The modern-day struggles of black, gay adolescence and cross-cultural adoption are the focal points of Julian Winters’ sweet, gawky high school drama How to Be Remy Cameron.
Seventeen-year-old Remy is not the kind of hero typically seen in contemporary YA. He’s an un-hung-up, popular kid entering his junior year at a public high school in suburban Atlanta, and he happens to have been adopted by a white couple, and he’s black and openly gay.
Unlike gay YA of the past, he’s not up against an unsympathetic world. Unlike most gay YA of the present, he’s not embattled by a search for his first true love, at least not as a primary theme. I wouldn’t categorize Winters’ novel as a “post-gay” or “post-racial” story. It’s a reflection of how identity and diversity have changed for the younger generation.
That’s a standard treatment for modern high school dramas, but what makes Remy’s story different is the narrative approach. There’s no mysterious stranger sending him notes or e-mails who might be Remy’s true love. There’s no surprise gay reveal of a friend or enemy Remy didn’t realize was waiting for him all along. Almost all the drama and conflict occurs between Remy’s ears. An AP English assignment to write an essay that answers the question: who am I? sends him into an identity crisis tailspin, and simultaneously, he must decide whether or not to meet his half-sister Free who reached out to him on Facebook.
Quintessentially adolescent, Remy becomes obsessed by that question of what defines him, and his essay hangs over him as an inscrutable cloud. Is he fated to forever be the guy who got dumped by his first boyfriend because he was too clingy? Does being the president of the school’s GSA make him too gay? Growing up looking different from his parents and younger sister, and as one of five black students at his school, he’s inevitably hyper aware of his blackness, but relating to his black classmates is also a complicated task. Then there’s the big question of whether it was the black birth family who gave him up who made him who he is or was it his white adoptive family?
Throughout Remy’s angsty ruminations, he’s surrounded by a supportive and diverse circle of friends. Winters adds nice touches to Remy’s high school world. The popular couple is the star quarterback and a cheerleader, but the quarterback is the school’s first girl on the team, and she’s Muslim and wears a hijab. The cheerleader is a boy who’s openly bisexual. The cool kids, including Remy, want to be popular but they bemoan corny school traditions and teenage clichés, demanding individuality. The portrayal is solid with some surprises for older readers. High school life has evolved considerably with respect to gender, sexuality and cultural diversity.
A well-handled example of the social challenges that remain is an incident at a party where Remy is propositioned by a white boy who thinks it’s a winning turn-on to gush about how he’s always wanted to be with someone black. Taken from Remy’s perspective, the creepiness and indignity of the encounter comes off with skin-crawling emotion.
Remy’s story is thin on plot, but his journey of self-discovery gains pace and tension when he decides to meet the half-sister he never knew he had. It’s so important to see cross-culturally adopted teens represented in YA, and Winters’ choice to stay in Remy’s head most of the time allows the identity formation challenges therein to be explored rather than glossed over as just another example of the changing modern family.
Would Remy have felt more comfortable in his own skin if he had been raised by his black family? Is he a ‘sell-out’ because he had the advantages of a white, middle class upbringing? Winters wades into those fraught issues fairly deep, though one wishes Remy’s white parents’ “we love you just the way you are” platitudes would have been unpacked a little more. As happens in a lot of YA, taken from a teen’s perspective, the parents lack a bit of dimension. Remy’s adoptive mom and dad are hopelessly uncool and slavishly emotionally available, but we don’t see whether or not they’ve put in the work to raise a child who is culturally different from every member of the family. Given the subject, it feels like an important matter to consider.
On other key issues, Winters’ is meticulous in considering how teenagers can navigate adult situations while minimizing emotional harm. Remy and his emerging love interest ask for consent to hold hands and kiss. He and his friends are exceptionally enlightened regarding gender expression and sexual diversity. Teachers swoop in to correct the few homophobic students in the classroom. It’s a nice reflection of the new world for kids growing up LGBTQ+ in the suburbs.
Remy’s first person, pop culture reference-dropping, excitable and snarky POV will delight hardcore YA fans while eliciting sighs and eyerolls at times from other readers. Nonetheless, his kind, painfully self-conscious personality is irresistibly charming.
A sure winner for fans of Becky Albertalli and David Levithan, and a great book for readers looking for black gay characters in YA.
Reviewed by Andrew J. Peters