I like my YA fiction to celebrate and explore diversity: I also like my YA fiction to be cliché free and well written. American author David Levithan’s ‘Two Boys Kissing’ ticked all those boxes. I had seen a fair bit of discussion on social media at the time of its release last year and when I saw its cover recently, I was reminded that it was on my ‘to read’ list. ‘Two Boys Kissing’ is centred on seven gay male characters, all around seventeen years of age: the title comes from one couple’s attempt to break a Guinness World Record for longest continuous kiss (as the boys noted – the Guinness rules didn’t say it had to be two people of the opposite sex). The record attempt by Harry and Craig is a political display, spurned by their anger at friend Tariq’s beating by a gang of guys while waiting at a bus stop at night. The event of the kiss ties the novel together, and brings the seven characters in contact even though they are not all friends or even in the same town.
What set ‘Two Boys Kissing’ apart for me was the use of the group omniscient narrator: a second person device is used, with a group of narrators much like a Greek chorus, speaking directly to the characters in the novel. The narrators are the gay men who have gone before these teenagers, those who were persecuted, those who died prematurely of HIV Aids, those who took their lives in despair. It is an immensely moving narration and works beautifully. The insight of the narrators is as much the insight of the Generation X author Levithan, and allows him to use his experience as a much older person in his story telling but also allows him to write the voices of his contemporary characters simultaneously. Most of the narration is extremely poignant: ‘People like to say being gay isn’t like skin colour, isn’t anything physical. They tell us we always have the option of hiding. But if that’s true, why do they always find us?’ and shows the difference between the older generation and the younger, ‘Max is a marvel to us. He will never have to come out, because he was never kept in. Even though he has a mum and a dad, they made sure from the beginning to tell him that it didn’t have to be a mum and a dad. It could be a mum and a mum, a dad and a dad, just a mum, or just a dad’. Levithan also make some lovely comments on growing up, and gives a balanced view in offering up the parental turmoil in watching children entering adulthood: ‘It is hard to stop seeing your son as a son and to start seeing him as a human being. It is hard to stop seeing your parents as parents and to start seeing them as human beings. It’s a two-sided transition, and very few people manage it gracefully’. I appreciated the fact that Levithan also incorporated negative perspectives into the plot line as a happy cheer squad for the boys’ record attempt would have been unrealistic even today in 2014. Levithan also has a great feel for contemporary life and his references to social media, his use of dialogue and his understanding of hooking up culture felt right.
I really enjoyed reading ‘Two Boys Kissing’: it was sophisticated YA reading, and had a tremendously important message incorporated seamlessly into a well paced and engaging plot. Highly recommended.