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Roundup: Books That Pass the Bechdel Test

For years in my teens and early twenties, I read chick-lit like it was going out of style. I didn’t mind the label or the candy colored covers or the many many headless women — I was young, and not in love, and these books filled a hunger. I now scorn the love triangle in EVERY. DAMN. BOOK, especially in genre, but I understand why it holds appeal. But I’ve also developed a real appreciation for a different kind of love story, the kind about friendship with no romantic overtones but which is just as rich and deep as any romantic love story.

“It’s like being in love, discovering your best friend,” as Elizabeth Wein put it in Code Name Verity.

And in September, two lovely examples of exactly this kind of love story came out.

Paper Airplanes, Dawn O’Porter
Amulet/Abrams, September 2014
Reviewed from ARC

Paper Airplanes has its detractors (and only one star), but I loved this one.

Set in 1994, this is truly historical fiction, although it’s crazy to think that 20 years ago — my own college years — was such a different time. But it was, and unlike so many of the books set in an author’s own lifetime, here the time and place are characters in their own right and critical components of this story. Guernsey, a tiny island (just a bit bigger than Manhattan) is culturally British (technically it’s more complicated than that), and for the average USian reader I don’t imagine there will be strong attention paid to ways in which it’s like or unlike other parts of the UK. What will come through is the way in which it’s a small world unto itself, often stifling and restrictive, and the ways in which the story and the time are seamlessly one thing: this story happens at this specific moment, and that’s that.

That restrictive sense of living in a tiny place where everyone knows everyone permeates everything. The girls in the private girls school have been together for so long that their seats each year are a thing of habit; everyone other than Renée and Margaret is paired off into a best friend diad, and there’s no room to be anyone other than who you’ve been. When Flo, who has spent years as the punching bag of best friend and mean girl Sally, and Renée begin to become friends — tentatively, flirting around, and then with a sort of desperate urgency, because they have both been so painfully lonely for so long — it’s a disruption that feels dangerous to them because in their tiny world change is huge.

And what a friendship. It’s the opposite of the insta-love we all complain about in romantic love stories. This is awkward and tentative and happens through a series of events — the party, then the mutual loss of a parent — and almost falls apart (and almost fails the Bechdel test — Julian definitely gets in the way) before the delightfully happy ending. Flo and Renée’s narratives may lack subtlety, but they are both raw, and Renée is unexpectedly, wonderfully raunchy (that moment when she briefly considers inserting a tampon for passed out Flo is priceless) while Flo is a little sweeter and maybe a bit of a sap but still real.

Of course, it’s not all roses: the adults are a bit over the top (especially Flo’s mother), as is mean girl Sally, and Aunty Jo’s dialogue is so stilted it’s painful. It’s also crowded, which has been raised as a flaw by some — anorexia, dead parents, mean girls, boys who take advantage, and even teen pregnancy — but actually I would argue that life is crowded, and most of that is happening around Flo and Renée, which doesn’t seem all that unbelievable, other maybe than Sally’s storyline. It’s also first in a series, but you’d never know it.

Wildlife, Fiona Wood
Poppy/Little, Brown, September 2014
Reviewed from ARC

Another great one! In fact, take much of what I said was strong about Paper Airplanes, add steroids, and apply it here.

Well, not exactly, but again we have a girl with no friends (new girl Lou), hiding a huge amount of pain, and a girl with a toxic best friend (Sibylla and Holly, who is much more believable, and thus more toxic, than Sally) who needs to stand up for herself. And again we have an isolated space — here a wilderness term — and a not American but still English speaking setting (Australia this time), something I find adds to the reading experience; it’s just other enough to be intriguing and to make it impossible to know if the slang is right or the geography adds up (those little things that can ruin a read), but also just familiar enough not to require extra work or distract with the ways in which it is other. (This is actually the reason Australians win the Printz so often, I think — there are good books all over the place, but sometimes a little bit of distance hides the minor flaws that would be more apparent in a similar book with a more familiar setting. But I digress.) Also, while this one isn’t first in a series, it is, in fact, a sequel (of sorts), although the first book — about Dan, a friend of Lou’s, in which Lou is a character — won’t be out here until August 2015. These two books are in many ways similar, but the fact is that Wildlife has lots more literary chops.

