Earlier this week the National Book Foundation released its list of finalists for the National Book Awards. I was sad, but not surprised, to note that a book I love fell off the longlist of nominees for Young People’s Literature. So here, as a consolation prize, I present the First Annual Marjorie Ingall Buy-This-Book-For-The-Young-Adult-In-Your-Life-Right-Now Award. The Mibbys.
And the Mibby goes to… Simon Vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli. This book was probably a surprise nomination to a lot of people because it’s a really funny book. Funny books don’t tend to win serious literary awards, just as funny movies don’t tend to win Best Picture at the Oscars. (My Fair Lady over Doctor Strangelove? Please.)
The plot: Simon is a closeted high school student who finds an email pen pal, known only as Blue, via his school’s anonymous Tumblr account. Blue is gay and closeted too. His mom’s Episcopalian and his dad’s Jewish (they’re divorced) and Blue feels that religion only makes the process of coming out to them more confusing. “Technically, Jews and Episcopalians are supposed to be gay-friendly,” he notes in an email to Simon, “but it’s hard to really know how that applies to your own parents. Like, you read about these gay kids with really churchy Catholic parents, and the parents end up doing PFLAG and pride marches and everything. And then you hear about parents who are totally fine with homosexuality, but can’t handle it when their own kid comes out. You just never know.” Indeed.
Simon and Blue get to know each other through their email missives, and we get to know Simon’s friends and family. There’s a huge, well-drawn cast of people who are essentially menschy. No evil! No searing lyrical angsty anything! Part of why this book is so charming, and feels so real, is that it feels truly grounded in the lives of middle-class kids today. Technology, music, and pop culture all feel up-to-date, and the characters live in a savvy and tolerant world in which coming out isn’t really the scariest thing ever. (Which doesn’t mean it’s not still scary.)
Simon is all about Harry Potter, Oreos, musicals. He has a dog named Bieber. If there’s a flaw here, it’s that Simon does feel younger than 16 to me (I’m going with 13 or 14), but he’s so hilarious and adorkable I wanted to hang out and talk about Dementors with him anyway. (That’s not weird, right?) Also, how do you not swoon for a romance between two thoughtful teenagers who are terrific writers and who fall in love via emails? It’s Epistolary AF (as my daughter would say, and you can Google “AF” and then embarrass your own children by adding it as a modifier to everything). “I’m too busy trying not to be in love with someone who isn’t real,” Simon says wistfully, and all you want is for him and us to figure out who Blue is. (Both Josie and I spent the whole book deciding we knew and then repeatedly changing our minds. Sly AF, Becky Albertalli!)
Best of all, this is an LGBT book that is not a problem book. Simon’s issue isn’t his gayness; it’s his self-acceptance and anxiety about being loved, which, hello—every teenager ever. And Albertalli’s worldview is so kind and humane. Simon and the Homo Sapiens Agenda makes the reader take a hard look at their unexamined attitudes about manipulative jerks (dickweasels have stories and sadnesses of their own, and a bully isn’t an entirely alien species—he can be just a kid like many others) and about race and gender, too. The book goes to serious places but does so very lightly. Almost like a Gryffindor in an invisibility cloak.
So yes, I’m bummed that it didn’t make the National Book Awards’ list of finalists. But semi-finalist is pretty great too. And hey, at least two of the five finalists are Jews (and possibly three of the five—I’ll report back when I get confirmation on this), so we People of the Book are still doing OK.
Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.