When I started reading Pretty Amy by Lisa Burstein, my first thought was, “How does she know so much about getting arrested?” It turns out that, like many of us who write, Burstein pulled from personal experience. I found that this gave her story a great deal of authenticity.
“I was arrested during my senior year of high school, not for the same reason Amy was, but that was where the kernel came from. I also knew I wanted to write a ‘shocking’ book from a teenage girl’s point-of-view. I feel like you can get away with your character being a murderer, or a jerk, or just a smart ass more easily if your book isn’t contemporary and I wanted to try to break that mold with Pretty Amy. I also wanted to write a contemporary YA book that was about what real teens go through. I feel like teenage girl’s lives are complex and I hoped to show that in Pretty Amy.”
Burstein hit the nail right on the head with this book. The way a teenage girl thinks is unique. There is a hint of the juvenile still rolling around, even though she is more of a woman than a girl. Add to this a sense of self that is trying to find that “self” and you have Amy, a 17-year-old girl whose best friend is a pet bird until she meets narcissistic Lila and crass Cassie under the bleachers during a school game. Wanting to fit into a group, Amy is lured into the world of these two girls who smoke, party, and pursue boys without consequence - until they all get arrested on prom night with a big bag of weed and no strong reason as to why they have it (other than their dates ditched them, and one of those ditchers is a pot dealer who left a hefty bag of the stuff around for Cassie to steal). Now their world is turned upside down, with charges of possession and intent to sell over their heads.
In particular, it is Amy who seems to take the charges the hardest. She is a good girl who got lost, and I immediately identified with her rebellion in order to fit in. I was also a good girl who got caught up with the “bad” kids and smoked, drank, lit school prom posters on fire, and egged houses. Like Amy, underneath it all I was still there, trying to get out.
“Amy is shunned by the ‘good’ kids. The allure of the ‘bad’ kids, is being accepted. Unfortunately, Amy finds out that maybe ‘bad’ isn’t who she really is,” said Burstein.
In following Lila and Cassie down the rabbit hole, Amy becomes the “yes girl” who agrees with what they say and direct her to do. It is a classic example of trying to fit in by not being yourself.
“I think as a teenager it is hard to stand up to your friend, especially if they are the only ones you have. You deal with them because you need people to hang out with, you need people to get you out of your parent’s house.”
Oh yes, I can identify with that, having climbed out the windows at all hours of the night to meet friends up the road to go drinking. In retrospect, it wasn’t a smart choice to make. However, it does shape who you eventually become, which oftentimes is so much more than just a “bad” girl. Thankfully, my mom was close to me, and liked a lot of my strange friends, unlike Amy’s mom. More of a control freak than someone who can relate to her daughter, it seems Amy’s mother is her nemesis and a reason why Amy goes looking for acceptance from others.
“Yes (it is common for teenage girls to butt heads with their moms). At least, I know I did. If you’re not fighting with your parents, even a little bit, I don’t think you’re a teenager.”
Okay, I’ll admit that I did make my mom cry a few times by being a mean and snarky teenage girl with a ‘tude. I can see, though, that Amy wants to get along with her mom and be loved and accepted, rather than always on trial for having something wrong with her that “needs fixing.”
Fixing, however, is something we all need as we go through the trials and tribulations of adolescence. Amy is part of this movement, wherein we learn how to be. On her journey from being arrested to recovered, she struggles to defend the ideal she has created about herself, only to find that it was all a false reality.
“I was a lot like Amy. Just like her, I had such a desire to belong, to fit in, to have people who understood me. I wanted that so badly and I guess I never felt like adults understood that. It was most of the reason I wrote Pretty Amy. If I’d had it when I was in high school I feel like I would have been able to understand my feelings better. I wouldn’t have felt so alone. That feeling was something I never admitted to anyone, not even my friends and I want to let teens know it’s okay to feel lonely even surrounded by friends and family.”
Indeed, the way Burstein develops Amy is natural. The pace is real. Her thoughts and observations true to the tone of teenagehood. And like Burstein, if I’d had a book like this when I was 17 and messing around, it would have been wonderful to have someone I could relate to. Thankfully, I was never arrested - but could have been.
While Pretty Amy is her debut, Burstein is gearing up to bring us the companion novel, titled Dear Cassie, in March 2013. This novel looks at the aftermath of the girls' arrest and how it affects Cassie via her diary. I am eager to read this one, as Cassie is quite the brash character and I want to know what's underneath that.
When I finished Pretty Amy, I felt satisfied with how Amy turned out. You could say that everything ended up peachy. In a way, it did, but realistically. There were no angels singing down. No sparkles and romance (well, yes there was romance with her old-flame neighbor boy). Just a young girl who came out the other end of a hell hole that more than likely will define who she becomes as a woman. Well done!