This is a sweet book, but it’s not as good as its companion novel, the award-winning George. George does what all great books do, and transcends its genre. It was written for young middle grade readers, but because it was so well-written and so personal, and developed the character of Melissa so beautifully, it just felt like a good story, all the while it was also teaching kids about what it means to be trans, and emphasizing themes like empathy, friendship, and kindness.
Rick has similar goals, this time with a protagonist who is unsure of his sexual identity, but is leaning towards asexual/aromantic. Rick is the best friend of Jeff, the boy who bullied Melissa in George. Rick is Jeff’s best friend mostly out of habit, but is slowly coming to realize that he doesn’t have to be Jeff’s friend and do the things Jeff wants (and ignore the bad things Jeff does) if he doesn’t want to. He is in a constant state of anxiety, pulled between wanting to understand his own identity and disapproving of Jeff’s actions, and feeling pressured and upset about the prospect of Jeff making fun of him or his new friends, of Jeff rejecting him. I thought this part of the book was pretty good. Rick’s struggle to figure out who he was and not just go along felt very middle school to me (a time of life that I hated), although it still didn’t feel as personal to me as Melissa’s inner journey in George.
This book also felt very obviously didactic in a way that George didn’t. The message was great, and younger kids would probably love it, but to me as an adult, it felt constructed.
The best part of this book was Rick’s relationship with his grandpa, who he hasn’t really gotten to know before. He’s now discovered that out of all his family members, his grandpa and he have the most in common, and it’s just so heartwarming to see them interact with each other. They both love the same old sci-fi TV show, and it opens up a space for Rick to be seen by someone who understands him, and the same for his grandfather. They both love Rick’s dad, but agree he’s not the easiest person to talk to, and finding kindred spirits in each other fills spaces in both their hearts.
In terms of the ace rep, I think this book did a pretty good job, although there seems to be almost as much focus on other sexual and gender identities, because of the LGBTQIAP+ support group Rick starts going to at his new school. Maybe it’s because Rick’s issue has less inherent conflict than Melissa’s, a lack of sexual or romantic feelings, rather than Melissa’s constant inner struggle to not be pushed into a box other people want her to be in. It was nice that the book dealt so frankly with how older people often dismiss and invalidate sexual and gender identity questioning in younger people because “they’re too young” to have those feelings, which is bullshit.
Worth reading, though! Definitely worth it for younger readers, but it’s just not up to the gold standard set by George.
[3.5 stars, rounded up]