Love isn’t always a straight line. For someone who better understands connections by creating various taxonomies of everyday life in addition to the traditional scientific process of classification, learning that lesson is hard. In the new young adult novel A Taxonomy of Love by Rachael Allen readers bear witness to the love story between teenagers Spencer and Hope that is far cry from following a straight path. I had the opportunity to read A Taxonomy of Love, which officially launched January 13th at Atlanta’s Little Shop of Stories, and ask the author some questions about this delight of a book.
My Review of ‘A Taxonomy of Love’
Like many love stories we’re familiar with, it all starts with the girl next door. In this case, Hope moves in next door to 13-year old Spencer, a neurodiverse young man with Tourette syndrome. What transpires through the course of the book takes place over six years and covers everything from family dynamics, jealousy, and grief to messy friendships, grand gestures, and a sense of belonging. Alternating between the voices of the two main characters through prose, texts, emails, and more, readers are taken on a wonderfully bumpy path of young love.
Reading this as an adult, I couldn’t help but see so much truth in the messiness of young love. How, despite what we see in movies and read in most stories, most meaningful relationships take time and don’t happen the way you plan. Spencer’s Tourettes adds another unique element to the story and gives voice to an often misunderstood neurological disorder. Even though readers may not directly identify with Spencer, anyone reading can certainly see themselves in him as feeling different and having to overcome challenges.
I appreciated not only the realistic dialogue and variety of writing styles, but Allen’s accurate portrayal of family. Spencer’s brother Dean is a source of frustration with Spencer but adds welcomed complexity to the story and it’s refreshing to see their stepmother Pam portrayed as a completely normal, loving parent. Hope’s storyline certainly surprised me at times and disappointed me at others, however I realized that as parents we always hope for the best for our kids, but that’s not always what’s in store for them.
The book deals with some serious issues that sometimes feel like Allen is trying to cram too much into the book, but overall it’s well-reflective of a modern teenage existence. Parents may want to know that certain characters in the book engage in sexual activity, so I’d definitely consider this most suitable for ages 14 and up, but your mileage may vary. While fictional YA love stories are not my typically on my reading list, A Taxonomy of Love was a welcomed pleasure to read and one I look forward to sharing with my daughters as teenagers.
An Interview With ‘A Taxonomy of Love’ Author Rachael Allen:
GeekDad: As young people, I think we all have expectations about what our love story will be like based on movies or television, but in real life things aren’t always so neat and clear-cut. What would you tell young people who want everything to happen quickly and be picture perfect in their own relationships?
Rachael Allen: I would tell them that some people meet the person they’re going to marry in high school. And some people don’t. Some people meet that person in college. And some people don’t. Some people meet and feel an instant connection. Sometimes it takes a whole lot longer. It’s okay to devour the love stories in books and movies (and I do!), but don’t let your love of those stories make you feel pressured to do anything you don’t want to do or make you feel like you have to stay with someone when the relationship is bad for you. Also, those grand gestures that look so cool in movies often end up going really badly and/or coming off as creepy in real life. (Sorry for killing everyone’s joy! Hopefully, this saves someone from doing the 2018 equivalent of showing up at someone’s house with a boombox.)
GD: In what ways are you like Spencer and in what ways are you like Hope?
RA: Ways I’m like Spencer: I freaking love science. I’m neurodiverse. I’m from rural Georgia.
Ways I’m not: I have never been a wrestler or a teenage boy.
Ways I’m like Hope: I love traveling and having adventures all over the world. I love musicals (Hamilton, OMG).
Ways I’m not: The Bad Thing that happens to her in the book has not happened to me. I know almost nothing about photography. I also don’t know that I’m all that much like either Hope or Spencer personality-wise.
GD: Not only do you shift between two different character narratives throughout the book, but you also mix in different styles of writing – from email correspondence to journal entries, to taxonomies along with traditional prose. How do you feel each of those different components allowed you to better flesh out your characters?
RA: A Taxonomy of Love was my first time writing a male main character. I had to take the voice I was hearing in my head and then look at my sentences from all sides to make sure that they sounded like something a boy would say. And sometimes that was a 13-year-old boy who likes bugs, and sometimes a 15-year-old boy dealing with a lot of anger, and sometimes an 18-year-old boy in love. It’s definitely the most I’ve ever thought about voice while writing, and I think it helps us to get really close to his character to have it told in a first person narrative format.
Hope’s voice was easy. It’s like there’s this teenage girl voice that lives in my head, and I have to work really hard not to talk in it on a regular basis, like when I’m presenting scientific data at work.
