From cartoonist, illustrator, and storyteller Aliza Layne, Beetle & the Hollowbones is a wonderful new graphic novel for readers under 13. Revolving around young teens teaming together to save both the local mall – and a friend in the process – in Layne’s hands the story unfolds with vivid color schemes and delightful and expressive characters.
Beetle features the genre’s typical fare with magic and supernatural elements, and lessons learned while the kids save the day. There’s even a long-overdue kiss between two teens discovering they are in love. What is refreshingly different, though, is the casual manner in which Beetle & the Hollowbones normalizes and affirms queer kids, gender fluidity, and ethnic diversity.
The story revolves around the protagonist Beetle and her efforts to balance teen life with the intense study and training that is required to become a full-fledged goblin-witch. While her guardian grandmother is teaching her how to fly a broom and concoct basic potions, Beetle wants nothing more than to hang at the local mall with her best friend, the nonbinary Blob Ghost. Beetle lives at home with her grandmother in the little village of ’Allows. Her grandmother is a powerful and respected witch who spends her hours making house calls to repair the damage done by locals when their magic goes awry.
Things heat up when Beetle’s former best friend, Kat Hollowbones, returns home from sorcery school to continue her training with her magically powerful aunt. It’s clear there’s something more to their friendship, and the relationship grows. It turns out they were the best of friends before Kat left for school and they had spent countless hours together writing fan fiction and enjoying each other’s company.
Tensions arise when it is revealed that Kat’s aunt has bought the mall and intends to tear it down for nefarious and selfish reasons. Meanwhile, Blob is unable to leave the mall, tethered there by some unknown force that prevents them from advancing past the parking lot. The struggle now becomes a matter of life and death for Blob. Eventually, Beetle, Kat, and Blob team up in a search of clues to free Blob and save the mall. Their plans get thrown a curve, though, when Beetle and Kat have a fight, and it’s unclear whether their friendship — or Blob and the mall — will survive.
Beetle & the Hollowbones is refreshingly down-to-earth about centering positive female role models, same-sex relationships, and queer and nonbinary characters. There is no fanfare announcing that Blob Ghost is nonbinary, for example. The reader is alerted only through the use of gender-neutral pronouns by Beetle and Kat. Beetle and Kat’s relationship is treated matter-of-factly too. It’s clear that both are more attached to the other than either girl might care to admit. The normally talkative Beetle finds herself flustered and stammering when they meet again in the mall for the first time since Kat’s return, and Kat seems just as desperate to hang with her old friend.
There is no soul-searching on the significance of same-sex attractions or being a queer youth. Instead, it’s just another part of the natural and accepted order of things in ’Allows. There is a clear message, in fact, several messages, wrapped in Beetle & the Hollowbones, but the beauty is that these lessons reside more in the subtext rather than being spelled out. The approach coincides with the evolving understanding of sexual and gender identity, and the foundation of acceptance allows the reader to focus on the story of two teens discovering the depth of their affection for each other.
Equally refreshing is the diversity of characters and their acceptance of each other. There are no arguments about the supremacy of goblins and witches over ghosts or sorceresses. They may not always get along, but it’s not because of inherent differences. Instead, conflict arises naturally, such as with an unexpected and emotional fight between Beetle and Kat, or between Beetle’s grandmother and Kat’s aunt in the thrilling climax.
In the end, Beetle & the Hollowbones is an engaging and beautifully told and illustrated story that just happens to have queer characters – and that’s what makes it such an inspiring read. Pick it up today from Simon & Schuster.