The Career of David Levithan: It Gets Better and Better

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David Levithan

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Two Boys Kissing




The Career of David Levithan: It Gets Better and Better by Jonathan Alexander

April 22nd, 2014 reset - +

ONE OF THE LOVELIEST aspects of David Levithan’s Two Boys Kissing is its cover — featuring a sweet, closed-mouth peck (this is a young adult book, after all) between two young guys. I can distinctly remember a time when such a book, for sale in a bookstore’s YA section just a quick hop over from the children’s books, would be hard to imagine. As a teen attending an all-boys Catholic school in south Louisiana in the early ’80s, I’d search the libraries surreptitiously for “gay books,” relying mostly on classics such as the Tennessee Williams play Cat on a Hot Tin Roof or Willa Cather’s short story “Paul’s Case” for clues and messages about what I was feeling. I did stumble across a copy of John Donovan’s 1969 book, I’ll Get There. It Better Be Worth the Trip, one of the first novels pitched to young people that deals overtly with male homosexuality. I still can’t believe I found it in my high school library and can only imagine that some sympathetic soul ordered it so a kid like me could find it. (Or maybe it was a mistake.) Regardless, I thrilled to Donovan’s heartfelt if chaste depictions of two boys wrestling on the floor, then stumbling into a first kiss only to wonder what the hell they were doing.

David Levithan’s novel, published just last year, tells the tale of Harry and Craig, two late teens who try to set a new world-record for longest kiss. On this slightest of plot devices, Levithan builds a deeply felt world of contemporary young characters, all dealing with their sexuality. The story is narrated by a fantastical, ghostly presence, a chorus of “shadow uncles” — gay men of the first generation devastated by AIDS who didn’t live to see such everyday queerness, such routine drama in the experiences of gay teens.

Levithan’s book seems a lovely bow to Donovan’s, the newer novel taking Donovan’s fumbling and insecure boys proudly into public visibility, staging a kiss that is both intimately personal (for the two boys and for those who see them and meditate on what the kiss means) and even political, a bold statement of queer visibility.

And indeed, much of the tone of Two Boys Kissing seems a conscious acknowledgement of how far YA has come in providing high-quality literature about sexuality for young people. The narrating voices wax nostalgic, painfully so at moments, reminding the reader that even the possibility of reading Two Boys Kissing rests on the work, the struggles, the sacrifices, and the pain of previous generations:

We were once like you, only our world wasn’t like yours.
You have no idea how close to death you came. A generation or two earlier, you might be here with us.
We resent you. You astonish us.

In The Heart Has Its Reasons: Young Adult Literature with Gay/Lesbian/Queer Content (1969-2004), Michael Cart and Christine A. Jenkins trace the development of queer-themed literature for young people. Like many critics, they maintain the necessity of publishing books with substantive LGBT content to help both queer and straight kids deal more directly and maturely with the complexities of human sexuality. Two Boys Kissing situates such complexities in an historical context that honors not only the experiences of today’s gay youth, but the lives of those whose sacrifices have made contemporary queer visibility possible.

We should also think of Two Boys Kissing as indicative, and in some ways even summative, of David Levithan’s career, both as a writer of YA fiction and as one of the major editors of books for young people. His long and distinguished work at Scholastic has allowed him to serve as editorial midwife to a host of important books, such as the blisteringly popular and lucrative Hunger Games trilogy as well as other edgier and socially-conscious material published under the label PUSH, which Levithan founded. PUSH (http://www.thisispush.com) specializes in books for young people that deal with formerly taboo subjects, such as Patricia McCormick’s Cut, about a teen girl who self-mutilates.

Levithan’s work owes much to several books that came before, especially S. E. Hinton’s groundbreaking The Outsiders, first published in 1967. Hinton was still in high school when she started her first novel, and Levithan’s work — as editor and writer — follows in the tradition of honoring young people’s voices and experiences. He’s nurtured and sponsored a new generation of young writers, such as Billy Merrell (Talking in the Dark, 2003) and Cecil Castellucci (First Day on Earth, 2011).

