Book Review: Stranger Than Fanfiction

Stranger Than Fanfiction by Chris Colfer (2017). London: ATOM.

Courtesy Content Warnings for spoilers, drug use, and trauma. Also for feelings. Lots of feelings.

Stranger Than Fanfiction has a ton of heated, negative reviews, but that’s been an ongoing concern for YA publishers since they began taking young readers seriously in the 90s. How do you convince the gatekeepers – the educators, parents, and librarians – to let young readers access books we write for them? In some cases, maybe you can’t. But I for one found this a good, useful YA novel despite the anxious reviews, and I don’t want you overlooking its teaching potential out of fear that it’s ‘too mature’. So here we go.

I’d call it middle grade fiction, 13 and up. While it does refer to drug use and hookup culture, the tone of these scenes feels more conversational than glorifying. Like having someone to teach you all the lessons they had to learn the hard way. I think it’s definitely a book parents and teachers should be reading with the question ‘what lessons will young people learn from reading this novel?’ burning at the back of their minds. When the characters try weed, for instance, Colfer uses Cash Carter to explain different reactions to drugs and how users can manage them responsibly. I value this because most folk try weed when they’re this age and freak out over bad reactions. So having a guide for young readers to experiment with weed responsibly, since they’re going to try it anyway, is a very cool thing to have.

I feel this is also the case for Colfer’s gay character, who seeks out his first sexual experience through hookup apps because he believes he won’t find intimacy any other way. This is far more common than you could imagine. Yet the situation was managed responsibly once [spoiler] was sweetly rejected by the older man, and the subsequent conversation with Cash Carter helped guide him to healthier alternatives. I can tell you from personal experience that many young people aren’t so lucky, so [spoiler]’s scene manages expectations for those young, gay readers as well.

Colfer also has a touching trans narrative with lessons for cisgender readers – though not necessarily for transgender readers. It expresses the anxieties of growing up trans, and answers those small-yet-insensitive questions trans folk get asked when coming out: ‘how do you know?’ ‘Does this mean you’re gay?’ ‘Is this because of trauma?’ etc. For cis readers, the scene between [another spolier] and Cash Carter helps establish what an ally is – with all its mistakes and lessons – and shows them ways to support trans friends better in their own lives. While I would like this character to speak to trans readers as well, I do think it’s important to give young, cis readers a guide for healthier interactions with trans folk.

Honestly, I marvelled at how well-written this book is. It has a pleasing tone with a thoughtful narrative structure, and I adored Colfer’s ability to weave so many small plot-lines into a single, parallel story. I think readers will be blown away by how deliberate his writing is, about how relatable his characters are, and about how generously he gives readers time to enjoy the simple act of reading. I know y’all are probably tired of hearing about how I cry through novels – but hey, I’m a sensitive soul! It got me. Needless to say: Stranger Than Fanfiction might be my first Chris Colfer novel, but it certainly won’t be my last.

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