Sunday, January 10, 2016

Outing the awesome: Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda, by Becky Albertalli

Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda
Becky Albertalli
Balzer and Bray, 2015
ISBN: 978-0062348678

Atlanta area high school junior Simon is a fairly typical kid; he’s got a solid group of friends, a loving family, does well in school, and is really into musical theatre.  He also has a secret: he’s got a secret pen pal he has a serious crush on that he suspects is requited...and neither one of them is quite ready to come out, despite Simon acknowledging he’d probably still be accepted and loved by his family - he’s just not there yet.  However, when Simon accidentally leaves his browser on in the school library, a fellow student running for douche of the year finds it and decides to exploit it, blackmailing Simon into trying to get his best friend Abby to fall for said douchemonster.  Failure to do so results in said Dmonster posting the emails on the school Tumblr, because this is a contemporary novel.  I think it goes without saying that Abby can probably do better, and that Simon struggles figure out a way to protect the identity of his crush (who he really wants to meet) and what to do.  Is he ready to out himself, and can he survive being outed and losing his pen pal?  

This book is nothing short of extraordinary - simple, yet complex.  The characters aren’t perfect (Simon can be kind of an unappreciative jerk, and knows it) but I think it’s what makes this book a really strong coming out story, perhaps the best I’ve read.  Real people have real nuances, and so do the humans in this book! It is, in short, excellent, because it is so, so, so completely normal and not at all contrived.  It's just normal kids, doing normal things, in a normal world: a normal kid coming out of the closet and all the normal crippling anxiety that comes with it, even in a relatively supportive, relatively decent community.  Nothing highly stylized or sensational, super relatable, super fabulous. It's a coming out book, but what is that if not a coming of age book? It's really the story of a young man figuring out who he is in the world and how he fits into it. 

Sure, it wraps up in a lovely way, and gosh darnit if I wasn’t gooey about it, but it also doesn’t totally simplify making the douchemonster a douchemonster.  Even he is still just a kid, a kid who gradually comes to realize the gravity and cruelty of his actions in a way that is satisfying and heartbreaking all the same, and that there are some wrongs you can’t right or undo.  It’s also welcome to discover a book that has as much diversity in the cast of characters as this does.  It should come as no surprise that the author is clinical psychologist who works with teens and children and has a non-conforming gender group for them, but it should come as a surprise that this is her very first book!  Well done, madam.  I look forward to more!  

This is an extremely strong recommendation for all high school collections or YA collections, with strong adult appeal as well.  In fact, it’s not a recommendation; I’d go so far as to call this required reading, of the spoonful of sugar variety!  (PS.  Calling this for awards - at least a Stonewall! It’s been a seriously great year for LGBTQ youth titles.  Keep up the good work, publishers!)  

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