Susie Wilde: Young adult heroines ignite sparks of hope

May. 25, 2013 @ 12:54 PM

In my adolescence, I was decidedly unpopular. If I hadn’t known it before, I certainly did when, at age 10, my best friend told me, “You’re the most hated kid in the sixth grade.”
During gym, I’d look down past my poochy belly to my shoes, wondering why their D-width didn’t make it easier to connect with a speeding kickball. Lined up against a metal fence at the edge of a field worn into a diamond by legions of elementary school students, I watched Carl, the most popular boy in the sixth grade. He was almost always chosen as team captain and it wasn’t a mystery why. His long eyelashes and already developed upper body added to his cache of classroom bad boy.
As he picked the strongest boys and prettiest girls, I’d roll my eyes, then lift them to the bright blue Rochester spring skies, silently offering sports prayers to a jock god. If I have to be picked last, please put me on Carl’s team. The umpire-like deity had to look down, see me pressed against that metal fence wishing it would swallow me along with the gimps, wimps and the other blimps.
Maybe that’s why I have a soft spot for young adult heroines who suffer the same fate. Soft spot or not, Eleanor, of Rainbow Rowell’s “Eleanor and Park” (St. Martin’s Press, ages 11 and up) is an extraordinary character. She gets on the bus her first day in a new school and, as Park notes, she’s “big and awkward. With crazy hair, bright red on top of curly. And she was dressed like … like she wanted people to look at her. Or maybe like she didn’t get what a mess she was.”
Eleanor does get what a mess she is. She’s the oldest of four children who have been deserted by their father and live unhappily with an abusive stepfather. She does her best to stay invisible, which is hard when she’s large in size, bright in hair color, and has such furious thoughts. It’s also hard at school, where scaring, shaming messages mysteriously appear on her book covers.
For reasons Park can’t fathom he begins to care about and for Eleanor. He holds his comic books so she can read, timing page turns to her reading rate and for the first time ever feels a physical response to a girl. “Holding Eleanor’s hand was like holding a butterfly. Or a heartbeat. Like holding something complete, and completely alive.”
Their relationship develops slowly, a perfect representation of two characters unsure about themselves. Their timid and thrilling steps are believable, beautiful and sometimes heartbreaking.
Paul Rudnik’s “Gorgeous” (Scholastic, ages 12 and up) takes a different approach. Eighteen-year-old Becky Randle, has a terrified, reclusive mother who dies at 400 pounds in their trailer park. This and mediocre looks set Becky up for unpopularity. Like “Eleanor and Park,” “Gorgeous” has a remarkable voice, instead of lyrical, however, the author’s tone is witty, irreverent and humorous. The book’s fantastical elements are balanced with precise fashion descriptions as Becky meets Tom Kelly, the world’s top designer. This madman promises he’ll create three dresses to transform Becky into the most beautiful girl in the world. Impossible? Yes. But somehow in Tom’s red dress, the world doesn’t see an “awkward, slouching, pigeon-toed, a-diet-wouldn’t-kill-you, not-pretty girl with the drab brown hair and the plain brown eyes and a little too much chin,” but a young woman who ignites the passion of men and envy of women all over the world. Happily Becky’s beauty is much more than skin deep. Her wit and courage are inspiring, and the story is impossible to put down and haunting after the book ends.
Meg Medina’s “Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass” (Candlewick, ages 13 and up) is not just a grabber title, but the first words Piddy Sanchez hears on her first day in a new school. This bright 10th-grader can’t figure out why, or even who Yaqui is. Nonetheless, chocolate milk bombs fly across the cafeteria and constant threats immobilize Piddy until she can’t tell her single mother, focus on grades, or sleep. She’s driven to sexually confusing situations because of this bully who is “hate on two feet.” When the promised attack comes it’s more devastating than either Piddy, or the reader can imagine. Characterization, imagery, poetic interweaving of Spanish language, and realistic dialogue contrast the torment of a “maldita” whom Piddy’s mother’s best friend tells her “burns with hate,” envying Piddy because one day her intelligence and resilience will make her think that “she dreamed this hell hole.”
This trio of books needs to reach girls who feel hated in that tenuous time of becoming themselves.
Read more at Susie Wilde’s website,