YA Fiction Review: Two Boys Kissing by David Levithan

Note: Back from the post-finals hiatus with a new review! This is a book I actually read in high school, one of the few LGBTQ books my high school library had. Though this was before I came to terms with much of my own gender identity or sexual orientation, I remember enjoying it a lot and thought it only right to share the beautiful writing of David Levithan.

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Title: Two Boys Kissing

Author: David Levithan

Rating: 4.5/5

Two sentence summary: Two seventeen year-old boys, Harry and Craig, set out to break the record for longest kiss in a 32-hour marathon—the story of which is narrated by a Greek Chorus of LGBTQ men lost to AIDS in the former generation. While they tell this story and muse on their own lost lives, they also explore the lives of other teen boys coming out, establishing gender identity, and exploring long-term relationships.

What I loved: If everything was a satisfactory enough answer, I would say everything, but more explanation is probably needed. David Levithan’s writing style in Two Boys Kissing is both beautiful and lingering, perhaps because its voice is so unique. Using “we” as a narrator is difficult to pull off, but nobody could narrate this story quite so well as the chorus of AIDS victims. Their stories of love and devastating loss to illness paint so much history onto the voices of those in the present, both their joys and their own sadness. The experimental style pays off and really characterizes the book’s tone.

Although many characters are introduced within a short time, Levithan gives each of them a unique voice and story in a way that feels like it really grasps the queer community. Among Levithan’s characters are a trans man trying to navigate his sexuality, a teenager losing hope (and himself) on dating apps, and two boys who face both praise and discrimination to beat a Guinness World Record. Stories so different (especially when juxtaposed with such a unique narrator) make for a feeling of connection and that these stories, and the stories of all people, are more alike than different.

Quote: “Love is so painful, how could you ever wish it on anybody? And love is so essential, how could you ever stand in its way?”

Recommended: Yes. David Levithan is one of my staple for wonderful YA writers, especially when it comes to LGBTQ fiction. He never fails to disappoint when exploring the diverse relationships, emotions, and lives people lead in the queer community.

This novel is both sweet and sorrowful, and while mourning the past, it also leads to hope for the future. I’d recommend it to anyone from around young teen years and up.

Next week: Lies We Tell Ourselves by Robin Talley, who may have become one of my new queer YA staples as well

YA Review: Almost Perfect by Brian Katcher

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Title: Almost Perfect

Author: Brian Katcher

Rating: 3/5

One sentence summary: Logan Witherspoon grapples with transphobia, internally and externally, when his high school crush Sage Hendricks reveals a secret: she is a transgender woman.

What I loved: This book presents a real depiction of trans students in unaccepting areas. Logan and Sage begin a relationship in a small and very LGBTQ-phobic town, and their relationship comes with serious pressures. Sage, who was homeschooled until her senior year, fights to hide her gender identity to avoid verbal and physical aggression. Logan, (who is until this point ignorant of queer issues) experiences anxiety over whether others would consider him gay for dating a trans woman, as he himself tries to define what his sexual orientation is.

Their relationship is complicated and not without flaws, but what relationship is? And watching Logan’s progression from confused and a little homophobic to someone who sees Sage as who she really is feels very authentic. In addition, Almost Perfect explores the conflict between a trans person comfortable with their gender identity in a world that isn’t quite ready. Sage’s parents love her a lot but very much mourn for a son they feel they’ve lost. The grey area between hostility and unwavering acceptance is an uncomfortable-but-necessary relationship to portray, as many trans people can relate.

What I didn’t love: Although a voice worth hearing, this book doesn’t go beyond the general “coming out” trope seen in many LGBTQ stories. A positive relationship between a cis man and a trans woman is important to see in fiction, but the characters do not progress beyond this initial concern to make their story unique.

In addition, our protagonist Logan is narrow minded when it comes to transgender issues. Even when dating Sage, he still refers to her for much of the novel as “a girl, but not a girl.” She is distinct from other women in that she is trans and, in Logan’s eyes, not quite female or male. Near the end of the novel, he finally begins to see and respect Sage as a woman, but it takes him a long time to get there. While this is likely accurate for his age and life experience, he does not treat Sage with the respect she deserves. I understand what the author was going for but feel that having a narrator like Logan could spread more misunderstanding than help for trans women.

