Elana K. Arnold is the author of several books for young readers. She lives in Huntington Beach, California, with her husband, two children, and a menagerie of animals.
I know it's not cool to define yourself by a boy. Girls are
supposed to be independent, these days. We should be Strong Female
Characters, we should be tough and self-motivated and grrrrrls
instead of girls. We're supposed to run the world--girls--and look
unapologetically into the camera. We don't have to smile. We can
cross our arms or curl our hands into fists. Except that while
we're being tough and independent, we really should be beautiful,
too; we're just not supposed to notice, or to care. It's more
attractive not to care if you're attractive. That's the
--What Girls Are Made Of, by Elana K. Arnold
Sixteen-year-old Nina Faye loves her boyfriend, Seth. She loves him so much that she's careful to keep his interest by never seeming too interested, by staying ever-so-slightly remote. She loves him so much that she never asks him to put on the music she wants to hear; never asks him to turn the heat up or down in the car; never burdens him with her worries, her frustrations, her thoughts.
Even though she does everything 'right, ' Seth breaks up with her. And Nina is suddenly adrift.
Reading What Girls Are Made Of is an uncomfortable experience. It's a showcase of the sort of thoughts that we like to tell ourselves aren't A Thing, even though we all know they're A Thing because we all have had them. It shines a spotlight on aspects of life that we Aren't Supposed To Talk About. Thoughts and concerns and realities that are so taboo that the No Talking Rule has become so ingrained in our culture that we don't even generally Talk About The Not Talking.
It's honest about bodily functions, not prettied up or gauzed over, never bashful or shy.
It's honest about pain: psychological, emotional, physical.
It's honest about the unreliability of adults, acknowledges that adults are just as fallible as anyone else.
And while it's a very specific portrait of a very specific girl, it's more a commentary on The Bigger Picture than it is a story about one person.
Like Infandous, What Girls Are Made Of uses myth and art--and vivid, sometimes devastatingly horrific imagery--to explore the experience of being female in this world, past and present. Like Infandous, it looks very closely at women's pain, and at the history of men being celebrated for making art out of that pain. Like Infandous, it looks at the long history of the 'she was too beautiful for this world' mentality, and about how often it results in art that says more about the artist and the viewers than it does about the purported subject of the piece.
Like Infandous, it is harsh and beautiful, distant and immediate, furious and anguished.
Like Infandous, What Girls Are Made Of will not be for all readers. It's a book that tells the truth about the world as-is, versus the world as we would like it to be--facing those truths about our world is uncomfortable and painful and frustrating and sad, and not all readers will want to face those truths while standing by the side of someone as prickly and removed as Nina. It's a book that features the voice that readers seem to have the hardest time with: the Unlikable Female.
Being one myself, I'm always here for that.--Leila Roy, Kirkus Reviews Blog
'I could stop loving you at anytime, ' Nina's mother informs a fourteen-year-old Nina. 'No one loves without conditions.' Several years later, Nina understand the conditions by which her boyfriend Seth loves her: have plenty of sex, give him space, and, she learns one day, to promise to be willing to die with him. When she can't fulfill that last one, he breaks up with her, and now she is left pregnant and alone, contemplating the stories of the virginal saints she learned about while on a trip to Italy with her mother years ago and preparing for her abortion. Nina is powerful, messy, and broken, and her voice oscillates between an aloof coolness and anxious neediness; her sex with Seth (and there's a lot) is often as clinically described as her account of her gynecological exam. Nina's episodic narration moves between her relationship with Seth and memories of her visit to Italy and the tales of female saints, who, she discovers, are as much revered for their intact maidenhood as they are for their acts of sacrifice. The separate facets of the same Nina--sexual, emotional, thoughtful, lonely--finally begin to integrate into a whole in the hesitantly hopeful ending. Pair this with McGinnis' The Female of the Species (BCCB 7/16) for a nuanced look at the complications of girlhood.--The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books-- "Journal"
Arnold's latest reveals how capricious first love--and our trust in it--can be. Nina, 16, is trying to make sense of the obsession she feels for her first boyfriend. 'I know it isn't okay to care this much about a boy. I know it's not feminist, or whatever, to make all my decisions based on what Seth would think, ' she chastises herself. Besides, she has grown up being told by her mother that all love has limits; it can't just surge forth unbridled. Then, just as Nina and Seth's relationship turns more intimate, he abandons her without explanation. In Nina's grief, she explores the origins of her longing for love, recalling a trip she took with her mother to Italy to study statues of saints, intertwining the saints' suffering with what she views as her own. Nina's honest musings about her vapid relationship with Seth, and also the relationship of her fickle parents, demonstrate a keen sense of introspection and self-respect. Smart, true, and devastating, this is brutally, necessarily forthcoming about the crags of teen courtship.--Booklist-- "Journal"
Beautifully written and evocative, What Girls Are Made Of fearlessly examines the courage and struggle of being a teenage girl in the modern world. With a deft hand, Elana K. Arnold opens up a conversation about how girls survive as a whole when they are too often acknowledged only for their parts.--Christa Desir, author of Other Broken Things-- "Blog"
