After a couple of books that definitely didn’t work for the cat, I’m happy I found comfort in two that absolutely did.
Notes from the Midnight Driver (by Jordan Sonnenblick)
The first is Jordan’s Sonnenblick’s Notes from the Midnight Driver, which the cat bought first and foremost because of the garden gnome on the cover… because seriously: books with garden gnomes rock. Yes, yes, the cat is superficial that way sometimes. However, the story, but especially the characters and the writer’s witty style, definitely did not disappoint either.
Alex is in trouble! His dad gets it on with his third grade teacher, so he is all for giving his dad hell over it. He steals his mom’s car to drive over to his dad, but instead he ends up in his neighbor’s lawn, decapitating a garden gnome in the process. To make matters worse, he pukes all over the cops who arrested him and his mom is angry because her date got interrupted when she needs to bail Alex out. The result: 100 hours of community service in a retirement home. His mom has found just the right guy for Alex to assist: a stubborn, difficult to please, Yiddish guy, Solomon Lewis who’s slowly dying of emphysema. Alex doesn’t like this so much (I mean, it was only a lawn gnome, right?), and he lets Judge Trent, who imposed the sentence, know as much through his notes. But then Alex and Sol start to bond through their common love for (jazz) music, and a new friendship is born.
Tone- and stylewise, this book made me think of Matthew Quick’s Sorta Like a Rock Star a lot. It has the same sense of heart and hope, which is absolutely essential in today’s ever more astringent society. I mean, what is not to love about this book? There’s a kid who makes a mistake, who is allowed to make a mistake, and who learns from it. There’s this great sense of humor at work here in this book (sarcasm rules!). And there is jazz! And garden gnomes! Also, how much do I love Laurie in this book? The words ‘kick’ and ‘ass’ were invented especially for her! Along with Andrew Smith and Chris Crutcher, Jordan Sonnenblick is definitely my 2013 discovery!
4 whole stars!
Two Boys Kissing (by David Levithan)
Not a 2013 discovery for the cat, but a welcome back to the greatness of David Levithan! In his latest book, Two Boys Kissing, Levithan shows himself as an author with a mission to preach (yes, that ugly word) tolerance, acceptance and hope, but also an author with obvious literary ambitions (something, which is often frowned upon – how dare you have any literary ambitions, you YA writer you!). This is something that could easily go awry, but Levithan is an undisputed literary talent.
Something as uncommon as first person plural narration is yes, admittedly, hard to get into at first, but only because of the fact that it’s uncommon, not because it doesn’t work in this story, because it does. This is a story that demands to be heard by the world and the “we” of the narration gives the experiences narrated a certain universality. The “we” in the story act like a Greek Chorus. They are the generation of gay men that died en masse from AIDS. They are watching several contemporary boys live their lives, and they are commenting on these lives, wondering about the boys and marveling how things have changed for them, but also how some things are exactly the same over the generations.
Narratively speaking, this point of view does take some getting used to, but once you get to know the different boys and their lives, what a wonder this book is. It shows the diversity within today’s gay teens: racially, contextually, situationally… just like there is diversity in anything else in the world and in society. And with this diversity of teens comes a diversity in emotions: acceptance, rage, frustration, hope, confusion, love, … always love.
And even though the chorus is what ties the different teens together, the ‘two boys kissing’ are structurally as important in this book. Craig and Harry want to set a world record for the longest kiss ever (which is over 32 hours!). And even though they are no longer a couple they want to show to the world that two boys can just be kissing. They were led to do this by something that happened to another gay boy they know, Tariq, who was the victim of a hate crime. Tariq will be filming them during their attempt, showing the two boys kissing to the world. And the world approves sometimes, and the world disapproves at other times. Sometimes the world doesn’t even care… Meanwhile we see other gay teens at different stages in their relationships or in their acceptance of who they are, like long-standing couple Peter and Neil, and the maybe almost couple to be Avery and Ryan who are just getting to know each other, and Cooper, who is alone after his mom so rudely found out that he is gay and now doesn’t know what to do anymore.
Two Boys Kissing shows what it’s like to be a gay teen in contemporary American society, but at the same time it is firmly grounded in the past and points toward the future. A truly trans-generational book. There’s no denying that Two Boys Kissing is a book with a message. There’s no denying that David Levithan is advocating something here. There’s also no denying that David Levithan totally pulls it off because of his sheer talent. This is an important, ambitious, powerful, poetic and poignant book. David Levithan is absolutely boss!