Just so you know, this post was inspired by my recent reading of the ninth book in the Princess Diaries series, Princess Mia, so there will likely be some minor spoilers for the previous books and possibly for the book itself – so, be warned!
This feels like a more serious discussion than some of the ones that I’ve had in the past, but as I was reading Princess Mia the other day, I just felt like I had to write about heartbreak in YA books and the various levels of depression that the heartbroken protagonists fall into.
One of those formative experiences that teenagers, or young adults (because shockingly, not all teenagers truly date before reaching their twenties), normally go through is their first real broken heart. Yes, in another fifty or twenty or ten or five years, or even five months, someone might look back at their heartbreak and laugh about it because they’ve totally moved on and it just doesn’t seem that important anymore, but when going through an experience like losing your first love, you’re probably going to feel really, really low and depressed – you probably won’t develop depression as a result of a break-up unless there are a lot of other forces coming together and pushing you down (for some great posts about actual, diagnosed depression, head over to Oh, the Books!), but in the immediate aftermath, all of the overwhelming emotions probably will feel close to actual depression.
Since many YA books deal with romance, it’s only natural that many young protagonists will have to deal with at least one breakup over the course of their book/series. Sure, things might get patched up in a later book if the author changes her or his mind, but when the protagonist is experiencing the heartbreak, it really might feel like it’s the end of the world. And, in order to realistically portray the teenage, heartbroken protagonist, authors will probably want to use plenty of hyperboles and over-the-top language (especially if it’s a first person narrative). Even if they know that their characters will eventually get over it some way or another, if they want to write genuine-seeming characters, then they should act like the world is maybe-sort-of ending, at least for the protagonist.
The question is, however – how much is too much? At what point does your character stop seeming genuine and starts being a bad role model for young readers?
For this particular question, I’m going to look at two books – the book that sparked this post and that I remember quite well since I just finished it this weekend, Princess Mia, and a book that I have never read and can’t fully critique but know enough about to use as an example: New Moon from the Twilight books (and I’m not trying to bash these books or anything, despite any personal feelings – I truly do think that this book is a great example to use for this topic).
Let’s look at the book that, at least in my opinion, manages to accurately portray a heartbroken teenager, with plenty of hyperbole and whining and moping, without ever really going over the line and becoming unbearable: Princess Mia. Mia is going through a tough time in the book because she’s heartbroken over a breakup. She thought that the boy was her soul mate and still does, but their relationship has fallen apart and things seem like they’re done for good. Mia is understandably upset about everything, especially since she blames herself for part of their breakup because of her immaturity and obsession with things like prom and the Precious Gift (aka her virginity – I’d be happy if I never heard that phrase again, that’s for sure).
In the beginning of Princess Mia, Mia is basically hovering on the edge of a minor breakdown from all the stress and drama and unhappiness that’s weighing her down. She eventually does and copes by refusing to go to school and pretty much remaining in her PJs and bed all day long. She’s worrying everyone around her but she doesn’t really care what they think because she’s too shell-shocked and empty to really care anymore. She’s definitely being quite dramatic and it feels over the top, but at the same time it seems like a genuine way that someone might react after their first breakup.
Mia ends up being forced to go to a therapist and is shocked when he suggests that she’s depressed, but then she comes to understand and accept it. She slowly tries to change things for the better and she grows as a person as a result. No matter what happens with her relationship with Michael and any other boys, she grows as a result of her heartbreak and all of the drama and hyperbole seem genuine and true.
Then we have New Moon. Like I said, I’ve never read it, but I’ve heard enough about it that I feel like I can talk about it in this post. Anyway, at the beginning of the book, Edward and Bella break up for reasons (because of a party? Is that right? His quasi-family attacking her or something – which means he needs to leave and let his family stay with her or something?). Cue Bella’s complete breakdown. At the beginning, it seems like it’s just as dramatic and such as Mia’s similar breakdown, and maybe it simply is another way for a teenage girl to deal with heartbreak, but the book handles it in a way that makes it go too far: it sums up the first few months of Bella’s life post-Edward with pages that are literally blank other than the names of the months. The book is basically saying that her life has no purpose or anything going on now that she’s broken up with Edward.
That’s not a good thing. Neither is the fact that Bella apparently turns slightly suicidal because she thinks it’s the only way to connect with Edward (in the form of him scolding her? The hits keep coming). Rather than showing Bella heartbroken and then getting over things in a fairly healthy way through the love and support of her friends and family, the book basically says that it’s perfectly okay for someone’s life to be over simply because they broke up with their boyfriend. As my title indicates, there’s a line, and New Moon seems to cross that line.
Showing teenage heartbreak in YA books is healthy and basically essential because it’s such an important part of most young adult’s lives. Using plenty of hyperbolic language and making things more dramatic than they seem to be helps make the heartbreak seem genuine, but there’s definitely a line that can be crossed. Our books need to show us that we will eventually move on and be happy again, whether we rekindle things or not by the end of our stories. Romance is important in our books, but learning to love ourselves and grow are even more so.