Book Review: Cute Mutants Vol 1: Mutant Pride, by SJ Whitby
by Brittany B. | 12/4/2020
For all my nerdery that I ascribe to, the X-Men franchise has never been one that I’ve ever considered myself at all interested in. Until now. But they’re not really x-men, are they? No. They’re better. Who am I referring to? The newly formed vigilante superhero group of Cute Mutants, Vol 1: Mutant Pride, by SJ Whitby, that’s who! Cause they’re not just new, quite literally new to their powers, they’re definitely cute, and queer, and diverse af.
My name is Dylan Taylor, human incarnation of the burning dumpster gif, and this is my life.
I always wanted to be an X-Man. Except people and me never got along, and apparently you need social skills to run a successful team. Cue Emma Hall’s party. One hot make out session with the host herself, and I can talk to objects like my pillow (who’s far too invested in my love life) and my baseball bat (who was a pacifist before I got hold of him). Now there’s a whole group of us with strange abilities, including super hot ice queen Dani Kim who doesn’t approve of how reckless I can be. The bigger problem is a mysterious mutant causing unnatural disasters, and we’re the ones who have to stop him. Except trying to make a difference makes things blow up in my face and the team’s on the verge of falling apart. Can I bring them back together in time to stop the villain from taking revenge? Have I mentioned I’m not a people person? Magneto help us.
Let me start off by sharing this a tweet of mine from earlier today:
Have I convinced you yet to go read Cute Mutants, Vol 1: Mutant Pride? If so, cool cool. I’ll wait here. If not, please keep reading!
Not to dive right into the feels, but I’m gonna: had this book and ensuing series been around when I was in high school, it would have changed my life. I’m not being hyperbolic. This book would have literally changed how I perceived my own orientation and dissonance with my gender, how I would have perceived or interacted with other individuals of the LGBTQQIP2SAA+ spectrum, and how to be a complete mess of a teenager while maintaining some sense of productiveness towards something truly meaningful.
Cute Mutants is told from the first person perspective of Dylan Taylor, a twelfth year at an all girls high school somewhere in New Zealand. Dylan, by her own definition, is a gif communicating trash fire of a teenager who no one likes except for Lou. If only she knew how much she was liked and loved throughout this book, though. There were so many times while I was reading that I wanted to take Dylan by the shoulders, shake her just a tiny bit, and tell her “They. Like. You. That one like likes you, you soft, dense bean.” Please don’t take that as me dissing on Dylan! I won’t say it is a universal high school experience but it is a fairly common experience to feel like no one actually likes you and people are all pretending because friendships are fragile things as teenagers; one minute you’re best friends then the next you can’t stand to hear their name said by strangers near you because emotions are volatile and teens aren’t adequately prepared to handle them. To be fair, neither are many, many adults. Babies get a free pass.
Dylan’s first person perspective is perfect for this story not only because of her inside knowledge of all things mutants and her on point pop culture, gif, and k-pop references, but because of how she perceives herself drives the ebbing and waning tension within her newly formed friend group. As the Cute Mutant group grows, Dylan waffles between the elation of finally having the one intangible thing she’s always wanted and resolute ideations that no one truly likes her and they all secretly dislike her or will leave her once they see how weird she really is. This combined with relationship drama centered around her boyfriend’s jealousy fuels the low burning tension of this story when the action packed mutant stuff is at a lull. It’s an expertly crafted narrative that took me a moment to get used to because at first it feels like Dylan has extreme heel turn reactions to things that, in my mind don’t make sense to rise to the emotional level that they do with Dylan. As the reader gets to know Dylan and her insecurities, though, those heel turn moments go from reading like an abrupt rise in emotional responses to heart breaking moments of wishing Dylan understood that the people around her like her, even love her.
Cute Mutants isn’t just about Dylan though – there is a whole cast of diverse queer teens and adults in this book that deserve to be talked about, too! I won’t go into detail about most everyone, because I want y’all to read this book and meet them all for yourselves without too much outside influence as to why they’re amazing. And there are so many small details in this book that end up crossing into minor spoiler territory, that I simply don’t want to risk letting any spoilers slip through. But I do want to take a few paragraphs to talk about Pear and Lou.
