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Peggy as a YA Heroine

- by Laura Malone Elliott

March 7, 2018

This weekend, I’ll be participating in the NoVa Teen Book Festival for the first time and I am so jazzed for it! There is an energy and exuberance surrounding YA literature in general, but I have to say that this event seems particularly infused with upbeat excitement and a sense of fun, thanks to its wondrous planning committee. 

The festival has me thinking about why Peggy Schuyler is, in so many ways, the perfect Young Adult protagonist.

First, those pesky definitions.

YA literature features teen characters, dealing with gut-wrenching conundrums of self-concept and goals, experiencing life challenges and the world order for the first time with teenage intensity and idealism, with large character growth and revelations, coming-of-age plotlines and quests, and strong, intimate narrative voice. Any topic can be tackled—war, suicide, bullies, abuse—but there must be an undercurrent of hope, even within dire circumstances or heartbreaking endings. The hope that if we try hard enough, stick to our integrity and commitment to humanity, that we can indeed push that Sisyphus boulder up the hill to betterment. Even if it’s just an inch. Teens, you see, still believe. And thank God for it! Oh, and the story better reverberate with emotional truth. Teenagers and adult BS, equivocation or justification, do not mix.

Although fewer of us tackle it, historical YA literature carries another element teens hunger for—humanizing the history they must learn in school. Showing all those dates, treaties, and political movements through the eyes of an ordinary “everyman” character—a person with a proverbial beating heart, who experiences fears, love, longing, and moments of truth that readers can empathize with, worry about, and turn each page wondering what happens next, even if they know the overarching historical outcome (like the Allies defeating Hitler). The motivating question is does that character, that person who could be the reader, survive intact? That’s what a good piece of art can do for a time period. As one national education expert said of the runaway hit Hamilton, the American Revolution used to be “the castor oil of social studies,” and now “is the sexiest topic there is.”

More than half of YA novels are purchased by adult readers, by the way. (Many of them, like PEGGY and most of my other novels, slide into the “cross-over” category of “ New Adult,” also speaking to the life-issues of 21 to 30-year-olds.)

Those who snobbishly think YA novels are “dumbed down,” watery or thin literature, haven’t read recent bestsellers like The Fault in Our Stars, Thirteen Reasons Why, the Hunger Games and Divergent series, or Elizabeth Wein’s brilliant Code Name Verity. Earnest Hemingway’s editor at Scribner told him that if he took out the curse words and didn’t say “damn” all the time, he could be a Y.A. novelist. Classic novels you may not realize fit the category’s parameters include Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders, Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, and Alcott’s Little Women.

Little Women and Jo March came to mind instantly as I considered writing PEGGY and did my first scratch of research about her: “A wicked wit.” Highly literate. “The favourite at dinner parties” (meaning she speaks up!) Fluent in French. Saves her baby sister from a home invasion. And put down by a guy who thinks she wants to talk politics with men too much.

Any teenage little sister, overshadowed by vivacious, talented, beautiful older sisters, who’s been left behind as those siblings found beaus or went off to college, can relate to PEGGY’s narrative. As can any teenager who’s had serious doubts about her best friends’ choice in romance.

Peggy will speak to teens who long to join in the national narrative of politics. Teen refugees—and we have many of them here in our country—will recognize the terror Peggy feels as she witnesses New Yorkers fleeing the invading British army, marching south from Canada to Albany. I hope their friends—if they read PEGGY—will better understand their history and extend more informed compassion as a result.

Any smart high-schooler or college coed whose male peers are evidently too intimidated by her intellectual prowess to invite her to prom will find a heroine in Peggy, who clearly persisted—even delighted— in speaking her mind even if it put off the guys. Peggy manages to keep an independent feminist ideal within 18th century restrictions of the female sex. And I certainly don’t use this modern-day label, but any teen who’s experienced “ghosting” will also find kick-butt solace in Peggy, I hope.

These themes, these perennial female challenges are the same whether it be 2018 or 1780. The only real difference—Peggy wears long skirts and a corset and happens to know Alexander Hamilton and George Washington.

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