Quote: “Sage would survive. I’d survive. We were better off apart. Painful and quick, just like ripping off a Band-Aid. Well, more like gouging a piece of shrapnel out of my stomach, pouring a bottle of gin into the wound, lighting it on fire, and sewing my guts up with a dirty bootlace. But the concept was the same.”

Recommended? Yes. This book is especially useful for teens unfamiliar with trans people and want to know more. It should be taken with a grain of salt, though, because Logan and his peers live in a very transphobic town. Some of the ways he refers to trans people earlier in the novel (as “a boy who wants to be a girl”) are not accurate nor okay to use.

Next up:  Almost Perfect by Brian Katcher

LGBTQ Representation in YA: More Happy Than Not by Adam Silvera

Note: As you can see, I skipped a week on blog posts and book reviews. Last Tuesday after staff meeting, my co-workers and I went on an impromptu adventure to IHOP in the wee hours of the night. I figure responsibilities are important, but what’s life if you can’t enjoy yourself every once in awhile?

So I took the week to read some YA books and prepare to start up reviews Tuesdays and Fridays from now onward. This one is another LGBTQ YA book that explores memory and the role it plays in defining us, as well as what causes us to love who we love.

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Title: More Happy Than Not

Author: Adam Silvera

Rating: 4/5

One sentence summary: In the near-future where memory erasure procedure Leteo provide relief from traumatic events, 16-year-old Aaron Soto contemplates undergoing the surgery to “straighten himself out” if it means he can find bliss in ignorance.

What I loved: This book deals with brutal themes: suicide, homophobia, and inner shame are all treated with respect but also a rawness that almost hurts to read. Aaron discovers his sexual orientation in a repressive environment. Through developing a close relationship with his friend Thomas, he unravels emotions that he fights so hard to understand even as he wants them to disappear. Readers who came to terms with their sexuality as a teenager may find Aaron’s fear and confusion relatable, albeit hard to swallow.

In a word, More Happy Than Not‘s writing style is “gut-wrenching.” Despite a near-future setting, the turmoil Aaron faces internally and also from his loved ones reads so vividly that the reader is thrust into his emotions and deals with them alongside him. If you’ve been in a situation like Aaron’s, struggling to understand a sexuality or gender identity you never asked for, you may find the writing style punches you in the stomach in a way you’ve felt before. It’s hurtful but almost healing.

More Happy Than Not deals with hard questions, both questions that Aaron faces as he unravels who he is as opposed to who he thought he was. I grew up in a religious community that has come a long way in how we treat our LGBT lay members. While compassion and acceptance is taught more often than not, I still remember as a young teen when my relatives swore that gay people can change their orientation and, as this protagonist longs to do, “straighten themselves out” via therapy or just flat-out denial. I used to think I could do this with my gender identity. It still hurts.

For that reason, I think I understood why Aaron wanted so desperately to erase his sexual orientation from his memory, if it meant he could live a “normal” life. His friends are less-than-supportive and even violently homophobic. Coming out, for him, was not only shameful but unsafe. If a procedure gives someone a chance of escaping such painful discrimination, even if it means no longer being you, who wouldn’t find it almost too good to be true?

In Aaron’s case, it is: meaning that not only does Leteo promise to erase his inner fears, but it is quite literally too good to be true. Memories define us, but there is so much more to us. Silvera explores their fragility and whether you can erase something so central to someone as their sexual orientation, as well as what consequences that may have. It’s dark, thought-provoking, and unafraid of shying from conflicted and painful emotions (both for his characters and his readers).

Quote: “Sometimes pain is so unmanageable that the idea of spending another day with it seems impossible. Other times pain acts as a compass to help you through the messier tunnels of growing up. But pain can only help you find happiness if you remember it.:

Recommended? Yes. Especially recommended for those who enjoyed Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, as this book explores similar connections of memory, personality, and what love is. Silvera gives the idea a unique spin by incorporating sexuality into the mix.

I would probably recommend this one for around 14-up because of how openly it discusses teenage sexuality, bullying, and suicide. Younger readers may not be ready to deal with these themes, which can get a little dark, but older teens could find their discussion cathartic if they have gone through similar challenges. If any of these themes are triggering, however, it might not be the best choice.

Because I enjoyed this book so much, I looked to see if Adam Silvera has written anything else, and he has: his novel History Is All You Left Me was published in January. Requested from the library and added to the list!

Next up:  All The Bright Places by Jennifer Niven