Teen Librarian Toolbox
Inside Teen Librarian Toolbox

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.

The Chaos of Stars by Kiersten White

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.

Friday Finds – July 12, 2013

This Week at TLT:

Taking teen patrons to a conference and SURVIVING – read about Heather’s tips and learn from her experience.

Christie and Karen each give their ALA 2013 highlights (they stalked a lot of awesome authors!)

Read up on the Free Comic Book Day panel Karen and Christie took part in at ALA 2013. Learn Christie’s new catchphrase!

Catch up with Part 2 of Robin’s series on How to Tumblr.

Christie gives us a peek at some this Fall’s most anticipated new titles.

A book review leads to Karen’s committment to call out unhealthy relationships portrayed as ideal in YA.

The Neptune Project gets the Teen Program in a Box treatment by the author herself! Find out more about Polly Holyoke.

Previously on TLT:

Because No Always Means No: a list of titles dealing with rape and sexual harassment.

Around the Web:

There’s been a lot of discussion in the Twitterverse this week on the inclusion of violence in Young Adult literature. For context, read this Storify of Patrick Ness’ initial comments.

And here is the article to which he refers.

And a previous list of books Patrick Ness recommends that many people believe are ‘unsuitable’ for teens.

Sunday Reflections: How Twitter is teaching us not to judge

When Eleanor from Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell, with her out of control curly red hair and poor, holey clothes covered in scraps of cloth, first steps on the bust at her new school, the teens immediately judge her and deem her unworthy.  They then go on to torment and bully her.  When Meg shows up at her 6th school in one year in The Rules for Disappearing by Ashley Elston, her hair newly dyed and cut in an unflattering way, she too is judged by many to be unworthy and thus tormented.  It is, in fact, an all too common scenario in our schools.  Those who are deemed different, for whatever reason, are cast out or, worse, bullied.

Twitter, however, is a different universe.  On Twitter, you often get to know a person (in a way) before you know what they look like.  Yes, you have an Avatar, but a lot of the time it is not a self portrait but a book cover, your dog, a fainting goat.  You can talk to someone over and over again before you have any idea what they look like.  It removes outward appearances from the first, second, and even third impressions.  Is Twitter teaching us not to judge a person by the way they look?

I follow very few “famous” people on Twitter (Joss Whedon, Nathan Fillion, Felicia Day and Will Wheaton).  I hang out on Twitter because it has a very rich book and library community.  We talk about books, the issues in books, library issues and programming.  A lot of the people I follow either have their library building, their blog logos or their book covers as their bio/avatar pic.  I often have no idea what these people look like, but it doesn’t matter because we have learned that we share a passion for the same things, have similar politics sometimes (or not but we can handle it as adults), and really, we just want to talk about books.

There are many things to laud about Twitter, and some definite things to question, but I can’t help but wonder what it would be like in the lives of our teens if we could remove that knee jerk need to judge other based on their outer appearance.  That element has been removed from Twitter and I think it would be an interesting social experiment to see how kids would respond in the schools.

One of my Twitter pics.  This is not me.

To some extent, school uniforms are an attempt to minimize this issue.  My Tween goes to a school with uniforms, has for the past 2 years, and I can see ways in which it has been effective in leveling the playing field.  But the truth is, you can still mark your social status by the shoes you wear, the accessories you choose, or by the backpack you carry, for example.  And of course, people like Eleanor could never hid their hair behind a school uniform.  Nor do they cover disabilities.

But what if before a new student came to a school or class we read a letter of introduction out loud to the class, a version of Twitter if you will, allowing students to hear personality before seeing a teen.  Would that change their perception and welcoming of a new student?  Would that make them more open to give someone a chance?

My current Twitter pic/avatar.  This is me.

