Teenage dreams (or beautiful nightmares)

It will come as a surprise to no one that I have recently read a lot of YA fiction that I’ve really loved. This has been my perpetual state of being for the past fifteen years, since I first started hanging out with Georgia and Elizabeth and Cassandra and my thousand other best friends.

But with the three I read most recently, in quick succession, I hit a particularly rich vein of kickass feminism.

This was a happy accident, and a product of the fact that there are a lot of really brilliant exciting authors writing YA fiction at the moment, rather than any deliberate thematic planning on my part. I chose each of them because I’d loved something else written by the same author. They’re all very different, stylistically and plot-wise, but what they all have in common is a main character who I absolutely totally 100% believed in, navigating the complex and often terrible things that teenage girls have to go through.  

The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart (because of We Were Liars)

This was an unexpected delight. We Were Liars is creepy and unsettling and deeply sad. TDHOFLB is sparkly and sparky and witty and wry and funny and fierce – like its heroine.

Who’s our girl? The titular Frankie: newly beautiful, outspoken, smart, nerdy, Jewish, fond of Wodehousian wordplay. 

What’s she navigating? Alabaster Academy: a patriarchal microcosm where a secret society of jockish boys – including her super hot super rich boyfriend – ostensibly rule. Except they’re not worthy of the power, so she takes them down from the inside out.

Feminism, you say? Oh, Frankie. I love you so. Maybe some girls wake up one morning as fully formed feminists, but I suspect most get there like I did: one annoyance at a time. Frankie has had an enormous crush on Matthew Livingston since the start of her freshman year – and she’s suddenly stopped being invisible to him. What a thrill. When you’re fifteen and the older boy you’ve liked forever likes you back! I REMEMBER. There is nothing like it.

But he consistently underestimates her. He belittles her and neglects her and dismisses her. Not through cruelty or malice, but through thoughtless complacent privilege. She’s younger and more female, so she counts for less. Just the way of the world.

And she takes it and takes it and takes it, until – kitten step by kitten step – she doesn’t anymore. Because being a hot boy’s girlfriend is so much less fun than being Alabaster Academy’s top dog. No more spoilers: go read it.

Am I Normal Yet? by Holly Bourne (because of The Manifesto On How To Be Interesting)

American YA can be brilliant, but British YA feels like home. And Holly Bourne’s teenagers are so familiar to me that it’s like reading an old diary. (Although not one of my actual old diaries, as they almost exclusively chronicle my apparently indiscriminate litany of crushes on basically every boy in Jersey. Are you a boy I knew as a teenager? Then yes, you are in there).

Who’s our girl? Evie: sixteen, smart, starting college, and full of secrets. Doing everything in her power not to let her new friends discover that she has OCD and anxiety, and determinedly reducing her medication levels so that she can decree herself “normal”.

What’s she navigating? Mental health issues, obvs. But also the strangeness and pain of outgrowing old friends, the challenge of defining your not-a-girl-not-yet-a-woman sense of self, the abject fuckwittery of a certain type of teenage boy, and all sorts of other teen universalities. 

Feminism, you say? Where Frankie’s feminism is an implicit awakening, Evie’s is explicit and deliberate – and wonderful, for it. With her friends Lottie and Amber, she reclaims the word “spinster” and builds a safe space to talk about feminism in a straightforward and often hilarious way.  Can you be a feminist and still obsessed with a stupid boy? (Yes). Can you be a feminist and still want to eat chocolate when you’re sad? (Yes). Aren’t periods crap? (Yes – and exponentially more so when you’re struggling with OCD).

The book is teachy without being preachy, and is full of characters you’ll root for. Again: go read it.

Asking For It by Louise O’Neill (because of Only Ever Yours)

Louise O’Neill won the inaugural UK YA Prize earlier this year – and deservedly so. Only Ever Yours is a bleak, horribly imaginable dystopia which has stayed with me since reading it. So I wasn’t anticipating jolly japes from this novel – but I also wasn’t anticipating quite how brutal it would be.

Who’s our girl? Emma. Gosh, where to start? Emma is really difficult to like. She’s selfish, manipulative, vain, arrogant, cruel, jealous – but she’s also naïve, and oh so very very very real. I feel like I knew so many girls like Emma, especially when I moved to an all-girls school for sixth form. 

What’s she navigating? Rape. Gang rape, with photographic evidence shared on Facebook.

Feminism, you say? Let’s be clear: Emma is not a feminist. Not even, I think, by the end of the novel – despite everything she has been through. But Louise O’Neill is. And she’s not going to let you look away from this.

As I said, Emma’s not a sympathetic character. Early in the story, she actively dissuades a friend from calling her own rapist out. And on the day she’s raped, Emma does everything nice girls don’t do. She comes on to another girl’s boyfriend. She wears a super skimpy dress, and is unconcerned when she flashes the party. She drinks; she takes drugs. She actively pursues sex. She’s horrible to other girls she perceives as a threat. 

And none of that makes the rape her fault. 

She doesn’t magically become likeable after the assault, either. She remains a very challenging character to have at the centre of the story. I felt deeply sad and angry for her, but never once wanted her to be my friend. 

Despite that, though, I recognised her. She is one of the most authentic characters I have ever encountered in any fiction, YA or otherwise. Asking For It is incisive, horribly real, and completely uncompromising. I didn’t enjoy it, but I thought it was brilliant and important. It should be taught in schools. For a third time, I say: go read it. 

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