A Review of Every Word You Never Said by Jordon Greene
Words By C.E. Janecek
Published April 26, 2022 by F/K Teen.
“I’m not looking for your voice. I’m aiming for your heart.”
Every Word You Never Said is a romantic dream come true for YA bookstagrammers. There’s Jacob, a broody drummer from an evangelical family who has recently come out. And there’s Skylar—who’s used to being an outcast because he’s gay, disabled, adopted, and gender non-conforming (GNC). When Jacob invites the new kid to his favorite local bookstore (one of the few safe places away from his homophobic family), Skylar wonders if he should harbor some hope for their friendship as they’re “browsing the books, seeing what Jacob’s hand gravitated toward.” This novel is full of quiet noticing as the two teens navigate their first queer relationship in a conservative small town, but also because Skylar is nonverbal.
Jordon Greene puts a lot of care into representing Sky’s disability, the way it’s shaped him, and how the people around him adapt to be more accessible. Skylar lost his voice after a childhood illness and was in the foster care system for most of his life. At the beginning of the novel, he’s resigned himself to being an outsider and doesn’t expect his peers to hold a conversation with someone who uses an AAC device to speak (Augmentative and Alternative Communication), which in his case, is an iPhone. In many ways, he’s right about the ableism he continues to face throughout the novel. Teachers who don’t bother to learn about his accommodations single him out in class or in detention, when Skylar has his only means of communication taken away: “. . . it’s literally my voice. And I almost had a mini-panic attack when the first teacher took it. That dead look in the man’s eyes. I shiver.”
However, for the first time, Skylar meets peers who are unfazed by his disability and are willing to communicate with him, rather than putting the entire burden on Skylar. Imani is one of the few people who can lip-read, so Skylar doesn’t always have to use his phone to tell her a story, which is much less frustrating for him. Jacob, who struggles with reading lips, finds out that Skylar is also fluent in sign language and begins teaching himself because he knows that Sky prefers it to the monotone voice of his AAC, which limits his expressiveness. With his friends’ acceptance, communication stops feeling so isolating for Skylar, but friendship doesn’t erase a lifetime of ableism either as Skylar admits: “[Romance books] are the only way I’m ever going to experience it, you know?” Little does Skylar know that he is the protagonist in a YA romance. Alongside the awkwardness of a teen relationship, Every Word You Never Said also explores different approaches to sex and sexuality. Most importantly, sex in this novel isn’t the enigmatic, coming-of-age moment or a moment of consummation with “the one.” Instead, one of the characters puts it quite succinctly: “Sex doesn’t mean you love him or that he loves you. People just do that. It’s sort of weird, actually.” Disability and queerness intertwine deeply with regards to sex and romance as well; particularly the ways society desexualizes disabled people and Skylar’s femininity as a GNC guy. I really appreciated the candid conversations about disability and desirability, making me think back to the times I’ve felt un-sexy when I go non-verbal from overstimulation, or how autistic folks are infantilized and what that’s done to my self-esteem in relationships.
Jacob’s character development focuses on his overcoming his biases and becoming an advocate (sometimes awkwardly). In the beginning, Jacob sees a separation between Skylar and the British-accented voice on his phone: “I find myself wishing I could hear his voice, like his actual voice, not his phone. As cute as he is, I bet it would be amazing.” We see the change slowly in Jacob as he realizes that Skylar’s AAC isn’t a burden or separate from him, the same way many abled people will say “I’m sorry” when someone uses a wheelchair, but other disabled people will see it as the freedom to move around painlessly. Most importantly, when Jacob and Skylar’s relationship experiences some turbulence, Jacob never stops advocating for Skylar’s causes and continues working with the local Pride Center to challenge the dress code that prevents Skylar from wearing skirts and dresses when he feels like it. Even Jacob’s friends at first are surprised to find out that he’s still making calls and participating when the issue doesn’t affect him directly, but then join him when they see it’s a cause he cares about.
While Jacob and Sky fall head-over-heels for each other relatively quickly, I wasn’t constantly lamenting about the obliviousness of the characters or their bad decisions, which was a relief. I know that I—and many readers/moviegoers—feel frustrated with friendship dynamics, like in Simon Versus the Homo Sapiens Agenda, in which the friends all turned against Simon for not coming out to them sooner. Instead, the friends in Every Word You Never Said stand in for the rationality of the reader at times. When they see Skylar making a bad decision, Imani and Seth gently tell him where he’s right and where he’s wrong, even though he wants them to wholeheartedly take his side. What I valued most was that Skylar’s supposed “overreaction” to conflict didn’t frustrate me—Greene makes the character’s backstory seamlessly lead up to this confrontation in which he realizes the extent of his abandonment and trauma. But this novel isn’t all struggle and conflict. Actually, it doesn’t even come close to being a “sad” book. While there are scenes of homophobia and ableism, there’s so much joy in this novel. The characters aren’t particularly witty—their teenage flirting is awkward and sweet, feeling much more natural than most Netflix high school dramas these days. We get to see everyday happiness: Skylar celebrating his birthday with his new family and friends, getting his first kiss in a corn maze, and a group of friends fawning over a bottle green dress that Skylar wants to wear to prom. We see Jacob carving out his own identity in his religious family, introducing Skylar to his favorite music, and even finding that he likes wearing skirts himself sometimes. For all the depressing LGBTQ+ YA I’ve read (especially in the late 2000s) it’s a joy to read the words: “I feel comfortable, and it’s been so long since I’ve been able to say that.”