Levithan’s commitment to producing high-quality YA fiction with strong and vibrant queer characters began with the 2003 publication of Boy Meets Boy. Recently reissued in an anniversary edition with a long essay by Levithan, Boy Meets Boy is justly famous — less for its accuracy in depicting the trials and triumphs of young queers and more for its fantasy portrait of what queer teenhood could be like. The book revolves around the fun, if tame, exploits of Paul, a gay teen, and his band of friends who variously fall in and out of love.

At first glance, Boy Meets Boy might strike one as a super-gay Beverly Hills, 90210, a glossy tale of middle-class teen angst. Paul’s high school is a near utopia, or as much of a utopia for liberal queers as high school could be, given the hormones of the student body. The school’s cheerleaders perform their gas-powered routines dressed in Dykes on Bikes fashion, and the school has a cover band that performs at pep rallies. The student vegetarian group petitions to close down a local fast food restaurant and opens up a food co-op instead. The local video storeowner disrupts Hollywood marketing campaigns by putting movies in wherever he thinks they belong (think Forrest Gump in the horror section). And perhaps most outrageously of all, the football team captain and homecoming queen are the same person — a large drag queen called Infinite Darlene, whose main trouble in life seems to be that the other drag queens on the football team don't think she takes good enough care of her nails.

Paul, too, is a fantasy creation even if far from perfect; he can be realistically selfish, self-centered, and full of himself. Unlike many other gay teens in YA fiction (not to mention real life), he’s not bullied, not picked on, and not badgered into being anything other than what he is. In fact, he came out in kindergarten (!), and his primary worry is whether another boy named Noah will date him.

Still, Levithan injects reminders of homophobia into his fantasy landscape; otherwise the story would have little tension. Strikingly, Paul is aware of how special his situation is, how he moves through a charmed life that others don’t share:

I was the first openly gay president of my third-grade class. I have seen men holding hands walking down the street in a big city and I have read about women being married in a state that’s not so far away. I believe that I can be anyone I might want to be. All these things give me strength. And so does something as simple as talking to Tony on the phone after curfew, hearing that we’ll be hanging out in his kitchen without having to lie.

Tony, also gay, is Paul’s best friend, a boy whose parents are religious fundamentalists — clearly not cool with the possibility of their son’s homosexuality. Such plot elements acknowledge that, though Paul lives in a world of relative acceptance for queer youth, that tolerance is not to be taken for granted; it’s still something to hope for, something to work toward.

The figure of place becomes increasingly important in the book. With characters looking for “safe spaces” in which to be themselves, we are reminded that all kids need such safe places, that queers are safer in some parts of the country, not to mention some parts of cities, than others. And as Paul mentions in the passage quoted above, not all states (yet) treat queers equally in terms of marriage rights. But Paul is hopeful, wanting to share his fantasy with his friends, and with us. He may not live in a state that lets gays marry, but he nonetheless can say, “I feel like I live in the middle of somewhere.”  He belongs. And that may be the most enticing fantasy of all in this gorgeously written book.

In a recent reflection on the novel published in Out, Levithan comments on the initial reception to this aspect of the book:

It made me sad — but not really surprised — when I was touring around in 2003 to find that for some people it was a radical notion to have a happy romantic comedy about two boys. Even some older gay readers were critical of the book for not being realistic, to which I would explain: You don’t have to write a book in order to reflect reality. You can also write a book to create reality. Most teen readers, I found, understood this, because they were living their lives to create reality, not merely reflect it.

I know what he means, because I was one of the queer readers who initially didn’t get it. When I first read Boy Meets Boy shortly after its publication, I thought it too flippant, too willfully forgetful of the difficulties of growing up queer. But the book’s staying power is a testament, I think, to Levithan’s vision for art not just to reflect, but to create realities. And he may be right. I remember savagely critiquing Ellen Degeneres’s portrayal of lesbianism when her TV show Ellen came out in 1997. What kind of lesbian was this?  Not nearly serious enough for my tastes at the time. And yet, her show ushered in a host of out characters on television, exposing an entire generation to queer normalcy. That same generation today thinks pretty positively of queers, suggesting that a bit of pop culture fantasy can go a long way toward creating tolerance, even acceptance.

