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THE BLACK FLAMINGO
May 26, 2020
Balzer + Bray
Michael is a high school teenager in London who is trying to figure out who he is. A big part of that for him is understanding his sexuality—how he identifies himself, who he is attracted to, and why. But he’s also just trying to navigate a world where he is quickly and negatively judged for his skin color and hair style, where people continually feel compelled to comment on his mixed ancestry, where his father doesn’t want to have anything to do with him, where his mother is doing the best she can with very little to raise two kids on her own.
Michael goes to college and, while the experience starts off a little rocky, he eventually finds his way to The Drag Society, a group of drag queens and kings whose local performances are both entertaining and educational. The book culminates with Michael taking part in his first show as his drag persona, The Black Flamingo.
I heard nothing but good things about this book, but, I’ll be honest, I probably wouldn’t have picked it up if my book club hadn’t chosen it. It’s a YA book written in verse, so it’s not exactly my go-to genre or format. But I’m really glad I read it. At first, I had the same issue I always have with YA: I simply wanted more than the book could give me. It may be 416 pages long, but even seriously intense experiences (like rape, breakups, rejection by family, etc.) are mentioned and then almost immediately passed over. It drives me a little crazy when I can’t get more detail and depth in a story…
But once I accepted the format for what it was and just went with the flow, I really enjoyed it. Michael is an interesting character—smart, resourceful, creative, authentic, expressive, and also so sweetly vulnerable. I loved watching him slowly find his voice over time. His performance at the end left me teary-eyed. He’s also very different from me, so getting a glimpse into his life and his struggles felt special, noteworthy. I haven’t read many books that feature a gay main character, and I don’t think I’ve read any where the main character dresses in drag. I stepped out of my comfort zone a bit with The Black Flamingo, and I understand another human better now after reading it. That’s what a good story is all about.
I was going to give this book four stars—it is YA after all—but I can’t stop thinking about other kids like Michael who may need to read this exact story. And maybe even more important, I keep thinking of other kids who aren’t like Michael who definitely need to read this story. It’s so accessible and well written—and (sadly) so unique—that I’m giving this one five stars.