Some days, your mind wonders, and you think about that first girl or boy that you were head over heels for, the one that drove you crazy and made you lose hours of sleep.
So to remind us of our first crushes, young adult novels almost always (perhaps 99% of the time) include a romance plot, most likely involving young love, oftentimes summer love or the most popular theme, falling in love for the first time.
Brooklyn, Burning by Steve Brezenoff follows Kid in New York, flipping back and forth from last summer to the current summer. Kid falls in love twice and believes in the fearlessness of “We’re in love…You can’t hurt us” (Brezenoff 194).
This idea of invincibility is even prevalent in John Green’s Looking for Alaska, in which Miles “Pudge” Halter’s thoughts resonate with teens everywhere: “When adults say, ‘Teenagers think they are invincible’ with that sly, stupid smile on their faces, they don’t know how right they are. We need never be hopeless, because we can never be irreparably broken. We think that we are invincible because we are” (Green 220).
Miles realizes that he is invincible after he falls deeply in love with Alaska Young, a sexy classmate at his new boarding school in John Green’s semi-autobiographic tale. While in pursuit of the Great Perhaps, the meaning of life, Miles reminds us that falling in love feels like being on top of the world, even though being in love can come with its complications.
In Brooklyn, Burning, Brezenoff further complicates his story by excluding the gender of Kid and his second love, Scout, to emphasize that the gender of the two lovers is not as important as love itself. If you’re wondering why I haven’t revealed the sex of Kid and Scout, it’s because Brezenoff never explicitly states whether Kid and Scout are male or female. So respecting Brezenoff’s wishes, I won’t refer to Kid and Scout as “he” or “she” even though I have my suspicions. Brezenoff also cleverly juxtaposes summer, a beginning, with death, an end. Brooklyn, Burning highlights the death of Felix, Kid’s first love. Kid picks up on smoking when Kid was around Felix, and both smoking and Felix become bad habits for the Kid.
In Looking for Alaska, death has been lurking around the corner since Alaska is always smoking, reminding her of death. Miles had never smoked a cigarette before meeting Alaska, but smoking becomes an addiction, maybe because it reminds him of her. Felix and Alaska’s rebellious habits are integrated into the daily lives of Kid and Miles.
Unable to ignore the themes of smoking and death, both YA novels’ covers convey smoke, straying away from the typical covers with a beautiful girl in a fancy dress. Green wanted just smoke on the cover, hinting at the involvement of a cigarette, but this was deemed inappropriate by book stores so the publishers added a candle. Looking for Alaska was published in 2005, and six years later, Brooklyn, Burning’s cover is the one Green was not allowed to publish. Smoking was an unhealthy habit then, and it still is.
And even though bad habits are hard to break, Kid was able to do it. He eventually gives up smoking because of Scout, who dislikes smoking. Scout represents the rebirth, a new beginning without the taint of death, symbolized by cigarettes.
But before Scout, there was death. Kid always knew that Felix would leave at some point, even though no one knew that he would die from a heroin overdose. For the past year, Kid has been surrounded by haunting memories of Felix.
Because of the desire to attain someone they can never truly have or keep (Felix has plans to leave Kid and Alaska has a boyfriend), death takes their first loves away. Similar to Kid’s situation, Alaska’s tragic death shakes up Culver Creek and breaks Miles’ heart. Felix and Alaska are unattainable objects of desire for Kid and Miles. According to “The Ways of Seeing,” “men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at” (Berger 47). Alaska was always aware of her presence in front of males. She attracted Miles and Takumi, among other male gazes. Despite Felix being a male, he was the subject of Kid’s gaze. In Brooklyn, Burning, sex does not matter for the surveyor of the surveyed because Kid and Scout’s gender is unknown.
What matters is that we’ve all been in the same situation, not wanting to fall for someone and afraid of getting hurt. A beginning comes from another story’s end. When Kid meets Scout, Kid resolves not to fall in love because Kid doesn’t want to get hurt. At the end of summer, Kid fears that Scout has left, but they reunite and decide to go to the beach, the first thought that pops into my head when I think of summer. The closing sentence of Brooklyn, Burning makes us feel dauntless: “We smiled at each other, and without a word ran the last hundred yards to the rocks and the sun, and the constant roar and crash of the Atlantic as it struck the end of the world” (Brezenoff 194-195). It sounds like the beginning of an epic love story.
Falling in love and moving on is part of the cycle of life. In a more reflective ending, Miles admits that he will “forget her, yes. That which came together will fall apart imperceptibly slowly, and I will forget, but she will forgive my forgetting, just as I forgive her for forgetting me…” (Green 219). This forgetting reminds us of of our first loves.
You can’t move on without letting go, and letting go doesn’t mean that you must forget. You can keep the memories. Even though Kid and Miles encounter death which inevitably changes their lives, they overcome death with different methods, falling for another or finally getting out of the labyrinth. They keep the memories of their first loves, but realize that it is okay to live their lives without regret or guilt.
Like Miles says, “we cannot be reborn, and we cannot die” (Green 220) because we fall in love.