I recently saw Cemetery Boys listed in a Twitter thread of “lgbtq+ books that will make you feel the way fanfiction does,” and let me tell you, the person who made that list is absolutely right. Cemetery Boys reads like that one fanfic everyone knows and quotes by heart, except it doesn’t have to fix canon, because it is canon. The characters are gay and found family abounds and there aren’t any shitty studio execs demanding they be straight-washed, whitewashed, and gritty-grimdark-universe’d. It’s kind of tropey, in the way even the best YA books are. I loved it, and I dare anyone to read it and not love it too.
Our sweet, slightly awkward hero is Yadriel, part of a long and proud lineage of brujx. The brujx, who have come to East LA from all over Latin America, are blessed by Lady Death with the power to heal the living or guide the dead to the afterlife. Yadriel was never properly initiated into the brujx community because he never managed to heal others—the power he was supposed to inherit as a woman. Problem is, Yadriel isn’t a woman. With a man’s knife forged by his cousin, Maritza, he claims his true inheritance from Lady Death and sets out to summon and guide a dead spirit to prove that he is a real brujo.
Except the dead spirit he summons is Julian, the school’s resident bad boy, who doesn’t remember how he died. Julian isn’t done with life and refuses to go quietly into the afterlife. As Yadriel’s cousin, Miguel, is mysteriously killed and Día de los Muertos—the day dead spirits are the strongest—approaches, Yadriel has no choice but to help Julian find his friends and figure out how he died. But, the more time he spends with Julian, the less Yadriel wants to send him away. How can he prove himself before his family if he can’t even guide Julian’s spirit into the afterlife?
Let me be frank: I’m completely over gay and trans stories where the main point of conflict is a lack of acceptance of the main character’s identity. Stories like that make it all too easy for the writer to ramp up the homophobia and transphobia in order to make the reader feel for the (usually white, usually cisgender male) main character. Cemetery Boys is one of those rare instances where this type of story is done, not only well, but with great depth and complexity. The microaggressions Yadriel faces, from being grouped with the women to awkward apologies that are more to absolve someone else of guilt than actually acknowledging his identity, make us empathize with Yadriel’s plight without turning into trauma porn. In fact, there is very little violence in the book at all. Yadriel is surrounded by a big, noisy, multigenerational Latinx family; the problem isn’t that they don’t love him, but that they sometimes love the idea of him as a woman more than they love the person he has always told them he is. And he doesn’t have to face them alone: Maritza, who forged his brujo knife, is Yadriel’s best friend and staunchest ally. She’s also vegan, into astrology (“His big, obnoxious Scorpio energy is invading your cozy Cancer safe space!”), and has pink and purple hair, which is all the evidence I need to assume she’s queer, too. And Julian’s ride-or-die family of cast-outs and orphans has his back, because “Queer folks are like wolves… We travel in packs.” Basically, the LGBTQ+ rep in this book is off the charts in the best, most healing way possible.
LGBTQ+ rep aside, Cemetery Boys is an explosion of Latinx culture. As someone who is also completely over authors of color having to explain things to the reader within the text, I was delighted to find that Aiden Thomas leaves lines of Spanish untranslated, the significance of cultural elements unexplained. Much of what takes place doesn’t need to be spoonfed to the reader: mentions of food, for example, always made my mouth water even when I wasn’t quite sure what they were. Julian’s complicated relationship with the Spanish language, minor detail though it is, made me cry at one point. Thomas takes the time and effort to showcase the diversity of Latinx cultures and peoples and foods and accents, the cruelty of deportation and anti-immigrant racism that tears families apart and takes young lives. The aquellare is the perfect culmination of a near-perfect book: both dead and alive brujx coming together to celebrate in the proud tradition of those who came before them, and those who will come after.