“But people forgive each other. It’s like a dance.”
“I wish I knew how to do that dance,” Adri said.
“Oh,” Lily shook her head. “I don’t think it’s that you can’t do it. I think you’re thinking the whole thing is a lose-lose. Like, what if someone actually likes you? That causes all sorts of problems. Then each time you see them, you have to try and keep them. And then even if you manage that, you lose. You end up losing. Even if you go through all the work of accepting someone and occasionally looking like a fool in front of them and then figuring out if they can accept you and you can forgive each other for everything you screw up, you lose them eventually.”
Lily looked at her, her bear ears flapping in the breeze. “That’s why you I think you don’t dance, Adri. I don’t think it’s that you don’t know the steps.” (Anderson 186).
“She’s imperfect but she tries
She is good but she lies
She is hard on herself
She is broken and won’t ask for help
She is messy but she’s kind
She is lonely most of the time
She is all of this mixed up
And baked in a beautiful pie
She is gone but she used to be mine” (Bareilles)
My husband and I recently went into NYC to see the musical Waitress. Of course I take a book to read on the train, and with any luck I find myself in the quiet car. The book I was reading on the train was Midnight at the Electric< by Jodi Lynn Anderson. I cannot say enough about how wonderful this book is, and if I try to explain it to you, of course, it’s going to sound dull. But I’ll give it my best. Adri has been chosen to colonize Mars. She heads to Kansas to complete her training before the colonists are sent to the next phase of their lives. She ends up staying with a cousin she didn’t know she had. Adri thought she had no family at all. As Adri is preparing for her future, she slowly uncovers a mystery from the past. Will Adri go to Mars? This was a book I couldn’t put down.
At its core, Midnight at the Electric is a coming of age novel. What the reader quickly learns is that regardless of the point of view, the three young women in the book are all struggling with their identity: Who am I? Who am I becoming? What is my role in the world?
As a young adult novel, it’s no surprise the book is a coming of age novel. The classic coming of age novel for teens is Catcher in the Rye. This was a book I loved in high school; tutoring a student a few years ago, I reread Catcher and couldn’t find a wisp of what I loved about this book when I was 14. I found Holden to be whiny and annoying, so much so, that I started to cringe when I heard the term coming of age. And then I read Midnight, which caused me to think more seriously about coming of age. Who knows if it was simply this text or if it was the combination of reading Midnight as I was on my way to see (and my way from seeing) Waitress.
I think there are a few things going for this book. First the shifts in points of view and relationships that don’t seem to be connected but must be. This sense of mystery kept me engaged in the book. I found myself making predictions and looking for foreshadowing. Then I started thinking about other books that I would consider a readalike, to use Jennifer Buehler’s term. My first thought was A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly. A Northern Light also explores a young woman’s desire to seek her place in the world, in this case at the turn of the 20th Century. Mattie wants to finish high school and go to college in a time and place where women didn’t do this. Throw in a body found in the lake and mysterious letters, and you have a page-turner.
Another book I would add to my readalike list is A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith. The novel is a classic and follows Francie Nolan as she grows up in Brooklyn. Like A Northern Light and Midnight at the Electric, Francie struggles to find her place in the world, and since she’s a girl and from a poor immigrant family, the money for an education goes to her brother.
Ultimately, the young women who are at the center of these novels are strong, tough, and smart. They keep the world at an arm’s length because life has not been kind to them. It is like Lily says to Adri, “And then even if you manage that, you lose.” It’s better to not have the opportunity to lose. Adri focuses on her goal of being picked to colonize Mars. Mattie and Francie focus on their goals of getting an education. People will only hurt them. Their goals won’t.
I could probably go through my class library and find a hundred more titles that I could categorize as coming of age: Speak, Tangerine, Twisted, The Crossover (and that’s off the top of my head). Off the top of my head because they are books I really enjoyed and found to be really powerful.
So why these protagonists and not Holden? I think the difference is that these protagonists had a clear tangible goal, and they were clearly and legitimately struggling with something. Yes, Holden struggles, but he’s more of the prototype of the “poor little rich kid” versus Francie or Mattie who struggle with poverty. I think their clear goals also set them apart from Holden.
I was lucky enough to find a seat in the quiet car and quickly got lost in Midnight at the Electric. With my head swimming of Adri, Cathy, and Lenore, we arrived at the theater for Waitress. The first thing I noticed was that majority of the audience was upper teen-aged girls. As we settled into the show, it quickly became clear that despite some adult themes, the show is a coming-of-age musical. Admittedly, Jenna is significantly older than the protagonist of any YA book, but she is struggling to find her place in the world. She knows what she wants, but she feels she is unworthy or unable to get what she wants. It becomes clear that Jenna needs to make a change when she sings “She Used to Be Mine” in the second act. The song ends, “To fight just a little, to bring back the first in her eyes/that’s been gone, but used to be mine/used to be mine/She is messy, but she’s kind/she is lonely most of the time/She is all of this mixed up and baked in a beautiful pie/She is gone, but she used to be mine.” Along the way to finding her place in the world, Jenna gets lost, and she realizes it’s time to find herself again.
Looking at the strong female protagonists in coming-of-age YA lit, it’s no wonder that the audience of Waitress was so full young women. Hopefully, they will read the word and the world and not find themselves like Jenna, “It’s not simple to say/that most days I don’t recognize me.” They will continue to search for and find their place in the world.