One of the things I like about young adult literature is it’s willingness to explore serious and difficult issues in sensitive and interesting ways. When they have some crossover with issues I come across in my work life, then my interest is piqued that little bit further.
UK debut author Lisa Williamson places the experience of being a transgender teenager front and centre of The Art of Being Normal. The story is based around 2 main protagonists, David and Leo. Both have a secret. David, we find out early on, wants to be a girl and has been bullied all his school life. He’s known as ‘Freak Show’ by his bullying contemporaries. It’s during an all too frequent bullying incident that Leo steps in to defend David, breaking his own rule of remaining invisible. Leo is new to David’s school and is obviously harbouring some sort of secret which might explain why he left is previous school, theories about which his new school mates expound with increasing sensationalism.
This is an important book that deserved to be loved.There are not so many books that shine a light on the lives of trans young people or gender identity issues that we can ignore them when they come along. David Levithan (for example) explores the relevance or irrelevance of gender identity when falling in love very well in ‘Every Day’, but this is a very different story and much more real. While most scenes featuring David exploring his gender are dealt with sensitively or with a light enough touch, there are parts of this book that are heart wrenching. There is one scene in particular, given that the author once worked in a specialist NHS dept supporting young people struggling with gender identity, which, if it has any basis in a real situation is especially horrific. Having said that it deserved to be loved, I have to admit I liked and admired this book more than I loved it. It was great but not brilliant. There is a lot to like, and as I said, I found parts heart wrenching, but overall, as a novel, it wasn’t quite as good as I wanted it to be. But it deserves to be read as novel that explores new or rarely visited territory.
All The Bright Places by Jennifer Niven has at its heart a wonderful love story. The fact that when ‘boy meets girl’, it’s at the top of a bell tower where one or the other or both are considering jumping, drops a major hint that there might be more to this story than meets the eye. Bipolar Disorder, depression, loss, bereavement, identity, and the pressure to conform in high school are all themes delved into by the author.
Violet and Finch, the main characters come from different places. They operate in different high school ‘tribes’. Violet part of the popular crowd, Finch one of the outsiders and a bit weird. They meet on top of a bell tower, having found themselves their for different reasons. Violet is suffering from the loss of her sister in a car accident, Finch is regularly assessing ways to kill himself. Violet emerges from the bell tower a hero in the eyes of the school cohort, as befits their status. A class project gives Finch the opportunity spend time with Violet and the relationship blossoms from there.
All The Bright Places has been compared to The Fault In Our Stars, and Eleanor and Park.It probably meets somewhere in the middle. It pulls at the emotional heartstrings like Fault In Our Stars, but the characters aren’t quite as quirky or as self-aware (this is a good thing). This didn’t make me cry, and I blubbed at Fault In Our Stars. The film rights have been snapped up with Ellie Fanning lined up to play Violet. A quick Google will undoubtedly find young people creating Tumblr accounts with their favourite quotes from the book.
Unlike The Art of Being Normal, bipolar disorder is not front and centre. For much of the first half it alluded to through the narration of Theodore Finch. But then we realise that what Finch is describing are the highs and lows of his condition. It gives a real insight into how bipolar disorder, or manic depression affects those with the disorder. I have worked with a colleague with bipolar disorder and recognised much of what I was reading. An added bonus to this book is some links to online content which the author writes. You can follow on twitter, or just read the content of an online magazine aimed at high school students. The 16 year girl at home laughs at me for reading books like All The Bright Places, because the core audience is teenage girls, but I introduced John Green to her, so I guess she also trusts my judgement when I recommend a book to her. All The Bright Places is now high on her reading list.
I recommend both of these books for different reasons. I preferred All The Bright Places as a book, and admired both for the subject matter they have tried to address. They are both very enjoyable books, but whether it as an American book, or because a film will follow soon, its All The Bright Places that is more likely to find its way onto people’s bookshelves. It would be a shame if The Art of Being Normal didn’t find the same success. Anything that challenges young people (and adults) into thinking outside their immediate sphere of experience is a good thing. Many of the issues being faced by young people are not always obvious or visible. These books help introduce awareness of two difficult issues to their readers. For that they should be lauded. Because they do it in such interesting, well written and enjoyable way means they should be celebrated and shared among your friends.
Extra info- If you would like to read more about Transgender issues or about bipolar disorder, below are two links to Irish websites that work with young people.