Luis G. Rendon

In Bad Girls Never Say Die, author and teacher Jennifer Mathieu reimagines S.E. Hinton’s groundbreaking 1967 YA novel, The Outsiders. She spoke with BookPage about “good girls,” “bad girls” and writing stories that help teens see beyond those labels.

Tell us about your relationship to The Outsiders before you started working on Bad Girls Never Say Die.
It was the book of my heart as a young girl. I read it in one night in the sixth grade instead of studying for a science test. I did poorly on the test, but I’ve never regretted that life choice. I was captivated by this book that was all heart but also packed with action. The characters became so real in my mind. 

Many years later, I had the experience of teaching the novel to my middle schoolers, and I discovered the book still has enormous staying power. Kids today love the emotion and the story just as much as I did. 

Which elements of The Outsiders were you excited to explore and preserve in your book? Which elements did you hope to challenge or reenvision?
I wanted to preserve the intensity, emotion and fast-paced plot of the original novel. As a teacher, I have seen how The Outsiders works magic on young reluctant readers, and it’s my hope that Bad Girls Never Say Die will have the same effect. 

As for what I wanted to reenvision, by centering the female experience, I wanted to broaden the reader’s understanding of the unique challenges and obstacles facing young women of that time period. I wanted to push the reader to see that while some things have changed for the better, there are many parallels to be drawn between contemporary life and 1964, the year in which I’ve set my novel. Certainly this is true with a novel set in Texas, my home state, which continues to enact legislation that oppresses women and girls.

In this book, you explore themes that readers will recognize from your earlier work—especially, as the title suggests, what it means to be a “bad girl” versus a “good girl.” Can you introduce us to Evie and Diane and how these notions play out in and are challenged by their stories?
Evie, our main character, is a girl from a working-class neighborhood. Her father is absent from her life, and she has chosen to align herself with girls who wear too much makeup, cut class and hang out with boys. She is seen as a “bad girl” for all these reasons. Evie’s mother’s biggest hope is that Evie will find and marry a good man who will support her; she believes it’s the best chance for Evie to improve her life, even if Evie sees this as limiting. 

Diane is a stranger to Evie at the start of the novel. She’s recently moved to Evie’s neighborhood from the wealthiest part of Houston, and she’s keeping a secret. For much of her life, Diane has been considered a “good girl” because she dresses neatly, lives with both parents and is polite. That said, if Diane’s secret were to be revealed, she would be seen as transgressive and bad by most people. 

While Evie and Diane seem different at the start and on the surface—in fact, Evie is at first quite suspicious of Diane because of where she comes from—the girls soon discover that they are both “bad girls” because they want to follow their hearts, speak their mind, and stand up for themselves. 

Without giving too much away, it’s also my hope that through Diane’s story, we can understand how often girls and women are shamed for being sexual beings, and how this common practice is so devastating to women and girls. Ultimately, I hope the reader is able to reflect on how we continue to label women and girls as “bad” and “good” based on stereotypes and sexist thinking.

“When I was a teenager, I was beginning to quietly question much of what was happening around me and reflect on the expectations put on me as a young woman.”

You’ve mentioned that Evie is a character with whom you personally identify. How so?
In many ways, my life was very different from Evie’s. I grew up with both parents, I was the oldest sibling (Evie is the youngest), and I was a rule follower who earned excellent grades. That said, when I was a teenager, I was beginning to quietly question much of what was happening around me and reflect on the expectations put on me as a young woman. While I was seen as a “good girl,” my growing interest in feminism and women’s rights made me suspicious in the eyes of some adults in my life, including teachers at my very conservative high school. I sensed a growing inner conflict as I began to really question some of the rules and systems around me, even if I couldn’t always articulate my thoughts.

Much in the same way, Evie senses something is not right in her world. What has happened to Diane is not right. What has happened to Evie’s older sister is not right. Evie’s mother’s limited plans for her are not right. Through the events of the novel, Evie begins to question all of that. By the end of the story, I think she is primed to act and make change. I think I felt much the same way as I headed off to college, found myself liberated by the environment there and fully embraced the label of feminist.