Finally, finally, a book that is fully girl, with all of the gore and grace of growing up female exposed. Arnold's gorgeous prose takes us to all sorts of places to show us what girls are made of: a high-kill animal shelter, an abortion clinic, a bridge to nowhere that adventure seekers bungee-jump from, and all the way to Italy, to the sites of classical and religious art, where our narrator Nina learns the sacred tradition of how stories are told via the contortion and pain of a woman's body. If you're looking to enter the mind of a girl navigating sex, love, and her own physicality, look no further than What Girls Are Made Of. --Carrie Mesrobian, author of the William C. Morris finalist Sex & Violence-- "Other Print"
Nina has had a crush on Seth since fifth grade, but it wasn't until the summer after her 16th birthday that he finally acknowledged her feelings for him. Now, Nina will do whatever is necessary to maintain his affection. She is fully aware that all love comes with conditions; her mother, in particular, has made that very clear. But as the only child of dysfunctional parents, Nina craves the attention that Seth offers. Thoughts of him occupy her every waking hour, so when she unwittingly fails his unexpected test of her loyalty, she finds herself alone and adrift, especially after she makes a startling realization. When even her best friend fails to support her, Nina looks for help and solace in unlikely places, including at a dog shelter. In an afterword, Arnold explains that this story is the result of her anger at and complicity in the rules that society applies to girls. Her overarching theme is the fallacy of believing in unconditional love. The author presents a hopeful conclusion as Nina learns that self-love and fulfillment can be found through helping others. VERDICT: Because of its complex symbolism and graphic imagery, this well-written novel is best suited to mature YA readers.--School Library Journal-- "Journal"
Pulling back the curtain on the wizard of social expectations, Arnold (Infandous, 2015, etc.) explores the real, knotted, messy, thriving heartbeat of young womanhood. When Nina Faye's mother tells her that there is no such thing as unconditional love, that even a mother's love for a daughter could end at any time, Nina believes her--after all, she has already seen many conditions of love at play: beauty, money, aloofness, sex. Two years later, the white, now-16-year-old not only confirms that these and more are unspoken stipulations of her relationship with her boyfriend, Seth (also white), but also finds they are part of the very fabric of cisgender girlhood that suddenly threatens to smother her. Nina's embroiling first-person prose alternating with what are revealed to be her own short stories lifts and examines the veils that encapsulate all the 'shoulds' and 'supposed tos' of teenage girlhood to expose bodily function, desire, casual cruelty, sex and masturbation, miscarriage and abortion, and, eventually, self-care. Arnold interweaves myriad landscapes, from the parched affluence of California neighborhoods to the ordered sadness of a high-kill animal shelter where Nina volunteers, from the sculpted terrain of Rome's brutalized virgin martyrs to the imperfect physicality of Nina's own body, into a narrative wholeness that is greater than its parts. Unflinchingly candid, unapologetically girl, and devastatingly vital.--starred, Kirkus Reviews-- "Journal"
Stunning in its honesty and depth, What Girls Are Made Of unapologetically examines the strength, determination, and vulnerability of girls. This book is for anyone who is a girl, was a girl, or wishes to glimpse the interwoven beauty and pain that comes with being a girl. With gorgeously spare prose, Elana K. Arnold has created a masterpiece that is sure to live long in the memory of readers.--Brandy Colbert, author of the Cybils Award-winner Pointe-- "Other Print"
We think we know what girls are made of. But not always. And Elana K. Arnold removes the veil--which is as gory as often as it is gauzy. What Girls Are Made Of shows the true, beautiful, and confounding complexity of women. This one will rip your heart out.-- Martha Brockenbrough, author of The Game Of Love and Death-- "Other Print"
4Q 3P S
When she was fourteen years old, Nina's mother told her that 'there is no such thing as unconditional love.' Arnold explores themes of conditional and unconditional love through sixteen-year-old Nina's self-revealing narrative about her love for Seth. There is raw intimacy in Nina's unvarnished descriptions of her sexual experiences with Seth; her first pelvic examination; her discovery of sexual pleasure; her experience of an early 'medical' abortion; the pain she feels when Seth rejects her for the beautiful Apollonia; and the loss of the friendship of her best friend. She realizes that her unconditional desire for Seth causes her to be a young woman who is dependent upon Seth's needs and moods. In the high-kill dog shelter where she volunteers, she sees the unconditional love dogs have for their owners, despite being abandoned to die.
Her relationship with her mother (who has a history of miscarriages) is explored in memories of their trip to Italy where Nina reflected on martyred female saints and saw the wax sculptures of 'flayed' women's bodies. Entwined with Nina's narrative are her short stories linking sex and death in which she writes, for example, about the death cycle of a laying hen and about those female saints whose unconditional vows of chastity resulted in death. Arnold uses powerful scenes and vivid imagery to emphasize the vulnerability of the female body but Nina emerges from traumatic experiences as a strong female, secure in her identity. There is probably not another YA book that describes all things 'girl' in the brutally honest way Arnold does here. Teen girls should read this book, even if it is not easy.--VOYA