Here’s That Original YA Heroine You’ve Been Asking For

By  · Published on August 27th, 2013

There are no vampires in Megan McCafferty’s Jessica Darling series. There are no werewolves or half-angels or demons or talking owls or flying dragons. There’s high school, and then college, and then “real life.” There are teens that talk like teens, and parents who just don’t get it, and friends who might not be as lifelong as they seemed back in middle school. There is humor and wit and sharp observations. There are crushes and fumbled kisses. There is realism and relatability.

And there is Jessica Darling herself – whipsmart and sarcastic and brilliant and very often lonely and confused. A real girl, a real girl with real problems. Even better, there are six entire books about her, and not one of them requires any sort of suspension of disbelief or an interest in cross-species love affairs. You want a fresh, funny YA heroine to make multiple movies about? Here’s one.

The joke pops up on my Twitter feed a lot – someone is in a bookstore and they’re taken aback by the fact that there is an entire named section devoted to “Teen Paranormal Romance,” with its own little sign and everything, as if it was “Poetry” or “Travel Guides.” Last night another one of these pictures popped up on my feed, but this one included not just “Teen Paranormal Romance” as its own section, but also “New Teen Paranormal Romance” right next to it. There are now enough books in this subgenre that the new books need to be differentiated from the old ones. (Of course, this could also be due to the fact that so many of these books look the same and sound the same, and even the biggest fans of the subgenre need a little nudge to remember that they haven’t read this latest tale of star-crossed reanimated mummies or whatever.) The market is glutted with these books, and the Hollywood studios are responding in kind, snapping up rights before many novels even hit shelves, before the fans, before the dedication, and before the ticket-buyers.

The big box office story this weekend was that The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones flopped, pulling in $9.3m at the box office, compared to the $60m it cost to make. The film was not “the next Hunger Games” or “the next Twilight” and it definitely wasn’t “the next Harry Potter” (which is even more amusing, considering Cassandra Clare’s book started as Harry Potter fanfiction, a fact I still cannot get over, even now). Comparatively, all the Twilight films opened with over $60m weekends, and three even pushed past $100m in their first weekend. The Hunger Games made over $150m its first weekend, and the Harry Potter series pulled in between $77m and $169m with its many debuts. Is the “Teen Paranormal Romance” subgenre dead? Honestly, we don’t know, but it probably is (or, at least it may be undead). Perhaps Divergent will spark something in the box office that Beautiful Creatures and The Mortal Instruments couldn’t, and The Hunger Games still looks plenty bankable, with three more films to go – and while neither of those franchises are paranormal, they’re certainly not overly realistic tales.

The current obsession with these paranormal and/or futuristic tales centered on teens is entirely understandable. The subtext is always that being a teen is weird and alienating on its own, so why not use that sense of “being different” to create something really, really different to tell a story? Of course, what everyone seems to forget is that being a teen is weird and alienating enough. There’s enough angst in the average American high school to pen plenty of books and make plenty of movies – the kind of books and movies that endure and don’t need their own subgenre to sell them.

McCafferty’s Jessica Darling series offers up relatable events that span our heroine’s high school years, all the way through college, and straight into her mid-twenties. In five books (there’s now a sixth book, too, a prequel that focuses on Jessica’s tween years), we get to see all the different permutations of Jessica and her biggest problem – she’s too smart for her own good. As a teen, she feels alienated from others because she thinks she’s better than them, but as she grows older, she struggles with the limitations of her life in regards to her ambition. (Jessica is a writer, so she’s got lots of struggles to endure.) Jessica also struggles with feeling like an outsider in her own family, an outsider in her own friend circle (the first book in the series, “Sloppy Firsts,” picks up after her very best friend moves away), and even an outsider within her most important romantic relationship.

Yes, there’s a guy in the Jessica Darling series, and there are plenty of starts and stops between Jess and the mysterious Marcus Flutie, plenty of drama go around, but it’s never rooted in some silly love triangle and it’s just a facet of Jessica’s personality and her personal growth. We even get to know Marcus pretty well, as the final book in the series, “Perfect Fifths,” is partially told from Marcus’ point of view. (McCafferty continually mixes up how Jessica’s story is told from book to book, keeping things fresh and moving right along, but never at the expense of clarity of story.)

And yet, for all the drama and alienation, the Jessica Darling series is also incredibly funny – rounded out with Jessica’s wit and insanely amusing observations about the world around her and colored with a ton of interesting supporting characters, it’s amusing even after multiple reads, truly laugh out loud funny. Jessica has a lot of issues and she makes a lot of mistakes, but her humor keeps her lovable – to readers and to the people in her fictional life.

McCafferty has been teasing a “Sloppy Firsts” film for some time – however, the project was first announced back in 2011 and the last news (from April of 2012) reports that she’s still developing it with director Anna Christopher and looking for funding. It’s a shame that the film seems to be stalled out – Jessica Darling is the exact sort of YA heroine who could prove to audiences everywhere that YA doesn’t mean just for kids and it doesn’t mean that someone is going to get bit in the neck. Until the movie happens (fingers crossed), here’s something cool – you can still read the books.