In The Outsiders, rival gangs of young men are always raring to fight, spitting at one another, switchblades at the ready. Who or what occupies the role of the antagonist in Bad Girls Never Say Die? Why was this reframing important to you?
Oh, I love this question! While violence between the social classes is touched on in my book like it is in Hinton's, I would say the antagonist in The Outsiders is the pressures the characters are under and the misconceptions they have about one another. In Bad Girls, I think the antagonist is, similarly, the sexist system in which the characters live, a system that oppresses and represses them. In addition, the misconceptions Evie and her friends have about girls like Diane at the start of the story reflect what often happens in contemporary life. Instead of seeking solidarity in order to fight back against a suffocating patriarchy, women fall victim to that same patriarchy’s message that we should judge and shame each other, which only limits our collective power.

One of the ways that Bad Girls Never Say Die departs from The Outsiders is how you not only highlight socioeconomic divisions between groups of teens but also touch on the history of integration and the unique challenges facing Mexican American students who, like Evie, live on the wrong side of town. The character and story of Juanita, one of Evie’s best friends, is a great example of how you did this. Can you talk about how and why you included this perspective in the novel?
I loved researching this novel, and I definitely felt my former reporter muscles kick in as I got to work on it. I spent the summer of 2019 taking several older people here in Houston out to lunch to discuss memories of their teenage years. I also spent hours in the downtown library paging through old yearbooks and newspaper clippings. (Shoutout to librarians!) As a proud Houstonian for over 20 years, I am grateful for the opportunity to live in one of the most racially and ethnically diverse cities in the nation. I teach at the most racially diverse high school in the city. We are not a perfect city, of course, and while I’m proud of many elements of my hometown, I also wanted to be honest about it in this book.

Set in 1964, Bad Girls Never Say Die reflects the reality that Houston, like much of this country, has a history of segregation that is quite complicated and painful. The school system in Houston was still racially segregated until the late ’60s and early ’70s. Black Houstonians attended different schools and lived under a racist legal system that oppressed them and still has ripple effects today, even if certain laws regarding public transportation, schools and restaurants have changed.

Since it is relatively close to Mexico, Houston also has a large population of people with Mexican roots. As I researched, I learned that although Houstonians of Mexican heritage were classified as “legally white” and attended school with white Houstonians, they were often subjected to discrimination. For example, their names were often Anglicized without their consent. In one of my interviews, a man with Mexican heritage shared with me that his teacher suspected him of cheating because he was Mexican. This informed the character of Juanita, Evie’s neighbor and dear friend.

At the same time, in 1964, the world was changing rapidly. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed just a few months before the events of this novel. Evie is a white girl, but like most teenagers of her day, she is aware of the events going on around her and has thoughts about them. While I could not write a fully racially integrated school like the one I work at now because it would not have existed at the time of the novel, I wanted to make sure that I crafted a world that was authentic and reflected the reality of the city and the country at that time.

I would be remiss not to mention the book Houston Bound: Culture and Color in a Jim Crow City by Dr. Tyina Steptoe. Dr. Steptoe’s book about Houston’s complex racial and ethnic history was instrumental as I crafted this novel, and I’m grateful not just for her work but also for her time on the phone and via email.

Read our review of ‘Bad Girls Never Say Die.'

Did you learn anything about Houston’s history that surprised you or that made you see the place you live in a new way?
Something that made me laugh was the fact that so many of our city’s highways had not been built yet in 1964. Houston is a very freeway-centric city, and it sort of blew my mind to hear interviewees reminisce about a time when you went everywhere on surface roads. It’s almost hard to imagine!

You’re a high school English teacher. Do your students influence your work as a writer for teens? 
I am currently in my 17th year in the classroom. My job as a teacher keeps me around the rhythm of adolescence and reminds me daily that young people deserve good stories that treat them like the nuanced, complex human beings they are. My students sometimes want to know if they are in my novels, and I have to honestly tell them that the characters are fictional, but the energy, hope, rage, frustration, joy and confusion that surrounds me daily certainly makes its way into my work.

What’s the best or most rewarding thing about writing for teens?
The best part is how sincere teenagers are and how enthusiastic they are. If they like your work, they REALLY like your work, and they share that with you. There’s no artifice with teenagers. Young people are the best fans because what they love, they love deeply.

