I recently read a YA romance that I found reprehensible in the way it teaches girls to think and in the way it deepens the tracks of how girls are taught to be: quiet and waiting for a guy to save them. To be completely honest, I found the story to be romantic, but another part of my brain was mad and resisted it because I could feel how harmful it would be for a young woman to read this novel and buy into it.
The problem with this story was that the girl did nothing. She wandered around, I saw very little of her interaction with her classmates or her peers or those around her, and yet almost everyone declared at some point in the story that SHE WAS SPECIAL. She was DIFFERENT. She carried herself differently from others. It was also mentioned quite a few times that the character was pretty. Again that trope that I saw over an over again in YA novels growing up that brainwashed me, that taught me it was important to be quiet, to be still, and that the right boy would like me if I were pretty enough.
As a middle-school teacher, it bothers me that books like this exist in the world. I don’t want girls to read these books and gobble up these false-truths like candy. Be good, be pretty, then you will be recognized by some romantic hero. The author even has the girl’s romantic interest declare that she doesn’t need saving, but then he kind of does save her. So, yes, just because a character can mention it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist in the book.
I get that there is a market for these kinds of books where these guys do these crazy impossible things for these girls like write a steady stream of love letters to her anonymously just because they saw them at school and liked them. This is so fantasy driven, and there is a place in my heart that wished or longed for these kinds of interaction growing up because I grew up on a steady diet of Korean dramas and Harlequin romance novels. We all want to be plucked from the masses for our specialness, but also, COME ON.
I’m old enough to know that kind of interaction is ultimately dissatisfying. Some guy who would actually act like this in real life would not be romantic but a little creepy. A girl who is taught to wait for someone to notice her specialness is going to have a really sad and pathetic life. You just go and do. You just go and humiliate yourself and get better. You just go and learn to advocate for yourself because the rest of the world is not really watching you and hoping you will reach your full potential. You bust down doors, you make people uncomfortable, you make people pay attention to you. You take up space.
And I find so much of what lies between those pastel covers can be so insidious. The ones that I gobbled up as a teenager. They look so harmless with their bubblegum colors, the cute girl on the cover, or stars and hearts, but they can often send debilitating messages to girls.
So, I guess I am left with the worry that some of these books will infiltrate into my classroom library because it is just impossible for me to read all the books out there. The falseness in any form of writing bothers me. Writing that is full of its own pretensions, writing that is essentially about nothing but pretty words. I tried to read Ellie Kemper’s memoir and I thought, What is the point of this? These are just words in love with itself that show no conflict, no strife, no humanity. I am not going to waste my time on this. I don’t need self-congratulatory writings where characters are perfectly self-aware and say the right things all the time. I need writing that feels meaningful in some way, that shows an honest struggle. I don’t need fake conflict either, but I want something that rings true.
So what now? I would very much like to cultivate a library that contain stories of real pain and growth. Not just fake, fluffy stories that add nothing to the conversation. I want those books that always seem on the edge of some new conversation. The ones that push the boundaries and that startle a reader into thinking about the world in a different way. I don’t need books that push agendas of the boring gendered environments that we wish to escape and that come at the expense of girls reaching their full potentials.
What would an honest but fulfilling rom-com kind of high school book look like? I thought Sally Rooney’s Normal People had that kind of realism and romance intertwined, truly flawed characters, but the story would be too mature for my middle school kids. Something like that then but more appropriate for the middle school crowd. Something that has that feeling even if the content would be different. It would feel honest and true.