Beyond Bella

As a ditzy YA writer and researcher, I spend a lot of time thinking about children’s literature, and a lot of time feeling slightly baffled. Today, these two states of mind melded together when I read this article in The Bookseller. Caitlin Moran, who has recently published her first YA novel, makes this statement about literature for teens:

“It’s always about teenage boys going off and having amazing adventures. You don’t see teenage girls anywhere unless they’re being bitten by vampires so I wanted to write about a funny, weird teenage girl having adventures, particularly sex adventures.”

Judging by the comments, I wasn’t the only one who was confused by this statement. I’ve read a lot of children’s, young adult (YA) and new adult (NA) books, both as a child and an adult reader, and although I would definitely agree that YA books have a problem when it comes to diversity, it’s not the representations of gender that are out of balance. There are very few books about gay or bi teens, trans teens, POC teens, disabled teens. Those books that do feature them often make them a sidekick to the white, abled, cishet lead, or use them to teach the imagined white, abled, cishet reader a Very Important Lesson about being tolerant and nice.

It’s true that Twilight took up a great deal of space in the world of YA literature. The book and film series may have finished, but Bella and her beaus have cast a long shadow. Teen vampire romances still flourish in series like House of Night, Vampire Academy and The Vampire Diaries. But stating that ‘you don’t see teenage girls anywhere’ except in books like these? That’s where my bafflement set in.

The Twilight franchise has been succeeded by The Hunger Games and Divergent, two series with teenage girls as leads. Katniss and Tris don’t get bitten by vampires – instead, they fight for their families and take down corrupt governments. Unlike the clumsy, passive Bella, Katniss and Tris have agency, fighting back against societies designed specifically to oppress them; and their adventures, although often horrifying, are undoubtedly amazing.

It’s true that both series are a little short on ‘sex adventures’; the epilogue of The Hunger Games mentions Katniss’ children, and Allegiant features a soft-focus sex scene between two characters in a committed relationship. However, there are plenty of other books that focus on teenage sexuality; The Boy in the Bubble by Ian Strachan, Forever by Judy Blume, Ruby by Rosa Guy, Rage: A Love Story by Julie Ann Peters, or the raunchy, magically realist Lady: My Life as a Bitch by Melvin Burgess. Whether the topic is first love, toxic relationships, casual sex, or a combination of the three, contemporary YA books don’t shy away from showing teenagers negotiating sex and relationships; in fact, the Twilight was arguably unusual in its heavy focus on abstinence until marriage.

And, of course, there are the stories that cover both bases – teenage heroines who have amazing adventures and amazing sex. I grew up on Tamora Pierce’s The Song of the Lioness series, a quartet of novels about Alanna, a girl who disguises herself as a boy and trains as a knight. She travels her fantasy world, saves her kingdom, defeats an evil sorcerer, and has her share of fantastic, guilt-free sex before settling down with the (literally) lovable rogue George. Pierce’s other books follow a similar theme; girls and young women are heroic warriors, powerful magicians or dogged police officers, but are always taken seriously as people, and never, ever shamed for their sexualities.

As I said above, YA literature still has a long way to go in that it’s overwhelmingly white, straight, cis and abled. But well-written heroines with personal and sexual agency are far from being a rare breed in modern teen novels. Katniss, Tris and Alanna, along with the teenage heroines of Mortal Engines, Uglies and dozens of other novels, are proof that YA literature is tackling sexism. And, thanks to books like Hero (Perry Moore), Luna (Julie Ann Peters), Parrotfish (Ellen Wittlinger), Huntress (Malinda Lo), Bird (Crystal Chan), The Chaos (Nalo Hopkinson) and The Deep (Zetta Elliott), YA literature is fighting against other forms of marginalisation as well.


Alice’s YA novel, Spider Circus, is available from Amazon and Smashwords, and features a badass teenage heroine who has amazing adventures. (She doesn’t have any sex, but give her a break, she’s only fourteen).


About Alice Nuttall

Alice Nuttall is a caffeine-guzzling knitter who divides her time between Oxford and the various worlds in her head. She is the author of a YA fantasy novel, Spider Circus, and three webcomics, Footloose, Cherry, and Black Market Magic, as well as several short stories.
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