What kinds of teens do you hope find their way to Bad Girls Never Say Die? What do you hope the book offers them?
As an English teacher, I hope this book makes it into the hands of reluctant readers. Its short chapters and fast-paced plot will hopefully hook some of them. I’m a big believer that everyone is a reader, but sometimes we just haven’t discovered the books that work for us. 

I also hope this book empowers young women to make connections to their own lives and draw parallels between the past and the present in terms of how women and girls are treated. I think it offers them a way to understand that, to borrow a phrase from Faulkner, the past is never dead. Bad Girls is historical fiction, but I also hope it’s a call to arms for modern-day girls to stand up for themselves and follow their hearts.

If Vivian, the protagonist of your novel Moxie (which was set in the present day when it was published in 2017), and Evie somehow found themselves at the same lunch table, what do you think they’d talk about? Are there things you think they’d be surprised to hear the other say?
Another amazing question! Certainly there would be a few laughs as Evie learns about social media and modern music, and Vivian might be fascinated by Evie’s eye makeup and clothing, but I sense the girls would be fast friends because they would recognize in each other what I see in the young women I teach every day: a fighting spirit that seeks out joy, validation, love and liberation in a world that constantly wants to tell them they need to shut up, sit down and be quiet. Evie and Vivian refuse to listen to that message, and it’s my hope that the young women who read my work learn they can refuse it, too.

The author and teacher discusses her reinterpretation of S.E. Hinton's The Outsiders.

Jennifer Mathieu swings for the fences in Bad Girls Never Say Die, a feminist retelling of S.E. Hinton’s 1967 category-defining classic, The Outsiders. It’s not quite the equal of Hinton’s grand slam, but Mathieu’s fresh spin makes for a home run of a read.

Evie Barnes is a self-described bad girl living in Houston in 1964. She wears heavy eyeliner and joins her “tuff” group of girlfriends in skipping school, smoking and drinking. When Evie is attacked and almost raped by a drunk boy at a drive-in movie, she believes her bad-girl status has been cemented. No good girl would put herself in a position where she could get hurt by a boy, right?

Wrong. Diane, the epitome of a good girl from the nice side of town (Evie calls her a “tea sipper”), stops the assault but unintentionally kills the boy in the process. This sends Evie and Diane on a police-dodging odyssey of unexpected friendship as they discover what it really means to be a bad girl.

Read our Q&A with Jennifer Mathieu.

In The Outsiders, characters regularly have the snot beat out of them for being part of the wrong crew, but the threat to the young women in Mathieu’s novel feels more existential. Yes, a young man attacks a young woman, but Mathieu doubles and then triples down on the horrors that women face every day. In a stunning moment of catharsis, Evie reflects, “It seems like if you want to really love and feel and breathe in this city, you’re labeled trash. Or bad. Especially if you’re a girl.”

Of course, that existential threat, which is the true antagonist of the story, has a name: It’s patriarchy. And Mathieu knows it. It’s why every female character in the book (and there are quite a few) is imbued with depth and purpose, no matter what side of town they’re from or how old they are. They’re all fighting the same cultural force that is determined to keep them down.

Best known for Moxie, another YA novel about young women fighting “the man,” Mathieu offers another rallying cry in Bad Girls Never Say Die and proves it’s good to go bad.

Moxie author Jennifer Mathieu swings for the fences in this feminist retelling of S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders.

After writing four YA novels featuring contemporary realism and romance, Robyn Schneider is throwing her outsiders-in-love antics back—way back. In The Other Merlin, Schneider makes her first foray into fantasy, retelling the legend of King Arthur for today’s teens. The first book in a planned trilogy, it contains enough mystery, sex, mistaken identities and scandalous clashes of class and nobility that it could be titled Bridgerton: Knights of the Round Table.

The titular “other” Merlin is Emry, a highly skilled teenage wizard who spends her days performing special-effects illusions on the sly at her local theater while her father, the O.G. Merlin, trains her less talented twin brother, Emmett. After Merlin vanishes, the king sends a request for Emmett to take Merlin’s place at court. But when Emmett is incapacitated by a spell that backfires, Emry decides to fill in for her brother, chopping off her hair and binding her chest to look the part. She wants to ensure that her family stays in the king’s good graces, but she also sees an opportunity to nurture her talents, since girls aren’t allowed to learn or practice magic.

