RICK by Alex Gino is a young middle grade novel about a boy named Rick who is just entering middle school and is questioning his sexual identity. His best friend Jeff, who is also a sexist jerk in the process of objectifying young women, is already talking about hot girls, and his parents-- his father especially-- has begun to tease him about paying attention to his peers. But Rick feels uncomfortable when people talk about attraction and doesn't feel that way about anyone, boy or girl. He can't help but feel like maybe something might be wrong with him, until he starts talking with a girl in his class named Melissa, and ends up finding about an LGBT+ alliance group called Spectrum.
There's a lot to unpack in RICK, and for the most part, I think it's a really great book. I haven't read a lot of YA that really tries to speak so frankly about sexuality and orientation, defining terms in a way that a young child can understand, and attempting to be really inclusive and encouraging about that desire to explore your identity, even if said identity might not be cisgendered or romantic. It's got a great message and is accessible.
A big part of this book is Rick struggling to communicate his identity to the people he cares about, while also struggling to hide it because of people like Jeff. There's a major element of cognitive dissonance here; can we really call ourselves good, accepting people if we surround ourselves with bigots and willingly hang out with them despite knowing what they're capable of doing? I say no, and I have gotten into arguments with people about this online who think I'm being cruel for unfriending people who think differently from me-- but I know who I am and what I stand for, and I'm not willing to be friends with or even associate with people who actively discriminate and spread hate, because doing so is kind of a tacit acceptance in and of itself that such behavior is normal. And it shouldn't be.
I liked most of the kids in Spectrum, especially Melissa, and I thought the relationship between Rick and his grandfather, and their conversations about defying gender norms (even if not described as such) were really beautiful. I had a lot of really open and loving conversations with my parents about the importance of acceptance as a kid, so it always makes me really happy to see strong and loving bonds between kids and their guardians in books because it reminds me of my own childhood. I was also happy to see a book discuss what it means to be asexual, and encourage kids to stand up for themselves and who they are, and that you're never too young to know your own mind.
The part where this book fails, in my personal opinion, is that it was written with an agenda clearly in mind. And even though it is a really noble agenda, and an important one, there is a "preachiness" to this book that comes across as almost sanctimonious and really makes you, the reader, feel like you're being sat down and taught a lesson. I realize that this is a delicate area and I might be misunderstood, so I do want to be clear that my problem with this book is not about the content or the author's intent, but that the intent could have been less heavy-handed and more focus could have been on the characters themselves so the reader could reach the same conclusions that the author wanted them to through the narrative and subtext instead of having my hand held and being forcibly led to the point. Given the age of the characters and the intended audience, I understand why the author might have taken on the chiding tone and felt the need to be so pointed-- it is important that kids know about these things-- but as an adult reader, it felt condescending.
Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy in exchange for an honest review!
3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars