Maggie Tokuda-Hall has an MFA in creative writing from USF, and a strong cake-decorating game. She is the author of the 2017 Parent's Choice Gold Medal winning picture book Also an Octopus, illustrated by Benji Davies. The Mermaid, the Witch, and the Sea is her debut young adult novel, which was an NPR Best Book of 2020. She cohosts the podcast Failure to Adapt. She lives in Oakland, California with her husband, son, and objectively perfect dog.
Her forthcoming graphic novel, Squad, will be on shelves Oct 5th, 2021.
AUTHOR’S NOTE: This essay contains frank and explicit discussion of sex and sexual assault. Harsh language is used as a means of honestly addressing difficult subjects. Also there are dick jokes.
I’m going to tell you why I wrote Squad. It’s a graphic novel now, illustrated by Lisa Sterle. It’s about girls who turn into werewolves at the full moon and find the worst boy they can and eat him. It’s about rape culture and toxic friendships and the measly crumbs we cherish and call “girl power.” It’s also a love letter.
When I say I was a slut in high school I say that affectionately. I think I thought that somehow if I chased enough dick up a tree I might be worth something, anything. That the surplus of male attention I garnered by stuffing cock down my throat would compensate for the fact that I fundamentally didn’t like myself. All my friends were boys, and I knew that nearly every single one of them was not a real friend so much as a person waiting for me to choose them. But that was ok, I told myself, even if it was crushingly lonely.
When I say I was a cunt in high school, I also say that affectionately. I didn’t like most of the people around me most of the time, and yet still desperately wanted validation from them, validation that, largely, never came. I cheated on my poor, sweet, and very stupid boyfriend all the time, a crime that went almost entirely unpunished since, as alluded to before, experience had made me into an expert blow-jobber. I didn’t have any female friends, something I chalked up at the time to all the other girls being stupid.
And when I say I was an idiot it’s also affectionate. I have always been bisexual, but I wouldn’t start admitting that to myself nor certainly the world at large until I was nearly 30. In high school, I tried to shove those feelings down into the same pit of my stomach where I stored my self-respect and my desire to wash my face every night instead of picking at the pimples that inevitably came each morning.
This doesn’t sound affectionate, but it is, I promise.
There was no one I disliked more than myself, except maybe a girl I’m going to call Tiffany. Tiffany was everything that I was not: nice, generally liked by her peers, effortlessly thin, white. She fit in easily with other girls and had a wide group of friends that were always taking pictures of themselves hugging each other. She had made out with a few guys, and had dated, but was not ever considered a slut. She was extremely pretty, and one of the star athletes of our year. I hated her. I wanted her to like me. I wanted to know everything she did so that I could scoff at it. I wanted to be exactly like her.
I didn’t go to all the parties, but when I did I drank heavily. It was the only way to handle the overwhelming pressure I felt to be cool. And so I was pretty wasted when Tiffany and I started having real talk, the way only very drunk people can. We talked about pressure. We talked about expectation. We talked about the way that girls at our school were always judged for something, the way we couldn’t just be left alone. That our decisions were always scrutinized, brutally, by our peers, and worst sometimes even our closest friends. How sad that was. How mad it made us.
“We should hang out sometime,” she said.
“Totally,” I said. I was drunk enough to be confident in that moment, like I was cool enough to be friends with Tiffany. We were friends already! Right?
She called the next day and left a message on our machine. She wanted to hang out. Just like she’d said. The message was brief and friendly, just an invitation to go do something soon. To call her back.
The thing was, if I accepted her invitation then we would spend time together. And if we spent time together I would surely tip my hand to the many ways I was a complete disaster. A slut. A cunt. An idiot. And then she would reject me. Of course she would. Every girl I’d ever tried to be friends with up to that point had.
So I never called her back. We returned to acting like we barely knew anything about each other. We never hung out. I resumed chasing dick up a tree, and spending all my time with boys who either were fucking me or wanted to. She went back to playing soccer and being surrounded by friends. We’re adults now, and I’m a writer and she’s I have no idea what. And that’s ok.
One of the best things about being a writer is the way you get to revisit your own stories. To flesh them out with more context, to give a name to your disappointments and triumphs. And as an adult, I think about that story I just told you a lot.
I think about how while a family friend stayed with us after his divorce, he came out as gay. There was no judgment there, exactly. I was told this as a matter-of-fact thing, nothing unusual about it. But when he came down the stairs in almost an identical outfit to my father—not exactly a feat, they were both JCrew white men— my father quietly went upstairs and changed. Or how when I brought home an art class flower drawn on assignment, I was teased for making “vaginal art,” a comment that was only funny since But I’m a Cheerleader had just released. It wasn’t overt homophobia but gayness—or even proximity to it—made you a punchline. The Ambiguously Gay Duo played on Saturday Nights. I watched and I learned.