The outstanding element of this one is voice. Sibylla charms in her straightforward, sweet, truly teenaged way (she’s a feminist when she “can be bothered” — there’s lots of quiet humor to admire), but Lou — Lou’s voice is poetry, spiced with raw grief, lightly seasoned with literary allusions and garnished with wordplay, wonderful wonderful wordplay. Also the voices are immediately distinguishable, not just by what they each say but by the ways they say it — you would never confuse Sibylla’s chapters for Lou’s chapters, even when Lou begins the difficult process of coming out of her shell and starts to narrate in more complete thoughts. And while I have no idea what the odds are in terms of RealCommittee (four years of this and all I know is that I know nothing…), I do think the richness of the allusions in Lou’s conversation and the many ways that this book addresses real issues (sex is discussed frankly, grief is explicitly dealt with) make this one that will stand up to deeper and additional readings, although there’s also plenty to enjoy here without that deeper scrutiny.

And while friendship ultimately becomes the centerpiece, this is also two romances, neither happy: Sibylla and Ben, and (unfolding through memory and mourning) Lou and Fred. Neither feels exactly like a romance in the traditional sense, to the benefit of the novel, and I’d never classify this as a romance (that last chapter pretty much declares as much, loud and clear), but tropes of romance and teen movie territory are used with skill. In fact, it’s probably most accurate to say that this is two parallel journeys to a kind of inner strength that become a shared journey; it’s not a book about friendship the way Paper Airplanes is, and, again, not a romance, but instead a book about Sibylla, and a book about Lou, and a book about grief and growing up and finding your place.

And it’s fantastic.

 

 

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About Karyn Silverman

Karyn Silverman is the High School Librarian and Educational Technology Department Chair at LREI, Little Red School House & Elisabeth Irwin High School (say that ten times fast!). Karyn has served on YALSA’s Quick Picks and Best Books committees and was a member of the 2009 Printz committee. She has reviewed for Kirkus and School Library Journal. She has a lot of opinions about almost everything, as long as all the things are books. Said opinions do not reflect the attitudes or opinions of SLJ, LREI, YALSA or any other institutions with which she is affiliated. Find her on Twitter @InfoWitch or e-mail her at karynsilverman at gmail dot com.

Comments

  1. What I loved about WILDLIFE was the complex, complicated, and ultimately poisonous friendship between Holly & Sib. I have a problem with most toxic friends books in that I have to suspend my belief about the main character not seeing / believing just how bad the friend is. Here, through the backstory and other factors, it’s believable that Holly had been a friend and what changed and why. While I couldn’t stand Holly while reading it, with distance I continue to be fascinated by her and wonder what happens to her. And that — feeling for the “bad girl” — is a strength, I think.

  2. I haven’t read either of these books but I wonder if either of these books will be true contenders because they both sound like “girl books” and I think the committee leans toward books that will appeal to both boys and girls. Correct me if I am wrong.

  3. I can think of a decent handful of books that one could classify as “girl books” that were Printz winners or honor books — I’d say Angus, Thongs, and Full Frontal Snogging and The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things.

    I do feel like romances and “chick lit” have a hard time getting taken seriously at awards time even when they’re very, very good. I took one look at the Wildlife cover and thought “That’s a summer romance, that doesn’t look deep.” And after I actually READ the book, and connected with the strength of the voices, and the complicated emotions, I realized how wrong I was, but it sure is hard to go in objectively when you make that kind of prejudgment! I don’t know if Wildlife is a top contender for me, but it’s really good.

    • Karyn Silverman says:

      I agree that these books have a hard time getting a serious look in general — and Wildlife is being sold as a not serious book (literally — it’s from the Poppy imprint). I know the RealCommittee won’t dismiss a book on grounds of being too girly, but with books packaged to look not like literary works, is anyone picking them up to read them in the first place? (Which is to say, I agree with Emily.)

  4. Between this discussion and my coblogger Amanda’s recent review, I really want to read WILDLIFE now.

    And it’s crazy to me to think of 1994 now as historical fiction, but for today’s teens it really and truly is. Soon I will be shouting, “Get off my lawn.” But I really like the cover of Paper Airplanes and look forward to reading it.

    Thank you

  5. There’s no such thing as “girl books” and no such thing as “boy books.” If a committee’s perspective even as much as broaches that, then they aren’t doing their job on the award committee.

    This reminds me of the Sarah Dessen discussion that happens all the time: her books, despite being well-written and layered, get written off time after time because they look like “girl books.” I can’t find the discussion now in searching here, but there was a lengthy comment discussion a couple of years ago about Dessen’s work and how it’s written off that way.

    Why do girls as main characters, getting to tell their own stories and be the center of their own stories, make people scared?

    (In relation to the post itself: Paper Airplanes was weak, especially compared to Wildlife, which was so nuanced and such a fantastic portrayal of friendships, good and bad, as well as female sexuality — I think it’s worthy of Printz-level discussion but I also think this one is technically Morris-eligible, where it for sure should be talked about at the table).

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