Issues around self-image and self-identity have always been a key element in adolescent development, on both individual and social levels. Two new YA books examine these questions through the experiences of high-school seniors. These aren’t merely novels about triumph over adversity; both books cut deeper, exploring questions about the self and one’s role in families, social groups, and larger communities.
The Story of My Face, from Victoria’s Leanne Baugh, begins with Abby reluctantly boarding a bus. It’s an icy day in March, and Abby is returning to school after months of hospitalization and rehabilitation – including multiple plastic surgeries – following a bear attack, which she barely survived. Her face is badly scarred, a physical representation of the wounds separating her past from her present. It’s not just that her friends have turned against her, or that her one-time boyfriend, Liam – who also survived the attack – can’t seem to even look at her. Or that the local bully, Mason, sensing weakness, begins a campaign of harassment and violence against her. The scars of the attack have had a profound impact on Abby’s inner life as well. Her dreams have collapsed into what she perceives to be her new reality, and her confidence has been extinguished. Even the outdoors, which used to offer her a beloved refuge, seems lost to her.
Baugh handles Abby’s recovery, and the changes in her life, with considerable sensitivity and grace. New friends emerge, including members of a support group and Abby’s classmate Tammy (who used to be Jeremy), an expert on embracing one’s inner truth. “The most important thing transitioning has taught me,” Tammy says, in a drama-class monologue, “is that life is way too short to worry about what other people think of you.” This is just the beginning of what Abby needs to hear, and a vital first step in what will become her own journey of self-understanding and acceptance.
Confessions of a Teenage Leper, the new novel from award-winning writer Ashley Little (The New Normal; Anatomy of a Girl Gang), focuses on Texan teen Abby Furlowe (yes, another Abby) as she grapples with an infectious disease. Or, as she puts it, when divulging the diagnosis to her mother, “I’m a leper!” The early pages follow Abby through the summer before her senior year, as symptoms of the undiagnosed disease first appear and she simultaneously vies for a place on the cheerleading team. Abby comes across as glib and opinionated but generally sympathetic. Once the school year begins, though, it becomes startlingly clear that Abby is a mean girl, prone to snap judgments, who labels others and taunts classmates in the cafeteria. Her viciousness is so extreme that her boyfriend, a basketball star and one of the most popular boys in school, dumps her: “You’re hot as hell. But … you’re not a very nice person.”
Abby’s mercilessness turns inward when she is diagnosed with Hansen’s disease (her eventual adoption of the formal term, as opposed to her earlier use of the more common pejorative, is a reflection of her ultimate growth). Of course she thinks everyone is looking at her and judging her; that’s the only behaviour she can relate to.
Abby’s journey in Confessions of a Teenage Leper isn’t a matter of reclaiming her past life and dreams (as it is in The Story of My Face). Rather, her experience with the disease, relationships with fellow sufferers, renewed awareness of her family – along with the impossibility of attaining a cheerleading scholarship to USC – leads to a stark re-evaluation of her life, beliefs, and future. Little handles this with a realistic candour and narrative ease, skilfully rendering Abby at every stage of her journey.
Both Confessions of a Teenage Leper and The Story of My Face end with prom scenes, simultaneously embracing and subverting one of the most traditional (and, let’s face it, hackneyed) tropes of the coming-of-age genre. And it works. The scenes serve as emotional touchpoints (though the novels’ climaxes occur elsewhere) while providing subtle reminders that there is a story for every face in the crowd.