I often feel that there are two readers inside of me. One is driven by pure emotion. She loves angst and melodrama and relationships in conflict. Story is the most important thing to this reader, more important than innovative story structure or deep and thoughtful characterization. If the story is exciting and heart-wrenching, she’s happy. She’s capricious and fast, but also just completely enjoys reading and can finish a book in a day.
The other reader inside me is a close and critical reader. And I don’t mean critical in the nit-picky, grammarian sense (though I can certainly fall into that categorization as well). I mean that this reader applies a critical lens to the text. She draws on her experience in cultural competence and feminist theory and history and social justice to help provide context and meaning to books. If your book utilizes stereotypical gender roles or racist constructions–without critically examining them for some better purpose–this reader will raise her eyebrows, lower her estimation of your book, and say, “Really?”
It’s the rare book that gets my two inner readers to uniformly agree on its quality. Obviously, for me to appreciate a book, I don’t even have to achieve that agreement–some books are enjoyable for my brain, some are enjoyable for my heart, and both are important for my overall love of reading. I don’t discriminate! It does, however, make it really difficult to review books sometimes, when my heart and my mind disagree.
With that long explanation out of the way, let’s talk about Tiger Lily, by Jodi Lynn Anderson.
This book hit me right in the feels, just as I imagine it will hit the teen girl YA audience for whom it is aimed at. I got the little angst chills in my arms that I get when something is deliciously painful. Reading it made my morning and evening commutes fly by, and I didn’t want to have to put it down.
Anderson has a real knack for language, and unspools the story with lots of drama and cliffhangers and surprising details. It was written in a straightforward style that mimics classic fairytales, with a lot of “telling” rather than “showing” that still somehow works, Tinker Bell being a surprisingly effective narrator. The emotions Tiger Lily elicits in the reader see-saw from frustration to affection to pity, as we watch a stoic but still somewhat naive and innocent girl experience true love for the first time, with a boy who not only doesn’t grow up, but can’t. I would say it’s impossible to read this book and not feel something.
Overall, I liked the way in which she updated the story of Peter Pan while remaining true to the original’s theme of what it means to grow up, and the focus on an underused and misunderstood character: Tiger Lily. (No Bella Swan, she; we see her nearly kill a man and outperform Pan himself in lots of ways.) Anderson’s changes to many of the other characters were just as well-done–her reimagining of Smee alone, into a weeping serial killer, deserves major kudos. Finally, the ending was incredible–not entirely sad, but not happy, and with a liberal dose of that longing for times gone by that a lot of us can relate to. While it may frustrate some readers who wanted a more traditional “happy ending,” I think it speaks to Anderson’s belief in the strength of her story that she chose this route, and I applaud her for that.
Now to allow my second inner reader the floor. Buckle up, it’s gonna be a bumpy ride.
There’s a bit of girl-on-girl hatred that I think could have been done with more nuance. Tiger Lily is often described through comparison with other girls, with her stereotypically “masculine” traits contrasted with their stereotypically “feminine” ones. Tiger Lily runs too quickly for a girl; she’s too strong and stealthy and intimidating and emotionless. Um, how are these bad things? This is humble-bragging. Additionally, privileging one set of characteristics over the other still isn’t right. Okay, we know that another girl is beautiful and delicate…what are her other positive traits? Wendy especially is painted with this brush. (Yes, the book is from Tinker Bell’s point-of-view, but she acknowledges the mix of positive and negative traits in others–she isn’t uniformly pro-Tiger Lily.)
There is a gay character in this novel, and I wholeheartedly support the inclusion of diverse characters in all books, especially YA books. (Kids are smart and don’t need to be “protected” from half of what people think, especially not from the perfectly-natural spectrum of sexuality.) It was a problematic representation, though. Tik Tok is described as feminine; he is vain about his hair and wears dresses. (Aren’t these ideas about how “effete” gay men are sort of passe? And insulting? And shallow?) While his shamanic knowledge is respected in the Sky Eaters’ community and his sexual identity is just considered the way he was born, it’s definitely also viewed with a bit of hesitation on their part. (Don’t even get me started on the way Tik Tok is treated once the English arrive; props for depicting a realistic version of colonization in the text, though .) And of course, Tik Tok did not have a partner, which is a personal peeve of mine; gay men are “acceptable” when they repress their desires and live alone, but become a threat to society/culture/the institution of marriage when they choose to have a partner. Again, I’m happy to see a gay character included in Anderson’s world; I just would have liked to have a stronger, more well-developed, and more progressive gay character. I would be interested to see how LGBTQ readers respond to him.
The last criticism I’ll allow myself: the cover. (I know authors don’t often have control over what their covers look like, so this isn’t aimed at Anderson herself). First off, it took me a while to figure out that this was a girl’s body, clad in a chiffon-y dress. Secondly, she’s pretty pale for a member of the Sky Eater tribe; haven’t we all had enough of the white-washing trend in YA book covers? Thirdly, the image is not at all relevant to the book–even if it was trying to depict Tiger Lily in her wedding regalia, the dress on the cover looks nothing like the novel’s description of the dress. We know that Tiger Lily prioritizes comfort and freedom of movement in her clothes, and we know that she is a serious, tomboyish person. Why not show Tiger Lily doing something active or decisive, dressed as she would be normally?
So that’s the scoop from each of my two inner readers. While I think Anderson made many interesting statements and put a progressive and unique spin on the Peter Pan story, some points could have been made a bit more smoothly. Tiger Lily remains a smart book about consequences and choices and the different kinds of love you will experience in your lifetime, and I do recommend giving it a chance.
Bookwanderer Tagline: “There was a beast in there. But there was also a girl who was afraid of being a beast, and who wondered if other people had beasts in their hearts too. There was strength, and there was also just the determination to look strong. She guarded herself like a secret.”
Bookwanderer Rating: Three and a half out of five stars