My first foray back into YA began with Holly Bourne. Having heard her speak on a panel about feminism in YA at YA Shot in October 2016, I knew her work would be a great start for my journey. Am I Normal Yet? (2015) tells the story of Evie, who is just entering college, a new path which she has to navigate whilst coping with her OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) and GAD (General Anxiety Disorder), as well as the confusing rollercoaster of first love(s).
Bourne’s handling of mental health is sensitive and well-researched: she debunks myths and rumours and cliches and strips Evie’s problems bare to educate, and encourage empathy and understanding in the reader. The main way Bourne achieves this is through the first person narration, aided by the visual formatting of the book, which employs handwritten lists and medical forms to reflect the content of Evie’s anxieties.
Initially, Evie is obsessed with normalcy: what is it? who defines it? how can she attain that label? And the plot strives to answer these questions as Evie ultimately learns that ‘normal’ is in the eye of the beholder. Her first revelation regarding this occurs in relation to dating: despite anticipating this experience as exciting and enjoyable, it turns out to be problematic and stressful, and essentially over-hyped. Her time with Ethan proves this to Evie. Her time with Oli makes her temporarily regress and believe she has achieved normality, because he is ‘weirder’ than her. And her time with Guy assures her that she is the one who gets to decide what is normal and what is not, and more importantly, what she is comfortable with and what she is not. And so, evidently, despite Evie’s unique circumstances, the question of normalcy is one applicable to teenagehood more generally, as Bourne focuses in on these formative years and the firsts they bring: first kiss, first love, first time having sex, first time you realise who you are and want to be.
What lies at the heart of this book though is not boys, but the bonds of female friendship. Evie progresses and begins to grow as a person thanks to her many and various bonds: with Lottie and Amber, with her sister Rose, and even with her therapist. At the beginning, Evie finds herself self-censoring what she says and how she behaves in front of her new friends, but she learns to trust and share with Lottie and Amber, resulting in a bond stronger than any Evie makes with the boys in her life. The girls enlighten each other, and assure the reader that it’s okay to simultaneously like boys and call yourself a feminist. This reassurance of seemingly contradictory sentiments seems particularly relevant at the moment, as we see Emma Watson being shamed for photos where she is partly nude. Feminism, for Evie and her friends, for Bourne, for Emma Watson, indeed for any feminist, is clearly about personal choice and respect, for yourself and others. Bourne’s focus on female friendship is therefore truly empowering and through the discussions of the Spinster Club – from relatable topics like the Bechdel test to more factual and educational information about the links between women and mental health – brings feminism to a young and eager-to-learn audience who crucially need it in the 21st century.
Moreover, Am I Normal Yet? was a great start for my journey back into YA: Bourne’s factual knowledge and sensitive handling of both the unique and the more universal is a great combination resulting in a clever, witty, educational and enjoyable read. I’m more than excited to read the rest of The Spinster Club series, and find out more about Lottie and Amber!