Novels that offer escapes into different lives and worlds are, of course, essential, but readers also want to see elements of their experiences reflected in the pages — especially adolescents who are figuring out their identities, beliefs, and sexuality. Three new young adult novels feature lesbian protagonists and themes of friendship and self-discovery that will resonate with all teens.
Madeleine George's "The Difference Between You and Me" takes on a lot (homosexuality, cancer and loss, family, corporate business vs. small towns), but at its core it's a funny and warm book about a romance between a 15-year-old who accepts who she is and her classmate who has let others' expectations define her.
Jesse Halberstam's story is presented in third-person sections. She writes polemics for her group, the "National Organization to Liberate All Weirdos," (members: one), and sometimes speaks like an undergrad who has just taken Sociology 101 (e.g., dances "are totally gender-oppressive"). Emily Miller's first-person passages read as if she's a politician trying to convince herself of her own platform. The only thing they have in common is an incredible chemistry.
Though J. Crew-clad, student council vice president Emily has a boyfriend and ignores fisherman-boot wearing Jesse in public, the two have been meeting secretly for nearly a year to hook up. Their fragile arrangement becomes even shakier when Jesse helps start a grass-roots campaign to keep the big-box store StarMart (thin veil indeed) from moving into town and from having its parent company be a sponsor of the fall dance.
George sometimes defies character clichés (e.g., Wyatt, Jesse's gay best friend, worships Ayn Rand instead of Judy Garland), but other times, embraces them: Emily is a pretty girl with problems, and her friends are mean clones. The best moments of this novel are the ones that are more like peace vigils and less like political demonstrations — quiet moments where Jesse reaches realizations about relationships, friendships, and growing up in general.
Very different in style and subject matter, Elizabeth Hand's new novel, "Radiant Days," is a stunning meditation on art and living authentically. That the two protagonists turn out to be gay is beside the point.
Merle Tappitt is a 17-year-old art student from Appalachia studying at the Corcoran School of Art and spray-painting her tag, "Radiant Days," all over 1970s Washington, D.C. Arthur Rimbaud (yes, the real French poet) is a teenage budding wordsmith living in 1870s France. Their narratives and lives intersect when both encounter a mysterious vagabond. First Arthur time travels to Merle's D.C., for one magical night. Then Merle is swept into Paris long enough to witness history.
Merle and Arthur are not in love, but they are soul mates. He helps her recover from an affair with a married, female art professor and to discover a philosophy of art. "Whatever is broken is beauty, for you and me; whatever is scarred. That's how this world was made, by destroying the old one," he tells her. Through their eyes, readers catch glimpses of Paris, D.C., and an art world in transition.
"Radiant Days" is not a read-with-the-TV-on kind of novel — it requires attention. But it's a book that will appeal to mature readers, aspiring writers, artists, actors, dancers, or really any teen who would appreciate the story of artistic self-actualization and the message that "if you create something truly great, there's no need to look back — because it will remain, and live on its own, without you."
With echoes of Rita Mae Brown's "Rubyfruit Jungle," emily m. danforth's debut novel, "The Miseducation of Cameron Post," is perceptive, nuanced, and beautiful. Or maybe it's enough to just call it a new coming-of-age classic.
Danforth's story begins in Miles City, Mont., in 1989. Twelve-year-old Cameron Post is burdened with guilt over her parents' deaths: She's convinced that there's a connection between her kissing her best friend Irene and their car accident. Cameron copes with her loss by decorating an old dollhouse and escaping into movies — movies that also educate her about her nascent sexuality. In high school, she clashes with her Aunt Ruth, a born-again Christian who insists that the teen attend weekly services at her church, which she does. But she also falls in love with her best friend, gorgeous Coley Taylor. However, when Cameron's relationship with Coley blows up, Ruth sends her to God's Promise, a "Christian School and outreach center for adolescents yearning to break free from the bonds of sexual sin."
Danforth's characters are complex and captivating. Reverend Rick, a founder of God's Promise, is both a saint with good intentions and an imperfect man who does not realize the damage he is causing. Aunt Ruth's actions are loathsome, but she honestly believes she's saving Cameron's soul. Cameron's friends and the other kids at God's Promise ricochet, as teenagers do, among self-loathing, confidence, and doubt.
As for Cameron, she's funny, flawed, and strong. But most of all she's smart. On her arduous journey to maturity, she develops self-awareness and values without betraying who she is. "I'd finally come to this place to which it seemed like everything in life thus far had somehow been tied, somehow, even things that shouldn't have been, and I wanted to soak in it. So I did," she says. Despite her "miseducation," Cameron finds a way to educate herself.
Chelsey Philpot, a book review editor at School Library Journal, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.