And let’s not pretend that Twitter is a level playing field, because it is not.  After a while on Twitter you learn that you must develop a persona, it is a type of branding.  There is a greater propensity for witty and snarky on Twitter. But f you spend enough time on Twitter, you can’t help but let real moments of truth, real glimpses of you, bleed through the social feed.  You will say that you are sick and let yourself be vulnerable, there will be an issue that is just to important to you to not speak your mind, you will complain about your family or your friends, you will talk about what your eating.  And of course, when we talk about the books we love – or hate – we are revealing parts of ourselves.  So while Twitter is not an authentic portrait of self, it is also not a complete misrepresentation of self (in most cases).  This is true when forming any new relationship.  When I was dating my husband, he presented his best persona and I did the same.  It was over time that we began to see each other in a variety of situations and got to authentically know each other.  Twitter is like the early stages of any relationship, you are showing a side of yourself, but not the whole story.  However, it is still creating a social phenomenon where people are forming relationships based on personality and interests first, often without even knowing what the other person truly looks like.

I think it would be an interesting experiment for a class to create Twitter accounts without actual pictures.  Have each student tweet for a specified period of time.  Then, see if the students can determine who each Twitter handle is.  Some of the interesting discussions we could have would be:

Were the students easily able to identify each of their classmates based on their words, tone, interests, etc. without a picture?  Were they surprised by any, why or why not?

Did your time spent with your classmates on Twitter change your perceptions of any of your classmates?

Did you feel more or less like you could be yourself when the concern over physical appearance and representation is removed?

Some of the people I have met have turned into genuine, IRL friends.  In fact, most of the people who work with me on this blog I met via the Internet, have now met and spend time with in real life, and I love them dearly.  I don’t know that some of them would have given me a chance if they would have seen more before they got to know me.  Not because they are shallow and mean spirited people, but because we are enculturated in certain ways.  I believe that perhaps Twitter is changing the culture.  Sometimes for good.

Girl Meets Boy, Boy Stalks Girl (Book Review: Falling for You by Lisa Schroeder)

This will not be your ordinary book review, because I need to talk to you about not only my thoughts as a librarian, but as a reader.  Read the whole review, because this was quite the reading journey and my initial reaction changed drastically as I read on.

If you follow me on Twitter (@tlt16), you know that I initially wanted to throw this book across the room and walk away.  You see, Falling for You is the story of Rae.  Rae comes from an extremely dysfunctional home but is presented as a strong, though guarded, young woman.  Then she meets Nathan, the new boy in school.  Nathan is intense, alarming. From day 1, Nathan sends alarm signals to those in the know; getting into a relationship with Nathan is a really bad idea – and Rae seems too smart for that (edited to add: please see the great discussion in the comments where I clarify this statement).  This was my initial Tweet:

The very next day, Nathan and Rae are eating pizza.  “A supreme?”, he asks.  But no, Rae doesn’t like onions.  “You can just pick them off,” Nathan replies.  He dominates the conversation.  He kisses. A lot.  He suggests she deletes all the other guys out of her cell phone.  He pressures her, often, to have sex in ways that are emotionally manipulative and sometimes terrifying.  I hated Nathan, but then you’re supposed to.  But more importantly, it didn’t seem like Rae was the type of girl to fall into this trap.  It seemed like really inconsistent character writing.

So, I was torn.  But then Heather, who is reviewing this title for Booklist so look for her review, told me to keep reading it.  I respect Heather, her opinion, so read on I did. And I AM SO GLAD THAT I LISTENED TO HER. Why?

See, Rae tells her friends that she is worried by Nathan’s behavior.  And, as it devolves into scary stalker soon to be abusive territory, her friends see it too and back her up.  For once, we have a strong though flawed teenage girl noticing the signs of an abusive relationship and trying to get herself out of the situation.  What a powerful message to girls, you can get out.  We know that statistically most girls will leave something like 7 times before they leave for the last time, Rae does slip at one point.  We also know that leaving an abusive relationship is one of the most dangerous times for women because these types of men don’t like losing control.  But that particular fact isn’t really shown in Rae’s relationship with Nathan, but in her mom’s relationship with her stepfather Dean.  An entirely different plot point, an equally heartbreaking.  Rae’s mom makes a revealation that very realistically depicts domestic violence.

