The Cute Girl Network by Greg Means, MK Reed and Joe Flood, 180 pp, RL TEEN

The Cute Girl Network is the newest title from MK Reed, author of the incredible graphic novel, Americus, and Greg Means and Joe Flood. As with Americus, Reed, and her coauthors in this new novel, take contemporary themes and shake them up in ways that make you think. In Americus it was the banning of a Harry Potter-like series of kid's books - The Chronicles of Apathea Ravenchilde, Huntress Witch - and prejudice against homosexuality and the timeless painful, but often humorous, theme of the outsider in high school. In The Cute Girl Network Reed, Means and Flood move the story from high school to early adulthood - that time after high school (or college) when kids get jobs and move in with friends and they challenge ideas about gender stereotypes -  in relationships, on skateboards and in life. I recently reviewed Fangirl, the new YA novel from Rainbow Rowell in which one of the characters writes slash fic - fan fiction in which two heterosexual male characters (from a novel, movie or television show) are rewritten in a homosexual relationship. I don't immediately get the desire on the part of what seems to be predominantly heterosexual teenage girls to inagine this, probably because I'm old. After giving it quite a bit of thought and talking to some readers and writers of slash fic, I came to an understanding which could be way off base but helps me comprehend this. Slash fic lets girls and women subvert the dominant paradigm in popular storytelling, which (still) presents predominately male protagonists who get all the action, heroics and power in the plot. It seems like slash fic lets female writers give these male characters the tenderness, vulnerability and struggle to connect that are often relegated to the secondary female characters while layering it on top of their already (dominant) male characteristics. I posited that the rise of slash fic might lead writers to adopt its ethos and write fiction with strong, powerful, heroic, vulnerable, tender protagonists of both genders so that fans won't have to. Little did I know, this is already being done and on display in the character of Jane, protagonist of The Cute Girl Network!

Jane is new to town when she crashes her skateboard right in front of Jack and the Soup Dudes food cart that he runs. One thing I love about graphic novels is that they can tell a story separate from the one that the protagonist is in, the illustrations can show the reader things that the characters are oblivious to. Jane bites it on her skateboard when a wheel hits a bottle cap with the message, "YOU ARE NOT A WINNER" printed inside. This could be foreshadowing or just a piece of trash in the street.  Jack offers Jane a free bottled drink, which she put down her pants to soothe her bruised coccyx, thanks him and heads off to work at the all-guy run skate shop in town. Jane can skate like a pro and make and enjoy fart jokes like a guy, but that doesn't stop the (all male) customers in the skate shop from refusing her help. Jack asks Jane out and they spend the day doing things that don't cost money and sharing embarrassing stories from their pasts. At the end of a great day, Jane kisses Jack and he gets a nose bleed, getting some on her. But Jane is cool with it, pulling a bandana out of the big pocket of her cargo pants for Jack to clean up with.

Jane soon learns that the women in her life have some opinions about Jack. Jane returns home to her roommates are having a book group meeting and discussing Vampyr Boyfriend, and the reader is treated to a page from this graphic novel as well as bonus pages at the end of The Cute Girl Network. Ironic commentary follows with some earnest discussion of chastity, first love, romantic ignorance and some bonding over wine and lasagne. Later, when Jane's roommate Harriet figures out who Jane is dating, she plans in intervention, telling her that they are not here to judge or tell her what to do, but she really needs to know about Jack from other women who have dated him. That's where the Cute Girl Network comes in.

Calls are made and the Network is set in action. At first, the Network sounded like a brilliant idea to me, and all the women in the novel clearly think it's a great idea, but the authors show us that it's not necessarily a great idea for everybody. Jane and Harriet meet up with some of Jack's past girlfriends who tell horror stories about sending Jack to the store to buy more cumin (he has no idea what it is) and him never returning, seemingly distracted by a maze on the back of a box of his favorite cereal, Magic Crunch. Then there's the story of Jack offering the use of his cell phone, which he keeps in his underwear. And stories of Jack being oblivious to the social norms for a fancy restaurant or a visiting mother. Claire calls Jack a lot of names that revolve around idiot savant, minus the savant. They all say things we've said about a guy at one time or another. And the things Jack did, the scars he left, are all familiar, but also one side of the story and that's how Jane takes it all in. In fact, some of the offenses don't even seem that offensive to her. 
So how is Jane a strong, powerful, heroic, vulnerable, tender protagonist just like the guys in slash fic? It's pretty clear that Jane is not your typical girl and could care less about one month anniversaries and perfectly chosen Christmas gifts like most girls. She's a skater, so she doesn't mind taking chances and getting hurt, even in front of a cute guy. She dresses like a dude and has some pretty stereotypically male protagonist traits. But, she has long hair (most often in braids) and lacy bras and underwear. Jane is also thoughtful and kind. She listens to what Harriet and the Cute Girl Network have to say and she doesn't judge. She's smart and articulate. She rips into a jerk at the skate park in a really great scene. She stands by while her coworkers tease Jack about making enough money to keep Jane barefoot and pregnant, then challenges her boss to let her makes some changes to bring in female customers. Jack tells Jane that she's not afraid to get hurt and gets up and going again when she does get hurt, saying that she's brave so she must not need him. In the end, Jane gives an awesome speech to Harriet, saying that she knows Jack will probably do something stupid in the future, and probably over and over, and that it might break her heart. But she's strong enough to handle it. She's using the information the Network gave her and "making an informed decision and moving forward with my eyes open," she's "seeking out truth and making a choice." She just doesn't make the choice that the Network wants her to make, thinks she should make. I'm sorry to be going on about this, but I have read plenty of YA romances over the years and I have NEVER heard a female protagonist think, see and speak so clearly, strongly and confidently about a romantic interest - especially one that all the other girls are telling her is no good. I hope to see more confident girls like this in YA books in the future!

THE CUTE GIRL NETWORK - front and back!

The authors and illustrator!

Source: Review Copy

If you liked The Cute Girl Network, check out these great graphic novels:

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