Juno is probably one of the most criminally underrated authors in the country. Despite her brilliant, often tongue in cheek, and often downright terrifying horror novels (Say Her Name, Under My Skin), not to mention her brilliantly important non-fiction work of gender and sexuality (How To Be a Boy, This Book Is Gay), I never quite feel she gets the praise she deserves for the huge amount of work she does. Well, I’m going to try! All Of The Above is her latest YA novel, and unlike her previous offerings, this one is strictly contemporary – no witches, no spirits and no murderous tattoos. It’s also probably her best novel to date. Here’s why…
Toria is the new girl in the sleepy, dilapidated seaside town of Brompton-on-Sea, and being the new girl in a small town is a big deal. She’s concerned by all the same things that bother most new teenagers at a new school – making friends, passing A-Levels and getting to finally leave home. When she meets the bright, pixie-ish Daisy, the outspoken and chaotic Polly and their gang of misfits and freaks, she finds a group of fun, vibrant friends that make her online contacts overseas drop straight off her agenda. Toria is fascinated by the explosively chaotic Polly, and the two girls soon become best friends. Toria even meets a boy at one of the gang’s late night meetings at the seafront’s Crazy Golf Course – Nico is the most beautiful boy she’s ever seen, and there’s some serious biology at work driving the two of them together. It might not be love, but it’s inescapable and it’s the most grown up Toria’s ever felt in a relationship. Everything seems perfect, the Summer days stretching out forever, laughing on the beach with cheap wine fuelling them – this is everything TV has told Toria that teenage life with best friends should be like! But she’d be naïve to think that this is all there is to life, and slotting into a complex friendship group is never straightforward… Especially one as complicated as this one.
Why is All Of The Above Juno’s best novel to date? Because of all the reasons – that’s why. These are her most wonderfully messy and complex characters yet, and I love each one in very different ways, which I’m going to attempt to sum up in words now. Toria, our narrator, is a confused but determined main character, filled with a brilliant mix of bubbling emotions are feelings, and her worldview is forever shifting as she grows throughout the story. I love her fierce loyalty to her friends, as well as her vulnerability when it comes to being desperate for Polly to like her – friend crushes are a real thing and desperately wanting someone to be your friend is awful. Polly is something else entirely, a pure force of nature that often contradicts herself, but who never stops or looks back. She stands larger than life in Toria’s eyes, but gradually her layers are unraveled to reveal a diverse, eclectic and above all scared young woman. Her protectiveness over her friends is absolutely beautiful, and her gut instinct way of life balances Toria’s anxious overthinking superbly. But that’s not the end of it! ALL of this book’s characters are brilliant, and Daisy and Beasley are both wonderful – I love Daisy with all my heart, her gentle, peaceful and bright outlook fill the story with light and a gentle Summerness that helps tone down Polly’s whirlwind personality. Beasley is effortlessly sweet and flawed, but full of passion and love, and I found myself connecting with his desperate need for attention really well. Everyone is so distinctive and well written that they play across the page together so vividly that it’s impossible to not want to be part of their group.
As with Dawson’s previous books, her work as a teacher clearly shines through in her dialogue, which is downright hilarious, and effortlessly realistic and on point – she writes in the throwaway, snappy style that teenagers talk, complete with excessive swearing and pop-culture references. What makes All Of The Above stand so triumphantly above the crowd though is Juno’s dedication to diversity. She’s always been a champion of representation, but this new book really effortlessly pulls in some of the aspects of everyday human beings that are still so worryingly lacking in everyday fiction. It examines sexuality in an honest and open way, shunning simplistic stereotypes and instead looking at real, genuine people and their complex (and often messy) emotions and feelings, and it touches upon mental health in a subtle, heartbreaking way. Self-harm and eating disorders are touched upon throughout the story, and are thankfully un-romanticised and quite painfully honest and blunt.
Ultimately, what I think Juno has achieved with All Of The Above is a rare accurate glimpse into the painful, beautiful and messily confusing experience of growing up and finding out who you are. And by that I mean that the characters have about as much idea at the end as they did to start with – it understands that there is no universal teenage experience, and it isn’t afraid to look at the darkness that comes in adolescence (one that most grownups would like to pass off as “a phase”). But it also isn’t afraid to look at vibrant joy and love and friendship that comes with the intensity of being a teenager. The whole book filled me with hope and melancholy, and it’s one of the most powerful and adorable books to come out of the UKYA scene.
Thanks for Reading,
P.S. – You can buy All of The Above HERE
P.P.S. – You can follow Juno Dawson on Twitter HERE
P.P.P.S – Obviously, the book does cover some darker themes, and as such contains triggers for self harm and eating disorders.