Book Review: Needlework by Julia Watts

Title: Needlework

Author: Julia Watts

Genre: YA Realistic Fiction

Number of Pages: 288

Rating: B+

Recommended?: Yes

I was pleasantly surprised by this book. I was afraid it was going to be another generic ‘sensitive gay boy in a small town coming out and coming of age’-type story but it actually turned out to be pretty compelling. Charming, thoughtful but not too heavy… this book hit all the right notes. The protagonist is a seventeen-year-old boy named Kody who lives in rural Kentucky. He’s been staying with his grandmother for a large portion of his life because of his mom’s drug addiction.

Kody would be the first to admit he’s ‘not the straightest arrow in the quiver.’ He likes sewing and watching The Golden Girls with his Nana, but his no. 1 love is the music of Dolly Parton. He sometimes even likes to dress up like her and lip sync in the mirror. Kody’s younger brother lives with his aunt and uncle, and Kody is used to being disappointed by ‘Mommy,’ who is a complete mess.

When Kody is contacted by Macey, a Black half-sister he didn’t know existed who is living with HER grandmother, he discovers some uncomfortable truths about his family. He’s also trying to help his mom get clean, with disappointing results. Kody has a lot on his plate and has to be the responsible adult while dealing with his mom, but he also feels very innocent in a way. I appreciated the nuance of the grandmother and mother’s characters and the author did a great job with the Southern dialect without overdoing it.

I felt sorry for his mom until a crucial moment at the end where all my sympathy was lost for her. It kind of felt like something like that had to happen for Kody to distance himself from their toxic relationship, but it felt a little bit forced too. Like the mom had to do something that would go totally over the line. The author showed subtlety while portraying the racism that Macey faces, showing how not all prejudice is loud or obvious.

Her and her grandmother (the only two Black characters in the book) felt a little too perfect though, easy-going and understanding to a fault. I felt like they they could have been developed better. Still, the lack of reliance on Southerner stereotypes combined with dialect done well (!) and Kody’s infectious warmth and likability makes this book a winner and got me interested in the author’s other queer young adult books. She doesn’t seem to be hugely well-known, but this was one of the best YA books I’ve read in a while.


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