Becky Albertalli’s lovely debut Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda has been described as “You’ve Got Mail starring gay teenage boys with good grammar.” The YA novel deals with heavy themes: Simon’s blackmailed by a boy in his class who discovers his secret email correspondence with the mysterious Blue, and later, bullying, love triangles, and the oft-underestimated complexity of platonic relationships also complicate Simon’s junior year. Yet Albertalli keeps Simon fun, and as sweet as the Oreos that junk-food-loving Simon is always craving.
Here are three things kidlit writers can learn from Albertalli’s debut.
1. Internet: it’s not just for distracting writers!
The plot in Simon hinges on Simon and Blue’s anonymous email correspondence. They know they go to the same school––they met on the high school Tumblr––and they know they’re quickly falling for each other. But that’s about it. Since neither is out as gay, the anonymity is appealing. Even as they grown to know and care for each other deeply, they’re scared that if they meet in real life, everything might change.
Here, the tech-centric nature of the story doesn’t detract from the poignancy. It makes the book feel more real, and more in tune with students’ lives today. The mystery behind Blue’s identity also becomes a driving force in the plot, and enables an Internet-fueled suspense that would be absent otherwise.
2. Make your characters real––if you can do that, you can write outside your diversity.
I approached this book with a bit of hesitation. Shouldn’t I read a story about a gay teenage boy written by someone who’s been a gay teenage boy?
Well, the answer to that is yes. But it doesn’t mean I can’t also read and enjoy this book! And here’s the key to why Simon works: Simon Spier feels like a real, three-dimensional person. He’s a good friend sometimes, and a bad friend sometimes. He eats way too many cookies (more on that later). He’s self-conscious about wearing band T-shirts if he hasn’t been to a concert. And his voice––it sounds exactly like a teenage boy who, despite being incredibly perceptive, is still figuring out who he is.
To bring a character to life, you need to deeply respect them. You need to notice the little details that make the character unique and human, just the way you could pick out your best friend’s laugh in a crowded airport. That’s the depth of commitment it takes to write outside your diversity. Albertalli’s got it, and it makes this book a joy to read.
3. There’s nothing wrong with a sweet tooth.
More about that joy! At its core, this book is really a celebration of that overwhelming, exhausting, all-consuming, nerve-ending-surging young love. It’s as sweet as any happily-ever-after teen movie (are you listening, Hollywood producers?), and not just because Simon is always going on about Oreos and Reese’s.
This is the kind of book you read when you want to remember there are a few things right with the world. And because it doesn’t shy away from those tough topics like bullying––or coming out when your dad has made a gay joke or two––it’s all the more meaningful when young love and flawed but loyal friendship prevail.
Want to chat more about Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda? Find me on Twitter @beckererine.