Swoon Author Lillie Vale: The Importance of Strong, Complicated Friendships in YA
Hey, Swooners! Today I’m going to be talking to you about one of my favorite topics: friendship in YA. Specifically intense, nuanced female friendships and why it was important for me to show in Small Town Hearts!
With aspirational #squadgoals and girl squads popularized in the last few years, we’re starting to see TV, film, and literature start to examine the complexity of friendship in a deeper way. Which! I! Am! So! Excited! About!
But let’s not forget about the OGs of YA BFFs. I remember devouring The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, The Baby-sitters Club, and Nancy Drew as a young reader and thinking: This is sisterhood. Then, as a teen, getting into One Tree Hill and Gossip Girl, and getting my first glimpse of friends who loved as fiercely as they hated, who wielded their tongues like a blade and knew exactly where to cut so it hurt. It seemed so at odds with the rosy glow of friendship I remembered as a kid, and at the same time… not so at odds.
Girls like Peyton, Brooke, Serena, and Blair spent as much time on the outs as they did having each other’s backs. Sometimes they raised each other up and celebrated each other in YASSS QUEEN moments (yes, before that was even a thing), and I loved them for it. Sometimes they were frenemies and I exasperatedly wondered why they were even friends.
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Friendships aren’t static. And sometimes a change can lead two people who thought they knew who they were and what their friendship was, to evolve in ways which are imperfect, confusing, and sometimes downright hostile.
It would take many friendships later before I wrote the first book where this happened. Then, a few months later, I was writing the book that would one day become my debut novel. Babe, the main character from Small Town Hearts, is on the cusp of a Big Change that she fears will change the dynamic of her friend group, and has no idea how to deal. She makes mistakes, she’s flawed, she’s struggling. At the start of the novel, her shared history, loyalty, and love for her friends means more to her than even the promise of a what-could-be with the new boy in her town or the reappearance of her ex-girlfriend.
Her tight-knit friendships are tumultuous and messy. They’re fierce in their care of each other (mostly Babe), and ruthless in how they respond to changes (mostly her BFF Penny). They’re all flawed, all strong, all selfish in their own ways. They aren't the rosy Nancy and Bess from childhood, but something sharper, more incendiary. And I love them for it.
And considering how formative, inspirational, and necessary that friendships are, it really bothers me that we aren’t really taught how to sustain them. Nothing stays the same forever, even if we want it to, and there’s so many ways in which a friendship can end—a big blow-up conflict, a slow-fade “I hope they don’t notice what I’m doing,” the natural drifting apart when you no longer share the same interests, and, of course, ghosting. To name a few.
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We just aren’t taught how to evolve in ways where we know how to manage a relationship that changes when we do. Many times, we either force ourselves to still function in the old mold, even when it doesn’t fit. Or we are content to let things drift, because… well, it’s easy. No one likes having the “This isn’t working” conversation.
Yeah, romance and kissing is nice, but do not underestimate friendship—the world NEEDS these complicated, figuring-friends-out books. Because there are a thousand and one places where friendship can go wrong, and if reading teaches us empathy, then surely reading about friendship teaches us something invaluable, too? For me, and for Babe, it was how to find our way back to our friends without losing ourselves—or each other—along the way. For you, it might be something else.
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I firmly believe that friendship, especially female friendship, should be just as significant and valid in books. They are no less intimate than romantic and sexual relationships, even though pretty much every narrative we’re taught since childhood reinforces that romance is definitely at the top of the pyramid. And yet friendship can be just as complicated, heart-warming, and sometimes even devastating… if not more so.
This is the best friend break-up(?) story that teen me needed.