Author: Siobhan Vivian
Publisher: Push (Scholastic)
Release Date: September 1, 2010
Reviewer: Kim McCollum-Clark
Summary (From Goodreads):
Natalie Sterling wants to be in control. She wants her friends to be loyal. She wants her classmates to elect her student council president. She wants to find the right guy, not the usual jerk her school has to offer. She wants a good reputation, because she believes that will lead to good things.
But life is messy, and it’s very hard to be in control of it. Not when there are freshman girls running around in a pack, trying to get senior guys to sleep with them. Not when your friends have secrets they’re no longer comfortable sharing. Not when the boy you once dismissed ends up being the boy you want to sleep with yourself – but only in secret, with nobody ever finding out.
Slut or saint? Winner or loser? Natalie is getting tired of these forced choices – and is now going to find a way to live life in the sometimes messy, sometimes wonderful in-between.
Not That Kind of a Girl announces its theme with its title. We only use that phrase with boys or men with a kind of feminine slur in our voices, flapping our eyelashes or something. Only girls and women use it on themselves and other girls unselfconsciously. This realistic high school novel is from 2010 and features a first-person narrator, Natalie, a high-performing, ambitious senior, who definitely judges “those other” kinds of girls. She was embarrassed and angry that her best friend was gamed into a compromising position back sophomore year, and the later behaviors of her classmates, both male and female, bring the anger back. She sees all of their testing of their sexual limits as exploitative. She writes them off, even her best friend Amber, and a new freshman named Spencer, whom Natalie used to babysit years ago. And then, to turn the (forgive me) screws even tighter, Natalie blithely forgives herself for sneaking around, in escalating ways, with handsome football player Connor.
Siobhan Vivian keeps the focus on the actions and explanations of the characters, particularly the girls, in this pointed and complex little book. Amber and Spencer are at different points in their self-regard and their experience of their gender roles and sexuality. Spencer, though younger, feels her personal agency keenly and believes she is in control of her choices. Even when a “sexting” picture is sent around in revenge, she refuses to consider herself a victim. She calls Natalie out on her judgment and on her double-sided position, sneaking out with Connor and still maintaining she is above such things. Amber wants to heal and move forward from what happened to her, but Natalie constantly reminds her of her poor choices and the inevitable consequences of being involved with guys—any guys. But Amber comes to see that her past choices should not define her future, and she tries to move on, even if it is without her best friend.
Natalie’s conversion moment comes very late in the novel, but I think the real power is in exploration of the continuum of young women and their choices and actions. They are trying to carve their own paths, at different speeds and with different choices, but each path feels both predestined and a bit of a landmine. Every kind of “girl” faces a series of epithets and ready-made stories people will try to attach to her, regardless of her choices.
I love having re-read this novel after This One Summer, as the graphic novel conjures so beautifully that preadolescent dream-state, the confusion of that time when you watch yourself changing and you don’t even recognize who you are for whole chunks of time. Natalie came down very hard on the other side of that dream-state. She decides—at 13? 14?—that no sexual partner is worth trusting, and yet the absolutely security she imagines that choice will bring is a fantasy. Vivian’s novel offers a lot of room for reflection for all readers as they count the costs of all their choices, both physical and emotional.
Kim McCollum-Clark teaches English and English Education at Millersville University of Pennsylvania. She remembers fighting—without much self-awareness—against the very small, very pink, very passive “girl box” of her young adolescence (circa 1980) with red Keds sneakers, a stack of books on her hip, and no purse to be seen. And yet—still a girl!