The Other Pandemic
Lynn Curlee, author
Lynn Curlee has a master's degree in art history and has both written and illustrated more than a dozen books for children, including Trains, Skyscraper, Ballpark: The Story of America's Baseball Fields, Capital, and The Great Nijinsky, a YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults finalist. His work has been exhibited in Los Angeles, New York City, and Long Island.
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Booklist, starred review
An author-illustrator of nonfiction books for young readers (The Great Nijinsky, 2019 ), Curlee now writes an affecting memoir for older readers about his life as a gay man in the context of the AIDS pandemic. He begins, however, with an examination of the similarities between AIDS and COVID-19 before continuing into an account of his young life and evolution as a professional artist. His story takes an ominous turn when, in the early ’80s, he sees an article in the New York Times about a rare “cancer” affecting gay men. From this point on, he tells two stories: one clinical and contextual about the disease and its evolution in the 1980s, and the second about its impact on his personal life, which is increasingly touched by the plague as many of his friends become ill. It strikes closest to home, however, when his partner, John, tests HIV positive; the story becomes a harrowing account of John’s illness and, at the time, inevitable death. Curlee has written an important book, for, as he acknowledges, “AIDS still simmers in the United States,” and so more good books about it are necessary—particularly those such as this that put a human face on it. This title belongs in every library.
This heartbreaking memoir by Curlee (The Great Nijinsky) chronicles “how it was to grow up and live as a gay man in the United States” before and during the HIV/AIDS crisis. Taking an elegiac tone, Curlee describes his childhood in 1960s North C arolina. Quick-moving subsequent chapters recall Curlee’s experiences participating in the disco scene on Fire Island, his impulsive move to California in 1979, and his return to N.Y.C. in the early 1980s, where he and his friends struggled to understand why so many gay men were “dying horrible, gruesome deaths.” While perceived comparisons to Covid-19, as outlined in an introduction, are minimally explored, Curlee briefly covers their medical and social differences and similarities, as well as the pervasive impact they each had on society. Sidebars about HIV/AIDS succinctly detail the facts, and Curlee’s straightforward prose capably conveys the era’s worsening bias and fear. Most powerful of all, however, is the novel’s focus on Curlee’s inner circle and the people he lost to the crisis, including his partner, making for a thought-provoking history about what it was like to live during that time, and a good start for further exploration. Extensive back matter concludes.
A firsthand account of living through the AIDS pandemic as a young, gay man in the U.S.
Prolific author for young readers Curlee introduces teens to this topic by starting with Covid-19 as an empathic entryway to the past. He describes being a teenager in 1960s North Carolina, setting the scene in terms of technology and daily life and painting a picture of a time when sex was a secret kept by adults and homosexuality was only mentioned in joking or insulting ways. He goes on to chronicle how movements seeking equality across gender, sexuality, and race were interconnected and how the Stonewall uprising set the stage for a dazzling period of freedom and falling in love during the 1970s disco era in New York City. That fun-filled time came crashing down as many of Curlee’s vibrant friends began to die sudden, mysterious deaths. As the book progresses, educational, historical, and scientific content in text boxes increasingly supplements the narrative, although its placement and layout are sometimes distracting. It can also become difficult to track all the different individuals who are introduced. However, Curlee’s memoir, illustrated with personal photographs, is intimate and resonant as it presents the thrill of coming out and living openly and the fear and pain that followed when so many people he loved were taken from him too soon.
Compelling and important. (important people, the origins of AIDS, author’s note, musical references, source notes, select bibliography, image credits, index)
The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books
In his memoir, Curlee uses personal photographs, powerful quotes, and his own memories to build a gripping, unforgettable account of the early years of the AIDS crisis. Although COVID-19 is not central to this book, it is an entryway of sorts into discussion of a different pandemic about which most teens know very little. Curlee seamlessly melds statistics, historical timelines, and political contextualizing with autobiographical details: he recounts his elation at coming out, his glowing memories of falling in love, his horror as he watched his community of friends get sick and die, and his own heartbreaking experience of a helping a beloved partner sick with AIDS die with as much beauty and dignity as was possible. The vulnerable, poignant memories make this historical review an especially memorable and crucial reading: the bleak descriptions of watching a generation of vibrant, brilliant young men literally waste away as the world carried on add considerable emotional weight to the nonfiction elements. There are startling mirrors in how current trans and queer individuals face countless efforts to silence them and outlaw their existence, reflecting the repressive, hate-fueled tone of opposition from the early years of AIDS, when a profound misunderstanding of and aversion to gay culture made the stigma around and death count of AIDS so devastating. Extensive end matter provides curious readers with a number of potential research pathways including, for example, musical references, additional reading lists, and a brief exploration into the origins of the AIDS virus.
GRID was the acronym first used to describe the mysterious disease that was prematurely ending the lives of young gay men in America. GRID stood for Gay-Related Immune Deficiency. As more and more people became infected with the HIV virus the name for the host of illnesses caused by the virus was changed to AIDS. This is one of the first lessons learned from reading this compelling memoir written by artist and children's author Lynn Curlee. Mr. Curlee pours out his heart as he shares his story of loss and survival. The book is positioned contextually as a comparison of the AIDS pandemic to the recent COVID-19 pandemic. Both were deadly pandemics that altered the lives of the individuals who lived through them. Along side the memoir narrative throughout the book are statistics and key moments during the AIDS crisis. Mr. Curlee does a wonderful job of making the book readable to adolescents, but the subject matter may be one that in our current moment of book banning that parents and school boards may not want their teens exposed to. This would be a shame. The author humanizes the AIDS pandemic, introducing the reader to an eclectic group of friends gay and non gay. Many are leading enviable lives until their lives are cut tragically short. Mr. Curlee does a great job charting the progression of AIDS and how the nation reacted. Slowly when compared to COVID. The reader also learns that without AIDS and what was learned in striving for a cure came the knowledge of how to deal with COVID in a timely manner. There is much to be learned by reading this book. Sources and an extensive bibliography are shared at the end for those who want to know more about this time in American history. An excellent read for all who care about their world and the people who inhabit it. Hopefully this book finds its way to the shelves of high school and local libraries.
Ages: 12 and up
Page count: 176
6 x 9