“Your New School Library” is a column of book reviews that highlight the expanding role of lesbian, bisexual, transgender and strong female characters in literature for children and young adults today. Once a month, we tell you about books that help young girls be awesome.
When I started this column, I had read a decent amount of queer lit for teens in the past and was excited about it mainly in terms of visibility, in terms of books being a support structure for teens.
But I have to say, the quality of literature I’ve continued to read each month far surpasses what I had read before, what I even predicted I would get to review for this series. It is such a delight. And I know there are even more books, books that are around now and books that are on their way, that I’ll get to read and review, and even more importantly, that youth will get to read and relate to and laugh and cry with.
And I am just so excited.
The Difference Between You And Me, Madeleine George, Viking/Penguin (2012)
Photo courtesy of Penguin Group
This book starts with a manifesto written by our dear protagonist Jesse, demanding justice for all “weirdos, freaks, queer kids, revolutionaries, nerds, dweebs, misfits, loudmouths” and many others, along with declaring that “Normalcy is death!” and “Weirdness is life!”
In other words, I knew I was going to like this book.
As the title implies, the plot centers around two very different main characters, with chapters alternating between each of their points of view. Jesse is our idealistic radical, the out dyke who cuts her own hair with a Swiss Army knife and believes that her manifestos can, and must, change the oppressive culture of her high school. Emily is the opposite of all that Jesse stands for — she wears pink cashmere sweaters, has the perfect boyfriend, runs student-council with an iron fist and believes in things like pep rallies.
The one thing they have in common is that they both really, really like making out with each other once a week in a neglected library bathroom.
We need to pause and focus on this making out for a moment. Because this secret bathroom kissing is SO GOOD! I could have read about Jesse and Emily kissing all the live-long day. Allow me to type up this whole paragraph for you because I just want to read it over and over again.
(You should know, first, that this description is even better when you understand how wound-up of a young lady Emily Miller is. She is one of those teenage girls who strive for perfection so ardently that it is almost hard to watch, who is always prepared with a game plan and a dazzling smile. Yet when she kisses Jesse, this is what happens):
When Jesse Halberstam kisses me, she’s really focused and really intense. She puts her hands on the sides of my face to hold me where she wants me, or she winds her fingers up in my hair and tugs it tight, and somehow, just by the way she touches me, she makes my mouth open, she makes my eyes close, she makes me breathe faster and faster until I feel dizzy and I think I might black out. Sometimes when she’s kissing me, I swear to God, the edges of my body melt and I become sort of part of her. Sometimes when she kisses me I forget my own name.
It’s not just that the connection between these two girls in these scenes feels so electric, it’s that they also feel so authentic in a deep, gut-level way — all of which must be attributed to the way George so expertly crafts these characters. Even though their attraction to each other seems to make no sense, you believe in the feelings they have for each other in an acute, true way. It’s not simply an opposites-attract deal, the allure of the different; it was, as Emily described “a soul connection.” Admittedly, “soul connection” might seem like a corny phrase, but once you get to know Emily and Jesse, it fits. And if you’ve ever felt a soul connection with someone, someone who doesn’t seem to make sense, yet this thing is just there — well, then you’ll get it.
And then, StarMart shows up.
StarMart is a mega-box-store retailer who’s threatening to move into Jesse and Emily’s quaint town, and Jesse — who has ended up befriending our third main character, Esther, a true pacifist and activist — becomes part of a full-scale protest against their corporate encroachment. Emily, meanwhile, has landed an internship at their headquarters, and is just so, so excited about scoring a sponsorship deal with them for the school dance this year! (They will finally get to have all the good snacks!)
I also have to mention that while she is not as important to the plot as Emily and Jesse, I. Love. Esther. She is one of those high school outcasts who’s so focused on her passions that she doesn’t even realize, nor care, what an outcast she is. She is also obsessed — and I mean obsessed — with Joan of Arc. Basically, she is a dream. Her purpose in the novel — other than making me laugh out loud — is to show that while she should also be Jesse’s dream girl, you really can’t choose who you fall in love with, sometimes.
Emily and Jesse’s differing politics finally become personal with StarMart, and they are forced to confront things they have become experts at ignoring. Both of them must weigh their hearts versus their brains, and decide, once and for all, if the differences between them are too wide to cross.
I cannot recommend this book enough. Great kissing, great characters, great political and cultural messages, humor and heartbreak — it all works, and was truly a joy to read. Bravo, Madeleine George, Bravo.