EW talks YA: Reviews of a bittersweet gay rom-com, the Dear Evan Hansen novel, and more
EW is here to provide reviews and recommendations of the biggest new YA titles. To kick off October, we’re discussing Pride and Prejudice re-imaginings, decadent French fantasies, and a few more hyped reads from the past month. Check out our new roundup below, and in case you missed October’s, we’ve got you covered.
October’s Top Pick: What If It’s Us? by Becky Albertalli & Adam Silvera
Here’s the rom-com I wish I had growing up — a gay love story rooted in joy rather than trauma, where tragedy doesn’t rule the day but, instead, a steamy sweetness shimmers throughout. What If It’s Us makes a statement in its very being. Fortunately, Becky Albertalli and Adam Silvera are happen to spin together a pretty great romance.
The pair of YA superstars — Albertalli the author of Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda, the basis for the film Love, Simon; Silvera the best-selling name behind, most recently, They Both Die at the End — each take on a character in alternating POV chapters. Albertalli writes Arthur, a Jewish kid from Georgia who’s interning in New York for the summer; Silvera handles Ben, a New York native of Puerto Rican descent who bides his time in Lower Manhattan’s Alphabet City. Immediately the book is distinguished by the dual voices. These two authors are among contemporary YA’s most notable, and the book effortlessly weaves between their voices — two specific NYC stories, primed to converge.
They do, immediately — at a post-office, an ideal setting for a classic meet-cute. Their encounter is stuffed with the kind of tension and slapstick that goes on to define the book. Arthur is comically overdressed, sporting a hot-dog tie and at the municipal building to execute a job; Ben arrives with a big box full of his ex-boyfriend’s stuff, ready to ship off the past. They chat. Awkward silences abound. A marching band storms in and separates them. Ben disappears. The end? Not quite.
Neither boy can put the few minutes spent together out of mind, even as they’re without each other’s contact information. From there What If It’s Us takes its time — covering roughly 100 pages, even, before the boys find their way back to one another in person. The character work is strong enough to make the choice pay off. There’s (very) relatable sequences of online stalking and endless ruminating, as the characters chat through their feelings with friends and family. Silvera, it must be said, gets the standout character here — Ben is a vibrant presence, his bond with (straight) best friend Dylan probably the book’s highlight, the way he wears his emotions on his sleeve always engagingly, tenderly comic. But both leads are well-drawn, and by the time Albertalli and Silvera take their turns unfurling awkward dates, they’re in glorious sync.
There’s an intimacy here, and a welcome degree of nuance in the treatment of everything from ADHD to consent to race to homophobia. On that last point, the book still exists in the world — not divorced from persistent bigotry and marginalization — but doesn’t wallow in it, recognizing the value of a queer romance without that extra baggage. Finally, for those familiar with these authors, there’s the matter of the ending; these two are known for writing to very different conclusions. All I’ll say is that this one feels about perfect — exactly how you’d hope this pair would finish off a novel together. —David Canfield
Dear Evan Hansen by Val Emmich
After becoming a Broadway hit and launching a national tour, upcoming international productions, a libretto book, and a Grammy-winning cast album, you’d think Dear Evan Hansen had entered all the arenas a musical smash could (at least until a film version gets made, or a branded line of striped polo shirts comes along). But the story has now found itself in novel form, adapted by Val Emmich with show creators Steven Levenson, Benj Pasek, and Justin Paul. And fans of the musical — especially those without proximity or privilege to get to see it on stage — will be happy to hear it’s a faithful adaptation of Evan, engaging and emotional in many of the same ways as its source material.
Dear Evan Hansen: The Novel follows the same story line as the musical, and aims to deepen it. Instead of watching Ben Platt and his successors convey all of Evan’s physical tics and inner turmoil, the novel leans on his inner monologue, fretting about sweaty palms and talking to people at school and then the web of lies he steadily builds as the plot goes on. Many of the songs translate well as plot points — after hearing Evan take the Murphy family though his (fictional) memories with their late son, Connor, all I wanted to do was queue up “For Forever” on infinite repeat (and, reader, I did). But some of the show’s standout moments — like the heart-swelling Act 1 ender “You Will Be Found” — lose a bit of their power without the musical crescendo beneath them. (Zoe’s two numbers, “Requiem” and “Only Us,” feature as lyrics from songs she performs, which felt like a bit of a cop-out.)
The place the book strays the furthest from the musical is adding narration from Connor, who now reflects on his life and watches the events that follow his suicide from a ghostly periphery. It’s a choice that underlines the ways in which Connor and Evan are similar — both lonely, yearning for connections they’re seemingly unable to make — and fills in crucial details about his back story and the circumstances around his death. But whether they should be there is something I found myself debating. In the musical, Connor’s death is a chasm that the other characters pour themselves into – the mystery around who he was allows the other characters to fill in the blanks with their own grief, questions, and hopes (and, in Evan’s case, his lies). By giving the readers more, it takes something else away.
