Fifteen-year-old Harris Jacobus knows that people at his new high school will make assumptions about him because of his disability, a form of muscular dystrophy called spinal muscular atrophy. He levels the playing field by asking everyone he meets one simple question: “What’s your favorite color?”
This is how Harris knows that Zander could be a potential friend. Zander’s favorite color is yellow, and Harris’ is blue, so only green separates them on the color wheel. It’s why Harris is willing to give 20-something Miranda a chance as his nurse (to “attend school with me and make sure I don’t die”), even though she’s still finishing up her nursing program. Her favorite color combination, orange-red, is blue’s complementary color (though it doesn’t hurt that Harris also thinks she’s attractive). And it’s one of the reasons Harris is captivated by Nory, whose locker is next to his: She refuses to tell him her favorite color.
Harris has decided to use his new school as a “chance to finally start living a real teenage life”—going to parties, breaking curfew, maybe even having a girlfriend. When Miranda discovers Harris’ feelings for Nory, she decides to help them get closer. Eventually, Harris begins to question Miranda’s advice—and her judgment.
In The First Thing About You, debut novelist Chaz Hayden offers a fresh perspective on a teen protagonist who longs to feel “normal” and check off a list of milestones (first crush, date, concert and so on). The book’s structure—five sections of varying lengths—beautifully reflects how time in high school can feel like it’s moving at different speeds depending on the situation, and short chapters mimic a fast-paced school day.
Harris’ conversational narration will resonate with teen readers (though some of his thoughts about gender border on stereotypical), and his experiences offer an invitation to question the very notion of normalcy. Miranda often blurs professional and personal lines, particularly during a scene in which she kisses Harris on the mouth without asking for or receiving his consent first, and some readers may find Hayden’s depiction of Miranda’s behavior disturbing. Even Harris gradually realizes, “I didn’t like the person I became around her.”
Like Harris, Hayden also has spinal muscular atrophy. He vlogs about his life on YouTube, where he reads aloud from and cringes at entries from his old journals, and he pours a similarly humorous, unflinching tone into Harris’ story. Fans of John Green or teen rom-coms will enjoy Hayden’s reminder that we are all trying to get others to look beyond our surfaces.