Meanwhile, Prince Arthur has just pulled that silly sword out of the stone. This stuns his family, who don’t think much of Arthur’s love for books and gardening, not to mention his buddy-buddy relationship with an unfairly dishonored Lancelot. When Emry arrives, the three become fast friends. They form a team of outsiders who are trying to grow into the best versions of themselves, fate be damned. Can Arthur be a good king if he defies his father’s wishes? Can Lancelot be a knight if he loves another man? Can Emry be a great wizard like her father even though she’s a woman? As she explores the answers to these questions, Schneider reworks the classical hero’s journey through an unapologetically feminist lens.

Though her author’s note mentions working on The Other Merlin in 17th-century libraries, Schneider is hardly precious with her source material. She maneuvers deftly through conversations about gender, sexuality and equity in a medieval setting that feels grounded and relatable. Is any of it canonical? Probably not, but who cares! In a world filled with wizards, spells and glowing magical swords, why can’t everyone be bisexual? It certainly makes for more interesting love triangles, which are plentiful. Arthurian legend, after all, is basically a centuries-old soap opera, so why not make it extra soapy?

Funny, thrilling, brave and bold, The Other Merlin is the perfect way to pass the time until the next Renaissance Faire. Schneider’s Arthurian tale stands out amid a crowd of old, dusty duplicates.

Funny, thrilling, brave and bold, The Other Merlin the perfect way to pass the time until the next Renaissance Faire. Schneider’s Arthurian tale stands out amid a crowd of old, dusty duplicates.

Collige virgo rosas. Gather, girl, the roses.

Beck and Vivian’s best friend, Cassie, once had a faux tattoo of this Latin phrase drawn on her leg. It meant to seize the moment, she explained. That was before Cassie was murdered by her boyfriend, the heir to local gun manufacturer Bell Firearms, in a shooting at school.

Gather, girl, the roses. In Morris Award finalist Kyrie McCauley’s We Can Be Heroes, Cassie returns in incorporeal form to remind Beck and Vivian, both still grieving her death and lost in a world without her, to do just that and more. Seize the moment, expose the corrupt sheriff who refused to protect Cassie, fight Bell Firearms and its owner, who controls the entire town, and stop the epidemic of gun violence that disproportionately affects women.

Beck is an artist type, while Vivian is an overachiever. They annoy each other but work together out of their love for Cassie. They create large murals around town to honor Cassie, incorporating images of tragic heroines from Greek mythology to condemn Bell Firearms and those who respond to tragedies like Cassie’s with thoughts, prayers and shrugs. The connections McCauley draws between the ancient tales and Cassie’s own story are a highlight of the book. Fans of Greek myths, from Andromeda to Medusa, will appreciate these powerful parallels.

McCauley also plays with form, incorporating transcripts from a true crime podcast about Cassie’s murder as well as chapters written in verse in which the incorporeal Cassie ponders her life, death and afterlife. The novel is heavy on flashbacks, which sometimes weigh down the pace, but the transcripts, helmed by a fiery host, are a podcast enthusiast’s dream. You can almost hear the episodes in your mind as they educate listeners about domestic gun violence and move the plot closer to justice. 

McCauley spends time exploring Beck’s sexuality, suggesting not only that she might be queer but also that she might have romantic feelings for Vivian. McCauley has compared Beck and Vivian to two Marvel characters whose textually platonic relationship is commonly interpreted as queer by fans. It’s an apt comparison: The dynamic between the two girls is neither subtle enough to add tension to the plot nor explicit enough to result in a satisfying moment of catharsis, which some readers may find frustrating. As a story about how friendship can heal the wounds of the past, however, We Can Be Heroes delivers.

“We shouldn’t have to do it— / set ourselves on fire to change the way things are,” reflects Cassie as her friends dig deep to avenge her. “But I think maybe / to be a girl in this world / sometimes you have to burn.” McCauley’s call to action in this not-quite ghost story, not-quite crime thriller is clear: Gather, girl, the roses.

Gather, girl, the roses. In Morris Award finalist Kyrie McCauley’s We Can Be Heroes, Cassie returns in incorporeal form to remind Beck and Vivian, both still grieving her death and lost in a world without her, to do just that and more.

