Girls on the Edge: Tell Me Again How a Crush Should Feel by Sara Farizan, Gabi: A Girl in Pieces by Isabel Quintero, I Love I Hate I Miss My Sister by Amélie Sarn, and Falling into Place by Amy Zhang [in American Book Review]
Adolescence without instant uploads, 140-character confessions, and constant connectivity was just so last century – survival in the 21st means a whole new set of unfamiliar, unpredictable challenges. In four recent, better-not-miss novels for young adults, four diverse women writers amplify the modern complications of coming-of-age – race, gender, and socioeconomic status – with further contemporary struggles including sexual orientation, designer drug addiction, fundamental religion, bullying, and suicide.
A closeted lesbian from a traditional Persian American community in Massachusetts, a frustrated California Latina trapped in a dysfunctional family, two sisters of Algerian Arab descent growing apart in reaction to the polarizing pressures of their predominantly Muslim neighborhood, and a privileged alpha-girl lying comatose after intentionally plummeting off an icy road: these are the distinctive faces of today’s western teenage girls caught in the desperate tumult between childhood naiveté and the inevitable realities of becoming an adult. Their authors are equally varied: Sara Farizan is the American daughter of Iranian immigrants; Isabel Quintero is a Mexican American from the self-described “Inland Empire of Southern California”; Amélie Sarn is a French novelist in translation; and Amy Zhang is a Chinese-born American teenager (still!). For each of their protagonists, high school is a battlefield of status-anxious cliques, power players, tenuous hierarchies, and searching souls, not to mention those raging hormones. Some survive, some don’t – those who do, not only prove their resilience, but also embrace the immeasurable support of family and friends. As different we may be – in how we live, who we love, what we think, even what we eat – our most trusted human connections shouldn’t waver.
Meet Iranian American Leila Azadi in Tell Me Again How a Crush Should Feel. Author Sara Farizan, who explored forbidden first love set in Tehran, Iran, in her striking debut, If You Could Be Mine (2013), turns Stateside to an elite Boston academy where Leila is navigating her penultimate year. With an assurance rooted in personal experience, Farizan’s prose moves nimbly between the multigenerational culture clash at home and the all-engulfing daily drama in high school. Leila isn’t nearly as perfect as her Harvard pre-med older sister. She plans to avoid soccer by auditioning for the school play, although her surgeon father repeatedly reminds her that acting is no career.
Enter new girl Saskia, a Brazilian Dutch hybrid most recently from Switzerland. Her worldly sophistication and easy charm instantly draw Leila into Saskia’s seductive orbit until Leila is just about to spin out of control. She’s too long witnessed the harsh consequences of homosexuality amidst her parents’ conservative community and fears her own secrets are no longer safe. Relationships – old and new – will get redefined and reconfigured as Leila learns to be her own true self.
Sexuality gets a glaring spotlight in Isabel Quintero’s raw, unflinching, often comical debut, Gabi,
A Gordita A Fatgirl A Girl in Pieces, presented as a school-year-long diary of a feisty Latina senior on the cusp of breaking out. Gabi Hernandez has one complicated life: her best friend is pregnant, her other best friend has been thrown out by his parents for being gay, and she suddenly finds herself more boy-crazy than not. Home offers little respite: her mostly-missing father is lost chasing meth, her mother lives in fear that Gabi will ruin her future, and her angry younger brother gets to live by a different set of rules just because he’s a boy. The arrival of her hypocritical, hypercritical aunt determined to pray away her brother, Gabi’s father’s, addiction, seals the Hernandez home into a new level of dysfunction.
Gabi, with her unusually pale skin, is told too often she’s “not what a Mexican is supposed to look like,” and yet being accused of “trying to be White” is her mother’s most cutting insult. Her writing – she’s a poet who most definitively knows it – is her best coping mechanism: what she can’t say, she records on the page. Quintero, who teaches English in California community colleges, has surely used her proximity to students well, imbuing Gabi with the pitch-perfect combination of teenage bravado and worry-beyond-her-years caused by the adults who repeatedly fail her. Cultural demands and maternal traps aside, Gabi is determined to test her independence and live life on her own terms.
And yet, of course, “[e]very choice has a price,” as the cover of Amélie Sarn’s I Love I Hate I Miss My Sister, warns. Sarn writes with concise, timely insight about culture, religion, and politics, but what lingers most is the powerful bonds of sisterhood. Sohane and Djelila Chebli are French-born sisters who have always been close, until Dje – always the “beautiful” one – chooses to be a typical teenager who enjoys make-up, curve-hugging clothes, the attention of boys, and experiments with smoking and drinking. Sohane, in contrast, turns away from the secular and decides to don a head scarf, even at the cost of expulsion from school.
Sohane claims freedom to practice her religion; Dje fights to free herself of what she feels are religious bindings. As much as Sohane loves her sister, she can’t approve of Dje’s seeming disrespect, and yet envy over Dje’s carefree nature paralyzes Sohane with tragic results. While the girls’ parents have always been tolerant, their extended Algerian Arab family – as well as outspoken members of their local housing project – vehemently disapprove of westernized, secular choices. The taunting protests of a group of fundamental teenage dropouts turns viciously tragic, and Sohane is left to reassemble her family.
Freedom and privilege mean so little to high school senior Liz Emerson – feared, adored, followed – that death seems to be her only available path. Another debut, Falling into Place, written when Amy Zhang was herself still a high school student in Wisconsin, chronicles the wrenching metamorphosis of a wide-eyed little girl who, after losing her father, chooses social status over being cast out. For years, she maintained her unfaltering power position through careless cruelty and overt bullying. Now that she can no longer drown out what’s left of her conscience through sex, alcohol, drugs, and bulimia, she convinces herself that suicide is her only escape.
As Liz lies comatose, those who enabled and emulated her mean-girl manipulations fill the hospital, and yet none among those who should have known her, understand the lonely little girl within – not her overworked widowed mother, not her so-called best friends with their own endless dramas, and most certainly not her on-and-off again cheating boyfriend. No one even realizes what she intended. Perhaps the one who best loved her from afar glimpsed her desperation once or twice, but her only true relationship belongs with the novel’s narrator – certainly a nod to Markus Zusak’s international phenomenon The Book Thief – who doesn’t actually exist. Nonlinear, elliptical, meticulous, for all her extraordinary youth, Zhang’s title resonates with apparently effortless fluency.
With the ongoing mega-popularity of fantastical and dystopian series from Hunger Games to Divergent to Maze Runner to even lingering Twilight and Harry Potter, surely readers could do with a dose of reality. In our ever-shrinking global village, readers are consistently requesting accurate representations of diverse backgrounds: the unprecedented success of the social media campaign, We Need Diverse Books – born of a hashtag gone viral that has since become both rallying cry and a powerhouse nonprofit poised to significantly change the publishing industry – is proof positive that readers are more than ready for Farizan, Quintero, Sarn, Zhang, and others writing such colorful, inclusive stories. Beyond easy labels, every reader deserves to be authentically reflected on the page. Get to know Leila, Gabi, Sohane, Dje, Liz – they’re your classmates, your team members, your friends, your family … perhaps you might even recognize yourself.
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Readers: Middle Grade, Young Adult