I have said many times that the best kind of book, even those within a genre we often dismissively label “pleasure reading,” is the book that teaches while it entertains. Perhaps not surprisingly, Young Adult novels tend to fall into this category. They make for lovely and usually simple reading, perfect for stressful times when we need escapist leisure (hmm… why is that so appealing right now?). Yet, they are also often quite instructive; at least, the really good ones are. Kacen Callender’s Felix Ever After is a good one.
The protagonist and narrator, Felix Love, has never been in love. And, as he states at the beginning of his story, he is quite aware of the irony, thank you very much. He has an adoring best friend, though, and a father who, despite awkward and annoying mistakes, tries his best to accept Felix for the young man he is. Unfortunately, Felix also has some baggage. A mother who disappeared when he was young. An ex-girlfriend who is, let’s be real, a pretty lousy person. And an arch-rival who is not only gorgeous, but also rich, and brilliantly talented in the same field as Felix; and let’s not forget, he’s also vying for the same scholarship and single space at the same university. Oh, the humanity!
So, yes, there’s drama in the land of Felix. There’s also love when it is least expected. Who knew that a boy so desperate for love could find it in the two unlikeliest of places?
The balance of these tensions throughout is handled well, though if I’m being honest, I’m getting farther and farther away from being the “target audience” for young adult fiction. My patience for the drama and the perhaps inevitable character failings in young casts is wearing thin. I’m also always put off by characters that speak about things that seem, to me, well beyond their years. I understand the argument that this is often intended to give young readers a pathway toward learning, toward expanding their own knowledge, awareness, consciousnesses, and heck, even vocabularies. I think that’s an admirable goal, but I also think it can cause characters to seem unrealistic at times. All that being said, my two minor irritants (an ignoble narrator and a sometimes too-erudite group of kids) aren’t nearly problematic enough to take away from the goodness this story has to offer. It is well-paced, complex, sometimes dangerous, and often surprising. And best of all? It is edifying even for those of us who think, fallaciously, that we’re “beyond” its audience.
Here’s an example of what I mean. Have you heard of the term demiboy? Maybe you have. I haven’t! Or, I hadn’t until I read this book. Now, here I am, neck-deep in LGBT Studies and queer theory, in queer pedagogy, and intersectional feminism. And here am I, learning something new about my own field of study from a young adult novel. I love that feeling. I love that reading young adult fiction keeps me in touch with what is current in the world today. There is always and will always be a place in my heart and on my shelves for great YA novels if for no other reason than this. It is instructive and it keeps me grounded.
Felix’s story, the story of a young queer (trans) black man, is a particularly important and powerful one right now. It is a story that needed telling. Kacen Callender’s book, and voice, has entered the conversation in exactly the right moment. How very lucky we are to have it and how happy I was to read it.
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You don’t start out writing good stuff. You start out writing crap and thinking it’s good stuff, and then gradually you get better at it. That’s why I say one of the most valuable traits is persistence. Octavia E. Butler
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