Though they live in different places and different times, the young heroines of these books are all on the same quest: to discover their true selves.
Curtis Mayfield's "To Be Invisible" was my theme song during adolescence. Tall, chubby and shy, I wished to disappear, to escape the daily teasing from classmates and the unsolicited advice from teachers on dropping a few pounds and "speaking up," which made me even more self-conscious. In the works of such authors as Judy Blume, Louise Fitzhugh and Lois Lowry, I found company among girls who struggled as I did to be accepted by their peers and, more important, to accept and love themselves. And while, as an African American, I couldn't relate in all ways to the typical white, suburban protagonists of these stories -- in which black people were often invisible -- I did get from them a sense of hope, faith even, that my life would not always be the way it was.
I caught a glimpse of my younger self in the female protagonists of the three young adult novels reviewed here. These girls, too, are on a journey of self-discovery, searching for nurturing relationships, spaces where they feel they belong, where they can express their dreams and passions. I was pleased to see the diversity in the economic and racial backgrounds of the characters. I was also very encouraged by the strong sense of independence and courage that each protagonist discovers within herself.
To be a girl and to be loved and respected for who you are, to choose your own dreams over everybody else's dreams for you, to reconcile the language we are taught to speak about love, built on words of tenderness and surrender, with disappointed fantasies and unfulfilled expectations -- these are still the lessons we must master on our journeys to and throughout womanhood. And given the struggles of the protagonists against sexual and racial violence, this task has become more daunting.
In Lois-Ann Yamanaka's Name Me Nobody (Hyperion, $14.99), 14-year-old Emi-Lou Kaya, a Japanese American named after the folk singer Emmylou Harris, feels like a nobody. Her mother, a teenager herself when she became pregnant, all but abandoned her, leaving her in the care of her grandmother. Emi-Lou has no idea who her father is but tries to find out. And to top it all off, she's overweight. She endures teasing from the kids at school and from her own family members. It is only with her best friend, Von, short for Yvonne, and her grandmother that Emi-Lou feels at home. But when Von develops an attraction to another girl, Emi-Lou's world begins to fall apart. She wants things to stay as they were with her and Von; she doesn't want Von to be a "lez" and tries to keep her away from her girlfriend, Babes. Emi-Lou eventually develops her own interests, and makes peace with the changes in her and Von's relationship.
Although Yamanaka doesn't really deal with Von's homosexuality, except to state it, she does do a good job of portraying the pain and complexity of first romantic relationships through Emi-Lou's attraction to Kyle, a popular athlete, who uses Emi-Lou's feelings for him to manipulate her into doing his homework assignments and later tries to force her to have sex. And then there's her relationship with Sterling, another athlete, who goes back and forth between Emi-Lou and another girl because he's not confident enough to trust his own feelings.
The story is set on the island of Hawaii, so readers will get a sense of the language and cultures of the various racial and ethnic groups there. But at its heart, this is a book about the bond between Emi-Lou and Von. Yamanaka skillfully captures the intricacies of friendship, the way relationships have cycles, how each person takes turns being strong and weak, how we resist change and learn acceptance. Yamanaka also deftly weaves the metaphor of naming throughout the text, illustrating how what you call yourself and what you are called are connected to your identity, your past and your future.
Boys Lie, by John Neufeld (DK Ink, $16.95), opens with the protagonist, Gina, being sexually assaulted in a public swimming pool in New York, by a group of boys who surround and grope her, trying to pull off her swimsuit. Gina escapes, but the event leaves her scarred. She wonders whether or not she invited the attack, and feels cursed by the fact that she's developed breasts and curves earlier than most girls her age. Gina and her mother leave New York for California, running away from the memory of the attack. Gina starts eighth grade at a new school and begins to make new friends. But too soon, news of the incident back in New York spreads around school, and three boys begin to concoct a sinister plan to force Gina to have sex with all of them. Only one boy actually follows through with the plan, and Gina is able to defend herself against him, but she must also defend her reputation from the lies this boy begins to tell about her at school.
There has been much discussion recently about the changes taking place in children's literature, in particular the way the subject matter of young adult fiction has begun to mirror that written for adults. Sex is one of the issues at the center of the debate. Kids today have more exposure to and information about sex. This increased awareness may provide ways for children and adults to deal with sex and sexuality with more complexity and honesty. But this doesn't necessarily mean that we should assume that kids are as emotionally astute as adults in this arena.
I found this book problematic because it didn't really delve into the emotional affects of sexual abuse. Reference is made to the counseling both Gina and her mother underwent after the first attack, and Gina also experiences flashbacks. She eventually gathers the courage to tell the truth about what happened in the second attack -- to "name her attacker" -- but we don't see the evolution of her emotional growth and, further, what we do know is told to us almost in passing, just another detail of the character's life.
In addition, Neufeld could have explored in greater depth the psychology of the boys who devise the plot. One boy privately questions their plan and decides not to participate, another boy's sister raises the issue of rape, but we don't get a sense of what's really going through their heads, where the idea comes from in the first place.
Whereas Name Me Nobody and Boys Lie are contemporary urban novels, Karen English's Francie (Farrar Straus Giroux, $16) is set in the first half of the century in rural Noble, Ala. One of 13-year-old Francie's favorite rituals is to sit on a hilltop with her favorite book and a Scooter Pie and watch the local train go by, on its way to Birmingham. Watching the train, Francie dreams about the day she and her family will be able to leave Noble and move to Chicago to join her father, a Pullman porter who has promised to send for them. Everyone in town doubts that Francie's family will ever move, but Francie keeps believing, and in the meantime must help her mother make ends meet by working as a domestic in other people's homes.
Francie yearns for more time for herself, noting the way the white girls, whose families she and her mother work for, have the money and the freedom to do whatever they want. She also wishes that she and her mother were closer and that her mother, who is physically and emotionally drained from work, could express the love and pride Francie knows she feels. In addition, Francie and her family are disappointed by her father's unfulfilled promises throughout the book. The reader gets a sense that something is awry, perhaps in the marriage, but we never know what exactly. Many African-American men during that time migrated North ahead of their families. It would have been interesting to get a sense of their experiences and what they had to do in order to reunite their families.
Still, none of these things dampens Francie's strong will, intelligence and courage. Francie offers to tutor Jesse, an older boy who comes to school for the first time at age 16. She teaches him how to read and later, when he is falsely accused of committing a crime against a white man, harbors him while he is on the run from the sheriff, an act that could put her entire community in jeopardy. This is a charming story, reminiscent of the "old school" young adult novels, where the reader is aware of the dangers in the child's environment, but there is a sweetness, perhaps a naivete, that provides a little bit of a cushion against the world's gritty and harsh realities -- which I believe kids still need. The reader also gets a sense of African-American life in a small Southern town through the experiences of the characters, a more intimate understanding than one might get from a textbook.
Natasha Tarpley, who lives in New York City, is the author of a family memoir, "Girl in the Mirror: Three Generations of Black Women in Motion."