Bullying, Good Books for Boys, YA

Don’t Believe Everything You Read: You

Great cover- excellent kerb appeal.

This book has received so much advance praise that I just had to add it to the short list of novels that I was able to bring with me to camp. The last book I picked up with the same amount of accolades was The Sky is Everywhere, and reading that was one of the best things I did this spring, so I had high hopes for Charles Benoit’s first YA novel, You.

Kyle is frustrated with school, his parents, his lack of girlfriend, and life in general. Kyle is a self-described Hoodie, though he feels he doesn’t connect with his fellow burn-outs. Once upon a time, he was a decent student who was interested in science and the future, but somewhere along the line Kyle’s rage and apathy have taken over and now it’s all he can do to just get through the day. But when Zack McDade shows up, things get interesting. Zack is unlike anyone Kyle knows; he’s sophisticated, smart, a smooth-talker, and addicted to drama. When Zack saves Kyle from a beating at the hands of a group of  jocks, Kyle feels obligated to, at the very least, attend Zack’s parties and go through the motions of friendship. But their friendship takes a sinister turn and that ultimately ends in a tragedy.

You opens with a rather explosive prologue that is in fact a chunck of text taken from the climax of the story. How very Stephenie Meyer. I generally consider this tactic to be lazy writing and a bit of a gimmick. Particularly in this case, in which the narrative is compelling enough that it doesn’t need a juicy morsel to tantalize the reader from the start. However, without this opening scene, the novel becomes less of a mystery, which it is being billed as, and more of a contemporary novel about teenage apathy and the cruelty that teenagers inflict on each other. What’s wrong with that? Why make it a mystery? Does mystery make it more marketable? Possibly.

Benoit uses second person narration to tell Kyle’s story, which is a gutsy move on his part. It is compelling and helps to create a sense of urgency, but for me, it  was ultimately an unsuccessful choice. Perhaps it has to do with the fact that I am not a teenage boy, and so being told what I was doing or feeling, when those are things I wouldn’t do or feel, didn’t gel with me. I consider myself an open reader, meaning that I am able to suspend my disbelief and inhabit a character fully, but the constant use of the word ‘you’ created more distance between myself and Kyle. I will be interested in hearing how young male readers connect with the novel, because I can imagine the ‘you’ would have a totally different effect on them.  

The strongest point of You is not the protagonist, but the antagonist. Zack McDade is an unforgettable character. He is a dangerous combination of smart, bored, and cruel. Kyle is told that Zack likes to find somene’s weak spot and push them to the breaking point, but he doesn’t quite believe that someone could be so cruel until it happens to him. I shudder to think that their are teens out there that goad and play with people’s feelings and lives like this, though I’m certain a disheartening number of readers will be able to relate to Kyle and his victimization at the hands of Zack.  Zack reminds me a little bit of Zenia, the ultimate villainess from Margaret Atwood’s The Robber Bride. Both characters possess an it factor that allows them to get away with murder, and both concoct elaborate  cons that are drawn out and meticulously planned.

I found the secondary bullies (polo-shirt wearing uber-jocks) a little one-note and stereotypical. However, Ashley, Kyle’s sweet but clueless love interest, is clearly drawn. Their relationship, if it can be called that, feels very authentic. There were also some wonderful moments between Kyle and his mother, in which it is clear that neither one can remember why or how they grew apart, but make a half-hearted effort to reconnect.

Despite the issues I had with the book, overall, this is a provocative and compelling read that will strike a chord with many teen readers, particularly boys. Apathy is an all-too familiar condition these days, and I can’t recall another book that has portrayed its corrosive effects as successfully as You does.

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You will be available from HarperTeen in August 2010.

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