I read Me and Earl and the Dying Girl by Jesse Andrews over a year ago, but I’m writing about it now, because I was required to watch the film adaptation for an English class. I know. In an English class I was required to watch the movie instead of read the book. It was good though, since we had to write predictions on what we thought the movie was going to be about, and I got out of reading mine aloud since I had read the book. Ha! Yes! Most of these observations are from the movie, not the book.
The Me in Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is Greg. He is “friends” with everyone at his high school, but his only real friend is Earl, who he makes movies with. Greg’s mom makes him visit a girl named Rachel, because she was diagnosed with leukemia. A friendship forms, and Greg and Earl plan on making a movie for Rachel. I realize this sounds like a sad book, and it is. However, it is also a funny book, so you should read it.
The theme of my English class is “Place and Belonging”, and after seeing the film, we had to write a response that dealt with place and topofilia (which means love of place). At the beginning of the story, both Greg and Rachel struggle to find a place for themselves. Greg, like most of us at his age, is uncomfortable in his placement in high school. At the beginning of the film, Greg has established himself in the space of the high school as everyone’s friend. When his place in the social ladder changes, he is uncomfortable. However, at the end of the film, Greg develops topofilia towards Rachel’s bedroom. I do not remember if this scene was in the book, but in the movie, the camera circles around Rachel’s bedroom and we notice minor details, which show who Rachel was, as a person. The movement of the camera is Greg noticing little things about the room. For example, he notices that Rachel has drawn squirrels jumping through her tree wall paper. He notices that the books are cut up into little sculptures. He notices scissors hanging on the wall. All of these things connect back to Rachel, as a person.
Many YA stories create belonging for characters because it is often their goal to fit in. Stories tend to begin with a misfit, and end with that misfit finding a place in the world. In this story, Greg is that misfit. He makes himself likable to all the groups of the school, but he doesn’t really belong to any of them. He finds belonging in his friendships with Rachel and Earl.
Other stories begin with a person who already feels a sense of belonging, but it is interrupted by a life-changing event. Rachel exemplifies this. She has a group of friends, Borign Jewish Senior Girls, Subgroup 2A, and her mom. When she is diagnosed with leukemia, her place of belonging diminishes. She is no longer able to attend school, so she loses belonging in her group of friends. She does, however, find belonging in her friendship with Greg, which was not there before she was diagnosed. Rachel, in her placement as a high school student, had always intended on going to prom and to college, but her cancer makes these things impossible. Rachel’s leukemia stripped her of most of her belonging.
Earl has belonging within Greg’s family. He is always taking their food. He has place among his friendship with Greg and their film making. He has a placement, as well, in his teacher’s office where he eats lunch with Greg. However, unlike Rachel and Greg, Earl seems to be more aware of who he is, and seems to be more comfortable with his placement in the world despite his family circumstances.
Another example of YA literature with both of these tropes is in The Mortal Instruments series. When Clary finds out she is a shadowhunter, she loses her place of belonging in the mundane world. Then she becomes a misfit in the shadowhunter world, but eventually finds a place in her new life.