Episode 17: To ALl the Boys I've Loved Before [And Books I was Told Not to Love]
Maybe I shouldn’t admit this as a twenty-something year old, but I’ve been a young adult literature junkie for a while. I’m not quite sure how I got into it exactly or how any of this started. Its presence in my life is like that of an old friend you’ve had so long and through so many challenges, that you just started taking them for granted. You’re not proud that you do this, but you know that you do. And it’s a habit you can’t easily break.
It must have been my college friend who got me into John Green and the vlogbrothers YouTube channel, which then—through the wonders of that website’s algorithms led me to BookTube. And while booktubers don’t just talk about Young Adult literature, those releases are heralded far more than anything else in the community.
And I think—if I have to guess through the surprisingly unclear lens of hindsight—it was this enthusiasm that struck me. I think we all need a little bit of enthusiasm in our lives much like we need company, love, compassion, and those sorts of things: things that don’t necessarily go into nurturing the physical body but whose absence can leave us little more than a shell. These things keep the soul alive, and that is undoubtedly important.
Enthusiasm creates momentum, I guess. It puts just a pin in an otherwise unremarkable future date and gives you a reason to push for that date, against… well against whatever you may have going on in your life. From trivial inconveniences to profound sadness to just boredom.
At that point in my life—sophomore year of college—that’s what I needed. And yes, you heard that right. I fell in love with young adult literature in college and not in high school. Forget that for a couple minutes and let me just reiterate the point I was trying to make before I gave you a reason to get distracted. I needed enthusiasm and directed excitement like that which I was seeing in the community of people who loved young adult literature.
So I jumped right in. Which was a move some people would call unwise and did call unwise when they found. Especially when it came to my college thesis, which centered on young adult literature. But honestly, I didn’t care about their opinions. I had this rigid conviction to keep me going. No matter what anyone told me, I firmly believed that there was something to young adult literature that set it apart from just “childish stories,” which I don’t thinks are things that necessarily need to be condemned anyway. It was just something I couldn’t articulate at first. That is, until my college thesis forced me to do so.
And even if that explanation came up under some sort of not actual but figurative distress, it’s one that has endured. Namely, I still stand behind it.
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Hi. It’s M. Welcome to Episode 17.
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Today, I want to talk about Jenny Han’s novel To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before. Yes, I mean the novel and not the new Netflix movie, though the movie is very good, and I certainly recommend it. It’s just that Netflix’s classification system doesn’t make it so easy or efficiently to write off an entire section of movies as trivial or not worth your time. The book on the other hand…
Well, it unfortunately gets this treatment on different fronts. For one, it’s a romantic comedy-type book, which as a genre both when you’re talking about books or movies gets slammed and that pummeling continues when some real half-baked projects get dropped in for a quick buck. Which also happens to young adult literature, but that the community that has built itself around its love for young adult literature is incredibly efficient at sorting through the dirt that comes into a field with a large market share, assuming I’m using those terms correctly. But you know profits, economics, wanting money and wanting to put very little effort into making something other people will exchange for money. These shameless cash grabs—and more elaborate versions of these ploys—get discovered right quick. This community is incredibly self-regulating. Not policing, I would say. Because terrible books and books done with less than ideal intentions are certainly allowed to exist without their existence challenged, but that existence is staying on store shelves or in publisher’s warehouses. And if I were really had little faith in the goodness of human nature, or inclined to admit it on this show, I would say that this is partially why young adult literature gets such a bad reputation.
But there’s certainly more objects than that, but I don’t care about most of them. At best—at the absolute best and at the only level I think is worth having a discussion about—this section of literature is just seen as unnecessary. You have adult contemporary literature, and you have children’s literature. Relative to the spectrum of human life, young adult literature is somewhere in the middle. It encompasses this transitionary period that some people can’t seem to acknowledge as its own form. Instead, they see it as a shifting combination of pieces pulled from these two other phases. You get to make grown up decisions while still having the dramas of recess. Or have to take care of a living thing, like a pet, while still needing to ask permission to use the restroom.
I don’t agree with this understanding. Rather, I firmly believe that this state of transition comes with its own unique character and set of difficulties. And as someone who believes that stories serve a critical purpose in helping us map out the world, it’s easy for me to conclude that a branch of literature devoted to this specific segment of living is absolutely necessary.
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Because, look, teenage life is hard for everyone—in different ways and different degrees. Your world and your body are shifting around, and you don’t know what’s happening or if anyone else can see these problems-slash-will help you with these problems. But maybe you don’t need their help, right? You’re old enough to be able to do it on your own. I mean, you have so many responsibilities already. Like homework. Oh also you can drive. Or work. Or search the barren wasteland for food and other surprise. You know, different families have different situations.
