Tuesday Reads: Paper Valentine by Brenna Yovanoff

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.

It also has a gorgeous cover.

It also has a gorgeous cover.

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.”

Medium: Kindle

Stars: 5/5

Writing Fat Characters

This is a lot funnier if you know YA cover trends.

This is what your headless YA heroine could look like.

I’ve been reading and writing for as long as I can remember, and I’ve been significantly overweight for just as long. I have always been the fat kid, and you can bet that caused some baggage. I had trouble fitting in desks. The idea of going on an airplane terrified me simply because of the seat size. I could never find cute clothes in my style that also fit. I got teased. For most of my life, I’ve heard over and over again that most of America is overweight – so where were they? Why was I the only one in almost all of my classes?

What’s a ten or thirteen or seventeen-year-old bookworm to do but escape into books? Books, after all, are a refuge. They take you into other worlds where anything is possible. You could captain a pirate ship, defeat dark wizards, fly, and, of course, get the fairy tale romance.

Unless, of course, you were fat. If you’re fat, you’re the ugly friend. You’re the villain. You try too hard, and people pity you. You’re jealous of all the “pretty” girls. You’re the sassy best friend with a brain full of quips and no character depth. You don’t get the guy unless he’s also been presented as equally undesirable, and then you’re a loser couple to laugh at.

And let’s not forget the guys. Fat guys are the lazy, sloppy stoner friends and the nerdy virgins that the protagonist has to put up with and will maybe teach them something or other about acceptance. Also, again, the villain (though recently, conventionally attractive villains have been more popular so of course they’re all toned muscle).

I love young adult fiction more than anything else. For the most part, the body type of a character doesn’t bother me. I don’t really pay attention. But when you’re a fat girl and every protagonist is slim, it gets to you. You start to get the message that you don’t count and don’t deserve to have adventures and happy endings. You start to think that your life won’t really begin unless you get skinny.

If an author does try to give other body types a try, they’re tall, skinny, and awkward. The default is for all the guys all have defined abs and arm muscle and their bodies are all hard and the girls are all soft and it’s totally not euphemistic at all. When a fat girl does show up, they usually mean that they’re a few pounds overweight, or they fall into the aforementioned categories.

But wait, you might say. There are YA books with fat protagonists! Why are you complaining?

Look at those books. They’re all about how horrible it is to be fat, and how the protagonist has to diet and get thin. Eventually there’s some theme of acceptance, but they usually still end up skinny in the end. Don’t get me wrong, bullying due to weight and eating disorders are very real problems and should be addressed. But there are other sides to being fat. It’s entirely possible to be fat and happy with yourself. With the society we live in, it can be really hard, but it’s a thing that does happen. I’m really fat and I spent most of my life dealing with self-esteem issues. I still do. But I’ve also learned that I’m fucking beautiful and not just “on the inside”. I’m not a skinny girl trying to get out of a fat body. I’m me, and I’m just as worthy of respect and being treated with decency as anyone else.

I want to see a fat girl in YA fall in love, and not have it be hopeless. I want to see her get kissed, but not out of pity or a cruel prank. I want to see her have amazing sex (and trust me, I’ll be talking about sex in YA later). I want the same for fat guys, too! I want to see a fat couple that isn’t the subject of pity. “Awww, at least they have each other!” They’re people, and I want to know the trials and tribulations of their relationship and fuck yeah I want them to have amazing sex. I want a fat girl to end up with the hot guy or the average guy or the fat guy. I want her to end up with someone that truly loves her and not despite her fat.

(For more on the sort of things fat girls deal with in the dating world especially if you’re wanting to write a fat girl but don’t have first-hand experience, you should really check out this post.)

I want to see a fat girl go on an adventure. I want her to go to Faerie and be just as tempted by fairy food as anyone else and not think about the calories. I want her to ride dragons and steal magical artifacts and seduce a pirate captain (I really like pirates, can you tell?). I want a fat guy to get into a sword fight over a lady’s honor and win. I want him to defend a castle, or be the best mage in the land.

More than anything, I want to have fat protagonists in YA and have them be treated as more than their fat. I want it to be a fact of their character – they are fat – and then that’s it. Their entire lives don’t revolve around them being fat. It doesn’t run their life and it certainly doesn’t ruin their life. Can we just have that? Please?

Of course, being a writer, I can’t expect to just put this plea out into the universe and not do anything about it. I try to have a lot of body diversity in my stories, because I think it’s important, and my preference is to not make a big deal out of it, because I think normalization is also important.

I’ve struggled, though. I’ve been afraid that people will see me writing fat characters, see that I’m fat, and go, “Ohh, that’s why the girl’s fat. Self-insertion/wish fulfillment/etc.” Being fat does lend me towards being really passionate about having more positive fat characters, especially in YA since it’s what I want to write, but it’s not about wish fulfillment. Still, I always feel the need to defend myself and I hate that.

I want to get to a point where I don’t feel awkward or ashamed at all of the fact that I’m writing a fat protagonist. I want to celebrate the character just like I would any other, and give him/her just as much attention and love and care. I want to think more about her personality and her emotions than about the fact that she takes up a little more room in the world.

I spent a long time going out of my way to never say the word “fat” or to never talk about eating a lot of food because it was like, “Oh no, they’ll all notice I’m fat!” I hated being that way. Now it doesn’t bother me at all. I can suggest that I shouldn’t be one of the people in the crowded backseat because I’m bigger and not feel ashamed. I can talk about how pizza is a godsend and not feel like everyone thinks I’m a pig. I want to write characters that can do the same, that don’t feel like they have to somehow hide their bulk. This includes not necessarily using euphemisms like “curvy”. What’s wrong with the word “fat”? What about chubby or plump? (Plump is my favorite because it has all sorts of beautiful connotations to do with really good fruit and fertility and things.)