Pear is how Dylan refers to her parent, who is a loveable sometimes grouch nonbinary human. Pear is mentioned to be ace but is in a happy relationship with another woman; they all don’t live together and Pear’s partner Sarah has kids of her own but Dylan has keys to Sarah’s house and a few scenes even take place there. What I love the most about Pear isn’t just that they’re an amazing adult NB/Ace rep, but that they are genuinely trying to be a good parent without being overbearing, controlling, or absent from Dylan’s life (traits that other Cute Mutant member’s parents have, though). They check in, they don’t care that Dylan curses more frequently than fabled sailors, and even though they’re not touchy feely they know exactly when to hug Dylan and just sit and talk or watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer together. The relationship between Dylan and Pear was so heartwarming to see on the page that I genuinely want merch of a pear emoji with the Cute Mutant logo etched into it. Put it on a shirt! A mug! Or hell… a snazzy pin!
Not only was it heartwarming to witness the interactions between Dylan and Pear, it also opened the book up to talk about nonbinary pronouns and gender indifference in a super authentic way. Take for instance this scene with Dylan and Alyse from when Alyse is coming to Dylan’s house for the first time:
“They gave birth to me, but they’re not male or female, or maybe they’re both. They call it choosing to reject the concept of gender. We have a joke about it, like we’ll text each other some random thing.” I get out my phone and scroll back through the long trail of messages between me and Pear, who is of course only in my phone as the pear emoji. “Okay, like today’s gender is a fox on waterskis. Today’s gender is an ice sculpture in a forest. Today’s gender is the precise way Tessa Violet says yikes in ‘Bad Ideas.’”
“I like it,” Alyse says. “Today’s gender is a coin on the bottom of a stream that’s deeper than you think it is, so you miss picking it up.”
“Wow,” I say. “That’s actually awesome.”
“You can send it to your parent,” she says with a grin. “I don’t mind.” (page 39-40)
Talking about nonbinary representation is made easy and normal and none of the teens in the Cute Mutant group ever misgenders Pear. Other assholes do, but never the main group of characters.
And that brings me to Lou; Lou is trans but still has to attend an all girls high school against his wishes and has to deal with close-minded high schoolers calling him awful names which I won’t repeat in this review because they’re trigger worthy. But again, none of the main named characters of the book ever misgender him. Through Dylan’s perspective the reader learns about how teachers misgender him and use his deadname consistently but the narrative never, not once, uses his deadname. This may seem super minor to some readers to point out, but for me it was huge. I’ve read several books where the deadname is dropped at least once or is used consistently by side characters usually to pull at the heart strings of the readers or show the dysphoria that the trans character rightfully feels when shit like that happens. But Whitby accomplished so many heart wrenching moments with Lou without deadnaming or consistently misgendering him. And when Lou was called awful things in the narrative, it was typically when Lou wasn’t around to personally hear it, it’s usually other high schoolers saying awful things about him to Dylan to get a rise out of her because she so vocally protective of him. So the narrative wasn’t directly causing him more trauma around his gender from an outside source, just his own insecurities.
Cute Mutants isn’t just amazing representation for gender diversity and teenage insecurities, though. It’s funny af (or, “as fuck” if you’re not up to date on internet acronyms). Whitby weaves humor throughout the narrative masterfully, giving a reprieve to the reader through heavier mental health struggles or relationship drama or actual trauma, mental or physical. Dylan’s voice is outrageously humorous and she is only matched, sometimes out done, by her friends. Here is just a small sampling of some of the lines that made me literally laugh out loud:
“Why do people have to communicate in reality? Gifs or gtfo.” (page 36)
“My life is threatening to become that ‘hello darkness my old friend’ gif when I hear a voice.” (page 39)
“Almost any X-Man’s power would be better than mine, even if I had to wear Cyclops’ stupid red glasses. It would be hard to have mind reading or mind control powers without ending up a jerk, but I would like metal manipulation because a) Magneto was right and b) Toph Beifong, motherfuckers.” (page 51)
“So then what’s your superpower?” Witness me, a blunt instrument. (page 79)
“I don’t even know where to start. Democracy has failed again. We’re the Cute Mutants, and I’m [Dylan’s Codename]. It’s not the worst, but it’s hardly badass.” (page 162)
“It’s okay. You can admit it to me. I’m your emotional support himbo.” (Bianca, page 241)
Again, that is just a small sample of easily 50 or more moments Cute Mutants made me laugh out loud. Not lol like we all do when we don’t know what to say in a group chat but don’t want to leave everyone on “seen.” No. Quite literally laugh out loud, noise exploding out of my throat or sputtering into my tea or startling my girlfriend and dog awake at one o’clock in the morning.