Building on the fantasy of Boy Meets Boy, Levithan experimented with more overtly political works, such as the political fantasy Wide Awake (2006) and the 9/11 book Love is the Higher Law (2009). The former imagines a near future in which the president is a gay Jewish guy whose election is contested by the governor of a conservative state who demands a recount. (Except for the gay Jewish president part, I think we’ve been through this before.) A group of young people, gay and straight, travel to the conservative state to participate in protest rallies, with teen complications of love and friendship along for the ride. In Love is the Higher Law, Levithan offers multiple narratives, some overlapping, of a variety of young people in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. The novel shows off Levithan’s prodigious ability to imagine a host of characters whose lives all seem nonetheless profoundly felt, finely drawn, and deeply etched. Some of those characters are gay, sure, but the fall of the towers overshadows their particular trials and triumphs as queers — which may be part of the point for a novel asking us to believe that “love is the higher law,” binding us together despite our differences.

Most YA authors who tackle LGBT issues focus on largely realistic coming-out narratives or stories of self-acceptance. And some are quite good, such as Brent Hartinger’s Geography Club (2003) or Bill Kongisberg’s recent Openly Straight (2013) — both featuring kids dealing with being “open” about who they are. Only Francesca Lia Block, in her numerous paranormal romances, and perhaps most famously in the Weetzie Bat books (the first one published in 1989) braves the fantastical and a bit of magical realism in imagining queer lives and loves. Block writes characters who flaunt conventional family structures and craft a semi-utopic familial community based on love, respect, and acceptance. She couches her queer fantasy in the language of fairy tales (and some magical creatures regularly appear). Levithan often travels the harder path, allowing the fantastical to co-exist with the real, the visionary to exist alongside the everyday.

Levithan’s primary collaborator has been Rachel Cohn, with whom he’s written three books: Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist (2006), Naomi and Ely’s No Kiss List (2007), and Dash and Lily’s Book of Dares (2010). I will admit that, while I enjoyed reading these books, they are a bit too full of teen puppy love for my taste — which probably says much more about me than about the books. They are all charmingly written, and their persistent fantasy is grounded in the sheer delight of falling in love. If you’ve seen the film version of Nick and Norah, you know what I’m talking about.

My favorite is Naomi and Ely’s No Kiss List, coming out in a film version later this year. It traces the difficulties of a friendship between a gay boy and his best girl friend, who has complex feelings for him that he just can’t quite reciprocate, despite loving her very much — as a friend. What could be droll comedy, Levithan and Cohn treat with great sophistication, figuring their characters’ feelings with generosity and respect. Naomi and Ely have to renegotiate a complicated teen relationship into a complicated adult friendship. The fantasy that this novel grapples with is the transference of friendship, the ways we project feelings and wishes onto others. The subsequent pain and disillusionment offer us the potential to create new depths in our relationships — as well as the danger of losing what we once had completely.

Levithan plays with this theme — the pitfalls of building up imaginary realities — in nearly all of his work (including his most experimental novel, a psychological thriller called Every You, Every Me (2011). The revision of experience is also the focus of what might be Levithan’s best novel to date, the profoundly moving novel Every Day (2012). Told from the perspective of “A,” Every Day is about a young person who wakes up every morning in a new body. Sometimes male, sometimes female, and sometime even trans, “A” lives life one day at a time by mysteriously co-opting another young person’s identity for 24 hour periods. The narrative conceit allows Levithan to showcase his prodigious talents as a storyteller, one who can create, seemingly ceaselessly, new characters with wholly unique backstories. But Levithan also plays the conceit to maximum effect, as “A” falls in love with a young woman, Rhiannon, while inhabiting the body of her rather neglectful boyfriend, Justin. “A” sees how beautiful Rhiannon is and how deserving she is of attention — attention she’s not getting from Justin. “A” takes her to the beach, and she blossoms under “A”’s kindness, thinking Justin has somehow opened up to her. “A” spends the rest of the novel trying to make the relationship work, getting back to her whenever s/he can — sometimes in a guy’s body, sometimes in a gal’s — and eventually explaining to her the odd situation s/he’s in. Rhiannon is understandably perplexed at first, to say the least, but tries to adapt.

