The Great American Whatever by Tim Federle
The Great American Whatever is a book about a teen boy whose life refuses to stay on-script. Quinn Roberts is a gay aspiring film writer numbed by the loss of his older sister and filmmaking partner, Annabeth, in a car accident. After several months in reclusion, Quinn’s friend Geoff drags him out to a college party where he falls for Amir, an older and more experienced college student. Over the course of a whirlwind relationship with Amir, Quinn copes with dogged self-doubt, anxiety about sex and relationships, guilt, questions about his relationship with his sister, and artistic angst. It’s a bit of a romance, but it’s more accurate to call it a coming-of-age story. The relationship with Amir is one of many contributors to Quinn’s self-discovery.
I could see opinions of this book varying widely depending on the type of reader. I am a voice person. Give me a main character with a strong voice, and I’ll happily follow that character to the dentist waiting room, or the DMV, or on a 12-hour car ride to Podunk. I think whether you liked The Catcher in the Rye would be an accurate litmus test for how much you will like The Great American Whatever. Readers who want action-packed plots or who don’t like narrators who are angsty, occasionally whiny, and mostly selfish may be better off looking elsewhere.
Quinn’s frustration that his life refuses to play out in the Hollywood-esque style he wants is painfully relatable, and ensures that the book dodges cliché and convention to provide a story as unpredictable as real life is. Perhaps less relatable to the average teen are his struggles with grief at the death of his sister. Grief is a common trope in YA lately, and this book doesn’t do anything to set it apart from the others on that front. But it is outstanding at pulling the reader into the insecure, funny, confused, hopeful mess of a boy’s psyche.
Oh, and it is hilarious. Tim Federle is the strongest comic author in middle grade and YA right now, in my opinion.
Front Lines by Michael Grant
Front Lines imagines an alternate reality in which a Supreme Court decision makes women eligible for the draft and combat positions. It follows three teen girls who volunteer to fight in World War II: Rio Richlin, a white farm girl from California with a sister who died in the war; Frangie Marr, and African-American girl from Tulsa who enlists so she can provide for her family; and Rainy Schulterman, a Jewish New Yorker who works her way up in the male-dominated ranks of the intelligence troops. After basic training, all three end up fighting and witnessing the horrors of war in North Africa.
Grant hits the delicate balance of strength and vulnerability that sends so many other “tough girl” characters spiraling into callousness. I think we could use more strong female characters who embrace the traditionally feminine. Tomboys are cool too, but that’s not the only way to be a tough girl, and we need to give all kinds of kick-butt ladies their due. This story puts a magnifying glass on feminism and gender roles, and it does justice to the complexity and pervasiveness of the issue. The book is undoubtedly feminist, but without proselytizing or trying to force any of its characters, male or female, into neat “good” and “bad” categories. Well, except the Nazis. But we can all agree that they’re bad. (Although we can’t seem to agree on whether it’s okay to punch them.)
Weighing in at 542 pages, Front Lines by Michael Grant is twice as long as the 274-page Great American Whatever. Unfortunately, it could have done without at least 274 of those pages. It takes half the book for the girls to get out of their hometowns, through boot camp, and into the action. Grant’s alternate world offers a fascinating premise, but it isn’t different enough from reality to merit much world-building. (As far as I could tell, there were only two differences: 1. Women can be drafted and fight in combat positions, and 2. Everyone except Jack has a weird name.) Most of the movement in that first part of the book is character development as Rio comes to terms with her new identity as a soldier and what that means for her future, particularly her romantic future.
One issue nagging issue for me is the huge disparity of page time among the three girls. Frangie and Rainy put together get about as much point-of-view time as Rio does on her own. This is a bit incriminating because Rio is the white girl. I’m sure Grant didn’t intend to marginalize the stories of the minorities, but…well, he did. Frangie and Rainy feel like subplots tacked on to meet the diversity requirement. This is frustrating not only because of the imbalance, but also because both these girls’ situations are more interesting than Rio’s. Frangie and Rainy’s stories, from what we get to see of them, offer glimpses of some complicated ethnic and racial issues in the (hypothetical World War II female-inclusive) American military.
This was an easy choice. Front Lines has some gems, but the reader has to dig through too much padding to find them. A sequel recently came out and while I’m interested in knowing what happens, I’m not interested in making the investment it would take to find out. The Great American Whatever is quick, clever, and thought-provoking, and it’s likely to resonate with today’s teen readers.
Winner: The Great American Whatever by Tim Federle