We are so excited that author and blogger Malinda Lo is sponsoring a series of posts about GLBT issues in YA throughout the month of June. In honor of YA Pride Month, I read a new and Slatebreaking book with a dynamic gay teen at the heart of the story. Be sure to hop over to Malinda’s blog for reviews and a history of queer YA fiction.
Tessa Masterson Will Go to Prom by Emily Franklin & Brendan Halpin. Walker & Company, 2012. Currently available.
Genre: YA Realistic Fiction
Face Value: This gets complicated, because I have my initial impression of the cover, but now that I have read the book my thoughts on the cover have changed. When I first saw this cover I was impressed with the clean and simple graphic design. I liked the tux and the rainbow bow tie because they give a subtle nod to readers that this book features a gay teen protagonist. I thought that the bold colors looked good on a shelf and that it was an attractive, eye-catching cover.
Post-reading, I see the cover in a very different way. Now that I know Tessa as a character, it is clear to me that she would never wear a slinky sexy sleeveless tuxedo catsuit to prom. Tessa bought a tux at a men’s store and had it tailored, so it would have been more true to the character to put a slim cut regular tux on the cover rather than a sexed up version. Also, this book is a coming out story. So why, when I flip the book over, do I see “Tessa + Lucas = Prom” in big pink letters? I know that this is a significant plot point to launch the story, but broadcasting it in big letters on the back of the book may make it look like this book is a boy-and-girl-have-the-best-prom-ever story…and it is that story, sort of, but not in the cliché way that the cover suggests. I wish that this cover could just own Tessa’s awesomeness and not try to mask the fact that this is a book about a lesbian who wants to go to prom with a girl as her date.
Does it break the slate? Yes, it does. Although Tessa is tentative in her coming out process because of the overwhelmingly negative reaction from her community, she has a core strength that helps her persist despite the crappy way people are treating her. Tessa is not the only character challenging norms. Tessa’s parents, her brother, Lucas, and Lucas’s mom are Slatebreaking in their own way. It is truly wonderful to read not just one Slatebreaking character but entire Slatebreaking families. It helps dull the ache of reading those jerk characters who are too closed-minded to accept Tessa as she is. (I am talking to you, Jenny Himmelrath. You stink.)
Who would we give it to? LGBTQ teens and their allies who live in small towns. This would be a great book for a high school Gay-Straight Alliance to read and discuss together.
Review: Tessa and Lucas have been friends forever. It is senior year and they are headed on very different paths: Tessa is headed to Northwestern and Lucas will be on the baseball team at Purdue. As senior prom approaches, Lucas wonders why she’s never had a boyfriend. He wonders why he can trust Tessa more than any girl he had dated. And then it hits him: they should be together. Even though they don’t have much time left together in their little hometown of Brookfield, Lucas decides that he is going to make a grand gesture and confess his love for Tessa by inviting her to prom. With a billboard. This does not quite go the way Lucas hoped it would. When he asks Tessa to prom, she hesitates. She ends up saying no. Lucas is shocked. What went wrong?
It is at that moment, when Tessa realizes that her best friend thinks he is in love with her, that she decides she has to come out to him. Tessa tells Lucas that she is a lesbian, and Lucas is shocked (and a little bit hurt). How could he not know this about his best friend?
Lucas and Tessa’s friendship is dynamically written. Both characters are confused and unsure of how to navigate this change in their relationship. Lucas initially lashes out and does some terrible things. He outs Tessa to the entire school and tells a newspaper reporter that he thinks she is being selfish and ruining prom by bringing a girl as her date. Tessa is devastated. Soon everyone in the whole town seems to know about Tessa’s sexual orientation and her desire to bring a female date to prom. And everyone in Brookfield has something to say about it.
Most of Brookfield’s students and citizens are upset with Tessa for wanting to bring a girl as her prom date. They claim that she is ruining prom for everyone else by breaking the school rules. Not only does she want to bring a girl, she wants to wear a tux! Tessa’s choice of non-traditional gender attire sends the conservatives and church types into a frenzy. Tessa thought that she was just making a decision to be herself and experience prom the way that was most comfortable for her. It seems like everyone else in Brookfield believes that she is intent on sending everyone to hell with her “sinful choices.” Kids who have always been friendly now outwardly mock and ridicule Tessa. And it’s not just the kids who are making Tessa’s life a living hell. The adults are behaving badly and shouting obscenities at her too. When the school board decides to cancel prom rather than allow Tessa to “ruin” it with her “alternative choices,” the school and community dissolve in anger and chaos.
