Books have also been written and movies have been made (think John Hughes's The Breakfast Club, or The Perks of Being a Wallflower, by Stephen Chbosky) about so many teenage misfits--those kids who, try as hard as they might, just can't figure out popularity--what to wear, how to act, how to get friends and keep them so that there's someone to sit with at lunch or on the bus to protect you from the judgment and ridicule of being alone and different.
In grabbing two novels from the teen "New Books" shelves to read over the weekend, I coincidentally picked up very different treatments of these themes: Eleanor and Park, by Rainbow Rowell, and Nobody, by Jennifer Lynn Barnes.
Eleanor and Park reminds me a bit of another book I reviewed here last year: I'll Be There, by Holly Goldberg Sloan. That's a big compliment, since I chose that one as my best book of 2012. In this one, the cultural differences between the two protagonists aren't quite as extreme, but they still live in different worlds that are bridged by their attraction for one another. It's 1986. Eleanor is the new girl at school, and she's the epitome of a misfit: weird clothes, wild, uncombed red hair, and attitude. Park isn't a popular kid, but he has connections to some of them from his neighborhood that keep him mostly out of the line of fire; his claim to fame is being the only half-Korean kid in Omaha, Nebraska (or at least in this school and neighborhood). Their first encounter is on the school bus, a classic horrifying first-day scenario from which Park reluctantly rescues Eleanor; and after that initial save, neither can get the other one out of his or her head. Eleanor's difficult home life makes her reluctant to involve anyone else in that drama, while Park is handicapped by his mother's desire for him to fit in by dating a "nice" girl, and while Eleanor is smart and funny, she doesn't quite fit into that parameter. But despite everything, these 16-year-olds have a connection that can't be denied, and you root for them all the way through.
"Bono met his wife in high school," Park says.
"So did Jerry Lee Lewis," Eleanor answers.
"I’m not kidding," he says.
"You should be," she says, "we’re sixteen."
"What about Romeo and Juliet?"
"Shallow, confused, then dead."
''I love you," Park says.
"Wherefore art thou," Eleanor answers.
"I’m not kidding," he says.
"You should be."
If you like smart dialogue and sweet, genuine relationships, this one's for you; and if you're a fan of books with playlists, there's also a lot of talk about music as Park introduces Eleanor to his favorites from the '80s. (Oh, and John Green loved it. I know that's the ultimate recommendation for some of you!)
Nobody takes the concept of unpopular to a new extreme: If you are that kid who sits alone with a book at lunchtime, who can't seem to make or keep a friend, who has trouble getting the teacher to acknowledge your raised hand in the classroom, you will relate to this one. Claire is that kid, but as you read along, you realize that her situation goes beyond just being ignored: Her parents act like they don't remember they have a daughter, she has no friends, and people mostly don't even look at her--she might as well be invisible. For 16 years, she has made the best of it and tried to stay positive, until one day when she looks out of her window and sees a boy aiming a gun right at her. Why would someone want to kill her? Who would send an assassin after an ordinary (and apparently unremarkable) 16-year-old girl? And why does the assassin seem so stunned when she looks him right in the eye and starts screaming? Let's just say that the most dangerous people in the world are the ones you don't even see--and Claire is about to meet another one: Nix, 17-year-old Nobody, an assassin looking to make her number 12 on his list. This book comes with secret societies, special powers, and nefarious plots--it takes the theme of feeling like a nobody to new heights!
I have to say that both the romance and the self-loathing were over the top for most of the book, and the identical interaction took place too many times between Nix and Claire--I groaned (and skipped) a bit here and there. I also thought the end solution was a little too easy. But I did love that the author would take something that's such a common feeling to such an extreme, and I was entertained throughout.
A 5 for Eleanor and Park, and a 3.5 for Nobody. Ages 14 and up for both of them.