Being fat does have an every day impact. A lot of fat girls I know deal with chafing thighs. It can be hard to fit through narrow spaces when you have a large belly. There are plenty of small, practical details that could go into the story of a fat character just like they do for anyone else. And yeah, being fat, especially in a society like ours, can absolutely have an impact on your worldview. There are loads of things that impact your worldview but don’t take over your life, though.

What about the issue of health and fitness? I know you’re thinking it. How can a fat character go on an adventure if they’re out of shape and can’t run from the bad guys?

Here’s the thing. Being fat doesn’t mean being unhealthy, and being skinny doesn’t mean being healthy. That’s the same for whether or not you’re in shape. There are fat people who can easily run a mile, and skinny people who struggle to run a block. The default for most YA protagonists seems to be “in shape”, even if they never work out or do anything to keep their bodies fit. You can certainly write a fat character who struggles with the running aspect. You can write a skinny character who does, too. Just know that you can also write a fat character who’s in shape. That is something that exists. For more on fat health, totally check out this blog, which also links to even more resources on the topic.

I want to give fat teenage girls someone to look up to. I want them to see that, oh, this girl is fat like me and she’s still having an amazing adventure. She has confidence, but also struggles with the sort of things that I do. She has depth. She is fat, but she is more than that. There’s no point in ignoring the fat of a character, it just shouldn’t be the only thing that they are. They’re also people.

Here’s the part where I ask for your opinions. What do you think about this? I’d love to get a dialogue going on this. And if you have any book suggestions that involve fat characters presented in a positive or human way, please share them! I’ve been pretty critical here and it would be great to have some positivity. I’d also like to do a post in the future for Tuesday Reads about good YA with fat protagonists.

Tuesday Reads: The Diviners by Libba Bray

Welcome to the very first Tuesday Reads! Every Tuesday, I will be posting a review of a book I have recently finished, including initial thoughts, thoughts after sleeping on it, my favorite quote, the medium I read it on, and a star rating. These will be books both new and old. I have a whole list of YA fiction coming out in the next year, but I also have a stack of old sci-fi paperbacks that I borrowed from my boyfriend. Scandalously, I’ve never read Brave New World and I barely remember 1984, so you’ll be seeing those up here soon enough.

For the first Tuesday Reads, though, I’m going to cheat a little bit. Adventures in Storyland is all of three days old, and I haven’t finished reading a book since starting this blog. Instead, I’m going to kick off Tuesday Reads with a book I read earlier this semester (finished it on September 29th, according to Goodreads). This book is especially appropriate, because it is YA (my very favorite thing in the world, as you’ll discover) and it was written by a woman that I could fangirl over for hours.

The book for today is The Diviners by Libba Bray. Set in the roaring 20s, The Diviners is the story of Evie O’Neill, a feisty Midwestern girl shipped off to New York City to live with her uncle. He’s the curator at The Museum of American Folklore, Superstition, and the Occult – or as it is more commonly known, The Museum of the Creepy Crawlies. Evie is not about to let anything stand in the way of her chance to experience life in the city. But when her uncle gets called in to help investigate gruesome murders, Evie finds herself absorbed in wanting to solve them using the mysterious power she’s always kept secret.

When the 20s slang started in, I was afraid that it would be overpowering. I’m a huge fan of era-authentic language, but 20s slang could start feeling really cheesy really fast. It didn’t end up bothering me at all, though. It was immensely helpful in immersing me into the world. I thought in 20s slang for days after finishing the book. It was also wonderful for adding to Evie’s character. She was far more involved in using that slang than any of the other characters. Evie is excited to be alive, and to be living in New York in the 20s. She embraces every aspect of it – from fashion to, yes, the language.

I’m not going to lie, it’s really hard for me to not spend this post fangirling over Evie. She’s beautifully human and flawed. She’s brave and reckless, cares deeply for her friends, and yet she’s selfish and desperate to be liked. She’s consumed by the death of her brother but pretends that she isn’t. I want to talk about how she’s an amazing, strong female character, but why? She’s a flat-out amazing character, regardless of gender.

Something you will learn about me is that I am an absolute shipping fiend. The book starts out pushing the reader towards shipping Evie with Sam, a charming and manipulative young con artist, but as soon as her uncle’s assistant, Jericho, starts showing interest in her, my shipping senses went wild. I finished the book firmly on Team Jericho, despite the fact that Evie’s friend Mabel is in love with him. What can I say? Sam just can’t stand up to Jericho in my shipping heart. He’s charming and handsome, yes, but I’m a fan of the awkward, studious, unconventionally attractive Jericho with a tragic past. If Evie doesn’t take him by the series’ end, I will.
Evie’s may be the dominant story of the book, but it is not the only one. There are other characters with POV chapters. Most of them struggle with their own secrets, and they are all wonderfully written. When you think you understand someone and you’ve gotten comfortable with their place in the book, you should be prepared to have everything turned upside down.

The Diviners will leave you with dozens of suspicions and burning questions. If you’re anything like me, you’ll read it within the space of two days and then spend some time clawing at the walls, hoping the second book will somehow fall out onto your bed. Despite the fact that you’ll have to wait an as of yet unknown amount of time to read the next book, you should go pick up The Diviners as soon as possible.

Favorite quote: “…what was the point of living so quietly you made no noise at all?”

Medium: Kindle

Stars: 5/5

If you want an idea of what book you might be seeing next Tuesday, check out the Goodreads widget in the sidebar. It’s always up to date with what books I am currently reading.