The public outcry over Tessa is painful, and her life drastically changes. She is constantly harassed in the school hallways – and no teachers or administrators will come to her aid. Her parents own a local grocery store that is now being boycotted by members of the community. Her brother is getting in fights with students who pick on Tessa. It has become a huge mess, and Tessa feels that everything is spiraling out of control. She is desperate for support, but her best friend has betrayed her so deeply that she feels adrift. Tessa’s loneliness and frustration during this difficult time is palpable, and I commend Franklin and Halpin for making Tessa’s voice feel lively and honest. Tessa is confident in her own identity, but she is less confident in how to assert that identity in a hostile community. In Tessa, the authors have created an excellently balanced character – she is confident in her identity, but she is unsure of how to assert it in a hostile community. Tessa hasn’t been exposed to a lot of people like herself, and she struggles to know how to assert her rights when they are challenged. The ACLU steps in, and she gets some support from the LGBTQ community in Indiana, but it takes a while before Tessa understands the tools that she has available to her in order to make things right. I loved this balance of strength and vulnerability in Tessa. She is absolutely a Slatebreaker, but she is fallible, which made her all the more believable.
Although Lucas starts the story by being a huge jerk and outing his best friend in the meanest way possible, he absolutely redeems himself as a character and as a friend. It takes him a while to learn how to be an ally, but he pulls his head out of his you-know-where and realizes that Tessa needs his support. Lucas gradually sees that it is more important for him to support his best friend during her rocky coming out process rather than to be liked by everyone else in the school. He starts to speak out in support of Tessa in small ways, and to challenge the adults in the school and community who proselytize about virtue when they are spewing hate all over. I won’t spoil the very lovely ending, but Lucas tries one of his trademark grand gestures to give Tessa the best prom she could imagine. I loved Lucas because he had the self-awareness to know when he had been a huge jerk, and he worked very hard to earn Tessa’s trust back. He had to learn that his friendship with Tessa could be based on friend love rather than romantic love, which was difficult for him to grasp but well worth the struggle.
Lucas’s mom steals the scene whenever she makes an appearance. She is a no-nonsense single mom who isn’t afraid to tell her son when he’s being an awful person. She has seen the ups and downs of living in Brookfield and she bucks the trend of bigotry that pervades the community. I loved Lucas’s mom as a character because she wasn’t just the supervising parent character, but rather a fully realized adult person who had a profound impact on Lucas’s life and on the lives of others in her community. Tessa’s parents were also terrific and supportive, although they were less present in the story.
I have one reservation about this book, and it’s going to be a spoiler. STOP READING NOW IF YOU DON’T WANT TO KNOW HOW IT ENDS.
Lucas wants Tessa to have the prom-going experience, even if the school’s regular prom is cancelled. He works with some friends to put together a special prom open to teens of all sexual orientations and gender identities and calls it Tessa Masterson’s Big Gay Prom. It is a super-inspiring scene when we see these young people who have worked so hard to find acceptance gathering together to celebrate and feel good about themselves. And it’s all youth-organized, so that makes the scene a rather glorious one. But then a VIP guest shows up: Miss Kaboom, who is essentially the fictional equivalent of Lady Gaga. Miss Kaboom presents an impromptu concert that makes Tessa Masterson’s Big Gay Prom basically the coolest thing that ever happened in Indiana.
I loved everything about Tessa’s Big Gay Prom until Miss Kaboom showed up, and here’s why: it sounded like something that might actually happen. I am sure that teenagers in a small Midwestern town could band together and find a way to make an open and accepting prom and have it be a successful event. But it’s doubtful that a celebrity is going to show up as a special guest and make them the darlings of the local media. The sense of possibility that infused the final scenes of the book totally deflated when this superstar showed up. Of course it was great for Tessa’s fictional prom, but it felt discouraging because I thought, “I could never make that happen in real life.”
Despite the rather unbelievable ending, I have a great deal of respect for this book. Tessa Masterson Will Go to Prom is a really special book in that it balances the voices of a girl and a boy – a gay teen and an ally. It is fun to read and yet difficult at times when you get to a scene in which community members persecute Tessa, because you just know that stuff has happened to some real-life teen in some real-life small town. This is a very accessible book about an issue that is meaningful to teens and the adults who care about them, and I hope it ends up in the hands of many, many readers.
Reviewed from library copy.