Genre: YA contemporary | Diversity: queer | My Rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Ramona was only five years old when Hurricane Katrina changed her life forever.
Since then, it’s been Ramona and her family against the world. Standing over six feet tall with unmistakable blue hair, Ramona is sure of three things: she likes girls, she’s fiercely devoted to her family, and she knows she’s destined for something bigger than the trailer she calls home in Eulogy, Mississippi. But juggling multiple jobs, her flaky mom, and her well-meaning but ineffectual dad forces her to be the adult of the family. Now, with her sister, Hattie, pregnant, responsibility weighs more heavily than ever.
The return of her childhood friend Freddie brings a welcome distraction. Ramona’s friendship with the former competitive swimmer picks up exactly where it left off, and soon he’s talked her into joining him for laps at the pool. But as Ramona falls in love with swimming, her feelings for Freddie begin to shift too, which is the last thing she expected. With her growing affection for Freddie making her question her sexual identity, Ramona begins to wonder if perhaps she likes girls and guys or if this new attraction is just a fluke. Either way, Ramona will discover that, for her, life and love are more fluid than they seem.
Ramona Blue is the story of a 17-year-old high school senior who thinks she has everything figured out: her sexuality (gay), her relationship with her pregnant older sister (#1 future baby caretaker), and her future (never leaving Eulogy, Mississippi). As her final year of high school progresses and she grows closer to her returned childhood best friend, Freddie, Ramona has to reassess various aspects of her identity and her idea of her own future. In the end, she comes to terms with the fact that sometimes things aren’t always as simple as they seem.
I have a lot of mixed feelings on this book. On the one hand, I think Ramona’s story needed to be told. On the other hand, I didn’t find my experiences in this book in the way I expected to when I originally purchased it back in May.
To me, the best part of Ramona Blue is the honest portrayal of being a poor teenager in a small southern town.
I knew this book was going to tackle life after Katrina, but I didn’t realize just how raw and in-depth that was going to be. For as much as this is a book about queerness, it’s almost more a book about being poor. It made me realize just how few YA books I’ve read where the main characters even talk about money—Noteworthy to name a favorite—and just how necessary this representation is.
So often with YA, the characters are implied to be solidly middle class, but it’s not really talked about. There’s this sense that writers should stick to “average” but for the most part, they don’t talk about money. I guess a lot of teens don’t have to think about money—but Ramona Blue reminded me just how many kids do share in the financial burden of their families—and how much these kids deserve to see themselves in books too.
Ramona’s struggle to just survive and make ends meet is heartbreaking but it’s so, so real. It makes up a huge portion of the plot that isn’t about the romance. It served to remind me how lucky I was that I didn’t have to work three jobs in high school just to help my family pay rent, and that I had two parents who were fortunate enough to keep me from sharing in that worry. So many kids don’t have the luxuries I did, but I’m realizing how infrequently they get to see their experiences reflected. If for that reason alone, I think Ramona Blue is a powerful book.
On top of that, I felt that the portrayal of Hattie’s pregnancy added a nice touch to the story. Ramona feels responsible for her sister, because they’ve always been in it together, but it’s more than that too. Ramona worries constantly about how Hattie’s going to afford everything for the baby. She even briefly mentions that abortion wasn’t an option for Hattie: not because of religion, but because there wasn’t a shot in hell she could pay for the procedure. This is something that rarely gets talked about as well, and as much as it’s a side bar, I noticed.
Ramona’s family and friend group relationships are realistic—both the good and the bad.
Each of the side characters in this are fully developed with their own personalities. There’s Hattie, Ramona’s sister, who’s the (straight) golden child who also happens to be pregnant. There’s Hattie’s boyfriend, Tyler, who seems like a deadbeat but ultimately we hope he’ll pull it together. There’s Ruth and Saul, two gay siblings who form Ramona’s “queer family” in a sense—something that I think is pretty common in small Southern towns where there aren’t very many openly queer folks.
And there’s Ramona’s mother, who left the family after Katrina hit, when things got rough. I seriously love this new trope we’re seeing, where the Deadbeat Dad becomes the Deadbeat Mom. That sounds calloused, I know. It’s not that I want characters to have shit parents; it’s more that I want more nuance in portrayals of problematic parents. In the case of Ramona’s mom, it’s clear why Ramona wants nothing to do with her: her mom refuses to believe Ramona is gay and says really problematic things, and she only wants to be involved with her daughters when it’s convenient for her.
One thing I really love about this book is that no character is without flaws.
