For this round I took a look at two contemporary American realistic fiction YA novels – We Are the Ants by Shaun David Hutchinson and American Girls by Allison Umminger. Beware that major spoilers for both books abound from this point on.
To be frank, We Are the Ants was by far and away a much better book than American Girls. Despite being longer, I raced through We Are the Ants with page-turning frenzy, unable to put it down except to work and sleep. I think I finished the whole thing in three days, during which I was completely sucked into Henry’s emotional world and the complex relationships within his story.
Henry is not the most likable or believable of narrators, and I was initially put off by the alien abduction angle. However it became clear quite quickly that despite talk of aliens, this is not a sci-fi book. The aliens are really incidental to the plot. They provide part of Henry’s emotional world, but this is not a story about a boy and aliens. It’s a story about grief, and the choice to open oneself up again to emotional vulnerability.
In the end, its left up to the reader if aliens are really abducting him or if he’s just a sleepwalker with particularly vivid night terrors. The ‘abductions’ stop when he comes to terms with his ex-boyfriend Jesse’s suicide, opens himself back up to love and friendship, and starts to imagine a real future for himself. The gay and bisexual characters are handled perfectly, with their orientation shaping their characterization and choices, and never devolving into tropes. Jesse’s decision to end his own life was clearly tinged by his struggles with being gay, but there is more at work here than a sad queer tragedy. Henry’s emotional growth (mostly against his own anger and cynicism) makes for a book that is dynamic and well written.
Which left American Girls painfully flat by comparison.
I struggled to get into American Girls, finding Anna an inconsistent and uninteresting lead character and a story that never finds solid ground. The book never rises above the cliché of ‘Hollywood isn’t all glitz and glamor’. Relationships with siblings are at the core of both books, but while Charlie in We Are the Ants gets a juicy story arc, Delia in American Girls gets little to do besides act as a plot device. Anna’s relationship with her mother and brother are the most interesting part of the story, but her mother never rises above the role of one-dimensional bad guy. The revelation that Anna committed a horrendous act of bullying and her subsequent forgiveness by her victim is barely a plot point. Anna bears no consequences for her cruel actions besides mild guilt, and that her victim is given no characterization besides that of saintly forgiver. I would rather have seen that plot point removed entirely than treated with such carelessness. Don’t even get me started on the last minute romance with a Jonas Brothers look-alike.
Meanwhile the hook of this book is the connection to Charles Manson and his Manson girls, however the end result is simply uninteresting. I knew nothing about Charles Manson, his family, or the women in his life besides that they had killed some people a long time ago. I suppose I learned a few random factoids from reading this novel, but thematically the link between Anna’s poor life choices and the decisions of the Manson girls was tenuous at best. In the end, the Manson connection was underwhelming and boring.
American Girls also lacks a strong ending to resolve the many plot and character points Umminger has raised in quick succession. Anna does work things out with her sister, but their fight was relatively minor and major issues of their relationship remain untouched. What happens with her emotionally abusive mother, abandoned best friend, and superstar crush? No clue. After asking the reader to invest in these relationships, they are just dropped. I’ll concede that some people like an ambiguous ending, but this didn’t feel purposeful or coherent. It just…. ended. The result is the story of a spoiled and emotionally-stunted teen who doesn’t change or grow much peppered with rando murder facts and a little LA glamor rather than a coherent emotional story arc.
So if you’re looking for a strong contemporary realistic fiction, my vote is handily for We Are the Ants.