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Someday My Printz Will Come
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Two Boys Kissing

Two Boys Two Boys Kissing

Two Boys Kissing, David Levithan
Alfred A. Knopf. August 2013
Reviewed from ARC

Sometimes a book packs such an emotional whammy that every other aspect becomes irrelevant to 99.9% of the readers.

Two Boys Kissing is seriously packing.

Before I go any further, a disclaimer: I just read this for the first time last week. I’ve been poking back through some passages, but this is a one-read review, and I fully recognize that I’m not doing my due diligence if I’m meant to be imitating RealCommittee levels of close reading.

That said, RealCommittee nominations are often based on one reading, and I’d fully expect a nomination for this one if I were on the RealCommittee this year. I’m still debating whether I’d be the one to push that nomination forward; I was very deeply affected emotionally, but I’m still thinking about whether the novel as a whole hangs together, and I suspect it doesn’t.

Nowhere in the criteria is emotional impact explicitly stated, although there may be an implication in “theme.” And emotional response is hard to examine; the heart books aren’t always the best written and the best written books are sometimes cold fish, all of which is often obscured in the subjective emotional response. Still, when a book really hits the emotional core for readers — for a wide range of readers — it’s worth looking at it closely to see how that was done. Sometimes the alchemy of writing means we can’t exactly parse the how, but the fact that it does work should probably be one tick on the quality writing Bingo sheet that is the criteria.

Two Boys Kissing choked me up repeatedly. I’m wondering how much of that is generational and how much is historical and how much is the writing.

I did not find myself particularly engrossed in most of the now boys — Craig and Harry and their kiss, Neil and Peter and their settled relationship that is still a teen relationship; Avery and Ryan and their too-good-to-be-true blossoming romance; and poor Tariq and even poorer Cooper, who are alone and lonely — they are too perfectly scattered across the spectrum of race, personality, and hair color to come across as fully developed people. They are archetypes, almost, of gay teens. Too many characters, all sketched in with only light pencil lines; they represent far more than they are. It’s hard to be touched by an archetype, who by definition can’t be too specific. And yet they aren’t entirely effective as types because of the wealth of detail and the moments that seem engineered to make them individuals.

The true emotional core here is the narrative collective (and again we have a serious contender for best voice of 2013). The chorus of dead men, felled by AIDS and watching, hoping, loving from beyond are a magnificent construct. Their sorrow for the lives left behind, the lives unlived, is palpable and powerful. But then, of course it is; I was young in the 80s, but not so young that I was completely untouched, nor so young that I don’t have friends for whom AIDS was a too-constant companion. So am I crying for the history and the fact, or for the voice that evokes that pain? And is the emotion embedded in my own baggage and knowledge, and if so, will it come through for younger readers?

(This all dances around the “what makes this YA” question, and I do think this has huge crossover appeal for an adult readership and might even be better received by that readership, although it’s impossible to know at this point.)

I hope so, but I don’t know; the narrative voice might come across as boring old men to a younger reader, the explicit audience being addressed.

But then I look at some of the passages I’ve marked and I almost don’t care about those concerns because the writing, when it soars, is incandescent. The chorus captures so perfectly the magic of first love, the confusion of adolescence, and — more than anything — how absolutely amazing it is for those of us who are older to see how much better it is now. I too marvel at Max: “He will never have to come out because he will never have been kept in.”

At it’s best, the joint authorial voice has a timeless everyman element. Like the now boys, the chorus seems to want to hit on every possibility (“We are rarely unanimous about anything. Some of us loved. Some of us couldn’t. Some of us were loved. Some of us weren’t. Some of us never understood what the fuss was about”). But because there are no specifics, no attempts (generally) to make the chorus into a chorus of individuals, the effect is powerful and notable; the group voice is rare (The Virgin Suicides is the closest I can think of), and yet manages to be completely familiar and somehow real. Which is not to say it never falters; when Tom (the teacher) is mentioned, for example, the conceit stumbles. If they are everyman, how can they know Tom? If the chorus is made of individuals, how can they all know him?

