Wednesday, 17 June 2015

Me Being Me Is Exactly as Insane as You Being You

15 year-old Darren Jacobs is grappling with:
1) his parents' recent divorce
2) his father's coming out as gay
3) his body image
4) his sexual feelings
5) his confused emotions about at least 2 girls
6) the way that his parents suddenly seem like different people
7) the way that his parents have lives that don't necessarily have him at the center
8) general weirdness

Like Judy Blume, that trailblazer of realism in children's and YA literature, author Todd Hasak-Lawy speaks candidly about the body and adolescent sexual awareness.  Darren might be awkward and self-conscious and mute, more often than not, but the voice of the narrative is self-assured.  Darren's anger, confusion, contrariness and monosyllabic tendencies seem entirely appropriate for his age, gender and situation in life.

There seems to be a trend in realistic YA fiction for strong language (which was not so present in Blume's writing), sexuality and references to drugs and alcohol.  It may not be what parents want their children to read (ie, a sanitized version of of adolescent life), but it probably rings truer for the life that most adolescents are experiencing.  Also:  Is just me, or does it seem like LGBT themes and characters and storylines are really pervasive at the moment?  Fun Home just won 5 Tony awards, Caitlyn Jenner is on the cover of Vanity Fair, and the last three realistic YA novels I have read all feature a gay character -- and not even as the protagonist or the main theme, but in a studiously casual way . . . as if to say, "this is just our new normal".  Darren is not completely comfortable with his father being gay, but it's not really the homosexuality per se as much as the fact that his life is changing too quickly.  It's just one of many things that Darren is dealing with, and the storyline deals with it in straightforward, sensitive way.  Like most adolescents, (if not all), Darren is much more interested in his own sexual experiences than his father's.

It's difficult to stand out in a crowded YA field, but this book will be remembered as "the list" book -- and maybe for its catchy title (which suits a story in which there is father-son therapy and a love interest in rehab).  The narrative is told through a series of lists -- some of them brief, and some of them so lengthy that they threaten to stretch the concept to its breaking-point.  It is an arguably gimmicky way of telling a story, but it mostly works.  Much of the humour of the book takes place between the title of the lists and their contents.  It also is an efficient way of breaking up the text, which is always a plus for reluctant readers, male readers, impatient readers and readers who read a lot for their work (me).  Unfortunately, and this would be my main criticism of the book, the overall length of this book starts making even an indulgent and (mostly) entertained reader feel:  enough already.  Didn't YA books used to be between 180-200 pages on average?  Just because J.K. Rowling wrote door-stoppers that sold millions doesn't mean that every YA author needs to deliver such a high word-count.  This story would have greatly benefited from being more tightly edited.  It just goes on a bit too long, even though its separate parts are both entertaining and worthwhile.

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@Barrie Summy


  1. Yes, I've noticed that the LBGTQ theme on the rise in YA, and I'm pleased to see more inclusive books, especially in realistic fiction. My guess about the R-rated content is that these books aren't bothering to be PG since they might be banned by conservatives just for being gay. I've also noticed that many are long too. Usually fantasy books are longer due to world building and that still is the norm. I've been told by agents not to go over 80K in realistic contemporary YA. The bigger issue for me, as you address, is not so much the length as the pace.

    I grew up reading and loving Judy Blume too, and I still use her as inspiration for tackling edgy material without being offensive.

  2. PS for those who don't know word counts: 80K words would be 320 pages. The norm for realistic YA used to be 50-70K but YA books have gotten longer in the past decade. Adult books, by contrast, are usually 90K words or more.

  3. Lists, huh? I LOVE lists. I'd be willing to pick this book up for this reason alone. Then again, maybe I'd be a little exasperated by them at the end. :)

    Very in-depth review--thanks!

    Alyssa Goodnight (signing in with my Google account, but it never recognizes me(

  4. Sarah, thanks so much for your comment -- very informative and insightful! I have noticed, because I read so much UK YA, that realistic books tend to be even more "gritty" there . . . although there are definitely some US authors taking on controversial themes at the moment. The UK definitely does not have the censorship issues that the US has to contend with. The "strong language" issue is interesting, too. YA books used to get a lot of heat for just a few curse words, and now there are books (Winger, Earl and the Dying Girl come to mind) chockful of profanity. This doesn't really bother me . . . I think it is an accurate reflection of how many (if not most) teens talk when they are not in the presence of adults.

    Alyssa -- yes, the lists are a lot of fun! Thanks for visiting.

  5. Awesome review! Somehow I missed this title, but it sounds like it's right up my alley... Personally, I am all for edgier content in YA. It's simply a matter of portraying reality. I think worrying about the sensitivities of adults or "protecting" young minds is a disservice to readers. As long as the writer isn't being exploitative, I think it's almost required to "go there" nowadays if your book is realistic and set in our contemporary world.

    1. I agree with you totally.
      Thanks for visiting!

  6. I do think more authors are trying for gay characters that represent "the new normal," and I love it. This story sounds great, although I'm not sure how much of the list thing I could stand, especially if the book runs long. Thanks for the review!

    1. I did love the lists, which were mostly really clever, but didn't always further the plot! That's okay, too . . . but I'm always trying to read from the vantage point of an easily distracted and bored adolescent.
      As for "the new normal": when I was in high school (early 1980s) I had a close friend who was a lesbian, but we didn't even have a name for that! We all knew there was something "different" about her, but there was really not an environment for her to be open about who she was. I'm so glad that so many adolescents are just hugely more knowledgable and accepting about sexual differences than previous generations have been. So much pain and self-loathing will be avoided.

  7. Excellent review. I like that you had pros and cons about the book.

  8. As a writer of lists (that I never get to the end of!), I'd try this book on that basis alone! :) I've been reading more UK YA lately and find it to be edgier, in general, than its American counterpart. Which I'm personally fine with. However, I'm careful what I pass on to my teen daughter. She's a very picky (and reluctant) reader and not fond of too much grittiness or overly long books.Thanks for the review!