Putting The "BFF" In "YA"

I set out to accomplish many things when I wrote my debut young adult novel — but something not on that list? Write a book about friendships, and especially not about female friendships. Becoming Jinn was going to be a book about one strong girl’s struggle to find her place in the world, to balance a life she was forced to have with the one she so desperately wanted, and to become the person she was destined to be.

But the reality is, in literature and in life, one girl cannot do any of these things alone. And, pointedly, not being alone means more than just having a love interest, which many of us, myself included, are often guilty of forgetting.

Female friendships became core to Azra’s story the moment her best friend died, which is revealed at the start of the book. It wounds Azra in a way she has yet to recover from, and it prevents her from bonding with the other Jinn girls she’s grown up with. These Jinn are to be her Zar “sisters,” her lifelong friends, the ones she’s supposed to share everything with, and the ones she’s supposed to want to share everything with. But she doesn’t.

Realizing that she doesn’t just want this — but that she needs this — in order to survive is the backbone of Becoming Jinn. As soon as this thread poked out of the perfectly planned story I had knit together, I didn’t shove it back inside. I pulled on it, understanding how not only Azra’s story but the reader’s experience, specifically a young woman’s reading experience, would be bolstered by the portrayal of strong female friendships.

In the world of Becoming Jinn, Azra needs her Zar sisters. They give her strength in a magical sense, but also because they are uniquely positioned to help her come to terms with her transition to becoming a Jinn and support her once she gets there and beyond. Living as Jinn in a world of humans means these girls only have each other to share this particular experience with — the good and the bad.

Such a need bonds these girls as Zar sisters. And while it may represent a heightened reality, their experience as Jinn is a microcosm of the experience of being a teenage girl — an experience only other teenage girls have the ability to understand. While as teens we need our parents and our siblings, we need role models and good teachers, we need (or think we need) a romantic relationship, what we truly need are friends who know what it’s like when your BFF from middle school suddenly skyrockets on the popularity scale and drops her half of your “best friends forever” heart necklace in the cafeteria trash can; when the guy you’ve been crushing on for two years asks someone else to prom; when your parents push you to join the Spanish club instead of try out for cheer. (Completely fictional examples, I assure you. Ahem.)

Like Azra, no teenage girl can survive and become the woman she is meant to become without the support of those who can understand what she’s feeling and the challenges she’s facing. And this is not to say that strong female friendships are all about shopping for espadrilles, belting out “Shake It Off,” and trying to figure out just who the hell is “A” if it’s not Mona or Alison.

Friends fight. Friends get jealous. Friends betray one another. Friends misjudge one another. Friends screw up. Which is why it was important to me for the portrayal in Becoming Jinn to reflect all of this and more. To see such realistic friendships in the books they are reading shows young women that the struggles they have with their own friends are normal.

And when the Zar sisters demonstrate their capacity to forgive and to change, and as Azra’s character arc comes to completion and she’s learned to not just accept but appreciate the female Jinn in her life, my hope is that young female readers realize the same can be true of their own friendships — and that pushing through the hard times is worth it. More than worth it. That it’s vital to survival — especially high school survival.

Too often, teenage girls have a laser-focus on their romantic relationships; I know I did. The biggest regret of my high school years is that I put my boyfriend above my girlfriends. I didn’t leave high school with close friends, but by the time I arrived at college, I not only realized my mistake but was determined to not make the same one again. The young women I met in college who became my best friends then are still my best friends now.

Perhaps if I read more novels showcasing female friendships as core to the story, I’ve have learned that lesson earlier. Female friendships need to be represented in YA literature to show readers that they are as important, if not more important, than romantic relationships, because whether we are Jinn, or in high school, they help us survive the bad. But they also make the good a hell of a lot more fun.

Images: ABC Family; Giphy (2)