77 Everything, Everything

everythingby Nicola Yoon, 2015

I picked up this book from the library on November 9 last year. After a dim day, I needed something quick and light in which to lose myself. This fit the bill perfectly.

Everything, Everything is the story of 18-year-old Madeline Whittier. Confined to her house by severe combined immunodeficiency, a disease that renders her allergic to nearly everything, she lives a modest life with her mother, who is a doctor, and Carla, the nurse who takes care of her. Madeline takes high school classes over Skype, is a voracious reader, and has accepted the limited life she has – it’s the only one she’s ever known. It’s not until the intriguing, handsome Olly moves into the house next door that she begins to feel that she may want more.

Okay, so there’s a bit of cheese to this teenage romance and I would not typically excuse the sort of “love at first sight” story we have going on here. But, perhaps because I was raw from the election results and I simply had no energy left for negativity, I found I wasn’t bothered by it. Truly, though, Nicola Yoon is a fairly skilled storyteller and that saves this from being every other teen love story devoid of imagination. The IM conversations and drawings and “Life is Short” book reviews add a depth to the story that make it come more alive than if it were told in a straightforward fashion.

I must also champion the way Yoon included diverse characters in her book. Madeline is half-black, half-Japanese, but one hundred percent American. Madeline’s ethnicity is not the focus of the book, nor a burden she must overcome, but simply a background fact of who she is. The fact that Olly is white is similarly a non-issue. When we include diverse characters in this way – not focusing on their differences but simply noting it – we allow for diversity to be normalized. Many of us can identify with teenage crushes, with wanting someone we cannot have, with feeling trapped by parental bonds – we do not have to physically resemble one another to see ourselves in each others’ lives. Bravo to that.

I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention an additional moment, which is a bit spoilerly, so highlight the white text below if you’d like to read it.

I could not have been happier reading that Madeline took it upon herself to buy condoms in advance when she expected to have sex. Yoon presents this as totally normal – AS IT SHOULD BE. Here’s to women and girls making educated decisions about their bodies and feeling empowered enough to take charge of their own sexuality. We get to make these decisions. We do not need men to make them for us. I look forward to seeing more of that in our female-targeted young adult literature.

There were, to be honest, some questions of practicality throughout the plot that tested my suspension of disbelief (there is a fair discussion to be had over the realistic nature of the turn of events, as well as the presentation of chronic and mental illnesses), but overall Yoon was successful in her effort to provide a sense of empowerment to young women, particularly those of color. For many of us, our ethnicities are not the focus of our everyday lives – they are merely the backgrounds against which we live. Sometimes you’re just a girl – a girl who is coming to know her own body, to know what she wants, to know what risks she’s willing to take – asking for the opportunity to fall in love. We are none of us guaranteed a happily ever after. All we can ask for is the chance to have a beginning.

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