon to find this on your library’s shelf. Its message of “Love whomever you want to love. Just make sure they’re deserving of your love,” deserves to be embraced by a wide audience.
by Tee Franklin
Art by Jenn St-Onge and Joy San
Publisher Age Rating: 13-16