Book Review: Flamer

Flamer by Mike Curato

I’m starting off Pride Month with a review of a Young Adult graphic novel from 2020. YA is not my usual preferred category for reading, but I happened across a review of this book in May and it sounded really interesting. If you’ve not read it, check out this tweet from the author - the book is on sale for $2.99 through the end of June.

Mike Curato’s graphic novel Flamer deals with some pretty intense topics for a young adult coming of age book. Clearly written from the heart, this is the  semi-autobiographical account of young Aiden Navarro’s time at summer camp in the year between middle school and high school. You can read this book in one sitting, yet its message will likely stay with you for quite a bit longer. It’s easy to see why this book was awarded the 2020 Lambda Literary Award for the LGBTQ Young Adult category.

The blurb I see most often quoted in reviews about this book is that "this book will save lives", from author Jarrett J. Krosoczka. But the one that strikes me as most appropriate is from an NPR review - “[Mike Curato] knows [boys] like Judy Blume knows a teenaged girl, and that's quite a bit.” That is so true - this book struck me as being very realistic, and I think that’s why it’s remained popular. Two years on it still sits at #16 on Amazon for YA Coming of Age graphic novels.

I should warn you right now that the rest of this review is one big spoiler, so if you don’t want this book spoiled for you, you should stop reading now.

Ok, with that out of the way - it’s 1995, and Aiden is fourteen.  He’s just graduated from St. Michael’s, a Catholic middle school, and is headed for public school in the fall. He’s overweight, and feels fat. Mom and Dad argue a lot and his mom sometimes leans on Aiden for support after his dad has been really angry with her. He worries about his mom, and that’s a heavy weight for a fourteen year old. He was the subject of teasing by the other boys at St. Michael’s because he’s also a bit of a sissy.

At Boy Scout camp Aiden is part of the “Flaming Arrow patrol” along with five other boys. While he mostly fits in and likes camp, he’s clearly not like the other boys. Fourteen year old boys are a handful one on one, but get a group of them together and they’ll soon be comparing notes, and acting out, about their experiences with masturbation, porn, night dreams, and girls.  As Aiden tries to understand all of this, he struggles to come to terms with the idea that he might be gay. 

Things come to a head after Aiden is bullied by one of the other boys and also takes things a bit too far in expressing his feelings for his tentmate. Feeling like he’s not living up to his faith’s teachings, and that he’s letting everyone around him down, Aiden contemplates suicide. 

I really liked parts of this book, especially the realism of the portrayals of teenage boys struggling with coming of age. It’s been a while since I was a teenage boy, but all the things Aiden goes through struck a chord. It was powerful to see on the page the same thoughts and experiences I too went through. 

For me though, the “fire of life in your soul” that is personified and helps Aiden deal with his thoughts of suicide, while creative, struck me as too hokey for a book that had been so realistic up until that point. So I felt a bit let down by that, even if it was a device that helped to deliver the key message of the book.

But what redeemed the book, and made it special for me was the fact that Aiden, after struggling alone with his thoughts, and inadvertently showing his true self, still finds acceptance, not only within himself, but also with his friends. That really warmed my heart. Maybe even set it aflame.

Rating: Four Stars ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Steve's Book Stuff participates in affiliate programs for the booksellers asterisked below.  Purchases you make through an affiliate link will return a small commission to me, at no additional cost to you. Thanks for your support, it helps me buy books to read and review!

Borrow or Purchase Flamer here:

šŸ“™  Borrow this book: Find out if your library has the ebook or audiobook available through OverDrive or Libby.

šŸ“˜ Buy this book: Amazon* | Barnes & Noble | Books-A-Million | AbeBooks* | Powell’s | ThriftBooks 

šŸ“— Support Indie Bookstores: Buy this book directly from* or find an Independent Bookstore near you*

šŸ“š Visit my shop to shop all my reviewed books.  

Title: Flamer
Author: Mike Curato
Publisher: Henry Holt  and Co. BYR Paperbacks (MacMillan)
Publish Date: September 1, 2020
ISBN-13: 9781250756145
Publisher’s List Price: $17.99 (Trade Paperback as of 05/2022)