Guest post from Frances Lamb
Ever since I read Diana Wynne Jones’ Charmed Life (1977) as a teenager I have been drawn to fiction concerning parallel worlds. I am intrigued by the idea of different events and decisions creating different worlds, and the concept that alternate versions of a person (analogues) might exist. For my dissertation I combined this literary taste with my feminist concerns, and investigated the representation of the identity of female characters in YA parallel worlds novels. I looked at books published in the last fifteen years where a teenage female protagonist encounters another version of herself.
I already had a number of suitable primary texts, and when seeking others discovered a particularly helpful Goodreads list: YA Books with Parallel Universes. It was relatively easy to decide that my overall feminist approach would be guided by Roberta Seelinger Trites’ arguments in Waking Sleeping Beauty (1997). There is, however, very little literary criticism regarding the use of parallel worlds in YA novels. Although at one level this was disappointing, I found it exciting and satisfying to be exploring a new area which I felt deserved research. I was pleased to find much relevant material in criticism concerning subjects such as adult SF parallel worlds novels, the depiction of girls in YA fantasy and SF, and the representation of women in general children’s and YA literature.
Indeed, the novels offered so many interesting aspects to investigate that I decided that I had to limit my research and focus on three key areas. I looked at two aspects of identity with regard to the depiction of the teenage female protagonists: personal identity (character traits, behaviour, beliefs, interests, abilities and aspirations), and social identity (in relation to female friends, and as a partner in a romantic relationship). I also considered how the portrayal of adult female characters in general, and mothers in particular, offers reflections on potential future identities for girls.
Gaining experiences of parallel worlds, and meeting an analogue or living their life offers girls new opportunities, and encourages them to reflect on their original identity and life. Some writers use these features to provide feminist messages concerning the desirability of girls having agency. J.Q. Coyle, for instance, depicts her narrator in The Infinity of You and Me (2016) gaining confidence as result of finding that she can create new worlds by making certain choices. Other writers employ their protagonists’ parallel worlds experiences to show the value of both female relationships, and interests or achievements. Jessica Brody’s In Some Other Life (2017), for example, depicts a protagonist who learns to appreciate both her role as a school newspaper editor, and her best female friend when she finds herself in a world without either after swapping consciousnesses with her analogue.
Most of the books draw on explanations from physics to explain the existence of parallel worlds and I hope that this will foster female readers’ interest in science as I share the concern of many educators and UNESCO that insufficient numbers of girls are studying STEM subjects. Additionally, I am pleased that the scientific aspects of this genre lead to many girls in these books being depicted as accomplished scientists.
There are also some positive features regarding the depiction of women, rather than girls, in parallel worlds novels. Portraying different analogues allows authors to provide a richer consideration of adult female identity than that found in many YA narratives. Encounters with different versions of the same woman encourage both protagonists and reader to realise that women are individuals whose identities continue to develop as they are affected by their environment, relations with others, and life’s events. This is evident, for instance, in L. E. Delano’s Traveler duology (2017-2018) which shows that a woman might be a much more relaxed mother if her life were easier. Hilary Freeman in When I Was Me (2015) also challenges conservative attitudes by using the portrayal of two different versions of a woman to show that it is better to leave an unhappy marriage. It is disturbing, however, that these novels rarely portray adult female friendships or women who are contentedly single, and that there is a lack of positive representations of women who are not mothers.
It also concerns me that generally in the depiction of the teenage protagonists so many of these novels contain traditional messages about the role of romance in female lives. The differing experiences of various analogues in Claudia Gray’s Firebird trilogy (2014-2016) does lead the narrator to question the role of romantic destiny, and Alice Kuipers, in Me and Me (2018), uses the genre to emphasise the dangers of an abusive relationship. Both writers, however, at the end of their works represent their protagonists as being happily involved in romantic relationships. This reflects the fact that time and time again in parallel worlds stories there is a strong suggestion that it is crucial for a girl’s happiness and sense of self to be involved in a, generally heterosexual, romance. I am disappointed that there is a distinct lack of main characters who are content to remain single.
There are also other potential feminist benefits of parallel worlds fiction which are not apparent in the books I studied. Writers could, for example, provide a more detailed consideration of how different social structures and conventions influence the construction of female identity. Authors could also adopt a more intersectional approach and rather than depicting characters who are generally white, abled, and heterosexual, they could portray different versions of the same person to address issues such as race, disability, class and sexuality.
There are obviously many interesting ways in which feminist writers could develop this fascinating genre, and I look forward to further stimulating reading experiences.
Frances Lamb completed her MA in Children’s Literature (Distance Learning) at Roehampton University in 2020. Her studies have left her with an enhanced interest in and enthusiasm for this subject, and she continues to read with great pleasure not only children’s and YA books, but also literary criticism concerning these areas.