Two YA Novels: Ready When You Are and And Then They Lived

Cover of Gary Lonesborough's novel, Ready When You Are. Gold lettering on blue background, silhouette of two boys holding hands.

First published as The Boy from the Mish, Gary Lonesborough’s debut young adult novel, Ready When You Are, is a delightful and surprising tale of young love and coming-of-age for two Aboriginal Australian boys.

I’ll admit that the first couple of chapters were rough-going for me, so much so that the book almost become for me a rare-DNF. (I’m both very good at picking books I think I’ll enjoy and very persistent, almost refusing to abandon a book even if I’m not enjoying it.) That said, I’m so glad I continued with this one, because after the introductory chapters, Lonesborough’s story opens wide, compels rather than invites the reader in, and becomes unputdownable.

At the center of the story is Jackson, who lives in an Aboriginal community called “the Mish” (short for Mission). He, his mother, and his siblings exist on the outskirts of a contemporary suburb. Jackson’s story is going to be unfortunately familiar to readers of stories from Indigenous and persons-of-color from the United States and elsewhere, but there’s something strikingly unique about the way Lonesborough crats this one, supported by talented writing and an imaginative and romantic but realistic voice, but buoyed most of all by the author’s lived experiences.

Jackson’s story is relatable on so many levels, from the universal experience of growing up and coming of age in the modern world—making a self for oneself—to his coming out experience, and even his struggle to understand and connect with his own cultural heritage in the face of an often intolerant and domineering society around him. I think the title, Ready When You Are—says it all. Jackson is fortunate to meet someone who is patient with him, and just confident and daring enough to bring Jackson out of his shell. It’s a message to the reader, too. As I said in my Goodreads review, I almost gave up on this one, but then something wonderful happened: I fell in love.

Cover image of Steven Salvatore's novel, And They Lived... Two boys kissing with starry night background.

Steven Salvatore’s And They Lived . . . is billed as, “a sex-positive, fairytale-inspired YA novel that celebrates first love and self-acceptance.” That is a pretty good description, to me, and I’ll admit it was a little weird reading this one in our current age of incense over books’ “corrupting” influence. (Picture: Eyes rolling so hard they get stuck.)

I noticed some complaints about the lack of realism in this one, mostly referring to what happen to the main character, Chase Arthur, in art school. I don’t have the experience of going to an elite art school, so I can’t comment on how believable his plot lone is (meaning the courses he took and the internship he competes for in the first year), but I don’t really care, either. So what if it’s not entirely plausible? It’s called fiction for a reason—and I think it’s likely that there are programs like this at certain institutions anyway.

Now that that’s out of the way, some things I loved about this book are its characters and its tensions. There are high-quality, well-crafted characters in this one, from the devoted sidekick to the irritating friend who becomes a favorite, to the tortured love interest, and of course, the rival and villain. One of the best features is that none of the characters is entirely as they seem, nor do any of them remain static. It’s impressive in any novel to see all the characters, even minor ones, grow or change or surprise us, but it’s especially interesting in a young adult novel where there’s usually less development for the side characters.

I also loved the tensions built into this one. The book is likened to What If It’s Us for good reason. There’s a similar “will they/won’t they” conflict happening, but it’s well done. This kind of plot (and the love triangle one) are so overdone and so easily done poorly, but when they’re done well, they speak to something deep inside all of us, I think, and it resonates.

I will say, I was expecting more of a fairy tale vibe because the book was advertised that way. It is easy to see the fairy tale influence, though, both in the plot itself, where the main character is obsessed with fairy tales, but also in the metafictional aspect, where the plot arc and the characters and motivations absolutely fit into fairy tale tropes, despite there being no fantastical or magical realism elements in the story itself.

Lastly, I was glad to read a young adult book that deals positively with mental health treatment and encourages those struggling with their mental health to get help.

Both Ready When You Are and And They Lived . . . are new young adult releases this year (Spring 2022), and they’re wonderful additions to the genre.

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