Poorly written jokes aside, at this stage of your life you have some independence that often has to be directed back towards the maintenance of your familial home, but you also don’t know how to do the whole human thing. Like, you got the basics down and can exist but maybe you don’t know how to control a specific talent of yours relative to the larger society’s expectations or maybe you’re still trying to figure out how to do that whole “person in a stable society” thing, whatever that may mean for you. All without any sort of guidance. Or if you have some sort of a guide, it’s one that isn’t all that great for a person like you.
Young adult literature describes the moment of awakening many young people have to go through. One in which you realize that life is not going to be that simple or that maybe you don’t fit into this life as well as you thought you did or that you aren’t the person that everybody thinks that you are. (Music restarts) These stories give young people some sort of map to navigate this difficult moment, one that consists mostly of the assurance that everything is going to be okay even if they have to reject everything they know, risking it all, just to find their own sense of direction.
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Now, you might be wondering what any of this has to do with To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, which is a young adult novel but also wouldn’t necessarily fit into this model as I’m describing it. In fact, maybe you’ve picked up that the college thesis that forced me to write this definition focused, specifically on young adult dystopian literature. Well, I promise you, that definition is still relevant here and to this book. And that might be your dismissive attitude to rom-coms talking. Or maybe not. I’m not in your head. I don’t know what happens in there. It’s your business and not mine.
But your objection is going to force me to get to the point much quicker, which isn’t a bad thing. In recent months, I’ve moved away from young adult literature, not because it’s bad but because I’m more established in my life and as a consequence YA doesn’t resonate with me like it used to. But if there’s something really good dropping in the community, I’ll feel the ripples and come right back.
The Netflix movie To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before caused seismic activity in the community I’m still tangentially connected to. So I checked it out. And yeah, the production company did a great job with the adaptation, but then again, I’ve never been THAT much of a movie person. I have my moments. I have my fleeting loves. But for all its charms, this movie did not break into that bracket.
But it did make me think about that distant love affair I had with young adult literature, having read this book at some point in that whirlwind. Because—ultimately To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before captures the essence of young adult literature in a fun, witty way and without evoking the existential dread that comes with some other genres. And that’s what I want to talk about today: how this particular book highlights what makes young adult literature unique and important. Or, in other words, how conflicts at this stage of life can take on a different shape than what happens at other ages.
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Lara Jean is a sixteen year old who is one) extremely close to her two sisters Margot and Kitty and two) has written love letters to all the boys she has ever loved but with no intention of ever sending them out. She keeps them in a teal hatbox her mother gave her before she died. There’s a lot more you can say about Lara Jean, like how she’s also a mixed race girl, specifically half-Korean and half-Caucasion, but for the purposes of this plot description and larger review, let’s just say that these two facts are her defining characteristics. Which would be easier to say if I put it in other words, so here we go. Lara Jean is devoted to her family, and she’s found a way of relating to a rigid understanding of the world one that specifically says that she will not get what she wants, romantically. There are a number of barriers in her way, including her oldest sister.
But then everything seems to fall apart. Her beloved older sister leaves for college in Scotland and breaks up with the neighbor boy that Lara Jean had a crush on when she was fourteen, around the time that this neighbor boy Josh asked out Margot, the older sister instead of her. So he’s suddenly available and potentially within reach with her sister being an ocean away and the dumper. Though that’s a dubious statement. Then again, asking out his best friend’s sister, which Josh did, is also questionable according to the relevant code. So… I don’t… I don’t know I guess our informal codes of ethics are just vague suggestions in this universe.
But, before Lara Jean can think too much about that. Her letters get sent out to the boys she’s loved before. Not the ones she still has some feelings for. Nope, literally all of them get these letters.
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In young adult life and young adult literature, you or the hero have spent well over a decade establishing some sort of life for yourself within a set frame work you inherited or you were born into. It existed before you. You only ever know it, and you have made your peace. However, for now, let’s set aside the issue of age. Because these events could happen again at a later date in your life, making for a third or fourth rebirth. So yeah, anybody and any age is not only allowed to read young adult literature but also should be encouraged to do so if the lessons therein are something they could really use.
Lara Jean has this set status: devoted middle sister who keeps her feelings hidden. She’s not quite coasting through the challenges of her life, but she’s managing her conflicts in the most passive way possible. It involves an acceptance of the way things are—namely, that she can’t expect to be with any of these boys, not just her sister’s now ex-boyfriend—but also a compromise. She doesn’t need to be shamed for these feelings, punished for them or forced to give them up. She harbors them, and she creates an outlet for expressing those feelings in a way that gives her some sense of gratification. It’s great.
