Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda
by Becky Albertalli
Balzer + Bray, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, 2015
Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda was one of the happiest books I’ve read this year. Recently released as a movie, it originally came out in 2015, earning a well-deserved place on YA must-read lists for its depiction of a gay protagonist.
It’s also the best use of first person present I’ve read so far.
Simon, a young man starting his junior year of high school, has a trio of close friends, a loving family, and is generally secure about his life save for one thing — he is gay but hasn’t told anyone yet. (Amusingly, he discovered he was gay by crushing on Daniel Radcliff’s portrayal of Harry Potter.) The only one who knows is a mysterious poster, also gay, on his school’s website forum whom he calls Blue; as the two correspond Simon develops a crush on him as well as the desire to meet.
It’s lightweight stuff, but surprisingly deep. There’s musings about growing up in general and having one’s understanding of the world deepen – discovering hidden sides to others as they mature and grow beyond stereotypes, and gradually Simon’s waking up occurs as well. In his world coming out is not the tension-fraught horror it would have been in a 1970s or 80s book, as Simon’s friends and family are liberal and accepting. It’s that he doesn’t want all the fuss, and perhaps, the work of growing up that comes with it. He also develops real feelings for Blue and there’s a lot of comedy as he tries to discover who Blue really is.
There’s also a subplot in that the class clown is blackmailing him because he knows of Blue’s and Simon’s secret exchanges – in return for keeping quiet, he wants Simons help in breaking the ice with his own crush, one of Simon’s female friends. In keeping with the sweet nature of the book, the blackmail is not of the thuggish or leering variety, but of the “Hey, let’s do a guy a favor” sort. Simon resents it, but it’s also made clear to the reader that these are basically nice kids.
It’s an introspective book. Nothing terrible happens around the coming-out theme; the worst is some jeering at a school musical Simon’s performing in that is quickly dealt with by the teacher. But it was very profound, mostly because of the author’s voice. Simon is one of those rare books where a YA first person present POV is done well, in that I believe a real character is talking to me, and not a mouthpiece of the author’s to lend “immediacy” but winds up reading like a screenplay with I’s subbed in for third person pronouns. Simon’s POV is limited and since he doesn’t care about playing to his audience, he leaves us much to infer about his life. For example, he’s is involved in a school production of Oliver! but doesn’t describe the plot to us, just that there’s Fagin and orphans and music. This was very refreshing to me compared to books like Red Queen and Children of Blood and Bone, where it’s clear the narrator is a stand-in for the author who’s pulling the strings to set the scene. Simon is not trying to manipulate us for tension and stakes. These flow out naturally from what he says and how he feels.
Also refreshingly, Simon doesn’t gasp, grunt, guzzle, heave for breath, or describe other physiological responses ad infinitum as first person present writers also tend to do.
If there is a weakness to the book, it’s that Simon’s situation is all rather sanguine. There’s realism there, but nothing nasty. I’d could be I’m just projecting, though. Teens of the 2010s enjoy a different familial situation than the ones of the 1960s and 1970s, where children were often pitted against parents and expected to become independent and get away from them as soon as possible.
A sweet read, and worth doing so just for examining the technique of a YA writer who GOT IT RIGHT.