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Young adult book reviews for ages 12 and up - middle school and high school students

*The Great American Whatever* by Tim Federle- young adult book review
The Great American Whatever
by Tim Federle
Grades 10+ 304 pages Simon and Schuster April 2017 Paperback    

The young adult genre owes much of its success in recent years to a certain established pattern of predictability, standardized events that interest teenage and early adult readers while giving publishers a safety net for making dollars. Tim Federle’s The Great American Whatever retains enough of these formulaic patterns to place it squarely within a recognizable genre; however, the novel succeeds by deviating from the most basic of formulas even as it uses them to build its base.

The book’s main character, Quinn Roberts, is a teenager coping with the recent death of his older sister in a tragic accident. As he struggles with his grief, he comes to realize that his sister’s death has long-standing implications for his relationship with family and friends. Meanwhile, he struggles also with typical teenage anxieties about social standing, sexuality, and the ever-looming future bearing down on kids in their late teen years. It is in this strange time, where everyone struggles (whether they admit it or not) with determining who they might become, that Quinn finds himself involved in a new friendship and burgeoning romance.

These are all standard issues for any teenage protagonist--staples of the genre, even--but Federle effectively complicates these issues. One such way is how movies function throughout the novel, an interesting use of one storytelling medium within another. The narrator is obsessed with movies, and he views most of his life events through that lens. He rewrites his life “script” while often envisioning himself as a movie character. There is even a chapter comprised of Quinn’s favorite movie quotes, an appropriately eclectic mix representing disorganized teenage enthusiasm. The influence of movies on the psyche of young people is hardly a new concept, but it is nevertheless relatable to many readers who do (or did) make similar moves when coping with adolescence.

These silver-screen imaginings provide the narrator with a comfortable distance from the tragedy of his sister’s death and the current uncertainty of his teenage life, a distance he gradually overcomes as he embarks upon his first romantic relationship. Fortunately, Federle deftly sidesteps another cliché by avoiding a rather standard romantic plot of books and movies both, as the narrator does not find a boyfriend so much as he ends up finding himself. The ability to come out of the movie and the part he casts for himself involves embracing real life, including sex and his sexual orientation, and Federle’s adept handling of this sexual awakening is strikingly honest in its simplicity.

The movies reveal more than just the narrator’s psyche, though. They also allow Federle to explore the intrinsic role of movies in American culture, forcing frank discussions of the relationship between the arts and economics: a favorite movie theatre goes out of business, Quinn’s next-door neighbor returns to their small Pittsburgh neighborhood as a successful Hollywood screenwriter, and Quinn’s best friend funds their exploits. Class is a theme that the novel explores sometimes subtly, sometimes not, but always in an interesting manner that challenges complacency about these matters and that might, ideally, encourage increased social awareness and appreciation of the arts from young readers. Hopefully such evolved consciousness is the case because the novel’s rather average writing style--leaden with weak similes, teenage phrasing, and sometimes too-childish humor--will likely prevent it from being read widely by adults.

Still, the connections to audience reveal the interconnectedness of everyone. The novel is thus eminently relatable for all readers, regardless of how much their own life experiences may differ from Quinn’s. Federle captures the indecisive hesitancy that so plagues the teenage mind and, if we are honest, the minds of adults. Ultimately, the book works because most everyone can understand conflicting feelings about home, family, and one’s role in life, anxieties that define the teenage years but shape who we are. The Great American Whatever is not a truly great American novel, nor would it make for a great American movie--much to Quinn’s lament, most likely--but the book suffices as a pretty decent American story, and that is something appreciated by moviegoers and readers alike.
Young adult book reviews for ages 12 and up - middle school and high school students

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