Good young adult literature, or at least the literature I loved as a young(er) adult, took me and my friends seriously. There was no hint of irony in the way the writer treated our worries, alliances and romantic fails. These authors endeared themselves to us with their brave attempts to understand and sympathize with our everyday wilderness. I’m sure that we would have regarded Stefanie Lyons as one such ally.
Dating Down is written in bursts of poetry, each one labeled like a journal entry. I found this easy to read and I thought the energy level of that rhythm matched at least what I remember of the teenage rollercoaster. If form is the shape of content, this one lends itself very well to how quickly things change from day to day, summer to school, from the party to the morning after. Through inner monologues, short rhymes and longer free verse, Lyons uses bright, active language to evoke everything from a first kiss to a brutal first hangover.
Samantha Henderson is our lead character, daughter of an aspiring state senator and his late wife. She is smart, creative and a risk taker, ready to escape the standardized pressure cooker that is junior year of high school. Sam doesn’t feel much connection to her father’s new wife Jane, a.k.a Queen Vanilla, and there don’t seem to be a lot of open lines of communication coming from the Queen herself either. With her father’s senate race taking off, the relentless focus on appearances and reputation collides with Sam’s desire to experience life on a deeper level. With only painting as a release valve, she struggles to cope with the loss of her mom and anger towards her father.
Sam does find connection with her best friends April and Gavin, who are each sorting out relationships of their own. In the beginning Sam lends her ear for April’s constant problem with Ralph, and Gavin’s tearful separation from his boyfriend George. The tables turn when Sam meets X, the intriguing Café Hex barista, and proceeds to give him all of her time and energy. What begins as a flirtation becomes problematic when we notice Samantha pulling away from her closest friends, ditching them to hang out with X. I thought this part of the book was especially well written, evoking the friends some readers may have lost in pursuit of their own brooding heartthrob.
In this new relationship she finds the perfect escape. X appears to be someone who will listen, speak to her depths and judge her by her thoughts rather than the wrinkles in her skirt. Reading the passages about X reminded me a bit of watching the movie “An Education,” that beautiful aching film that captured the allure and the price of (seemingly) sophisticated dudes so well.
There are some red flags that seem to strike the reader before the characters: A stolen bike, a suspicious nickname, a telltale text. Although to her, X’s positive qualities almost totally outweigh the bad, even in these shaky instances Sam does not always proceed without a little bit of caution. In treating the situations with complexity, Lyons acknowledges that intelligent kids will make decisions that are not at all indicative of how smart they really are. I think that’s the kind of realism that young readers appreciate.
The smooth storytelling and fast pace hurtle the reader towards a harrowing conclusion at which Sam has to make some real choices. Or rather, deal with the choices she has already made. Throughout the book we know that she is consumed by this idea of authenticity, determined to feel the grit of life between her toes. When all is said and done, she and the reader are left with the possibility that the softness underfoot the whole time held more truth than she had allowed for.
Combing the stacks for a new book, I don’t know if I would head for the YA section first. Maybe that’s because what used to feel so immediate now reads as melodramatic, and the choices that were once impossible now seem obvious. Maybe. But beyond that I think there is another reason, one that has more to do with the way vulnerability seems to peak at 17 and get pushed away the moment we grow strong enough to move it aside.
Should that not inspire a little more respect from the rest of us, for the people currently living through a phase we cringe to even recall, and for those who immerse themselves in writing about it? There is no guarantee that the Samantha Hendersons of the world will choose well or safely. There is no way to tell who will drown while testing the waters of drugs, relationships and risk.
It’s a place not many adults crave to return to, which is why I think YA readers become so fiercely loyal to the authors they love. Stefanie Lyons is one such author, and although I’m not in the thick of the experiences described in the book, I know that if I were, this is exactly the kind of guide I would reach for.
(1st edition) April 8th, 2015