Redwood and Ponytail by K. A. Holm, 424 pp, RL Middle School

Redwood and Ponytail  
Review Copy from Chronicle Books

K.A. Holt delivers an unforgettable verse novel that perfectly captures the confusion, awkwardness and electricity of first love and the way that it can open your world to new experiences and ideas. Set in the hallways of middle school with a Greek Chorus (Alex, Alyx, Alexx) watching on and commenting, Redwood and Ponytail alternates narrators and is much an LGBTQIA+ story as it is a visceral experience of the electricity and excitement of first love. Especially because I choose to forget my middle school experience, I am always deeply impressed by writers, Holt particularly, who can reconnect with those emotions and moments, remember first times and translate it into words on the page - and Holt does this all in verse, with considerably fewer words.

Redwood and Ponytail are tall, volleyball star Tam and petitely perfect cheerleader Kate, and they give each other those nicknames at their first meeting, which is not the first time they have noticed each other. Although they are seeming opposites, they also have a lot in common. While Tam's longtime best friend is Levi, and Kate's collective best friend is her cheer squad, both Tam and Kate walk the halls greeting and high-fiving almost everyone. Soon, each girl is looking for the other in class, finding ways to talk to each other and, accidentally then on purpose, slowly, cautiously, brushing pinkies. Tam surprises herself by going to a football game and sitting by the cheer bench, and Kate sneaks out to watch Tam play volleyball. While Tam and Kate's friends pose problems, it is not because they are homophobic. As she spends more time with Kate, Levi misses Tam's friendship. And as Kate tries to get Tam to spend more time with her friends, the cheerleading team is ruffled by Tam's open criticisms of them, especially their fanatic love of a boy band. Tam tells them that music "should't make girls act dumb," and that the boys kind of look like girls. 

Then there are Tam and Kate's families. While Tam's (single) mother is open, accepting and excited for her daughter's first crush, Kate's mother (single because her husband is working out of town) refuses to hear that her daughter might be gay. For Tam, who has grown up being cared for by neighbors Frankie and Roxy, love is love. With her mother persistently, rigidly pushing her to become captain of the cheer team, and an adult sister who, refusing to meet her mother's demands left home at eighteen, Kate does not know acceptance or even tolerance. Kate pushes Tam away, Tam turns to Frankie and Roxy. Kate turns to her sister Jill, back in town after serving four years in the Navy, for understanding and guidance. 

I almost stopped reading Redwood and Ponytail midway through because I was sure I knew what direction Holt's story was heading. But I persevered and was rewarded greatly. Redwood and Ponytail is a superlative addition to the shelves of middle grade LGBTQIA+ relationship stories, and it is also a superlative addition to the shelves of middle grade relationship stories.

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