Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli (Harper Collins, 2015)

Shauna Evans, a Special Education teacher at Schor Middle School in Piscataway, is guest writing Beth's Books this week. Evans, an avid reader, currently is working on her first novel in Young Adult fiction. A former columnist for the on-line magazine,“Examiner,” Evans covered the television show, American Idol, for several years.

 

Though I am an adult, and have been for some years now, the genre that I can't get away from reading is Young Adult fiction. Perhaps I'm just interested in the psyche of the modern teenager---I do work with them on a daily basis being a middle school teacher. I believe it probable that young adult fiction tends to have important themes that reach beyond the vast majority of contemporary adult fiction. Characters and plots can be well developed and still teach life lessons while being entertaining, concepts that seem to stay separate in much of adult fiction.

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Through those themes, many times it is possible to find hope in a world that doesn't always offer much. The current pulse of our country beats out hatred and diviseness, and often times YA fiction can bridge the gap to take on challenges that adults don't always want to admit are plaguing the minds of today's youth. This is the exact feat mounted by first time author, Becky Albertalli, in her novel, Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda.

Simon Spier is just coming to terms with his sexuality as a gay male. Being sixteen and living in Georgia are two factors that don't make his new found feelings any easier. Simon has discovered a friend, a sympatico person, in an anonymous classmate whom Simon has found online, and the two boys have been exchanging flirtatious e-mails for several months. The books opens with a precarious new development---after spending an afternoon composing an e-mail to his friend of questionable romantic status, Simon doesn't log off a school computer properly, and the dubious e-mails are found by a classmate.

To complicate Simon's life even further, this classmate begins to blackmail him. If he doesn't help the blackmailer get a date with a mutual female friend, the blackmailer will share the e-mails with the entire school. Though Simon isn't sure how upset he would be if his own sexuality were exposed, he does not by any means want to betray his anonymous friend, Blue, the only person with whom Simon feels that he can be himself.

Albertalli's fresh voice is the true showpiece of this novel. The new author is a clinical psychologist, who worked for seven years in Washington, D.C. with a group of non-conforming children who were dealing with gender issues. Albertalli's interest in her work with the teenage brain is evident in her deep analysis of Simon's feelings for himself, Blue, and his other close friends. Simon wonders about the identity of Blue (which keeps the reader guessing for the majority of the book), and when his mind settles on what may seem like true possibilities, Simon delves into how Blue being this or that person would affect him. Would it thrill him for Blue to be the cute boy who is the stage manager of the high school theater production, or would it make him infinitely nervous to have a real chance at romance with someone so adorable who has a better handle on his sexual identity?

If, on the other hand, Blue has been a ruse created by his blackmailer, how heart-breaking would that be? What new lows about humanity in general would it expose to know that someone could be so cruel, particularly someone who, once Simon spends some quality time with, doesn't even seem that bad? The acknowledgment of these probing questions makes what at first seem like run of the mill developments more interesting in true teen drama fashion, Simon struggles with his friendships as, ultimately, his relationship with himself begins to change. He becomes close with new friends, and while not wanting to push out old pals, he can't help but offend someone.

When this happens, though, Simon doesn't brush off his old buddies in an “I'm changing, so inevitably my friends will” sort of way. He fights to keep his friends. Even more impressive is when Simon spends time pondering what it is that makes all friendships tick comes to the realization that he might be lacking some of these important life skills. In looking inward, Simon becomes not only a better person throughout the novel, but a character with whom we can relate, someone who has gone through deep personal introspection.

Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda does a great job of depicting the realistic struggle of a teenage boy coming to grips with his sexuality in a world that doesn't always accept others in their “other-ness.” Along the way, he encounters challenges from others, both friends and foes, self doubt, surprising acceptance, and the hilarious relief that comes with true friendship. With its lighthearted tone of acceptance, the novel brings hope through the normalization of what some generations may think of as different, and what many of this current teen generation see has part of the greater whole.

Be on the look out for Becky Albertalli's second novel, The Upside of Unrequited, which was just released on April 11.