It’s no secret that I love YA, and I’ve fought with many people about its worth. They think it’s meaningless, written entirely for the financial gain, and contains no substance. Any actual reader of YA would know this isn’t true. YA is just as capable of giving us insight into the human condition as any other form of literature. It represents teenagers from all walks of life, and it doesn’t shy away from harsh topics. Many adults underestimate what teenagers can handle, but YA authors don’t. They know that teenagers are confronted, either in their personal lives or through their friends, with sex, drugs, abuse, eating disorders, rape, suicide, and many other awful things.
Paper Valentine by Brenna Yovanoff is about a girl trying to solve a string of murders while being haunted by her dead best friend. I went into it thinking it looked good and would be an entertaining ghostly murder mystery. Instead, it kept surprising me. First, I thought that Hannah’s best friend was killed by the murderer, but it quickly becomes clear that instead, she died of untreated anorexia.
At that point I thought, okay, this is a book about eating disorders, and I grew nervous. I’ve never struggled with an eating disorder, but I have trouble reading about them. I also wasn’t entirely sure where the murders were going to fit in. I kept going, though, because I was intrigued by the friendship between Hannah and Lillian and I’m a sucker for books about best friends. Then Hannah meets a boy, and I thought, oh, it’s a romance.
It was all of them. It’s a ghost story and a murder mystery, it’s about anorexia and the pressure to be perfect, it’s about best friends and how hard and horrible and beautiful those relationships can be, and it’s about first love. It’s about being haunted by more than just literal ghosts and about figuring out who you are beneath the mask that you put up for everyone else. It’s about finding your own strength.
It would be so easy to write about these topics and make it clunky and way too after-school special. But Yovanoff weaves it all together seamlessly. I spent the book stressed out by the growing impact Lillian was having on Hannah, giddy over Hannah’s new romance, and consumed by empathy for both girls, dead and alive. When Hannah starts to worry that her crush may be the killer, I felt her fear.
I haven’t shared Hannah and Lillian’s exact experiences, but I know what it’s like to love your best friend more than anything but also to hurt them and be hurt by them over stupid things. I know what it’s like to watch your best friend fade away and do any little thing you can to help but feel like it’s not at all enough. I know what it’s like to have a huge crush on a boy and then start to wonder if you can trust him at all.
Paper Valentine is the most painfully human ghost story I’ve read. If someone reads it and still thinks that YA has no substance, I’m not sure they’ll ever get it.
Favorite quote: “Our whole lives, it was like we were always trying so hard to be perfect – for our families and our friends, for each other – when the funny thing was, we didn’t have to. In the end, we were better than that.”