Review: ’21 Proms’ by David Levithan, John Green, Libba Bray and others

Please note: Trigger Warning: this post explores issues around (sexual) consent and (IMO*) abusive relationships. If you find this upsetting, please feel free to skip this post and read others instead. 

Blurb from GoodReads:

Sometimes the night of your dreams can be a total nightmare.

The prom. It’s supposed to be one of the best nights of your life. Or, at least, you’re supposed to have a good time. But what if you’d rather be going with your best friend’s date than your own? What if a sinister underground society of students has spiked the punch? What if your date turns out to be more of a frog than a prince? Or what if he’s (literally) an ape?

There are ways you can fight it. You can protest the silliness of the regular prom by hosting a backwards prom – also known as a morp. You can throw a prom for fat girls. You can stay at home to watch old teen movies and get your cute neighbor and his cuter brother to join you. You can dance to your own music.

Here, 21 of the funniest, most imaginative writers today create their own kind of prom stories. Some are triumphs. Some are disasters. But each one is a night you’ll never forget.

Review:

This for me was a disappointing, and rather a mixed bag. Some stories, like Libba Bray’s slightly bizarre ‘The Primate Prom’- about a boy with a date who just happens to be a gorilla- were kind of okay. (*Shrugs.*) Holly Black‘s ‘In Vodka Veritas’ was also enjoyable although I think I may have read it before in another YA short story collection- and I also wished that the two (male) best friends got together in a more ‘obvious’ way, rather than it just being hinted at, because I did end up shipping them quite a bit. (They were cute!) Others were a bit odd, like ‘Geechee Girls Dancin’ by Jacqueline Woodson- this one felt a bit too weird and bizarre, almost riddle-like. I couldn’t make head nor tail or it, quite frankly. The dialogue alone was weird. ‘You are a Prom Queen, Dance, Dance, Dance’ by Elizabeth Craft also had probably the most unlikeable heroine ever- she was rude, sulky, sarky, and well…just plain bitchy to her date AND her friend, and yet her sweet, helpful, sensitive date still tried to make her prom night special. If I was him, I would have told her to take a hike. I couldn’t believe the reader was actually meant to root for her.

Others, like Melissa De La Cruz’s ‘A Six Pack of Bud, A Fifth of Whiskey and Me’ felt kind of sad and messed up- the (female) MC- also named Melissa- within this story is set up with the lousiest probably-alcoholic date EVER- he even throws up on her dress- and yet she remains blissfully happily all the way through because she has a date who is slightly good looking? At one point she even kisses him, even though he’s passed out and just thrown up, and then puts a photo of him in her locker to pretend he’s her boyfriend. Y’know, because he’s SUCH a catch. (*Eye roll.*) I felt so disappointed- is this what young girls are meant to aim for nowadays? Is this acceptable? What kind of message is this sending out? I felt genuinely disheartened that Melissa (the MC) didn’t feel as though she was capable of striving for more- she deserved better than that lowlife, and she didn’t get it. Same kind of feeling with ‘Lost Sometimes’ by David Levithan– Levithan is a great writer, and known for writing LGBT issues with depth and emotion (for instance, in ‘Boy Meets Boy‘.) However, ‘Lost Sometimes’ was not his finest short story (IMHO)- it lacked in plot, and what plot there was was taken up with (kind of graphic) depictions of gay sex that felt off for a teen collection. I have no problem with gay sex in literature, but this felt ‘off’ to me. Sex and groping in the prom’s cloak room. In the toilets (while other guys listen in and jeer them and laugh- NO NO NO, so awful) and then even IN A CRAWL SPACE UNDER A STAGE. HELL NO.
Unsurprisingly, it was at that point that one of the MCs, the rather vulnerable Erik, started to have doubts, but his so-called ‘boyfriend’, the bizarrely-named Dutch (yep, really) persuaded him into it. For me, this brought up issues of consent, of self-confidence- as who on earth with any self esteem would want to have sex underneath a stage in a dirty, grubby crawl space? Or in full view of everyone?- and made for a disturbing read. Erik doesn’t seem to realize that his body- and what he chooses to do with it- is precious, and something he DOES have control over. He just wants to dance with Dutch, and yet never gets the chance- he never even really asks for what he wants. CONSENT IS IMPORTANT, PEOPLE. But, no, not to Dutch. I’m going to say it out loud- this, to me, was an abusive relationship, one based around power and shallow sexual gratification. I feel Erik began to get a sense of how wrong their ‘relationship’ was towards the end of the story, but for me, it felt too little, too late. Dutch is a complete and utter arsehole. Erik loves him, but he doesn’t love him back. HE’S USING YOU, ERIK! LEAVE HIM, ERIK! I was practically mentally screaming this, and yet in the end, Erik…doesn’t really leave him. I expected more from Levithan- I wanted MORE from this story. I wanted a loving, respectful, endearing gay relationship depicted, instead of one centred around soulless, loveless sex. I wanted Erik to end it once and for all with Dutch and move on to bigger and better things. The fact this didn’t happen left me feeling strangely heartbroken. However, I did quite the like the reference to them wearing condoms, as safe sex is really important- but then again, so is feeling respected and secure within yourself- a lesson Erik probably still needs to learn.
All in all, I did like the LGBT representation within this anthology, but really its more like gay representation only, as there are no lesbian/trans/bisexual characters, which is really disappointing.In conclusion, this anthology was underwhelming, and I think it gave out mixed messages for its YA audience. Some of the MCs were rude, cold, or else downright bizarre, and the tone shifted from strange to sad in a heartbeat. Some of the relationships (both gay and straight) were really off. It wasn’t a cohesive collection, and some of the stories were just dull. To be honest, none of the stories were even that funny, or exciting, and I think the concept has been done before. I’ve read better anthologies than this- I would suggest giving this one a miss, and picking up the amazing YA Christmas anthology, ‘Let It Snow’ instead, which also has a great story in it by John Green.
Overall rating: 1 out of 10
Read if you enjoyed: ‘Prom Nights From Hell’ by Meg Cabot (and others)
This book in four words: Surprisingly. Sad. Bizarre. Inconsistent.
*’in my opinion.’
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