Monday, September 04, 2023

Something More, by Jackie Khalilieh

Right before starting ninth grade, Palestinian-Canadian Jessie is diagnosed as autistic.  High functioning, her condition's not been particularly obvious to others.  They just considered her a bit weird.    Jessie struggles with understanding others and often has felts as if she was wearing a mask.  To avoid social situations, which she's always found challenging, she's kept to herself and been a bit of an outcast.  She isn't particularly comfortable discussing autism with others, but having an explanation comforts her.  Armed with that knowledge she pledges to make the year different:  she'll reach out and make friends, try out for drama, and maybe meet a boy (or two).

There's not much new here:  Jessie's love for 90s popular culture, the classic love triangle (bad boy Levi and sweet quiet Griffin), and having to sneak around behind the backs of her traditional ethnic parents.  Two elements -- the fact that she is autistic and her Palestinian roots -- are both attempts to breath originality into this otherwise by-the-numbers teen romance. Neither particular stands out because the author does so little with them.  

As much as Khallilieh wants to take her own experience as an autistic Palestinian and make a unique story, she doesn't seem to know how to present it as such.  Jessie sometimes misreads her best friends' behaviors, but so do most teenagers.  Jessie doesn't recognize that Griffin likes her as more than a friend, but that's the point of the romantic triangle trope.  In her afterward, Khalilieh acknowledges as much (noting that some neurotypical women may see themselves in Jessie's character) but still insists that there are differences.  I want to respect that but there's little in this story that separates Jessie from most other YA heroines.  If Jessie is different, somewhere in the story you have to explain how that is so.

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