Books

Figuring It Out: Two Novels About Ice Skating and Adolescence

THE COMEBACK
By E.L. Shen

ANA ON THE EDGE
By A.J. Sass

Gloria Steinem, while being honored in 2015 by the organization Figure Skating in Harlem, spoke about having been a skater herself at an early age. It was, she remarked, one of the few sports deemed suitable for young girls at the time. Steinem went on to talk about the Olympic gold medalist and 1930s and ’40s movie star Sonja Henie, calling her one of the first feminists, a female celebrity in control of her money and career choices. It was striking that an activity seen as female-appropriate could also be a platform for female breakthrough. That exemplifies the dichotomy of skating: a sport in which athletes wear sequins and big smiles while effortlessly landing a jump on one leg, imposing pressure close to 10 times their body weight on a 3/16-inch-wide stainless steel blade. Skaters work hard to make it all look easy.

What better arena, then, in which to present the contradictions of adolescence, when athletic middle-schoolers fear rejection by their peers while loving the limelight? In two novels focused on preteen skaters, immersion in a demanding sport that’s all about scrutiny and judgment — of oneself and others — becomes a means to exploring their sense of identity as they struggle with popularity, discrimination and difference. The authors, both skaters, are well versed in the gripping realities of the competitive skating universe. Both write knowledgeably about jumps, spins and footwork, and try to untangle the complexities of the sport’s structure and scoring system. They also address the expense of figure skating — how it affects families who take on this big investment, and the strain and guilt it can put on a young skater. The first-person narrators in both novels seem to be thinking out loud, “figuring” things out as they go along.

In “The Comeback,” by E. L. Shen, the sixth grader Maxine Chen’s life revolves around figure skating in her hometown, the former Olympic village of Lake Placid, N.Y. Maxine wants to skate at Nationals, but she has to win one of the top four spots at Sectionals to get there. She is also navigating life at the local middle school, where she is the only Chinese-American student in an almost all-Caucasian student body.

Maxine loves her supportive parents, her wry but understanding coaches and her best friend, Victoria. Or at least she used to. Victoria has a crush on a popular bully named Alex, a boy who picks on Maxine constantly. Alex tells Maxine that a self-portrait she’s painting in art class should have narrower eyes and that she should let him cheat off her pop quiz because “you people are good at math.” He writes nasty ethnic slurs on his computer that he can erase quickly from his screen but not from her memory.

In her skating world, things start turning upside down too. Maxine isn’t doing well in ballet class, struggles to keep up with homework and puts herself through a painful experiment with cosmetic stickers that an Asian girl in a video claims made her eyes wider. Then Maxine faces a new blond-haired, green-eyed girl named Hollie, who competes at her level, has an elite Russian coach and is a far better skater. Maxine fights internal battles about rivalry, sportsmanship and standing up for herself.

When Alex’s racist bullying comes to a head, Maxine surprisingly gets support from Hollie, who helps her cut Alex down to size. The perfect blonde also confides in Maxine that she finds skating lonely, hates being judged and is thinking about quitting. Maxine learns there can be insecurity and self-loathing behind a tormentor’s bravado and the pretty trappings of a successful skater.

With fast-paced prose and an ear for authentic dialogue, Shen brings big emotions and ideas to the hyper-focused world of the obsessive skater. Her sharp depiction of an eager and courageous Maxine makes the lessons about the ebb and flow of friendship less clichéd than they might have been.

A touching moment comes when Maxine’s parents tell her they had tried to shelter her from experiencing bigotry but now know it was a fool’s errand: Maxine is strong enough to defend herself. Maxine agrees, realizing she’ll always be, as they put it, “a fighter,” whether at the rink, at school or anywhere else in the future. In a novel whose title refers to both Maxine’s tenacity as a skater and her ability to counter Alex’s slurs, Shen has created a high-spirited character worth cheering for.

“Ana on the Edge,” by A. J. Sass, takes the reader on a different voyage of discovery. Twelve-year-old Ana-Marie Jin, the new juvenile girls’ national champion, is facing difficult changes. She follows her coach to a new skating complex farther from her home in San Francisco where a new choreographer insists she wear a skirt during their lessons, contrary to her wishes. Ana is given no say about her new program (“Sleeping Beauty”) or her costume for it, which she finds too dainty and princess-y.

Meanwhile, she starts to realize how much her single mother has sacrificed to make her dreams a possibility. But Ana isn’t sure what her dreams are anymore. Even with her success on the ice, she has never felt at home in her own skin, and not because of her unusual half-Chinese, half-Jewish heritage. She finds herself wincing when people call her “Miss” or use her full name, and she can’t shake the visceral shudder she feels when pressured into acting like a typical girl. Still, she can’t pinpoint the source of her anguish.

While her best friend, Tamar, texts constantly, wanting to hear about her life at the new rink, Ana is fascinated by a skater named Hayden who has just moved to the area from Minnesota and will be starting group lessons. Ana works as a skating assistant and is curious as to why Hayden’s mom has requested an update to his name and asked everyone to use male pronouns for him. She learns terms she never knew before — gender-neutral, nonbinary — and an entire world opens up to her, one she desperately wants to explore but doesn’t understand why. “Can people really ask others to call them whatever they want?” she asks herself, since she doesn’t trust anyone to give her the answer.

When they meet, Hayden starts calling Ana “Alex” and thinks she’s a boy because she’s wearing the wrong name tag by mistake. She doesn’t correct him. Ana becomes good friends with Hayden, spending a lot of time with him and his family, who all think she’s one of the guys. Every time she has an opening to clear up the misunderstanding she doesn’t take it. She even goes so far as to avoid entering a public bathroom in front of him. Ana wants to clarify her identity in her own mind before she defines herself to others.

Tamar feels her pull away and misconstrues her evasion as selfishness. Her mom and her coach are kept in the dark about her hatred of the new program and costume. If she can’t even get her mother to call her Ana instead of Ana-Marie, how can she explain that she doesn’t know where she fits in terms of gender?

“It’s not my body that makes me feel uncomfortable, or the shimmering, sparkling costume,” Ana realizes when she looks in the mirror at herself in the “Sleeping Beauty” dress. “It’s what other people will think of me when they see me wearing it: girl, princess, Intermediate lady.

Setting the record straight is hard to do when you don’t know what your truth is, especially at 12. Ana has some difficult encounters when she finally unburdens herself to Tamar, to her mom, to her coach and, toughest of all, to Hayden. But their responses surprise her. She feels at peace with letting go of her secrets and ready to make her own choices — at school, at home, at the rink.

Sass has created dynamic, original characters who are believable and fun to follow. Sometimes it’s unclear where he’s going with his story lines — especially Hayden’s love of cosplay, which he introduces halfway through the novel — but the plot comes together nimbly toward the end. You can’t help rooting for Ana, though we’re left wondering how she will move forward. “I haven’t figured out if I want to try different pronouns yet,” she tells her mother, “so you can keep using ‘she’ for now.”

Ana decides to continue skating, and raises the possibility of competing someday in the men’s category, a new challenge that could be a book in itself.

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