Despite my reservations (and I’m not even listing all of them — Smita who will probably grow up to be a doctor triggered my stereotype alert, and she wasn’t alone, and the plot, such as it is, is made of tissue paper), I ended up all-in as I read Two Boys Kissing, and finished it wanting to hand it off to everyone. I absolutely see how this made the NBA longlist: it’s a powerful, important book and one that elicits genuine emotional response from every reader I’ve spoken to.*

(*all adult readers at this point, although I’m hoping to get this into teen hands soon)

Yet when I look at my reservations more closely, I wonder whether this one has even a shot at going from (presumed) nomination to final five. It’s got style in spades, and a voice worth gushing over even if it sometimes stumbles. It’s got a good shot at being a favorite of the year, and even at being a book that lasts. But it’s more meditation than novel in so many ways. I want to reread many passages, but I don’t feel moved to reread the novel, because the great passages are what carry the slight story, and that’s just not enough. I want everyone to read it because it should be read, but that’s about the message, and that’s not enough either.

Or rather, it’s plenty. Just not, sadly, the right plenty for the Printz.

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About Karyn Silverman

Karyn Silverman is the High School Librarian and Educational Technology Department Chair at LREI, Little Red School House & Elisabeth Irwin High School (say that ten times fast!). Karyn has served on YALSA’s Quick Picks and Best Books committees and was a member of the 2009 Printz committee. She has reviewed for Kirkus and School Library Journal. She has a lot of opinions about almost everything (except current events, because she’s too busy reading YA literature to follow the news). Said opinions do not reflect the attitudes or opinions of SLJ, LREI, YALSA or any other institutions with which she is affiliated. Find her on Twitter @InfoWitch or e-mail her at karynsilverman at gmail dot com.

Comments

  1. I agree whole-heartedly with your analysis. The voice of the chorus is SO powerful, but the storyline with all the “now” boys was very weak for me. I found myself skimming those sections just to get back to the (admittedly gorgeous) choral voice. I, too, wonder if my response to it is generational–I was a teenager in the 90s and was very close to a gay dance teacher who had lost so many friends to AIDS–but I think a lot of the choral reflections are pretty universal. I did find the ending a little problematic and abrupt…too many loose ends in the Harry/Craig situation and too pat of solutions for Aidan/Ryan and Cooper. And what about Tariq????? Despite all this, I was very, very moved by TWO BOYS KISSING; so moved, in fact, that it took me FOREVER to read it b/c the emotions were just too huge for a quick read. In the end, I’ve been recommending this to everyone I know, but like you, I’ve found myself referring to it as a meditation, rather than a novel. To me, it kind of felt like a book you’d return to for soundbites (for lack of a better term) rather than for the plotting or characterization.

  2. Beth Saxton says:

    I think you may be right both about the current day plot and that a second reading might change views on this one. I will concede that my love for this book is mostly a heart love, and not so much a head love.

    I do hope someone will nominate this for the Cybils, since the criteria over there is different :-)

  3. Holly says:

    I loved this on the 1st reading, but I agree with the points you’ve laid out here. I was teen in the 80s and this book really got to me at the emotional level.

    My take on the chorus “knowing” Tom is that they recognize him as being a member of their generation, and so they know him and his experiences as being like their own. I didn’t read it that they actually personally knew him day-to-day, but that they knew him at a deeper level.

  4. Sarah says:

    I think I’d have to read a second time to see if it stands up, but my first reaction was: this book is flipping brilliant. The writing is achingly beautiful, the chorus voice is incredibly effective, and the emotions are powerful. I just loved this book – and, Beth, I did nominate it for the Cybils!

