Red, White, & Royal Blue meets The West Wing in Jasper Sanchez’s electric and insightful #ownvoices YA debut, chronicling a transmasculine student’s foray into a no-holds-barred student body president election against the wishes of his politician father. Optics can make or break an election. Everything Mark knows about politics, he learned from his father, the Congressman who still pretends he has a daughter and not a son. Mark has promised to keep his past hidden and pretend to be the cis guy everyone assumes he is. But when he sees a manipulatively charming candidate for student body president inflame dangerous rhetoric, Mark risks his low profile to become a political challenger. The problem? No one really knows Mark. He didn’t grow up in this town, and his few friends are all nerds. Still, thanks to Scandal and The West Wing, they know where to start: from campaign stops to voter polling to a fashion makeover. Soon Mark feels emboldened to engage with voters—and even start a new romance. But with an investigative journalist digging into his past, a father trying to silence him, and the bully frontrunner standing in his way, Mark will have to decide which matters most: perception or truth, when both are just as dangerous.
The (Un)Popular VoteFeatured
When he sees a fellow student being bullied for his queer identity and then forced by the administration to apologize for the resultant fight, Mark begins to question his hiding persona. When that student, Benji, writes a moving piece about why he won't apologize and why he shouldn't have to, Mark feels called to action. The school policies that allow hate speech and bullying but punish those that react to it need to be changed. After discussing with his BFF Jenny and his mother, Mark decides to run for school president, determined to make a change in unfair school policies and stand up for everyone who feels that they don't fit in at the school.
As he begins running, much to his congressman father's dismay, Mark will learn more about his classmates and himself than he ever could have expected.
What I loved: This book speaks to the soul, and the compelling characters and solid plot craft a story that needs to be heard. Mark felt so genuine, and he is dealing with the challenges of high school, the lack of acceptance from his father, and dynamics of friendships and relationships - while also running a campaign. The story is quite emotional at times (in the best way), but also manages to mix in some swoon and humor throughout.
I found the other characters to be well-developed and appreciated their inclusion and stories. Among Mark's French Club group (the informal GSA, since the GSA at their school is composed of only performative allies), there are some really memorable and delightful people who I would have loved getting to know even better. Of course, Mark's romantic interest certainly steals the heart, but I also adored Rachel and Nadia, who make a great power couple and have strong personalities and political prowess. Benji is also a compelling character who makes no apologies and embraces himself fully. Jenny and Pablo, Mark's BFFs, are also people I would love to get to know better. I feel like there could be some really awesome spinoff books from this one with these characters, as they were all people I would love to know more.
Beyond the themes mentioned above, there are some really important themes/discussions in the story that would make this a great pick for the classroom or for a book group. The book discusses coming out (the importance of it being unforced) and heteronormativity of it, the real meaning of allyship, the importance of safe spaces and acceptance for teens, the double standards for men/women in relationships, politics, and optics, privilege, and the power in being heard. Although some of these topics are brief, they are important and merit discussion. The book does a great job of discussing them as they come up. This ultimately ended up being an uplifting read that leaves the reader with hope - an ever-valuable commodity.
Final verdict: THE (UN)POPULAR VOTE is a charming, delightful, and important YA contemporary read that I absolutely adored. Highly recommend for fans of MORE THAN JUST A PRETTY FACE, JAY'S GAY AGENDA, and RED, WHITE, AND ROYAL BLUE.