Odd One Out by Nic Stone
Courtney “Coop” Cooper
Dumped. Again. And normally I wouldn’t mind. But right now, my best friend and source of solace, Jupiter Sanchez, is ignoring me to text some girl.
Rae Evelyn Chin
I assumed “new girl” would be synonymous with “pariah,” but Jupiter and Courtney make me feel like I’m right where I belong. I also want to kiss him. And her. Which is . . . perplexing.
The only thing worse than losing the girl you love to a boy is losing her to your boy. That means losing him, too. I have to make a move. . . .
No easy answers.
Odd One Out is a book that I really wanted to love. Our three main characters, all of whom take a turn narrating the book in different sections, are wonderful – they’re messy, they feel authentic, they make bad choices and figure out how to work through them. There’s a huge spread of diversity (all three mains are characters of color, two are biracial, and questions of sexual identity make up the thesis of the book) that didn’t feel forced to me. I appreciated that, as I said, our main characters make choices, deal with consequences, and do things that make them pretty unlikeable at times. Jupiter can be abrasive, Rae can be prickly, Courtney is obtuse. They feel real.
Unfortunately, there are a couple of negative aspects to it that kept me from being 100% on it. There is a bit of questionable handling of bisexual identity; while one of the characters comes out as bi at the end, another repudiates that label, and still another says some pretty degrading things about bisexual girls which then doesn’t get addressed as bad. It also struck me as odd that, while the main idea of the book is questioning the value of labels, Courtney, a cis straight boy, is the one character comfortable with himself. The narration in two of the three sections doesn’t flow as well as the first; I felt like Rae and Jupiter have a case of “adults talking through teenage mouths,” which makes them feel more distant and less relatable as characters.
Despite my misgivings, I do think this is a book that teens who are interested in reading about identity and exploring different facets of themselves will enjoy. The final message of the book gives the reader the freedom to either claim a label or disdain them, whichever they feel best represents them. I just feel like that message gets muddled at points. I would recommend this book to teens looking for diverse protagonists, who enjoy high school dramas and soap operas, and who are open-minded about a wide range of sexual identities.
Tagline: Like a triangle, this story has three sides – but no one right answer.
American Panda by Gloria Chao
At seventeen, Mei should be in high school, but skipping fourth grade was part of her parents’ master plan. Now a freshman at MIT, she is on track to fulfill the rest of this predetermined future: become a doctor, marry a preapproved Taiwanese Ivy Leaguer, produce a litter of babies.
With everything her parents have sacrificed to make her cushy life a reality, Mei can’t bring herself to tell them the truth–that she (1) hates germs, (2) falls asleep in biology lectures, and (3) has a crush on her classmate Darren Takahashi, who is decidedly not Taiwanese.
But when Mei reconnects with her brother, Xing, who is estranged from the family for dating the wrong woman, Mei starts to wonder if all the secrets are truly worth it. Can she find a way to be herself, whoever that is, before her web of lies unravels?
Similar to Odd One Out, the central conflict of American Panda is one of identity: Mei, our main character and first person narrator, has been brought up in an extremely traditional Taiwanese household, and now that she’s in college she’s feeling the first whiffs of freedom for the first time. The book explores the tension between her desires for herself, her desires to please her parents, and how far she’s willing to push them in her pursuit of the things that fulfill her.
American Panda is a book that feels like cotton candy but also has real emotional weight, and deals with some pretty heavy questions of identity and family. I found Mei to be incredibly charming and relatable – her struggle with her identity, between being who she wants to be (and discovering that in the first place) and who her parents want her to be is a conflict that will resonate with a lot of teens. Gloria Chao, the author, has done an excellent job of making a very specific struggle feel universal. We also get some insight into the experience of immigrants, and the struggle to maintain a cultural identity while also fitting into American society.
The pacing of this book occasionally feels compressed, like the events in it are happening more rapidly than I necessarily want, but Mei’s narration also makes it clear that this book is happening at the end of a long internal struggle. Her romance with a Japanese classmate is very cute, and very secondary to the primary conflict between herself and her parents. I would recommend this book to teens looking for multicultural stories, family dramas, romantic comedies, and stories about identity.
Tagline: Sometimes finding yourself means losing the closest people to you.
The Winner: American Panda by Gloria Chao
These two books are pretty similar in terms of theme, quality of writing, and readability. Both deal heavily with questions of identity and dealing with the consequences of your actions, and both have great casts of extremely diverse characters. What it came down to for me was that American Panda is a more accessible reading experience. Odd One Out had too many sour notes for me that muddied the waters of its message, and American Panda is a more breezy read while still being emotionally impactful.
Martha Sullivan is the Young Adult Librarian at the Geneva Public Library. She enjoys comics, video games, movies, and the shenanigans of her two adorable guinea pigs.