I think about how I once had a lot of female friends. A group. And I loved it. We took pictures of ourselves hugging all the time, and we had stupid inside jokes, and we sat together every day at lunch. We all went on a trip for New Year’s with the family of one of my friends and her older brother and his group of friends. A bunch of drinks I hadn’t learned to tolerate in, and her older brother got me alone, then shoved my face down onto his dick. I think about how I lied about it to my friends because I was humiliated; I wasn’t even attracted to him. I told them we just made out. How later they found out that I’d gone further with him than I admitted. How they kicked me out of their group for lying to them, a planned confrontation that happened at lunch in front of more than a few onlookers. How ashamed I was for being “caught.”
I think about how, all through elementary school, I was told by adults how pretty I was. How I was often the first girl the boys in our class told the same thing. And how that seemed to endow me with some kind of playground dominion. It wasn’t until middle school that that same power started to turn rancid. Boys who asked me out then called me a dyke for the rest of the year because I said no. A dawning realization that it was weird that that one softball coach paid me a little too much attention, had too attentive a read on my body’s every movement off the field. So many of the adult men in my life started telling me I was a “woman” at fourteen, fifteen, sixteen. Frequently, men I didn’t know asked me how old I was. And even if those moments stuck in my throat, I also knew I had their attention. That was more than other girls had. And I could tell from the resentment I reaped from my peers that life was harder without it.
And I think about those boys I was friends with. Those boys who became guys who became men. I think about the one, specifically. We shared a bunch of friends in high school but we hated each other. He saw everything I worried everyone else saw, and what was worse, he had the vocabulary to name it. I feared him the way a hyena fears a lion. So when we became friends after college, it was so improbable, such a reversal that it felt like vindication. I had been right that whole time but also so had he, and so now we could laugh and flirt and be friends and I was safe at last. I didn’t mind his constant dick-waggling, unsubtle attempts to evolve our relationship into something sexual. That was what nearly all my friendships looked like at that point. So when he raped my passed-out, unconscious body, I was stunned. Not because of the violence of it, but rather because it proved how expendable our friendship was to him. That was, somehow, the greater betrayal. He’d never been my friend.
It was with those thoughts in my mind that I sat down and wrote Squad.
The girls in Squad are not me. But they are living, largely, in the same world as I did. They’ve been called sluts, had their worth winnowed down to what male attention dictates, had their sexuality policed and their self-respect carved into shapes unrecognizable to their own desire. They’re awful to each other, often enforcing the very same cruelties on their friends that they resent patriarchal society for inflicting upon them. And they’re idiots. Arrogant teens who think that, when faced with sprawling injustice, the best and most expedient response is violence. They’re victims and they’re monsters. I love them. I hate them. I’ve been them. I want better for them. They embody the fury I felt every day in high school and did not have the perspective to understand.
There are boys in Squad, but none of them really matter. Their attention is just a means to power. There’s an invitation, but this time it’s taken. And even if everything that follows is completely made up—a revenge fantasy of werewolves eating terrible boys—the critique of white feminism and the romance are, in their own ways, very real. It’s a love letter I wrote to a slut cunt idiot who hated herself but who shouldn’t have. To a messy, stupid kid who deserved more.
She hated herself, but I love her now.
And this one is for her.
When Becca transfers to a high school in an elite San Francisco suburb, she's worried she's not going to fit in. To her surprise, she's immediately adopted by the most popular girls in school. At first glance, Marley, Arianna, and Mandy are perfect. But at a party under a full moon, Becca learns that they also have a big secret.
Becca's new friends are werewolves. Their prey? Slimy boys who take advantage of unsuspecting girls. Eager to be accepted, Becca allows her friends to turn her into a werewolf, and finally, for the first time in her life, she feels like she truly belongs.
But then things get complicated. As their pack begins to buckle under the pressure, their moral high ground gets muddier and muddier--and Becca realizes that she might have feelings for one of her new best friends.
Add Squad by Maggie Tokuda-Hall, illustrated by Lisa Sterle, to your tbr here. Order it from your local independent bookseller, or order it via Bookshop.org to support independent booksellers throughout the US and the UK. For international shipping, you can try Barnes & Noble. You can also request Squad from your local library — here’s how to get in touch with them. And if you need to order from the Bad River Website, here’s a link that will leverage your order to help get clean water to people who need it.
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