A majority of what caused my laughter were the ever prevalent pop culture references. Granted, I felt a little on the old side, despite being 31 and growing up on the internet, because there were some acronyms that the Cute Mutant group chat uses that I didn’t recognize. I took solace in the fact that some of them were because they were specific to New Zealand after some quick google searches. Like “alg” is “all good.” There were some references that I didn’t quite get because I never consumed the specific media, like a reference to the Gilmore Girls, a show I know by name only, or references to specific K-Pop groups or songs. Despite not knowing every single reference, though, the jokes still landed and were still very funny because there were enough context clues in the narrative to keep everybody chuckling.
In many queer books that I’ve read, as avid readers of The Queerblr know, there are usually a handful of things that I catch that I dislike about a book regardless of how much I like it. But I honestly can only think of one, very minor thing that I have a barely negative thing to say about. And no, it isn’t because this is part of a book tour or that I was provided a copy of the book (I have also personally bought the book both on kindle and paperback); I genuinely love this book. There’s just one scene that I keep thinking about wondering what the resolution to that thread was and if I missed it or if it just simply wasn’t in the book. The scene is between Dylan, Lou, and Dani in the cafeteria (no worries, no spoilers):
“And by the way, Lou, that thing we talked about? There’s no way in hell you could stop me.”
[Dani] turns and walks out of the cafeteria, and I watch her the whole way.
“What thing is she talking about?” I ask, once I can’t see her anymore.
“Nothing,” Lou says, and leans away from me.
I try to get it out of him, but he won’t budge. There’s no point talking to Dani about it.
By the end of the book, I still had no idea what was being referred to here but it kept nagging at the back of my brain as something important to come back to and to look out for as I neared the end of the book — for some altercation to spark a fight between Dylan and Lou or for Dani to do a thing and for Lou to comment on how he can’t believe she actually did it. But I’m almost positive that the thing they talked about is never revealed and I just wanna know what it was and why this specific dialogue happened if there isn’t some sort of resolution to it later. And that train of thought led me to wonder what Cute Mutants Vol 1 would be like from the perspective of Dani. Who I love and will resist talking about to ensure I don’t cross into spoiler territory.
As I’ve said, I genuinely love this book. If you won’t take my word for it, there are fourteen other reviewers who I’m sure have similar things to say or different reasons why they loved Cute Mutants Vol 1: Mutant Pride. For a full list of all the participants of the Cute Mutants Tour, head on over to Caffeine Book Tours for direct links to all the reviewers’ sites! Not only will you see their reviews, you’ll see amazing fanart, bookstagram quality pictures, some fantastic phone wallpapers that readers can download, and more!
I know I said this in the beginning of the review, but I will say it again at the end of it, too: I wish I had had Cute Mutants when I was in high school, as it would have helped me tremendously in navigating the world (not graciously, but at least with plenty of humor). That said, I am beyond grateful to SJ Whitby for putting this book and this series into the world so that high schoolers (and everyone else) can read it. Though heavily influenced by X-Men, the reader doesn’t have to know a damn thing about the X-Men franchise to enjoy this book; Dylan will tell you everything you need to know.
Cute Mutants Vol 1: Mutant Pride has brilliant moments of levity amidst turbulent insecurities and irl villains wreaking havoc. It has amazing developmental arcs, for individual characters and for the Cute Mutant group as a whole. It is paced wonderfully with tension threaded expertly throughout whether interpersonal, personal insecurities, or legitimate threats. And, ultimately, it is a story that will instill in every reader that “we all mutate at our own pace” (page 392) and that that is perfectly okay.
5 out of 5 Rainbows
Recommended Reader: Anyone who is okay with excessive usage of the F word, pop culture references, and laughing out loud while you read. Seriously, everyone will find something to enjoy from this book, even if you aren’t an X-Men fanatic or up on the latest memes and gifs. If you at all have a presence on the internet, you’ll find something to relate to in this book.
Here are some content trigger warnings though before you start reading: Homophobia/transphobia; Sexual assault (recounted by a character); Violence (some graphic depictions towards the end); racism; and characters talking about struggles with mental health.
The amazing cover art is done by the fabulous Kassio! Here is their Link Tree with all their platforms.
The Queerblr was provided a copy of Cute Mutants Vol 1: Mutant Pride for free from the publisher and Caffeine Book Tours as part of my participation in their tour for the purpose of doing a review; this has in no way affected the review and rating of the book that was written by The Queerblr.