Kings, Queens, and In-Betweens by Tanya Boteju
Perpetually awkward Nima Kumara-Clark is bored with her insular community of Bridgeton, in love with her straight girlfriend, and trying to move past her mother’s unexpected departure. After a bewildering encounter at a local festival, Nima finds herself suddenly immersed in the drag scene on the other side of town.
Macho drag kings, magical queens, new love interests, and surprising allies propel Nima both painfully and hilariously closer to a self she never knew she could be—one that can confidently express and accept love. But she’ll have to learn to accept lost love to get there.
Like many people, I was drawn to Kings, Queens, and In-Betweens because it sounded like it would be a great celebration of diversity and inclusion. At a 3.81 average on Goodreads, it’s not doing amazing, but it’s a pretty solid average. And I can see why people have enjoyed this book. It’s about acceptance, both of yourself and those around you. It features multiple characters coming to terms with aspects of their lives that they can’t change, from the way their parents act to their gender identities.
And I want to make it clear that I think that all of that is great. I think those are really important themes for young adult books and I think it’s even more great that this book features characters of color and introduces teens to the drag community in a really positive way. My problems with this book are in its subtler messages.
Everything from this point on may include spoilers, so proceed with caution.
Alright, so there were a few things about this book that really bothered me.
The one I’ll start with left me thinking, “wait, did that actually just happen?!” Some context: I am in my late 20s. Aside from relatives and conversations in a professional context, I have not associated with any high schoolers in almost a decade. When I was in high school, I thought I was basically an adult. I was not, and the actual adults around me knew that. In this book, Nima is seventeen years old. She befriends, and later that same night has a sleepover with, a thirty-five year old woman. Deirdre is portrayed as this really benevolent maternal figure, bestowing advice upon Nima and her friends and giving them a place to stay when they need it. I want to clarify that Deirdre doesn’t do anything illegal throughout the course of the book. But what thirty-five-year-old woman wants to go home with a seventeen-year-old girl? What thirty-five-year-old woman thinks it’s appropriate to crash on said seventeen-year-old’s couch? What parent wakes up to this and thinks, “Yeah, this is normal, let’s make pancakes?” It just felt icky and gross and set off every alarm in my mind.
The second thing I want to bring up is the message that it’s okay to be a terrible person just because you’re going through some stuff. We all know that teenagers can be terrible. I probably had my fair share of terrible days when I was a teenager. But there are some characters in this book, Gordon in particular, who are terrible about 98% of the time. And yes, Gordon is going through some stuff. He’s struggling with his gender identity (a plot point that is never really resolved, by the way) and seems to live with an abusive father (another point that is never really resolved). He’s angry at everything, he lashes out, he makes fun of people to make himself feel better, he constantly cracks jokes about Nima being a lesbian, and he’s just all-around that guy you would have avoided in high school. And yet, once Nima finds out that he’s struggling with his gender identity (he’s never referred to as trans, so I’m not really sure how to describe it other than that), all is forgiven. Gordon is allowed to be a terrible person. At one point, after she’s been hanging out with Gordon for a bit, one of Nima’s friends asks her if he’s still a terrible person. She says yes. Gordon is never really called out for his behavior, other than an offhand comment from Nima asking him to stop calling her names.
The third thing is the age difference between Nima and Winnow. It’s not nearly as dramatic as the age difference between Nima and Deirdre, but it’s still icky. As I said, Nima is seventeen. She’s in high school. Winnow is a girl that Nima meets at a drag show and falls in love with, completely forgetting her previous crush, Ginny, who she’d been constantly pining over up until that point. (More on Ginny later.) Winnow is also twenty-one years old. I have no problem with an age difference between consenting adults, but a seventeen-year-old who is still in high school should not be trying to hook up with a twenty-one-year-old who has their own apartment. Or, at least, that twenty-one-year-old should not entertain those efforts, invite the seventeen-year-old to a party, provide them with alcohol, and try to kiss them. Nima is so clearly uncomfortable hanging out with Winnow’s friends, and yet she continually tries to be cool to win Winnow’s affection. Winnow doesn’t do anything overtly creepy, and she does try her best to make sure that Nima feels included, but Nima is so out of her comfort zone that she can’t even articulate what’s wrong to Winnow and just ends up getting drunk a lot. There’s such a difference in the level of maturity between Nima and Winnow that I wondered how on earth those two thought they’d make a good couple.
The fourth thing is the book’s message that if you’re a good person, you’ll forgive everything that anybody does to you with no questions asked. I’ve talked about a lot of the more questionable aspects of this book and a few of the pretty questionable things the characters do. One of the messages of the book seems to be that the good people in your life will allow you to do bad things with no repercussions. Now, I’m a pretty forgiving person. I tend to put up with more than I probably should from the people in my life. (I’m working on that, though.) But the characters in this book are just on a different level. Get super drunk and throw up on someone you’ve just met? No big deal, they’ll just take you home with them! Make out with a girl you don’t even have feelings for just because? Totally fine, you can still be friends! Make fun of someone for no other reason than they’re gay? As long as you have your own issues, it’s all good. It’s portrayed as totally reasonable to just blindly forgive people, because that’s what good people do, and that is a toxic mentality to present to teenagers, the target demographic of this book. I am here to tell you that if someone makes you mad or does bad things to you, you do not have to forgive them. If you want to forgive them, you can, but you should not force yourself to get over things because it’s “the right thing to do.”
A subpoint here is Ginny, a straight girl who knows that Nima has a crush on her. As the book opens, Nima is crushing hard. She knows that Ginny doesn’t like girls but she also knows that her crush on Ginny isn’t going anywhere. She attempts to ask Ginny out and is promptly shut down in the nicest way possible, because Ginny is described as being the nicest person possible. Nima’s crush on Ginny mostly disappears after she meets Winnow, but makes a brief reappearance during an odd scene in which Nima is trying on clothes and requires Ginny’s assistance with a shirt that gets stuck. All of a sudden, Nima and Ginny are full-on making out in the dressing room… until Ginny abruptly pulls away, talking about how she got carried away and isn’t into girls and was just experimenting. I’m sorry, how is that supposed to be okay? Why is Ginny’s behavior never called out?
The last thing is not so much a problematic aspect, but just an annoying one: the fact that Nima falls into that typical YA trope of “beautiful girl who doesn’t know she’s beautiful.” Nima constantly mentions how she’s so unattractive, nobody could ever want her, so on and so forth, and yet every single person who meets her refers to her as “adorable.” It made me roll my eyes every time!
All in all, I wanted to love this book for its diversity and its message of acceptance, but I had too many issues with the actual content to rate it any higher than one star. I’m really disappointed in a lot of things that happen in this book and just hope that any teenagers who read it will question its more problematic aspects.
Have you read Kings, Queens, and In-Betweens? Do we agree or did you love it?
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