The You I’ve Never Known is a novel written in free verse by Ellen Hopkins. Our main characters are Ariel and Maya, both sixteen at the beginning of the book. Ariel’s story is told completely in free verse and Maya’s story is told through prose journal entries. (The reason for these two different approaches becomes clear toward the end of the book.) When we meet Ariel, she is living with her father in Sonora, California and when we meet Maya she is living with her mother in Austin, Texas. Each is in the midst of the adolescent’s struggle to discover and identify who she really is as a person, separate from her parents. Their lives come together toward the end of the story, but are told separately for the first three-quarters of the book.
Maya is unhappy at home with a mother who has thrown herself deeply into Scientology at the expense of her marriage and her relationship with her daughter. Looking for an escape, Maya believes she has found love with an older man, and a way out of her home situation when she becomes pregnant with his child. She gradually realizes she has escaped one set of miserable circumstances for another–one with which she is not as familiar.
Ariel has never really had a home or any family,other than her father; she has found good friends–maybe even love–in Sonora and wants desperately to finally stay in one place, actually make a home. She loves her father, but is searching for clarity about some of his behavior–toward her and toward the women he hooks up with. She loves her best friend, Monica, but is confused about her own sexuality and when a new friend, Gabe, arrives it becomes that much more confusing. In the midst of these inner struggles, Ariel discovers her father has betrayed her in a way she never imagined and it calls into question everything she has ever believed about herself and who she truly is.
I don’t read a large volume of YA literature because, in general, a lot of them tend to be either dystopian in nature, preoccupied with romance, overwhelmingly angst-filled or some combination of these three in ways that wear on my patience. However, I respect authors that are able to create realistic fiction that is honest and authentic to those teenage and young adult years. It is a difficult time in life to capture in a truly meaningful way. It is the time when we all begin in earnest to define who we are, how we are separate from others and search for the ways and the places where we can belong. Often those thoughts and feelings do move us to have realizations about life that are profound in our own experience but will acquire different shades of meaning as we continue to grow older. That’s one of the reasons reading stories or journal entries we wrote as a teenager/young adult can be by turns hilarious in their naivete, touching in their depth of feeling and excruciating as painful memories recreate the pain of their experience.
Ellen Hopkins has a gift for creating characters with startlingly authentic voices using free verse–which requires not only an incredible knowledge of vocabulary, but the ability to combine very specific words in such a way that absolutely nothing is extraneous to the story. I will also say that, for me, because Hopkins’ work is so authentic and because she often tackles subjects that can be difficult to talk about (abuse, suicide, drug addiction, sex trafficking, etc.) I need to be aware of triggers in her work. The You I’ve Never Known does contain specific instances of physical and emotional abuse, as well as frank teenage sexual encounters. For me this one rode the line right at the edge of what I can handle but I found the story compelling. Ariel’s character gave me an insight into a little of the gender fluidity questions and confusion some of my students are experiencing. I want to be clear that while Hopkins’ work is frank and honest, the appropriateness of the content for me will be subjective to the reader. I found nothing gratuitous about the events portrayed–though some were more difficult for me to get through than others due to my own personal history.
The You I’ve Never Known is a coming-of-age story for one young girl as she sorts out what she believes to be truth about herself and what she learns is true of her life circumstances. It’s a solid YA read that will resonate most deeply with those going through similar transitions in their own lives.