I’m thrilled that what might be the last LGBTQ-inclusive picture book of 2020, about two young boys in love, is an absolute joy.
“’Archie loves Zack!’ ‘Zack loves Archie!’ Everyone said it was so,” begins From Archie to Zack, by Vincent X. Kirsch (Abrams). Despite everyone’s knowing and accepting, however, neither Archie nor Zack feels like they can say this to each other. Their hesitancy is never explained, though it’s clear that it’s not because of bias, but simply the uncertainty of knowing whether one’s feelings are reciprocated. As the story unfolds, we see the two boys having adventures together as Archie pens note after note telling Zack that he loves him—but then feeling like “something’s missing” and hiding the note before giving it to him.
Three girls in their class find the notes, however, and, knowing who they’re for, give them to Zack as their school prepares for the holidays. It’s clear from the text and illustrations that this was done with good intentions and the girls are trying to help them express their feelings for each other. Nevertheless, on another level it’s rather intrusive, and it’s outing Archie, so adults may want to discuss with children when this sort of sharing isn’t appropriate. Nevertheless, “Reading [the notes] made Zack very happy.”
Zack, in fact, has wanted to share a similar note with Archie for a long time. In the end, the boys express their feelings for each other and are shown smiling in the midst of their classmates at the holiday pageant.
Kirsch, who also illustrated the book, keeps the images bright and cheery, and gives the characters big, expressive faces. Archie is White; Zack is Black, and their classmates are a range of racial and ethnic identities. Kirsch could have toned down the slant on the Asian characters’ eyes, however; they feel like an exaggerated stereotype. The holiday pageant includes Christmas, Hanukkah, and general winter themes. On a final spread, we see vignettes of Archie and Zack both carrying a Christmas tree and standing behind a menorah. Zack is holding the shamash (helper) candle to light the menorah; perhaps this is a rare picture book representation of a Jew of color (here are some others), though it’s incidental to this tale.
There’s much to like about this book that gives us such a lovely and positive story of two boys in love. Contrast Thomas Scotto’s Jerome By Heart, where the protagonist Raphael’s parents disapprove of his love for Jerome. Yes, unfortunately Jerome by Heart still has an element of truth in it for many young queer people, and its portrayal of Raphael’s strength in the face of his parents’ opposition offers an important model for young readers. At the same time, I think it’s critical for more LGBTQ-inclusive stories—about LGBTQ kids, kids with LGBTQ parents, or combinations thereof—to be simply fun stories that don’t “problematize” LGBTQ identities. Archie and Zack’s “problem” is that of any two people trying to assess whether the other loves them back. To that end, From Archie to Zack is a terrific addition to the genre of LGBTQ-inclusive children’s books. It reminds me of When We Love Someone We Sing to Them/Cuando Amamos Cantamos, Ernesto Javier Martínez’s 2018 book (Reflection Press) with a similar (but far from identical) story of a boy figuring out how to express his feelings for another. Now we just need some picture book stories of two girls and/or nonbinary children in love….
From Archie to Zack will be published December 29, but is available for pre-order. With its holiday-themed ending, I’m guessing it was initially intended to come out a bit earlier (2020 delayed a lot of books), but at least it will be available during the extended holiday season, which arguably runs through early January. And its message is a good one year round.
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