Fandoms. I’ve been part of them (nope, not saying which ones!), and I’ve also been an observer of them for something I was writing in the past. They’re complex, complicated, and far deeper than most outsiders are willing to assign credit, and when I learned about I Was Born for This by Alice Oseman (Harper Collins Children’s Books, 2018), which centers on a boy band (for lack of a better term) and one fan in particular, I knew I had to read it. And it just so happens that this book fits in well with one of PopSugar’s 2020 Reading Challenge prompts: an author in their 20’s! Voilà, two boxes ticked off right there.
Angel Rahimi has embarked on the biggest adventure of her life: traveling to London to stay with her internet friend Juliet (whom she’s never met in person) in order to attend a meet-and-greet with The Ark, their favorite band. Angel and Juliet know everything about the boys in the band, and Angel feels them on a soul-deep level. The Ark is her life, so much that she’s skipping her ‘finished with high school’ ceremony for this trip, and her family is worried. Angel’s not, but the trip almost immediately gets off to a rocky start when she learns she’s not the only internet friend at Juliet’s.
Jimmy Kaga-Ricci is one of three members of The Ark, not quite nineteen, and the fame- the crowds, the pressure, the lack of privacy and the inability to have anything even resembling a life- is starting to get to him. Panic attacks, sleepless nights, fear of fans and flying, they’re making him hate his life, and cracks are showing in his relationships with the two other band members, childhood friends of his. The Ark is up for a new contract, and Jimmy feels sick every time he even thinks about it.
When Angel’s and Jimmy’s paths collide, both of them will learn lessons they’ve needed to learn for a while now: the difference between fantasy and reality and how to face it, what authenticity looks like, who you can trust when the chips are down, and who should get to decide their futures.
Alice Oseman knows fandom. If you’ve ever been involved in a fandom, especially a music fandom, you’ll recognize how superbly researched I Was Born for This is. She taps deeply into Angel’s adoration of the band, going so far as to nearly make The Ark her sole identity and being unable, or possibly just unwilling, to connect to the people at her school and real life. Jimmy is slowly being suffocated by the fame; his bandmates have different ways of reacting, but no one is doing well with this, and Ms. Oseman paints a desolate picture of the price celebrities pay in order to put their art and music out into the world. While I’ve never been famous (I’m far too boring for that!), I’ve done a lot of reading on fame and its costs, and her portrayal of The Ark’s terrifying success is spot-on.
But what really stands out here is The Ark’s fandom. There are so many different facets to fandom, and Ms. Oseman makes sure the reader is aware of that. The soul-deep fans like Angel, the fake fans like Mac, the casual fans, the over-the-top fans, the psycho fans (I know someone who pulled up to a celebrity’s mother’s house, got out, stole a leaf from her yard, then drove off. Plenty of us in this group were horrified by this), the “I’m so in love with you!!!” fans, the fanfiction writers, the ‘shippers, the fans who are seriously there for each other, it’s all here, and it’s so, so good. This is the book I needed back in my younger days, and the book that I would’ve loved to use as research back when I was writing something that involved a fandom.
There’s a huge amount of positive representation of so many groups in this book. Angel (real name Fereshteh) is a hijabi Muslimah; Jimmy Kaga-Ricci is transgender and gay and suffers from depression and panic attacks; Lister Bird (another member of The Ark) is bisexual; Rowan (the third Ark member) is Nigerian. And with the exception of Jimmy’s mental illnesses, none of these are presented as Issues To Be Dealt With; rather, Ms. Oseman paints each character fully and then sends them on their way. Being transgender or bisexual or religious is treated with respect, but nothing is ever made An Issue (my growing-up-and-reading-YA-in-the-80’s-and-90’s self still so appreciates this; back then, everything was A Very Serious Issue, and I don’t think I’ll ever stop being grateful for characters who are something other than straight, white, cishet, etc, just going about their days and not being made a massive fuss over because they’re in a subset of humanity). It’s just characters based on real people living their lives, and it’s the kind of book I’m here for.
I Was Born for This is fun, moving, thought-provoking, and bursting with the kind of YA energy that teenagers deserve. Every time I read YA like this, I’m so jealous of the quality of writing teens are offered these days. I wish books like these, full of honest stories that speak to real teenagers, who they are and what they want and need, had been available when I was younger, but I’m even more glad that they’re available now. This book is a joy, and a treasure.