Positive, Realistic Representation in YA Novel Highly Suspicious and Unfairly Cute by Talia Hibbert
By Victoria Bromley, Eleanor Bowskill, Lily Baldanza and Daisy Ward
Talia Hibbert’s latest novel was highly adorable and insanely cute - and yet it wasn’t just the charming cartoon cover that made us swoon. The inclusion of characters from diverse backgrounds is a breath of fresh air. With Black protagonists, authentic queer representation, positive attitudes towards plus-sized bodies and honest discussions of mental health, this book made serious strides in the diversification of young adult novels. Talia’s first young adult release represents a new chapter for her, as the New York Times bestselling author begins to re-explore adolescence.
Highly Suspicious and Unfairly Cute utilises the much-loved enemies-to-lovers trope to tell the story of Brad and Celine, two ambitious Black teenagers whose friendship soured as the pair found themselves in opposing high school cliques. But their paths seem destined to cross again when both are accepted for an unconventional yet prestigious wilderness expedition. While competing to prove their creativity, teamwork and leadership skills in the hopes of a university scholarship, these ex-best friends resist resist the temptation to rekindle their relationship into something more.
Hibbert’s passion for “realistic representation” stems from her own experience as a reader, and the struggle to find books that reflected her own world made those that did all the more resonant. She said it was important to find those authors that made her “feel seen.” Of course, the connection one feels to a fictional character is not solely a matter of sharing the same cultural background, queerness or health status. However, when your own experiences are “excluded from the norm” the lack of representation on the page “packs an extra punch.”
One of the most pertinent examples of this shared perspective between reader and author is mental illness. Much like Brad, Hibbert also has OCD, making her acutely aware of the different ways it can manifest. Nonetheless, to not be limited to her own perspective, she researched forms of therapy for which she lacked first-hand experience. Whilst some of her own experience was planted into Brad “as a seed,” it was still important that his experience of OCD was tied to his own identity.
On the other hand, Celine often comes across as brash or confrontational, traits that at first make her appear “unlikeable” or difficult to love. Hibbert uses these traits to make us examine our own reaction to “difficult women,” and show that “our perception of likability is very gendered.” Female characters have just as much of a right to their “flaws” as their male counterparts. Talia explains that this is not to say that all female characters should present themselves “like a boy,” as she is unsure of what such an expression even means. In fact, outspoken female protagonists are always a favourite to read about, but she also loves softer heroines that “aren’t treated like doormats” or presented as “deserving” of their own mistreatment.
Whilst both of Hibbert’s protagonists want to receive an Oxbridge education, neither had come from the kind of upper-middle-class backgrounds. Nevertheless, she argues that teenagers often know what they want and will “make the choices that get them there” even if they might be wrong about it or change their minds. Hibbert points out that marginalised kids in particular usually “know what it means to feel like an outsider” and will factor this reality into their decision-making. Their reaction to this kind of marginalisation is after all a personal choice. Some, like Celine, might be the type to “carve out space” for themselves; whereas others, like Brad, may grow to resent the “weight” of having to “fix” these institutions. Hibbert’s advice to young people dealing with the jump to university is to “get back to the basics of who you are and what you want.”
Hibbert’s favourite part about writing young adult fiction is capturing how “intense and urgent everything feels” as a teenager. Teens “inhabit a smaller world,” so things seem to “matter more.” Hibbert doesn’t believe that adulthood arrives “overnight.” The “obscene levels of pressure” teens are put under are upheld through a process of academic competition and validation, and it’s the job of adults and authors such as Hibbert, to counteract it.
As The Brown Sisters trilogy caused quite a storm over on TikTok, we wondered whether Hibbert feels pressure from readers with high expectations for her future work. However, Hibbert seemed unphased by the hype her books have received online. Hibbert’s writing tactics are to “hole up in a Cave of Solitude and ignore external pressure,” though admittedly “this does not always work.”