Juno is a fun movie. Elliot Page nails it as the title character, conveying exactly the intended idea that a lot of the weirdness about teen pregnancy comes from our hang-ups, as a society, about young women/girls. In the movie’s desire to concentrate on how Juno navigates this brave new world, however, Michael Cera’s character—the babydaddy—plays only a minor role. That’s fine for the story Juno wants to tell. But I basically think now of Trouble as “like Juno, but with a father involved.” Not the father, mind you….
Hannah Witton recommended this book in one of her monthly favourites videos. Hannah is an amazing YouTuber who vlogs about sex education, feminism, and relationships, including her lovely Drunk Advice series. Check out her videos. I have no trouble understanding why she liked Trouble. Non Pratt (who I can only assume is just at good at wrangling dinosaurs as Chris Pratt) has created a novel realistic in its portrayal of teenagers yet optimistic in its outcomes.
I’ve been back in Canada for almost a year to the day now, after spending two years teaching students the same age as the ones in this book. While I had no illusions about what fifteen-year-olds are (or are not) getting up to, it’s definitely different to see it presented from their perspective rather than my perspective as an awkward twenty-something dude managing his first classroom…. (This, of course, is one of the reasons I love to read YA.) Hannah Sheppard (not to be confused with Hannah Witton, above!) and her friends are fifteen. They smoke, drink, and—oh yes—have sex. Lots of sex. And when they aren’t having sex, they are thinking about sex, talking about sex, and “pulling” (making out).
So I had flashbacks to teaching in England thanks to the setting of this book. I definitely recognized the type of school Pratt describes, with registration and mock exams and the dreaded GCSEs. I also had flashbacks to my own time in high school, which is not that long ago; I dredged up memories of peers and friends and compared them with the type of life Pratt portrays here.
I admit that part of my reaction is befuddlement, in the sense that I don’t really have a common frame of reference with Hannah here. I was never interested in engaging in these types of hormone-driven hijinks. I never really got why having girlfriends or boyfriends and making out and even having sex were such a big deal—didn’t anyone else realize that there were books to be read? How do you even read a book while having sex, anyway? That just seems awkward. And to this day I still have trouble getting myself in the mindspace of someone who finds all this stuff important or even interesting. It all seems rather messy and sticky and unappealing.
Nevertheless, I greatly appreciate Pratt’s depiction of Hannah’s sex and romance life. Not only does she capture Hannah’s voice with the first-person narration, but they also manage to say a lot about the way young women in our society begin to perceive themselves during adolescence:
We spent far too long messing about getting ready, so that by the time we came downstairs loads of Jay’s mates had arrived. I’m not going to lie. I was on the prowl. A summer of flirting with Tyrone and learning how to make a guy lose control had given me confidence.
Somewhere along the way, women figure out that in order to get by in life, they have to start pretending to be other people.
Pratt definitely shows Hannah, Katie, and the other 15-year-old girls as confident. But it’s the fragile confidence born from inexperienced enthusiasm, a confidence easily belied by the uncertainty Hannah exhibits later in the scene from above, when she loses her virginity. Nevertheless, it’s the key word, because it’s what Hannah has learned she is supposed to have. Be strong. Be confident. Confidence is sexy. In a lot of ways, this reminds me of Johanna from How to Build a Girl. Tired of being herself, Johanna finds the confidence required to create an entirely new persona in order to fit into the scene she wants to inhabit.
Despite the obvious consequences of Hannah’s unplanned pregnancy, Trouble manages to be sex-positive. It is brutally honest when Hannah confides in us that she wants sex: “This last week or so has been UNbearable. I have never been so horny in all my life, and I think it might kill me if I don’t have sex soon.” More than that, however, this sex drive is by Hannah, for Hannah. Too frequently, women’s sexuality in media is an object of male desire—women are sexy for men, want sex for the benefit of a male viewpoint character. When Hannah refers to being “on the prowl” or “within perving distance” or otherwise discusses her body and her needs, she’s affirming that she wants sex for her own sake.
Furthermore, Trouble distinguishes between sex and romance and friendship in a nuanced way that a lot of YA doesn’t seem to do. It’s easy to conflate these three things—girl friends boy, girl falls for boy, girl sexes boy is a “natural” progression that quickly yields a formula for a summer YA read about “growing up.” And, you know, there is nothing wrong with that sequence of events. But I want some diversity in my relationships. I want platonic friendships among genders. Trouble comes close with the relationship between Hannah and Aaron.
I appreciate the ambiguity, especially towards the end. Pratt leaves Hannah and Aaron’s relationship status up in the air. They are friends, yes. More than that? Hard to say. Maybe. Trouble’s ending really only marks the beginning of the next chapter in Hannah’s life (and the life of her new baby). Rather than providing a trite epilogue, Pratt firmly reminds us that life gives no assurances: Hannah is only fifteen; there is so much more that will happen to her, good and bad.
Aaron’s perspective throughout the book is what differentiated Trouble for me from an experience like Juno. True, Aaron is not actually the babydaddy—and while his volunteering of those services might seem far-fetched, the juxtaposition of his rising star with Katie’s falling one says a lot about how something like being pregnant shows you who your friends are. The subplot about Aaron’s “shadowy past” teeters on the brink of cliché but never quite goes over—and at the very least, it serves to avoid making him into a manic pixie dream boy whose only purpose is to be Hannah’s friend.
The dual perspectives are a perfect juxtaposition. Both Hannah and Aaron are fallible human beings. They are foils for each other, calling each other out when the other is being an idiot, and generally supporting each other through some of the worst moments of their lives thus far. Although Pratt leaves the romantic status of their relationship up in the air, she establishes vehemently that whatever their feelings for one another, Hannah and Aaron are at the very least true friends. And I like that.
Trouble is a fun and exhilarating book that doesn’t overstay its welcome yet still leaves a lasting impression. If you’re a teen, you’ll recognize a lot in here. If, like me, you’re past those tender years, then you’ll probably see echoes of your past—or you’ll at least get a sense of what life is like for some teenagers these days. This is a book about empathy, compassion, and how crazy it is that women have to push babies out of their vaginas.
One of the men actually asks if the doll is to scale.
It can’t be. Babies aren’t that big except in hospital shows, where they don’t have minutes-old babies on standby for the end of a birth scene.
You can almost hear all the women let out their breath when she says no.
“This doll’s head is proportionally smaller than a baby’s.”
Go home, evolution. You’re drunk.