Yadriel’s Latinx community in East Los Angeles practices brujería. The men are brujos who escort ghosts to their final resting place and the women are brujas who have healing powers. But Yadriel’s large close family has not supported his desire to be a brujo because he is transgender. Their community has strict gender roles, they don’t see him as a boy, and they don’t think the brujo magic will work for him (though the women’s bruja magic definitely doesn’t work for Yadriel).
Yadriel is determined to prove not only that he is a boy, but that he can be a brujo, too. Only his cousin Maritza believes in him and is willing to help Yadriel become a brujo so, together, without the rest of their family, they perform the ceremony. When they accidentally summon the ghost of a handsome boy named Julian, and when another cousin, Miguel, dies unexpectedly, the teens, though grieved, finally have an opportunity for Yadriel to prove himself.
Cemetery Boys (2020), Aiden Thomas’ charming debut novel, is a heartwarming coming-of-age tale. Yadriel’s gender identity and sexual orientation are a main theme of the novel. In addition to being transgender, he considers himself gay, but his family doesn’t because they think of him as a girl who is supposed to like boys. Yadriel loves his family but is tired of being misgendered, misunderstood, and left out. It’s hard not to feel for him and it’s refreshing to read about a family who, despite their lack of understanding, love Yadriel dearly, regret that they don’t understand, and are trying to do better. Aiden Thomas, who is trans and uses the pronoun “they,” helps to define and separate the concepts of gender identity and sexual orientation for readers who may feel confused and helps us see that it takes time and effort for a well-meaning family to make these adjustments.
Though gender identity and sexual orientation are such an important part of Yadriel’s character, Cemetery Boys has so much more to offer to readers. Yadriel’s family and community are charming, especially his cousin Maritza who is vegan and doesn’t want to use animal blood to do her magic, but knows that her magic can heal. Thomas also gives us an engaging murder mystery (though the pacing sometimes struggles as some scenes go on way too long), and a delightful mix of Latin cultures. The focus on brujería, and how it has been blended with Catholicism, is really interesting and informative. Readers will learn a lot about brujería, Lady Death, and Dia de Los Muertos (The Day of the Dead).
As for Julian, the ghost, I know this will be an unpopular thing to say, but I didn’t like him. He’s reckless and has no impulse control. He made me nervous and I couldn’t figure out why Yadriel was attracted to him. I didn’t feel the romantic connection at all, but Thomas uses Julian’s character to contrast the effects of a supportive versus a toxic family environment and shows us that troubled kids are worth saving, too.
Cemetery Boys is a finalist for the Locus and Hugo Awards for best Young Adult novel and has already won other impressive awards. I listened to the audiobook version which is almost 14 hours long and is read by Avi Roque who gives a fabulous performance. Like Aiden Thomas, Avi Roque is Latinx, trans, and nonbinary. There’s an interesting interview between the two of them at the end of the audiobook.