Ah, to be young again. As we enter into a new school year, sometimes our thoughts turn back to those teenage days where everything was beautiful and nothing hurt — but everything was also very confusing, hormones were raging and feelings were turned up to 11. This week’s book club features novels that appeal to the teen in all of us, or the teens we know (or maybe, dear reader, you’re a teen yourself). Read on for voyages of self-discovery and identity, some tough lessons and important choices.
1. Girl Mans Up by M-E Girard ($12): It’s tough enough being a teenager without also being a queer, nonbinary teenager. Sixteen-year-old Pen’s gender presentation falls strictly into the stereotypically male category: a gamer who wears her brother’s clothes and thinks girls are hot, though she doesn’t consider herself a boy. She finds dramatically different levels of support for her choices; her brother appreciatively voices his opinion that nobody should tell her how to live her life, and her crush, a girl named Blake, actually crushes back. On the other hand, her old friend Colby started off supportive but is now a hotheaded, manipulative bully. And her Portuguese parents make no secret of the fact that they disapprove of her identity.
Girard, twice a Lambda Literary Fellow, focuses on “YA fiction about badass teen girls,” and Pen certainly fits the bill. “I want to be a boyfriend who is a girl,” says Pen. “I have no idea how to explain that stuff to anyone, let alone a girl I like. I just wish it was already all understood.” Pen has some tough decisions to make. Does she rebel against Colby and help out his most recent ex-girlfriend? How open can she be with Blake, given that there are inherent dangers in their relationship being in the public eye?
Unwilling to be pigeonholed into anyone’s box or even be labeled, Pen grows to learn the value of self-respect and that loyalty only goes so far; it’s okay to protect your sanity by removing yourself from toxic situations and people. That, more than anything, is how you “man up.”
2. Once, in a Town Called Moth by Trilby Kent ($13): Most teens have issues with feeling awkward, disconnected or out of place. Being a teenager in and of itself is a little like being an immigrant to a new body and a new life. This is even more relevant for teens who have to go through an actual immigration process, becoming strangers in a strange land. In Trilby Kent’s Once, in a Town Called Moth, Ana and her father are forced to leave their small Mennonite community, Colony Felicidad in Bolivia, following in Ana’s mother’s footsteps (she left when Ana was very young). “Yesterday, we left Colony Felicidad for good, Papa and I,” Ana says, “And tomorrow we will be in Canada. I still don’t know why.”
Ana finds herself with a new name (she was Anneli in Bolivia) in the unfamiliar world of the much bigger city of Toronto, in an “up and coming” neighborhood. She has to learn to navigate a new life where she doesn’t have a support system or understand any of the particular social mores or rules. Teenagers are resilient, though, and soon enough, Ana makes some tentative friendships and even gains the mentorship of a teacher. In the meantime, she searches for the mother she feels abandoned her, and tries to understand her father’s decisions and his secrets.
The delicately written novel juxtaposes scenes from Toronto with scenes from Ana’s past in the Mennonite community, showing the different but very real dangers of both. An unsolved kidnapping in Toronto and the potential for abuse in a teacher-student relationship is contrasted with the frightening underbelly of the Bolivian colony that led to Ana’s mother’s disappearance. Ana sometimes thinks of herself as if she’s a character in a book, saying, “Thinking about myself meant the story could change…The past, and the present…and the future too.” Kirkus Reviews agrees with her assessment, saying: “Truly outstanding literary moments distinguish this quiet search for identity.”
3. Lucy and Linh by Alice Pung ($14): Like Pen’s parents and Ana and her father, teenager Lucy’s parents are immigrants, ethnically Chinese and coming to Melbourne, Australia by way of Vietnam. Life is difficult — her mother is running a high-pressure garment workshop out of their garage, and between that and her father’s carpet factory job, they can just about support themselves, Lucy and her baby brother (“The Lamb”).
When Lucy, the Rory Gilmore of her generation, receives a prestigious scholarship designed to increase access to private high school education, everyone assumes it’s her chance to step up, and possibly even her family’s best chance to transcend class barriers. Lucy soon figures out, however (since she’s obviously pretty smart), that just because you have an acceptance letter doesn’t mean you’re going to feel accepted. The exclusive Laurinda Ladies’ College doesn’t acknowledge the realities of Lucy’s life. There are extracurricular requirements outside her economic situation, and the three girls who seem to befriend her may rule the school, but, well, power corrupts.
Lucy, in a series of letters to her friend Linh (the last link to her former life), observes that the lives of the rich might not be so enviable after all; her family may sit on newspapers on the floor to eat, but at least they do it together. “And here was the most bitter paradox of adolescence: alone, I was most myself, most true,” Lucy says. “But the self that really mattered was the self that was visible, the self that could be shown to other people.” Linh, outspoken and brilliant in her own right, isn’t sure how long she’s willing to wait for Lucy’s realizations. Lucy’s voice is a fresh and nuanced take on issues of class and race; our bae Amy Tan calls author Alice Pung “a gem.” Do your teenaged self a favor and check this out.
What books make you feel young at heart? Tag us in your next teen read @BritandCo.
(Featured photo via Getty)