Tremendous Things

  • Susin Nielsen
  • Tundra, 2021

Susin Nielsen knows a thing or two about writing for and about teen audiences. Tremendous Things delivers exactly what one might expect from this veteran author: an awkward protagonist (Wil), an unattainable love interest, and the awful awareness of growing up different from one’s peers. There are numerous cringe-inducing moments, leavened by comedy and dramatic irony.

Readers meet Wilbur Nuñez-Knopf through his narration of one of his Defining Moments, an act of personal exploration that becomes acutely embarrassing and follows him for years. For readers, Wil is a lovable loser; for his peers, Wil is just a loser — but a loser who slowly figures out how to make friends with people his own age. In the present tense of the novel, Wil is finding his way through high school, romantic relationships, and appearance management. A character describes Wil as “tenacious, or oblivious, or both” and I had to agree. Readers watch Wil grow somewhat in the novel, but in much the same way as Wil is fated to have to grow into his looks, he still has a long way to go to grow into the person the author has written him to be.

On first reading, one can’t help but be charmed by the loser-comes-out-right plot. The late twists in the story add depth to what might otherwise feel like a formulaic arc. But on reflection, there is a great deal to tease out of the story. The representation of Wil’s mothers, Wil’s friendship with a grandfather figure, and Wil’s boundless emotional openness, as just a few examples, have left me with a great deal to ponder. Chances are, teens and adults will have very different readings of this novel — but that’s valuable, I believe, and may keep this novel relevant for longer than most other YA books.

Anyone who loves a story about a goodhearted misfit should enjoy this novel. It’s funny and at times moving — and it certainly delivers on its repeated observation “What a marvel life is.”

Tremendous Things is now available in paperback.