“Your New School Library“ is a new column of book reviews that will highlight the expanding role of lesbian, bisexual, transgender and strong female characters in literature for children and young adults today. Once a month, we’ll tell you about books that help young girls be awesome.
January is an exciting (read: excitingly nerdy) month for youth literature, when the American Library Association’s Youth Media Awards are announced along with a spew of other “Best Of” lists which highlight quality literature from the previous year.
Before I get to my book reviews for the month, allow me a minute to gush about these. Because even while these lists and awards can’t cover every important book published each year, they are important. The recognition of these books helps youth figure out what to read, tells librarians what they should have on their shelves, and gives a head-up to publishers about what they should keep in print. They’re also a well-deserved, “Hey, you’re awesome” for authors who are awesome and are not told they’re awesome enough.
More simply, awards are fun and talking about them is fun so let’s get to it.
The Stonewall Award for excellence in queer literature has included a Children’s & Young Adult division since 2010. This year there were four honor books in addition to the winner, Bil Wright’s Putting Makeup on the Fat Boy. Out of those five books, only one, Lili Wilkinson’s Pink, involved a female-centered tale, but it was still good to see it there.
The 2012 Rainbow List includes a wider range of good queer reads from 2011 aimed at youth. This list included more Sapphic goodies like Malinda Lo’s Huntress, Laura Goode’s Sister Mischief, and other titles I hope to review in this column soon.
And speaking of Malinda Lo, if you’ve already read Ash and Huntress and are lying in wait for her science fiction series to start this fall, you can bide your time reading her short story “The Fox” that was published online in Subterranean Press in the summer of 2011.
The last list of note that I’ll mention (I swear, even though there are more! January is exciting, guys!) for the young ladies (and everyone) is the 2012 recommended reading list from the Amelia Bloomer Project which highlights strong feminist reads for girls published in 2011. This list is one of the most thorough, including fiction and non-fiction at three different reading levels. Hurrah for young feminists and the books that encourage them.
OK, OK, onto the reviews!
Pink, Lili Wilkinson, HarperTeen (2011, 1st US edition)
Ava has pretty much everything a young lesbian could want, including progressive, accepting parents who love her hot, intellectual girlfriend, Chloe. Chloe is the ultra-angsty-teen lesbian who reads “battered Penguin classics she found in thrift shops and at garage sales,” endlessly smokes cigarettes and questions authority while quoting Simone de Beauvoir. As Ava describes her in the first chapter, instead of doing well in school, Chloe would “rather sit on the low stone wall just outside our school and smoke cigarettes and talk about Existentialism and Life and make out with me.” (Uh, sounds good to me.)
Ava, however, has a secret, an anti-rebel rebellious wish: she wants a break from Chloe’s casual condescension, from discussing patriarchal constructs with her radical parents. Ava wants a fresh start, and she wants it at Billy Hughes, a rigorous private school where no one knows her. At Billy Hughes, she can dress like she secretly wants to — in soft, girly sweaters and feminine makeup. She can talk about boys with other girly girls. She can be pink.
Unsurprisingly, finding a new identity and a place to fit in at Billy Hughes proves harder than she thought. After failing to get a part in the school play, which would secure her spot with the Pastels, the popular, perfect, pink crowd who clinch all the lead roles, she clings to their scene by joining stage crew. Stage crew, however, is decidedly anti-Pastel
— they are the Screws, the freaks. They are also ten (a million?) times more interesting.
The rest of the novel follows Ava’s attempts to hang on to the Pastels while unwillingly growing closer to the Screws — in particular, Sam (male). Sam who seems to be the only one who sees her clearly and honestly. Oh, and there’s that little ol’ problem of how she still feels, or doesn’t feel, about Chloe.
While I was frustrated with Ava’s persistent inability to see the utter, clear superiority of the Screws to the Pastels, and sad that she kept dragging Chloe along — even if Chloe was a bitch for a lot of the novel, part of you still felt for the girl — I found the complexity of Ava’s plight refreshing.
Pink, in a way, is the antithesis of the queer youth novel. Most novels begin with a character’s confusion about their identity, leading to their eventual self-discovery and final self-acceptance. But Ava’s story starts with her identity as a lesbian already established, then dissolves that identity into ambiguity. While she clears up some of that uncertainty by the end, she doesn’t come close to resolving all of it.
For instance, after her mother implores her to resist conforming to stereotypes, Ava wants to explain: “Didn’t she understand? I wanted to fit into a box. I just didn’t know which box was mine. Being boxless was confusing and lonely.”
Indeed. Thank goodness there are Lili Wilkinsons in the world to help the boxless know they’re not alone.
Don’t worry, this isn’t necessarily a gay-girl-goes-straight story. Wilkinson just shouts out to those of us out there who still don’t know exactly what we are — but we swear, we’re working on it.