Confession: I am 24, and maybe half the books I read are young adult fiction books. I don't think I'm in the minority on this; if anything, the rousing success of franchises like The Hunger Games and Divergent and The Maze Runner prove that not only are we terrified that we are living in a capitalist dystopia, but we also want to make sure our teens are ready to brutally murder people and lead the revolution. Oh, uh, and that I'm not the only adult reading YA.
As a connoisseur, if you will, of books whose alleged audience is people 10 years my junior, I can say that Simon Vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda, the debut novel from author Becky Albertalli, is definitely going to be one of those YA books with universal appeal.
It's not just that the characters feel authentic in a way that some teenage characters don't; it's that they're written with such breathtaking empathy, and such generosity of spirit, that reading this book instead feels sort of like reading a particularly well-put-together journal. Simon, who writes to his pen pal Blue under a fake name, is gay — and he's not out yet to anyone but Blue, a boy in his school who is also gay. When someone finds out and decides to use this information to blackmail Simon, he's torn between protecting himself and a person he cares about, and standing up to his tormenter. At its heart, it's a novel about being comfortable with yourself and owning your identity.
We spoke with author Becky Albertalli about all the important things: life, love, and the internet. Here's what she had to say.
1. The internet is a beautiful and terrifying place.
"The biggest problem in my opinion is just how vulnerable people are, especially women and marginalized people who are getting a lot more negative feedback than your average white straight guy. I think there are some scary things about the internet; there are some things that I really hope will change, but I'm a big believer that it's wonderful for connecting people."
2. But it's also a net positive in the lives of people who need it most.
"When I think about gay teenagers, or really any LGBTQIA teenagers right now, I think that it's so incredibly important and something so different for these kids right now than it was for the kids even a half-generation before. Because there is that ability to reach out online, find that community, and connect with people even for kids who don't have that right physically around them where they live or aren't out and don't know how to reach out and find that community in a safe way. The internet and social media can really be life-saving for some kids."
3. And having both sides of that coin in her book was very important.
"Trying to make Simon feel authentic, and create this world and environment for him that would actually read like a high school, was vital. I was in high school I guess like 15 years ago, and it's just very different. The internet was just starting to become a part of this, but there was exploration online and these really intimate conversations. It was instant messenger back then, for me, but yeah it's been fun to kind of try and update that because it changes so quickly. I was pushing it just with email!"
4. Everybody gets a little bit caught up in their own drama.
"One of Simon's journeys is to step outside his head a little bit and realize that all these things that are driving him crazy that people do to him, he does to them too. He's the nosiest! He's all up in his sister's business!
There's also this awareness that he has with his friends. He has this whole secret inner world and he's very absorbed in it, and all teenagers are, and all people are. I definitely haven't entirely grown out of that self-centeredness. I think we're all a little bit caught up in the drama inside our own heads."
5. Nobody is a secondary character in their own life.
"Every single character in the book has their own world. I definitely write my own fan fiction about every single character. I liked for Simon to have the chance to have these moments of awareness, that there's stuff going on behind the curtain for everybody."
6. Treasure your lady-friendships.
"It was really important to me to create vivid girl characters. None of this book was deliberate, necessarily; a lot of these characters just came out this way. But I've had a lot of really important friendships with women; I'm definitely a girl's girl, I think."
7. When you make a mistake, don't run from it. Learn from it.
"Sit with your mistakes. Think about what the consequences were, and how it made you feel to hurt somebody like that, how it made them feel. And I think if you're able to do that, you'll be able to move on from it and learn from it. You can still grow into a good person."
8. Empathy is the best skill you can develop.
"One of the other things too is that Simon becomes more and more aware of his own privilege and some of the ways that other people in his life struggle that he hasn't had to think about, and to be able to develop that empathy and to be able to give to other people what feels so good for him to receive."
9. Your friends will care about you even when you change.
"Don't be afraid of growing up and changing and getting used to these newer versions of yourself, and becoming more comfortable sharing those versions of yourself with the people in your life, even people who knew you when you were younger."
10. Nobody has it all figured out.
"Love is bumping along together with the people in your life, and making mistakes and trying to make them right by virtue of the fact that these are people you actually love, you care about them enough to muddle through it with them."
Simon Vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda is available on April 7.