Dress Codes for Small Towns by Courtney Stevens
Published by: HarperTeen
Released: August 22 2017 (US)
Read: 19 – 22 August 2017
There are many moments when Dress Codes for Small Towns reads like any YA novel. Protagonist Billie is surrounded by loyal friends, who have her back no matter what. There are the usual tensions with parents, and as they move into their senior year, attractions between friends seem likely to spoil the group dynamic. And yet, in other ways, this book breaks through some of the predictable tropes and sends readers on a journey that is neither expected nor familiar.
Set in small (small) town Kentucky, Billie is the local pastor’s daughter, and her crew’s tendency to indulge in pranks, impulsive and ill-thought-out, see them suffer the backlash of conservative townsfolk who are only too happy to be critical. Billie, Woods, Janie Lee, Fifty, Mash and Davey are best buds who finish each other’s sentences. But it’s Billie’s voice that carries us through their antics, their fights and their trek to redemption.
Mash, Woods, Fifty and I once hijacked two zero-turn mowers from Big-T and raced them down the lane like it was the Indy 500, all while Tawny shook her broom on the front porch. The four of us have done quite a bit of living. Janie Lee, for the most part, has done quite a bit of watching. She doesn’t go fast. Or honk her horn. Or throw gravel. Or hijack mowers. Not anymore.
She cheers for us and has 911 at the ready. (p. 87)
After setting fire to the Youth Group room early in the book, they have a lot to make up for – most of all to Billie’s dad who is being threatened with dismissal because Billie refuses to follow the expectations and ‘play nice’, ‘like a girl’. We quickly realise that Billie has a strong connection to her faith, is compassionate, generous, and loves the town of Otters Holt, where she has spent the majority of her life. She feels utter dismay to continually disappoint her father, and struggles with how to express her identity without causing consternation and alienation. Her best friends have always validated her choices, but during the course of the novel, decisions are made, declarations of love are expressed, and good intentions go bad, and Billie is forced to take a hard look at who she is attracted to, and how far she will push boundaries to stay true. It’s a volatile and tumultuous journey, and it all felt very real to me.
The five friends are excellent characters – especially arrogant, bossy Woods, and violin playing Janie Lee, seemingly falling in love with each other, who test Billie the most, because she thinks she loves them both too. But it’s Davey, the most recent recruit to the friendship group, who will ultimately change the course of Billie’s life. As she learns more about him, his interests and old friends, she opens herself up to a world of daring cosplay, and the sheer joy of dancing.
In the middle of everyone leaping and screaming, I stand completely still and fully embrace the eye of the cosplay hurricane. The power of so many people doing the same thing rushes through my veins like blood. From the costumes to the dancing, we’re caught up in the same palm of an invisible hand (p. 50)
Meeting Audi Thomas and his girlfriend Gerry expands Billie’s horizons and give her space to explore her sexuality. But that’s not the only exploring and celebrating going on. The tradition of the Harvest Festival, the awarding of the Corn Dolly, and helping out the old folk of the town, also play out against the background of summer, and the growing understanding that this might be the last Harvest Festival ever.
I loved the contradictions, the ups and downs, and the secrets held and revealed through the narrative. I loved the banter, the in-jokes, the puppy piles, and the dares. This a glorious celebration of life. I might have sometimes felt confused by Billie’s thoughts, but I only ever wanted all the good things for her, and her friends and family. The conclusion is open-ended but satisfying.
Stevens avoids labels and wants young people to explore their sexuality safely, and not to feel beholden to adults who try to squeeze them into strict categories. Billie’s art is another she explores her identity, and with the music of Woods and Janie Lee, and Davey’s interest in cosplay, we are given a great view into a range of creative fields. I shouldn’t leave out Fifty and Mash who provide much of the humour, but Stevens cannot fully develop all of the characters, and these two stay somewhat in the background, unfortunately. There is a terrific use of language that feels natural. It’s also extremely funny and sad, all at the same time.
I don’t have to peak around the door to know Einstein now says something ostentatious in Woods’s impeccable handwriting. Or to know that everyone in that room follows him to a new topic the way they’d follow him through the gates of hell. (p. 127)
Highly recommended for teenagers who love their stories diverse and inclusive, who appreciate small town traditions and the reasons why some kids might chose to stay (or return) and some want to leave the first chance they get. The romance levels are mild, but there’s a lot of kissing a lot of different characters, ‘just to check’ on the level of attraction, and best of all, friendships aren’t ruined when the chemistry isn’t there. Underlying all the drama is the close bond between these friends, which isn’t always evident in YA novels. I was surprised, entertained and encouraged by this sassy smart story.
(Quotes taken from uncorrected proof copy. Pages may vary in the final version.)