“My life is small and simple, but it’s a better one than I ever thought I’d have,” says Cash, the protagonist of Jeff Zentner’s fourth novel, In the Wild Light. After his best friend, Delaney, discovers a new bacteria in a local cave, she becomes a scientific sensation and nabs a scholarship to a fancy New England boarding school. There’s a catch though: She won’t go without Cash. 

Delaney is desperate to leave their small, opioid-ravaged town of Sawyer, Tennessee. But Cash’s guilt at leaving his ailing Papaw behind and his insecurity about cutting it at a private school initially cloud any visions he might have of a grander life.  

Zentner’s signature poetic prose is in full effect as he crafts sentences that read like sweet tea tastes and cotton feels. The gorgeous writing reflects the inherent romance of Cash’s new life on campus, where he forges new relationships with a girl who teaches him about love, a boy who shows him the value of prayer and a teacher who helps him discover the gift of poetry, which he comes to rely on as a salve for life’s problems. Frankly, Zentner’s writing is romantic because his story demands it. Poetry, the divine, science and, yes, even quiet porches in podunk Appalachian towns—this is the stuff of passion and worship.

Every rose, however, has its thorns, and In the Wild Light’s are particularly sharp. Its romance is balanced by tragedy and grief, which keep the story grounded in reality and build enough tension to keep things from veering into the saccharine. The darkness that surrounds Cash and Delaney is enormous. Candid discussions of addiction and death by overdose abound, and a scene of attempted sexual assault is a shock to the system. 

In the Wild Light is a love letter to possibility. Like the hero of the Pixar film Ratatouille who learns that “anyone can cook,” Cash (though not a rat, but certainly someone who feels like an outsider) learns that our creative impulses are an essential part of what we need to survive and heal. Zentner, who, like Cash, calls Tennessee home, asserts that anyone, even kids from the rural South with unremarkable pedigrees and pasts scabbed over after trauma, can live beautiful lives full of love. In an author’s note included with advance editions, Zentner says every book he writes is a love story. You can tell.

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Discover how In the Wild Light author Jeff Zentner tricked his publisher into publishing his poetry.

In the Wild Light is a love letter to possibility. Zentner, who, like Cash, calls Tennessee home, asserts that anyone, even kids from the rural South with unremarkable pedigrees and pasts scabbed over after trauma, can live beautiful lives full of love.

About halfway through The Marvelous Mirza Girls, Noreen, an Indian American teenager who is spending a gap year in India with her mother, Ruby, overhears a white American girl talking on her phone at a cafe. “Poor people here have like literally nothing, but they’re happier than so many people in American who have, like, everything. They’ve been such an inspiration,” the girl says. Shortly after, the girl receives a verbal dressing-down that's uniquely Indian and full of pride, serving as something of a mission statement for The Marvelous Mirza Girls.

Noreen and Ruby have traveled to New Delhi to recharge, reconnect and find solace after the death of Ruby’s sister, Noreen’s aunt Sonia. The chic Mirzas breeze through adventures in ancient ruins, have romantic encounters with handsome men and absolutely slay at karaoke parties, all while navigating a culture that’s both familiar and foreign to them. Second- and third-generation American readers will find Noreen’s and Ruby’s experiences inspiring, and the novel’s easy charm, strong mother-daughter relationship and romantic elements recall the best moments of Amy Sherman-Palladino’s “Gilmore Girls” or “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.”

When a sex scandal erupts involving Noreen’s new boyfriend and his family, the novel embarks on a precarious tightrope walk between tradition and modernity. Through author Sheba Karim’s lens, readers see New Delhi as a complex place of refuge that’s also in need of reinvention. It’s home to breathtaking architecture, delicious food and maybe even wish-granting jinn, but it’s also a city where poverty, toxic air and even more toxic masculinity can be overwhelming.

“For each thing that is true about India, the opposite is also true,” says Noreen. In other words: It’s complicated, just like The Marvelous Mirza Girls.

About halfway through The Marvelous Mirza Girls, Noreen, an Indian American teenager who is spending a gap year in India with her mother, Ruby, overhears a white American girl talking on her phone at a cafe.

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