Published by Henry Holt and Company (BYR) on September 1, 2020
Genres: Comics & Graphic Novels, Coming of Age, LGBTQ, Young Adult Fiction
In Mike Curato’s excellent graphic novel Flamer, Aiden Navarro, a queer Filipino-American teen, comes to terms with his sexuality while at a Scout summer camp. Aiden is attending camp between the end of middle school and the start of high school, a critical time for any teen. During the week Aiden grapples with fitting in, a peer crush, and bullying. Aiden becomes progressively isolated during summer camp leading to the novel’s dramatic conclusion. Curato’s graphic novel focuses on themes related to the intersectionality among queerness, race, body image, and religion.
The fantastic artwork in Curato’s novel is mainly sketched in black and white, but fiery pops of color are used to evoke emotional moments in the story. Curato perfectly captures the brutal and gross words of adolescent boys. Throughout the story at summer camp, Curato expertly weaves in key moments of Aiden’s childhood throughout the narrative. Aiden is given a strong character arc that leads to a well-deserved development at the story’s conclusion.
I devoured this graphic novel in one sitting, because of how engrossing and relatable the story was. I am a gay male who is also an Eagle Scout, like the author. The story makes me nostalgic for the fun of scout summer camp, but Aiden’s story also reminds me of situations I had in Scouting where I felt different than my heterosexual peers. Aiden goes days without showering to avoid being naked around any of his fellow campers, until he is noticeably smelly. While I didn’t abstain from showering, I remember waiting to shower when fewer people would be around. Removing clothes around my fellow scouts made me anxious. I’m sure being naked around same-sex peers is stressful for most adolescents, but for queer boys there is added stress because they may also need to face their burgeoning attraction towards other boys. I also remember conversations about girls starting around that time amongst fellow scouts. I distinctly recall feeling different from my fellow scouts. I didn’t feel the same way as them when talking about girls and sex, but I learned to join the conversations and fake the same feelings for the sake of fitting in. At that time being called gay was one of the worst possible insults, hence everyone using the phrase “no homo” to defend their “straightness”. Unfortunately, Aiden can’t blend in with his fellow scouts and he is bullied for simply being himself.
The book is immensely helpful for young teens. Curato’s book has the power to save lives of at-risk queer teens grappling with their identity, as well as building tolerance in straight readers. I wish this was taught in middle school English classes instead of the typical dated, heteronormative “classics”.
Trigger Warning: Self-harm, Bullying