Challenging. Predictable. Exciting. Disappointing. Terrifying. The future is all these things and so much more. Three authors present new YA novels where the teen protagonists must make daunting decisions in order to move forward.
If David Levithan’s ambitious and provocative new novel were a movie it’d be the kind that leaves viewers shuffling out of the theater asking, “Uh, what just happened?” Among his many themes, he addresses sexuality, gender, and death and makes an argument that not only is there an essential self beyond the physical body, but when it comes to romance the outer casing doesn’t matter. “This is what love does: It makes you want to rewrite the world.”
In “Every Day,” a genderless 16-year-old being known only as A wakes up each morning in a different person, but it’s not until A meets and falls in love with Rhiannon, a suburban Maryland girl, that the teen begins to wish for permanence. Over the course of the story, A experiences life as a suicidal introvert, an illegal immigrant, an obese guy, a gorgeous Beyoncé look-alike, twins, and even Rhiannon. However, when one of the bodies A inhabited makes headlines, claiming he was possessed, A is provoked both to offer and find answers about him/herself.
The ending is abrupt and leaves you wishing for more explanations. (What exactly would A have to do to stay in one body forever?) But maybe it only feels that way because we’re not ready to let A go. Through A’s eyes readers get to experience what it would be like to be someone different but the same. As A explains to Rhiannon, “…when who you are changes every day you get to touch the universal more.”
Joyce Carol Oates’s “Two or Three Things I Forgot to Tell You,” follows the lingering effect a girl’s suicide has on the friends she left behind. A former child actress, volatile Katrina “Tink” Traumer was originally dismissed by most of the students at Quaker Heights Day School in New Jersey as bratty and rude. But one group welcomes her and she soon becomes the sun around which they all orbit––so much so that the girls refer to themselves as “Tink, Inc.” After she kills herself, the loneliness and depression that floated through these teens’ privileged world like a low-lying fog becomes a series of dark clouds that hang particularly low over Merissa Carmichae, “The Perfect One,” and Nadia Stillinger, a lost bullying victim.
Though the parents are largely so self-absorbed and evil they could be Disney villains, Oates creates impressively nuanced teen female characters while writing from a number of perspectives. Tink in particular is a fascinating combination of charisma and aloofness, intelligence and insolence, strength and vulnerability. She demands emotional investment—and indeed such investment is necessary for readers to make it through the more troubling passages. Otherwise it would be too easy to turn away from Merissa’s destructive secret, Nadia’s deep-rooted insecurities, and the demanding issues that Oates’s affecting (and ultimately hopeful) novel explores.
And finally, “Amelia Anne is Dead and Gone” by Kat Rosenfeld is an evocative debut told from the point of views of Becca, a salutatorian who cannot wait to break free from her New England small town, and Amelia Anne Richardson, a recent college grad who cannot wait for her new life to begin. Becca’s final summer before college is derailed when the body of a murdered girl turns up on the side of the road. Her high school dropout boyfriend starts acting strangely. Her parents’ marriage seems rocky. And she begins to doubt her decision to leave behind her first love and the village that has been her world. Her emotional and spiritual turmoil is juxtaposed to Amelia’s joy and conflict as she travels with her boyfriend and debates about telling him her separate dreams for the next year.
Rosenfeld so perfectly captures both small-town ennui and that terrifying gulf between the end of one thing and the beginning of another that certain passages left me with a tightening in my chest. “My dark moods, my nervousness, my paralysis in the face of the future — they were all understandable,” thinks Becca. “If I seemed to be fading, they thought, it was only natural. I was on my way out, moving on, already gone.”
The ending comes like a quick intake of breath: sharp and sudden. The people of Bridgeton discover who’s behind the death and Becca discovers that her future is inextricably bound in the town she will never fully escape, a summer when her life was forever changed, and a murdered girl named Amelia Anne, whose own future, “with all of its untraveled roads and unexplored possibilities,” was taken from her.
Knopf Books for Young Readers
336 pp., $16.99
Two or Three Things I Forgot to Tell You
Joyce Carol Oates
288 pp., $17.99
Amelia Anne is Dead and Gone
By Kat Rosenfeld
304 pp., $17.99