Things We Couldn’t Say by Jay Coles

Things We Couldn’t Say by Jay Coles, Scholastic, 9781338734188, 2021 

Format: ARC

Rating: 1-5 (5 is an excellent or a Starred review) 4

Genre: Realistic fiction

What did you like about the book?  Gio (short for Giovanni, named for his dad’s favorite James Baldwin novel) finds himself pulled up short during junior year when his long-lost birth mom appears. After two years of therapy, he’s still not sure he’s ready to re-establish contact. Complicating matters is Gio’s bisexuality, which his stepmom Karina accepts but Pops (his preacher father) doesn’t. Luckily, he has two BFFs in his corner, Ayesha and Olly, and his passion for basketball to sustain him. Then he meets the new shooting guard for the team, David, and the two quickly develop a strong mutual attraction. I really liked the characters in the book and their honest dialogue about mental health, in which the teens openly state their needs and desires. Gio also has a wonderful and tender relationship with his little brother Theo, who’s also suffering from feelings of abandonment. It’s not all sturm und drang; the banter between Ayesha, Olly, and Gio perfectly captures the smart back-and-forth I hear at school all the time and the romantic scenes between Gio and David capture first love nicely. I really appreciated that the drama of the story focused more on Gio’s mental health. He’s dealing with Dad’s disapproval and is out to his besties, but still feeling his way on identifying openly within the larger school community. Gio, his family, Ayesha, and many of the neighbors in his neighborhood, the Haven, are Black; David, Olly, and Gio’s teachers and basketball coach are White.

Anything you didn’t like about it? The timeline was too compressed and my brief outline above leaves out several distracting side plots. Even though some of these were interesting (a friend who’s chosen to sell drugs and join a gang, the death of a family friend from ALS, a theft at the church), they distract from Gio’s story and I sometimes lost track of that thread. Dad’s quick conversion from an abusive, angry, heavy drinker to compassionate father felt convenient and superficial. I also felt that Gio’s mom Jackie got the short end of the stick. She did leave her kids, but her reasons for desertion merit compassion, especially in a book addressing mental health. 

To whom would you recommend this book?  Despite the overstuffed plot, I found this book very compelling and readable and think a lot of teen readers will connect with Gio and enjoy Cole’s writing. I would recommend this to readers looking for well-written realistic fiction, especially those looking for well developed LGBTQ+ characters. This would be a good read alike for those who enjoyed the Darius the Great books by Adib Khorram.

Who should buy this book? High schools, public libraries

Where would you shelve it? YA fiction, realistic fiction if you genre-fy

Should we (librarians/readers) put this on the top of our “to read” piles? No

Reviewer: Susan Harari, Keefe Library, Boston Latin School, Boston, MA

Date of review: July 3, 2021

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