But then, like I’ve said, letters get sent out and chaos. And I can’t go into the inciting act without spoiling part of the book. But essentially, Lara Jean kind of missteps in what many would call an innocent way and that leads to the letters being sent out without her permission. It was just a misstep as the inciting action, not a hilarious mistake. She didn’t get the contents of the hatbox confused with another set of letters she needed. She didn’t drop them for an unknowing postman who didn’t care about postage requirements to find and send out. She didn’t give away the hatbox only for its recipient to think that those letters needed to be mailed. Rather, she didn’t behave perfectly in her role in this life, and a single crack led to everything falling apart.
Those other scenarios I described or, at least, the thought behind them are a rom-com staple. For most romantic comedies, shenanigans are the inciting force not a small straying from a perceived right path. Accidents not your existence are the normal conflict maker for other forms of literature.
For the young adult, or for someone trying to find their way, walking a thin line is going to be difficult. And that line is thin because you don’t naturally fit into properly. It was never crafted for someone with your wide feet but for an idyllic form that never actually existed. Consequently, falling off is going to be almost inevitable. But what happens when you fall?
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Okay, so now, all the boys Lara Jean has loved once before knows that she at one point had feelings for them. Actually, they think the feelings are a lot more recent but to bring up dates is just splitting hairs. They know she has feelings for them or did, something she adamantly did not want them or anyone to know. And she has to deal with the consequences. Or the consequences she deems most threatening.
To avoid Josh, sister’s no ex-boyfriend and former crush, Lara Jean jumps into a fake relationship with Peter Kavinsky, who could also stand to benefit from a fake relationship. To both of them, it’s a way of taking control of their otherwise out of control situation.
But… you might be saying. That’s a rom-com trope. In most romantic comedies, you have to force the protagonist to interact with potential love interest frequently and in somewhat absurd ways in order for attraction to develop against what the participants want or think will happen. And you aren’t wrong in that, but can we take apart this specific iteration of the trope for a moment?
Actually, I don’t know why I asked that. I mean, this is a prerecorded show. You could walk away if what I say annoys you, and in some ways, it’s worthwhile to acknowledge your misgivings, but I can’t see the reactions of every single person listening to this episode whenever they get around to listening to it. So, yeah, there’s that. I should just go on. Why am I doing this. Ahhh
But ultimately, there’s something about the fake relationship tool that no matter the context is reminiscent of “trying to navigate a life in transition” literature, which would be YA by another name if we all decided we like long names and don’t want an easier way to find literature with characters we can easily related to, i.e. with similar ages and circumstances. I don’t see either of those things being true, but that’s just me making a point. Usually, in these specific circumstances, you have some outside force pressuring you to be in a relationship, either your parents, your jobs, or your desperate need to avoid a boy you really shouldn’t be with but you may have lingering feelings for. They may want you to be with someone, potentially someone specific like themselves, but instead of conforming to their will, in any way or even humoring it, you elect to go on your own way, however ill-advised that path may be.
Because ultimately, it’s your choice to do this potentially dumb thing. You have elected to take this particular path and not the one you can feel compelled or are being forced to take. The need to be free, even free to pick your own destruction, is what you are after and what you are ultimately, desperately trying to hold onto.
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That’s the struggle of adolescence boiled down to its very essence. It’s the desire to maintain a sense of direction when everything else is falling apart. And by “sense of direction,” I am invoking a very specific notion of that phrase, keeping in mind—of course—that I want to circle back to To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before. Namely, that in other rom-coms, this sense of direction is supposed to lead you to some specific place or thing: for example, a promotion, an inheritance, or your parents love. But in the context of YA literature, that isn’t so clear cut.
Because when you’re young, it’s sometimes hard to envision what the future is going to look like. It’s not that you’re dumb or lack creativity, but you haven’t experienced enough of the world to know all the options that are out there for you or which one you would like best.
That’s what happened to me. Sixteen-year-old-me wanted to stay in Arizona despite how detrimental it was to my wellbeing because it was the only place I had ever known and thus the only place I could imagine living. Knowing nothing else, Arizona was synonymous with home, all notions of home: past, present, and future. This is a limitation that just comes from a lack of material. Sure, you can see other lives in books, television, or movies, but the line between real and imagine can be thick enough to keep anything from taking root, no matter how badly we need the material.
It’s a type of mental gymnastics, I guess. The type where you fall off the bars and onto your face, and even though it’s very clear you’ve lost, the judges still hold up a round of zeros just to further drill in your failure.
Or, I guess, more simply. You want to dream, but you don’t know how, just yet.
But what you do know is how it feels to be free. Maybe it was when you got your driver’s license or when you just happened to feel the wind of the open road from the passage seat. Or maybe it was the first time you travelled without your guardians. Whatever it was, you know what it feels like to make your own decisions and to have your own existence without having to answer to anyone. Once you felt that excitement running through your veins, you wanted to feel it again. You had to go after it.
And really, that’s the only reference you have. There’s no tangible end game. You don’t know what a you-specific end game would look like. You just know that you want to be able to direct your own life without relationship destroying complications getting in your way.
