Retro Review: It’s Not Me, It’s You Is A Needed Ray of Sun by Brett Vogelsinger
After finishing a string of beautifully crafted but oh-so-heavy YA novels, the kind that have the word “devastating” in the book jacket blurb, I decided it was time for something lighter. I browsed the “Light and Humorous” section of my classroom library, which is, I admit, a bit anemic, and came across came across Stephanie Kate Strohm’s book It’s Not Me, It’s You. The back cover describes it as a “laugh out loud look at one girl’s epic dating history, as told by her friends, family, and foes.” Perfect. This sounded like the antithesis to The Serpent King and I figured it would be a light breeze of a read that I probably would not engage me that much but could always provide a book talk topic when students ask me for something funny to read. Reading this book gave me an unexpected, important reminder: comedy can be carefully crafted.
The main character is perennially dating, never alone, and then ends up dumped right before prom. The target audience, to me, appeared to be fourteen-year-old girls and the main character, Avery Dennis, seemed like a character I would have rolled my eyes at rather than relate to in my own high school experience. The book, in a multitude of ways, sets the reader up for surprise and pushes us to look beneath the surface, and Avery turns out to be a much more complex and sympathetic character than she first appears to be.
The first surprising feature of this book is its structure. Told from what feels like two dozen points of view, it examines not just the main character but each situation in so many inventive facets. There are times this feels like a similar effect as the book Flipped by Wendelin VanDraanen, and this book has some of the same airy, light-hearted feel I sought as it explores, recursively, how different people can perceive the same moment. But don’t let the humor of the book deceive you: there is a lot going on in here, because there are times I found felt like I was reading Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying transferred to a modern American high school with a laugh track.
Avery Dennis is writing her oral history report for a class. Her history teacher is unwilling to accept it at first, seeing Avery’s problems as too vacuous and recent to be part of a history class project. The teacher’s authoritarian approach to Avery’s dating history fades as the book progresses, and with good reason. We see Avery, her best friend, her loyal lab partner, and her nemesis begin to perceive things in a different light with each passing relationship the book revisits and by the second half of the book, the epiphanies take both the characters and the readers off-guard. For instance, not only has Avery never been dumped before, she has also never turned down an invitation to date: What does this reveal about her? She discovers one of her boyfriends has a secret hobby that complicates her view of him. Some of the male characters are avid gamers, using their virtual lives as metaphors for their high school conflicts. Her best friend relates everything in high school to the history of the Kennedy family. Even the parents of characters, who seem to play no role in the beginning, start to have a voice in the second half of the book.
Ultimately, this book reminds us to dig a little deeper and get to know people in all their complexities. When we take the time to do that and make an effort to listen to a variety of voices, we can reach new understanding, common ground, and triumphs. Sure, the plot revolves around prom planning that is endangered by sabotage and rife with drama. But the book left me thinking much longer than I expected it to. At the same time, it refreshed me with its humor and charm. The craftsmanship of the characters, the structure of the oral history project, and the honest examination of young love made this book the new standout in my humor collection. It was the ray of sunshine I needed, and in the depths of winter we could all use a little more of that in our reading lives.
Brett Vogelsinger teaches ninth-grade English at Holicong Middle School in Doylestown, PA. He curates a classroom library, pushes student writers to their personal best, and starts each class period with a poem. Visit his annual event blog for National Poetry Month at www.30gopoems.blogspot.com.