A Rae of Sunshine

Although the cover sells it that way, Falling for You is not really simply a book about obsessive love.  Falling for You is really the story of Rae, a young girl trying to find herself and find happiness in a world that has definitely dealt her a crappy hand.  Rae is a realistic teenage girl; she is me, she is the girl you pass in the hallways at school. Even while her mother ignores her and her stepfather spirals out of control, there are people in her life that genuinely love and support her.  In fact, one of the closing themes of Falling for You is the idea of family: 

As I took it all in, three pairs of eyes reached out to me. And what I saw in my friends’ faces surprised me. . . And in that moment, I realized family isn’t necessarily who you live with. (page 339)

A Kindness Revolution with a Dab of Poetry

I won’t get into the details, but another significant part of the story are some random acts of kindness that an anonymous person sends Rae on through her job at a florist.  While making deliveries, Rae meets various strangers who touch her life in a variety of ways.  At the same time, Rae begins sharing her poetry in the school newspaper.  Although she does so at first anonymously, she eventually chooses to put her name on her poems and encourages her fellow students to be open about who they really are.  There is some great discussion here about how the social expectation has come to be that we must always be “on”, and in those moments of dishonesty, we rob ourselves of the chance to truly connect with one another.  The message is sometimes preachy, but it is spot on and important.

In the End, I Shed Tears

Falling for You turned out to be such an uplifting story, inspiring.  What at first seemed like inconsistent character issues turned out to be a compelling arc of a young woman coming into her own.  And I was thankful for those moments of insight that Rae shared, those moments where she recognized her neediness and questioned what she was doing.  Rae was strong but flawed, a very realistic depiction.  Rae is relateable.  Rae is real.

The Storytelling

I want to take a moment to share one other element that I think made this a strong story; because, although at the times the story gets preachy, it has a strong storytelling style that keeps you invested.  We begin with a very vague scene in the hospital, where you realize that something has happened to someone, something horrible and tragic.  Then the book itself is divided into sections: 5 months before, 4 months before, 3 months before, 1 month before, the day before.  In between each section is another ominous hospital scene.  You know something bad has happened, but you have no idea what.  At the same time, you see the elements of both Rae’s relationship with Nathan and her stepfather spiraling out of control.  Either one of them is a candidate for having done something to Rae, and you want to know what happened and who did it.  It is a very taut stortytelling mechanism, it keeps readers turning the page.

And Then There Was Leo

There are several rays of light in Rae’s life, but one of my favorites is her friend Leo.  Leo is, simply stated, a good guy.  He’s the type of guy you want your teens to date (if they must date – can’t they wait until they’re 30 LOL).  He isn’t shiny and dazzling and perfect.  He is real. A lot of times the boys in teen fiction are “hot” and “swoony”, setting some unrealistic expectations in readers and setting up guy readers to make unrealistic self comparisons.  I wonder often how these depictions of guys must make readers feel about themselves just like I wonder how some of the covers make girls feel about themselves.  And then there was Leo, the perfect guy not because he is in fact perfect, but because he is perfectly real and perfectly nice.

This was my final Tweet:

There are a lot of elements to this book, and in the end they come together to inspire.  I am pretty sure at the end my heart grew 3 sizes, Grinchlike.  And on a personal note, I loved Rae’s obsession with the Foo Fighters (who rock!), her love of poetry (there are poems scattered throughout), and the fact that books and libraries are mentioned in positive ways.  Falling for You is not perfect, but in the end it is perfectly heartwarming.  In the midst of the pages there is also a simply wonderful love story, it’s just a bumpy road for Rae to get there.  People online seem to be having very mixed and strong reactions, as I definitely did in the beginning, but your teens will LOVE this book.  I think this is a really important, inspiring books that we need in our collections.  And the cover rocks, teens will check it out. 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Falling for You by Lisa Schroeder. Published in January 2013 by Simon Pulse. ISBN: 978-1-4424-6121-5.