Everyone says something misguided or downright problematic, including Ramona herself (namely, the acephobic comment: “I’m human. I think about sex”). In the beginning of the story, Freddie says some douchey lesbophobic things to Ramona when she tells him she’s gay. She points out how hurtful and ignorant his comments are, but acknowledges that there’s a difference between ignorance and bigotry. It doesn’t mean what he says is okay—and others have made the argument that Ramona forgives him too easily—but I felt that it was realistic to show natural flaws in perspective, especially when it comes to teen characters.
Another important moment involves Ramona and her friends’ ignorance about the specific issues Freddie faces as a biracial black guy in the south. Freddie doesn’t shy away from calling Ramona out for her ignorance, which serves as a learning moment for her. I appreciated that the characters recognize the difference between not knowing any better and someone intentionally being hurtful—and that it goes both ways.
The queer rep is unlike anything I’ve read in the YA genre.
To be fair, I have mixed feelings about this aspect in particular.
My reading of the queer rep here comes specifically from my personal perspective: I am bisexual, and in a relationship with a dude, so I originally bought this book because I wanted to read a bi character in an m/f relationship.
That being stated, this book is widely listed as bi rep—I myself listed it under bisexual on my Pride Month TBR. Let it be stated, for the record, that Ramona Blue is not specifically bi rep. Yes, the author is bisexual. Yes, Ramona is theoretically attracted to more than one gender. But Ramona never identifies herself as bisexual—she (sometimes) acknowledges bi-ness as a possibility, but at the end of the book her sexuality is still undecided.
Don’t get me wrong: not labeling your sexuality is 100% valid. For one thing, specific labels don’t work for everyone. For another thing, not everyone’s sexuality is black-and-white and clearly defined. Which is what Ramona Blue is really about, at its core: what happens when you think you’re one thing, only to find out that it’s not so simple?
Which is where my mixed feelings come into play. I was fortunate enough to see Chelsea’s review of the book before I started reading. She points out a bunch of issues, but namely the fact that people should stop rec’ing this as bi rep when Ramona isn’t bisexual. Sometimes queer folk (and bisexuals especially) want to jump on any character who expresses interest in more than one gender and label them bi. We have so little bi rep out there, let’s be honest, that we’ve become a little desperate.
I want to acknowledge that bisexuals are not a monolith: what works for some of us may be extremely harmful for others. So while there are bi reviewers who are rating this 5-million stars and praising the bi rep, there are others who are calling that rep into question. None of us is “wrong” or “right”—our job is more to make sure that no one gets misled or disappointed or—god forbid—hurt by the rep or lack thereof.
That being said, I fully understand that this book may do wonders for some baby queers out there. Ramona Blue goes a long way in breaking down the binary we have between gay and straight and showing that sometimes things aren’t so simple. Ramona’s story is one that needs to be told—but I don’t think it’s accurate to call this a bisexual book. I’m disappointed that this book was labeled #OwnVoices for bi rep. While Julie Murphy has declared herself bisexual, this book doesn’t ever use the word “bisexual” as an identifier for Ramona—except to say that she’s “not sure” if she’s bi or pan or gay.
Overall: read with caution and please know what to expect.
If you identify as bi or pan, you may very well fall in love with this book. But go into it with the understanding that the rep you find will be more your own interpretation rather than on-the-page rep. Use your own discretion.
If you’re wondering about my rating for this book, let me break down why I went with 4 stars:
- Before its release, folks were slamming Ramona Blue as lesbophobic—which is pretty funny considering Ramona calls herself gay for pretty much the whole book. It is my hope to offset some of those reviewers.
- As I said above, this is a story that needed to be told, both for the nuanced queer rep and the honest portrayal of what it’s like being a poor teen.
- The writing and storytelling kept me interested (despite the fact that I read most of this on no sleep because I currently have the work schedule from hell) and tugged at my heartstrings in so many different places.
- Despite the fact that I personally didn’t connect with the queer rep, I know that others may, and I don’t want to claim that my experiences are exactly like everyone else’s.
TL;DR: while I feel personally conflicted about the (lack-of-actual) bi rep, I really enjoyed Ramona Blue, and I’d (cautiously) recommend it to anyone who wants a raw, honest YA Contemporary about self-discovery the fight to survive.
So that’s my very long and conflicted review of Ramona Blue but I’d love to hear your thoughts! Have you read this book? Are you planning to read it, or did I sway you in either direction? Do you think books should count as rep if it’s not stated on the page? Let’s talk in the comments!