Like most librarians, I read and enjoy all genres, but my heart will always belong to realistic fiction. Sometimes it’s my true love and sometimes it’s the bad boyfriend I keep going back to. I was very happy to be assigned these two titles, and even happier when they both turned out to be very good dates. Lily and Dunkin and The Great American Whatever introduced me to teen characters struggling with real life issues. They are all authentic, charming kids who rattled around my head for days after their stories ended.
When we meet Lily and Dunkin they are both a couple of days away from the first day of 8th grade. Dunkin is the new kid in town. It is unclear what trauma he has left behind, but it is clear that he is earnest and likeable and doing his best to make a fresh start. Understandably, he is nervous about starting at a new school in 8th grade. Bi-polar, tall, hairy, and wearing corduroy pants in the hot Florida sun might not lead to immediate popularity, but Dunkin is hopeful that a new school will mean new friends and a little bit of a social life.
Lily, well she also wants to have a new start this year and return to school embracing her true gender. Lily was born Timothy, but has always identified as a female. Lily is out to her immediate family and her best friend and would love to establish her new identity at the start of the school year. While Lily’s mom and best friend are one hundred percent on board, her dad’s support falls somewhere between zero and none. Lily bravely tries to navigate between doing what is best for her and what she knows others want of her. When Lily and Dunkin meet they bond immediately, but middle school dynamics get in the way of true friendship until they both realize how much the other one needs them.
The Great American Whatever begins six months after Quinn’s sister’s death. Six months after his sister died in a car accident immediately after replying to a text he sent her. Quinn has barely left his room since her death and can’t bring himself to look at his sister’s last text. When his best friend finally convinces him to leave the house to tag along to a party, Quinn meets a handsome college student named Amir. Quinn is enamored and Amir likes him back. It’s not true love, but it’s enough to make Quinn realize that the possibility of romance can assuage grief. He begins to come back to life while still struggling with loss, coping with coming out to his family and friends, and learning almost everyone has secrets they keep. The Great American Whatever thrums with emotion and humor as we witness Quinn peel back the layers of relationships in order to discover his true self and process all that has happened to him.
Just yesterday, I was talking to a teen about The Great American Whatever and she started jumping up and down yelling, “I want to read it right now!” Immediately after finishing Lily and Dunkin, I handed it to my 6th grade daughter. Two days later, her friend popped up at the library looking for it. These are both wonderful books with characters that stick, and I’m certain that these are both titles that I will be recommending to teens for years to come. Picking a winner between these two books comes down to deciding which one of these realistic fiction titles feels more authentic.
Lily and Dunkin is a great way for young cis teens to understand the struggles their classmates and friends may be facing, but for those facing these issues themselves, it feels a bit too easy. It all wrapped up a bit too nicely and unfortunately, real life is a bit messier than Lily and Dunkin. The Great American Whatever includes an entire cast of well-rounded characters and a plot that, much like life, does not follow a pattern.
Winner: The Great American Whatever by Tim Federle