This Sporty Queer YA Novel Is the Best Book I’ve Read in Years

Let me begin this review of Britta Lundin’s 2021 contemporary YA novel Like Other Girls by declaring it a crime that it hasn’t gotten more attention. In the last few years, I’ve fallen a bit out of love with YA and haven’t been reading it a lot, but I am so so glad I made an exception for Like Other Girls. It succeeds on many levels: as a character study, as a swoony romance, as a gripping sports story, as a feminist inditement of sexism and misogyny, as a novel deeply rooted in rural Oregon and farming culture, and more. It’s one of the best YA — or dare I say books? — I’ve read in years.

There is a lot going on in Like Other Girls — effortlessly and deftly balanced, by the way — but at its core it’s a story about a closeted butch lesbian teen struggling with and overcoming internalized misogyny. Mara Deeble is 16, lives in a conservative rural farming area of Oregon, and she loves sports. She’s got some anger issues, which came to a head last winter.

With only a few minutes left in an important basketball game, a teammate alerted their coach that Mara might have a concussion after falling and hitting her head due to a foul (that the ref didn’t even see, how infuriating!). Mara is prevented from finishing the game. She is so furious she hits the teammate who, after all, was actually looking out for her. Mara is consequently kicked off the basketball team. The teammate in question is named Carly.

Carly is a wonderful character. She’s an out femme lesbian at their high school (in fact, the only out queer girl in her grade). She is a committed social justice activist, she’s stubborn, she’s passionate. She’s a proud queer Asian girl who loves Hayley Kiyoko. She’s Mara’s enemy. Mara is terrified of Carly, of the freedom and righteous anger that Carly embodies. Mara is envious of the easy acceptance Carly got from her mom after coming out in high school: “It’s like, ‘Okay, you have a cool mom who accepts you, stop rubbing it in our faces.'” Mara feels like her only option is to wait until she moves to Portland for college to come out.

For most of the book, Mara’s feelings for Carly come out as anger. Every conversation they have seems to lead to an argument. While Mara thinks this anger is about Carly herself, attentive readers can see right away, as Mara learns later on, that Carly is not the correct target. Institutional sexism in sports, her family’s probable homophobia that Mara is afraid to provoke, her mom’s manipulative gender policing, teenage boys’ casual misogynist cruelty: These are Mara’s actual enemies. Learning to recognize them as such is her journey.

Back to the plot, and the content that takes up the most space in the book: football. Mara’s basketball coach gives her an ultimatum: Play another team sport in the fall and don’t fight or let your aggression come out in the form of violence. Then, she can be back on the team come basketball season. Her coach suggests volleyball, which makes Mara want to gag. Volleyball is girly. The girls who play volleyball wear makeup, hair ribbons, and cute spandex shorts to games. Mara does not fit in; what’s more, she looks down on the volleyball players. (Remember, I said she was struggling with internalized misogyny — here it is rearing its ugly head).

Mara has a brainwave while passing around a football with her older brother and her best friend, Quinn. Both guys are on the football team. Why can’t Mara play football instead? She’s much more interested in football than volleyball. Of course, she’d have to play on the boys team. But she sees herself as one of the guys anyway. She’s tall, muscly, and very athletic. She knows football. She’s sure that if she works hard, she can earn the respect of the guys on the team and have a great season playing a sport she thinks she’s going to love.

Of course, it doesn’t work out that way. Mara is reluctantly allowed to play. The fact that she’s better than a bunch of the guys on the team gets her more animosity, not less. And just when it seems like she might be being accepted, four other girls — including, of course, Carly, as well as Mara’s longtime crush Valentina — join the team. They’ve been inspired by Mara.

Mara does not want to be inspiring — at least, at first. In fact, she resents the other girls. She complains: “They’re making me look bad.” Things go from bad to really really bad, in more ways than one. The situation brings out the absolute worst in most of the guys on the team, including Quinn, who has been Mara’s best friend since childhood.

Lundin does not hold back in her depiction of how toxic masculinity, sexist entitlement, and deeply held beliefs about the inferiority of women and girls blossom in these teenage boys under the tense circumstances. So-called nice guys are not immune. Attempting to be neutral is merely a vote for the sexist status quo. And the only difference for the adult men who are the coaches is that they hide their misogyny a little better.

But this story, thank lesbian Jesus, is not about the boys or the coaches. It’s about Mara. As Mara releases her long held prejudices about femininity and girls, she’s able to see the guys (and their shitty behaviour and double standards) more clearly. Tentatively, she forms real friendships with her girl teammates. She slowly begins to align herself with them, instead of distancing herself from them. She learns that she doesn’t need to belittle femininity to express her masculinity or to reject compulsory femininity. The inspirational feminism of it all is incredibly moving.

