Wide Awake, by David Levithan (or, David Levithan for presidential speechwriter!)

Wide Awake cover
A couple of weeks ago, I suggested a Group Read of this one, in honor of President Obama’s inauguration. (Man, the phrase “President Obama” ain’t getting old anytime soon.) The premise (in case you haven’t been murmuring “gay Jewish president” in your sleep) is that the first gay Jewish president is elected by a solid popular majority — but with a narrow electoral victory, just a few thousand votes in Kansas. The Kansas governor decides to challenge the results in hopes of overturning the election, and President-elect Stein calls all his supporters to Topeka to make a stand. 16-year-old Duncan, his boyfriend Jimmy, and an assortment of multiethnic, multi-age compatriots pile in a bus and head for Kansas, amid the usual road trip romantic conflict and self-reflection.

This book isn’t so much a story as it is a daydream, a sketched-out version of the country’s trajectory that ends in hope rather than in Fahrenheit 451. I’ll give you the highs and lows of Levithan’s timeline, because it was my li’l optimist / sci-fi nerd heart’s favorite part of the book:

“It all started, I guess, with 9/11, decades before I was born….” Which led to the Reign of Fear. The Debt, Deficit, and Fuel Depression (aka the Greater Depression). The War to End All Wars. And then, as the tide turned, the Prada Riots. The Worldwide Health Care movement. “The rise of the green states. The Jesus Revolution. The All Equal Movement. Stein’s idea of the Great Community. And now the election.”


Doesn’t that sound wonderful? Don’t you want to read a whole huge near-future novel detailing all of these events? I totally do (memo to David Levithan! Or maybe J. Michael Straczynski), but that’s not this book. There’s plenty of relationship negotiation, which Levithan is very good at, but I’ve read plenty of that. (With the caveat that 98% of the time, of course, I’ve read it about straight people. Levithan writes gay relationships without making a big deal about them being Gay! Relationships!, and it’s awesome.) There’s plenty of friendship love; ditto.

So what this book is really about is inspiration. Levithan posted an essay on the fabulous website YA for Obama in which he talks about writing Wide Awake as a response to Bush’s reelection. He says he wrote Stein as an “ideal candidate,” and therefore had to figure out what his ideal was. Turns out his ideal is pretty similar to mine, the sort of person who brings everyone together in a common goal — a Great Community, as it were. The sort of person who says “all Americans” and means all Americans:

The Jesus Freaks and the gay kids. The old soldiers and the students who couldn’t drive yet. Lovers and friends and exes and couples and female fathers. Every skin, every mix, every religion. People from Kansas and people from far beyond Kansas.

Our world now isn’t quite the same as Levithan envisioned 40 or 50 years from now. (Can we get some “rise of the green states” and “Worldwide Health Care movement” up in here?) But I feel like we had a little bit of this today. Obama’s election, for me, was about the very definition of grassroots: ordinary people believing in something, in someone, and overcoming apathy to give that person, that vision, some power.

I’m still sniffly and emotional, so I’ll leave you with the last words of Wide Awake to describe how I felt, sitting in a room with my students, watching Obama take the oath of office:

I was there. Just one young gay Jew in a sea of people. Just one lone voice in an enormous body of sound. Just one unique person at one unique moment, there to witness something monumental.
I was a part of history.
We are all a part of history.

If you read the book too, tell me what you thought! If you didn’t read it, tell me what you think anyway, about where the country’s going and where it should be going! Tell me what you’re going to do to get it there! Today was a good start, but now we’ve got a country to change, and it starts with us — with our voices and our actions.

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3 Responses to Wide Awake, by David Levithan (or, David Levithan for presidential speechwriter!)

  1. Miriam says:

    Oh! And I thought of something else silly – what the heck was up with maudlin version of the boy named Sue? He was yanked straight from the Johnny Cash song, and I was really really hoping that he and his now-a-woman dad would still get into an epic bar fight. I am a terrible person, alas.

  2. Sam says:

    That is an excellent point about Israel. I didn’t even think of that — mostly because the anti-Semitism interested me so much less than the homophobia. He didn’t get into what was going on in the rest of the world much, period. Which I agree is a gap.

    In general, the book is a daydreamed, sketched-out utopia way more than it is a novel. It’s, “hey, wouldn’t it be awesome if this happened and we could all get really excited about it?” And since some version of “this” *did* just happen, I was feeling charitable. :)

    (As for being inside a 17-year-old’s head, I feel like I’ve spent the last 13 years there. It’s a little scary.)

  3. Miriam says:

    I read the book, and I’m afraid it didn’t do a whole lot for me. I was intrigued by the dystopia part, but of course it’s so much harder to write even a quasi-utopia. My main criticism is that the difficulties of the Jewish aspect of the president didn’t make sense – where was Israel? The US relationship with Israel would be the #1 hot button issue in the event of a Jewish president (what with weird right-wing bedfellows and oil politics) – yet I’m pretty sure that Levithan didn’t mention it once.

    But I supposed my fundamental lack of interest in relationship negotiation (at least in books) was what really did me in. It really did feel like being inside a 17 year old’s head – and I don’t want to be there. :)

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