The problem of relationship (and girls) in YA lit, plus 5 of my favorite titles
|Check out the series About the Girl over at Stacked|
If you read enough YA lit, you might start to come to a few interesting conclusions:
1. Teens only have 1 relationship, romantic ones. Especially if you are a teenage girl.
2. Relationships only have one goal, which is sex. For some reason, as Cory Ann Haydu mentions here, a large number of YA books (never all) focus on romantic relationships that accelerate quickly from kissing to sex.
But what about all the other relationships in our lives?
If you read this blog enough, you know that one of my favorite books ever is Guitar Notes by Mary Amato. Primarily because it is a book about a boy and a girl who are not romantically involved. It’s possible that if Amato were going to write a sequel they could head in that direction, but they don’t have to (and that honestly is the sequel I would like to read).
Sometimes, if you are lucky, there are friends that become boyfriend and girlfriend in very organic and realistic ways, like in books such as The Sweetest Thing (Christina Mandelski) and Until It Hurts to Stop (Jennifer R. Hubbard), which also has a strong female friendship in it as well and has a female engaged in a nontraditional activity (hiking, mountain climbing).
But the truth is, we – people – are all about a wide variety of relationships. We have families, parents. Many of us have siblings. We have friends. We have enemies. Sometimes we are in romantic relationships and sometimes we aren’t. And yes, some teens have sex, but not all of them do. And sometimes we go through a really long process before we even think about getting to sex. Relationships are complex.
My favorite high school memory involves a new relationship with a boy named Kenny. I don’t remember how we met, but he was my first real boyfriend and I was a senior in high school. Yep, a senior. I was scared and didn’t know what I was doing and we hadn’t even held hands yet. He was on the track team. One day after school a group of our friends were hanging around and Kenny had just finished track practice. He was exhausted and sweaty. And as we all sat there and talked, without even thinking, he just leaned back in his chair and grabbed my hand. It was like, in that moment his guard was down, and he just did what seemed to come naturally to him. It is many years later and I can still remember vividly every detail of that moment. Every thing I thought, every thing I felt, and the slow, casual, exhausted way he just leaned back and gently grabbed my hand while he talked to his friends. We dated for 18 months and of all the moments that happened between us, this is the most vivid and the most significant. It spoke volumes about his feelings. It was, in a word, beautiful. Simple, meaningful, and beautiful. Okay, that’s 3 words.
The rest of my teenage years were dominated primarily by friends, including two best friends that I had who were boys and never once did we ever discuss those friendships being anything more than that. In fact, one of them went on to marry my post-high school roommate (and we are still friends).
When I was in the 11th grade, my best friend, a girl, died in a car accident. My junior year was overshadowed by the process of mourning and the sometimes guilt I felt in the wake of that loss. No romance happening there.
My point is this, we do our teens a disservice when we continue to act as if romantic relationships are the end all be all of life, that they are the only relationships that matter. I am now married to my best friend, and have been for 18 years, but I am also a mother, a daughter, a friend . . . those relationships are important to me too. They are important to the ins and out of who I am as a person, how I choose to spend my time, and the issues that I wrestle with in my dreams at night. People are multi-faceted, including teens. We need more stories that represent the dimensionality of life and the various ways that we define and attach ourselves. Which is why as a reviewer, I am always awarding bonus points to books that highlight different types of relationships, put an emphasis on including family members, or acknowledge that life is about more than falling in and out of love, etc. Sometimes you want a good love story, and I get that, but we need stories with dimension. This is what I keep thinking about as read the ongoing series at Stacked on ABOUT THE GIRLS (there is lots of good discussion going on there, check it out.) So I thought I would contribute a post. It’s okay, she invited us to.
Because here’s the deal, I want teen girls to know that life is about more than romance. That they have other goals. That they can and should have other meaningful relationships. That they are not defined by whether or not a boy loves them in that way.
So here are 5 of my favorite YA titles and the reasons why . . .
The Lynburn Legacy from Sarah Rees Brennan (Book 1 is Unspoken)
This has such a tremendously fun female friendship. Both girls are strong, confident, realistic, supportive, etc. It is such a positive example of both female characters and a female friendship. Also, I laughed out loud throughout the entire thing.
Guitar Notes by Mary Amato
This is a male/female relationship that shows growth with the characters inspiring and sometimes challenging each other to be more honest with themselves (and their families) without necessarily resorting to romance. Plus, it is perfectly clean and can be read by anyone, and that really does matter to some people and I respect that.
Death, Dickinson and the Demented Life of Frenchie Garcia by Jenny Torres Sanchez
Frenchie Garcia is a very depressed young lady, on the verge of graduating high school and unclear as to what her future holds. She has a male and a female friend who, at times, have a hard time understanding Frenchie’s extreme depression. But you know what, they come through time and time again for her. The relationships in this book are challenged, strained, and realistic.
Fire and Flood by Victoria Scott
When we first meet Tella, we see her in the context of her family. She is there, with a very sick brother, and we see that relationship. Then she makes a decision, she enters a desperate race for a cure. Here, she makes allies (think Survivor) and those relationships are very interesting. I was particularly struck by her relationship by a fellow female competitor who becomes her ally and the choices that they make. I also like this story because Tella is a very realistic portrayal of a typical teenage girl. Sometimes she is capable in this race but often she is not, which is in keeping with her character. And sometimes she just wants to go home and get a good manicure. I like that she is what we consider traditionally feminine and yet still strong.
I gave this title a mixed review, which I sometimes regret because I love the contemporary element of this title so much. But I DO love the relationships in this book between Isadora and both her female friend Tyler (as well as Tyler’s relationship with her boyfriend Scott) and her first friends than maybe something more relationship with Ry. In fact Ry very clearly tells her that you can’t actually be in a happy relationship unless you are happy with yourself first. You can read my full review here.
I know I said five, but I want to give a shout out to Going Vintage (Lindsay Leavitt) which examines some cool sibling relationship dynamics and has a great relationship between a female and her beloved grandmother. I am also a huge fan of This Song Will Save Your Life (Leila Sales) for its leading lady engaged in an under-represented passion – DJing – and the female relationships depicted in it.
We are more than the romantic men in our lives. And romance is about more than sex. So our books should be too. I am really enjoying the discussions in this series. Thanks for letting me add my two cents and sharing some of my favorites.
About Karen Jensen, MLS
Karen Jensen has been a Teen Services Librarian for almost 30 years. She created TLT in 2011 and is the co-editor of The Whole Library Handbook: Teen Services with Heather Booth (ALA Editions, 2014).
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