A few years ago, I read a debut Young Adult novel by an American author. It was so good —authentic, funny, heartwarming, well-plotted — that as soon as I’d finished I started reading it all over again.
The author was Becky Albertalli, and her book Simon vs the Homosapien Agenda (Puffin) has now been made into a film, Love, Simon released in the UK next week. It’s the story of a teenage boy who knows he’s gay and is happy about it, apart from the tricky business of coming out. He starts writing to an anonymous classmate who is having similar experiences and slowly falls in love without having much of a clue whom he loves and whether they feel the same. This sounds contrived, but Albertnalli’s skill is such that every bit rings true.
Now the Atlanta-based author has had the surreal experience of meeting her characters on set. She’s very happy with the finished product — “I’ve seen it ten times” — and assures me that the screenwriters have been “very, very faithful” to the original plot-line and message, one which encourages LGBT+ teens to have the courage to stand up to bullying and be open about who they are.
In a way that chimes with her experience of being Jewish — as, since getting married and taking her husband’s name, “most people don’t seem to know that I am Jewish.” This, for someone who grew up with a more recognisably Jewish name, a member of the Reform community in Atlanta, is a novel experience. She compares herself with other American YA writers, “they get a lot of antisemitism from online trolls”. That doesn’t happen to her. Instead she has been criticised — or her characters do — for “not being Jewish enough” such as when one boy throws a party on Shabbat.
“Sometimes they don’t understand the diversity of the community,” she says. “It hurts. I feel, don’t they know I’m Jewish?”
Her husband isn’t Jewish, and is “very secular” she says, and they don’t take their sons to synagogue, “although that’s more because they are five and three, they are energetic little boys who talk about poop a lot. I’m protecting the people in temple!”
They celebrate festivals with family and she has many local Jewish friends. And her books are full of Jewish kids. Her second book, The Upside of Unrequited featured Molly, a Jewish teen from a very diverse home, who works at a Jewish gift shop and finds shared Jewishness is a connection when making an important friendship —like a “secret invisible high-five” .
Which, even though Albertalli is in Atlanta and I’m on a crackly phoneline from London, is exactly what I feel talking to her.
Love, Simon is released in the UK on April 6