Into the insatiable mosh pit of young adult fiction comes a new character who, if it's possible, we haven't really seen before. "A," the protagonist in David Levithan's new novel, "Every Day," is 16 but otherwise lacks any earthly identifiers. A has no gender or race, no family or home. A has no body.
A is a floating soul who wakes up each morning in the body of a new 16-year-old and lives as that person for the day until midnight rolls around, when A is wrenched from that human vessel and fused to a new one. With no control over whose body comes next, A scrambles each morning to access names and memories so that parents can be greeted, schools can be attended, boyfriends or girlfriends properly adored. There's no apparent greater purpose to this body-hopping; A is just a tourist passing through.
It's an interesting existence for sampling the diverse realities of teenage life. It's not so great for falling in love.
For Levithan, a prolific author of young adult books as well as a publisher and editorial director at Scholastic, where he oversaw publication of the "Hunger Games" trilogy and founded the PUSH imprint for first-time authors, the challenge of young love is a favorite topic. Levithan co-wrote, with Rachel Cohn,
But the romantic obstacles A faces are a different ballgame. Waking up, in the first chapter, as a brute of a boy named Justin, A falls in love with Justin's sad girlfriend, Rhiannon, and spends the rest of the book trying to stay by her side. This is difficult to do when one day you might be an illegal maid named Valeria, another day a 300-pound outcast named Finn, and sometimes you're several hours away without a car. Rhiannon takes some convincing. School gets skipped often. Email, that most portable of communication devices, plays a central role.
"In this case the deck is definitely stacked against them," said Levithan, 40, who lives in Hoboken, N.J. "On the one hand you want to be idealistic and say, 'But love can conquer all.' But on the other hand there's the pull saying, 'Really?'"
Whether love can conquer all, and whether love means fighting for someone or letting them go, are questions posed by "Every Day." Another is the concept of a pure "self," of who you are when unconstrained by gender, race and the myriad social expectations attached to what you look like and where you came from, a resonant question for teens grappling with identity.
"I've gotten a lot of response from readers about how meaningful it was to step out of their bodies," Levithan said.
Though the "emotional truth" in his stories draws from his own and friends' experiences as teens and adults, who often are no less vulnerable to angst about fitting in, Levithan said he isn't pulling from "some deep well of trauma" in creating his characters. Growing up in suburban New Jersey, Levithan said, he was "the quiz bowl reader kid," "very happy" and well-adjusted.
Levithan, who graduated from Brown University with degrees in political science and English, joined Scholastic as an editorial intern when he was 19 and fell into writing teen literature because the identity crises and emotional extremes of teenage years proved fertile ground for experimentation, which continues to be rewarded by voracious readers.
"We are so tied more to our readers than to any critical literary establishment, and I think that's a good thing," said Levithan, who sometimes fields 2 a.m. Facebook messages from fans. "It keeps our eye squarely where it should be."
Scholastic's PUSH imprint, founded in 2002, was born of a mission to let a new generation of voices speak honestly about teens. In gathering feedback from kids, Levithan noticed, "the one word they wanted more than any other was 'real,'" he said.
Real in spirit, at least.
Levithan said he didn't plan the series of bodies A would appear in, and he would make the discovery along with A from one chapter to the next. He also confronted, as he went along, numerous logistical complications posed by the premise, such as what happens to the human hosts and how much of them remains in their bodies during the day in which they are occupied by A. Some of the solutions seem a bit convenient. A, for example, only occupies bodies inside Maryland state lines, never straying too far from Rhiannon.
The lives occupied at times are excruciating — a junkie itching for a fix, a girl beset by mental illness — but central to A's character, Levithan said, is that each is met with empathy.
"It is certainly the exaggerated version of walking two moons in a person's moccasins," Levithan said, referring to a Cheyenne proverb that says "Do not judge your neighbors until you walk two moons in their moccasins."
A's story may not be finished. Though he hasn't put words to a page, Levithan is considering a follow-up.
Meantime, spring brings the release of Levithan's next book, "Invisibility," which he co-wrote with Andrea Cremer, about an invisible boy and a girl who is the first person to be able to see him.
"I don't know what this says about me," Levithan said, laughing, "being drawn to people with no concrete bodies."
David Levithan has written 18 novels since 2003. Here are three notables.
"Boy Meets Boy" (Knopf, 2003). Levithan's first novel, about love and friendships at a pro-gay high school, won a Lambda Literary Award.
"Will Grayson, Will Grayson" (Dutton, 2011). Co-written with
"The Lover's Dictionary" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011). Levithan's first adult novel tells the story of a relationship's evolution in the form of a dictionary.
For a complete list, visit davidlevithan.com.
By David Levithan