Written by Alyssa Jingling
I can’t tell you which Shakespeare play I read first, or if I liked David Foster Wallace or Carson McCullers better at sixteen. When I was fourteen or so, I spent long, blissful hours in my middle school library. I had already read every John Green book I could find, so I was pretty much over YA lit.
Then I discovered Libba Bray.
Filled to the brim with diverse characters and storylines, I devoured every single one of her novels. I remember relating so easily to her characters, and finding her writing style easy to follow, yet still mature enough for me to feel like a big kid. I can still picture in my head exactly where she’s located in my local Half Price Books. Fun fact about Libba: she’s a Longhorn!
She’s also a young adult author.
The first of her books that I read was The Diviners, a thick, moody looking novel that had sat prettily on my library’s “new books” shelf. I must confess, I don’t really remember the plot of it. However, I do remember that one of the boys in the book was gay and that another character got an abortion. This was the first time I read a boy explain that he liked another boy. Though not a revolutionary concept for me, Libba definitely helped normalize same gender relationships. It was also one of the first times that an abortion was described to me, and when I understood how dangerous and terrifying the practice is when it’s illegal (as it was in New York City in the ‘20s, when the book is set). I’m glad I was able to sit and think about these topics in the context of a novel—they were painted realistically, but I still interacted with them within the safety of a fictional world.
I’m not going to lie, the whole thing is horribly cheesy. It’s satire on steroids, and it should be too over the top to work. But for a 12 year old? It was hilarious. More importantly, it was meaningful.
What was revolutionary to me came in another one of Libba’s books, Beauty Queens. I was excited to learn that it’s basically Lord of the Flies, but with girls. Essentially, a plane full of beauty pageant contestants crashes on an island, and the girls all have to figure out how to survive by working together. For a book with such a large ensemble of characters, each and every one is—get this—not like the other girls. Nearly every girl breaks the cookie cutter White-And-Straight-And-Pretty character we typically see, and we also get the opportunity to empathize with them as they struggle with the marginalized parts of their identities. How great it must be for a bisexual teenager to not only see herself reflected in a character in a book, but also see that a badass, I-can-compete-in-pageants-and-survive-on-an-island bisexual girl also struggles with understanding herself. Or a girl of color from the United States reading that she’s not alone in feeling stuck between the dominantly white, American culture and the culture of her parents.
In true coming-of-age style, the girls fight and form bonds, and each one discovers more about themselves as they get to know the other characters. I’m not going to lie, the whole thing is horribly cheesy. It’s satire on steroids, and it should be too over the top to work. But for a 12 year old? It was hilarious. More importantly, it was meaningful.
The scene that stood out to me most was when the girls are sitting around their campfire chatting after dinner, and Miss Montana went on a rant about how angry she gets. Afterwards she apologized, which led to Miss Colorado’s anti-apologizing lecture:
“‘Why do girls always feel like they have to apologise for giving an opinion or taking up space in the world? Have you ever noticed that?’” Nicole asked. ‘You go on websites and some girl leaves a post and if it’s longer than three sentences or she’s expressing her thoughts about some topic, she usually ends with, ‘Sorry for the rant’ or ‘That may be dumb, but that’s what I think.’”
This was my first foray into feminist literature. Okay, so the book doesn’t compare to those of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi or Virginia Woolf, but for me, it was step one.
I still think about that passage frequently, eight years later. All the time, I find myself apologizing for things that aren’t my fault. I notice it in my friends, too. I’ll ask someone how they’re doing, and they’ll tell me everything that went wrong in their day, and then they’ll end it with, “But I’m fine, sorry.” Every time that phrase comes up in conversation with a girl (and it’s really only with girls), I want to shove this book in their face. But can I? I’m an English major (and trust me, I don’t shut up about it). Shouldn’t I recommend Charlotte Perkins Gillman instead?
In college, I have found that if a book isn’t by a dead white man or hasn’t been critiqued by James Wood, it’s typically not read. Young adult novels on the class syllabus? No way.
Well, James can take his hysterical realism in postermodernism and shove it. Give me diverse characters. Rick Riordan gave us a gay Nico DiAngelo in the Percy Jackson books. Jenny Han gave us an Asian family featured front and center in To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before. Marissa Meyer gave us The Lunar Chronicles series, which features disabled and non-white characters. Lisa Williamson gave us a trans teen in The Art of Being Normal. And almost as a hallmark of the genre, so many young adult books provide smart and strong women as main characters.
While I may think that a lot of young adult novels have either overly simplistic or overly complex plots, I also think that Hemingway couldn’t write a plot to save his life, so maybe it’s a valid critique. Besides, isn’t the effectiveness or quality of a plot part of literary discussion? What makes these books less worthy of our time and education? These novels provided the basis for my desire to understand every unique identity with which I interact. It is every bit as beneficial to discuss the merits of the characterization and vocabulary used in young adult literature as it is to discuss them in Victorian literature.
Let’s bring more young adult literature into academic discussion. Not only will we bring more diverse characters into Parlin, we will have more books to bring home to our little siblings, cousins, nieces and nephews. Together, we can foster a young community that excitedly devours and gushes over these diverse books. Soon, more and more young adult authors will write more and more diverse characters, and maybe we’ll finally have books that reflect our world.
Sorry Not sorry for the rant.