With the recent Supreme Court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage and the renewed surge in movements such as the It Gets Better Project and the No H8 campaign, I wanted to focus on Young Adult books centering around LGBTQ teens.
Cut Both Ways by Carrie Mesrobian asks the reader “What would happen if you found yourself falling in love with your best friend of the same gender?”
Will Caynes is 17 and has never even been kissed. His best friend Angus lives down the block and has been publicly out since junior high. Will divides his time between his divorced parents who treat him as a weapon to use against each other. Will wears glasses that are slightly out of fashion because his father pays for those, but clothes that are clearly more expensive because his mother provides those. Angus, with his good looks and quiet confidence, strikes Will as everything he himself is not.
One night as Angus and Will are getting high and drunk in the park, Angus leans over and kisses Will. The make out session that ensues leaves Will feeling confused and intrigued. On the one hand, he knows he’s not gay, on the other, he enjoyed kissing Angus. A few days later, Will meets Brandy, a girl from his school and quickly begins a relationship with her, complicating the situation even further.
As Will struggles to maintain both relationships, he is also beset with worry over his father who has recently started drinking again and with anger towards his mother whose new family has little room for him. It becomes clear that Will has fallen in love with Angus despite not thinking of himself as gay, but he also has a strong physical attraction to Brandy.
Cut Both Ways is a darkly honest novel which confronts the issues of emotional attraction and teen sexuality without flinching. Mesrobian writes with a blunt and forthright style. Will’s characterization and manner of speaking reads so true to that of a teenage boy that I was genuinely surprised to learn the author is female.
Cut Both Ways contains characters which are believably flawed and complex. Brandy proves that she is more than a bubbly cheerleader type and her insecurities and attitudes ring true to the fact that she is barely fifteen to Will’s nearly eighteen.
Angus demonstrates that, despite his quiet and disaffected attitude, he too is plagued by insecurities and uncertainties in his relationship with Will and in his own sexual experiences.
Finally, Mesrobian leaves certain elements of the story unresolved, which felt very true to life.
Readers who enjoyed The Tragedy Paper by Elizabeth Laban will likely enjoy Cut Both Ways. Although vastly different stories, both novels present complex and imperfect characters that one would expect to find in everyday life. In addition, both novels acknowledge that, unlike fiction, life does not always come with neat endings.
Simon vs. the Homosapiens Agenda by Becky Abertalli is, in contrast to Cut Both Ways, a lighter and more simplistic novel.
The titular character, Simon, is 16 and gay but has not yet come out to his friends and family. The only one who is aware of Simon’s secret is a boy at Simon’s school known simply by the pen name “Blue”. The two struck up an anonymous correspondence earlier in the year, and recently their emails have taken on a more flirtatious tone.
One day Simon is approached by an acquaintance, Martin who has a bit of a bully reputation. Martin has stumbled on Simon and Blue’s correspondence and threatens to reveal it publicly if Simon doesn’t help him pursue Abby, one of Simon’s closest friends.
Suddenly Simon is faced with a choice: out himself before he’s ready, be outed by Martin and risk revealing Blue’s secret in the process, or help someone he despises hook up with his best friend.
Albertalli writes with a fun and conversational style. Simon is easily imaginable as a self described Harry Potter look alike, and his friends are equally easily pictured. Leah, the quiet bookish one, who harbors a not so secret crush on Nick the philosophical musician with surfer looks, and Abby, the perky and skinny cheerleader whom Nick has a crush on.
I was, however, left with the sense that Albertalli is writing to a younger audience than expected given the ages of the characters within the novel or that she is perhaps not completely familiar with teenage vernacular.
For example, the social networking site Tumblr features heavily in the plot and yet each time it is referenced in either description or dialogue, Albertalli refers to it as “the Tumblr” when the most used terminology is simply “Tumblr.” As a reader, I found this jarring and distracting from the overall plot.
In addition, sections of character dialogue read as if Simon and his friends are within the young teens range instead of their actual ages of seventeen and eighteen.
Martin, Simon’s blackmailer, commits an act that is reprehensible and without redemption, yet is almost immediately apologetic and suffers little to no consequence. This felt out of character for him given his actions and words earlier in the novel.
In fact, it is Blue who is the best developed character and the one who rang truest to his written age. Even though his identity is not revealed until the final pages, Albertalli creates a character who is far more rich and complex than the characters whom we know more intimately. Through his and Simon’s correspondence we come to understand Blue’s own issues with his sexual identity. He reveals his struggles with his strict parents and his internal conflict regarding their divorce. He also reveals to Simon his deep feelings of inadequacy around his father and his fear that his mother may be unable to accept him as he is due to her religious beliefs.
Readers who enjoyed Fangirl or Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell will likely enjoy Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda. Albertalli and Park write with similar styles and like Park, Albertalli creates characters the reader would likely enjoy getting to know better.