Earlier in this series, Jessica Spotswood talked about female friendship in YA fiction. Today, we’re going to revisit that topic with a post from Morgan Matson. Let’s keep talking about where and how we are and are not seeing positive girl friendships in YA fiction.
Morgan Matson received her MFA in Writing for Children from the New School. She was named a Publishers Weekly Flying Start author for her first book, Amy & Roger’s Epic Detour, which was also recognized as an ALA Top Ten Best Book for Young Adults. Her second book, Second Chance Summer, won the California State Book Award. She lives in Los Angeles.
When I was asked to do this guest post, and given a list of possible topic ideas, the one that I knew I had to write about, without a second thought, was friendship in YA literature. Because of the nature of the books I’ve been writing recently, it’s been on my mind. But it’s been something I’ve been thinking about, on and off, for years.
In the spring of 2012, I was putting the final touches on Second Chance Summer, my second book. The book was pretty much done – which meant it was time to figure out what the next book was going to be.
I had an idea. But I didn’t love it. It was about a girl, and a boy, and a breakup, and a new boy, some family drama, and maybe some stuff with Ibsen and the school’s theater department (this idea never really got very far). But I kept thinking that it felt like I’d already written the book, before I even started it. And a persistent thought kept swirling around in my head – I didn’t just want to write about romance. I wanted to write about friendship.
In my high school experience, it was my friends who were my constant, my tight-knit group of four (and then five, and then six) who were the center of my world. Boys were there, of course – to swoon over and crush on and date and go to the prom with and sob over at two AM. They were there filling the pages of my journal and the subject of hours and hours of phone calls. But when I think back on my high school experience, the boys were the cameos and exciting guest stars, while my friends were the series regulars. Friendship was, in experience, more important to me than romance. So why hadn’t friendship featured more in my books until now?
Why did it seem like friendship was always taking a backseat to romance in YA?
It just seems like, more often than not (and I count myself in this group) authors are much more focused on the romance, and the friend often takes the role the BFF takes in a rom-com – there in the background, to talk to the heroine about her boy problems, and not do much else.
It raised the question for me – is romance simply easier to write? There is a lot of mileage to be gotten out of chemistry between two characters, that initial spark, the obstacles, the feeling that the romance is building to something….whereas friendship usually has much fewer obstacles, a more difficult-to-describe chemistry, and only builds to…a deeper and more meaningful friendship. Is this why friendship loses out to love?
This is not to say that there aren’t absolutely amazing examples of YA girl friendships. With Scarlett and Halley in Someone Like You, Sarah Dessen entered the Book Friendship Hall of Fame. Theirs is a friendship that goes back years, with a rich history that feels real. Even though we’re seeing Halley and Scarlett in high school, you can sense in their interactions their younger selves. It’s not a static, idealized friendship, either. There is deep affection between the girls, but they keep secrets from each other and let each other down and get in fights. It felt like a real friendship, the kind that shows up rarely in books, the kind that makes you want to call your BFF immediately because something in it reminds you of her. When I saw Scarlett make an appearance in This Lullaby (another Dessen knock-it-out-of-the-park friendship book, which I’ll be discussing in a bit) I was as excited to see her as any friend I hadn’t caught up with in a while. And as I got to the end of her scene, I was more disappointed than I realized I would be that we hadn’t gotten any mention of Halley. But I knew we really didn’t need one – of course Scarlett and Halley were fine. They were those kinds of friends.
I also really love the friendship dynamic between Emily and Meg in Siobhan Vivian’s Same Difference. These are girls who have been friends for years, whose friendship is tested the summer that Emily attends an art program, and Meg gets a serious boyfriend. I love this book because it deals with change within a friendship. Although it’s a bumpy journey to get there, Meg and Emily are still friends at the book’s end – and they have learned to stay friends while each allowing the other one to grow and change. I feel like seeing friendships evolve is also rarer than it should be in YA, where friendships can sometimes feel very static.
Jessi Kirby’s Golden also paints a picture of a friendship that I love. Parker and her BFF Kat have a fantastic dynamic – Parker is studious and hardworking, Kat is more daring and willing to take risks. But Kat is also the more realistic of the two, and pushes Parker to succeed, even knowing that this means that Parker will be leaving their small town – and her – behind. It’s never saccharine or overdone, but this book is a great example of what being a truly good friend can sometimes look like.
These are all amazing examples of the one-on-one BFF-dom. I feel like I see this much more in YA than the group of friends. But I’d spent high school with a group of friends, and I knew how much fun – but also how challenging – it could be, to navigate the changing dynamics between people. There are a few books that have done the group of friends so, so well, and the very best example of this is, in my opinion, are the friends in This Lullaby, also by Sarah Dessen. Not only is it one of my all-time favorite books, but there is such a great friend group at the center of it – an established group, with history and tradition and tension and rivalries. Reading this book was the first time I felt like the experience I’d had with my high school friends was truly represented. I would say that Remy’s arc with her friends is just as important – and hard to separate from – her romantic arc with Dexter. And the friends grow and change in this book, and their dynamics within the group change.
I also think that a special shout-out in the friend-group category needs to be given to Ann Brashares and the Sisterhood books. The friendship between these four girls is the focus of the series, and I loved that about it. The boys come and go but the girls are the constant, loyal to each other (sometimes to their detriment) above anyone else.
One thing I noticed, as I started to put together this list, was that all these books contain established friendships. These aren’t new friends being made over the course of the book, but friendships that have history and texture to them, that feel lived-in and real, not something new and shiny.
I have certainly been guilty of reaching for the new and shiny. In both Amy & Roger and Second Chance Summer, the friends the heroine previously had are dispatched with early on so that she can meet new people (or re-meet old friends in the case of SCS). And I notice this phenomenon a lot in YA, with a new friend there (usually along with a new boy) to take the heroine through the story.
Is it harder to write the history of a friendship (or a friend group) than a new and shiny friend, where there is everything to learn? In the same vein, is it harder to write about a relationship than the swoony, falling-in-love of it all?
This brings me back to the love vs. friendship question. I am also very guilty of this in my own writing. My heroines make friends throughout the course of the books, but the real connections they make are with boys. Romance is elevated above friendship, and by writing the books the way that I have, the message, albeit unintentional, is that romance is, in the end, more important than friendship.
There is also a striking lack of platonic girl-boy friendships in YA. There are lots of friendships that turn into romance (again, I’m guilty of this) but fewer girl-boy friendships in which neither party is interested in the other. When I was writing Since You’ve Been Gone, I knew from the beginning that I wanted it to be about friendship – all different kinds. An established best-friendship, a group of friends, girl-guy friends, guy-guy friends, new friends, old friends, friendship between siblings, friendship between parents and teens. (And of course, there’s a romance as well. I mean, I wasn’t going to quit cold turkey.) I’m sure once the book is released, I’ll know how successful this was. But one of the things I’m proudest of in the book is a friendship between a guy and a girl that never turns into anything except a deeper friendship. I think that by always turning friendship into romance in YA, we’re denying a major an important fact of life – it’s possible (and recommended!) to have friends whom you don’t want to kiss.
I feel like I have raised more questions than I’ve answered in this post – but they are questions that I am trying to address, in my own way. My new book series, The Girls of Summer, is about a group of four long-time best friends who come together every summer. There are boys, of course, but friendship will be at the heart – and at the center – of the books.