Hard Love and Its Diverse YA Genius
About the Book and Such
In October of 2015, I presented at the Pennsylvania Council of Teachers of English and Language Arts annual conference–that’s PCTELA (pick-TEL-la) for short. Lots of speakers touching on the importance of diverse YA. One of the keynote speakers was Dr. Toby Emert, of Agnes Scott College in Georgia. His talk on the responsibility of teachers to include LGBT+ topics in class really inspired me. And it gave me the chance to talk with strangers about LGBT terms in a small group icebreaker… yeah!
Among other subjects, Dr. Emert recommended some diverse young adult literature titles that would explore LGBT themes without being too “risky” in the eyes of parents and administrators. One title that stuck out to me was Ellen Wittlinger’s Hard Love, a 1999 release about a boy who falls in love with a lesbian over their shared interest in making zines. Yes, zines. Remember those?
Zines aside, Hard Love also received a Printz Honor in the award’s inaugural year. Walter Dean Myers’ Monster won the big medal and Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak won an honor too, so you know competition was stiff!
And if all that wasn’t enough to convince me to read Hard Love, I recalled that Wittlinger also wrote 2007’s Parrotfish, one of the first (or the first?) YA novels with a transgender main character. In fact, Parrotfish is even old enough to warrant an updated edition!
All this considered, it goes without saying I was thrilled to find the audiobook of Hard Love in my public library’s catalog. I promptly borrowed it through the (free and amazing) app OverDrive.
Not everything in Hard Love stands the test of time. The zine focus is satisfyingly nostalgia-inducing, have no doubt. But I also felt like the zine thing kept me at a distance from the story too, because it’s so specific. Main characters John / Gio and Marisol look at watches to tell the time and communicate by snail mail, for crying out loud. On the surface, the whole premise seems like a YA retelling of Chasing Amy. I always felt a bit removed from the book, because the novel is so of its time, and yet that time isn’t far enough away for the book to be read like historical fiction or a hallowed “classic.”
However, I imagine most readers will love the recent-past setting. I know it made me want to run some photocopies and staple a bunch of stuff. (Hey, I’m a cyber teacher; I don’t have that part of the job.) Taken as an artifact of the recent past, Hard Love succeeds on all levels–both in showing teen life in that blink between word processing and the internet, and in showing what the genre of YAL can achieve.
My main issue with the book, if I have one, actually has nothing to do with the story. The voice of the audiobook, Mark Webber, sounds too much like an Abercrombie and Fitch model, to make a 2000s reference. To me, he didn’t sound like the cynical, self-conscious narrator John, who I imagined like Holden Caulfield meets Puck from Glee. Once I consciously realized the voice mismatch, though, I was able to get over it and enjoy the character more.
Hard Love, in many ways, feels decidedly ahead of its time too. Its portrayals of sexuality and intersectionality floored me. This book is a poster child for diversity! Here are four reasons why:
- The main character, John, says some stuff that makes me think he leans towards asexuality. Or maybe demisexuality. Suffice it to say, though, that he’s no cookie-cutter male lead when it comes to his heart.
- On the other hand, Marisol, the subject of John’s zine-envy, smacks big time of “manic pixie dream girl,” and she does fit that trope in a lot of ways. But her saving grace is her massive and unapologetic intersectionality. Let’s see… Marisol is a lesbian, adopted, bicultural, goth, and crazy smart. Her parents are Cuban and Anglo, not to mention her biological origins in Puerto Rico. She attends a ritzy school and has gotten herself an acceptance letter into the Ivy League. For lesser writers, all these traits cooking in a single character might come off as pandering. Wittlinger is no lesser writer.
- Yes, John falls in love with an unattainable lesbian, but the cliche ends there. I hear a lot of complaints about YA romance and YA leading ladies and lads. Hard Love breaks the mold–seventeen years ago, mind you!–and tells the story of a male-female relationship that goes beyond its romantic beginnings. I don’t want to spoil the ending entirely, so I’ll leave it at that.
- Finally, the last diverse thing about Hard Love is when Marisol gloriously calls out John’s slut shaming… years before “slut shaming” was even a thing. Again, no spoilers, but that scene had me wanting to give Marisol a standing ovation. And John too, for letting himself get schooled.
Hard Love isn’t hard to love at all. Read it if you like diverse YA, writing and the creative process, meaningful male-female relationships, or Ani DiFranco.
Final 5-Star Rating: