Note: This is a backlist review from my previous blog.
Little & Lion by Brandy Colbert
Genre: YA Contemporary | Diversity: Black Jewish bisexual MC | My Rating:⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
When Suzette comes home to Los Angeles from her boarding school in New England, she isn’t sure if she’ll ever want to go back. L.A. is where her friends and family are (along with her crush, Emil). And her stepbrother, Lionel, who has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, needs her emotional support.
But as she settles into her old life, Suzette finds herself falling for someone new…the same girl her brother is in love with. When Lionel’s disorder spirals out of control, Suzette is forced to confront her past mistakes and find a way to help her brother before he hurts himself—or worse.
Little & Lion is probably one of my favorite 2017 releases for this reason: It tells a complex story about intersecting identities, discovering sexuality, mental health, and family, and it doesn’t sell any of these elements short.
The story follows Suzette as she returns to her home in L.A. after a year at boarding school on the east coast. While she was away, she fell in love with a girl for the first time and worried about her brother, Lionel, who was recently diagnosed with bipolar disorder. When she and Lionel fall for the same girl, Suzette has to sort out her feelings and decide whether she’ll remain loyal to what her brother wants, or do what needs to be done for his health.
This book has some of the best natural diversity I’ve read.
Suzette is black, Jewish, and queer, and she talks openly about these intersections. At her boarding school, she’s kept her religion hidden, as her mostly white classmates can’t understand how someone can be both Black and Jewish. Most of the side characters are queer, including Suzette’s best friend DeeDee who’s a lesbian. Suzette’s close friend and love interest, Emil, is Black and Korean as well. And, of course, there’s Lionel, Suzette’s brother who’s dealing with bipolar disorder.
The diversity isn’t just there for show, either. Each of these intersections is explored in some way and really gives life to the identities represented. I was really impressed with how Brandy Colbert showed microaggressions, from the way people label Lion as “crazy” and unstable, to the mutual friend who makes a racist comment. Even a non-marginalized reader can see how these actions affect the characters: Lion avoids his former group of friends, while Suzette and Emil have to stick up for themselves and call out their subtly racist peers.
Even Suzette’s family is diverse, in a sense: her mom never technically married her stepdad, but they’ve had joint families for over a decade. I really enjoyed this unique touch and the way the novel explores how family bonds go so much deeper than blood alone.
One of the best things about Little & Lion, for me, was the nuanced discussion of bisexuality.
I’ll be the first to admit how fortunate we are, as readers, to have so many representations of bisexuality today. And yet, this is one of the few books I’ve read where the main character is actively exploring her own sexuality and isn’t completely set on a label at the beginning of the story.
As much as it’s empowering to read bisexual characters who are confident in their identity, 17-year-old me would’ve killed to read this book where Suzette struggles with what her feelings for different genders really mean. She questions if her attraction to girls was actually just limited to the one girl from her boarding school, or if her attraction to Emil is as real as she thinks it is. This is not only realistic, but it shows the very real effects of living in a monosexist society that encourages us, as bisexuals, to “just choose one or the other.” To be quite honest, I still question my own sexuality, and I’m 10 years older than Suzette.
For the most part, other people are supportive of Suzette’s exploration and biphobia is kept to a minimum. Again, as with the race rep, I appreciate the subtleties—for instance, the moment when a friend implies that being bi is about switching back and forth when you get bored of one gender or another. Again, the comment is challenged in the text, but it’s a realistic situation in my experience.
On the surface, this is a book about dealing with a family member’s mental illness, and about falling in love in different ways—but it’s so much more than that.
While I can’t personally speak for the mental health rep (my experiences with depression are only vaguely similar), I enjoyed Suzette’s perspective on Lionel’s bipolar disorder. She wants to do right by him but she also doesn’t want to break his trust or push him away. At the same time, she’s just a kid: she’s struggling with conflicting attractions to two different people while she’s trying to sort out feelings about her ex.
To be honest, my only conflict with this book was the romance itself. I enjoyed the friends-to-lovers situation with Emil, but I felt that Rafaela was too easily labeled as Trouble, both for Suzette and for Lionel. I’m mostly not a fan of love triangles in general, although fortunately this one didn’t dissolve into cheating. Ultimately, I appreciated that the story leaves things relatively open, with just enough closure, but showing how each of the characters has a lot to work on.
overall: highly recommend this favorite of 2017
Little & Lion sucked me in right from the beginning and I never questioned whether Brandy Colbert knew where she was taking the story. For a book that includes so many elements, from family to romance, from race to religion to sexuality to mental health, I loved every minute of this one. Despite its inclusion of a love triangle, I loved watching Suzette figure some things out and I was sad to reach the last page. I hope everyone will give this book the chance it deserves.
—find this book—