This pair of entertaining and compelling young adult novels confirm that the political is indeed very, very personal.
In our modern era of texts and tweets, video chats and DMs, the telephone-based romance at the heart of Katie Cotugno’s You Say It First is both daring and delightful. High school senior Meg loves her part-time job at WeCount, a nonprofit voter registration center near her home in a Philadelphia suburb. Lately, the gig has also been a haven in the stressful storm of Meg’s life. Her raucously argumentative parents have finally gotten divorced, her mom is drinking way too much, and for some reason, Meg is no longer excited at the thought of going to Cornell with her best friend. It’s a confusing, upsetting time, and Meg feels like she can’t talk to anyone about it.
Then one night at work, Meg makes a fateful call to an Ohio phone number, and recent high school graduate Colby answers. He’s still reeling from his dad’s suicide and might be outgrowing his small town, and he has no idea what to do next. The teens’ first conversation doesn’t go very well. Meg’s an idealist, Colby’s a pessimist; Meg wants to change the world, while Colby thinks change is unlikely and overrated. But where there is conflict, there are also sparks, and the two progress from hourslong phone calls to in-person visits.
Their budding romance has moments of both sweetness and struggle as Meg and Colby challenge each other’s worldviews and navigate their own personal emotional minefields. There’s plenty of delicious interpersonal suspense, not only between Meg and Colby but also in reckonings with their families and friends. Cotugno has crafted some truly touching conversations about family secrets, damaging expectations and reluctant vulnerability. You Say It First is a romantic coming-of-age tale with a politics-infused backdrop that makes a heartfelt case for hope and the belief that incremental changes—just one vote, just one conversation, just one shift in perspective—can make a difference.
Mariana’s father, Florida senator Anthony Ruiz, wants to be president, and he wants Mariana to get on board. In Natalia Sylvester’s Running, 15-year-old Mari’s pleas for privacy in her dad’s increasingly bright spotlight have been dismissed for years.
Mari’s dad been a politician for as long as she can remember. He turns every family outing into a photo op and alternately emphasizes or diminishes their family’s Cuban heritage depending on the whiteness of the audience and its potential appeal to big donors. Mari is proud of her popular and accomplished dad, but she hates public speaking and would love to be anonymous for once—to post what she wants on Twitter and to not be bullied at school because of something her dad said to a reporter.
Running finds Mari hitting a breaking point. She must decide whether she’ll keep bending to her father’s relentless pressure or stand up for her right to make her own choices. And there’s no more time to waste, because the ultimate invasion of privacy is looming: a tour of their family home and an interview with the whole family, broadcast live on national TV.
Readers will be captivated as the tension builds and Sylvester convincingly and movingly plumbs the painful questions Mari is finally able to ask herself: Without her father’s scripts and rules, who is she? Are her parents oblivious to her needs, or are they deliberately ignoring them? Mari realizes that continuing to avoid these questions and accepting what her father says without fact-checking him is no longer an option, especially since the activist group at school wants to know what she thinks about his voting record, and she has no idea what to tell them. But Mari does know this: She cares about other people, she cares about the environment, and it’s looking increasingly likely that she’s sacrificed her privacy and autonomy while her father promotes political policies she disagrees with.
Running’s portrayal of a teen girl’s political and emotional awakening is an invigorating tale of a breakdown that becomes a breakthrough. It’s a timely reminder that to effectively stand up for others, we must first stand up for ourselves.