The perfect imperfection of literary proms
It’s that time of year again: PROM SEASON. And yes, those uppercase letters were intentional, because when May rolls around, sometimes it feels like everything screams PROM — especially when you’re still in high school. And, even if you’ve graduated, you can’t drive down the street on Friday or Saturday nights without seeing a fleet of stretch limos at every intersection, taking hoards of taking hoards of teens in tuxes and party dresses off to the night of their lives.
I love spotting the prom couples out and about. It makes me nostalgic for my own prom, which, if I’m being honest, I don’t remember all that well. I remember all the planning and stressing I did in advance, but over time the details of the actual event have become fuzzy. I don’t remember the first or last song. Or what we had for dinner. (I’m guessing chicken. It’s always chicken.) But I do remember feeling like my entire senior year was happening at warp speed. I felt sadder than I thought I would, because even though my adult life was just beginning, a very big part of my life was ending. Prom, like so many other big life events, didn’t feel like I thought it would.
This is why I love literary proms so much. Proms in books aren’t like movie proms. They’re not like the perfect prom you think you’ll have when you try on dresses and experiment with hairstyles. Literary proms are unpredictable. They’re complicated. They’re real. Here are a few of my favorites…
The Implosion of Aggie Winchester by Laura Zielen
People would always be jerks. Life would always be imperfect. Being Goth or being a cheerleader didn’t change any of it. The point was not to let it change you.
There are a lot of uncertain things about Aggie’s life—she’s being bullied, her ex-boyfriend is acting like he still loves her (but only in private), and her pregnant Goth friend just may end up elected as prom queen. The fact that Aggie’s cancer-stricken mom is the high school principal only complicates matters. That much is clear. What also becomes clear in this heartbreakingly authentic novel is that life is bigger than prom. It’s bigger than high school. And when everything is going wrong, it’s important to remember that things change. In a day. In a week. In a month. Certainly in the time it takes to survive high school.
Tessa Masterson Will Go To Prom by Emily Franklin & Brendan Halpin
“I’m here,” I tell him but I’m only sort-of here because I want so much to talk to him about what I’ve been keeping under wraps. Maybe he already knows. I like to think that he knows me well enough to have guessed. That’s what’s always so funny about newspaper reports or big revelations; most of the time the evidence was there all along. Only most people choose not to see what’s right in front of them if it doesn’t fit with what they want to be true.
Luke has seen enough romantic comedies to know when his best friend, Tessa, is secretly in love with him. After all, in the entire history of their friendship, she’s never been interested in another guy. Could her feelings be any more obvious? Spoiler alert: They are, in fact, obvious. Luke just hasn’t been paying much attention. When he stages a big, public promposal, Tessa reacts in the way he least expects—by telling him that rather being in love with him, she’s actually gay. In the wake of his promposal, she decides that she will indeed attend prom. But she’s doing it her way.
This book is about more than prom. It’s about more than prejudice and hate and bravery and accepting ourselves for who we really are. At its core, it’s about the beauty of friendship. As Luke says, “It was love all along. Just not, you know, that kind of love.”
Prom & Prejudice by Elizabeth Eulberg
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single girl of high standing at Longbourn Academy must be in want of a prom date.
This book is totally Lizzie Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy go to prom. It’s got all of our favorite things from Jane Austen’s classic Pride & Prejudice—Pemberley (a private boy’s school rather than a country estate), a book-loving heroine who doesn’t exactly fit in, and a swoon-worthy Mr. Darcy. Only it’s all been given a clever, modern twist. It’s like Austen with a Gossip Girl makeover. And what’s not to love about that?
Fat Hoochie Prom Queen by Nico Medina
Prom was coming up. My health-nut freak show of a mother—in the grand old PR tradition—was insisting on making my dress for me, and since she paid the bills (actually, she just signed the checks; my often-absent workaholic father made the money), I’d pretty much resigned myself to it. So long as there weren’t bows or sashes or ruffles on the thing…unless, of course, they were made out of vinyl or faux fur.
