This Sporty Queer YA novel is the best book I’ve read in years

Let me start with this 2021 review of Britta Lundin’s contemporary YA novel Like other girls by declaring it a crime that has not received more attention. I’ve kind of fallen in love with YA over the past few years and haven’t read it much, but I’m so so glad I made an exception for Like other girls. It succeeds on many levels: as a character study, a dizzying romance, a gripping sports story, a feminist affirmation of sexism and misogyny, a novel deeply rooted in rural Oregon and farming culture, and more. It’s one of the best YA – dare I say it books? — I read for years.

Lots going on inside Like other girls — effortlessly and deftly balanced, by the way — but at its core, it’s a story about a withdrawn lesbian teen struggling with and overcoming internalized misogyny. Mara Deeble is 16, lives in a conservative rural farming community in Oregon and loves sports. She has some anger issues that came to a head last winter.

With minutes left in an important basketball game, a teammate alerted her coach that Mara could have a concussion after falling from a foul and hitting her head (which the referee didn’t even see, how upsetting!). Mara is prevented from completing the game. She is so angry that she hits the teammate who was actually watching her. Mara is consequently kicked off the basketball team. The teammate in question is called Carly.

Carly is a wonderful character. She is an out femme lesbian at her high school (actually the only out queer girl in her class). She’s a committed social justice activist, she’s stubborn, she’s passionate. She is a proud queer Asian who loves Hayley Kiyoko. She is Mara’s enemy. Mara is afraid of Carly, of the freedom and righteous wrath that Carly embodies. Mara is jealous of the easy acceptance Carly got from her mom after coming out in high school: “It’s like, ‘Okay, you have a cool mom who accepts you, stop flashing us to rub.'” Mara feels her only option is to wait until she moves to Portland for college to come out.

For most of the book, Mara’s feelings for Carly come out as anger. Every conversation they have seems to lead to an argument. While Mara thinks this anger stems from Carly herself, attentive readers immediately see how Mara later learns that Carly is not the right target. Institutional sexism in sports, her family’s likely homophobia that Mara fears provoking, her mother’s manipulative gender control, the casual misogynist cruelty of teenagers: these are Mara’s real enemies. Learning to recognize them as such is their journey.

Back to the plot and the content that occupies the largest place in the book: soccer. Mara’s basketball coach gives her an ultimatum: play another team sport this fall and don’t fight or let your aggression escalate into violence. Then she can be back on the team for the upcoming basketball season. Her coach suggests volleyball, which makes Mara choke. volleyball is girly. The girls who play volleyball wear makeup, hair bands and cute spandex shorts to the games. Mara doesn’t fit in; She also looks down on the volleyball players. (Remember I said she struggled with internalized misogyny — here she rears her ugly head).

Mara has a brainwave while passing around a soccer ball with her older brother and best friend Quinn. Both boys are on the soccer team. Why can’t Mara play soccer instead? She is much more interested in soccer than volleyball. Of course she would have to play in the boys’ team. But she still sees herself as one of the boys. She is tall, muscular and very athletic. She knows soccer. She is confident that she can earn the respect of the guys on the team and have a great season in a sport that she believes if she works hard, she will love.

Of course it doesn’t work that way. Mara is reluctantly allowed to play. The fact that she’s better than a bunch of the guys on the team earns her more animosity, not less. And just when it looks like she’s going to be accepted, four other girls – including, of course, Carly and Mara’s longtime crush Valentina – join the team. They were inspired by Mara.

Mara doesn’t want to inspire – at least in the beginning. In fact, she annoys the other girls. She laments, “You make me look bad.” Things go from bad to really, really bad in more ways than one. The situation brings out the absolute worst in most of the guys on the team, including Quinn, who has been Mara’s best friend since childhood.

Lundin doesn’t hold back in her portrayal of how toxic masculinity, sexist pretensions and ingrained beliefs about the inferiority of women and girls thrive in these teenagers under the strained circumstances. On the other hand, so-called nice guys are not immune. Attempting to be neutral is merely a vote for the sexist status quo. And the only difference for the grown men who are the trainers is that they hide their misogyny a little better.

But this story, thank the lesbian Jesus, isn’t about the boys or the coaches. It’s about Mara. As Mara lets go of her long-held prejudices about femininity and girls, she can see boys (and their shitty behavior and double standards) more clearly. She reluctantly makes real friends with her teammates. She slowly begins to align with them instead of distancing herself from them. She learns that she doesn’t have to belittle femininity to express her masculinity, or reject forced femininity. The inspirational feminism of everything is incredibly moving.

Lundin treats Mara’s journey with such care and nuance. She is not afraid of Mara making mistakes, saying and doing hurtful things, or just being wrong. I mean, the book starts with Mara hitting another girl! But there is a constant thread of vulnerability in Mara and compassion and understanding in the way she has written that makes it impossible not to root for her. My heart ached for that child. I just wanted to hug her tight – and sometimes a slap on the head too.

In addition to Mara’s growth and lots of soccer, which made this book compelling to me despite my complete lack of knowledge and interest, there is a delightful subplot about an older queer woman who becomes a mentor of sorts to Mara. I held my breath at an early scene where Mara first notices this butch woman, who is clearly new in town, entering the farm shop where Mara works. Mara envisions a possible future for herself, the vision of a queer person looking who they want to look and thriving as an adult. She is fascinated and scared. It made me sob.

Lundin creates a heartwarming portrayal of queer mentorship and intergenerational queer friendship. Mara notes that she’s able to speak openly about queer things with Jupiter: “I feel like I’ve been underwater my whole life and finally came up to breathe.” But Lundin doesn’t shy away from the complexity and, quite frankly, the danger that this relationship entails. In a homophobic world, a friendship between a closeted queer minor and a queer adult who their parents probably don’t want them to hang out with is risky. The scenes between Mara and Jupiter – her chosen name, she clarifies how classic dyke – are very sweet. But sometimes there is an undertone of concern and nervousness on Jupiter’s part. Readers can see Jupiter weighing how much she wants to help this baby lesbian in order to protect herself from possible repercussions. It’s annoying that she even has to think about it.

Like other girls has a problem that I would like to briefly address. There is one scene towards the end of the book that doesn’t feel right. To be vague to avoid spoilers, this is a familiar adult female’s response to sexual assault. It would be one thing for the adult to show a decidedly unfeminist response, which may have been Lundin’s intention. After all, women are not immune to the enforcement of sexism and rape culture. But the interaction needed a clearer condemnation from the narrative perspective to be consistent with the novel’s overall feminist sensibility.

Did I mention there’s also an extremely slow-burning, absolutely gorgeous romance? Well there is and you will love it. There’s a girl out there that Mara rightly thinks is a “heartthrob”. Admittedly, there’s a lot more detail about soccer games in this book than little nitpicks about kissing or crushes. It’s not primarily a love story. But there’s just enough romance to offset the heavier content. If you enjoy being guided through the emotional gap while reading about fictional lesbians like me, then this romance is for you.

We need as many more YA books as Like other girls: ones about center girl masculinity, ones about internalized misogyny, ones that focus on girls’ friendships and mutual support, ones that focus on girls playing sports. Here is hope Like other girls many more YA books will follow, especially by authors of color who will take these themes and give them their own spin. In the meantime, if you have any similar books to recommend, please share in the comments!

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