Lundin handles Mara’s journey with such care and nuance. She’s not afraid to have Mara make mistakes, say and do hurtful things, or just be plain wrong. I mean, the book opens with Mara punching another girl! But there’s a consistent thread of vulnerability in Mara and compassion and understanding in the way she’s written that makes it impossible not to root for her. My heart ached for this kid. I just wanted to give her a big hug — and also sometimes a smack on the head.

In addition to Mara’s growth and a lot of football, which this book managed to make riveting to me despite my total lack of knowledge and interest, there is a delightful subplot about an older queer woman who becomes a mentor of sorts to Mara. I held my breath at an early scene where Mara first notices this butch woman, clearly new to town, walking into the farm store where Mara works. Mara sees a possible future for herself, a vision of a queer person who looks just like she wants to look, thriving as an adult. She is fascinated and terrified. It made me want to sob.

Lundin creates a heartwarming depiction of queer mentorship and intergenerational queer friendship. Mara remarks about being able to talk openly about queer stuff with Jupiter: “I feel like I’ve spent my whole life underwater, and I finally came up to breathe.” But Lundin also doesn’t shy away from the complexities and, frankly, danger that accompany this relationship. In a homophobic world, a friendship between a closeted queer minor and a queer adult their parents probably don’t want them hanging out with is risky. The scenes between Mara and Jupiter — her chosen name, she clarifies, how classic dyke — are very sweet. But at times there’s an undercurrent of worry and edge on Jupiter’s part. Readers can see Jupiter is weighing how much she wants to help this baby dyke with the need to protect herself from potential repercussions. It’s infuriating that she even has to think about that.

Like Other Girls has one issue I want to bring up briefly. There’s a scene near the end of the book that doesn’t feel internally consistent. To depict it vaguely in order to avoid spoilers, it involves a reaction on the part of a trusted adult woman to a sexual assault. It would be one thing for the adult to have a decidedly unfeminist response, which might have been Lundin’s point. Women, after all, are not immune to enforcing sexism and rape culture. But the interaction needed a clearer condemnation from the narrative perspective to fit with the novel’s overall feminist sensibility.

Have I mentioned that there is also an extremely slow burn, completely adorable romance? Well there is and you’re going to love it. There is a girl out there who rightfully thinks Mara is a “heartthrob.” Admittedly, there are a lot more details in this book about football games than minutiae about kissing or crushes. It’s not primarily a love story. But there’s just enough romance to balance out the heavier content. If you enjoy being run through the emotional wringer while reading about fictional lesbians like I do, this romance has you covered.

We need so many more YA books like Like Other Girls: ones about masculine of center girls, ones about internalized misogyny, ones that center girls’ friendships and mutual support, ones that focus on girls playing sports. Here’s hoping Like Other Girls will be followed by many more YA books, especially by authors of color, that take up these themes and put their own spin on them. If you have similar books to recommend in the meantime, please share in the comments!


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Casey

Known in some internet circles as Casey the Canadian Lesbrarian, Casey Stepaniuk is a writer, librarian, and new parent. She writes for Book Riot and Autostraddle about queer and/or bookish stuff. Ask her about cats, bisexuality, libraries, queer books, drinking tea, and her baby. Her website is Casey the Canadian Lesbrarian. Find her on Twitter, Litsy, Storygraph Goodreads and Instagram.

Casey has written 90 articles for us.

21 Comments

  1. This book is so good. Not sure if anyone else has read the other queer girl plays high school football book “home field advantage” which has garnered much more attention but the whole time I was reading that I just wanted it to be more like this book.

  2. I got maybe two paragraphs into your review before I was looking to see if my library has this book. I’m not always into YA but this sounds so far up my alley it’s not even funny. I can’t wait to read it!

  3. Thank you for also calling out the reaction of the trusted adult woman. I think you are correct that the behavior should have been called out – for the reader’s sake. I feel Like Other Girls illustrates how female anger and aggression is not tolerated by society even when warranted and that women, more so than men, take a leading role in gatekeeping and policing the behavior of other women. I think Mara’s reaction to that situation was consistent with the character – Mara is more on the cusp of a feminist awakening, not a fully realized feminist. I think its only with time and distance that many of us look back on those incidents and realize we were never to blame. The Mara character should have confessed this incident to another trusted adult and that person should have taken appropriate action. I think that would have maybe helped reinforce the right message. My two cents.

    • Yes, absolutely to all your points! Mara’s mom is another good example of a woman who reinforces patriarchal gender norms on her own daughter! I think Mara’s reaction was consistent with her character too. I was hoping for a different reaction from Carly when Mara told her the story of the party and her talk with the adult woman.

  4. I read this book, and thought it was okay, but I had a hard time getting passed Mara punching the other girl on her own team. I did like the older queer character, and I really would’ve liked more about the volleyball team.

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