Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Book 10: The Great American Whatever, by Tim Federle

When I think of my teenage years, the word shame comes to mind almost immediately. I had braces, glasses, a dorky haircut, a love for comics back when that was not something you were allowed to love, my voice cracked for something like five straight years, I was five two until the tenth grade; I could go on.

The beautiful thing in so many recent YA novels is that the characters are seldom crippled by their shame. I've noticed that the books aimed at even younger readers follow suit - my son will be four in less than two months, and so many of the books I've read him have the underlying message, "It's totally OK to be a weirdo." (Odd Duck is one of the best of the bunch in this regard, and the Tacky the Penguin series, while repetitive, is likewise charming.) I don't remember this being the case in the books I read as a kid. Sure, Encyclopedia Brown was a weirdo, but in a super-human way; Gom Gobblechuck was an outcast but it's OK because he was a magician.

The Great American Whatever centers on Quinn Roberts, a gay teenager who hasn't left the house in months and has never even kissed a boy and whose mother is morbidly obese and on disability and there isn't a lick of shame in his character. As close as Quinn comes is crippling guilt about the death of his sister - the inciting incident in why he hasn't left the house in months - and that eventually gets burned off in the course of the novel.

The Great American Whatever is a great little read, with quirky characters who never get to Juno-burger-phone levels of precious. Quinn inhabits a flawed world, but it's one that he's created for himself through his own neuroses. He hasn't gotten into a summer film camp because he's too lazy to write the application, not because the spot went to a kid from a privileged background. After being paralyzed by the idea of coming out to his best friend, the response is, "Duh." It's a nice alternate reality from Trump's America, but one that, thanks to books like this for the YA audience, doesn't feel completely unlikely.

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