Earlier this week I had the great luck and pleasure of attending the Fall '08 preview at HarperCollins. Thanks, Mimi! Reviews of the books will have to wait, but I did want to blog about a conversation I had with an editor. We were discussing my vast love of Jacquelyn Mitchard's All We Know of Heaven and got to talking about Mitchard's first YA novel, Now You See Her, which I thought was creepy and wonderful. I said that one of the things I liked about Now You See Her was that it reminds me of Chris Lynch's Inexcusable, the way the main character is totally unreliable. In both books, the reader is supposed to believe that the main character is always telling us the honest truth, when it's exactly the opposite that turns out to be the case. (Invisible by Pete Hautman is another great example of this.) The editor I was talking to...and I wish I'd picked up her card because I am a social clod and forgot her name...said that she had been worried that kids wouldn't go for Now You See Her because of how unlikeable the main character is. I thought it was much more important that Mitchard told a compelling, freaky story, and then I thought of something else I'd learned earlier in the week.
At a regional book evaluation, the school librarian who was assigned to read and review Freak Show by James St. James said that her students didn't like the book at all because 1) the main character's voice was annoying and 2) the main character was gay and therefore female readers couldn't fall in love with him, which leads to 3) neither male nor female readers liked Billy and thought he was too ridiculous for words. I loved Freak Show and would argue that ridiculousness is the point of the book, but that's for another post.
The two thoughts about likable main characters and romances collided in my head and I said, "I think if you're dealing with a romance, then yes, the main character needs to be likable, but Hope's unlikability works in Now You See Her because the story is not a romance."
For the past few days I haven't been able to decide if I'm a genius or a complete idiot for saying that. On the one hand, it seems like a logical conclusion. If you want to see a romance succeed, you should like the people in the book enough to wish them happiness. But I also know of popular romances, or stories that involve a romantic line even if it's not the center of the plot, in which one or more of the people involved in the relationship isn't likable at all. Did Freak Show not work for those particular readers because they didn't like Billy and therefore couldn't get behind his romance? If that's the case I can certainly understand it, but then is that separate from the fact that Billy, for all intents and purposes, is gay?
I have to wonder: What, exactly, makes a YA romance work, if it's more than the simple likability of the characters? And as a side note, I'm still thinking about the girls who didn't like Billy Bloom because he was gay. Do they then not read any GLBTQ? I know more girls who read in that genre than guys, but I know there's no one reason for who reads what genre and who doesn't.