The third in my “Badass History” series of feminist historical YA books is noteworthy for two reasons. One, it takes place in the most recent time period, the 1970s. Two, while the other three books all address race and feature diverse characters, this is the only one that’s written by an author of color (setting aside A Tyranny of Petticoats, which was edited by Jessica Spotswood, but does feature an admirably diverse roster of contributing authors). Without further ado, here’s BURN BABY BURN by Meg Medina.
BURN BABY BURN is a classic coming-of-age story, with 17-year-old Nora Lopez grappling with family, friendship, first love, and the future as she approaches graduation. But Nora happens to be a Latina teenager coming of age during the infamous summer of 1977 in New York City. The Seventies might be the decade of disco and Roe v. Wade, but NYC in ’77 is a summer of blackouts, arson, and the notorious Son of Sam serial murders.
I never really thought too much about the Seventies. Sure, the decade had great movies, godawful fashion, and in my opinion underrated music, but for the most part the 70s don’t really incite strong feelings in me like the 60s (which I became really fascinated by over the past year) or the 80s (though if this plague of nostalgia continues, the 90s might soon overtake the synth era as the decade that I’m most prejudiced against). But then I watched Diary of a Teenage Girl and found out that the “baby groupies” were a thing and suddenly I was like, holy shit, the 70s were terrifying. *Especially* for teen girls, and doubly especially for teenage girls of color like Nora. But of course it was a time of change and possibility as well. The most uncertain times in history are often the most fascinating, both to live in and to reflect on.
There is so much to unpack here: race, poverty, gender, juvenile domestic abuse (the author’s note at the end remarks on how few people know it’s even an issue, myself included–I thought I was reasonably well-informed on issues of abuse, but I was shocked that this was a thing). I strongly encourage you to read Meg Medina’s post on feminism in her novel. Nora and her best friend, Kathleen, are very much growing up during the pinnacle of second-wave feminism–they read Ms., join their mothers in women’s-lib rallies, and proudly flaunt buttons with pro-women slogans But the novel also acknowledges the greater complexities behind the fight for gender equality and what it means. Nora’s badass landlady, Stiller, is involved in not only feminist activism but also the Black Power movement; Kathleen’s white middle-class mother, Mrs. MacIrney, is a card-carrying women’s-libber, but struggles to reconcile her feminist beliefs with her Catholic pro-life values; and Nora named her pet guinea pig Gloria (as in Steinem!) and talks back against sexual harassment, but isn’t quite so sure of herself when her guidance counselor encourages her to go to college.
There’s so much I could say about this book, but the word that kept running through my mind was explosive. Nora’s entry into womanhood is as blistering as the August heat, full of pent-up and volatile emotions. Sex and violence are always lurking beneath the surface, twin anxieties made even more intense by the very real and looming threat of the Son of Sam murdering young couples. The characters try painfully hard to repress their unpleasant realities, but of course, desire, anguish, and rage, just like race, class, and gender tensions, only become a Molotov cocktail when bottled up.
Nell Minow made a wonderfully insightful comment in her review of AN EDUCATION (which is another intelligent, bittersweet, but very beautiful coming-of-age story that everyone should watch): “We know that like Jenny, London is also on the brink of enormous changes. We know that a world of opportunities she could never imagine will open up to her. Unlike Jenny, we know she is going to be fine. After all, we know she went on to tell her story, in itself a triumph over whatever went wrong and whatever she lost.” BURN BABY BURN is an unflinching young-adult novel, and our restless heroine has an incredibly painful reality that goes beyond standard teenage hormones. But what makes the story so satisfying and cathartic is that, while we often make the mistake of thinking the past was rosier than it really was now that we’ve survived it, we also know that as painful and topsy-turvy and just plain scary the Seventies were, they will also open up whole new possibilities. Growing up isn’t easy for Nora, but if she can survive being a teenage brown girl in the summer of ’77, she’s going to be fine.