  5. Ed Spicer says:

    What I absolutely adore about this book is that it is, in effect, a brilliant sociological exploration of our transition (still ongoing) from a time in which many young men in, say, the high school here in Allegan thought nothing of using the word, “fag” or saying, “That is so gay,” in a most disparaging way; to the present time in which “fag” is still heard but in exponentially smaller numbers and “That is so gay” is a rare phrase. About seven years ago a young man in our school was hospitalized for “seeming too gay.” Today we regularly have writers sharing GLBT concerns without an eyebrow raised (not that we don’t still have work to do in accepting GLBT students and families). We are moving forward, not always in a straight line, but the graph is trending in the right direction. We have moved from a time in which our only perception of gay involved discussions of sex, as if sex were the only defining characteristic of someone gay.

    While the writing in this book soars and is in no way a textbook, I keep thinking that this book functions as a sociology text because so much of our social evolution is described in the pages. I almost do not even care about the plot because the writing is fine.

    A few years back James St. James wrote the absolutely brilliant voice of Billy Bloom in Freak Show. The book had its flaws but the voice of Billy was so brilliant that I really thought it could be an award contender. Two Boys brings that debate back to mind: what does a committee do when a particular strength is so significant and brilliant and unique–so far beyond expectation–but, nevertheless has elements in other areas that are average or even slightly flawed? I think it is a wonderful book to pair with Boy Meets Boy!

  6. TK says:

    I like Karen’s strong, point-by-point analysis and it does seem to fall into, as Beth S says, a heart book rather than a head book. But I also wonder about our perceived reasons why this falls short as a Printz candidate. Are “meditations” without a strong novel plot intrinsically lesser literature? Where in the Printz criteria does it indicate that a book wherein characters sketched with light pencil lines are worse than those than those whose characters we know every aspect about? These are tough questions to wrestle with, and I think this book is a good example of when a RC truly needs to think hard about expectations and presumptions.

    • Karyn Silverman says:

      TK, That’s an excellent question. I don’t think I think that meditation without plot is inherently weaker, so apologies if I conveyed that. But this is both a plot book and a meditation and I think that makes it feel a little flimsy because they don’t always play well together — the meditation is through the voice of the chorus which is amazing and the plot is the weaker now boys part of the novel. If it were ALL meditation, with less of the boys, it might be a stronger book.

      But I’m going to keep turning this over in my head.

      • TK says:

        Hi Karyn, thanks for your observations! I know I’m likely more of an apologist for this book than the RC or the teens of 2013 will be. Another thought I’d had was the question of book length. While there have been some shorties that have won or were honored in the past, I suspect this book will be deemed underdeveloped. I speculate that TBK is “not fully fleshed out” enough for strong consideration. While not an actual criterion, it’s the sort of unofficial distinction that often disqualifies books. (And what an author does with limited pages!)
        In each few years of this golden age of teen publishing it seems there becomes a “sweet spot” of book length. For a while many books got the HP treatment of longer and longer, though it has again pulled back in recent years. Not sure where that sweet spot is right now, but it still seems a bit longer than 208 p.

  7. TK says:

    Ugh, Karyn, sorry!! :-)

  8. Hannah says:

    I’m just seeing this post now. I agree with much of what has been said above — particularly the emotional impact that I think Levithan is so skilled at — but I was actually affected by different aspects of the book as some of you. I was deeply affected by the *idea* of the narration, and occasionally by the narration itself, but it was a little repetitive for me, and a bit… sappy? Or perhaps a particular kind of sappy, since there are plenty of other things I’d call sappy that I love (Exhibit A: Ryan and Avery. Exhibit B: Boy Meets Boy, one of my favorite books ever.)

    Regarding the now boys, I actually really liked them. I absolutely agree that they were not fully developed characters, but unlike you, I felt that the archetypes did work. Even with simplistic characters, Levithan is able to get at the heart of things in a way that is fairly unique. Levithan says he wrote Boy Meets Boy as a Valentine’s Day gift for his friends. I almost feel like Two Boys Kissing is a gift for a larger queer community. A tribute, if you will.

    I’m not sure the book works as a whole either, at least not for Printz, but I’d definitely give it a lingering effect award, if such an award existed.

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