So much of high school is discovering who you are; what you love, what you want to do with your life, what kind of people you want in your life. Teen years are supposed to be about finding your identity and most YA books include that in the narrative. But some books cover the idea of identity more in depth than others in ways that are incredibly important.
Some YA books really work to challenge what identity is made of. Books like She, Myself, and I by Emma Young call attention to the importance of a body to identity. Rosa’s brain is transplanted into Sylvia’s body, causing Rosa to question who she is. Part of her identity was that she was quadriplegic and she needed her brother and her parents, but in a new body where she can walk and move as she pleases, she no longer has those facets of her identity, so who is she? And if she’s in Sylvia’s body, is she still Rosa or is she Sylvia?
This narrative about the body and identity is particularly important these days when there’s so much talk about bodies and what they mean. More and more, transgender and nonbinary people come up in the public conversation, particularly in regard to their rights. People claim that your gender and the body you have always match because of chromosomes, that your body decides what you should wear, what toys you can play with as a child, what bathroom you can use, what careers you can have.
But how can anyone claim that the body you’re born with should dictate your life when bodies can be changed? Sometimes, body changes are even encouraged. As a society, we encourage people to lose or gain weight to have the “right” kind of body. People, but particularly people assigned female at birth (AFAB), are encouraged to have surgery to fix “flaws” in their bodies – noses, breasts, stomachs, facial construction. We can put holes in our body, we can change our hair color or remove our hair all together, we can put ink on our skin or self-tanner to change the color. There’s even a billion-dollar makeup industry that exists to change how people look, enhancing good qualities and hiding flaws.
Despite all of that, society still ties bodies and identity together. One of the perks of YA books is that teen readers can watch as the main characters in novels figure out their identity and how unrelated bodies are; readers can see there are so many far more important pieces to someone’s identity.
Many YA novels use romance to help a main character figure out who they are. In finding love (or being part of any relationship, truthfully), they begin to understand themselves more and figure out who they want to be. Boys by Heather Ross shows this brilliantly by explaining what kind of girl balances out with what kind of boy, in a way that applies to all genders. Unlike most other books, Boys calls to attention the idea that relationships and heartbreak can equally impact identity.
But relationships and heartbreak still aren’t the only thing that forms who we are. It’s also the things we love, where we grow up, our family, our beliefs, our tastes. And identities can change as we grow older and get to know ourselves better – people are still figuring out who they are well into their thirties, forties, and fifties. Identity is complicated and flexible and the best any of us can do when we’re young is try to be comfortable in who we are and understand how that might change later. And we have to separate our bodies from our identity, from our value, which is exactly what Rosa demonstrates.