Queerly, we as readers come to love “A” without knowing what gender “A” actually is; “A” doesn’t know either, but “A”’s compassion, humanity, and dignity move us. And yet, we also sympathize with Rhiannon because she has trouble being affectionate with “A” when “A” is a woman; she tries, and we respect that she tries, but it’s tough going for her. In this way, Levithan beautifully mixes the fantasy of love beyond gender with the all-too-human reality that love is so often gender-oriented. The best “A” can hope for ultimately is that his inhabitation of different people might open up for them different ways of thinking, of feeling, of seeing the world around them and the people in it. People don’t know that they have been inhabited by “A,” but perhaps “A”’s presence, however brief, might be transformative, even if just by seeing how people have reacted to them when they were someone else. “A” puts it this way:

There’s always a chance that, in some way, I will have brushed off on Justin. There’s always a chance that his life will in fact change — that he will change. But I have no way of knowing. It’s rare that I get to see a body after I’ve left it. And even then, it’s usually months or years later. If I recognize it at all.

One could posit that this passage from “A” also serves as a direct address from Levithan himself about his own experience as a novelist writing for young adults. In spinning out such stories, perhaps Levithan hopes that his fantasies of connection and acceptance will rub off, even if he never gets to see their effects on his many readers.

But as always, Levithan’s genius lies in the complex dance of fantasy and reality he sets up for his characters, and in the ways these characters run up against limitations as they attempt to live their dreams.

In Will Grayson, Will Grayson (2010), Levithan’s wonderful collaborative novel written with John Green, I detect from Green a mild critique of Levithan’s penchant for fantasy. The book centers on two kids with the same name who meet by accident at a crucial moment in their lives. One Will is straight and misanthropic (Green’s creation) and the other is a depressed gay kid whose most satisfying friendship exists only online. Levithan and Green trade chapters, spinning out their characters’ lives, both before and after their fateful meeting. One of Green’s characters and a central figure in the book, Tiny Cooper, is a bigger-than-life gay footballer (though not a drag queen) with a smart-ass mouth and penchant for musicals (he’s writing one about his life called Tiny Dancer) who is surely an homage to Boy Meets Boy’s Infinite Darlene. Like his predecessor, Tiny is a bit of fantasy in an otherwise realistic world — a realism, however, that ultimately shows up his fantastical being for what it is: unreal. The book’s apotheosis — a staging of Tiny’s musical about coming out and looking for love in all the wrong places — is a sensational love fest of acceptance and friendship that doesn’t quite ring true in the context of the rest of this poignant novel. Even if Green didn’t intend critique, the result is nonetheless chastening.

I have only touched briefly on a few of David Levithan’s many wonderful books. There are others you could read and delight in, including The Realm of Possibility (2004), with its dramatic monologues written in verse, or the popcorn delightfulness of Likely Story, a series written with Chris Van Etten and David Ozanich about the daughter of a soap opera diva who ends up running a soap opera of her own. I’ll conclude though with a brief mention of one of my favorites, “Lost Sometimes,” published in the short story collection How They Met, and Other Stories. In this story the young narrator finds himself in love with a sexual partner who is not in love with him. Hardly fulfilled by this state of affairs, the narrator is stuck, lacking the courage to end the relationship or move it to new realms. He fantasizes about his love loving him back, but he can’t quite figure out how to make that fantasy real — maybe because fantasies aren’t real. His epiphany resonates with this truth:

I realized I would always be missing something. That no matter what I did, I would always be missing something else. And the only way to live, the only way to be happy, was to make sure the things I didn’t miss meant more to me than the things I missed. I had to think about what I wanted, outside the heat of wanting.

The things we miss — miss out on, miss from the past, miss in passing, miss out of wanting them to come to pass — might fuel our fantasies, but they might also distract us from living. Levithan reminds us of this important truth by so often pitching his stories right at the intersection of our dreams and our everyday realities. That he has an equal regard for the importance of both is what makes his work so real and vital for so many different kinds of young people.

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 Jonathan Alexander teaches at UC, Irvine, where he is the Director of the Center for Excellence in Writing and Communication.

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