YA and the Manic Pixie Dream Girl

The Passed Note is a YA lit mag by adult writers and artists.

This month on Twitter, The Passed Note staff talked about girlhood and womanhood in YA literature. We talked about the roles women and girls take, what traits we’d like to see characters adopt more, what we’d like to see authors stop doing. But one thing I realized only after the chat was this weird manic pixie dream girl character that so much of YA has. (I’m sorry, Mr. John Green, but every one of your female heroines has these characteristics. But your books are good, so we’ll forgive.)

My husband and I have known each other since high school. We met amid a world of sawdust and drill bits and vibrato–yes, we were theatre nerds. I was the girl who knew every line of most Sondheim songs and Shakespeare sonnets but nothing about why her own feelings were so ragey. He was the boy who hid his insecurity behind table saws and a light board. He was sarcastic, grumpy, and a bit of a bad boy; I was flighty, aloof, and I… well, I was a bit of an attempt of a manic pixie dream girl.

So flash forward (grumble numbers grumble) years, and we encounter the brilliant pairing of David Levithan and Rachel Cohn– Dash & Lily’s Book of Dares. If you’ve read the first book, it’s a sweet, rambling encounter through the streets of New York and two kids in love treating the city as their personal Christmas playground. Through a passbook, the two kids fall in love yada yada yada there’s hot chocolate and a devastating scene where Lily gets drunk on peppermint schnapps and discovers FEELINGS. Lily’s sticky sweet. She makes Dash cookies. She gives him hope in Christmas again after Dash’s Christmases have all been ruined by his parents’ ugly divorce. I think Natalie Portman’s character in Garden State might be her pen pal.

It… was us. I was Lily, he was Dash. I was shrill and magic; he was grumpy and good hearted. But I couldn’t ignore how much Lily seemed like an (admittedly better written) automatic manic pixie dream girl. I mean, the girl bakes and walks dogs professionally and started a carol singing troupe. Who does that?! (I did that. I tried to be that. Because that’s what almost every movie and tv show and book I consumed said I should be.)

Then we read the sequel that came out this year, The Twelve Days of Dash & Lily. The book starts with Dash’s description of how the past ten months of he and Lilly’s relationship has progressed. It’s clear that Lily’s different in this book. Her beloved grandfather had a tragic fall over the summer, and it seems Lily’s ability to hold everything together has fallen with him. Lily isn’t unreal anymore–she’s so human it hurts. Lily runs away from home (and comes back; she’s fine, don’t worry). Lily (accidentally) tries pot. Lily struggles with depression over not feeling “up to Christmas this year” and over how nothing is the same.

I don’t speak the term depression lightly, as Lily meets many of the symptoms: loss of interest, lack of sleep, mood swings, anxiety, guilt…. A peppermint mocha sends her into high spirits only to have a text crash her into despair. And Lily’s depressed with good cause: Her grandpa has moved from powerful to frail. Her beloved older brother moves in with his boyfriend. Her parents are considering moving to Connecticut in the middle of her senior year. And Lily’s own love life is lost in her whirlwind realization that she can’t take care of everyone anymore. Her perfect world is shattered.

Lily’s moods are the third most important character in the book. And it’s awesome. At seventeen, you’re always told your feelings aren’t valid. Look at any scene where a young girl tells her father she loves someone–the response is “you don’t know what love is.” So having this entire book devoted to Lily and her struggles with depression is exactly what young women need. It’s exactly what I needed to be reminded how exhausting being a stereotype can be.  No spoilers, but Lily is no manic pixie dream girl at the end. Lily is strong. Lily is all of us.

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