Since early July, I've been on a mission to find suitable girl-protagonist novels to teach in my Representing Adolescence class. I decided early on that I would use Laurie Halse Anderson's Speak, because it is amazing and because it always gets good reception when I teach it. Then I read E. Lockhart's The Boy Book, and decided to teach that, because it seemed to be realistic and fairly well-written, and had several things worth talking about. I'm also interested in the way that both Melinda and Ruby end up as outsiders, exiled from their groups of friends for dubious (at best) reasons. And The Boy Book will make for good discussion about gender.
And then came the true Mission: finding a realist novel from the last 25 years or so, with a female protagonist, that wasn't a Trauma Novel, and/or wasn't about Boys.
I still have not settled on my third title. I skimmed bestseller lists and some blogs (teenreads, etc), always eliminating the Twilight related crap (it's fantasy, after all) and used that, plus my knowledge of what teenage girls buy at the bookstore to compile my collection of titles. Here, in no particular order, are the Girl YA books I have read since July:
Greengage Summer - Rumer Godden
Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret - Judy Blume
Fly on the Wall - E. Lockhart
The Boy Book - E. Lockhart
Tam Lin - Pamela Dean
Fire and Hemlock - Diana Wynne Jones
Hexwood - Diana Wynne Jones
The Boyfriend List - E. Lockhart
The Treasure Map of Boys - E. Lockhart
Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist - David Levithan and Rachel Cohn
Pop Princess - Rachel Cohn
The A-List - Zoey Dean
The Clique - Lisi Harrison
Keeping the Moon - Sarah Dessen
Sweethearts - Sara Zarr
Cracked Up to Be - Courtney Summers
Story of a Girl - Sara Zarr
Chasing Boys - Karen Tayleur
Getting Lost with Boys - Hailey Abbott
I Was a Non-Blonde Cheerleader - Kieran Scott
None of these satisfy me. the Judy Blume is, admittedly, a classic, but I felt mortified reading it - all the talk of bras and periods! ook. NOT my cup of tea, and almost certainly guaranteed to make everyone in my class uncomfortable (I have a lot of freshmen). On top of that, I don't know, really, what to DO with it, and it feels outdated. I don't want to spend half my life explaining tiny details about being alive in the 70s and grappling with my students' protests of "it's not relatable!!!"
Cracked Up to Be was surprisingly good, but was a whanger of a Trauma Book. Keeping the Moon was all right, and not a trauma story (not really, though in part it was about getting over Being Fat). It's just not as meaty as I'd like it to be. I'm contemplating a Dessen novel, though, because they're very popular, and while they are often about Boys, they are also (in my limited experience) also about friendships and family and self-discovery.
Tam Lin was incredible, absolutely fantastic, and helped me to (finally) truly understand and appreciate Fire & Hemlock. Both are out of the running due to length and complexity, and the fact that the source text(s) will break brains.
The A-List, The Clique and Getting Lost with Boys were absolutely reprehensible. Appalling. Badly written, hideously plotted, full of nasty unpleasant characters. Grrrrross.
I wanted to like Nick & Norah, but I felt irritated by it instead. I thought Norah was kind of a bitch, and Nick oddly emptied of personality.
The rest were all mediocre to middling. Chasing Boys wasn't especially about chasing boys, and that ended up making it relatively decent. Sweethearts was very odd and more than a little creepy; Story of a Girl was depressing, but valuable in that it concerns lower-class protagonists (which, frankly, after the A-List and the Clique, I was happy to encounter).
But there are certain formulae, certain tropes, that show up over and over and over and over, even in the best of these books: a New, Attractive Boy shows up, the protagonist fights with friends, the protagonist relocates and is the New, Attractive Girl, the protagonist struggles over some mysterious past trauma that is revealed slowly in flashbacks, or not until the very end of the book. The Journey Of Self-Discovery, in all of these books, happens through relationships - friends and Boys, occasionally formerly-estranged parents - with very little introspection. The characters live through events and dialogue, not through narration (think of Speak, then imagine the opposite).
By contrast, the Boy books I've read seem to focus much more on that interior monologue introspective narration. Events are important, and people are important, but it isn't through their relationships that the boys really change or learn anything. I hate to say this, and I hope I am making a gross generalization, but the Boy books seem more intellectual, while the Girl books are more emotional.
So I'm now reaching the end of my rope. I've read scads of mostly-terrible books, I've encountered way too many cute boys with hair falling into their eyes, eyes which are always blue or green (as are protagonist's eyes, when described), boys who somehow manage to be wise and caring and empathic and helpful to Protagonist girls with serious Issues. Often the boys are named Jake, or they have slightly more hip or nontraditional names: Tyler, Noel, Ethan, Cameron, Dylan, Liam. It's a fluke or a freak when a nice normal Paul or Daniel or Jason turns up.
I can rattle off Trauma scenarios in my sleep, I can identify love triangles before they've been formed, I can spot the Boy Who Turns Out to be A Jerk from a mile off, I can spot the Nice but Nerdy Boy who Turns Hot over a summer from several miles off. I know the Girl Heroine will learn to have Self-Confidence, will Patch Things Up with her siblings/parents/step-parents, will learn valuable lessons about living in the today because of her dead sibling/parent/friend, will stop drinking or cutting or skipping school, will, with the Love of the Nice, Cute Boy whose hair falls into his eyes, turn an eager, happy face to a shining future of awesomeness.
PUKE PUKE PUKE.
Obviously, these very cliches and stereotypes are worth thinking about, and it's making me root for Dessen, though frankly, Cracked Up to Be was probably the most interesting/best written of the list.
But this experience has made me think seriously about the bildungsroman, and its maleness; male protagonists come of age regardless of the relationships around them. Girls come of age because of those relationships. I also felt a tiny bit of shock when I tried to think historically, pre-1900, of representations of adolescents. Other than the occasional Little Women, or The Daisy Chain, the single strong protagonist bildungsroman seems to be a very exclusively male genre. Even Little Women and The Daisy Chain track the progress of a group of siblings, not a single strong character. But teenaged women go from child to debutante/wife in a turn of a page - they don't get their own bildungsroman, they just figure in someone else's.
I have a lot more to say on this subject - in fact, I could go on forever - but I'll draw my line now. Maybe I'll flip a coin to decide my third Girl Protagonist book - between Cracked Up to Be and a Dessen.