For your reading consideration, I have another great YA title.
Kat and Meg Conquer the World by Anna Priemaza, is about two girls who meet and have a remarkable friendship. Kat is new in town since they have moved to help grandpa downsize. She’s got to start high school all over again since in her last province (yup, Canadian book) they start high school in grade 9, but in this place, it’s grade 10 so she feels like she has to do an unnecessary stint as freshman all over again. Kat is very intelligent and her grades typically reflect this. She also has anxiety, and it’s pretty intense. Her therapist has never been much help except when she taught her how to count to slow her breathing to calm down to prevent a panic attack. She’ll be counting a lot in this book. Where she does feel pretty good is the world of her online game, and watching videos from her favorite YouTuber.
Meanwhile, Meg is local, but can’t seem to keep any friends. Though every bit as intelligent as Kat, she struggles in school grade-wise. She’s bubbly and energetic, always running everywhere. She’s between friends when she and Kat get partnered by default for a long-term science project. Meg has ADHD with hyperactivity and therefore she struggles to focus on things she doesn’t have interest in, and she also struggles to make and keep friends since she’s missing some social cues. She’s always swapping friendship groups, though people do seem to like her in general. She is intensely in love with the same YouTuber Kat is. She is also very annoyed with her stepdad, who she called dad since her own dad died when she was little. He attempted to get custody of her younger siblings (his natural children), but not her, and she’s brooding over the whole thing. Meg is also Black, and much is made of her hair style, her little sister’s hairstyle, skin tone is mentioned and the occasional racial sensitivity nod, but I’m not sure how much she “feels” Black and hope Black reviewers will help here to see if this depiction rings true. More on that later.
This is simply the story of two girls coming together and learning to accept each others’ differences. They bond over not only their mutual love of this You Tube star and the online game he plays, but over simply being able to explain who they really are to each other. They are forced to stay connected during low points in the friendship due to the science project, which helps move things along.
As an adult Autistic, I felt an intense kinship with these teenage girls, because I was all too familiar with Kat’s anxiety (so many of us have anxiety as a way of life) and while I don’t have ADHD with hyperactivity, I have it without, so parts of what Meg went through I completely understood. It was like watching two sides of my brain have a conversation, and, though reading it, I was finally recognizing what the part of my Autism that is more like anxiety is like (without the ADHD-like qualities) and vice-versa. I think for many of us Autistics, since we have so many different things going on it is rare to get a book that understands what it can be like to have Anxiety let alone ADHD in the same book. If the author manages to learn what it’s like to have depression (many of us have that riding alongside our Autism, too) and adds a character with that and also another friend with sensory processing challenges, and you’d basically have the power Autistic team, I think. But that’s a lot of different types in one book (she says, knowing many of us live with all of those voices inside us every day!).
Spoiler Alert! (But if you’re thinking of handing this to teens, have a look here to gauge “readiness.”) One scene in particular affected me greatly, and it’s worth noting it’s in here so you can gauge appropriate reading age for sensitive teens. Meg at one point initiates two separate sexual-type acts with her boyfriend, both of which are clearly attempts to keep him. The second is the actual act, and it’s clear she’s only doing it to shut him up so that he won’t break up with her. They break up immediately afterward. These scenes are well handled so that teens can learn from the experience. After the actual act, Meg withdraws further into herself and it also covers that it can hurt and be unpleasant the first time. There’s a wonderful passage where Meg realizes how ashamed of herself she feels; for once, the words simply won’t bubble out from her like they always have. Meg gets harder and harder for Kat to talk with and tries to hyperfocus on the science project, as a way of escaping these feelings. It gets better, as expected, after Meg can finally talk to Kat about it, and Kat has the appropriate reactions of a best friend in this situation. Teens reading it can learn through the experience that you can’t keep a boyfriend/girlfriend this way, and also these intense feelings need to be talked about or, turned inward, they will destroy you.
Before I end, there a few things that didn’t quite work in the book. There were times the attempts to have one Black friend and one white friend seemed forced, and they both melted into a middle class family with relative wealth and comfort so they were mostly interchangeable and their experiences in the school seemed identical. At times, the author attempts to include hair style and skin tone into the discussion, they feel forced and then dropped again immediately. Meg has no trouble attracting and keeping white boyfriends, and nothing is made of this, nor is she ever rejected because of her race at school. Mom is always kept informed of her low grades and the school doesn’t seem to be doing what schools often do with Black families (even middle class families): ignoring Meg’s academic challenges and blaming her “home environment.” This seemed unusually “happy” to me and the complexities of being Black and also having ADHD are thereby minimized. The author does make it clearly obvious that Meg really does have ADHD since she chose ADHD with hyperactivity vs. without to depict, but given the challenges Black families face with overdiagnosis of Black sons, there was more going on here that could have been addressed. Alternatively, the author could have switched the characters and had Kat, with anxiety, be Black, and also the new girl, and she might have had more opportunities to recognize systemic racism in the new school vs. the old school. Then, Meg wouldn’t have had to been the character who dealt with a dead, father and a stepfather who left her. This, while reality for many families, can also be viewed as a stereotype.
In addition, fathers in this book in general get short shrift because it is made clear Kat has a dad, but we rarely see him really and both girls’ moms are just involved when there’s a plot need and then, only briefly. While there are very strong reasons to let the parents stay in the background to force the characters to make their own decisions, in a story in which family relationships are important, it seemed odd to minimize them so much. If Kat has a dad around but never seems to talk to him and that seems to be “normal,” why is Meg reacting so strongly? It seemed less like a 10th grader problem, then, and more like a middle school problem since by then parents are typically rarely involved in books so as to underscore the maturity level of the characters.
Finally, there was the lack of maturity of the characters (reference to spoiler alert coming!). I don’t so much see this as a problem because I find it refreshing when teenaged characters seem less mature, as many of us aren’t ready for “edgy” adult issues in our YA. So much of this book felt like it could be middle schoolers (which, for us Autistic types is likely what our experience of high school actually was like, though many with “pure” ADHD are developmentally similar to their peer group) that I wondered if incorporating the sexual activities pushed things in a direction the book didn’t need. While well handled (very well handled), the girls feel less mature than 16. To the adult reader, this makes what Meg chooses to do a bit more problematic; she is not mature enough to appreciate the consequences of what she did, and her boyfriend probably has no idea that she’s really less mature than her age. With her ADHD, it makes sense she would make this choice without thinking, so it “works,” but it does beg a lot of questions. In that way, this may not be a weakness, but an opportunity, and if this book were used with educators to discuss the impulsivity of having ADHD and its consequences, it might build more sympathy in those teachers to the difficulties Meg faces. In that way, learning more about anxiety from Kat’s experiences could help educators as well.
This is definitely worth a read despite possible narrative flaws as the Neurodivergent qualities of the main characters are refreshingly different.