Author: Kate Fussner
Content Warnings: Depression; language use
Genre: Middle Grade Sapphic/LGBT Romance
Release Date: May 30, 2023
RATING out of 10 violets, with 1 being the least and 10 being the most pain
5/10 realistic coming-of-age violets.
This review contains spoilers.
I was so excited when Kate Fussner approached me with an Advanced Reader Copy (ARC) of her debut middle grade novel-in-verse, The Song of Us. I grew up in a time when “queer” and “gay” were especially dirty words, so suffice it to say I never read a middle grade book with explicitly queer characters until this one.
As a teenager, I devoured every single one of Ellen Hopkins’ Young Adult novels-in-verse, and I was thrilled to see Fussner had taken a similar approach for Olivia and Eden’s story. I credit Hopkins’ novels with creating my voracious desire to read in my teenage years because of the depth and complexity of her verse. I felt that same desire propelling me through The Song of Us, not just because of how easily it reads but because of the brilliant way Fussner harnesses form to deliver such stunning, thought-provoking content.
A Hidden Present
I somehow missed
and what surprises me
most is the smile she wears
as she hands it to me.
(I had forgotten how she presses
her tongue behind her teeth
when she manages
a real real smile and
it’s not like a gritted-teeth emoji,
more like flowers pressing up
through frozen earth
and maybe that is the hidden gift.)Kate Fussner, The Song of Us
This passage I’ve reproduced from Fussner’s ARC is one of the many instances where the author’s breathtaking imagery reminded me of when I fell in love with language itself. In its complex simplicity, this moment between Olivia and her mother is so beautifully powerful, for it centers how important it is to Olivia that her mother returns to her old, “real” self. While this novel is marketed as a Orpheus and Eurydice retelling for the relationship between the two middle school girls, Olivia and Eden, in many ways, it is retold and reinterpreted through the loss and regaining of Olivia’s relationship with her mother as well.
I deeply appreciated how this book talks about the difficult topic of depression through Olivia’s mother. I haven’t read any MG books where the author was brave enough to talk about such serious content so frankly. Fussner’s intended audience is certainly of the age where they can see and understand (to a degree) their parents’ suffering, and I think it’s especially important to talk about the particular dynamic that arises when parents are not fully available to help their children through their own difficulties (in this case, Olivia’s sexuality) when they’re battling their own demons.
While no child should feel that they cannot go to their parents for emotional support, Fussner spotlights what happens to the queer child, who believes their particular brand of suffering (coming out, for Olivia) can be “pushed aside.” This is why I feel Fussner’s novel hits it out of the park: it addresses the fact that children’s (in)ability to discuss the profound turmoil of discovering one’s own queerness is often (and repeatedly) put off because the child believes that their identity is not as time-sensitive as the pressures of their parents’ day-to-day difficulties. Those who read The Song of Us will not only feel seen with regard to this struggle, but they’ll also find some hope here: even in Olivia’s mother’s darkest moments, she’s able to offer insight and support because, ultimately, her love for her child outweighs whatever she’s got going on in her own life. I adored the positivity of Olivia’s relationship with her mother, despite how dark it got at times. That, for me, was the silver lining of this darker subject matter. (The scene where Olivia finds her mother on the floor, talking about not wanting to live anymore keeps coming back to me in the weeks that have elapsed since I’ve read this book, and it hurts me anew every time. I should clarify that the pain score does not account for this scene–the purpose of this blog is to rate queer pain, not the pain of all characters in the text.)
The romance between Olivia and Eden is as exciting as I could’ve hoped for. Fussner captures the dual excitement of falling in love and coming out all at the same time, and she manages to paint middle school (at least for the first act of her novel) in such a rosy light I became momentarily nostalgic for my own middle school years. But this story is not devoid of reality–Eden is subsumed into a friend group that Olivia detests, and Eden’s desire to fit in forces her into multiple situations where she’s shoved into a closet for 7 minutes of hell with whatever boy these girls see fit. And when Olivia sees what appear to be hickies on Eden’s neck, she calls her a “slut.” While Olivia is appropriately melodramatic for a middle schooler, it doesn’t take the sting out of the insult. Olivia spends the rest of the novel trying to correct her mistake and win Eden back, but, in the end, it hardly matters.
The ending–which can be construed as the most painful part of this beautiful story about self-discovery–is difficult. I contemplated rating this book more harshly on the pain scale because of Eden’s father’s decision to transfer her to another school in hopes of “fixing” her, but I ultimately landed on 5 “violets” because both Olivia and Eden were able to recognize their time together (and apart) for what it was–a formative, sometimes beautiful, sometimes challenging first encounter with their sexualities and with love. Realistically, middle school relationships rarely last into high school, and if they do, they even more rarely last into adulthood, so I cannot fault Fussner for separating our sapphic lovers at the end of the novel. Whereas this ending in a young adult, new adult, or adult romance would send me into a tantrum, the way in which Fussner handles this separation, and the brave way in which Olivia and Eden face the fate that neither of them have the power to change, leaves me hopeful. The fact that Eden is able to compose music and post it on YouTube to “broadcast” her love across time and space back to Olivia is beautiful and brave. Although they weren’t able to be physically together, Olivia successfully repaired their friendship and relationship with Olivia’s performance at poetry night, and there is no stopping them from becoming internet pen pals.
There’s another reason why I feel that this ending is fitting for a middle-grade novel and not as damaging as it would be in a text suited for an older audience. Fussner’s target audience (11-14-year-olds) is not going to get their way at this age. Olivia and Eden couldn’t run away, and there is no way to overrule what their parents want for them. Just like Olivia and Eden, they’re going to have to take whatever connection they can find and cherish it until they are old enough to go and create their own happy endings for themselves. Portraying a situation in which children/tweens like Eden are still able to find and sustain meaningful connections with their peers despite their prejudiced parents’ wishes was the realistic (and responsible) way to go about this, for not every child/tween is as lucky as Olivia is with her own mother, who not only understands but supports her daughter in her quest to win Eden back.
In a time when the rights of LGBTQ+ individuals are on the chopping block every single day (especially in the United States), it would have been irresponsible to release a book that refuses to acknowledge all the prejudice that queer children face. Rather, Fussner’s bold decision to write a story containing realistic (although horrific) responses to children’s/tweens’ queer identities arms today’s kids with the hope that although today looks bleak, their future can–and will–be better because they will one day have the power and agency to live their lives however they want to.