Oh how I wish I’d had the self-esteem of Madge, the heroine of Fat Hoochie Prom Queen, back when I was in high school. In her own words, “I love people! And I love myself. I love my big ol’ body and I love who I am.” Madge is a Latina breath of fresh air who loves herself so much that she takes a chance and runs for prom queen against the most popular girl in school, who also happens to be her arch nemesis. Hilarious antics ensue. In the end, the girls discover they have more in common than they’d ever realized. It’s an edgy, laugh out loud read with chapter titles like A Soft Spot for Bearded Ladies and Sit Back, Breathe and Bedazzle. Because if prom is anything, it’s bedazzled.
Prom by Laurie Halse Anderson
Somewhere in America there was a girl who had nobody. No mother getting buzzed on chocolate doughnuts and secondhand smoke. No aunts who kept their prom dresses twenty years too long. No relatives or friends of relatives or neighbors of relatives who heard that the girl was going to a prom and had a sister whose daughter went last year and I’m sure we could borrow the gown, because you never know, it could fit.
I hoped that girl knew how lucky she was.
Prom isn’t Ashley’s thing. Neither is studying. Or homework. Or school, in general. But when her math teacher embezzles all of the money in the prom fund and the dance gets cancelled, things begin to change. Maybe we don’t really appreciate something until it’s gone. Or maybe some of us, like Ash, just aren’t as sure about things.
What I like best about this book is what a “normal” protagonist Ash seems to be. By normal, I mean that she has no grand plans for life after graduation. She doesn’t have much of a plan at all, actually. When I went to my prom, I didn’t have a plan either. I think I changed my mind about where I was going to go to college twice just between prom and graduation. Some students have everything figured out from Day One of senior year. Ash isn’t one of those kids. Neither was I. And that’s okay. It really is. Sometimes it takes a little time to realize what you want.
Paper Towns by John Green
“So anyway,” Ben continued, “my two remaining strategies are either to purchase a prom date on the Internet or fly to Missouri and kidnap some nice corn-fed little honeybunny.” I’d tried telling Ben that “honeybunny” sounded more sexist and lame than retro-cool, but he refused to abandon the practice. He called his own mother a honeybunny. There was no fixing him.
Two words: JOHN GREEN. I mean, really. Do I need to go on?
Prom isn’t the centerpiece of this book, but it’s there. And how can I not include the awesomeness of John Green on this list? If you haven’t read this one yet, you might want to hurry up! Paper Towns hits movie screens in July. But like with any John Green book, you will want to set aside a good chunk of time because you will devour it in one blissful, uninterrupted sitting. For real.
Pretty Amy by Lisa Burstein
My father stayed silent as we waited for the garage door’s routine rise. He stared straight ahead, watching the headlights bore two holes into the back wall of the garage, where our bikes hung. He turned off the car and looked at me. I needed him to tell me it would be okay. I needed him to hug me, to just be my dad.
“What’s going to happen?” I asked, finally starting to cry.
“We’ll talk about it tomorrow,” he said, touching my shoulder and then leaving me sitting in the car, crying.
I guess I couldn’t blame him, but it felt like I was always waiting for tomorrow.
This one’s a heartbreaker, so don’t say I didn’t warn you. But the writing is so achingly beautiful that I can’t recommend it highly enough. Unlike most other prom reads, the prom in Pretty Amy is at the beginning of the book rather than the end. To say that Amy’s prom night isn’t everything she dreamed about is an understatement. Her date is a no-show, but that’s the least of her problems because the night ends with Amy and her besties behind bars. As in jail.
The rest of the book deals with the after-effects of Amy’s arrest and the bittersweet end of the year. Bonus: Amy has a pet bird named AJ. He can talk, and he’s completely adorbs. Pretty Amy, pretty Amy, he repeated as I cried into his yellow feathers. I love you, he squawked as he rubbed against my wet cheek. I knew he was just saying the things I had taught him to say, but that night I really needed to hear them.
Prom is never perfect. It’s not perfect in these books, nor is it perfect in real life. Maybe, just maybe, that’s what makes it so special.