Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli, 320 pp, RL: TEEN
This Review Originally Appeared on 2/5/16
Since I started working as an elementary school librarian I have not bee reading as much YA as I used to. As a bookseller, I shelved in the teen section and set the displays and was always reading the blurbs for the books - even the ridiculous fantasy titles I knew I'd never read. I have a few favorite authors like Publisher's Weekly invites publishers and editors working in the kid's book industry to share their favorites, which is where I learned about Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli, winner of the William C. Morris Debut Author award this year!
What draws me to the works of David Levithan and Rainbow Rowell over and over are the unforgettable characters and narrative voices they create along with the engaging, sometimes breathlessly so, sometimes achingly so, romances that unfold over the course of their novels. In Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda, Albertalli hits all these marks and more. Using first person narrative, emails, texts and tumblr posts, Albertalli creates Simon Sphere, an articulate, witty, occasionally carless, sometimes impulsive, and frequently self-absorbed high school junior who evolves over the course of the story, taking the occasional step outside the out of the inevitable bubble of narcissism that envelops most teenagers. The audio book, which I thoroughly enjoyed, is narrated perfectly by Michael Crouch.
Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda begins, "It's a weirdly subtle conversation. I almost don't notice I'm being blackmailed." But the story really begins at the start of school in August when Simon sees a post on the creeksecrets tumblr, a gossip (and bible quotes and bad poetry) feed where students from Creekwood High post anonymously, and he responds to it. The post is only about five lines long, but it was grammatically correct (something that most posts on creeksecrets aren't) and "strangely poetic." Blue, the poster, wrote about feeling both hidden and exposed about the fact that he is gay, and the "ocean between people," and how it seems like the "whole point of everything is to find a shore worth swimming to." The two begin a fast, intense correspondence, fueled by the fact that they don't know each other's identities. The beginning stages of their crush are exhilarating and Albertalli captures the flirtations and intimacies perfectly in their emails and Simon's eagerness and anticipation around them.
Martin Addison, fellow drama student and subtle blackmailer, has let Simon know that he forgot to log out of his gmail account while using the library computer. Martin has taken a screenshot and, in return for deleting this image, he would like Simon to "help him talk to Abby," the new girl in school who has bonded with Simon. This sets the story in motion, Simon struggling to protect Blue, who has not come out yet, and juggling his friends and their individual turmoils and his own evolving sense of self. Alebrtalli does an amazing job making the supporting characters fully formed, believable and integral to the story while also having their own story lines. From Simon's closest friends, the classic rock loving soccer jock Nick and the moody, anime obsessed, self-conscious Leah, to Simon's older sister Alice and younger sister Nora, and his almost-too-cool and possibly over-involved parents, these characters feel real and their struggles have meaning. And there is no extra baggage in Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda. As much as I love Simon's voice and Albertalli's writing and probably could have happily read/listened to an additional 50 to 100 pages of this book, I have the greatest respect to Albertalli and her editor for keeping it tight.
While the plot of Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda hinges on Simon not wanting to be outed, the story is more about Simon and Blue's burgeoning relationship and the mistakes and missteps Simon makes along the way, than it is about coming out and being openly gay. That said, Simon's story subtly makes some points and asks some important questions. At one point Simon asks, "Why is straight the default? Everyone should have to declare one way or another and it shouldn't be this big, awkward thing whether you're straight, gay, bi or whatever." As a straight person, Albertalli's novel allowed me a deeper understanding of how it feels to be in the minority, to have people assume something personal and intimate about you. Like all brilliant books, Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda allowed me to feel what it's like to be someone else.
I can't wait to read Becky Albertalli's next book, which features Molly, a chubby Jewish girl who lives in the suburbs of Washington DC. Molly is the cousin of Abby, the new student at Creekwood High School and her story takes place the summer after Simon's. With this connection, Albertalli has promised appearances by some familiar faces! For more details, read this fantastic interview!
Source: Purchased Audio Book