When I read contemporary realistic fiction, I tend to mentally sort these stories in two categories: realistic and aspirational. Realistic stories are grounded in reality and tend to be a bit heavier, sadder, and oftentimes come with ambiguous endings. Aspirational books frequently stretch the bounds of believability, but offer escape and entertainment. They are the fun books that I like reading for idealistic values, but bear little relevance to the circumstances and events of my life. I enjoy both types of stories, and I value them equally, though in different ways.
But in the past year, I read three YA novels that defy this simple categorization and as a result, I want to shove them in the hands of everyone I meet. Exit, Pursued by a Bear by E.K. Johnston, If I Was Your Girl by Meredith Russo, and Georgia Peaches and Other Forbidden Fruit by Jaye Robin Brown are all 2016 YA releases with realistic premises that explore important social issues and are, I believe, handled in an aspirational but not unbelievable way—and therefore are must-reads.
Exit, Pursued by a Bear is a clever modern twist on Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night and is about Hermione, an athlete who is drugged and sexually assaulted at cheer camp. She has no memory of the event, and her rapist’s identity is unknown. If I Was Your Girl follows Amanda, a transgender teen girl who has transitioned and is attempted to start fresh in a new school, away from the bullies and bigots of her past. Georgia Peaches and Other Forbidden Fruit opens with Jo, an out lesbian from Atlanta, moving to a small town with her pastor dad and new stepmother. Her dad asks her to keep her sexuality to herself, so that the family can better fit into their new religious community.
The situations these novels present are reflective of many teens’ experiences, and the authors honor their characters by presenting authentic challenges. Hermione must go through a lengthy healing process that only beings with reporting her rape. Amanda’s new start comes with an estranged father who has difficulties of accepting Amanda as a daughter, new friends who might not be comfortable with the knowledge that Amanda is trans, and a community that doesn’t feel welcoming to anyone who isn’t cishet. Jo hides an important aspect of her identity and attempts to fit in, but in doing so she is unable to be the advocate she wants to be for other queer Christian teens, and hurts many of the people she cares for, in addition to denying her own truth.
What makes these novels stand out to me are not these familiar premises of struggle, but how each writer works to give each of these characters healthy support and a plausible happy ending in the face of deep struggle. Hermione makes the difficult decision to get an abortion and returns to school and her routine. She does the work of confronting her fears and attends therapy. Readers see that while her assault does affect her development as a person, it doesn’t define who she is or who she becomes. When Amanda’s secret is revealed to the school in the worst way possible and she is physically assaulted, she finds support in surprising places and begins to believe that she deserves love, and as a result she makes the courageous decision to return to school. Jo struggles between identity and religion, but rather than reject her faith or face rejection from her religious community, Jo works with her family and friends to be a better Christian while still remaining transparent about her identity.Some critiques have called the endings of these stories unrealistic, and I can see how they might believe that—these experiences are not everyone’s experiences. But as Chimamnda Ngozi Adichie taught us, there’s danger in telling a single story. We already have YA novels that tell us how difficult the aftermath of sexual assault is, how isolating it can be to identify as trans, and how the clashes between identity and religion are often settled with separation and anguish. If books about the heartbreaking realities of life are important because they tell us that we are not alone, then books like Johnston’s, Russo’s, and Brown’s are equally important in that they offer a blueprint for happiness in the face of tremendous challenge.
Interestingly, all three novels include afterwords by their authors addressing the issue of believability. In her author’s note, Johnston writes, “It was important to me that Hermione have an excellent support system in this book. Her parents, friends, teachers, coach, minister, and community rally around her. She receives the medical care she requires. The police are gracious and helpful. This is not standard procedure.” Johnston goes on to list resources for sexual assault victims in both Canada and the U.S. and urges readers to find their advocates because they do exist.
In her note to cisgender readers, Russo explains, “I have, in some ways cleaved to stereotypes and even bent rules to make Amanda’s trans-ness as unchallenging to normative assumptions as possible.” Russo is a trans woman, and she urges readers to “not apply the details of [Amanda’s] experience as dogma other trans people must adhere to but rather as inspiration to pursue an ever broader understanding of our lives and identities, as well as your own understanding of sex and gender.” To her trans readers, Russo says, “It’s okay if you’re different from Amanda…there is no wrong way to express and embody your most authentic self! You are beautiful, and you deserve to have your body and identity and agency respected.”
Brown writes at the end of her novel, “I wanted this novel to be something a young queer person of faith could hold on to as a bright spot while they navigate the waters of finding themselves. Maybe this story is too optimistic or maybe it’s exactly where we are in an exciting time of change…” She goes on to reaffirm that “if a faith community is important to you, then you should be able to have it.”
I love each of these books because they fearlessly explore difficult situations and show readers that ideal endings aren’t so far out of reach. They teach readers empathy so that they have the power to be better advocates and friends. If we are to create a better, more equal, and accepting world for all, it starts with imagining it. These books do just that.