Patrick Jones’s 2004 book, Things Change, was the first young-adult novel I’d ever read about domestic violence within a teenage relationship; the book follows our protagonist, Joanna, as she falls for Paul—her school’s resident bad boy and her polar opposite—and quickly discovers that being dangerous is more than just a persona. Over time, Paul becomes less loving and more threatening toward Joanna before finally escalating to abusing her. Though Joanna eventually escapes the relationship, the book’s conclusion reminds readers that abuse is an unending cycle: The epilogue includes a jarring scene where Joanna sees Paul out with another girl and realizes he’s also abusing her. Though we don’t know what happens next to Paul or his new girlfriend, the book ends with the notion that he’s isolated another girl and she likely feels as unsupported and alone as Joanna once did.
Now, more than a decade later, Alyssa Sheinmel’s newest novel What Kind of Girl takes Things Change a step forward, exploring the communal impact of intimate-partner violence among teenagers instead of solely focusing on a single victim’s isolation. In What Kind of Girl, Sheinmel—a prolific YA author who’s written a number of books about how teenagers handle social issues, including 2015’s Faceless and 2019’s A Danger to Herself and Others—introduces us to Maya, a well-liked and social teenager, who takes a serious concern to her school principal: Her boyfriend, Mike, hit her—and she has a nearly pink bruise to prove it. The accusation quickly spreads across Maya and Mike’s high school, becoming community gossip as various people form their own judgments about the alleged incident.
What Kind of Girl’s unique structure is what makes it noteworthy amid a crop of YA books that take on serious social issues: Instead of solely focusing on Mike or Maya, the book is told through the perspective of multiple people who are all identified by persona instead of name. There’s the Burnout, the Bulimic, the Popular Girl, and the Girlfriend among others, who all provide more context for the different ways high-school-age girls understand and respond to allegations of abuse. The Popular Girl, for example, says, “I’m as much of a feminist as the next girl. I’m all for the sisterhood,” before coming around to, “But I’m not sure what that has to do with what’s happening at my now. What’s happening here, at my school.” After kissing a boy in the school parking lot, the Burnout thinks to herself, “Not all guys are like Mike Parker. I know that.” The Bulimic questions her own feminism because she finds it hard to commit to body positivity before ultimately deciding, “I’m sorry, but if there’s a scale of what it takes to be a good feminist, I’m pretty sure that hating a guy for beating up his girlfriend counts a whole lot more than embracing the circle of fat around your stomach.”
At times, the structure overwhelms rather than adds to the overall narrative. I had to take notes and craft a family tree of sorts to understand how each character is linked; it frustrated me until I realized Sheinmel’s reason for taking this approach to this issue. All of these personas, from the Cool Girl to the Bulimic, are really the various parts of two specific characters—Maya and Junie. Maya is both the Popular Girl and the Girlfriend whereas Junie, her best friend, is both the Cool Girl and the Anxious Girl. Maya is both the victim of violence and the person questioning the validity of that violence, and they’re both attempting to navigate the aftermath of intimate-partner violence.
No matter how YA authors attempt to frame it, high school is high school and teenagers still struggle to understand how abuse happens, how to handle it when it happens to them, and how to move forward in their lives. Though Maya and Junie have the language of feminism to better help them navigate a new reality and they’re able to reference news sources that offer more context about the causes of abuse, they still struggle to regain their footing. As both the Popular Girl and the Girlfriend, Maya is torn between wanting to appease the people around her (which results in her letting her peers convince her that someone other than Mike abused her) and being in love with her abusive boyfriend. As both the Anxious Girl and the Activist, Junie wants to lead the charge against domestic violence and defend her friend (leading her to protest in Maya’s honor without first seeking Maya’s permission) but is unable to follow through because she has a panic attack in the middle of the protest.
While Mike’s abuse of Maya is a huge thread throughout the novel, Sheinmel makes it clear that both Junie and Maya are struggling with parental discord, disordered eating, and other issues that influence their responses to the allegation. What Kind of Girl is strongest when it focuses on action rather than relying on the characters’ internal thoughts and musings: When Junie and Maya attend a party toward the end of the book, we’re privy to a fight between Mike and one of his male classmates. We hear Junie and Maya hear the gossiping taking place behind their back and the whispered rumors on the lips of their classmates. We visualize Mike and his classmate punching each other. We can feel Mike grab Maya’s arm in a way that appears gentle to outsiders but is really a warning sign. These highly descriptive moments are triggering, snapping us firmly into Maya or Junie’s interior lives where pain is normal.
Once readers gain a sense of place and understand who these personas are representative of, the book is almost spellbinding, forcing them to reckon with the impact of domestic violence. Ultimately, What Kind of Girl is a question about who struggles with abuse and its fallout; the answer is any kind of girl: the Activist, the Burnout, the Bulimic, the Popular Girl, the Girlfriend. No one girl is immune to abuse, but together we can support one another through it.