Overall, though, Dear Evan Hansen: The Novel should leave fans satisfied. And now many more can find their way into a story that has resonated with so many people looking to be found. —Jessica Derschowitz
Dry, by Neal Shusterman & Jarrod Shusterman
Dry, written by father-son duo Neal and Jarrod Shusterman, is set in an alternate-reality Southern California where an extreme drought has resulted in the entire state’s water supply being depleted, dubbed “the Tap-Out” by local media.
The book (in development as a big-budget feature at Paramount) shifts perspectives, alternating between 16-year-old Alyssa, who (along with her younger brother Garrett) is left to search for after her parents after they don’t return from a water-retrieving trip, and her strange next-door-neighbor, Kelton, raised by paranoid survivalists in a self-sustainable house. He accompanies Alyssa and Garrett on their journey; later, the group joins forces with Jaqui and Henry, other teens met along the way.
Throughout, the Shustermans snapshot other members of the community — a local newscaster inspired to return to her journalistic roots; a local power plant owner vying to quell a riot — and their perspectives add to the context and scale of the disaster.
As the desperation of the situation escalates, and neighbors turn into predators, the consequences of the crisis are amplified. We see it all from teenagers’ perspectives: Alyssa and Kelton protect themselves as Alyssa’s parents go missing, and though Kelton is more jaded because of his upbringing, they’re often both genuinely stunned by the cruelty which manifests out of dire circumstances. Dry is not just a warning about the dark side of human nature, though; heroes emerge from the crisis as well. Even so, seeing what’s necessary to survive in a crisis forces the teenagers to grow up fast. (About a week, to be exact.)
The underlying tension here is the story’s plausibility Climate change is not necessarily the central focus here, but when pointing to how the media’s (lacking) coverage of the “Tap-Out” affects the public reaction and response to the crisis, the novel provides intriguing insights on modern-day natural disasters. Dry works best, however, when documenting how the teenagers must question their own morality: Alyssa, as her pure morals are discarded for survival, and Kelton, as he abandons his father’s isolationist code to protect those he cares about. There, this story finds its humanity. —Esme Douglas
Hey, Kiddo, by Jarrett J. Krosoczka
With Hey, Kiddo, Jarrett J. Krosoczka delivers an unconventional autobiography, delving into a childhood and adolescence shaped by his mother’s heroin addiction. Told from Krosoczka’s 17-year-old self’s point of view, Hey Kiddo transforms mature themes — including drug use, estrangement, hidden violence, and the unfairness of life — into an entertaining, insightful graphic memoir, appropriate for both adults with (some) perspective and teens just beginning to make sense of the world. No wonder it’s a finalist for this year’s National Book Award for Young People’s Literature.
Hey, Kiddo opens on a 17-year-old Krosoczka, reserved and introspective, driving through a cemetery with his grandfather, discussing love and death and family. From there, the teenager becomes our narrator and traces his family history, beginning with his grandparents’ love story in the 1940s and moving forward chronologically, until Krosoczka himself is a small child, living alone with his young, single mother. Krosoczka, a best-selling author and illustrator, can only tell as much as his memory allows, but the slices we get of his childhood are exceptionally realistic. The entire book is colorless save for occasional blotches of burnt orange, producing obscure, dream-like vignettes. Eventually, his grandparents (affectionately referred to as Joe and Shirl by Krosoczka) take him in, and he matures with only sporadic glimpses of his mother, who bounces between boyfriends, treatment centers, and halfway houses. As the reader progresses through Krosoczka’s coming-of-age, the reasons for such instability unfold as Krosoczka discovers them: small tastes of truth peppered through the years that accumulate over time, filling in his memory’s blanks and revealing the whole story.
Krosoczka’s first-person perspective evolves as he’s able to articulate more of the effect his mother had on his life. Toward the end of the book, he reconnects with his father and two half-siblings, and, in a refreshingly well-adjusted move, welcomes the new additions to his blended family as warmly as they welcome him. It’s a profoundly personal look at a young person’s confusion and fear of an unsafe world, but it’s imbued with enduring love and, as Krosoczka matures, forgiveness.
Like all the best graphic novels, Hey, Kiddo, is written and illustrated cinematically, with compelling pacing and striking visuals that make the reader linger and experience Krosoczka’s life as he tells it. Hey, Kiddo feels at times slightly too individual, bogged down with details that are likely more meaningful to the author than the reader, but such is the plight of taking in someone else’s life story. As memoirs go, Hey, Kiddo is quick and colorful but still broaches heavy topics with ease — something only a survivor of such adversity can deliver. —A. Cydney Hayes