I’m a fan of Andrew Demcak — I reviewed his book Ghost Songs here a while back — and I was très très excited about the release earlier this month of A Little Bit Langston, his new YA sci-fi novel.
A Little Bit Langston starts off in your head. No, YOUR head, the head of an LA teenager who has a learning disability and a demanding, self-absorbed mother and a bubbling volcano of feelings for his best friend. Or at least the book starts in the head of someone you love. James, the main character, is so engaging, so immediately present on the page, that I was willing to follow him right down the rabbit hole, no questions asked.
And it is quite a warren down there. I don’t want to spoil too much, but let’s just say if you’re a fan of alien technology, secret government agencies, and gifted young people who can probably kill you with their brains, you won’t be disappointed. Not to mention if you’re a fan of Langston Hughes, the Langston of the title. The author doesn’t use any excerpts of Hughes’ actual work; instead he paraphrases, or in some instances inserts original lines that are clearly intended to remind the reader of famous Hughes poems. But the spirit of the poet is there–in the multifaceted identities of the main characters, in the brave actions of young men who get beaten for being gay, in the expansively hopeful feeling of the story as a whole.
The plot fits into the classic “chosen one” style of tale. James appears at first to have trouble reading at school, but a bizarre talent quickly emerges when he begins to channel the writing of long-dead poet Montgomery Langston (Langston Hughes). At the same time, his electricity-related superpower shows itself. After a period of being persecuted at school, and some harrowing real-world complications involving his best friend/love interest, Paul, James finds himself at a special academy for gifted teens like himself. Which is when the alien + conspiracy questions really kick into gear. I’m glad the author set us up for a sequel, because the busy, scheme-filled underworld he created is way too big for just one book.
I love a YA story where the superpowers appear at adolescence, where they overwhelm the character and then through the arc of the story he masters them. That’s what growing up feels like: channeling electricity with no control, destroying all the lightbulbs in the house, knowing for a fact that no one can understand your side of the story. Even though James’ demanding mother claims she always knew he was special, we see James changing into his true self on the page, as his feelings for Paul blossom and he discovers who he really is. In this case that’s pretty literal; James gets a big surprise when he finds out who his father is. Good YA science fiction stuff.
The love story isn’t center stage here, and that’s a big strength of the book. There’s plenty already going on in this story, and not all YA stories or coming-out stories have to be love stories. Another significant strength is Demcak’s skillful, barely-there handling of race and ethnicity. Way too much science fiction is, historically, way too white. That’s started to shift in recent years, but slowly. In A Little Bit Langston, the love interest, Paul, is Filipino, while James is white. Hardly anything is ever said about that difference between them, but Paul never has that insert-diversity-here feeling as a character. He’s three-dimensional, with a complex family and history of his own, and his journey toward loving James feels very earned. When we meet Lumen, another student at the special school, James expresses curiosity about her Korean heritage, but when the two turn out to be half-siblings, no one misses a beat, because these characters live so easily in a multicultural world.
Don’t miss out on A Little Bit Langston. I will be holding my breath until the sequel comes out. Buy your copy here.