Theories of Evolution, Ways of Being

“It’s okay not to want to get married … It’s okay not to want romantic partners at all. It’s okay to want romance without sex, or sex without romance. And it’s okay to want neither … And when I say okay, I mean good. There are so many good ways to be in this world.”

~ Mimi, in Lisa Jenn Bigelow’s YA novel, Hazel’s Theory of Evolution

So I finished reading Lisa Jenn Bigelow’s YA book, Hazel’s Theory of Evolution last weekend. I loved the main theme of the book: the importance of family and friends.

Connected to this theme, Bigelow tackles a lot of issues with varying degrees of success: same sex parents, mixed marriages, miscarriages, switching schools, losing friends, making new friends, bullying, ethnic and religious differences, disabilities, coming out trans and asexuality. It’s a lot for one novel, almost like Bigelow had a checklist she consulted to ensure she was being sufficiently diverse. At times, it felt a little forced. Despite this, the novel did generally hang together well.

The basic plot revolves around Hazel, an awkward 13-year-old girl with frizzy red hair and glasses who lives on a goat farm. So far, I could be describing my youth, if you switched goats for sheep! But I digress …

One of Hazel’s moms, Mimi, a high-powered, black lawyer, is pregnant again, after suffering from 2 miscarriages. Everyone is anxious about it, Hazel especially so.

On top of that, because of re-zoning, Hazel now has to go to another middle school, leaving behind her one and only friend, Becca. While she is grateful not to have to deal with the mean girl, Kirsten, who made her life miserable from the first day of kindergarten, Hazel vows to “hibernate” for the whole year, and wake up in time for Grade 9 when she can rejoin Becca at the local high school.

Inevitably, things don’t go as planned. Becca joins cheerleading and actually starts hanging out with Kirsten. Hazel, despite her intention to hibernate, befriends another new girl, Carina, who used to be known as Squishy, a boy bullied worse than Hazel. She also meets Yosh Fukuzawa, a wisecracking kid with neon hair who makes up wild stories about why he is in a wheelchair.

Bigelow gets it exactly right about how hard it is for kids to switch schools. And she handles Carina and Yosh’s storylines with compassion and sensitivity. The love within Hazel’s family is also heart-warming. Kids will totally be able to relate to Hazel’s annoyance with her moms’ advice at times. Afterall, what do parents know about being a teenager anyways, right?!

*Spoiler Alert *

It’s Bigelow’s portrayal of Hazel with which I had the most difficulty. Hazel has a set of animal encyclopedias that she has read and reread since she was very young. Her love of animals is intense, obsessive, and she has an unusual fascination with earthworms. She gets angry with people who don’t have the same love or appreciation of animals as she does. She struggles with communicating big emotions. She is awkward with most people. She’s quirky, and even Becca, her best friend, describes her as weird at the end of the book.

So what does that sound like to you? To me, I thought Hazel might be “neuro-diverse”, an intelligent, high-functioning, autistic young woman. Apparently that’s not it though.

Towards the end of the novel, Mimi says to her, “It’s okay not to want to get married … It’s okay not to want romantic partners at all. It’s okay to want romance without sex, or sex without romance. And it’s okay to want neither … And when I say okay, I mean good. There are so many good ways to be in this world.”

It is a beautiful, loving speech that I think all parents should say at some point to their kids, in some form or another. No question about it. However, I was surprised. I didn’t see any significant clues up until that point in the novel that Hazel might be asexual. Even after Mimi’s speech, I wasn’t sure I had interpreted it correctly. But then I read the Author’s Note at the end of the book, and yep. Bigelow was indeed implying that Hazel is, at this point in her life, asexual and aromantic.

I went back through the novel to see what I had missed. Yes, Hazel was uncomfortable in her “Health and Human Development” (H&HD) class, but then again, so are most middle schoolers. In my opinion, any clues that Bigelow included in the plot were too subtle, and could be interpreted in many ways.

And I think Bigelow might have been aware of that, as she stated in her Author’s Note, “I debated whether to use the words asexual and aromantic … (but) … I couldn’t figure out how to introduce them without delving into a lesson in H&HD … I regret not finding a way to share these words with Hazel …”

Personally, I think it would have been helpful if Bigelow had shared those words — if not with Hazel, at least with readers. At the very least, she could have been a little more explicit about Hazel’s lack of interest in romance and sex throughout the story.

* END OF SPOILER ALERT *

However, it is a feel-good novel about family and friends that will appeal to young teenagers, and even the adults in their lives. It offers plenty of opportunities for discussion on issues that matter when you are growing up: Who am I? Where do I fit in this world? How do I cope with anxiety, uncertainty and change? How do I relate to others who are not like me?

Definitely worth a read. If you’ve read it, let me know your thoughts. Have you read other books on similar topics?

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