In the matchup between Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli and Zeroes by Scott Westerfeld et al, I immediately “zeroed” in on the theme of difference that flows through both books. Both feature characters struggling to appear “normal,” and differences are something to hide or at least keep to yourself until you’re ready to reveal them on your own terms. When the characters in both books fully embrace their own differences, they triumph.
While sexual identity and superpowers set the protagonists in each story apart from their peers, race does not. Both books feature diverse characters with back stories that show ways that cultures are part of identities. The variety of characters in Zeroes (including an ultra-rich Latino boy, a second generation Nigerian-American girl, and a blind white girl) comes across as very intentional. However, it’s hard to imagine that the teens would ever hang out if their powers hadn’t brought them together – they live very different lives from each other.
Meanwhile, the friendships in Simon’s high school feel natural, being formed around classes and shared interests like drama and soccer. Whiteness is not assumed but rather described, in the same vein that being straight is rejected as the “default” way to be. I particularly appreciate this exchange:
“Okay, and it’s so weird, right, because we have all these ancestors from all over the world, and here we are in Garrett’s living room, and Martin’s ancestors are from Scotland, and I’m sorry, but Leah’s are totally from Ireland.”
“If you say so.”
“And Nick’s are from Israel.”
“Israel?” says Nick, fingers still sliding all over the frets of the guitar. “They’re from Russia.”
So I guess you learn something new every day, because I really thought Jewish people came from Israel.
“Okay, well, I’m English and German, and Abby’s, you know . . .” Oh God, I don’t know anything about Africa, and I don’t know if that makes me racist.
“West African. I think.”
“Exactly. I mean, it’s just the randomness of it. How did we all end up here?”
“Slavery, in my case,” Abby says.
And fucking fuck. I need to shut up. I needed to shut up about five minutes ago.
Simon and the people in his world are well developed and complex; even the ostensible villain is never just a jerk. Simon’s family is warm and solid, and his teachers have inner lives. The voices in the book’s email correspondence sound distinct from each other, and the dialog is generally a joy to read.
Oddly, the voices in Zeroes all sound alike to me, despite that fact that each character was penned by one of the three authors. The teens each have a power and an agenda, but their stories could be richer in emotional detail. And most of the adults in the book are flat caricatures.
Although I’ve loved almost all of Westerfeld’s previous books, and I’ll keep reading the sequels to Zeroes, I’m super excited to read whatever Becky Albertalli writes next. Simon wins the day!
WINNER: SIMON VS. THE HOMO SAPIENS AGENDA BY BECKY ALBERTALLI
Reviewed by Rachael Bild, Oak Park Public Library