Being different is wonderful, amazing and thrilling.
But when you are growing up, still trying find that authentic sense of self, it can be excruciatingly awful too, especially if you are alone in your arduous growing up journey and also beset by the usual unthinking torch-and-pitchforks mobs of idiotic bullies and mainstream-upholding zealots.
Thankfully none of the kids in Alison Evans’ uplifting Young Adult, Euphoria Kids, are troubled by moronically cruel defenders of the status quo, but they are, all of them, in their own ways, coming to grips with it means to be truly, completely, themselves.
The journey we take with them is not a complete one, as we meet them partway through their high school years, but it is a profoundly meaningful one as we see the three central characters get to know each other and become firm friends, after years of lonely isolation, and in so doing, get to know themselves better.
The first person we meet is Iris, a child of a deeply in love, back to nature lesbian couple, Clover and Moss, who is grown, in ways both metaphorical and literal, from a seed in the garden.
She is made of plants, a way of marking out that all the characters in this book, while human, do not have the most conventional of beginnings, save for one.
“Before the rose was there, the garden was full of moss. I started as a seed under it, waiting for the right time to sprout. Clover waited, and waited, and tended the garden, and didn’t listen to anyone who said she should give up. Moss, my other mother, she waited too. But Clover was the one who came out every morning and told me about her night, what she was planning on cooking that day, how Moss was going.” (P. 1)
As a child of nature, Iris, who identifies as non-binary (meaning no assigned or adopted gender), spends her days, when she’s not at school, talking to her fae friend Saltkin, beginning to practise spells and coming to grips with what it means to be them.
Iris is a wholly enchanting lovely person who is happy to wander into the other magical realm in the bush behind her home in Melbourne, Australia, who is friends with dyads and who, by virtue of a rose quartz with an accompanying “spell for friends”, comes to meet the often-invisible, trans girl Babs.
And this is not a metaphorical thing (though it does speak on some level to the invisibility many of us feel in out teenage years) but a literal one; having had a curse placed on her by a witch in the bush when she was younger, Babs blinks in and out of existence, making her unable to be seen by anyone other than her devoted Mum, who has Fibromyalgia and who is a skilled practitioner of spells for her clients, and Livia at the local cafe, Eagelfern, making her very lonely and cut off from the world.
Thankfully, Babs meets Iris one day in one of her visible moments and the two become fast friends, spending their days at each other’s home, eating delicious food, beginning their beautiful journey as practitioner of the magical arts, and in tune with each other and nature.
Watching the friendship develop between these two charming teenagers is a delight, not simply being party to anyone emerging from loneliness to meaningful connection is a joy, but because for each other, it is a profound to becoming more certain and secure in their identities.
That is the ongoing theme of Euphoria Kids, which riffs on the idea of “gender dysphoria”, choosing to take a more positive perspective on the process of coming to terms with your true self, one which continues when the two fast and firm friends come to know The Boy – he is still searching for his new name and thus stays unnamed for much of this warm hug of an affirming novel – a trans Arab boy who, like Iris and Babs, has an understanding and supportive parent in Mahmoud.
This is a world where you are, no matter who you rare in affirmed and celebrated, and while not everything goes the way of these kids since when is the world ever that continually kind, it is protective and loving far more often than it is not, giving kids who might be struggling with their identity a safe place in which to explore who they truly are.
In many ways, Euphoria Kids reminds you of those warm and cosy Famous Five books by Enid Blyton (but obviously with a decidedly more pronounced and welcome queer twist) in which a tight group of friends would exist, for the most part, in a world which truly and unquestioningly accepted them and in which they were free to do as they wanted.
That is often the case with Babs and Iris in particular who may not go to school some days if they have something more important to do, or whose parents endlessly love and support them in ways that come with boundaries but gives them plenty of room to explore who they are and the kinds of lives they want to live.
“I pat her back and she cries some more.
‘Why don’t we find her?’ I ask.
‘I don’t understand why Nova wouldn’t want me to know.’ She’s stopped crying, but she’s breathing heavy and she leans on my shoulder.
‘They want to protect you.’
‘I don’t need protecting,’ she mutters. (P. 153)
There is a magical beauty to Euphoria Kids which exults in the idea of being different.
This is not done in some militant or hardcore defensive way; rather the novel celebrates what it means to not conform to the mainstream and how that is nothing to be embarrassed or ashamed of but something to be celebrated and enjoyed.
If you are an older queer adult of any stripe who most likely grew up being told you were wrong or perverted or broken, Euphoria Kids is a glorious release, a chance to lose yourself in a world when no one is any of those things but beautifully complete and wholly valued people.
But for the intended audience, it must be a comforting revelation, a moment when all those things about themselves that may not make sense against a standard template of what people should be like, come into focus and they come to see that who they are is everything good and wonderful.
Euphoria Kids is a joyously uplifting read, not just “perfect for fans of Studio Ghibli” as fellow YA author Katya de Beccera observes, though there is a magically whimsical quality to it that seizes the soul with dazzlingly fantastical elements, but for anyone who wants to know that being different to the norm is not just a good thing but an exultantly, thrillingly joyful thing and while life won’t always be smooth sailing or obstacle free, as the three friends find out in the final third of the book, it can be blissfully, delightfully good in a way that makes all of the struggles and loneliness and alienation feel like a distant and never to be repeated dream.