SJ Whitby’s “Cute Mutants” – a superhero scenario that’s all heart, voice & inclusivity

Read if you like:

Voice, snark, diverse cast, superpowers, badassery, shit-talk, anarchy, talking objects, fast pacing, found family, ensemble cast, A+ parenting/D- parenting, healthy representation of sexuality/ies, coming-of-age themes, X-men, Stray Kids

SJ Whitby’s writing is all about heart. Heart, heart, heart. Broken hearts, happy hearts, hopeful hearts, fearful hearts. Alongside all that heart, you’ll find a voice so discernable and palpable that it drives you to read the next page, and the next, and the next, and the—you get my point. I read the first page of Cute Mutants and instantly felt like I’d known Dylan, the main character, forever.

When I first opened my package and held the book, it felt so polished. The physical feel of it was incredible. It’s definitely one of the most thoroughly processed self-published books I’ve had the fortune of holding in my hand. The formatting is perfect, and the cover art is stunning. It literally looks like it could’ve been printed by a publisher, which tells me just how much work and effort that went into finalizing the project. I was so, so, impressed and find it so, so, admirable.

Right, so, let’s move on to the actual content of the book.

There’s transgender rep, there’s asexual rep, there’s pan rep, there’s BIPOC rep. It’s one of the most inclusive books I’ve read in a long, long time – and that’s partly because it’s self-published and thus doesn’t answer to the biases in the publishing industry. There’s been no gatekeepers here, and it makes for a glorious reading experience. It’s a safe space. You feel welcome. You feel bold.

The inclusivity doesn’t mean there’s no struggle in the book, however. The cast all struggle with your typical coming-of-age problems. Think first loves, discovery of sexuality, separating from parents, disinterest in school, peer pressure, pressure to conform, battling social anxiety in various forms. These more generic struggles are mixed in with the struggles of newly discovered superpowers, an event that happens after the whole cast kiss the same girl at the same party.

What’s mind-numbingly clever here, I think, is the way that Whitby has made the superpowers a physical manifestation of the cast’s deeply personal struggles that often show in their social interactions. Dylan, for example, can talk to objects as a result of social anxiety. Another character’s appearance physically morphs into matching her inner mood at all times because she struggles with her self-esteem. A third character has literal demons crawling around inside her chest as a manifestation of psychological trauma. It’s a clever and fresh spin on the superpower trope that adds a healthy amount of character depth to the conflict at large.

Given that it’s not a book focused on prose, but rather on voice, the pacing does get fast at times, which worried me at the beginning, but overall, it didn’t disconnect me from the characters. I think a lot of that has to do with Whitby’s chokehold grasp on voice. In other books, the fast pacing might have frustrated me, but it worked for me in this case.

This is a book about family, friends and first loves. It’s a book about acceptance and hope, although it doesn’t feel like that at first glance. It feels rather like the opposite. It’s a book about growing up and successfully making a space for yourself in a world that doesn’t give you much room to do so—at whatever cost it takes. It’s a book worth reading, basically.