I didn’t even know about this book until a few weeks ago but when I saw the author tweet about the kind of themes he was talking about in it, I wanted to give it a try. And I’ve previously read an anthology edited by Lamar Giles called Fresh Ink which was amazing, so I was expecting this to be equally compelling.
It’s actually been a while since I’ve read a YA contemporary because I’ve started feeling a bit too old for them, so I’m trying not to project my adult perceptions onto the book. The book was very easy to read, engaging in a way that made me not want to put it down more than a couple of times. I thought the conversation style between the teenagers was realistic but I truly don’t have any experience to compare it to. The author also manages to keep the fun going while interspersing the narrative with some serious discussions and introspection and I thought that was done real well.
Religion plays a major role in the storyline here and while it’s another experience that I can’t talk about its authenticity, I thought the importance of being a part of the church and adhering to its teachings among the characters was depicted very realistically. And I liked the message that though some in the leadership and elderly congregants might stick to old school principles, it’s the young people with their new ideas and new perspectives that can make the church and religion itself much more progressive and inclusive.
The other major theme throughout the book is male entitlement and how men (and young boys) dismiss the opinions or just about any assertion by a woman, assume that they themselves are always right, consider themselves entitled to women’s time and space and bodies, and then lash out when their so-called feelings aren’t reciprocated. Obviously toxic masculinity can’t be eradicated by reading one book but the author definitely tries to talk about how young boys can be taught to recognize such behavior within themselves and try to change.
The author also tries to talk about the dichotomy of a church preaching abstinence and purity pledges, trying to prevent the school from following a comprehensive sex ed program despite an increasing rate of teen pregnancies and how this adversely affects the young women who do end up getting pregnant and then slut shamed, but no one even cares who the responsible father was. The undue burden put on women in every aspect of their lives is shown extremely realistically in a couple of chapters which hit very close to my heart and those few chapters are definitely what make me want to recommend this book to everyone.
Del is like any teenager who has a crush on a girl and finally thinks it’s his time because she has broken up with her boyfriend. He is also reluctant to go the church but finding Kiera at the same place gives him an opportunity to impress her and that’s how he gets involved in the activities. On one hand he makes some lasting friendships in the church group, realizes the importance of the community and how it can be a force of good and change; but on the other hand, he never deviates from his almost obsession with Kiera and neglects many other important tasks in his life. He is obviously encouraged by his other friends which just shows how much peers influence the behavior and how much more parents have to be in communication with their kids. I thought the author did a great job making Del sympathetic enough that we find him a relatable teenager but also are able to recognize his faults – I just wanted to give him a good shake sometimes and make him see how wrong he was.
The whole friend group is very diverse with very distinct personalities, their own unique relationship with faith and the church and with each other. There are conflicts and difficulties but they also resolve in their own ways and I enjoyed the varied dynamics between each of them. Del’s sister Cressie plays a very small but one of the most important parts in the story and I loved the transcripts of her YouTube videos. While I didn’t like that the author uses the concept of men learning to respect women’s boundaries when something happens to a woman in their family, I think the change has to somewhere and this is as good a reason as any. I also found Del’s parent’s dynamic very interesting – they are so much in sync in many ways but still there’s an element of dismissal of a woman’s beliefs and fears and I thought that was so realistic.
To conclude, this is a great teen contemporary that gives a very unique perspective on religion, toxic masculinity, and female agency without beating down its message or portraying anyone as the villain. It’s charming, relatable, with a great cast of characters and a very important message that I think deserves a read. I would definitely recommend it to any teenage readers or parents of young kids, as well as anyone who enjoys reading contemporary stories rooted in reality.