I knew I wanted Hope’s sections to be told in post cards, texts, G-chats, and emails to her older sister, Janie, who had just left home to travel the world while working for a foundation. I think having Hope’s sections in a different format from Spencer’s helped to differentiate their voices. The trick was figuring out how to squeeze all the excitement of a first kiss into a three paragraph handwritten letter, or a mountain’s worth of grief into a four-line email.
GD: Tourette syndrome is a key characteristic in your novel. What made you choose to highlight this specific neurological disorder? Did you have any previous exposure to someone with TS in your own life? If you researched it, what stood out to you?
RA: The first time I wrote a neurodiverse character into a book, I wrote about a girl with ADHD very similar to mine. But I don’t want to write only about ADHD. I want to see YA shelves with a full spectrum of neurodiverse characters, and I want to be a part of making that happen. I want kids to pick up books and be like, “There! That’s me!” So, one year, when I was chatting with a woman at a YALSA event at ALA, she mentioned that there were no YA books with a main character that had Tourette syndrome. And my first thought was: That shouldn’t be.
Since then, Spencer just started to grow in my head. I knew he lived in the South and that he loved science. That he was a really competitive wrestler. That he grew up feeling like he didn’t fit. And also that he had Tourette syndrome.
Since I don’t have Tourette syndrome, it was really important to do a lot of research. I watched multiple documentaries about kids with Tourette syndrome. I read articles and blogs posts and scientific research papers. I reached out to Tourette’s activists, and they graciously answered my questions, including ones I didn’t even know to ask. I also had incredibly wonderful sensitivity readers.
A few things that stood out to me about Tourette syndrome are the media representation that it’s this thing where you swear all the time – which, no, just no. Some people do have swearing tics, but many tics are motor tics. Another thing I learned is that there is no medication specifically for Tourette syndrome. So, when people take medication for TS, they’re often taking a drug developed for something else (heart disease, depression, etc.), so it can be challenging to find a medication that works and is worth the side effects. I also learned about the social model of disability from my talks with a Tourette’s activist, and it would take a long time to explain here, but I definitely recommend reading up on it! It puts into words a lot of the things I feel about having ADHD, and it was so cool to learn something about myself while I was researching Tourette syndrome.
GD: In A Taxonomy of Love, your characters deal with many serious issues including death, sex, and racial tension. What lessons from each of these three heavy subjects do you hope your readers come away with?
RA: I’ve lived in Georgia my whole life, first in a small town and now in Decatur. For two summers during college, I worked as a summer camp counselor in the area that inspires Spencer’s town. It’s the kind of place that sticks with you. The peach packing plant, the antique stores, the neighborhoods with people who are so friendly you feel like maybe you’ve stepped back in time or onto a movie set. It feels like the kind of place that’s supposed to be in a book.
But at the same time that I was daydreaming about this gorgeous, sweet tea-infused setting, things were happening in my hometown. Confederate flags were being banned at a high school, and many people were for it, but others were very much against. And I knew this part of the South needed to be in my book too. We had a different president when I was writing this book, and I felt like a lot of people in the South were doing a lot of patting each other on the back for how far we’ve come. So, part of my motivation for writing these scenes was to say, “Hey, guys, it’s great that we’ve made progress, but we still have a lot of problems with racism.” Fast forward a few years, and I don’t think anyone has any doubts about racism still being a problem, in the South and everywhere.
This book is like a letter to all the parts of the South. Some of it is a love letter because I dearly love okra and grits, porch swings and fireflies, the smell of honeysuckle on hot summer nights and eating homemade peach ice cream with friends and when my 3-year-old says “fanger” instead of “finger”. And some of this letter is meant for readers who will see Spencer and say, “Here’s a kid who’s raised pretty much the same way I am, but he sees the world really differently than the people around him. And maybe that means I can see the world differently too.”
When I started this book, I didn’t know I was going to write about grief and loss. I only ever mean to write characters who feel like real people, and real people have histories and scars. Real people have sex, and sometimes they make good decisions about having sex and sometimes they don’t. I knew something bad happened to Hope to make her tear the maps and pictures off her walls, but I didn’t know what. Eventually, I realized that the Bad Thing that happened was that Hope lost someone very close to her.
The other piece of this was writing Spencer’s response to seeing his best friend in so much pain. I think it’s hard to figure out that what your friend needs is not necessarily what you would need if you were in their situation. I think Spencer has an especially hard time figuring this out, and he gets himself into some awkward situations because of it, and I hope you feel vicariously like you want to melt into the floor on his behalf.
Thank you to Rachael Allen for taking the time to answer my questions and for writing such a fantastic book. You can follow Rachael on Twitter and you can purchase ‘A Taxonomy of Love’ online or wherever great books are sold.