Can’t Take That Away is a beautiful story about queer resistance, strength, and the power of (re)claiming your voice. Carey Parker, in many ways, is all of us. Their struggles with confidence, acceptance, friendship, and love could strike a chord with anyone. Salvatore does an impeccable job of submersing the reader into the modern trials, tribulations, and ongoing discrimination of the LGBTQ+ community, especially in that of the younger generations. Watching Carey overcome what faces them is not only inspiring, but it leaves a lasting hope that with each passing generation will come more tolerance, courage, and equality. While it would be lovely to live in a world without discrimination, seeing realistic portrayals of the challenges queer youth and adults face in today’s world create an even bigger impact by the end of this book.
Salvatore’s writing is poignant yet lighthearted. Their voice shines brightly throughout the dialogue and narration, giving the reader an almost instantaneous connection to not only Carey, but every character in the book (minus the hateful ones). With a dynamic cast surrounding Carey, it’s hard not to fall for each of them as the story unfolds. The bisexual representation is refreshing and realistic, and a welcome read in a YA novel. Yet it is not only the characters that drive this story forward, but the experiences, pitfalls, and longing that comes from being both queer and a teenager. The hardships Carey and their friends face vary from superficial friend disagreements to deeper concerns of identity, bigotry, and how to survive in a world that might not accept you. With pansexual, lesbian, gay, and potentially questioning characters, Salvatore builds a cast that explores multiple identities in a careful and nuanced light. As Carey explains to their peers, not everyone is out and proud, and it is up to everyone to create a safe and inclusive environment to allow those still unsure of themselves to feel like they belong.
One of my favorite pieces of Can’t Take That Away was the introduction and continued use of Carey’s bracelets (blue, pink, and purple/white/green) which display what gender identity they’re feeling that day. What’s more, is that each chapter title displays the applicable pronoun that matches Carey’s identity at that given moment. There is so much care in the details added to create a full image of gender identity and expression, and it’s just one more reason why this book is so special. Can’t Take That Away sets a precedent for how to write and explore genderqueer characters. Salvatore is honest, vulnerable, and detailed in their descriptions of gender, how Carey perceives themselves, and how it all ties back into self-confidence, owning oneself, and creating agency.
Despite the bigotry and queerphobia of Sunnyside High School as an entity, the multitude of supportive adult characters far outweigh the negative ones. Between Carey’s mother (who I could only aspire to emulate), their therapist, English teacher, and several other students’ parents, the list of adults rallying behind and supporting Carey and their friends is beyond heartwarming. It’s nice to see adults in a YA novel portrayed in this light. Yes, there are awful people out there who want nothing but to tear you down, but for every one of those, there are five more ready to stand up and fight for (with) you. I greatly appreciated Carey’s relationship with their mother and even more so their relationship with their Grams. Having lost my grandmother not much older than Carey, the delicate care and love expressed in her character and Carey’s relationship with her truly tugged on my heartstrings and spoke to me in the deepest sense. It is not often queer novels, YA or non, have supportive family figures. Every single parent of Carey’s friend group was not only supportive, but loving, caring, and doting; quite refreshing.
Okay…THE MUSIC! As an avid musical theater lover and someone whose life was/is shaped and explored by the music around them, I could not get enough. Between the high school musical selection of Wicked, to the music references of Mariah Carey, Troye Sivan, and Queen, the music nerd in me was jumping for joy. Not only was music mentioned, but its execution within the story was pivotal. Whether it was using a song to express emotion, words that couldn’t be found, or a way to set the scene, each instance carried a weight and purpose. I truly hope that any young people that read this book will look up these artists and musicals if they don’t know them already. I also hope people will walk away with a greater appreciation of lyrics and the importance they carry in expressing (and discovering) oneself. There are several instances of Carey writing their own music to help express their feelings, and it is not only relatable, but impactful in understanding their mental health, hopes, and dreams.
While this book does talk about suicide and trauma, it is done so in a careful manner. It isn’t graphic, nor is it gratuitous. If anything, these instances are more than relatable and will probably ring true to many readers. Salvatore penned an amazing “Note from the Author” at the end of the book which delved into their personal story as well as resources for those suffering similar thoughts and feelings as Carey (and a younger Salvatore).
I think it’s pretty obvious when reading a book to know when an author bleeds their heart and soul onto the page. In that same vein, the passion put into Can’t Take That Away is palpable. Carey is an incredible character, and probably one of my favorites that I’ve ever read. They are brave (even when scared), loyal, loving, and authentic. Their friends, Monroe, Joey, Phoebe, Blanca and Cris are just as loveable, even if they are filled with teenaged drama. Sometimes I read a YA and feel as though the adults are portrayed as background characters without much thought and presence. Salvatore blew me out of the water with their adult characters as much as they did with the teens. Mr. Kelly was so beautifully written and fleshed out and reminded me so strikingly of one of my favorite teachers in high school (talking about you Mr. Berger). Carey’s mother was one of the most colorful characters and her unconditional love and her fierce momming made me hope for her and Carey’s kind of relationship with me and my own child…I can only aspire to share that kind of openness and trust with my kid. The other parents showcased in Can’t Take That Away are well-rounded, even if they are but bit characters in a single chapter.
The last thing I’ll touch on is the beautiful connection of Carey to things taking flight; birds, butterflies, and even Elphaba. The metaphors that Carey chooses to identify with – and even their mother mentions it – is written in such a way that you can’t help but soar when Carey soars and feel trapped and grounded alongside them. The entire novel is one giant, rousing round of Defying Gravity, and I couldn’t be more here for it. It’s fucking beautiful and almost every instance was flagged, screenshotted, and jotted down for when I’m feeling low.
I think it’s pretty clear that I can’t say enough about this book, and I’m sure I could go on and on for several more paragraphs. What I’ll end with is this: read this book. If you are a young adult, gay, straight, genderqueer, non-binary, trans, questioning, any letter in the LGBTQ+ alphabet, read this book. If you are an adult looking for a story of perseverance, queer joy, standing up to oppressive systems, read this book. If you are a parent, read this book. Can’t Take That Away is important. I hope it allows young people who are part of the LGBTQ+ community, and those still on the outskirts, to feel some level of unity, camaraderie, or even just a glimmer that they are seen. Above all else, be like Carey. Be ambitious. Be vulnerable. Be brave. Be yourself. The world will love you all the more for it.