And that’s a great summation of my decision to pursue a graduate program. There’s more to it, trust me, but just bear with me because all of those things are things that I don’t want to talk about right now. When you get down to it, going to graduate school for certain people who are considering certain programs can be woefully ill-advised and outright stupid. And it might have been for me. But I could choose to do it, and with the process being what it is, once I got admitted into the program, (music finishes) no one could stop me. And that was a pretty compelling reason.
Because yes, maybe don’t enter a fake relationship with someone who just got out of a relationship with someone else who wouldn’t really hesitate to completely destroy you. Not telling you how to live your life, but just offering a bit of advice from a conflict avoidant perspective. In fact, maybe having a long conversation with the various people involved would be the wisest thing to do is.
But look, that’s not the thing you would choose to do, Lara Jean. It’s not in line with your own values that may be just as ill-advised as your course of action, but your course of action was still yours. Lara Jean is shy, a more introverted person. She doesn’t want to have any sort of direct conflict with her sister or her neighbor. And to take the route that I’m suggesting would require throwing all that makes her who she is out the window.
Not only does Young Adult literature not require its protagonists to do that, it’s a section that focuses on empowerment, on the idea that young people cannot change who they are on a fundamental level just because it would make their lives easier. Because it’s what everyone wants them to do and is expecting them to do. And look, maybe this is getting into spoiler territory, but Lara Jean never stops being more on the introverted side, despite suddenly having all her feelings on display. She still opts to keep everything more personal. Which is her right, even if it’s not what anyone else would do.
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When I was writing my college thesis on young adult dystopian literature, this was something I noticed but didn’t really dive into. Namely, that YA as a whole focuses on the stories of the outcast. My thesis focused on a genre in which the hero is someone on the outside of society who then must take on a social order that is bent and built upon their destruction. But on a broader level, YA lit is full of the teens who are clearly and totally not perfect or accepted. These are the outcasts of the school yard, those who cannot go to school in the latest factions, those afflicted with diseases, those of a different race, or those who are set apart by their sexuality or gender identity.
And look, it may just be this way because fiction needs conflict, and these circumstances are ripe for conflict but look at some of the big books to come out of YA. Eleanor and Park, anything by John Green, Simon and the Homo Sapien Agenda, which became the movie Love Simon… Every YA dystopian book or fantasy series and even some of the sci fi ones. There’s always an element of being on the outside. Sure, it’s not a requirement of the genre. The popular kid can be the star of a YA novel, but at the heart of it, regardless of who the hero is, they aren’t expected to change themselves. They aren’t expected to confirm to outside expectations or desires. They aren’t expected to solve their difficult home life, to cure themselves of a disease, to give up their nerdiness, to change their sexuality, or to change their race. All things that, you know, just aren’t possible.
For Lara Jean, the stakes are a lot lower. There’s nothing that life-altering on the table. What’s up for debate is simply how she chooses to express herself and her love for others. But while it is a relatively slight thing, you can trace those traits back to her core. In her heart, she’s conflict averse and quiet person and she does seem like the old-school romantic and sentimental type. (Music shift) She likes to dream, likes the idea of being in love, and likes disclosing her thoughts to others only when she’s ready. It’s a calm, measured way of doing things. But above that, it’s her way of doing things. And that shouldn’t be taken away from her.
And in YA, it isn’t. She doesn’t suddenly become extroverted. She stays Lara Jean, through and through.
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Right now, I’m situated in life. I have a job that I genuinely love in a city that I love with very few unresolved issues from my past. And for everything else, there’s therapy. But when I was leaving my last job, I found myself knee deep in young adult literature again. Only to drop it just as quick once I ended up with this current job.
Saying that something isn’t valuable or worthwhile because it’s for children is a problematic statement in and of itself. After all, childhood is a formative time of life, and any damage that happens there can linger only to be undone with an absurd amount of professional work. So maybe we should be invested in making sure there is worthwhile, educational, productive, and not emotionally destructive media out there for them. But that’s an argument for another day and armed with a lot more research than I have at my hand right now. Though I am getting there.
Young adult literature isn’t necessarily about the age, though. But about that. About being slightly adrift due to no conscious fault of your own, but because you just didn’t fit in the harbor you first moored yourself to.
We all know rom-coms, but To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before brings in the young adult element very well. It’s not the teenagers’ love story. But it’s the love story for people who have no idea what they’re doing with their lives and burned the mac and cheese they were reheating for dinner but ate it anyway because it’s their life and they can handle the consequences of their decisions. That’s definitely not an admission of guilt
It’s not a great arrangement, I know. But the best lesson of YA lit and why that section of literature matters so much is that things don’t have to be great or perfect to matter. And on that note, see episode 1 of this podcast or any of them. Shameless plug over.
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