“Jeff boards the bus for the Civics class trip to Washington, DC, with a few things on his mind:
-Six hours trapped with his classmates sounds like a disaster waiting to happen.
-He somehow ended up sitting next to his ex-best friend, who he hasn’t spoken to in years.
-He still feels guilty for the major part he played in pranking his teacher, and the trip’s chaperone, Mr. Bailey.
-And his best friend Cannon, never one to be trusted and banned from the trip, has something “big” planned for DC.
But Mr. Bailey has an idea to keep everyone in line: each person on the bus is going to have the chance to tell a story. It can be fact or fiction, realistic or fantastical, dark or funny or sad. It doesn’t matter. Each person gets a story, and whoever tells the best one will get an automatic A in the class.
But in the middle of all the storytelling, with secrets and confessions coming out, Jeff only has one thing on his mind—can he live up to the super successful story published in the school newspaper weeks ago that convinced everyone that he was someone smart, someone special, and someone with something to say.” (via Goodreads)
First things first: you absolutely don’t need to know anything about Geoffrey Chaucer or The Canterbury Tales, although having some foundational knowledge does put a lot of things in clearer context. I’ve read it twice in Old English and in contemporary English as a teen (what can I say, I was/am a huge dork) and that made it a lot easier to pick up Kim Zarins’ winks and nudges, but the book would still read well even if you missed the callbacks.
As much as I love the increasing amount of queer rep we get in YA fiction, in most of the stories the protagonist is either already out or coming out. It’s not often where we get to experience the protagonist questioning their sexual identity. Jeff goes through quite the ordeal on the bus ride to DC and comes out the other side without a clearly defined label but knowing he’s definitely not straight. That process is so important. Kids need to see that it’s ok to not be settled on a label and that your labels will probably change. Not just kids, we all need those reminders. You are allowed to change your labels as frequently as you want without any shame attached to those choices.
I won’t spoil their identity because the reveal is a big plot point, but I also really loved the intersex character. The way the reveal was handled wasn’t great – I’m not a fan of forcing another character out of the closet to motivate the protagonist – but I was happy to see the character being comfortable with their identity. They outright refused to take on any self-loathing or shame about their identity and called Jeff out when he reacted poorly to the reveal.
Ultimately, I didn’t love many of the students’ stories. Then again, I went back and compared the novel to Chaucer’s and discovered that I also didn’t click with the original versions on which they were based. So my disinterest in those wasn’t so much Zairns’ fault as Chaucer’s. Fortunately I liked more than I disliked (although “dislike” is probably too harsh a term for how I felt). Like the original book, Sometimes We Tell the Truth has a lot of sexual innuendo and sexual situations, Zairns keeps it on this side of gratuitous.
Sometimes We Tell the Truth is a one-of-a-kind YA contemporary novel. Don’t let the adaptation element scare you off. It’s well written and engaging. Frankly, even just the questioning arc and queer romance subplots make it worth picking up.
I can’t sit at the front of the bus.
I try to look confident, like I’m actually going to be a famous author, and one day the popular guys in the back will say to their kids and grandkids around the Thanksgiving table, “Jeff Chaucer, you say? Yeah, back in high school, he wrote my paper on Virginia Woolf – I still have it.”
Thanks to Kim Zairns for sending me a review copy.
Do the world a favor and buy this book from your local indie bookstore or borrow it from your public library.