I was so excited to read the sequel to The Paper & Hearts Society, and Lucy Powrie does not disappoint. Read with Pride is another perfect blend of young adult drama, social awareness, and of course, a shameless love of books.
Olivia Santos (confirmed demisexual, woo!) learns at the start of Year Eleven that her school now requires parental permission to borrow books from the library—all because one parent complained about her son having access to LGBTQ+ themed material. Boo. Olivia, who, if you read The Paper & Hearts Society you’ll know, is a diehard bookworm will not stand idly by. I think this exchange between her and the school librarian clearly sums up Olivia’s character:
“Olivia …” Miss Carter warned. Olivia could see the worry in her eyes. “Don’t do anything that will get you into trouble. It’s an important year to play by the rules.”
“Would I ever break the rules?” Olivia replied sweetly.
“That’s what worries me. When it comes to books, I don’t know what you’ll do.”
That last line made me laugh out loud when I read it. It’s so Powrie, of course—a love of books is foundational to her and her prose, something I’ll get to in a bit. More importantly, this is the exchange that sets up the rest of the book.
Olivia Santos is a fundamentally different protagonist from the shy, anxious Tabby of The Paper & Hearts society. She is a gregarious, extroverted individual who isn’t afraid to take charge and keep on top of everyone. She is, in short, the perfect person to start a revolution after the school’s draconian measures radicalize her.
And make no mistake: Read with Pride is about being radical, a call to action to its readers to do something when you see oppression and injustice rather than just sit by and be passive. There is a stereotype that we readers are passive people, that we experience the world vicariously. That we speculate and ponder and pontificate from our armchairs. Olivia and her fellow queer and allied conspirators challenge that notion. They also challenge the idea that 16- and 17-year-old kids are shiftless, lazy, or unable to contribute in a meaningful political way.
Because when you go back to that quotation above, the last line is intended to be funny, but the first line—where Miss Carter advises Olivia that she should “play by the rules” is the most telling. I taught high school in the UK for 2 years, and one of the least enjoyable things about that system was exactly the kind of ruthless conformity enjoined on our students. Conform to the uniform code. Sit still and don’t speak out of turn. Memorize your Shakespeare quotes. Get a good grade on those mock exams. This is a form of state violence against our youth, and it is not only a squandering and betrayal of their potential and their humanity, but it’s a direct contradiction of our exhortations to “change the world.” We urge our children to grow up and become brilliant climate scientists, or inventors, or artists. Yet the moment they stand up and say something original, the moment they take a stand for their beliefs when those beliefs conflict with the establishment and authority, they are summarily punished and told that they are too young, that they aren’t ready, that they don’t know enough.
Powrie replicates this experience in Read with Pride in quite a deft way. Olivia’s group pressures the school leadership with just the right vectors that will be familiar to today’s teen reader—they harness social media, get some press out there about their cause, etc. The message here is clear: you can do something; you can have a positive effect. It won’t always be easy and it won’t always happen the way you envision, but you don’t have to stand by while injustice occurs.
But when you take a stand, you have to be careful with burnout. That’s the flip side of Read with Pride. Olivia takes on way too much, and it comes at the expense of her mental health as well as some of her relationships. The conflict between her and Cassie, for example, while quite predictable is nevertheless extremely realistic. There is one scene in particular, where she and Cassie have a knock-down-drag-out argument over how little time Olivia is spending with her, and it is so realistic. I swear, I’ve had a similar conversation at least once in my lifetime with some of my platonic friends. I think adult readers of YA often forget that teens are not fully-formed adults yet—and even adults behave way irrationally at times, so how should we expect teens to? Olivia’s behaviour is so understandable given her age, the stress she puts herself under, and her obsession and passion for her activism. Fortunately, she has some kickass friends—both old and new—to help her out.
I wish we had spent more time with the rest of the Paper & Hearts group. To be fair, Powrie provides some character development for some of them, particularly Ed. The club features prominently in this book, both in its actual manifestation of its meetings as well as each friend’s role in helping Olivia through her crisis. Nevertheless, if there’s a critique to be found of Read with Pride, it’s that its perspective focuses so squarely on Olivia that we miss out on some of the charm of Tabby, Henry, Ed, and Cassie.
That being said, I’m certain in declaring this a superior sequel. It demonstrates such growth in Powrie’s writing, both in style and in substance. If The Paper & Hearts Society is Powrie’s love letter to how reading can improve one’s personal mental health, Read with Pride is her love letter to how reading can improve society. All of these characters discussing their favourite books—their favourite queer books, often enough, books that inspired them or helped them—are great. Like, you can’t turn a page without one character or another dropping another title, and it’s such a joyful experience to share as a reader. Additionally, Powrie includes at least one character who is self-professedly not a reader (although that perhaps changes), and I appreciate that she acknowledges this perspective (and that Olivia et al do not shun this person).
By the way, that same person is trans, and I love how Powrie handles the pronouns here. Earlier in the book when we meet Rocky, who is non-binary, Powrie has Nell use Rocky’s “they/them” pronouns when talking to Olivia before we learn why those are being used. When we meet Morgan, Powrie carefully avoids using any pronouns to refer to Morgan until she finally confides in the group that is a closeted trans girl. It’s quite deft and easy to miss if you aren’t looking for it (which, you know, I kind of am these days).
Indeed, it’s important to note and shoutout the diversity of queer experiences Powrie includes in Read with Pride which is, ultimately, a book entirely about the importance of supporting our queer youth. Non-binary, gay, bi, trans, demisexual, aromantic … the list goes on, and Powrie does her best to demonstrate the vastness of the LGBTQ+ umbrella. (There is also a fantastic moment where the group reassures one kid that it’s ok that he wants to participate in their resistance movement but stay in the closet—closeted queer people are hella valid, and I love that Powrie included this scene.) I did tear up a little reading all the various #ReadWithPride stories that people submit to the group, culminating, of course, in Olivia’s own story. Those moments resonated deeply with me, as someone who has known she’s asexual and aromantic for a very long time but has only recently come out to herself and others as trans. I’m watching the Disclosure doc on Netflix (review on my blog to come), and it just makes me think about how maybe if trans representation in TV and movies (and books) had been better when I was growing up, maybe I would have realized sooner.
That is, ultimately, what Read with Pride is all about. It is a clarion call of the importance of supporting our queer youth, and of nurturing them, and of listening to them when they try to tell us what they already know. It is an unapologetic assertion that books can change people’s lives for the better, and as Olivia demonstrates from cover to cover, books are worth fighting over. In an era where our youth are literate but older generations seem to be content to swim in a sea of fake news and questionable sources, it is so, so important that we remember this, and that we keep fighting, and that we always read with pride.