The Next Chapter

Brian Francis recommends three YA novels about kids struggling to fit in and find themselves

The Toronto writer and The Next Chapter columnist reviews Cub by Paul Coccia, Girl Mans Up by M-E Girard and Blubber by Judy Blume.
Brian Francis is a writer and columnist on The Next Chapter. (Brian Francis)

Brian Francis is a writer and columnist for The Next Chapter. His first novel, Fruit, was a finalist for Canada Reads 2009.

He is also the author of the novel Natural Order and his first YA novel, Break in Case of Emergency, was a finalist for the 2019 Governor General's Literary Award for young people's literature — text.

Francis stopped by The Next Chapter to talk about his love of YA fiction and recommends three that explore and celebrate difference: Cub by Paul Coccia, Girl Mans Up by M-E Girard and Blubber by Judy Blume.

Cub by Paul Coccia

Paul Coccia is a Toronto-based author. (paulcoccia.com, Orca Books)

"Cub is centred around a gay, chubby 17-year-old aspiring baker whose name is Theo. In a subset of the gay world, there's bears, cubs and otters. A 'bear' is a larger sized, hairy, sort of masculine man — and a 'cub' is kind of a younger version of that. (An 'otter' is a younger gay man who is hairy but slim.)

"Theo identifies as a cub. He's 17 years old and he's dealing with some body issues. He's overweight and is self-conscious about that. I could relate to the struggles that he experiences when dealing with his body. 

A lot of boys certainly struggle with body image, although you don't really see or hear about many books that kind of deal with those topics, for whatever reason.

"A lot of boys certainly struggle with body image, although you don't see or hear about many books that kind of deal with those topics, for whatever reason. I'm sure lots of young men and boys feel self-conscious about their bodies, especially during adolescence. 

"Theo enters this baking competition at a local restaurant and he eventually makes it through the finals but he also has to fend off the advances of the suave and much older restaurant owner. It's a book that also touches upon when young men are the targets of unwanted attention because at that age you're naive and you don't really understand how these dynamics work. You're inexperienced in many ways. This book explores what that feels like for this young character." 

Girl Mans Up by M-E Girard

M-E Girard is a YA fiction writer and a paediatric nurse based in Toronto. (Harpercollins Canada)

"This is the story of a girl named Penelope, who prefers to go by the more gender-neutral name of Pen. She's struggling with the expectations that people place around her. She comes from a traditional Portuguese family. She has a lot of male friends that see her as one of the guys. She's also trying to figure out how the world sees girls and women — and how she fits or doesn't fit into those roles.

This character is someone that I had never read before.

"A lot of people just assume that Pen is trying to be a boy. But I think it's more just that — she wants to be herself. She's attracted to other girls and she has no problem with that. She has no problem with the way that she acts — but everybody else around who does. 

"In the YA genre, there's often a familiarity [or sameness] with female characters and protagonists. This character is someone that I had never read before. She is very much a blossoming butch lesbian. She goes against what that traditional female YA narrator is. It was an honest, funny and at times painful portrayal of a young woman coming to terms with who she is."

Blubber by Judy Blume

Judy Blume is an American writer of children's, YA and adult fiction. (Yearling)

"Blubber tells the story of bullying. It's a sobering example of how cruel kids can be at that age. Blubber is the nickname given to Linda Fischer. She's a chubby girl who gets up in front of the class one day to recite a speech about whales and it doesn't take long for her to start to become the target of her classmates who start to refer to her as 'Blubber.'

It's 50 years old and it could be published today, which is sobering in some ways because these are still the same issues that kids are dealing with.

 "They're merciless in their teasing of her. They lock her in the closet, they make her eat ants and they trash her yard at Halloween. But what's interesting about this book — and what I liked about what Judy Blume did — is it's not told through the eyes of Linda Fisher, it's told through the eyes of another character named Jill, who is one of the girls who was bullying Linda. That's a risky move because it's forcing you to understand the mindset of a bully or helping young readers to sort of see the other side of things. 

"By the end of the book, Jill finds herself on the outside of that inner circle of bullies and finds herself a target of bullying as well.

"There's a lesson there to be learned, but the great thing about Judy Blume is she never hits you over the head with it. It's there for those young readers to make up their own minds about what the message of this book is.

"It's 50 years old and it could be published today, which is sobering in some ways because these are still the same issues that kids are dealing with."

Brian Francis's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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