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These Books Have Nothing in Common
That is, these books have nothing in common except their matching star count. But time is short and the books with positive reviews are many, so here we are, lumping them together.
Russo’s If I Was Your Girl was on our list from the very beginning of the year. It’s a love story with a trans main character, and never devolves into a problem novel, which is still relatively refreshing (and oh so welcome) when it comes to trans protagonists.
Kids of Appetite, on the other hand, was a late entry after it started showing up on year-end lists. It features a protagonist with an uncommon medical ailment and a character who maybe functions as a magical negro, and reads like Andrew Smith lite.
Needless to say, I only support one of these as a contender.
I am a terrible note taker, and I have the kind of Swiss cheese memory (quick, name the
literary reference) that enables me to reread books many many times, because I almost always forget critical details. (Usually the ending, plus at least one key plot point.) I read this over the summer, and I confess that I don’t remember many of the details.
Here’s what did stick: this was a delightful read. Not without heavier and harder sections, largely in flashbacks, but by and large this is a girl finds a place story with a tender romance at its heart.
Also sticking: the fact that the cover model is a trans woman. The layers of representation (author, protagonist, cover model) are amazing. This has been very popular with my students, some of whom have been yearning for this level of mirroring of themselves in fiction.
I can’t remember many plot points, but I do remember that Amanda is a wonderful character. She’s hurt — still recovering emotionally from a suicide attempt three years ago and from an ugly incident more recently. She’s scared — she hasn’t seen the father she’s moving in with in years, and never since transitioning. And she’s determined. That’s the characteristic that stood out most. Is she sometimes maudlin and self-pitying? A little, but not without reason. I also loved Bee early on, even if she’s a little too perfect — until she isn’t, of course. But she had the best lines. Anna and Layla and Chloe feel like a centrally cast version of popular girls, but they are genuinely kind, and maybe supportive and kind popular girls are just the kind of aspirational role models we all need?
This is without question an important book: groundbreaking in many ways, a great read, and a wonderful addition to any collection (library or personal). Is it a Printz-worthy title?
Well, maybe not, although I think it should have been on the Morris slate.
The flaws are all pretty minor, but they add up: some didactic material, delivered a little clumsily; over-emphasis of themes (“I had been so caught up with my own secret, I realized, it hadn’t occurred to me that my new friends were keeping secrets of their own,” says Amanda on page 37, making sure the reader knows the score.) Also I have a sneaking suspicion this book doesn’t pass the Bechdel test, or at least doesn’t pass cleanly; there are conversations that aren’t about boys, but usually with Chloe or Bee and frequently about Bee or Chloe, and I think that’s passing on a technicality.
Regardless, though, this is a book we should all read and have in our collections and hand to kids, and isn’t that more important than any gold sticker?
I’m feeling some serious Thumper’s Dad feelings here.
Full disclosure: after reading a little past the midway point, I had gone from enjoying this to tolerating it to feeling like I just couldn’t, so I started skip reading at that point. I read all the chapter openings — the interviews with the detectives — which I think had almost everything I needed to know, and also were my favorite bits. (I figured out the answer to the mystery, anyway.) Once Mad and Vic left the police station, at about the 80% point, I started reading again. So in fairness I haven’t actually read this in it’s entirety.
I’m not sure that would help, though.
Here’s the pithiest summation I can give: This is the best John Green-Andrew Smith mashup I’ve ever read. Sadly, it turns out that’s not actually a book I wanted to read.
What’s good here, or might be good, is the voice — it’s super voicey, in fact. Vic and Mad both have that Dawson’s Creek thing where they are always intelligently well spoken and never sound entirely genuine, but that can be appealing (see also: John Green). And there’s lots of original stuff packed in — the greenhouse, the journey to scatter the ashes, Vic’s neurological disorder — which I recognize as something I often respond to positively, as do many other readers.
But I had so many issue with other aspects of the book that the relentless quirk got to me.
And while the Author’s Note makes it clear how well intentioned Arnold was with his Congolese refugee brothers, I think he failed: Baz is so clearly the magical mystical figure who is bringing enlightenment and wisdom to others, all of whom seem to be white, that he falls into that terrible trope, and that alone should remove this from serious consideration: it’s a trope, so that’s bad. It’s an offensive trope, so that’s worse. And it’s apparently not what the author intended, so it speaks to a failure of clear writing as well.
So now that I’ve gone and utterly ignored the advice of Thumper’s dad, what did you think? Did I miss something wonderful that makes this one a great contender after all?
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, as long as all the things are books. 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.
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