Redwood and Ponytail is a beautiful LGBTQ coming of age novel for middle-grade readers. Written in free verse by K.A. Holt it is the story of Kate and Tam, who meet at the beginning of their seventh grade year. Kate appears at first to be a stereotypical cheerleader, complete with ponytail, red bow in her hair and a silly, giggly infatuation with a popular boy band. Tam is tall and athletic, a volleyball star on the court and often mistaken for a boy because of her outward appearance.
Kate and Tam happen to catch sight of each other and exchange a few words in the moment and each feels an indefinable pull toward the other that leads to what seems to some on the outside as an unlikely friendship. Kate’s life is carefully planned and organized around being a stand-out student and becoming the captain of the cheerleading squad–just like her mother was. She has learned to present herself in a very specific way at school in order to “fit in” and achieve those goals. Ordinarily, she would not associate with someone who couldn’t help further her objective and seems to revel in being ‘different’ from the norm. Tam is less interested in fitting in, enjoys her close friendship with Levi (since Kindergarten) and putting 100% of her passion and energy into being an outstanding volleyball player. She typically disdains girls who act the way Kate does at school.
The initial moment of conversation which Kate and Tam share leaves each of them feeling as if there might be more to the other than is evident at first glance. As their friendship grows Kate begins to discover aspects of her own personality that she has not previously allowed herself to explore or experience, like letting go and having some silly fun as the Team Mascot instead of as a cheerleader or acknowledging that she does NOT have a crush on the boy band members so popular with her other friends. Tam, who has already come out to herself and her family, appreciates all these parts of Kate’s personality and begins to wonder if her feelings for Kate are deeper than friendship.
Coming to terms with who we are as people–our sexuality, sexual orientation and who we want to be in this world is a long, complicated, confusing and alternately joyous and painful process. Redwood and Ponytail captures all of these complicated emotions exquisitely through the voices of Kate and Tam. The fact that the novel is written in free verse fits brilliantly with the high emotions of tweenage girls, allowing the natural melodrama of their thoughts and feelings to resonate in a genuine way with the reader. As Kate’s journey, in particular, threatens to spin out of control the dialogue and plot within that free verse structure are squarely in line with middle grade development.
I identify as female and heterosexual and during this reading experience I was immediately swept back to those confusing middle grade years when emotions(on both ends of the spectrum) and confusion felt overwhelming almost on a daily basis. I remember making choices to say and do things based on strong emotional responses that I later wished I had not (the ones that still make you cringe when you remember them as an adult). K.A. Holt said that she wrote Redwood and Ponytail because it was the book she needed (but couldn’t find) when she was 12 years old. A reader does not need to identify as LGBTQ in order to enjoy Redwood and Ponytail, but if I was a young reader trying to puzzle out my feelings and place in the LGBTQ community, this is the exactly the book I would want someone to put into my hands.