by Amy Fitzgerald, Editorial Director, Carolrhoda Books
I still see it all the time:
What an unlikeable protagonist.
The main character is so selfish.
This girl makes terrible decisions!
I’ve invented these particular statements, but they’re composites of opinions I frequently come across in discussions about books. I find them particularly amusing when they’re applied to middle-grade and YA novels.
Of course the protagonist is selfish and makes terrible decisions, at least from time to time. That’s the nature of humanity, especially when our brains are still developing. Besides, imagine a story in which the main character does everything right. How boring. How…comfortable.
As a society, we do favor girls who allow us to feel comfortable. (Yes, it’s 2020, but old habits and ingrained conditioning die very hard.) Yet middle-grade literature is all about exploring discomfort. Few periods of life are so full of awkwardness, confusion, and self-expression gone awry. If you’re going to meet a character at this stage of life, that’s part of the deal. What’s great is that you get to confront that discomfort through the safety of fiction.
In Elizabeth Atkinson’s novel Fly Back, Agnes, twelve-year-old Agnes is deeply uncomfortable with who she is, and she tries to remedy this by inventing a new identity for herself—one that holds up pretty well while she’s spending the summer with her distracted dad, free-ranging all over a town where nobody knows her. To new acquaintances, she’s Chloe, a confident and accomplished fourteen-year-old. Yes, lying to these new friends is a terrible decision! Yes, it’s selfish! But are you telling me you can’t relate? Who among us hasn’t sometimes wished to be a different age, with different talents and different hair? Even as an adult living in what can feel like the end times, I still occasionally wish for these things.
No spoilers, except that Agnes gradually realizes you can’t fake your way into liking yourself or understanding the world around you. But this isn’t a story about shaming a girl for acting on her insecurities. It’s a story about embracing the entirety of who you are—including your mistakes—so that real growth is possible. It’s about coming full circle when you’d thought your only option was escape.
I love Agnes as a character partly because I probably wouldn’t have liked her in real life, if we’d met as middle-schoolers. Agnes behaves in ways I never allowed myself to behave at that age: She takes risks. She messes up. She makes amends and moves forward. She would stress out a perfectionist like middle-school me. And that’s a good thing. Middle-school me was uncomfortable all the time and thought that meant something was wrong with her. A book about a girl who’s just as uncomfortable, just as lost, but exploring these feelings in ways that I wouldn’t, would’ve been a gift to middle-school me. I think it could be a gift to many young readers today too.