The South, replete with dual references to the burger joint Krystal, stargazing, and remarkably rough childhoods, sets the scene for this book face-off. The two novels, amazingly firsts for their respective authors, make strong cases for the complexity and charm of growing up in a small rural town, where everyone knows everyone and secrets are hard to keep. It is difficult to say if the experiences presented in these stories represent a large subset of teen experiences, but it is easy to conclude that both tell important stories and should speak strongly to those teens who pick them up.
The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner
High school senior and son of a preacher man Dillard Early (Dill, to his friends Travis and Lydia) does not live a charmed life. Following his dad’s imprisonment for possessing indecent photos of children, his small Tennessee town hasn’t let him forget his family’s troubled past and doesn’t think much of his future. Neither does Dill. As he watches Lydia, also his crush, prepare to escape small town life for the Big Apple following graduation, he is forced to face the grim reality of staying in place and being consumed by his mother’s and town’s disdain for him.
Readers are presented with a book chock full of raw emotion that, like a genie in a bottle, has been pent up in a space much too small for all the power it wields. When it is unleashed upon the reader, it is a torrent of beautifully interwoven doubt, self-pity, longing, and shame, mingled with glimmers of hope, defiance, and acceptance. It is powerful and resonating, and, in parts, profoundly unsettling.
The characters are flawed but complicated and deep, and the demons they face are so heavy, yet sadly everyday, as to bolster their believability. Zentner masterfully alternates the narration between the three main characters, giving readers a deeper glimpse into their lives and thus more of the story to invest in.
Dill, for his part, is stubborn and moody. While these qualities do on occasion distract, they do not detract from the seriousness of his depression and anxiety, especially where his parents are involved. He leads a complicated life, and his friends know it, but they do not excuse all of his less than charming behaviors because of it.
Lydia veers a little too close at times to a manic pixie dream girl, though her own desire to live a bigger life and to grow outside the constraints of her town help to keep that tendency somewhat at bay. She does not exist just to save Dill. She exists to live out her own dreams, which is often a source of conflict between the two characters.
Travis is, perhaps, the most complicated of all and his story is where Zentner’s ability to weave backstory into the present shines the most. Travis doesn’t have the dual luxury/obstacle of having his problems exposed for all to see. He is both mocked and feared, with little to no sympathy given, and even his best friends don’t know of the troubles he faces at home until it is made impossible for the two to miss them. Even so, despite his troubles, Travis isn’t one to let his circumstances rob him of joy. Of the three, Travis is the character most comfortable in his own skin, making his big moment in the book all the more tragic.
Perhaps best of all, this book gathers, but does not tie up, all the loose ends. It provides connections and a reprieve from pain, but it doesn’t make attempts to completely solve all the wrongs faced by the characters – we know that Dill will continue to fight his own demons. What it does, instead, is offer hope that things will be better with time and efforts to make change.
If I Was Your Girl by Meredith Russo
18-year-old Amanda Hardy, having just moved to her father’s small town of Lambertville, is looking forward to a fresh start for her senior year of high school. Although she hopes to keep a low profile until she can graduate and move to a big city, Amanda quickly finds herself surrounded not only by a new set of friends but also by cute boys who are showing signs of interest. The problem is, she has a secret and if it ever got out, it could be a matter of life or death. The secret? Amanda used to be Andrew.
Russo, herself a trans woman, lets the reader know in the backmatter that this book was written in the manner it was quite intentionally. That is to say, it was written to provide a cisgendered, heteronormative reader with the most familiar framework they might possibly have while reading about the life of someone different than them. Knowing this makes the almost too-perfect outcome less questionable and provides a nice break from the stories that highlight the oftentimes dismal experiences trans people can face. It was lovely to read about a girl exploring her path in life and trying to fit in, who just so happens to be trans. It was nice to have a glimpse at the issues without being overwhelmed by the weight of how heavy they are to those who live through them. So when I say reading this novel was a bit like revisiting a 1980s John Hughes movie, it is meant to be a mostly endearing comparison.
The thing, though, about John Hughes movies is they make you feel good and give you the happy ending you want, but sometimes at the expense of believable plotlines, emotional depth, or fully fledged characters.
The characterization in this novel is a mixed bag, which takes away some of its strength. Amanda herself has a refreshingly authentic voice, which manages to stay more formal than direct conversation with the reader while never straying too far from casual and trustworthy. While reading her story, I was never concerned that I would encounter the John Green condition: teens who speak as though they are preparing for futures in philosophy. (Do some teens exude a maturity and depth that equals or rivals their adult counterparts? Absolutely. But John Green characters tend to test the limits of this.)
Sadly, the secondary characters aren’t provided with much backstory, revealing tidbits only when it helps to move the story forward and in a way that makes them caricatures, reducible down to one label – the Baptist, the fashionista, and the tomboy. Grant, Amanda’s love interest, is given more of a story than Amanda’s close friends and it is even a heartbreaking one but despite this, it still manages to fall flat.
Moving past the characters, the story does do a rather delightful job of presenting a hopeful message, even if it isn’t entirely believable. Readers will want to believe in the hope it offers up and will greedily gobble it down.
This story absolutely needed to be told. The importance of having it present Amanda as approachable and sympathetic cannot be overstated. With luck, more will follow and they will start to address the issues found here. But in the end, it is If I Was Your Girl’s attempt to be so careful on its readers’ behalf and to avoid more substance and complication that makes it just miss its mark.
Winner: The Serpent King
Alea Perez is the Head of Youth Services at Westmont Public Library, where she doesn’t get to work directly with teens anymore but she still works on their behalf. In the land of make believe, also known as her free time, she loves making lists, spending time with her rescue dog, and hunting down Thin Mints.