I read quite a lot of YA realistic fiction, and almost none of the books that I read actually make me wish I could be a teen again. Most of the time, I’m glad to be a grown up. While I wasn’t a miserable teenager, looking back, I wasn’t ever content, and that was mostly because I wasn’t cool. I didn’t belong, and as much as I acted like my academic success was all that mattered to me, I always wanted to have more friends than I did and I always wondered what it would be like to live life in the cool crowd.
Was I a nerd? I never thought so. I guess I always thought that nerds were smart and really weird. Oddball genius types. Some probably gave me the “nerd” label because of the grades I got all the time. Bottom line was I didn’t really belong in the nerd category or in any other category. If I’d read Julie Halpern’s novel, Into the Wild Nerd Yonder, when I was in high school, I might have felt less nerdy, or at least, I might not have felt offended if others thought of me that way. This book is all about nerd-power, and it is fantastic.
Jessie is a sophomore in high school. She actually likes school, but she doesn’t want to crow about it, because then she might look like a nerd. She loves math most of all. In her spare time, she’s started sewing funky skirts with weird and hilarious theme fabric from the fabric store: jelly bean fabric, prairie dog fabric, dalmations & hearts fabric… She also likes playing the drums. Jessie has had the same two close friends for years, and she’s also had the same crush for ages, her brother Barrett’s band-mate, Van. Even though her social life and school life have always seemed more or less sorted out, Jessie can’t decide where she really fits. This feeling gets stronger when her best friends decide at the start of the school year that they are going to become punks and groupies for her brother’s band. Then one starts chasing Jessie’s crush and Barrett sheds his punk-status when he starts dating the homecoming queen. Nothing makes sense anymore. This turmoil launches Jessie into friendship territory she never considered exploring before: the Dungeons and Dragons crowd. Before she knows it, she’s deep in nerd land, and unbelievably, she kind of likes it there. This leads her to question all she thought she had decided about what’s cool, what’s geeky, and where she belongs.
Confession: the more I learned about Dungeons and Dragons in this book, the more I realized that I might have actually wanted to play it when I was a teen, if I had known about it and if I had been able to tear myself away from studying for exams for a millisecond. This scared me a little. But honestly, Halpern really makes the game sound like a lot fun and she really shows how it’s mostly about hanging out with friends and joking around and connecting with people, with elves and trolls and gnomes thrown into the mix.
Halpern’s book has so many strengths. Jessie’s voice is hugely appealing. She’s wry and she’s so relatable in the way that she wants to discover her tribe. She wants to discover “her thing”:
“I look at Dottie and think about how everyone’s got their “thing.” Van and Barrett have the band, Bizza’s got her amazing confidence and pseudo-punk thing going on, Char’s got her beauty (that’s a thing, right?), and even Dottie Bell has a thing — albeit her own language and leading around gnomes. Then there’s me. I guess sewing could be my thing, but one thinks it’s very cool. I wish I didn’t care.”
The “I wish I didn’t care” aspect of Jessie is where so much of the tension in the novel comes from. She is almost ready to just be whoever she wants to be, but she still cares what others think, and she feels like their judgment will be too much to take if she heads over to the “dork side.” How can she like a guy with pants that are too short and who wears crazy white sneakers? How can she care what others think if she really does like said nerdy guy? This is her struggle, and it’s one that many readers will recognize.
There are many strong secondary characters, which in my mind, separates ordinary books from extraordinary ones. The whole book is funny, funny, funny. It would be hard to choose just one part that stood out the most in terms of humour, but if I had to, I would have to say it was “the donut sequence.” (You must read to experience it for yourself. I’m still smiling when I think about it).
Into the Wild Nerd Yonder is one of those rare funny books with substance. It makes you laugh and it makes you think. Here’s a story that captures how life can crack you up, drive you crazy, and transform your way of seeing the world all at the same time. Jessie learns that she didn’t really know the people she thought she knew best, and that the ones she’s always judged have substance she never saw. Now there’s a lesson I wish I’d learned in high school.
Into the Wild Nerd Yonder by Julie Halpern is published by Feiwel and Friends.