LIKE MOST PEOPLE, I spend a lot of my time looking at screens. Phones, computers, tablets, TVs, and movie screens dominate my days. Even when I decide to read a book, I usually reach for my Kindle: Another screen. But there’s something refreshing, even freeing, about disconnecting from the increasingly tangled web we electronically weave to pick up an actual, good-smelling, tactile book.
I go through phases of avid reading, and a recent trip home to Ohio had me in just such a phase. I blew through four books over a couple weeks and my mini marathon ended on the highest note possible. I’m a diehard young adult (YA) fiction fan, and most of my favorite books of the past few years fall squarely into that category. John Green, David Levithan, and Rainbow Rowell are my modern literary heroes. They cut to the heart of what it is to be young, confused, in love, or desperate to be. Notably, their work sometimes (and in the case of Levithan, pretty much always) includes queer characters.
The finale of my reading marathon added a new author to my pantheon of revered YA geniuses, a literal new author. Becky Albertalli’s debut, the humorously titled Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda, ranks among the best books I’ve ever read. Like the work of those authors I mentioned above, it is brimming with emotion, wit, insight, and humor. I’m a sucker for a good high school romance in any medium, and this book doesn’t disappoint. The eponymous Simon is a closeted gay high schooler engaged in a supremely articulate online romance with the mysterious “Blue,” one of Simon’s peers. Part of the book’s fun is trying to guess the identity of Blue, but the story that unfolds proves to be worth so much more.
Queer stories are so rarely allowed to be unabashedly romantic. Take a look at queer romantic-comedies: The protagonists are often placed among straight couples to help “normalize” their other-ness. Kisses are shot from a distance. In other genres, characters get AIDS or beat up or retreat back into the closet. LGBTQ romance usually carries an asterisk, and as an avid consumer of queer movies and television, perhaps those darkly-tinged messages have contributed to the gradual decay of my inner romantic.
But not in Albertalli’s fantastic book. Simon is allowed to swoon, pine, and gush. Even when dealing with blackmail, embarrassment, family matters, and casual homophobia, our hero is upbeat, funny, and sharp. This is the kind of book I wish I had read when I was in high school, still deep in the closet, and even more deeply confused about who I was. Simon’s world is far from ideal, but it shines the same, because Albertalli allows us to believe happy endings can come out of the blue.
Even more impressively, Simon takes the specifically queer experience of coming out and makes it universal without compromising what it means to our community. The book observes how we are all changing, or how we all harbor secrets, and that we constantly have to announce who we are now, at this moment. It marks the ways we grow and adapt and change for the world to see. Coming out never stops, but that isn’t a bad thing.
The world needs more queer stories like Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda. It’s too easy to be cynical and to become engulfed in the snap judgment and harsh discourse of our online world. Albertalli graciously reminds us some things are worth hoping for, worth waiting for, and worth getting excited about. And that some books are worth turning off your cell phone and tuning out the real world for an afternoon.